The A's did make some strides forward in 2009 despite finishing with nearly an identical record the past three seasons. They have a good core of young players who appear primed to only get better, and despite the last week of stumbling baseball, the team was one of baseball's surprises in the second half.
With Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Brett Wallace, Daric Barton, Rajai Davis and the rest of the team coming back with more experience, 2010 is looking up for us green and gold faithful. Billy Beane is exceptionally busy wrapping up the season and already starting to look ahead, so I appreciate him taking the time out to chat with me this past week. This is the first part of the interview. I will be running the second part first thing Tuesday morning. Enjoy.
Blez: When I talked to you in spring training it looked like you felt like this team could've gone either way. You were hesitant to say it was going to excel. You didn't seem to know what you were going to have.
Billy Beane: If you point to something right away, we had so many young and unproven starting pitchers in the rotation. You just didn't really know how they were going to react and it's hard to predict where you're going to go if you don't know where your pitching is. I think when we spoke it was right around the time when we were just becoming aware of some of the injury possibilities that ended up happening. The two most obvious were Duchscherer and Joey Devine. When you have so many rookie pitchers getting their first taste of the major leagues, it's very difficult to predict where you're going to go.
Blez: What would your assessment on 2009 be then? We're closing in on the final week of the season here.
Beane: It almost feels like two different seasons. I'm very pleased with the second half. I think we've played pretty well and we've surprised some people because we've played so well in particular after some of the bigger name players weren't here anymore. In particular the Holliday trade, and we've made other changes. But I think the most encouraging thing has been the way we've performed in the second half as well as the development of some of these players who I think are going to be here for a long time, which was first and foremost our goal this year. It's been the last couple of years that we've been trying to build that foundation of young talent that people can look forward to seeing for the next few years and creating a winning core for the foreseeable future. For the first time you really started to see that. You can look at some of the young players like Andrew Bailey who made the All Star team as a closer. Certainly Brett Anderson's performance and Trevor Cahill's improvement. Gio (Gonzalez) has made progress this year. Raj Davis, on the offensive side, has come on and shown himself to be a really good major league centerfielder. Ryan Sweeney as well as Kurt Suzuki's continued development and I know I'm going to leave people out. Cliff Pennington has performed very well in the second half. I think if you look around the diamond you'll see that these guys are going to be here for a while and they've proven over the second half that they can perform at the major league level. And as we continue to add guys from our minor league system, guys who are highly thought of, you can start to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Blez: You mentioned people being surprised that the team picked up and became a better team when you ultimately traded away or got rid of some of the "name" guys like Holliday, Giambi and Cabrera. Some of those guys we all expected more from at the beginning of the year. Is there a point where you might've said, "Maybe instead of bringing in some of those guys, maybe I should've just started with the youth at the beginning of the year and perhaps they would've matured and gotten to that point?"
Beane: That's a good question. Personally I always like the idea of if you're trying to rebuild to just got full bore and do it. But there's also a balance as well. In fairness you have to understand a guy like Cliff Pennington probably benefitted from going back and starting the year in Triple-A. What we've seen this year even relative to last year is that he was much more ready to come up this year and contribute than last year. I don't think you could say that that would've been the case in April. But it's a fair question and certainly one that you think about. I do think there is something to be said about having some of those older guys in here so as not to put the pressure on those younger guys to perform. When we made some of these trades to make the commitment to the younger guys it was a different point in the season and I think it allowed them to relax and realize they were going to be able to play every day. They would realize they could make a mistake and still be in there. I'm not sure that that would've been the case had you started that way from the outset. You might've had a different mindset from the younger players. Keep in mind that some of the holdover guys are young too. Those players are different ones than they were in April. Even though we see Kurt Suzuki as the established guy, he's a guy that continues to improve as is Ryan Sweeney. I think having some of those veteran guys gave them the opportunity to continue some of that development. When the baton was handed off to them, they were more prepared then they were in April.
Blez: You were talking about some of those veteran guys you traded away. And obviously it hurt the team quite a bit that Matt Holliday didn't come close to his career numbers with the A's. There was speculation on AN, everything from he knew he was a short timer here in Oakland so he didn't care, to league adjustment, to the adjustment to not being at Coors Field. Why do you think he didn't come close to what he's doing now in St. Louis?
