Moneyball 2.0: How the A’s Could Change Baseball Again

Moneyball is frequently referenced by fans and media as the system that allowed the Oakland Athletics to put winning teams on the field for as cheap as possible. There is some truth to that assertion but to a larger degree, Moneyball was a player acquisition system that identified undervalued players and capitalized on other teams not having the same data points that the A’s had. Over a decade in, though, every team in baseball has their version of this technique and the days of Billy Beane and company being able to pull a fast one on the trade market have long past.

How does a team like the Oakland Athletics, with a reputation for frugal player investment, innovate the process in their favor a second time? As Susan Slusser reported this week, the players union is growing tired of teams like Oakland or Tampa Bay cashing revenue share checks but not investing more of those funds into payroll. With only two players remaining on the roster from Oakland’s 2012 season at the end of 2016, the constant turnover has not only hurt the performance on the field but has also left the fan base demoralized and losing interest. Something needs to be done for the 2017 season to begin righting the ship.

Before reading the following hypothesis, a couple of caveats must be addressed. First, it is very possible that none of this is legal under current or future collective bargaining agreements. Second, the players and salaries named are simply to keep the numbers simple and are in no way a prediction of player worth or an endorsement of the signing so save your hate mail for a different article. Third, we’re looking solely at the Oakland Athletics as they are in a prime position to try a crazy scheme like this but, truly, any team could benefit from this system-assuming it’s legal.

In 2000, Bobby Bonilla made an agreement with the New York Mets to receive $1.9 million a year (July 1) from 2011 through 2035 as a differed payment of his contract of $5.9 million. Go ahead and do the math on that one, Bonilla made bank with the deal.

If the Mets can use a payment structure like that in order to get out of a contract, why can’t the Oakland Athletics use a modified payment structure to get into contracts? By using differed payments for long term contracts, the A’s could sign high dollar free agents or keep their own young talent for longer without using a huge chunk of their payroll.

The contracts would be complicated, obviously, and there would need to be provisions included for how the contract could be traded but the overall benefit to both team and player could make it worth the headache of negotiations.

For the purpose of illustrating the theory in practice, assume that the A’s are going to have a payroll budget of $85 million in 2017. Also assume that each following year that the budget is increased by 5% which, if the team is playing well and drawing crowds, is not unreasonable. Lastly, assume that all of the contracts will be differed evenly over a 10 year period.

Based on all of those criteria, the A’s could offer five year contracts with a combined value of $250 million per year to Josh Reddick, Josh Donaldson, and Sonny Gray without breaking their payroll constraints. An elite pitcher, an MVP third baseman, and a gold glove fielder are not bad cornerstones to a franchise.

In 2017, these contracts would equate to 30% of the team’s payroll which is roughly what the A’s paid to Coco Crisp, Jed Lowrie, and Billy Butler in 2016. As payroll increases, though, that percentage drops and by the time the team reaches the differed payment years (when a player isn’t contracted but is still collecting a check) the players would account for 23% of payroll, allowing the team to begin a new differed contract.

If the Oakland Athletics were to assume that 30% of their payroll were going to these types of contracts, and staggered their signings appropriately, it could potentially open the free agent market up to the team in a way that it hasn’t seen since the 1990s.

Offering Donaldson $85 million for five years (which equates to his current salary) but paying him $8.5 million over 10 frees up payroll space and allows the team to build and develop in much the same manner as they currently do without having to sell their best players in their prime.

Other options could allow for even more long term contracts. Front loading the contract payments would allow the team to dip below 30% quicker to sign more contracts and differing out to longer periods would allow even more wiggle room.

The obvious criticism is that, at some point, the A’s will be devoting a large amount of money to players that aren’t even playing the game any more, which is a fair argument, but if the team is disciplined and strategic with these signings, it can be a minimal “cost of doing business” impact on the roster. Further, teams like the San Francisco Giants sign long term contracts for tens of millions of dollars and end up paying below average players premium salaries while still taking the field. Under this system, you’re offering a competitive salary to a player without being locked in a contract with a 40 year old right fielder with a sub-zero WAR.

As noted above, there are a ton of smaller details on the contract side that would have to be hammered out, most notably, how does the contract transfer in a trade, but if the differed payment system is allowable under CBA rules and guidelines, it could be the sequel to Moneyball that the Oakland A’s will need if their revenue sharing money dries up.

What are your thoughts on this concept? Think it would work? Do you see the benefit to team/player/fans? Leave a comment below or start a thread in our community to keep the conversation going.