These are the times that try fan's souls. But apparently not Billy Beane. I sat down with Beane in his hotel when he came to the OC over the past Labor Day weekend and talked with him about pretty much everything that's happened in 2007. He was in surprisingly good spirits despite the fact that the Oakland A's have dealt with more injuries than ever in the team's 39-year-history in the city of Oakland. Not that the injury issues haven't taken its toll on Beane this year, but it seemed like he had enjoyed trying some creative ways of fielding a team in 2007.
Without further ado, here is the first part of my exclusive interview with A's General Manager Billy Beane:
Blez: I feel like we have this conversation every time we’ve gotten together the last couple of years, but the injuries this year have been ridiculous. Do you think that the team would’ve had a chance to compete for the division crown had the injuries not been of such epic proportion?
Billy Beane: Oh yeah, I definitely think so. I think the talent we lost this year has had a huge impact on what has happened this year. In fact, given where we’re at right now and given all the injuries we’ve had, I’m actually kind of surprised. We’ve kind of had to reinvent everything on the fly. You start forgetting about the people who’ve been out. Arguably, Rich Harden is one of the best pitchers in the game when he’s on the hill and he’s been out the whole year. Kotsay has been out most of the year as well as Chavy (Eric Chavez). And the other thing with Chavy is that not only has he been out, but he’s been battling these injuries when he’s playing. You go back and think of a time when we had Milton and he only played 15 games for us. Bobby Kielty, who is one of the best hitters in the league against left-handed pitching. Loaiza missed everything but two starts. You forget. Even a guy like Duchscherer. Even now when you start talking about it you remember the guys who are missing. Duchscherer is an All Star set-up man. It’s been overwhelming. Absurd is the word we’ve used this year. To answer your question, I absolutely believe we would’ve competed. That’s not to say we would’ve won it, but I definitely think we would’ve been looking forward to a little bit of a different September than we are right now.
Blez: You seem like you’d be too analytical to believe in something like bad luck or coincidence. So is there anything that the team can do to start cutting down on these injuries? It just seems like the last few years it’s getting progressively worse rather than regressing back to what you would assume would be the mean.
Beane: Agreed. There’s only so many times you can keep saying bad luck. At some point you really have to dig down and figure out why this is going on. And I can say that we’ve already started that process. In some cases, there is bad luck. Bobby Crosby gets hit with a 94 mile an hour fastball flush on his hand. That’s just bad luck because there’s nothing Bobby could’ve done there. I think the things you get concerned about is when you have muscle and tissue injuries. We’ve had some bone injuries and Eric (Chavez) has had some back issues as well as Kotsay. But when you have the tissue problems like a few guys pulling hamstrings, calves and obliques. Those are the things you need to take a hard look at what you’re doing in terms of prevention and warm up. And ultimately after you’ve done all that, you have to realize that some guys just get hurt a lot. History will usually tell you that the younger you are, the healthier you’re going to stay. That hasn’t necessarily been the case with us.
Blez: Like Travis Buck.
Beane: Yeah, that one has been tough. What happens is that we’ve had it come in such bulk and every day, one or two guys go down and what you really don’t want to do is create that culture and not know it. In other words, constantly having guys nursing something. In Travis’ case, in fairness, he has bone chips and spurs in his elbow and he did everything he could for as long as he could to stay on the field. But he also had other issues like forearms and he pulled his hammy. When that happened, we said, let’s just get this kid healthy. We said the same thing with Eric. You saw it in that one day when we announced that Eric, Kotsay and Travis were shut down for the year. We just made a decision that we were better served taking advantage of this last month and fixing everyone first, whether that meant surgery or rest. That would also allow them the benefit of a much longer offseason so they could prepare for the long season. The roundabout answer to your question is that we’ve started the process (of how to prevent injuries). We’re doing as a group. When things like this happen, there is often a lot of finger pointing. People want to say, “the medical staff is to blame” but that’s something we talked about last year. Understand in most cases, the medical staff is there to treat injuries. One thing we are going to look at is how we prepare ourselves.
