In this empty A’s season where the fans clearly don’t matter, where Billy Beane crapped out in July after dumping half an All-Star team last winter, it should shock no one that Sonny Gray didn’t face Clayton Kershaw on Tuesday. Rather than give these suffering souls a night to remember in the O.co ballpit, the A’s rejected all dramatic flair, preferring to re-slot Gray into the rotation a day earlier in Baltimore.
Never mind how a victory over the great Kershaw would have solidified Gray’s bid for the American League’s Cy Young Award. Never mind how the matchup may have led off the national TV sportscasts, reminding America about the 25-year-old hotshot who doesn’t receive proper due because he languishes in Oakland for the league’s worst club. Never mind that A’s manager Bob Melvin had said, “He would love to pitch against Kershaw.”
The world-famous Felix Doubront did, in a scene that reminded us, again, how this franchise self-sabotages itself like few others in sports. To his credit, Doubront allowed only one earned run in a six-inning crazy train in which he struck out eight and walked six. But he still was a vague sideshow to Kershaw, who allowed a run in seven innings in a 5-4 A’s win, and, of course, Mark McGwire Bobblehead Night, with the former A’s slugger, now the L.A. hitting coach, making his first Coliseum stop since his steroids days of 2001.
Here in baseball’s golden pitching age, we are blessed in the Bay to have Madison Bumgarner on one side of the bridge and Gray on the other. With his bulldog competitiveness and four-pitch arsenal, he belies a boyish look that seems to belong back at Vanderbilt. I had the Kershaw battle circled when it first was proposed last week, knowing Gray leads the league in ERA, WHIP, quality starts and Wins Above Replacement and ranks among the leaders in all other pertinent categories. If he won’t be seeing the postseason again for a while, why not pit him against the best regular-season pitcher of the era just two weeks after Gray outdueled Houston’s Dallas Keuchel, one of his prime AL rivals?
How about it? Knock out a three-time Cy to win the Cy himself?
“There’s a lot of season left,” Gray said of award talk. “It doesn’t matter.”
Maybe not to Sonny, humble and understated. But to A’s fans, it’s all they have left beyond Striped Socks Backpack Night.
The rotation rationale — something about the Monday start allowing Gray an eventual day off in the season’s remaining weeks — sounds lame. What matters is that the A’s not only quit on a season and quit on the fans but quit on the concept of at least trying to remain relevant. In the process, it re-opens the long-running debate of exactly what Beane is doing at a time when “Moneyball” is obsolete, when small-budget teams like the A’s are subsidized by major-budget behemoths and have every incentive to compete in a two-wild-card playoff race while owners Lew Wolff and the Brothers Fisher are pocketing megaprofits. When Kansas City and Pittsburgh, are winning big, stop talking about “Moneyball,” as Beane should pledge when he commands whopping fees — still — for speaking engagements about a movie based on a somewhat embellished plot in the early 2000s.
Closer to the point, the talent purge and subsequent 51-70 record means Gray will have to win Cy by his lonesome, surrounded these final 41 games by a gutted ballclub. And should he pull that off over Keuchel and Toronto’s David Price, we’ll wonder if Beane immediately will try to cash in by putting his ace on the market — just as he dealt Josh Donaldson, now an MVP candidate in Toronto, when the A’s could have controlled him three more years. Think I’m joking? Beane has gone mad since last October, when the A’s blew a 7-3 lead in the play-in game and lost to a Royals team that wound up dueling the Giants in a seven-game World Series. After abandoning the data-and-dump approach to actually load up for a title run last summer, Beane’s resulting failure seemed to make him spiteful, as if telling the big system that he’d tried life as a major buyer and now was content to slip back into the shadows. This explains the exodus of Donaldson, Brandon Moss, Derek Norris and Jeff Samardzija after the season. This explains the departures of Scott Kazmir, Ben Zobrist and Tyler Clippard last month. And this may explain why he’d part with Gray, despite organizational denials. As exhibited for years, Beane enjoys trying to outsmart the world. Sometimes his plans work gloriously. Lately, he has twisted himself into so many knots that he may send the franchise into a multi-year tailspin at the absolute wrong time: just when the A’s gain stadium momentum as the possible lone Oakland tenant, with the Raiders possibly leaving as early as early 2016.
With fan discontent dipping to new lows in a Beane era that has produced only one victory in a playoff series, there should be one franchise mandate to prove the A’s are in business to win: Make Gray happy. When a player emerges as a superstar years before he’s eligible for free agency, real teams lock him in for the long haul (see: Mike Trout) so fans know he isn’t going anywhere. Gray, who can seek salary arbitration this offseason, should be rewarded in the same manner. Alas, Beane and his bosses don’t operate this way. Now in arbitration territory, Gray will make oodles more than his current $512,500. And in Beane’s domain, that is a pay stratosphere that makes Gray less attractive, absurdly enough.
If there is no long-term deal, the chances increase of Gray becoming a short-termer in Oakland. He has said all the right things about liking it here, mentioning that he’s envious of pitchers — such as Felix Hernandez in Seattle — who have remained with the same organization. He also knows how the A’s operate. So he’d be wise to rent in the East Bay, not buy, which is sad.
We are making a bigger deal out of the Kershaw thing than Gray ever would. After beating Keuchel, he said, “I’m not really pitching against the other pitcher. It’s the other team, their lineup.” But had he been on the mound Tuesday night — a maestro en route to the franchise’s best pitching season since Vida Blue and Catfish Hunter in the early 1970s, before the designated hitter was implemented — an electricity would have returned to the Coliseum.