The A's had an interesting year in 2005. They weren't supposed to get that good, that quickly. Yet they did after an abysmal start to the season. The A's were one of the hottest team in the majors for a month and a half.
Now, the A's quickly went from a team that, in many of the mainstream media's comments, was dismantling to a team that very well could be the favorite in the American League in 2006.
Billy Beane recently sat down with me to discuss everything from Zito trade rumors to the offseason thus far. This is the first part of our conversation.
Blez: Before we get into anything else, I want to start with a somewhat personal topic because it's been on my mind since the news was announced. How do you feel about the news about Paul DePodesta?
Billy Beane: Obviously as a friend of his and somebody that I'm very close to and have a lot of respect for, it's very disappointing. This is a very highly competitive business.
Blez: Do you think it was fair?
Beane: It's not for me to judge. Any opinion I have would be subjective and it wouldn't be fair. It's a highly competitive business and becoming a general manager in a large, competitive market like that has situations that you don't have in other places. It's disappointing because he's a very close friend, but once again, he's well-aware of the competitiveness out there. He'll land on his feet because he's just an extremely, extremely bright young man.
Blez: Speaking of landing on his feet, have you been in contact with him about possibly coming back here? I know you probably feel you can never have too many smart people in one place.
Beane: Yeah, that's right, but Paul's second child is due in a couple of weeks. I know right now, he's just into his wife Karen and his son Trevor and anticipating that (the birth of the second child). He's spending a lot of time preparing for that. So I think the best thing is to hope for a healthy baby.
Blez: He having a boy or girl?
Beane: Don't know yet. He waited on Trevor, his son, and I believe he and his wife Karen are waiting on this one as well.
Blez: That kind of complicates buying baby gifts, huh?
Beane: Yeah, I always tell him that too. I ask him why he doesn't find out because you're just as excited the moment you find out as you would be when the baby is born.
Blez: It's funny because he's been painted as such a "tech guy." Interesting that he wouldn't take advantage of that technology. Maybe he's not the way the media portrayed him in LA.
Beane: I know. When my daughter was born, I definitely wanted to find out and it was no less exciting, but to each his own. But I think he's just getting his bearings and getting ready for that.
Blez: Let's look back at 2005 for a second. Tell me your thoughts about how 2005 went.
Beane: I think it was satisfying to some extent, but I also think it was frustrating because it was one of those, "what could have been" years. In one sense, we had the youngest team which should have lent itself to an injury-free team, but it turned out that we had one of the worst injury seasons we've had since I've been here and this is my 18th year. In a macro-sense and looking at it overall, we achieved what we wanted to achieve. That was to become a younger team, and this next statement is kind of redundant from me, but whose future was brighter than its past. I think we achieved that. I think we couldn't be more excited about how the young guys came in and established themselves. This was probably the biggest influx of young players we've had since 98.
Blez: Yeah, with the four rookies.
Beane: Yeah with Swish (Nick Swisher), Huston (Street), DJ (Dan Johnson) and Joe Blanton. For them to come in and become major league players the way they did, it's just a great testament to Eric Kubota, Chris Pittaro, Keith Lieppman and the whole gang down there. But looking back, it was tough not having Croz (Bobby Crosby) for the two stints we missed him and only having Rich Harden for 19 starts. May was just such a disaster, injury-wise. You say, well, what could have been. That being said, Anaheim deserved to win the division and it was nice to know that given all the changes that we were a team that was able to at least be a team that people had to think about.
Blez: For the second year in a row, the team started slowly and you mentioned the May injuries and that obviously had a lot to do with it, but it got hot in the middle. At one point, I believe the A's and Houston were the two hottest teams in the majors. Then it seemed to fizzle in the end, which was almost identical to what happened in 2004.
