OAKLAND — The best little team in baseball played at the Coliseum on Saturday night. Sorry, proud Californians, it wasn’t the A’s.
Yes, the Athletics beat the Cleveland Indians 5-3 on Khris Davis’ walk-off home run in the ninth inning. But it’s the Indians who were a run or two short of winning the 2016 World Series, and who began the second half of this season atop the American League Central. They are grinding toward their fifth consecutive winning season, and look built to contend for several years.
Ask A’s manager Bob Melvin.
“Their starting pitching is terrific, their bullpen’s probably even better,” Melvin said before Saturday’s game. “And then they have some speed and athleticism, pretty much everywhere on the diamond. They play good defense. They score just enough runs, and you look down their lineup, they get their matchups with a lot of switch hitters they have. They’re a team that seems like you never get a break (against).”
And the Indians have done it with the 17th-highest payroll in Major League Baseball, based on opening-day rosters (they were 24th a year earlier), in a market that Bleacher Report ranked the 21st biggest in a 2012 ranking of all 30 teams. In effect, they are the A’s role models. Or should be.
Pegging the Athletics’ potential is slipperier.
That same Bleacher Report article ranked their market 29th, noting that Oakland is squeezed between San Francisco and San Jose.
You could just as easily argue that the A’s market is the wider Bay Area, one of the nation’s most populous and affluent. The Warriors certainly don’t seem to have trouble attracting fans to the East Bay. It’s a little different for the A’s, though, because of their regional competition with the Giants.
Putting that question aside, the A’s are clearly underdogs on another measure. Cue the sound of a cash register. If the Indians’ Game 1 payroll was modest at $124.9 million, the A’s was downright wallet-wringing at $81.7 million, which ranked 27th in baseball. By contrast, the Giants were at $172.4 million, the Dodgers at $242.1 million.
Home-grown talent is the engine of Cleveland’s run.
“Well, it has to be, because of your alternative, right?” Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti told me before the game. “We can’t build a team through free agency. That’s not in our playbook. So that forces us to look at alternatives.”
Antonetti was hanging out in the visitors’ dugout, enjoying a borderline-hot afternoon at the Coliseum, a couple hours before first pitch. He was dressed dapper-casual, and he was patient with a sportswriter he didn’t know.
“The margin of error in smaller markets is smaller than it might be in other places,” Antonetti said. “So we need to make sure that we are doing the best job we can acquiring players in the various acquisition channels — amateur scouting, professional scouting and international scouting.”
The Indians have checked all those boxes, with a strong emphasis on getting ’em young.
Of the nine position players in their starting lineup Saturday, the Indians drafted three of them — All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor, center fielder Bradley Zimmer and right fielder Tyler Naquin.