Beane: The first thing I can put to rest is that he didn't care because that was absolutely not the case. Matt was an absolute professional here. If anything he was probably guilty of putting too much pressure on himself than people know publicly. Matt had impeccable work habits and was a pro. There was probably a bit of an adjustment period. But keep in mind even right before he went to St. Louis, he was really starting to get going here.
Blez: His numbers definitely were going up before he was dealt.
Beane: Yeah you could see he was starting to feel more like himself and get it going. The fact that he took off when he went there was not a surprise. Certainly the lineup to hit in around Pujols, I think it became a perfect environment for him. I think had Matt stayed here he would've returned to his career numbers and I think he was headed that way before he left. I can tell you this. He was an absolute professional when he was here and any assertion that he didn't care is not true.
Blez: How do you find enough at bats for someone like Landon Powell who seems like he should get more regular playing time? Do you go into the offseason thinking about how you get more time for him despite the fact that Kurt Suzuki is a fantastic catcher, does a great job with the pitchers and is great offensively? Do you start to look at DH or a different position?
Beane: There's been times where Bob (Geren) has tried to do that. Early in the year he played a few games at first base and it's not something everyone can do immediately on an everyday basis. The other thing too is there were times that Landon was slowed down because he had nagging hamstring issues at different points during the season. Even though there are times when Bob wanted to get his bat in the lineup, Landon's body wouldn't allow him to. One of the things we're going to focus on with Landon is making sure he's as physically prepared as possibly to handle even more than he has. But we see it as a good problem to have. To be able to put in a catcher behind Kurt who has the ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark but is also a good defensive catcher is a great luxury to have. But the fact is, and you alluded to this, Kurt Suzuki is one of the top catchers in the game. Not only that but he's very much become a leader on the team so he's going to get the bulk of time, yet we are aware of the amount of production Landon has given us in his brief amount of time. I think the goal is ultimately to get him more at bats, but for the time being, Kurt is going to get the bulk of them. Part of Landon's responsibility is to make sure he can handle more playing time than he has because that hasn't always been the case this year.
Blez: When someone like Rajai Davis has what looks like a "career year," how do you assess whether a reasonable projection for next year is more like what he's doing, or more like what he's done before? How does the team go about trying to figure this out?
Beane: In some sense you have to take it at face value. He was with Pittsburgh and then San Francisco and now us. He's never really been given a full blown opportunity to prove himself as an everyday player and now that he is putting up the numbers he is, the first question is, can he keep this up? But if you go back and look at what Raj did in the minor leagues, he was a good minor league hitter so it shouldn't come as a total shock. You're not talking about a guy who was a .220 hitter in the minor leagues. He was a good player when he played. Right now we just see it as a guy who has hit well in the minors who has finally been given the opportunity and is carrying it forward. We're going to enjoy it and go with it and try not to overthink. Anyone who has seen Raj with us over the last year and three quarters, when he's played, he's played well. He's one of the unique major league players who continues to just get better. We're going to take it at face value and he's done enough to show that he's a good enough player to play every day at center field. He's such a weapon on the base paths and he gives you such a unique dynamic. If you look at the stolen bases he's had without even having a full season, it isn't out of the question that next year you could see stealing 65-70 bases.
Blez: You reference stolen bases and obviously it's something that has changed quite a bit about the A's. I think you're in the top three in stolen bases and Raj is one of the league leaders in that number and he really makes the overall team number larger. Did you make a decision to be more aggressive on the base paths because of the lack of power? Did you think, we've got to get some offense some way?
Beane: I really think it's Bob (Geren) trying to take the personnel he has and trying to do the best he can with it. He's playing to the strengths. We don't have a lot of power and it's certainly something in order to be a more complete offensive team it's something we need to get. In a perfect world you have both guys who can steal bases and guys who can hit it out of the ballpark. As much as anything, it's Bob really trying to take advantage of what he has. Early in the year we were having trouble scoring runs and he wanted to create a mindset of being aggressive and when you have a guy like Raj doing it the way he's doing it, it has a tendency of rubbing off on everybody. There's a sense of confidence guys have when they get on the bases and they look to steal bases. They're looking for that steal sign. It also has a carryover effect with the rest of the base running. We've been by and large a very good baserunning team and it was just a matter of Bob looking at his personnel and he thought that this is what we're going to have to do to scrape some runs out. The second half we've actually swung the bats really well also and if you combine that with the aggressive baserunning, that's why you're seeing a lot higher run totals. The one thing it really has done is just given the guys a more aggressive mindset. They realize they're not going to win a whole lot of ballgames by getting into home run hitting contests. I give a lot of credit to Bob and his staff as they've really scratched and clawed their way through nine innings of these games.
