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New-look A's contend with old 'Moneyball' formula

By William Robinson

(Reuters) - Coming to theaters this October: "Moneyball 2: Return of the Athletics."

Eleven years after their magical campaign was documented in a best-selling book and Academy Award-nominated film, Major League Baseball's (MLB) Oakland Athletics are back to their successful, frugal, winning ways.

Fresh off their second consecutive American League (AL) West division crown with a 96-66 regular season record, the A's open their postseason at home Friday against the reigning AL champion Detroit Tigers (93-69) in a best-of-five Division Series.

Unlike the Los Angeles Dodgers, who spent a staggering $220.4 million on its payroll -- and produced a season with four fewer wins -- Oakland carries a meager $60.4 million payroll, according to ESPN, making the A's the fourth lowest among the 30 MLB teams.

Chalk it up to the tight-fisted ways of A's General Manager Billy Bean, baseball's curator of cheap talent. This year's iteration of the A's is not exactly similar to the 2002 "Moneyball" team -- that squad featured Eric Chavez, Scott Hatteberg and Jermaine Dye, with all but two players being paid under $4 million.

That team also had three pitchers at the top of their game, headed by AL Cy Young award winner Barry Zito and AL Most Valuable Player Miguel Tejada.

This team boasts no player who will likely win either award but might qualify instead for Most Overlooked Player of the Year.

After floating around the minor leagues since 2007, third baseman Josh Donaldson became a bonafide terror in his second season, hitting 24 home runs, 93 runs batted in, batting .301 as well as providing excellent defense at the hot corner.

He garnered AL Player of the Month honors for September and will assuredly receive award consideration alongside Tigers slugger and reigning AL MVP Miguel Cabrera and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim phenom Mike Trout.

"It's awesome to be put in that category with that group of guys," the 27-year-old Donaldson told media after the regular season finale against the Seattle Mariners last Sunday.

FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH

But he's hardly the sole hot bat. First baseman Brandon Moss hit 30 pitches out of the park in just 446 at bats. After inconsistent stretches with the Boston Red Sox, Pittsburgh Pirates and Philadelphia Phillies, the A's owe Moss just $1.6 million this season, although he's subject to a pay raise via 2014 arbitration.

As he did with the "Moneyball" team of 2002, Beane has again surrounded his young talent with a handful of grizzled higher priced players. Veteran outfield Coco Crisp blasted 22 homers, including seven in the season's final month.

On the mound, All-Star Bartolo Colón seemingly has tapped into the fountain of youth at 40 years old, recording his best season since his 2005 Cy Young Award-winning effort. Beane inked him for a paltry $3 million a year.

Other than Colón, the pitching staff is populated by youngsters with blazing fastballs and thin pay checks. Sonny Gray, Jarrod Parker and Dan Straily 24 years old or younger, notching a combined 3.77 ERA and 27-19 record.

Pitcher Grant Balfour was efficient closing games, converting 38 of 41 save opportunities.

Beane also spent $32 million over four years to grab second-year outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, after he and his family defected from Cuba in late 2011. After establishing residency in the United States, any team could bid for his services. He's hit 26 homers and 80 RBI despite missing 27 games.

Beane's team is a well-rounded unit that, for the most part, led the AL West all year. Last season, it came back from nine games back in June to surpass the Rangers for the division title in a dramatic season finale.

"I couldn't be prouder (of this team). It's been a real consistent effort the whole season," manager Bob Melvin told local television announcers Glen Kuiper and Ray Fosse last Sunday.

Detroit eliminated Oakland in the 2012 American League Divisional Series en route to representing the AL in the World Series, where they lost to the San Francisco Giants.

(Reporting by William Robinson in Los Angeles; Editing by Ronald Grover)

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