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Billy Beane Visits Athletics Nation May 2008 Edition Part I

Happy Memorial Day!!  What better to top off a sweep of the Red Sox than a visit with A's General Manager Billy Beane. 

It's been quite a while since I had the opportunity to have one of my lengthy interviews with Beane.  In the time between he and I last spoke, he's kick-started a rebuilding process with the green and gold, trading away Nick Swisher and Danny Haren.  His rebuilt team got off to a surprisingly good start and he also made the decision to bring back 2006 A's MVP Frank Thomas.  AND his team is sporting one of the most surprising pitching staffs in all of baseball right now.

So, as you could imagine, there was plenty to discuss when he and I sat down last week.  This was one of our longer interviews, yet I'm going to try and get it down to three parts.  Without further ado, here is my most recent interview with Billy Beane:



Blez:  It’s been a long time since we chatted and the last time we did, you shied away from the word “rebuilding” and called it “retooling” instead.  Since then you’ve gone through the rebuilding process and you yourself referred to it in the media as that. What was the impetus behind that rebuilding?

Billy Beane:  The impetus for it was where I thought we were headed. That to me is as important as anything with a franchise: not where you are but where you are going.  I really thought our best-case scenario for the next year or two was really mediocrity.  Ultimately there was no chance to be a really, really good team and I just felt we were going to just be in that middle area there.  I also knew at some point we were going to have to, so to delay it was really just wasting time.  We were at the FanFest and a few people were upset.  Actually every year there are a few people upset (laughs).  I remember asking the question back to a gentleman in the audience who was upset and it‘s good that he was upset because he cares about the team and he was there spending a Saturday which is why we have those events.  But I asked him the question of how many games he thought we would win if we stood pat and he said something like 75 or 80.  He was upset and I said, “Are you OK with that?”  That was essentially trying to stimulate what was going through our minds and get him thinking the same way.  Winning 75 or 80 games is nothing to get excited about, particularly if that’s what you’re going to do over the next several years.

Blez:  Especially when the fan base is used to success.

Beane:  Exactly.  I’ve always said you’re either building something that’s special or you have something that’s special.  In between is just no man’s land.  That was really it.  I felt like as good as the players were that we traded, we need a lot of good players to create something long-term.  

Blez:  How did you approach the process?  Did you basically just put a lot of calls out there to other GMs and say, “Everyone’s available, come make me an offer.”  Was it like that or did you even target certain players on your roster that you felt might have the most value?

Beane:  No, very rarely when it’s one of our high profile guys is it a situation where we’ll solicit a deal.  If you start doing that, whether someone admits it or not, it’s going to diminish value by you being the aggressor.  In Danny’s (Haren) case, and to Arizona’s credit, he was someone they always wanted.  And (Arizona GM) Josh (Byrnes) started poking around a little bit at the end of the year last year.  In truth, the process hadn’t been decided.  I wasn’t completely convinced that if we had come back completely healthy that sticking with the current roster and seeing what we had was an option.  You know if Rich (Harden) was healthy and Duke (Justin Duchscherer) was relatively healthy and Chavy was going to be ready to go.  I wasn’t completely convinced yet that it was time to do it so there was hope for a healthy club, but we hadn’t really decided.  That being said, we actually waited for clubs to come to us figuring that the clubs who came to us would understand the value of the player and would be serious about doing business.  We weren’t out there soliciting things at all.  The clubs that were serious, we would talk to them.  In Arizona’s case and to their credit, they had done their homework and checked in early so we were pretty far along in the process once we decided to go ahead and make the move.

Blez:  Arizona had been poking around before you decided to go this route?  They had initiated the discussions last year?

Beane:  Yes.  We had also made it known that we weren’t sure what direction we were going to go yet.

Blez:  Did you do that on purpose?  You know, saying it publicly that you didn’t know where you wanted to go yet to try and get some interest going.

Beane:  Yeah, you do it for two reasons.  First, it can lead to people calling you on some guys.  What you don’t want to do is to go out there and be making calls on your own players.  If you are, then it can diminish their value a little bit and you don’t want to be doing that.  It also gives you some options without committing yourselves.  We literally hadn’t decided until we touched down from coming back from the winter meetings what we were going to do.  That’s when we decided that we needed to do something.  When we were at the winter meetings, we had talked about Dan with the Diamondbacks, but at that point it was unclear if that was what we were going to do.  And it was literally when the wheels touched down was when we decided to do something here.  That’s when we got the injury report on Gaudin.  Chavy was still battling through his problems and we felt like we were kidding ourselves thinking we could patch this thing together.  

Blez:  How different was this process compared to the (Tim) Hudson and (Mark) Mulder process of a few years ago?

