Billy Beane: Back in AN Part I

Back in August 2004, I had the great pleasure of sitting down for a lengthy interview with the man that makes the green and gold engine go, Billy Beane.  You can view Part I, Part II and Part III of these interviews by clicking through the associated links.

But now, with what is arguably the most dramatic offseason in Oakland Athletics history nearly behind him, Billy Beane has returned to discuss life, liberty and the pursuit of a really great bullpen.

Beane sat down for nearly two hours recently, discussing everything from the personal pain associated with dealing Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson to what players are the most valuable players in baseball.

Without further ado, here is our conversation:

Blez:  An awful lot has happened since we last sat down and talked.  That's probably the understatement of the year.  But would you call this your hardest offseason ever, with the trades, with the possible ownership change and the A's barely missing the playoffs last season?

Billy Beane:  Not necessarily.  There's been a lot going on.  It's been one of the busiest ones we've had in a while.  But I guess that would depend on how you would define "hard."  Every offseason here there's a lot of questions and maybe I'm a little more immune to it because I have the expectation that it's always going to be like that.  It's probably been one of our more dramatic ones, again, depending on how you want to define "dramatic."

Blez:  How would you define dramatic?

BB:  I see it as what I've come to expect as life in Oakland.  It's the nature of our franchise with the situation we're in right now.  I'm sort of immune to what would be perceived as volatility.  It's just a matter of business here.

Blez: You say you're immune, but I imagine you grow very personal attachments to players like Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson.  Would you classify these as the two most difficult decisions you've had to make?

BB:  No question.  I've gone through the whole cycle with these guys.  I remember when their names were called out in the draft and how it's come full circle.  I've been very close to both of them.  Very close.  The two remaining that I'm very close with now are Chavy (Eric Chavez) and certainly Z (Barry Zito).  Those four guys were probably the closest I've ever been to four guys on the team, and probably the closest I ever will be.  And for that matter, ever want to be again.

Blez:  Was it almost like trading your brothers or your sons?

BB:  Yes...brothers is probably better-- that way I don't sound so old.

Blez:  (Laughing) That's why I hesitated on it.

BB:  I still have Chavy and Z.  But I'm not sure I'll ever have quite the relationship with any players that I had with Huddy and Mark and I now have with Chavy and Z again.  Given that I'm aging and the age difference, or maybe I'm just going to be more callous about it.  It was pretty tough.  I'm very fond of those guys.  We're all fond of them professionally, but I actually knew them personally.  I knew Huddy's wife really well.  It was the two toughest phone calls I've had to make since I've been here.  

Blez:  How much did the insane contracts, forgive my editorializing, for starting pitchers like Benson and Wright affect your decision to go ahead and move Hudson and Mulder?  In other words, were you just taking an opportunity to move players who happened to play in a position that is suddenly overvalued?

BB:  There were a ton of things that went into the decision.  As a general manager, to put it simply, I'm given a certain amount of ingredients to put together a team.  In other words, I'm given, "this is what you have to spend."  My job is to manage those resources I'm given, that being in terms of dollars.  To put it bluntly, we weren't going to be able to return the entire team we had in 2004 and not be far above our means.  We not only aim to put a competitive team on the field, but one that will be getting progressively better, which is the trick for us.  One of the things we realized about the free agent market this year, and it wasn't like it was new to us but it became even more evident this year, is that the one thing we couldn't put ourselves in the position to do--like say with Jason Giambi or even Miguel Tejada which was even tougher-- what we knew is that if these pitchers left, we had to have an answer for them.  And the answer wasn't going to come via the free agent market.

Blez:  Because of the cost, is what you're saying?

BB:  Exactly, and not only that, but in many cases cost for mediocrity.  Ordinary pitchers that we neither had the resources nor the desire to pay them that much.  Once again, understand that we're operating within a budget.  Myself and David (Forst), we have a certain amount to work with and we've got to work with that.  One thing you can't rely on is that you're going to draft five pitchers to replace five guys.  It isn't that predictable.  In our market, pitching is the hardest thing to acquire and impossible for us to sign in the open market.  For the health of our franchise, we had to make sure that if we traded these guys that what we got in return was at least someone that could go into our rotation for X number of years, preferably as many as possible.

Blez:  Since you mentioned the players you received in return, outside of Thomas and Calero who came around last season, they're seen as unknown quantities.  Can you give me a rundown about what was appealing to you about each of these players?

