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AN Interviews Oakland A's GM Billy Beane: Spring Training 09 Edition Part I

For what I believe is the first time in Athletics Nation history, I had the opportunity to talk to Billy Beane during spring training.  I'll be running it in three parts because it turned into a 17-page interview.  If you're looking for the game threads on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday this week, they will be running in the FanPosts to make sure that people don't miss the Beane discussion.

I will say that if I'm lucky enough to do an interview with Billy during spring training next year, I will do it much later in the spring as it was too early in the spring for much to have been decided yet.



Blez:  I interviewed Jason Giambi yesterday and he told me to ask you about the deal that he thought he had signed, sealed and delivered.

Billy Beane:   Well it really wasn't that simple.  I never blamed Jason and whatever it was that we wound up offering him was significantly less than what he wound up getting.  In all fairness, however it turned out, it turned out the best because we weren't really in a position to absorb (that salary).  I think Steve (Schott) and Ken (Hofmann) made an honest effort but it was getting to the point had it happened it would have been very stressful on the franchise financially.  He was obviously a great player and a fan favorite and a favorite of the owners.  Everybody liked Jason.  Ultimately it was hard to argue against what he ended up doing and what he ended up getting.  I think he enjoyed his time in New York and we were able to regroup when he left.  And now he's back, so we're happy.

Blez:  More general question, how has camp been so far?

Beane:  It's been good. 

Blez:  We're not really that far into it yet so it might be tough to tell.  (Editor's note:  this interview was conducted on March 10)

Beane:  Well it's a long spring and that's a good thing because there's a sense of relaxation with guys who are a little banged up.  Course that will change in about a week when you'll start to get a little anxious with guys.  You know Duke (Justin Duchscherer) is a little banged up and Joey Devine.  I think in another week I'll start to get a little more anxious if they're still not out there.  The veteran guys we've brought in have been great.  (Matt ) Holliday has been great.  People call him a veteran but he's right in the prime of his career.  He's just an absolute stud as a player and a just a great guy.  To even have a player of that caliber with his work ethic is just incredible.  A player of his talent is great to have but he's also just such a great person.  And having Jason back just brings a lot of life and levity to the whole situation.  He fills up a room with his personality and he's good with players, he's good with kids and he's good with everyone.  He really is a glue in there.  We've had great weather.  The family is down and the twins are here so that's been good.  It's been nice.  It's also been great to take a look at some of these young pitchers. 


Blez:  I was going to get into that later, but I might as well get into it now.  You've got Cahill, Anderson and Mazzaro.

Beane:  Simmons and Gio (Gonzalez).  And we haven't even seen Henry (Rodriguez) yet and he's supposed to be getting out there soon.  It should be fun.

Blez:  Of those pitchers, who do you think who is the most advanced at this point? 

Beane:  It's hard to say.  That's a good question and I'm not sure we really know yet.  I think that for their years and experience, Cahill and Anderson are probably a bit ahead of most guys at that age.  At the same time, Vinny (Mazzaro) got some time at Triple-A last year and at least got his feet wet.  And he's been as impressive as anyone down here.  He's just been explosive with his stuff.  I think he's had three outings and they've been dominant.  It would just be really hard to say right now.  They've only had a few outings so it would be tough to really judge and rank them.  And they're all pretty mature kids.  Brett and Trevor are very close friends and they have personalities that just don't seem to be fazed by much.  They don't seem to be overly excited.  They've handled themselves very professionally, which is what you want to see.

Blez:  Do you compare this group to the next incarnation of the big three?

Beane:  No, this is more of a group of guys.  Those three guys were such unique individuals.  You take a guy like Tim Hudson.  You take what he did when he stepped on the mound and he was immediately one of the best pitchers in the league.  You just don't see that happen.   I believe he went 11-1 the year he came up.  He never faced any adversity at any point.  He went right through the minor leagues and buzzed through there.  Then he came up to the major leagues and immediately was a number one starter.  That just doesn't happen.  In Barry's (Zito) case, he wound up right there at the top of the rotation too.  He didn't face too much adversity either.  Mark (Mulder) was a little different as he came right out of college and jumped right to Triple-A, which was a huge jump.  He spent the year there and then was in the big leagues with us.  He had some growing pains and a 5 plus ERA but literally the next year went from having that 5 ERA and being your fifth starter to being one of the best starters in the league himself.  Those three were just so unique in A. getting up here so quickly and B. dominating guys right off the bat.  It's not a normal career path.  Most guys have some struggles.  It wouldn't be fair to compare anyone to that group of guys.  I mean they're three of the best pitchers from their generation.  You know we'll see with these guys.  I think what's different about these guys is almost that they're younger.  You take Brett and Trevor and I think they'd be maybe juniors in college this year.  A couple of high school kids as well.  Vinny is a high school kid we drafted and those guys (the Big Three) were college guys so...

