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In Billy We Trust: Billy Beane Visits Athletics Nation Part One

Billy Beane. He's the star of a bestselling book. He's viewed as a maverick GM and he's been a lightning rod for controversy since Moneyball was published. But ultimately, Billy Beane makes the decisions for the team that we all follow so passionately, and he is the one that makes many of say, "In Billy We Trust" whenever the team goes awry. He makes us believe we have a chance year in and year out, despite the significant odds stacked against us.

Mr. Beane agreed to be interviewed for Athletics Nation on Saturday, August 14th and answered questions about the current state of the team, future contract talks with the Big Three and the Moneyball backlash.

Below is the first part of what will likely be a multi-part interview (I'm not sure if it will be two or three parts yet). This first part deals largely with the current state of our Athletics.

Blez: First of all, I want to thank you for being progressive enough to sit down and spend time with someone running a blog.

Billy Beane: Well, I appreciate you having the blog.

Blez: Let me start off by asking how you feel about the 2004 season so far. Are you happy with where the team is right now? Do you think that they've over or under performed?

BB: That's an interesting question because last night I was really unhappy we got beat and lost three in a row, but to keep it in perspective, this is probably the most resilient group we've ever had. I say this on August 14th. We've never had the injuries we've had. We're always having the defections with great players like Tejada, Giambi, Damon and the list goes on. But this the first year that we've had core players injured for as long as they've been out. Chavy being out for five and a half weeks. Hudson being out for nearly six weeks. We've lost Arthur. Ellis loses the whole year. These things have never really happened to us. We've had nicks like any other major league team, but never had these kinds of injuries. We've had teams where we've struggled so mightily in the first month of the season and then we've played at a ridiculous level. This team has been in a steady climb like a nice S&P 500 stock. They've kept their wits about them through it. It is definitely a different team. And I like this team. I was listening to the game on the radio coming out here to Sacramento today and if you look at the RBIs on the team it's nicely distributed. You've got Kotsay with over 50 RBIs on the top, Damian Miller down there with 50 RBIs.

Blez: That leads nicely into my next question. When you picked up those two guys in particular, did you ever expect to get what you've got? I mean you're really good at evaluating talent, but those two have been remarkable.

BB: We knew it was going to be tough to replace a guy like Ramon, but when we looked at Damian, we looked at his career averages, rather than just one year. The year he had last year was really the low point for him. We were sort of hoping he'd hit around .265, .270 and he's always been a great defensive catcher and one of the top guys throwing runners out. So he's probably exceeded a little offensively and has been as advertised defensively. As for Mark, we've always loved Kotsay, going back to his college days. We wanted to draft the kid coming out of college. When he was in Florida, we tried to get him in a McGwire deal back in 97. The deal we made with San Diego took two minutes because Kevin Towers knew how much we've loved Kotsay. He's one of those players that you just don't appreciate until you see him play every day. We knew when we traded Ramon and heard, "What are you doing, what are you doing?"

Blez: And Ramon was a fan favorite.

BB: Yes he was, and a great catcher. And he was the first of the core guys who came up that we actually traded. But we knew once people got to see Mark on an everyday basis that they'd be happy, and I think that's happened. They had someone write an article the other day that said that this is the best centerfielder the A's have had since they've been in Oakland. I'm not sure that that's not true. You talk about everything he does in the game. He hit his 11th home run the other day.

Blez: Not to mention his defense.

BB: That's another thing. Defensively, if you see Mark every day, you realize just how good he is. He's not going to be on ESPN all the time because he's such a fundamentally sound player. A key point about Mark is that the players around him are better because there is never any confusion on pop-ups. Whenever he's coming in to get a ball, the infielders know when it's his ball, and we've had a lot of mistakes with that the last couple of years. We've always liked him, we always thought he was a good player, but did we expect him to hit .320? Probably not. But the fact remains and we're not going to be sheepish in saying that the industry knew we loved this player. He was the first guy Kevin offered when he wanted Ramon.

Blez: You successfully signed Eric Chavez to a long-term deal before the season started and there was a lot of speculation that the front office had always targeted Chavez as the man to sign when you were mapping down the road with Giambi and Tejada's negotiations. First of all, is that the case, and second, do you have a similar plan on which pitchers to target out of the Big Three?

BB: To answer the first part of the question, talking about Giambi, Tejada and Chavy, I'm not sure if there was any owner who could afford to keep all three of them.

