It's a small world, after all. As the A's front office begins the day today in the Happiest Place on Earth at the annual GM meetings which often lays the groundwork for any trades and/or signings the A's have planned, I figured what better way to celebrate than with an interview with one of AN's favorite columnists, Mr. Rob Neyer.
Neyer writes pretty much the only column on ESPN.com that's worth purchasing the insider access for. It was a dark day in my life when ESPN decided to put Rob behind the pay wall. Regardless, he's a unicorn when it comes to mainstream press in that he actually understands what Billy Beane is trying to do when he does it. I never thought I'd see one and then Neyer came and revived my faith in the baseball press. He and Peter Gammons remain the main reason that ESPN hasn't completely disappeared off my cable box (Neyer's ESPNEWS chats with Brian Kenny are worth the price of admission).
Without further ado, here is AN's first visit with the talented Mr. Neyer.
Blez: Were you surprised that the A's were finally able to advance in the playoffs?
Rob Neyer: Sure. But not because they're the A's (who never advanced before). But rather because I thought this particularly team was not particularly good, and (in my mind) clearly inferior to the Twins.
Blez: The Tigers swept aside the A's relatively easily in the ALCS. Was Detroit that much better?
Neyer: Yeah, I think they were. At least they played better during the season. Leaving aside the wins and losses, the Tigers outscored their opponents by 147 runs; the A's theirs by 44 runs. That's a huge difference. The Tigers were fifth in offense, first in defense; the A's were ninth in offense, third in defense. The A's played in a pretty good division; the Tigers played in the best division. By any reasonable, 2006-centric standards, it was a mismatch on paper. All that said, the entire baseball world doesn't spin around 2006; what happened in 2005 and 2004 (etc.) has some relevance, too. And the difference between these two teams on a sort of fundamental, theoretical level probably wasn't as large as the 2006 stats suggest.
Blez: How big of a loss do you think Frank Thomas is and do you think the A's will land Barry Bonds as his replacement, as has been rumored?
Neyer: I don't think the A's can afford Bonds, who probably will make a lot more money in 2007 than the A's were willing to spend on Thomas. Will Thomas be missed? Of course. But he wouldn't have duplicated his 2006 performance in 2007, anyway. It would have been nice to have him back on the cheap, like last season. But realistically the A's would have been looking to replace some of his production whether he was on the roster or not.
Blez: How big will it be for the A's to lose Barry Zito?
Neyer: As much as anything, it's the innings. I believe Zito's never missed a turn in the rotation? (They must talk about this on the air just about every time he pitches.) No matter who replaces Zito in the rotation, he won't replace Zito's 230-odd innings every season, and that puts pressure on not only the bullpen, but also the manager, the pitching coach, and the front office. Obviously it's impossible to pinpoint the intangible value of Zito's durability, but I have little doubt that it's real.
Blez: Any thoughts on the A's hiring Bob Geren over the other viable candidates Billy Beane interviewed?
Neyer: Not really. I like that Geren is relatively young, and I like that he's managed in the minor leagues and been successful there. But I don't know that anybody knows anything about a manager until he's managed in the majors for a while. You just pick the guy you like and hope for the best.
Blez: Is it surprising to you to see Billy Beane build a team based on pitching and defense?
Neyer: Not at all. As you and your readers know, Moneyball's not about fat guys who draw walks, it's about finding inefficiencies in the market. And those inefficiencies might be fat guys one year, Class AAA pitchers a couple of years later, and (secretly) excellent fielders a couple of years after that. It's getting harder and harder to exploit those inefficiencies because more teams are looking for them. But they'll always be there, and they'll always be changing.
Blez: Are the A's ever going to have a consistent offense again? It's a huge source of frustration for A's fans to constantly watch the team put players on and repeatedly fail to bring them in.