Blez: Two questions. Do you believe in that the stolen bases must be a 75 percent success rate or higher or it's counterproductive and second of all, do you believe that someone like Rajai Davis actually puts additional pressure on the pitcher? The assumption is that the opposition pitcher somehow loses that concentration because they're so worried about the baserunner stealing.
Beane: There is no question that if a guy like Raj gets on base, everyone is aware that he is on base and there is going to be some adjustments to how quickly the pitcher might deliver the pitch and the catcher might call for a different pitch than he otherwise would. So the game calling might change as well. I'm sure you could quantify it. I'm not aware of exactly how to, but you can certainly tell from a game situation how teams react differently if you're willing to steal a base so I do think it does have an impact. The Angels have certainly done that for years and I think it's had an impact on how teams play them. It creates a tense situation for not just pitchers and catchers but defenders because they have to come up with a perfect play. As far as the rate, there is certainly a point where if you're constantly running and constantly getting thrown out it's definitely having an adverse impact and the demarcation line certainly seems to be around that 70 percent area. You also have to keep in mind that it doesn't take into account some of the things teams are doing to adjust to a team that runs a lot.
Blez: Do you think that the stolen base has become a bit of an unvalued commodity in baseball considering how few there are now, especially in the American League, compared to years past?
Beane: What I think I've noticed more than anything is that a lot of the teams that are running have sophisticated coaching staffs and sophisticated ways to apply the running game, and I might not be accurate and this is just my impression, but those teams seem to be successful more often. The percentage at which they are stealing bases just seems to be higher.
Blez: The Rays are a good example from last year.
Beane: The Red Sox, who historically haven't been a running team the last few years, specifically with (Jacoby) Ellsbury at the top of their lineup. Yet they also seem to steal at a very high rate too. I think everyone is just trying to take advantage by making a percentage play as well. That's why the success rate seems higher. It just seems very much a part of the strategy as opposed to just indiscriminate running for the sake of doing it.
Blez: We talked about Raj and his career year. This is similar to that. Does Daric Barton seem like he's finally arrived or do you need to see more than a month of red-hot hitting, especially given that he's done that before?
Beane: I knew I'd forget somebody earlier and Daric has, certainly this last month, been swinging the bat the way we knew he could and very similarly to the first month he came to the big leagues a couple of years ago. One thing to keep in mind with Daric is that he's still extremely young. He came up at an age when many kids are still in college. He needs to be given the benefit of time and we need to do that. Through no fault of his own, he's had a few nicks here and there that have kind of interrupted his development. The biggest thing is this guy has been a very, very good minor league hitter and at times has shown that he can be a very good major league hitter. With young players, you just can't expect they're always going to be Andrew Bailey where they step on a mound and they never look back. Daric's development path is not unlike a lot of successful major leaguers where he shows you something and maybe he goes through some difficult times. That just means we have to be patient and hope that the guy that you saw in the minor leagues ultimately becomes that guy at the major leagues. This last month Daric has made some huge strides and we're not just excited about next year, but the next five or six years. The other thing you can't forget about Daric is how good a defender he has become. This is a converted catcher in the minor leagues. He's become a very good defensive first baseman, not just with the glove, but when needed, he throws very well from that position too. We're excited and it's great to see. We've always had high hopes for Daric particularly after that first month at the big leagues. He's one of the reasons we've played so well.
Blez: Staying with the first baseman theme, you have Barton, Doolittle and Carter as potential first basemen, but Doolittle and Carter also have some OF experience. What does the first base depth chart look like right now, and which of the players might be more likely to end up elsewhere on the field?
Beane: It's a question we may face and face very soon. We played Chris Carter a little in the outfield in Double-A. He's a good athlete. In a perfect world, all those guys become very good major league hitters and you have to find a spot for them. It potentially is something we're going to face. We're going to have to make a decision and it will be made on production first and foremost. Secondly, as you mentioned, it might be based on somebody's ability to play another position. In Chris' case we started to play him some in the outfield and I've even talked to his agent as he's going to play winter ball in Mexico and we've talked about getting him out there as much as possible because we think he's a good enough athlete to do it. We were doing the same with Doolittle in Triple A this year before he had the knee issue. It is definitely something as we go into the offseason and spring training we're going to have to prepare for.