Beane: In 2004, I think we were just a dog-tired team. And I was very proud of that season because the guys played hard until their tongues were hanging out. We just didn't have a lot of depth. Kenny (Macha) didn't have a lot of options other than the starting nine that we kept running out there. Last year, I can almost point to the day or the series when it changed. We went into Baltimore and we were on a roll. We ended sweeping them, I think in four games. That's the same weekend we ended up hearing about Rich Harden's injury in his lat. Bobby (Crosby) had the fracture in his ankle. And then Kotsay's back flared up on that Monday. Those are three critical, critical players. We then went to Anaheim, and won the first game on a homerun by Bobby Kielty. But, that was the same day we heard that Rich was going to be out for a while, Kots was going to have to go back to Oakland and Bobby had a fracture. It was one of the few times, even me, myself, I was sitting in the locker room in Anaheim and I heard all these three things, 1, 2, 3, and I knew it was going to be tough. It was too much talent lost to overcome and the guys had overcome so much from May, that I knew it was going to be a real struggle from that point forward. It's one thing to have an injury and a team psyche if they know that they'll return in a couple of days, or even a week. But with all three of these guys? We had no idea. I mean, we knew that with Bobby's fracture, it was a minimum of three weeks. Minimum. And that was best case scenario. Rich, I mean the thing about a pitcher losing time is that a position player can get back quickly, once he's healthy. A pitcher loses work. So the idea of losing a starting pitcher, and each week that he was going to be gone, we knew that it was going to be that much more difficult for him to return as a starter. So, for 2004, in my opinion, it was a team that played with their tongues hanging out. In 2005, it was just to me that weekend. It was that Saturday when Croz slid into home. Looking back at that there are a few "what if's". I think we won that game by quite a few runs and it was like "if I had taken that run right off the board..." I mean, I think Jay Payton might have singled him home and being in Anaheim and being excited for that series, even though that was a tremendous win that night on Tuesday, you still felt that there was so much wind taken from our sails because we had already gone through this in May and to go through it again, it was just going to be too difficult.
Blez: Sounds like the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.
Beane: Yeah, it really was. It was almost like a bittersweet win that night. I mean, it was so exciting when Bobby (Kielty) hit the homerun off Rodriguez. But then we knew that the next day, we were going to have to, I mean, the team had gone through so much in May, and then to have those 3 players go down. I mean, like you said, we didn't have a return date in sight, that was really tough. That's my opinion as to why you didn't see the continuation on the roll.
Blez: You brought up Rich and in terms of talking about Rich, how concerned are you about his health, going into 2006?
Beane: You know, you get more concerned particularly with a pitcher about his elbow, shoulder injuries. But with Rich, it was primarily muscle injuries. He had ribcage. He had lat, deep in the muscle. Those are things that just happened. Usually, they don't happen to young guys, but it's just one of those things. Rich does as much as anybody to prepare himself for the season. He's a work-out maniac. He leaves no stone unturned with his flexibility and strength. It just happened. It happened twice in one year. The good thing about Rich is that his arm is in great shape. It's like Bobby (Crosby), his two injuries this year were impact injuries. He gets hit in the rib in spring training and cracks a rib and like he always does, plays his rear-end off and barrels into a catcher and fractures his ankle. Those are just random acts that are not due to players' fragility.
Blez: Are you going to tell Rich that he needs to keep his alarm clock on a certain side?
Beane: Yeah, I mean, injuries are part of the game and as a front office, you can't just be some Pollyanna and think that, "Hey, we're never going to get hurt." But they will have an impact on a season. As much as any season we've had since I've been here, I think that they had a huge impact on what happened last year. Maybe I'm a bit too subjective on that, but I think you can point to help and success and point to having injuries and struggling. There's a common thread here.
Blez: You're getting a little bit ahead of me here. Those questions will come later. (laughs)
Beane: You see, I'm trying to be efficient. I'm trying to squeeze this into a really quick interview by covering all points you have. We're all about efficiency. (laughs)
Blez: I was going to say, that's something that I'm going to talk about a little later on, because I think you've got quite a lot of depth for this upcoming season. But, let me just ask you quickly, trying to wrap up 2005. How surprised were you at how quickly some of the young pitchers were able to advance and excel at the major league level? I'm talking about the Danny Haren in a consistent starting role, Joe Blanton, Huston Street.