Blez: You mean like strength and conditioning?
Beane: Yeah, but not just that. One of the things that is difficult now is that a lot of the players have their own guys and do their own thing. It’s very hard to keep track of what they’re doing. Guys talk to each other and agents recommend guys who recommend their own doctors. Nowadays when a guy gets injured, he’s going to go see two or three other guys regardless of who your team doctor is.
Blez: Is there a way to mandate that it be an internal process or is the MLBPA standing in the way of that?
Beane: You’re limited. In fairness to the players, it’s their careers and they want to take as much advice as they can when it comes to recommending guys. But there are definitely times when there are too many cooks in the kitchen and it isn’t just with us, it happens to a lot of teams throughout the league. Sometimes it’s good because we’ve had guys who have provided second, third or fourth opinions who have helped correct a problem. But getting back to medical, in most cases, when they see the doctor is when they’ve already been hurt. We’re definitely going to place a pretty heavy emphasis not only on what the guys are doing in the offseason to prepare themselves, but making sure we monitor them even closer than we have in the past. We started a couple of weeks ago and we’re going to have a pretty good jump on this offseason.
Blez: How are you guys going to do that if they’re all doing their own thing?
Beane: We’re sitting down and going over every single injury we’ve had. Some of them are unavoidable like Bobby (Crosby) getting hit on the hand is just bad luck.
Blez: You guys just need to prescribe more milk in his diet.
Beane: (laughs) Yeah, but the videotape of every one of Bobby’s broken bones, they’re pretty violent. I mean he got hit in the back in spring training with a 95 mile an hour fastball and cracked a rib. He fractured his ankle on a collision at the plate. And got hit in the hand with a ball. Not too many bones would’ve stood up to what Bobby had to go through. He wants to get back on the field. We keep a daily log on everything, but we’re going to separate the broken bones on collisions from the tissue injuries.
Blez: In other words, the injuries that you think are more preventable?
Beane: Possibly preventable. And we’re going to see what we can do. We will do something. There will be a change in at least what we suggest. Remember, these are only suggestions. When all is said and done, these guys more often than not have their own guys and their own programs.
Blez: I imagine that has to be pretty frustrating for you.
Beane: Frustrating only in the sense that it would be nice if everything was centralized because you take a player with an injury, and I’m just going to use a shoulder injury as an example. You’re doing certain exercises on certain days that are prescribed by the doctor or administered with a PT (physical therapist) and you might not know that that same player maybe doing something completely different with someone else as well and then just by virtue of you doing two different exercise programs, other factors might come into play. You could have significant fatigue. It’s not always that you don’t think they’re getting good advice, it’s just that you don’t always know the others things they’re doing which could impact it. It’s not always more is better. And if it becomes redundant or ultimately causes fatigue when you’re trying to rehab, it can cause more problems. We’ve had that issue and it’s been tough on our trainers. I think it’s one of the things we’ve emphasized with our players. If you’re going to go to someone else, make sure that we have the information as to what you’re doing so that we’re not being redundant with what we do with you at the ball park.
Blez: The team went to the ALCS last year and this year it seems like, probably in large part because of all the injuries, this team is entering a phase of, and I know you don’t like this word, re-building. Would you agree that the team is entering a phase of rebuilding or because of all the injuries you don’t really know what you’re going to do yet?
Beane: (laughs) Well, re-building is such an all-encompassing word. First, we’re trying to get healthy. If you think about the players that are out that should be back and should be healthy, then it’s significant. Take the pitching staff for example. Take Joe Blanton, Dan Haren, Chad Gaudin and Rich Harden as your staff. That’s a rotation you would want at any point that you have a team whether it’s a re-building team or it’s a competing team. It’s a great starting staff. Lenny DiNardo has also had a great year for us as well as some of the guys coming up. And it’s still young. We’re still a young team. Just because Dan Haren has turned into one of the best pitchers in the game doesn’t mean you can forget about the youth of the team. Haren is only 26 years old. Gaudin is, what, 24 years old. Joe (Blanton) is what, 26. When you say re-building, for us it’s a different definition. For us, it’s about getting healthy. We’re always trying to get younger. In our market, it’s critical that we’re constantly staying young. We’ve got a young catcher in Suzuki and a young outfielder in Buck. So we’re already kind of there any way.