Beane:  I think when we did trade Tim and Mark we quietly felt like we were going to be a lot better than people thought especially when you took into account the fact that we had some significant injuries that past year and we had a terrible injury month of May.  Then Croz (Bobby Crosby) came back and we had a great run.  But I think prior to that year, everyone (in the front office) thought we’d be better than people thought.  So it wasn’t really a rebuilding, but more of a shifting around of assets.  The difference this time is that we anticipate this being a longer-term situation and I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what we had.

Blez:  You mean what you got from the deals?

Beane:  Not so much what we got from the deals, but I didn’t know where we would be in the process until the season started.  So every now and then people would ask, “How good do you think you’re going to be?” and some people would ask, “How bad do you think you’re going to be?” and I don’t think we had any expectations for either.  At the same time, I don’t think we have limitations either.  We sort of kept an open book.  We wanted to create an atmosphere that was somewhat forgiving, which I think we did.  When you’re a contending team every year, people start filling up their stories (in the news media) about who is going to fill out the roster as the 25th man and who is going to fill the role of a left-handed bat off the bench.  There is such intensity every day and every article.  Our spring training articles were, “Getting to Know Ryan Sweeney” and “What is Kurt Suzuki’s Favorite Color” and things like that.  So an environment was created that we wanted to encourage.  

Blez:  Low to no pressure?

Beane:  Yeah, low pressure and kind of an open book and I think it helped.  People have said it, but I also think the Japan trip helped too.

Blez:  I think it did help because the team got off to one of its best April starts in a few seasons.  Are you surprised at how the team shot out of the gate?

Beane:  Not after the spring training that we had.  The spring training we had was really good.  So yes and no.  I wasn’t shocked.  A couple of individual performances surprised me.  We liked Greg Smith, but him coming up as soon as he did and performing as well as he did-- we found out that he’s a little further down the road in terms of development that we thought.  There were also some disappointing surprises too.  Travis (Buck) getting hurt and struggling like he did.  He’s the last guy I thought would’ve ever slumped out of the gate.  All he’s ever done since we drafted him is hit.  And so that was a surprise.  We had a blip when Duke and Harden went out. But that allowed Greg Smith to come in and Chad (Gaudin) did a really good job in the rotation.  I don’t really know whether I’m surprised or not surprised.  I really don’t know.  It’s still a short-term situation where I’ve stayed away from making predictions and I’ve been reasonably happy.  I just think there is so much more room for improvement which is really the encouraging thing.  When you start off and have the best pitching in the league and you have that as your foundation then you’re more than halfway there.

Blez:  Was the goal in making the Haren and Swisher deals to make sure you were building the best possible team towards moving into the Fremont Stadium in 2011 or 2012?  Was there any thought given to that rather than worrying about now?

Beane:  In the background, but even if we’d stayed here for the next 10 years, it was going to have to happen.  The benefit of this time around is that maybe these players we got and are grooming will stay around a little longer than years past.  If we develop a young player and he’s going to be a free agent at 26, maybe we can sign him to a long-term deal.  But if we’d stayed here, we’d still have to do this and probably more so because with the revenue situation it would’ve been a short-term constant similar to what we’ve had to do the last few years.  

Blez:  You and I have talked about this in the past, but there have been articles written about how this team is perceived as being soulless and having a revolving door of players.  The Athletics constantly have that carousel of players every year and the fan base has to get reacquainted with their players.  My wife was watching a game with me the other day and basically said, “Who‘s he and who‘s he?  They really did get rid of everyone.”  Are you afraid of how that’s viewed in the community?

Beane:  Not really.  We really don’t have any other choice to do this.

Blez:  I’m not really talking about the hard core fans who live and breathe and die with the team like the Athletics Nation people do.  I’m talking more about the casual fan who comes on occasion because the team has an interesting player they want to see.

Beane:  I don’t think people come out on a regular basis to see individuals.  I think people come out to see a team.  We have no other way to operate. We could operate where we have a whole generation of players well beyond its prime but there would be even less people here.  For every one we lose because we don’t keep their favorite player, we’re going to keep two if we win.  And the reverse is true.  The thing that’s always been interesting about being here is that there is always excuses about why people don’t come out.  The fact is that we don’t draw.  The blame has always been on this thing or that thing.  There is always something new.  I mean we went to the ALCS in 2006 and in an era when baseball attendance was shooting up 26 percent or something, we wound up drawing less people the next year.  Explain that.  Over the last decade, we’ve put a pretty good product on the field.  We have a group (of fans) here that’s been here since the first year we came here.  The fact remains is that we’re still well behind the curve when it comes to attendance and some of it is probably the organization’s fault.  Not everyone is completely blameless.  You can understand that when you’re having that kind of turnover you’re going to lose some of that loyalty.  Again the flip side for us, given everything that we have to balance, is that we’re going to maintain that loyalty with the hardcore people by putting the best product we can on the field and having to err on the side of making good business decisions instead of making emotional decisions.  Believe me, my life would be a lot easier if we could just stamp a team down for the next six or seven seasons.