BB:  The first thing we did when we knew the possibility was there that we were going to move these guys, we had to find teams that had pitchers that were very close to stepping into the rotation, very similar to our own Joe Blanton.  The biggest reason for that would be that we had cost control over them for their first three years when they'll be making $300,000.  A.  Because it was something that we could afford, and B. because we'd want to have them as long as possible.  That was the reason that we dealt specifically with the teams that we did.  We couldn't go out there and acquire established guys, the cost would've been too high and if we had them for one year, we just would've had to turn around and get rid of them in a year.  What we tried to do in each one of those deals is get a guy back who was going to step into a rotation immediately or very quickly.  That was really the whole idea.  Once again, getting back to the main point is that we had to get someone back who was going to replace these guys (Hudson and Mulder).

Blez:  Obviously with bringing Kendall and Ginter and Juan Cruz and Calero, it seems like you've improved two aspects of the team (offense and bullpen) to the detriment of another aspect (starting pitching).  Is that what you were aiming for?

BB:  No question.  One of the questions I've heard, and I almost found it comical, was, "Why did you get Jason Kendall?"  That question makes no sense at all.  Jason Kendall was an exchange of Mark Redman and Arthur Rhodes for Kendall.  No disrespect to those two guys, but I'm going to make that deal every time.  The fact that he is going to be here for three years means that he can be a part of whatever is going on here and he's an All Star catcher.  That's what the deal came down to.  You were going to have one or the other.  Jason Kendall or the other two guys.  We chose to take Kendall over the other two guys, call us crazy.  The other thing is that, had we not made that deal, our catcher would've been a rookie with no experience because of the cost.  As far as the makeup of the team, we're going to spend what we have.  Given the fact that we had three young pitchers coming into the rotation, we were going to try and protect them as much as possible in every way shape and form.  Listen, I'm not stupid, I learn something every year.  I've seen the value of a great bullpen.  One thing about acquiring bullpen guys is that you can work from the end of the game back as opposed to the starters working from the front and going towards the ninth.  So the cost of working from the ninth down is a little cheaper and with our young pitchers, it will give us an opportunity to win.  And if you notice the relievers we've brought in, they're more than one inning-type of relievers.

Blez:  Like Cruz.

BB:  Yeah, like Cruz and Calero and even if Yabu goes in there.  So what we're trying to do is possibly shorten the game down to take as much pressure off those young starters.  Because the one thing you know about those guys in their career thus far is that they A. Throw strikes, which is great for a young pitcher and B. They strike guys out.  We're going to emphasize to them early in camp, just give us strikes and get us as deep as you can, but don't feel like you've got to go seven or eight innings.  That's until they've got their sea legs underneath them.  Hopefully we can protect them as much as possible with the bullpen.  As for as the position players, the supporting cast with this team is a lot more balanced than I think even the team that Hudson, Mulder and Zito broke into.  It wasn't too long ago that they were three rookies breaking in.  I'm not even going to begin to put anybody in those guys' category, but the fact is that the surrounding cast is probably better and has a chance to continue to get better and will probably be here for a few years.

Blez:  Which is a key for Oakland being the market it is.

BB:  Absolutely.  We needed to get to the point where our future was brighter than our past.  And going status quo, that wasn't going to be the case.  Once again, we're doing it within the parallels that are given to us.

Blez:  You mentioned Yabu.  Do you have him in mind as a bullpen guy or are you going to look at how things shake out in spring training and figure it out from there?

BB:  A little bit of both.  He's an option to break as a starter, but I think if everything went according to our perfect plan, he'd give us length in the bullpen and we'd break with three rookie pitchers.

Blez:  Which would be Blanton, Meyer and Haren.

BB:  Yes.  Once again, assuming they are ready and as long as they throw strikes and trust their stuff they'll be fine.  We'll try and protect them as much as we possibly can.

Blez:  It drives me crazy to hear this, and I want to give you a platform to be able to respond to this kind of thing.  A lot of your critics have claimed that your success over the past five seasons or so has been a byproduct of having The Big Three mature and become quality pitchers at the same time.

BB:  Well, thank God we were there to select them.  (Laughing)

Blez:  (Laughing) Now, I would never say that you would be happy about not having Hudson and Mulder, but do you look forward to proving that you're a quality GM regardless of the presence of those pitchers?

BB:  I'm very fortunate as a GM to have those guys and also have the organization that was bright enough to select those guys.  Remember, those that say that were the same guys who didn't want to select Zito in the first round.  And if you'd like to run a Google search to see what the opinion was when we selected Barry at the ninth pick in the draft, you'll see that there was no one who jumped up and applauded that.  But they applaud it now.

Blez:  (Laughing) Which is easy now.

BB:  A few years ago when we lost Giambi, that was supposed to be our downfall.  There's always going to be something out there and there's always going to be someone who's going to find a reason that isn't the real reason why an organization is successful.  It usually someone who hasn't quite had the success they've expected themselves.

Blez:  This is related to that same topic-- so many in the media seemed to claim that you were participating in a Charlie Finley-style talent dump.  There is one person I'm thinking of who went on ESPNEWS and was saying that the A's were going to only win 60 games this year.  But from reading some of your comments in the media, you don't consider this a rebuilding, rather a retooling.  Can you explain how you view the two differently?