Blez: In other words, strategically replacing specific pieces of the puzzle.
Beane: Yeah, maybe I’ll use that one (laughs). But the first thing is getting healthy. Chavy is still young. He’s 29 years old.
Blez: You brought up Chavy. He hasn’t really had an Eric Chavez-type season for, what two or three years now.
Beane: It’s been a couple of years.
Blez: Do you think if he has whatever surgeries he needs and rehabs and gets healthy, do you think that we’re going to see him get back to that level? Are the injuries why we’ve seen such a rapid decline in him?
Beane: I have no doubt. I have absolutely no doubt. The difference between Eric and other people is that he doesn’t talk about it. It is really the case. Eric has been battling a lot of things for the last two years. And then last year, some of the things that wound up bothering him this year, we were hoping rest would’ve helped. But when he came back, all those things flared up again. All these things are things that should’ve been corrected a year ago. But you’re always going to avoid surgery if you can. But after rest and then after going through spring training, it started to flare up during the season. For instance, he’s having shoulder surgery this week on Wednesday. We think that contributed to a lot of the problems he had last year with his forearms. So there’s no doubt, to answer your question. Eric isn’t going to use that as an excuse. In fact, we shut him down about a week ago when we announced it. Eric wanted to get out there, even if it was for the last 10 days of the season he wanted to play. He has a great sense of responsibility after being here as long as he has and being the highest paid player on the club, he knows what his role is. You’re never going to hear him use it as an excuse. So we finally said that we wanted him to take the month and finally start getting healthy. Eric is still a very young man and I think his last years have absolutely been a result of the injuries.
Blez: You have a legendary reputation for how competitive you are. How much has this season worn on you emotionally especially since it’s been a very, very long time since the green and gold wasn’t a factor in the playoff hunt down?
Beane: I’m not sure I would say emotionally. I’ve never really had my self esteem placed on the next day’s game. That being said, it’s a lot easier going through this in your 10th year as general manager as opposed to if it was your first. I think in some respects, some of the things we’ve been able to do, and I say we because I include David and Farhan in this whole thing, we’re pretty proud of. We’ve had to just completely reinvent things. We’ve had 22 disabled lists and used 51 players, or actually it might be more than that depending on what’s happened today. We’ve had to invent a team on the fly and we’ve had some great things come out of it. There’s some satisfaction in that. It’s never fun when you aren’t winning as much as you have in the past, but I think it’s more frustrating when you’re completely at a loss as to why it’s happening. For us the frustration is not being healthy. These are always times for opportunity and you get to try some crazy things. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. But it’s part of the process. The greatest thing is that Bob (Geren) hasn’t seen a day when he hasn’t gotten excited. For him to have to go through this in his first season as a major league manager, I don’t feel bad for me, I feel bad for him. If you even mention that to Bob, he looks at you as if you’re from Mars. He’s like, “What do you mean, I have the greatest job in the world? Why would I be down?” That’s just his nature.
Blez: Was there a defining moment this year when you kind of said to yourself, well, the playoffs are now a huge uphill climb? You mentioned finding out about the Bobby Crosby extended injury during the same game when Kielty hit the home run off K-Rod a few seasons ago, and knowing that the team would be missing Ellis during the last ALCS as similar moments. Did you have a moment like that this year?
