Others spend big on free agents, but A’s do well with limited budget

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At the end of perhaps the most frenzied December shopping day in baseball history, the New York Yankees did two things they do very well: steal the headlines and spend a lot of money.

The Miami Marlins jumped back into the free-agent waters. The Detroit Tigers decided to entrust their ninth inning to a marquee closer. The World Series champion Boston Red Sox imported a catcher.

The Arizona Diamondbacks, Cincinnati Reds and Tampa Bay Rays pulled off a three-way trade. The Houston Astros even added a proven major league player, rather than another handful of prospects.


Half the teams in the major leagues traded, signed or reached agreement with at least one player Tuesday. That list did not count the Seattle Mariners, who met with the grand prize among this year’s free agents, Robinson Cano. That list also did not include the Kansas City Royals, who might be willing to sign outfielder Carlos Beltran to a three-year contract through age 40.

At the end of the day, the Yankees jumped to the top of the list, with glitter and floodlights, by securing outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury for $153 million. In the Northeast, they played up the revenge angle, with the Yankees swiping the leadoff hitter from the rival Red Sox. In the rest of the country, it was all about the Yankees spending big, again.

In Ellsbury and catcher Brian McCann, the Yankees have spent $238 million this off-season, with more to come. They did not reach the playoffs last year, for the first time since 2008. After that season, they spent $423 million on pitcher CC Sabathia, first baseman Mark Teixeira and pitcher A.J. Burnett. In 2009, they won the World Series.

This is not a provincial rant. The Dodgers can match the Yankees, dollar for dollar.

But fans complaining how the Yankees’ signing Ellsbury means more of the same big-money teams dominating this time of year and again during the season missed the flurry of moves by the busiest team over the last few days: the back-to-back American League West champion Oakland Athletics.

In four moves over two days, the A’s signed pitcher Scott Kazmir for $22 million and made three trades with this net result: acquired closer Jim Johnson, setup man Luke Gregerson, swingman Josh Lindblom, and outfielder Craig Gentry; traded away outfielder Seth Smith, second baseman Jemile Weeks and prospect Chris Bostick.

List all those names together, and it looks like a heist. Baseball is swimming in cash, so the A’s can afford to increase their payroll — not to the point of adding an Ellsbury, but at least to the point of making a good team better.

“We don’t have the luxury of signing four or five players to [those kinds of] long-term contracts,” said Lew Wolff, A’s managing partner. “I honestly think that’s better.”

What if the Athletics and Yankees suddenly traded bank accounts?

“If we had the money, would we do it? I don’t think so,” Wolff said, “or, at least, not as frequently as people might think. If we could give a long-term contract to a player getting younger each year, that would be helpful.”

That is at the heart of the free-agent dilemma. As teams sign younger stars to lucrative contract extensions, the free-agent classes get smaller and older.

The Yankees just committed to Ellsbury through 36. Cano would like a contract that carries beyond that age. The Angels are tied to Albert Pujols through 41.

If money ensured success, the Red Sox would not have dumped Adrian Gonzalez ($154 million) and Carl Crawford ($142 million) on the Dodgers. The Tigers signed Prince Fielder for $214 million, then traded him after two years. The San Francisco Giants won the World Series twice after signing Barry Zito for $126 million; they left him off their playoff roster the first time.

The Yankees know the risks, and so do the Dodgers, and so do the A’s. No team signs a free agent for the better part of a decade and expects premium performance through the entire contract. The Yankees and Dodgers can afford to take the risk, and Wolff does not begrudge them that economic advantage.

“A huge amount of what we do,” Wolff said, “is based on the acumen of Billy,” referring to General Manager Billy Beane and his staff.

The A’s move pieces around as well as anyone in baseball. Monopoly might be the most attractive game this time of year, but chess can be even more intriguing.

Twitter: @BillShaikin