Neyer: I'm writing the A's chapter in the 2007 edition of Baseball Prospectus, and I asked somebody -- an A's fan, actually -- what I should write about in the opening essay. He suggested an analysis of the franchise's annual failure to drive in runners, so apparently it's a real sore spot with the fans. If it happens in one season, or two, I would assume it's simply been bad luck. But if we're talking about three or four seasons, then I suppose you have to wonder if something else is happening. If you ask me again in a month, I might have a good answer for you.
Blez: Is Bobby Crosby ever going to blossom into a star shortstop? Better yet, will he ever be healthy?
Neyer: I don't think he'll be a star. Even as Rookie of the Year in 2005, he wasn't that good, with an adjusted OPS (OPS+) significantly worse than league average (without accounting for defensive position). I think he always projected as a good player, maybe an occasional All-Star. I still think he's going to be a pretty good player, but he turns 27 next month, so if it's going to happen it's going to happen pretty soon.
Blez: How about Rich Harden?
Neyer: If anybody reading this knows about Rich Harden, and has proof, let me know and I'll put you in touch with somebody with a lot of money.
Blez: How good is the A's rotation with Zito removed and a hypothetically healthy Harden?
Neyer: Without doing the math, I'd say it's pretty good. But again, "healthy Harden" isn't something that has a great deal of objective weight behind it.
Blez: Do you see any players on the free agent market that you think the A's might pursue?
Neyer: Oh, I don't know. I probably shouldn't admit this, but I find that sort of speculation generally non-productive. Sure, a year ago we had Frank Thomas figured out beforehand. But generally, there are so many teams competing to sign each decent player that it's sort of silly to try to predict who's going to sign who. So I don't bother, which is a luxury I'm afforded because at ESPN.com we've got a half-dozen writers who take care of such things.
Blez: Right now, November 20, 2006, you'd have to think the Angels will be the favorite going into 2007 with all their young talent and pitching and the fact that the A's have lost Frank Thomas and will soon lose Barry Zito. If you were the GM, what would you do to make sure the team can defend its AL West title in '07?
Neyer: There's nothing anybody, even Billy Beane, can do to guarantee 90-95 wins. Not with the health-related questions about Bobby Crosby, Eric Chavez, and Rich Harden. By far the biggest factor in 2007 is going to be how healthy those guys are, and there's not much anybody can do expect hope and wait. That said, I think I'd try to solve a few problems before anybody realizes they're problems. Like what? Like making sure Kirk Saarloos isn't counted on for anything but garbage relief. Like ensuring that Jay Payton doesn't again suck up nearly 600 plate appearances. And I'd tell Dan Johnson right now that he's one of my guys, and get ready to serve as DH five times per week next season.
Blez: The A's had eight players hit the DL in 2005. That was a terrible hit, but in 2006, they had 15 players hit the DL at some point. Is there a problem with the A's medical staff or has the team just been increasingly unlucky?
Neyer: We can easily identify three factors here, and I would order them like this: 1. Luck, 2. Players, 3. Doctors and trainers, etc. It's human nature to look for someone to blame, and I certainly think that when the front office is evaluating the organization each winter, you have to take a hard look at the medical, training, and conditioning staff. But you don't fire everybody because of one bad season.
Blez: What do you think of the possibility of the A's moving to Fremont? Good or bad for the franchise?
Neyer: I feel truly sorry for the East Bay fans who will be shut out of the new ballpark, either because of dollars or geography. And I still don't know if the math really works for a 32,000-seat stadium. But it's hard to imagine the A's not being more competitive, financially, in their new digs. The A's did better when they moved to Kansas City, they did better when they moved to Oakland, and I expect them to do better when they move to Fremont. Money-wise, at least.
Blez: Will the new stadium mean mourning the death of modern moneyball as we know it?
Neyer: Nah. The A's will still be one of the have-nots, even in the new ballpark. The gap just won't be as large between them and the other West teams.
Blez: Thank you so much for taking the time out to chat with the community here at Athletics Nation. We love your work, Rob.
Neyer: It's been my pleasure. I'm grateful for the opportunities to 1) bloviate on one of the best independent team sites around, and 2) tell everybody that Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders makes a lovely Christmas/Hanukkah gift. Or so I'm told.