Beane: I always resist answering a question or evaluating something like that especially since we’re sitting here September 3. I think the way we look at this is that we still have goals for this year. You mentioned how competitive I am, but let’s assume for one second that we’re not in the playoffs. Every game we win is important. I don’t ever want to spend the month of September just getting the season over with and that’s certainly not the case right now. I think a point that we did realize that it was going to be a tough climb was probably the day before we went to the break and Rich came back on a Sunday. He came in afterward and didn’t feel right and we had to shut him down again. At that point, the team had done a great job of just hanging in there. The Angels hadn’t really had the run yet that they’d recently had. You knew it was going to happen, but we were able to find a way of staying within shouting distance. I think after the break, when we started thinking about the possibility, we would’ve been able to start firing Haren, Blanton, Gaudin and Harden had he come through it and Lenny going the way that he’s going, and any time you have those guys you have a chance to do some special things. One of the reasons we’ve had such great second half runs here is that our starting pitching has largely been healthy and been great. When you have that kind of starting pitching, anything can happen. Because after all the injuries we’d overcome to that point and we were still within shouting distance, and the thought of having a Cy Young-caliber guy out there for the second half, it was something everyone was excited about. So when he had that setback, the day before the break was a tough day. Ironically, I think we beat Seattle that first day out of the break then lost the next three and really proceeded to stumble. Injuries you just sort of get everyone to rally around and circle the wagons but you do have a time where everyone starts thinking there is an endpoint and people say, we’ll just find a way to get through this. Like even Ellis last year in the playoffs. We’d gone through so much last year just to get to that point and it was just really deflating. It was like, “Not this again.”
Blez: You’ve traded away or let go of quite a bit of salary as the season has progressed. Bradley, Kendall, Kennedy and now Loaiza. Were these moves mostly about cutting payroll?
Beane: In most of those cases we didn’t really save that much payroll. It was trying to move forward. The toughest one was Jason (Kendall). You talk about all these injuries and having all kinds of guys on the shelf and here you have a guy who you couldn’t drag out of a game. He was very popular with everyone, including front office and staff. He was just the ultimate gamer. That one was very difficult because guys like that are great examples for younger players. We were also wrestling with the fact that we had a young catcher who at some point needed to get major league experience. As far as saving money, between Jason and Milton, there wasn’t significant money really being saved. We did get some prospects that we really like. It was really about saying, if we’re going to go through this difficult period and the year is turning out the way it’s turning out to be, let’s at least use this as an opportunity to find out where we’re at. With Esteban, when he was claimed off waivers and we gave him up to the Dodgers there was certainly significant salary savings there. No question and that factored into it. Each one was a little different. By and large, it was trying to project into the future to try and project long-term assets.
Blez: As for the guys you let go on waivers, Kennedy and Loaiza, is the fact that they were let go for nothing an indication of their lack of market value? Because you never want to let go of something for nothing, right?
Beane: Yeah, that is true. In fairness to the players, it’s probably not fair to answer that question. In those cases, having the flexibility in the payroll is a big addition. If I said there was no interest in this guy or no interest in that guy…
Blez: In other words, we can draw our own conclusions as to how it happened?
Beane: Yeah, exactly. The thing about trade market is that it’s always fluctuating. I’ll give you an example. As great a player as Mark McGwire was for us, and I was an assistant GM when Sandy (Alderson) was here, with the Cardinals it turned out to be a great deal for them. But I’ve said this to you before, only one team had interest in him and that was the Cardinals. That was the only team that thought they could use that player. You never know. The misconception people have in trade value is sometimes is all over the map. For players you can have a player that you have a ton of interest one week and then none the next week.
Blez: You’ve addressed this a bit already when talking about injuries. But if there was one good thing about the injuries, they have given lots of opportunities to guys that might not have had them otherwise. Guys like Gaudin, DiNardo and Cust have gotten extended looks because of the injuries and problems. Do you think it’s going to make the team stronger moving forward by getting a chance to basically audition a lot of talent?
Beane: No question. You can include Jack Hannahan on that list. In fact, I was talking to one of the players yesterday and you look at things a little different when you’re younger and look at things on a daily basis, but when you get to my age you look at things on a bigger picture. Jack had just gotten a game winning hit and the player asked me, “Well, what are you going to do with him when Chavy gets back?” I said, “What do you mean, having too many good players is a problem?” Jack (Hannahan) has been given that opportunity and he’s a player we’ve always liked. When Chavy went down we thought, who are we going to get to play third base, and we thought, let’s give this kid a chance. We wanted to draft him years ago. At the end of the day, hopefully we’re creating a problem for ourselves in that we’ll have a lot of players. We’ve been looking for that kind of power and on-base in the middle of the lineup for a few years. Jack certainly has a long-term future here. And Chad, obviously with the way he’s pitched to go from middle reliever to do what he’s been doing at 24 years old is remarkable. We’ve run across something pretty good that’s going to be here a few years.