Beane: Well in Dan's case, we felt that of all the guys he was the most prepared to come in and take on a full season. He had a little bit more experience that the other two. He pitched in the post-season. So he didn't totally surprise me. Huston and Joe, I mean we felt that they were going to be outstanding major league pitchers, but I don't think I can sit here and say that I thought that Huston was going to turn into this type of closer as quickly as he did. Joe, even more so. Joe's turnaround of the season is remarkable. The way he pitched from June 1st on was like a different pitcher. I don't know that I've ever seen a young guy mature into a major league pitcher so quickly. I mean, he went from a guy that struggled in May, I mean, I can remember the Tampa game where I don't think he even got an out, maybe one out and 10 runs and in a couple of weeks from that point, he pitches like one of the best pitchers in the game for the rest of the season, I mean, it was amazing. He's a tough kid. Joe is an interesting kid. He comes from the minor leagues with a reputation. Joe doesn't say two words. He's a very quiet, serious guy and I think that this sort of mentality really helped him. I don't think that at any one point Joe ever doubted himself. He has a linebacker's mentality on the mound. He's a quiet guy off the field, but an aggressive pitcher on the mound and the belief is that he took this year and I don't think any of us expected it and I think it's a real testament. Him and Curt Young. Because Curt has done a great job with these young guys. Curt has got such a great demeanor. I think his relationship with these young players, every player actually, but particularly the young players. He's so protective of them. He's so protective of their performance and with these young guys, there's a sense of confidence that they draw knowing that Curt is in their corner. And he did such an unbelievable job with these guys. But, with that being said, when it comes to pro sports-- whether it's the general manager or anybody, I always say that when the players do it, they deserve the credit and Joe deserves the most credit in this situation.
Blez: A lot of critics have said that you got lucky to catch lightning in a bottle when you brought up Hudson, Mulder and Zito in that span. Did lightning strike twice?
Beane: In some sense, we did. I mean, drafting and developing players is not an exact science and when you mention those three, it's almost historic. I always say that I'm the luckiest GM in the world to have his career start out with those three guys and you can keep going with Miguel (Tejada) and Eric and the guys that we've had. I've been very fortunate to be sitting in this chair when they've come up. As far as lightning striking twice, you need to be careful in making comparisons. What I like about this group here is that it's a different group. Different personalities. Even in some sense, you're never going to have a guy like Hudson come up and go 11-1 right out of the minor leagues. Or a guy like Zito come in and strike out the side with bases loaded in his first major league game against the Angels. Mark (Mulder) struggled a little his first year. But these guys came up, had their struggles, but they really recovered quickly. That's what is truly unique about these guys. Huston, from day one was good and in Joe's case, it's almost like he crammed the whole rookie year in a month, then became a veteran. Swish, the same thing. DJ (Dan Johnson), once he started playing, performed remarkably. It would be great if they were able to duplicate what some of those guys did, but, it's still early to make that comparison. The credit goes back to the scouting department and player development, that they're able to recreate the good major league players with the rate that they have.
Blez: So much was being made of the Ken Macha situation, he was gone then he was back. How did the whole thing evolve from your perspective?
Beane: Well, first and foremost, I couldn't be more thrilled that he's back. That was sort of a little business blip that comes into it. It was on the radar screen, a little bit. In some cases, there can be miscommunication and the fact of the matter is that it was only that. It was just a few days and ultimately we were able to work it out so that both parties were satisfied and I couldn't be more excited. To know that Kenny, who's been here for years as a bench coach, three years as a manager, and with the team that we have coming back, the continuity, I just think it lends itself to the best situation possible for us and I believe Kenny is really happy. There is a sense of relief with the team that's been put together that there is an experienced, accomplished guy who knows these players, who the players know, who they like and I would be a little bit uncomfortable to break somebody new in if that were the case. So, I think that we're very fortunate to have Kenny back. We're both very excited about it.
Blez: When he stepped aside, how close were you to hiring a new manager? Was it a matter of going through that whole process and realizing, "Well, maybe we did have the best guy," and Kenny sort of being on the other end, being out there and talking to people and realizing that there wasn't too much available?
Beane: I don't think it was so much just that. We had only just started the process. We were never down the road to the point where we were even felt like we can even evaluate who could work. It was sort of, in some sense eliminate the middle man. The fact of the matter is, as far as my feelings, and I think Kenny's feelings, it sort of provided the opportunity to say, "Hey, you were the guy we always wanted back" and for him to say, "This is where I always wanted to be." It really just solidified what both parties said previous to the negotiations. As far as the process, once again, we weren't nearly far enough along to make evaluations on those guys. As I said when we were discussing it with my front office staff, "This guy was the right guy a week ago and he's the right guy now." It just made total sense to us, and as I said, I sit here very happy and excited that he's back and we'll continue on with what we've started.
Blez: You've also, during this off season, have hired Dave Hudgens' replacement. Does Perry have a much different approach in being a hitting coach than Hudgens did?