Blez: Not even Steinbrenner?

BB: I'm not even sure they could. One of the things that went into the decision was eliminating one of the options. A shortstop and a third baseman at that age are a much better risk to take if you're going to sign. Miguel's a marvelous player and we miss him now. He's such a marvelous personality. But we had Bobby Crosby coming and Bobby Crosby is only 24 years old. People forget that Eric Chavez is only 26 years old. So you look at the age and when he was contracted and take into account that as long as his contract is, he's only going to be 32 when the contract is up. In the case of Jason, Jason was 31 the first time he was a free agent. There is something to be said for age and injuries. And what's difficult is that if you sign a player to a big contract, if they've not playing and they're hurt, then that's money lost. So we had to make sure we were getting the most bang for the buck and Eric seemed to be the guy. When it comes to the three pitchers, we're not nearly as brilliant with that plan because I'm not sure what the answer is. In a perfect world, you'd have all three but this isn't a perfect world and in Oakland we're far from reaching an average payroll which would allow us to keep a lot of players. But you know, Huddy's the first one up. I think that we anticipate having some discussion with Timmy. We've had informal discussions. He's really been the heart and soul of this pitching staff, not just with what he's done on the field but also as a team leader. Sometimes, you may want to sign all three, but you may only get one. There's a lot of things that will play out over time that will determine that, but Timmy is the first one up, so I anticipate that we'll have some discussions with him this winter.

Blez: What about Barry Zito's struggles this year? Do you have any theories or thoughts? It's incredibly frustrating for the fans who really want him to succeed and reclaim the form that the theories fly regularly about why the struggles occur.

BB: Barry is as good a guy as you're going to find, and because he's such a great guy and so many people want to give him advice, he doesn't want to hurt any feelings, so he takes all that advice. That's a credit to his character and the type of person he is than when you're better off to just kind of getting down to the basics. But to pitch at the level that Barry has pitched at the past couple of years, a Cy Young Award winner and one of the best young lefthanders in the game, it isn't unusual for someone to go through this at some point in his career. I remember Glavine in Atlanta in 1992, he went through a similar thing. He's had some very good games this season and some not so good. But I still think we're banking on him and our thought is that this is only a blip on the screen.

Blez: That's a nice lead-in for my trade-deadline question. For the first first time in a couple of years, you didn't do anything at the deadline. Did you ever consider moving Barry Zito? And were there any deals that were close to fruition for you?

BB: We never considered moving Barry, it was more press talk and a case of some teams having some wishful thinking and it's normal. They sometimes see a guy struggle and then see it as an opportunity and the rumors start coming out of other markets. But we never even considered trading him because he's been a critical part of our success. If we've been in first place with the way he's struggled up to this point, our feeling is once he gets going that we're going to be that much better. As far as other trades, we knew that when we addressed the bullpen situation with Dotel that that was going to probably be our one big swing of the bat. We did have some initial discussions about certain players on other teams, and I'm not really at liberty to say because they are still with those other teams, but it wasn't a particularly great trade market. There were a lot of buyers and not a lot of sellers because so many teams were at or above .500. I think Brian Sabean made a good point in saying that this was a good year to have the deadline pushed back to August 31. Long term I still like July 31st, I'm not sure I don't disagree with him that this would be the one year that if you were looking at the trade market now, you'd have a different market than you would've a couple of weeks ago.

Blez: You've still got the waiver wire deadline coming up. Are you still looking?

BB: That's still a possibility, but the ones who usually get through the wire aren't usually the ones you can afford. The ones that get claimed are the ones that most teams can afford. So even though you can usually do some deals now, they are usually high salaried players in many cases and ones that our franchise can't take on.

Blez: How would you grade Ken Macha's job this year?

BB: I would go back to the team and the resiliency of the team. I mean we've had some great years under Art, but neither myself nor Art ever had to deal with the stuff that Kenny has had to deal with this year. Couple that with the fact that he's got a new pitching coach, losing a great pitching coach in Rick Peterson and with Curt Young coming up to experience his first year here, I think he's done a marvelous job. But Kenny is so well prepared, which is really his strength. When he came in, he had a pretty good team but it's one thing to have a good team, it's another thing altogether to get something out of it. There are a lot of teams coming into the season with a good team, but you don't expect to lose your best players and do what he's done. I couldn't be more happy with the job that he's done.

Up Next: Moneyball talk...