Blez:  Obviously bringing someone on board like Frank Thomas doesn’t really jive with what people think of when they think of the term “rebuilding”.  What were some of your thoughts about why to bring someone like Big Hurt back to the green and gold? And are you afraid that it might take some valuable playing time, especially when you made such an effort to rebuild, from a great young talent like Daric Barton where he‘s sitting on the bench instead of gaining experience?

Beane:  That’s a fair point.  I think I saw someone on your site say, “Why did you sign Emil Brown?”  Someone was afraid he was going to take at bats away from others.  

Blez:  Man, you’re jumping ahead on me here.

Beane:  Well, we’re nothing if not efficient at these things now (laughing).  In Mike Sweeney’s case even before Frank got here, we were thinking we didn’t really have a young DH.  We wanted Jack Cust in the outfield for part of the time.  Not on a full-time basis, but part-time.  Jack will be the first to tell you that he isn’t going to win a gold glove, but we wanted it as an option.  It’s nice having a guy who can go out there when you need him.  But getting back to Frank, those points are fair, but in Daric’s case, when we signed Frank, Mike’s knee was barking a little bit.  Daric is still going to get the bulk of the at bats and his history, even in the minor leagues, suggests that he hasn’t played a full season.  This is an opportunity to give him some rest that’s needed.  We have a 162-game schedule and the idea that we’re just going to run him out there for 162 games when his past history suggests that he couldn’t do it in the minor leagues is probably a little unrealistic.  The other thing too is that we’re always going to look for opportunities.  If we find something that we perceive as a great value, we’re going to jump at it.  You always try to do both.  It’s not a zero sum game where you’re either this or that.  You can accomplish this while still trying to do that.  You can try to get young players and rebuild and create a good situation and also try to be competitive.  Quite frankly, Frank was such a positive influence when he was here.   The thing I like about having Frank around the younger players is how he prepares himself.  He prepares himself similar to how Barry Zito used to prepare himself to pitch in a game.  That’s good for young guys to watch.   And I have such a soft spot for Frank.  He had such a great year (when he was here).  And you can’t beat the price for a guy who brings all he does.

Blez:  Would you had made the decision to bring Frank back if the team hadn’t gotten off to a pretty good start?

Beane:  Yeah, I think so.  Our history suggests that if you can make incremental improvements, you should.  Yeah, it’s hard to imagine not being interested in Frank.

Blez:  You guys basically got back nine players in the Haren and Swisher deals.  You got nine players for three.  What made the nine guys you got back so appealing?

Beane:  It was well-laden in pitching.  A lot of the success we had the last 10 years was due to the fact that we had some great pitchers here.  A good deal of them were home grown and started with us.  We needed to get back to a point where our pitching was coming through the system because we had no other way of getting it.  It’s hard to sign it.  It’s too expensive.  It’s hard to trade for it once it’s established.

Blez:  Well that makes sense especially considering that you got six players back for an established pitcher.

Beane:  Yeah, exactly.  The Arizona deal and the Chicago deal help out greatly and we have a few guys in our system that we like quite a bit who are pitchers.  When we did the Hudson and Mulder deal, Meyer got hurt and Danny turned into what we thought he would, but in a perfect world you don’t struggle with injuries and you don’t lose half the value of the deals right there.  So we knew we needed a lot of guys to get this done, especially pitching because even drafting pitching in the first round is risky.  The biggest thing from our end is to know we have some good potential starters down the road knowing that things are going to happen over the next couple of years.  

Blez:  How tough was it for you to trade a guy like Swisher knowing that he has a couple of the traits the A’s covet the most in a hitter: power and patience?  He’s also one of your favorite personalities.

Beane:  It was a tough phone call.  I remember exactly where I was when I called him and he was shocked.  It was tough.  We had a long conversation.  I did like Nick.  He’s a good kid that had a lot of personality that fans saw and we saw.  How he is on the field is exactly how he is in the clubhouse.  He always had a smile and a lot of energy.  From a playing standpoint, he had the power and the patience.  We knew we were giving that up, but the thing about this winter is that there were never any illusions that we weren’t giving up good players.  We were essentially giving up a couple of good players to get a lot of really good young players.  These guys are both in the prime of their careers.  But in short, it was one of the most difficult calls I’ve ever had to make from a trade standpoint, if not the most difficult call.


Coming Tomorrow:  Beane discusses Rich Harden, the A's lack of a consistent offense and the first base, left field, DH shuffle.