With the “retirement” of Mark McGwire, the St. Louis Cardinals have reported interest in signing Jason Giambi, the Oakland Athletics’ superstar first baseman. The Cardinals have the luxury of adding players like Giambi because the organization has healthy fan support, a fan-friendly stadium and ownership willing to spend money.
Giambi has often stated that he would like to stay in Oakland. Unfortunately, the Athletics’ financial situation may prevent the team from re-signing their MVP. At first, Oakland was unwilling to give Giambi a no-trade clause. Management understood that if the A’s suddenly became a non-contending team, fans would stop attending games—having to pay Giambi would lead to massive losses.
During the past month, A’s General Manager Billy Beane declared that Oakland was willing to give Giambi his no-trade clause if he would stay. Unfortunately, the decision may have been made too late. Beane has acknowledged that a bidding war is likely. Unable to compete with the bottomless pockets of St. Louis and New York, Oakland would no longer be a viable option for a star like Giambi.
Such is the state of major league baseball, where all the good players end up with the same ten teams. Young players are smaller-market teams inevitably sign with richer clubs as their former clubs watch helplessly.
In the past five years, a hierarchy has developed in baseball. Within the majors, there are really three classes: Single A teams, Triple A teams and the parent squads. Kansas City, Montreal and Tampa Bay are Single A clubs. Oakland, Cincinnati, the White Sox, Toronto and Minnesota are AAA teams. Anyone with a payroll of over 60 million dollars is a parent organization.
The chain begins in the lower minor leagues—Kansas City, for example. Young players try to work their way into the “big leagues,” or, at least, rise in the farm system. When they reach a level of success, they are promoted to AAA, or Oakland. Take Jeremy Giambi. Or Johnny Damon. Or Jermaine Dye. Kansas City seems to promote all its good players to the A’s. Can you name the players Oakland traded to Kansas City for these guys? The way the system works, Oakland benefits while Kansas City is sent back to recruit more talent. Watch for Mike Sweeney to be traded to Oakland if Giambi bolts.
Once a player reaches AAA, he finds himself around other decent players. Some of these players turn into superstars. Those players will soon be shipped to the majors. Managers and coaches who do well at the Triple A level are also promoted. Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan chose St. Louis as a location where they could perform in front of a Major League audience, rather than the Triple A atmosphere in Oakland. Mark McGwire followed, along with Craig Paquette, Willie McGee and Todd Stottlemyre. For all four of those players, St. Louis only traded one player that remained with Oakland for more than a year—TJ Matthews, a mediocre middle reliever. But Matthews is mediocre, not terrible, so he currently plays for—surprise—the St. Louis Cardinals.
The system is amazingly consistent throughout baseball. Teams with low payrolls that occasionally attract or retain talent still play Triple A baseball. The Twins, a Triple A team, traded for Rick Reed this past season and resigned Brad Radke two years ago. The White Sox splurged for David Wells. Toronto signed Carlos Delgado and traded for Raul Mondesi.
However, when Minnesota, Toronto or Chicago makes a trade, they have to give up quality in order to receive quality (unless the trade is made to a Single A team). Matt Lawton brought Reed. It took Shawn Green to get Mondesi. Bob Wickman was needed bait to pry away Sexson.
The parent clubs, meanwhile, only trade prospects for players. Sometimes the prospects turn out to be good players on these “minor league” teams. Tony Armas Jr. is a quality pitcher for Montreal. But once Armas’ contract is up, you know he will jump at the chance of actually playing for a “real” major league team.
The issue of contraction has been discussed in recent days. In my opinion, every “Single A” team should either move or collapse. The difference in talent between Kansas City and Montreal and the Yankees is laughable. There is no reason why the Yankees should ever play the Royals, unless it is an exhibition game (i.e. the Red Sox vs. Harvard).
The Twins should not be contracted, because as a Triple A club, staying competitive throughout a season is possible. Only revenue sharing can boost Triple A teams to the same level as parent organizations. However, as Oakland proved this season, a Triple A team has the capability of making the playoffs, if everything falls into place.
Unfortunately, only the parents are allowed to win the World Series.
A’s fans, do not fault Giambi or Damon or Jason Isringhausen for leaving this off-season. It’s every player’s dream, after all, to play in the big leagues.