Blez: Did you expect Cust to be what he’s been so far this year?
Beane: You know, I think everyone, and I don’t think it’s unique to us, that everyone has always felt that if given an opportunity that he would be fine. There’s just not too many DH spots open. The surprising thing is that we’ve been running him in the outfield as often as we have. We didn’t expect to do that and I think he’d be the first to tell you that’s not his strength. Then again, for lack of a better term, he’s been playable which has allowed us to get Mike in there. He’s had a couple of mishaps on first hitters of the game, but by and large, he’s shown himself OK. I don’t think anyone expected that. I didn’t think that he’d be knocking on 30 (home runs) and 100 (RBI) if he started the season in May, but I think we were all intrigued by what he could do if he played a lot.
Blez: If there’s another good thing about the A’s being out of the race, it’s that you could possibly have a chance to draft in a better position than in many years. That’s one thing that has got to bring a smile, albeit a small one, to your face, right?
Beane: (laughing) Well, I’m an optimist by nature and one year when Farhan got here, he accused me of “leader speak”. It was the first year he was here and we had our usual terrible May. I was saying, this is going to be fun, we can try things we wouldn’t normally try. It was actually the year we traded Mulder and Hudson and we were like 5-25 that May. I kept telling him, this is going to be fun. We ended up finishing fine, but then at the end of the year he told me, I just agreed with you then but I honestly thought you were just giving me leader speak. That being said, I always do look for opportunities because it’s my nature. As for what you just mentioned, yeah, that is one of the great things. Absolutely. Listen, with 24 games left, I still want to draft as low as we possibly can. But we haven’t drafted in the top 15 in a long time and Swisher was, what, 16th? We haven’t drafted that high in a long, long time. I still hope we’re in the 20s to be honest with you, but those are things you look at at the end of the season, not while it’s still going on.
Blez: There has been a lot of speculation as to why the A’s are clearing out so much salary and that the team has definite off season free agent targets. Do you have an idea as to what you want to do this upcoming offseason already?
Beane: We’re always thinking ahead, but you’ve probably heard this a lot on the national shows and whatnot, but this isn’t a great class of free agents. There will always be some out there but we’re not exactly major players when it comes to free agents. We’ve had some signings these past few years and so have worked out very well and some not so well. But the class itself isn’t recognized as being a real good one. I think what we have to do is get a handle on our health and where we project to be starting next year. Where our healthy projects is the most important thing we need to find out. We’ll know after some of these surgeries where these guys will be. Justin (Duchscherer) is on the mend. Eric will be having his shoulder surgery. We expect everything to be fine but before we do anything we need to figure out where these guys are at.
Blez: Is that why you’re bringing Rich (Harden) back rather than shutting him down in September?
Beane: Rich is probably in as good a spirits as I’ve seen him in a long time. And maybe that’s what happens when you kind of put it out of your mind. Rich is such a talented pitcher that he’s one of those guys where you wake up every morning just wondering how Rich is doing? With the setback he had before the All Star break we finally just said, he’s going to come back when he comes back. As a result, it’s been sort of an out of sight, out of mind thing. He’s been in Arizona, but he’s back with the team now being here in Anaheim. He feels terrific. We’re not going to rush him back at the end of the year. He may go to instructional league if he doesn’t. We anticipate he’s going to be back based upon how he’s doing before the season is over. I think we’d be disappointed if he isn’t based on how he’s feeling. That being said, we’re not just going to shove him out there. We’ll see how he’s doing, if need be, in instructional league. Right now, with the time we have left and based on how he’s feeling, we should see him.
Coming Monday: Beane talks about opportunities in the free agent market, how one measures what a player contributes offensively and defensively and whether Jason Kendall's loss really impacted the pitching staff.