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Street on Fire

Reports indicate that Billy Beane would like to lock down Huston Street. Why is the move so un-Beane-like and why does it make sense for the A's?

When Billy Beane took over as general manager of the Oakland Athletics he inherited 35 year old Billy Taylor as closer. Taylor had 18 saves, including 17 the season prior. Despite being a second round pick by the Texas Rangers Taylor would suffer through miserable control and injuries finally reaching the majors in 1994, 14 years after being drafted. From 1994 through July 1999 Taylor would save 99 games for the Athletics and present himself as an acquirable asset for a playoff racing team. The New York Mets would take that asset off of Beane’s hands, spinning him former top arm Jason Isringhausen – yet to find big league success – and overpaid reliever Greg McMichael.

It would take Isringhausen roughly a month before moving into the closer position for the A’s, a position he would hold through 2001. That would be Taylor’s final season in the league after flaming out in New York and elsewhere, Tampa for instance, after reverting to his old habits of allowing too many baserunners.

Isringhausen would become one of the league’s top closers, saving 75 games for the A’s before hitting the free agent market where he’d be handsomely paid for his achievements, making nearly seven million a season, something the A’s, with a mid-30 million dollar payroll simply couldn’t pay.  Beane didn’t panic however, and as noted in Moneyball even cherished the first round and compensatory pick he’d receive in exchange.

Beane would turn to Billy Koch, a successful closer in Toronto, giving up prospect Eric Hinske and reliever Justin Miller. Koch would then be flipped less than a year later in a deal that netted the A’s their next closer; Keith Foulke, who would leave for free agency following the season. The closer carousel continued with the A’s trading for Octavio Dotel midway through 2004 after using Jim Mecir and Arthur Rhodes throughout most of the season. The A’s would also acquire their closer for 2005 in June 2004, but it wasn’t Dotel, instead first round pick Huston Street, a hard thrower from the University of Texas would take the reigns as Dotel suffered with injuries.

Street hasn’t relinquished the position yet, but unlike the past Beane is apparently very interested in locking the 24 year old down to a long-term contract, which raises the question: why?

Throughout Moneyball, particularly within page ranges 120-130, Michael Lewis conveys the thoughts of the organization on closers. The theory is that the closer position and saves statistic are both overvalued aspects of the game. Beane and company discover that “building” a closer and then “selling” a closer is easier and more productive than buying into the hype, hence why Beane only had three closers with any type of longevity, not counting Foulke’s return this season.

So why is it that Beane is seriously looking into locking down Huston Street? I have some theories.  

Let’s begin with the most obvious; Street’s youth. Isringhausen was 26 when he found his first Oakland save, Foulke, Dotel, Taylor, and Koch were all in their 30’s. Of course age trends with closers doesn’t seem to be too important and barring injury there doesn’t seem to be a chance of Street falling off in performance. Oakland also has a potential new ballpark coming up in Fremont, despite delays, that will undoubtedly give Beane more financial flexibility than he’s had in the past. With a team stocked of young players with next to none service time the A’s could have their park in place before paydays are due. Or, perhaps, it’s simply to increase Street’s value. Not many saw Beane dealing Nick Swisher last off-season, showing that he’s not about loyalty or ego as much as opportunity. Re-signing Street around market value through his 20’s gives Beane an asset that few others can match.

Allow me to the put the psychology glasses aside and focus on another question: is Street simply too good to let walk? After all he uses the ballpark well, doesn’t walk many, and maintains a very good K/BB ratio. Street is a very good pitcher, even if his role is as a closer, and in that regard he separates himself a bit from the rest of the closers, Isringhausen the exception. Perhaps Beane values Street as a very good player rather than just a closer like the others.