Beane: I'm a big Dave Hudgens fan and Dave has been in this organization for a number of years and I had so much confidence that we brought him back twice. So as a general manager, I'm partially responsible for that. I think, unfairly, too much responsibility is placed on the coach for their performance sometimes. But it's a very difficult, highly-competitive business. A coach is really at the mercy of the talent the front office puts out there in many cases and I'm cognizant of that. But, I think also, at times, what's really important when it comes to the coaching staff is not just their work ethic or the knowledge of the game and the thoughts that they implement, but also the personality. Sometimes, just to change the mix and create a different attitude is something you like to bring in and I actually played against Gerald coming up and he's a no-nonsense guy and he comes with a great reputation, wherever he's been. Jason (Kendall) has had him in Pittsburgh and has spoken very highly of him and everyone who has been under him as a hitter or someone he coaches spoke very, very highly of him. Kenny has a background with him in the Red Sox organization. I felt that he was a good fit here. He's got major league experience, which a lot of times with a major league hitter, when a guy is struggling, they like to know that the guy that's working with him has been in the same shoes that they have been in that time. Sometimes you get better reception from players when they know the coach has been there. Whether it's fair or not, I'm not here to say. I just think at times it does have an impact.
Blez: Talk about the A's minor league clubs for a few minutes. The Rockhounds wound up Texas League champs. The Sacramento team ran away with the division and made the playoffs again. Stockton also had a great first season as an affiliate. How important is winning as a part of the organization in your estimation?
Beane: It's huge. It's something we demand. Keith (Lieppman) demands it. Winning is a habit, in my opinion. And losing is a habit. Our philosophy is that this is a team game. The one statistic shows it's a team game is team wins. If you emphasize just purely individual development, I think in many cases what you're doing is creating a situation where a player might know he's the one prospect on the team and when he gets here, that mentality is established that it's about me and not about the team. I think there is something to say about guys even being in minor league playoffs. You know, having them in situations where doing things to help the team are important. It was something I learned coming up with the New York Mets in the 80s. Those minor league teams won everywhere. So when most of those guys got to the major leagues the expectation was they were going to win there. Now whether it's true or not, I don't know, that's my only guide of reference. But it was something that I felt was important when I got in the GM office. We tried to carry it over the last decade and I think it has had an impact. You take a guy like Eric Chavez. The worst year Eric has ever had in the big leagues is 87 wins. That's saying something because Eric came up in a minor league system that won. He demands a lot of himself, but he also demands a lot of the team. It's nice to know that after 88 wins last year, that's a disappointment because the guys are used to playing into October or in the minor leagues, September. I do think it creates a positive mentality and feeling throughout the organization. Every win you get always makes you feel good and I do think it's contagious.
Blez: What about some of the young kids that you drafted this past year and are now going through the system? Kids like Italiano, what has their first experience of pro ball been like? Did you like what you saw from them?
Beane: Actually we took a bit of a different approach to the draft this past year. We stayed similar to sort of our past draft patterns by getting Pennington and Buck, both high-profile college kids. They both went out and got out of the box great. But then we also went out and felt the need to augment our pitching. We have some good young pitching here, but injuries will tell you, along with the defections that have happened here, that you can never have enough of it. We just felt like there was a lot of value in the high school pitcher and that's why we drafted so many after that round. As far as their experience and our evaluation of that draft, I think we were very excited about the kids we got. As far as raw ability, this is as good a group of power arms as we've had in a long, long time. We've had a tendency of drafting the very polished college pitcher and we've had success doing that, we just didn't feel like those guys were out there when we were drafting this year. At the end of the day, going to instruction league, the group of arms we had were the best in years.
Blez: Did the fact that some of the pitchers you have here are so young and locked up for a while allow you to think more long-term?
Beane: Yes, it did, but that wasn't necessarily the reason because if we felt that there were guys who were only a year away, we still would've taken them because having guys beating on the door to get to the big leagues isn't a problem either. We just felt the talent available to us was better at the high school level in those rounds than it was at the college level.
Blez: Is there any particular name you picked that you thought, wow, this is a steal at whatever pick you got them at?
Beane: Well, I always hate to single out too much. But there are guys who have certainly performed to expectations such as the Penningtons and the Bucks. But there are a couple of kids. The kid (Jason) Ray that we took. (James) Shull and the kid (Michael) Madsen out of Ohio State. They're a little farther down and didn't get as much publicity as some of the high schoolers, but those are some of the kids who really impressed us the first year.
Coming next: Billy comments on Frank Thomas, Milton Bradley, Esteban Loaiza and this offseason.