The Best Seasons by Ex-Athletics
From 1971-1975, the Oakland A’s won five straight division titles and won three consecutive world titles from 1972-1974.
Then, a funny thing happened: free agency. Marvin Miller successfully argued that A’s owner Charlie Finley had violated the terms of Catfish Hunter’s contract, thus making a free agent, free to negotiate with any team. Baseball’s reserve clause was history and players were no longer bound to one team for their entire careers.
For a small-market team that would go through decades of mostly cheaper ownership groups (starting with Finley), this would mean bad things for the Athletics franchise. Turns out that good players don’t want to be paid peanuts. And even with terrific talent that made playoff appearances, division titles, and another World Series possible – sustained dominance was much tougher to attain.
Which brings me to the talking point today’s discussion: moneyball and using sabermetrics to gain a competitive advantage. Just kidding. This article is just a fun one about the best seasons by former Oakland Athletics. Some of these players left via free agency; others were traded because their contracts were about to run out. Note that this does not include Kansas City Athletics – who could justify a separate article of their own!
Catcher: Gene Tenace, 1979 (San Diego Padres)
Gene Tenace was the kind of player that Billy Beane would have loved, compiling an on-base percentage 140 points above the league average, twice leading the league in walks. The best moment in his career came with the A’s in the 1972 World Series when he clubbed four home runs to beat the Reds (at a team when his team desperately needed power, as Reggie Jackson had been hurt). Tenace left Oakland for 6 figures after the 1976 season, seeing roughly a 7-fold pay-raise as a San Diego Padre. He didn’t disappoint for his new team (or at least, he shouldn’t have); his best season for the friars came in 1979 when he hit .263/.403/.445 with 20 home runs.
First Base: Mark McGwire, 1998 (St. Louis Cardinals)
Going into the 1997 season, Mark McGwire was hitting home runs at a historic pace, having mashed 67 home runs in his previous 162 between 1995-1996. In the last year of his deal with Oakland, he had hit 34 home runs before being traded to St. Louis where he could be reunited with Tony LaRussa. That set the stage for what seemed like a magical 1998 season, where Mark McGwire hit .299/.470/.752 and shattered the all-time major league home run mark with 70.
Second Base: Willie Randolph, 1991 (Milwaukee Brewers)
Okay, so this one doesn’t exactly fit the theme of the article, as Willie Randolph had enjoyed a long, highly successful (and very underrated) career primarily with the New York Yankees. After an all-star campaign with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1989, he was traded to Oakland for their 1990 pennant run, promptly leaving after the 4-game sweep to play for the Milwaukee Brewers. At the age of 36, Randolph did quite well, hitting .327 with a .424 on-base percentage in 124 games with the Crew.
Third Base: Scott Brosius, 1998 (New York Yankees)
This one also doesn’t exactly fit the theme, as Scott Brosius was not some highly sought-after free agent after the 1997 season. He actually wasn’t a free agent at all, and was actually just acquired as a way for the Yankees to get rid of aging lefty disappointment Kenny Rogers (who would win 131 games after leaving the Bronx). Brosius had hit just .203 in 1997 but found himself in the middle of something special for the 1998 Yankees, hitting .300/.371/.472 with 19 home runs and 98 RBI for the 114-win World Series champs, while playing his customary outstanding defense at the hot corner. Brosius capped off an outstanding campaign by hitting .471 with 2 home runs and 6 RBI in the 4-game World Series sweep of San Diego, thus garnering series MVP honors.
Shortstop: Miguel Tejada, 2004 (Baltimore Orioles)
Just a year removed from his 2002 MVP campaign, Miguel Tejada signed a deal with the Baltimore Orioles totaling over 70 million dollars for 6 years. He would disappoint, but not early-on. Tejada hit .311/.360/.534 with a league-best 150 RBI in 2004 for his new club while playing every game for the fourth of six consecutive seasons.
Left Field: Matt Holliday, 2010 (St. Louis Cardinals)
You would think the Athletics would stop dealing with the Cardinals after a little while. The acquisition of Holliday was a puzzling one, as Billy Beane gave up Carlos Gonzalez and Huston Street to get him, only to trade him for Clayton Mortenson and Brett Wallace (half a season later). Holliday enjoyed somewhat limited success in his half-season in Oakland but took off in St. Louis, hitting .353/.419/.604 to help his new team to a Central Division title. He signed a lucrative off-season deal to stay in St. Louis and has capitalized so far, hitting .312/.390/.532 for a 12th place MVP finish in 2010 and helping the Cardinals to a championship the very next year.
Center Field: Rickey Henderson, 1985 (New York Yankees)
Rickey Henderson had five different stints with the Oakland Athletics and thus was an ex-Athletic four different times. His best year in such a position came in his first year as a New York Yankee, when he hit .314/.419/.516 with 24 home runs and league-leading totals in both runs scored (146) and stolen bases (80). He did all this while also adjusting to a new position; a leftfielder for most of his career, Henderson manned center in the shadows of Dimaggio and Mantle while playing in the Bronx.
Right Field: Reggie Jackson, 1980 (New York Yankees)
Using his team’s wealth to build a champion in a new era of free agency, George Steinbrenner acquired Reggie Jackson before the 1977 season apparently indifferent about clubhouse chemistry. Jackson certainly was the straw that stirred the drink for those Bronx Zoo clubs, as he averaged 29 home runs a year for the Yankees. His best season came in 1980, when he hit .300/.398/.597 with a league-leading 41 home runs for the division champs.
Designated Hitter: Jason Giambi, 2006 (New York Yankees)
Sensing a recurring trend yet? Jason Giambi signed a lucrative deal after the 2001 season to leave Oakland for, frankly a buttload of money. He had his ups and downs as a Yankee, but still managed to average a 143 OPS+ and 30 home runs a year during his tenure. In 2006, he finally found himself at his natural position (DH), where he amassed a .971 OPS, 37 home runs, 113 RBI and 110 walks for the division champion Yankees.
LHP: Vida Blue, 1978 (San Francisco Giants)
Vida Blue bust onto the scene in 1971, winning Cy Young and MVP honors for the A’s by leading the league with a 1.82 ERA, 0.952 WHIP, 8 shutouts and 8.7 K/9. After nearly finding himself in the same rotation as former teammate Catfish Hunter, Blue instead saw himself traded to the San Francisco Giants for seven players and 300 grand. Blue pitched very well in his first season across the Bay, going 18-10 with a 2.79 ERA to place third in the Cy Young balloting.
RHP: Catfish Hunter, 1975 (New York Yankees)
Ah yes – the man that started it all. Well, if you want to be technical, Marvin Miller, Curt Flood and Andy Messersmith all had as big or bigger roles, but it was Hunter that landed the first major free agent deal, signing for 5 years and 3.5 million dollars to be a Yankee. Hunter found himself as the lone player in a different tax bracket from his peers and he pitched like it in 1975, going 23-14 and leading the league with a 1.009 WHIP, 30 complete games, and 328 innings pitched.