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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.

Two others (third baseman Jose Ramirez, another All-Star, and second baseman Erik Gonzalez) were signed out of the Dominican Republic as amateur free agents. Two more (left fielder Michael Brantley, ditto on the All-Star status, and first baseman Carlos Santana) were acquired in trades as minor leaguers, while catcher Yan Gomez came in a trade after his first MLB season.

Only designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion joined the Indians as a proven big leaguer; they signed him as a free agent this year.

Add top starting pitchers Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco (both minor-league trade acquisitions), closer Cody Allen (drafted) and injured starters Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall (both drafted), and a pattern emerges. The Indians are really good and finding and nurturing talent.

“If you don’t have the capital to spend on the big-time players, then you invest in your farm system. I think they did that, did a good job of that,” A’s center fielder Rajai Davis said of Cleveland, where he played last season. “They have a lot of guys that came through their system in the big leagues now. So that’s development to me.”

But hold on. The A’s have developed a lot of good players in their minor leagues, too.

“I mean, if you look back over the past 20 years, the A’s were a great example of an organization that, despite having limited resources, found a way to be successful,” Antonetti told me.

The difference these days is that the Indians are hanging onto their up-and-comers. The A’s tend to groom theirs just long enough to peddle them to contending teams in exchange for more prospects.

Case in point: pitcher Sonny Gray, who beat the Indians on Friday in the first game of the series.

He is rumored to be on the trading block this summer.

It’s a circular system that works to keep Oakland from reaching baseball’s top tier.

The question is why, exactly, the A’s don’t spend on their players. For years the team has shrugged and said “small market.” A lot of people would say they’ve just been cheap.

We may settle the debate if the A’s get a new ballpark, which they insist is a priority. Cleveland’s Jacobs Field (it’s now called Progressive Field) was in the first wave of charming new MLB stadiums when it opened in 1994. Nearly of half of it was funded through local taxes, a luxury the A’s are unlikely to enjoy.

Jacobs/Progressive is part of the financial equation for the Indians.

“It helps,” Antonetti said. “Because the more revenue you generate, then the more resources you can allocate to baseball operations, whether it’s the major-league payroll or player development and scouting. … I think what we’ve seen is some of the adjustments we’ve made in the ballpark are paying big dividends for us.”

New A’s president Dave Kaval has generated a lot of hope in Oakland. He has spearheaded campaigns to improve amenities at the Coliseum, to make more of an effort to honor the franchise’s history and to court feedback from fans. A new stadium would be his biggest coup, by far. And it would be a moment of truth for the A’s. New facilities would either allow the team to spend more on payroll, or remove the biggest excuse should it fail to do so.

Before Saturday’s game, I asked Rajai Davis how often he reflects on Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. His two-run homer in the eighth inning of that game would have made him a legend in Cleveland if the Chicago Cubs hadn’t regrouped to win in 10 innings.

“My son likes to look at that video, so I’ve got to show him,” Davis said. “Gives me a chance to look at it, to reflect, too. Other than that, life continues to move, and I’ve got to continue to move and get better.”

The A’s plan to move, too, in a few years. If they want to get better, they should study the Cleveland Indians, even as they’re busy beating them.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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