BB:  First of all, I'm not sure it's good management as a GM to rebuild, rebuild probably isn't the right word, but to start to make changes only after you've hit rock bottom.  Because it takes five, six, seven years to get out of that in a small market.  Those same people that criticize those preemptive moves are the same ones who spend the next three years wondering why you didn't do anything.  We were kind of going through a restructuring here last year with the number of rookies we brought onto the team any way.  I'm not sure that any of our fans want me to stand up at the podium and say, "Hey, we're getting rid of everybody.  We're going to lose 100 games over the next three years, now come and enjoy the show."  What we're trying to do is make sure that any dip in performance doesn't happen for five or six years and I've seen professional sports franchises do that.  You can think of some where the critics are saying, "Why didn't they do this three years ago?  Why didn't they do this two years ago?"  I've been through a situation when we needed to make moves and we didn't make them.  Back in 1992, I sat in a cab with Sandy Alderson when we won the division and people got emotional and we wanted to bring the entire team back to try and do it again.  I remember sitting there with him and we knew the smart thing to do at that point was to take a step back and start rebuilding.  We made the mistake of trying to bring the entire team back and it took us seven years to recover.  Our market is not going to handle that.  Understand that attendance percentage is basically based on winning.  Everything you can do to make sure that any dip in your performance in a year, you minimize that.  Because when you put together back to back to back losing seasons, then you've created a very apathetic situation that's very difficult to recover from.  If you're worried about what a couple of sportswriters say and let them make the decisions for you, you're an absolute coward and a fool.

Blez:  That's why I love about you Billy, you're so shy about your feelings.

BB:  (Laughs)  Yeah, well there's nobody that has more passion for this franchise that I know of than me, OK.

Blez:  My wife might argue with you on that point.

BB:  (Chuckles) Well, I chose to be here for a reason.  I care about this franchise, short and long term, more than anybody that I know of.  I will do everything I can to make it as good as I can for as long as I possibly can.  If I took a selfish point of view, it would be scorched earth and then I'd be gone.

Blez:  That leads nicely into my next question.  The pending sale has people up in arms, at least on Athletics Nation because they know you have an opt-out clause on your contract.  And from this perspective, this is the only franchise that I know of where people follow this team so closely largely because you're the general manager.

BB:  That's very flattering.

Blez:  People on my site are actually panicking because they fear you leaving if the team is sold.

BB:  That's incredibly flattering, and I assure you that it has a very big impact on me, not because it drives my ego, but because they care as much as I do.  To answer your question, I haven't been able to sit down and have any conversations.  This is relatively new to everyone.  The fact of the matter is that it is there and there's no getting around that.

Blez:  Billy, just tell us you'll stay please?

BB:  Well, I love the fact that most of the people that follow this team have started to have an understanding of what we're up against and ultimately, have faith in the product we're going to put out on the field over the course of time.  I just haven't had the chance to sit down and...

Blez:  Take in what it really means yet?

BB:  Exactly.  I have no idea what's going to be done from this point forward.

Blez:  You've worked with Lewis Wolff for about a year now?

BB:  Well, I've only gotten to meet him a couple of times.  I've had no sort of substantive conversations with him yet and ask him the questions I'd want to ask him.  But it's there.

Blez:  You've got to let us know because we're dying over here waiting to see if you'll leave.  Honestly, when a franchise can trade pitchers the quality of Hudson and Mulder and people on the site and elsewhere are saying, "It'll be all right as long as Billy stays here..." that's remarkable.

BB:  Believe me, when I read and hear that, it only increases my loyalty.  It's what makes this job special.  It does mean a lot to me.  It really does.  Because of those opinions and the bulk of the people who follow this team, it absolutely does have an impact on me.  It does, no doubt.  If I have a personal and different egotistical agenda, I would've taken a different path a few years ago.  I truly do care about the people that mean something to me, and that's the people that follow this team.  I've always felt that support and it's allowed me to do things with conviction, in many cases, it's helped me.  What doesn't matter to me is people trying to sell newspapers.  [What matters is] the people who follow this team and truly understand the circumstances we're in.

Blez:  The people on the site will let you know they appreciate that as soon as they hear it.

BB:  I've always felt this incredible support from the cyber-world.  We joke about it.  Myself and Paul (DePodesta).  The one thing I have that Paul hasn't really acquired yet in Los Angeles 'cause it takes time, is that kind of support.

Yes, Billy does have that support from THIS community...

Coming soon, Billy's thought process on trading the Big Three, his thoughts on marketing gimmicks (including a classic quote about Barney the Dinosaur) and how he feels about his restructured team.

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