Blez: Would the power potential for the position have a big deciding difference in who you play at first base? It's obviously still a concern with Daric because he hasn't put up much in terms of power numbers, but Carter has and Doolittle has some pop as well. Or do you maybe weigh the defense first?
Beane: Being a regular major league baseball player, the player brings a lot of elements: it's his baserunning, it's his fielding, it's his power, it's his ability to hit for average and it's when you add those things together usually one player is going to be better than the other even if he's deficient in one area because he may do one thing very well. It's not something we have to answer yet and it's definitely getting closer. We think all these guys are major league players, it's just about finding a spot for them.
Blez: What will most determine the timeline for when Chris Carter is called up to Oakland? Could he win a job out of spring training if he looks ready?
Beane: It's probably a little early to answer that. The only thing I'll say is that we wanted to give Chris some time at Triple-A and give him some confidence going into next year thinking he's seen the highest level of the minors and he could perform there. I think he did a great job in the few weeks he was there. It's just too early to answer that. I don't like creating definites at this point when you don't need to. A player usually decides when he's ready for the major leagues by performing at the highest level and at that point there's nowhere for him to go but up. Some of these guys are getting close to that.
Blez: Based on what you have seen so far, what's the current thinking on Brett Wallace's chances of being a major league every day third baseman?
Beane: We're going to leave Brett over there. He's played one full season, a total of a season and a half of professional baseball as he's moved very, very quickly because of his bat. We're going to give him the benefit of some time over there defensively and particularly given the long-term need we're going to have at that position, it would behoove us to give him every opportunity to give him the development time defensively to see if he can play the position because it would definitely be a great fit if he can play third base in the big leagues based on the personnel we have here and have coming up. It would be absolutely perfect. Especially given that Chavy (Eric Chavez) is coming into the last year of his contract, the chance that Brett with some further refining would be a very nice fit for us there long term. I guess the question is, is it still a work in progress? And we're going to give him every opportunity to prove he can play that position.
Blez: What do you do about third base, at least short term? I'm not even sure where Eric Chavez stands at this point or if he's a part of the conversation. I've read reports that he could do permanent damage to himself if he plays again. Where does Eric stand right now?
Beane: From a rehab standpoint, he's doing very well. The good thing about him having surgery when he did is that when we get into the offseason, he should have as normal an offseason as any other player. He should be able to start resuming normal baseball activities when everyone else starts. The time that he's had has been good. I think we have to be realistic including Eric because he's faced a number of surgeries and he's been more disappointed than anyone that he hasn't been able to come back completely. We have to be realistic on him coming back and have some short-term preparation as it applies to that position going into next year. I also think that Eric, given his talent level, deserves the respect and the opportunity to get healthy and given the opportunity to get back to doing what he does best. In short, we're going to try to prepare for both sides of the equation.
Blez: Where does Travis Buck stand with the team now as he seems to be caught in an almost purgatory state now between Triple-A and being up with the team but not really seeing much regular playing time? Is it the type of thing where he needs to get in there for a while to get his confidence back as he's seemed to have hit well in Triple-A?
Beane: The one thing about major league baseball is that it's pretty Darwinian. If you hit, you're going to play. Raj is probably the best example of that. When Raj got a chance to play he hit. Since he's been playing, he's looked around saying I'm not going to let anyone else play because I know I have to perform here in order to keep myself in the lineup. Most recently, Ryan Sweeney has done the same thing. With all players, not just Travis, it's ultimately going to be based on performance. Travis has had a couple of years in a row, unfortunately, where he's had concussions that haven't enabled him to even play regularly at Triple A. He's missed some time there because of these injuries. We still think very highly of Travis for the same reasons that most people did when he first came up. We think he's got the talent to be a good major league player. At this point it's when he's given the chance he has to take advantage of it and ultimately hopefully avoiding some of those injuries he's had the last couple of years. But we still think very highly of him and one of the best things about Travis is that when he first came up one of the areas we wanted him to work on was his defense and that was addressed to him and he did. He's improved significantly in the outfield and it was an area of weakness when he first came up. Ultimately when he gets to this level it will be based on performance.
Coming tomorrow: Beane delves into the pitching, the status of the injured A's pitchers and how he sees 2010 shaping up.