Blez:  So this is a new path.

Beane:  Yeah a new path.  It's been an experience for us too because we've been so focused on college pitching that when these guys came through, we hadn't had to deal with this in a while so we wanted to make sure we weren't rushing them and comparing them to guys like Hudson, Mulder and Zito who played in college.  But you also don't want to hold them back.  So far they've handled everything we've given them.  The advantage Cahill and Brett has was pitching in the Olympics.  I think it was a great experience for them.  And I think it will help them become more mature people in dealing with big events.  We put Trevor in the game over against the Giants in Scottsdale.  Spring training is spring training, but if you're going to pitch in a big game in spring training, pitching against the Giants in Scottsdale is about as big as it gets.  Except for maybe a night game against the Giants or Diamondbacks here.  We're trying to throw some things at them to see how they respond.  So far they've seemed to pass every test.

Blez:  Speaking of young pitching, (Michael) Ynoa pitched yesterday for a crowd of reporters and others.  What were the reports you heard?

Beane:  I didn't get over there.  He's the kind of kid that's physically so impressive and for him to have that much athletic ability is so unique, especially for that size.  He's really smooth and graceful.  He's almost like an NBA small forward in the way he moves.  He's very coordinated.  He's also a very self-assured, very confident guy.  He's got an easy smile and behind the smile you can just get the sense that he knows he's going to be good and he isn't fazed by that.  He's been like that since we started this process.

Blez:  What do you guys plan on doing with him this year?

Beane:  He'll be here for a little bit and then he'll go back to the Dominican (Republic).  It's still up in the air whether he'll come to the summer league or whether he'll pitch over there, but he's 17 and he's a junior in high school.  He's a special 17-year-old, mind you, but I think we're going to take it one step at a time.  He'll go back and pitch over there.  And we've talked about the rookie league here.  I think we'll make that decision as we go along.  We want to make sure we're careful when we commit to something.  He's also adjusting culturally.  He's been taking English classes and I believe he conducted his interviews in English which is amazing.

Blez:  So he didn't speak any when you were there?

Beane:  He didn't understand a lot.  But he's been taking English classes as a lot of our guys do.  That tells you what kind of self confidence he has, and I might be wrong on this, but for him to request that his interviews be conducted in English is just really, really amazing.  He didn't speak any at all when we went over there last year and we had to use an interpreter.  He's a kid coming here so it's a big adjustment for him.  Part of his success will be determined by how he adjusts to living in a new country and speaking a different language.

Blez:  You mentioned the young pitching, but have there been any other pleasant surprises?  People that might be flying under the radar.

Beane:  I wouldn't say pleasant surprises, but there have been guys who have impressed.  That (Ben) Copeland kid, you know the Rule 5, has played great down here.  He just keeps getting better.  And Raj (Davis) keeps getting better every day.  He's such a good athlete with great speed.  But every time he goes up to hit he just seems to be getting better and better.  It is spring training, but he sure is exciting when he puts the ball in play.  He's hitting the ball hard and driving it the other way.  He's really been a great find for us from the day we got him on waivers.  It's been great to get that kind of athlete and he's a great kid too.  He's really just a good kid who loves to play.  It's been fun to see him over the course of the year that we've had to continue to get better and better.  (Ryan) Sweeney has been phenomenal down here.  I don't think it's a total surprise.  I think anyone who has seen him play despite his youth could see his athletic ability and everyone could see that this guy really has a chance to turn into something special.  He seems like he went from a young adult to a real man in the space of a winter.  He's driving balls and I think he's hitting like .550, .545 here and it hasn't been cheap.  That's not a surprise.  I think we could all see it coming, but it's nice to see.

Blez:  I know it's tough to judge things so early in the spring, but how are you feeling about the team's chances in 2009?

Beane:  I've always resisted handicapping.  But there are some obvious things.  I like our position players.  I think we have a lot of depth.  Everybody realizes how important having Chavy out there on an every day basis will be for us.  Hopefully that's the case.  He's had a little bit of setback with the shoulder but I don't think it's anything that's serious.  I think it's just the normal rehab process with normal soreness that you would get but I like our position players.  And we did exactly what we wanted to do which was to add some offense with Holliday, Giambi and then you add Nomar (Garciaparra) and (Orlando) Cabrera which at that point gives you the depth of having Bobby (Crosby) around.  I'm happy with that.  I think a real key for us is, and it's no secret, when can we close the gap with some of this young pitching?  When they get here, they're going to be good but it's how quickly are they going to be good.  They're going to be here, it's just how quickly are they going to be here.  We really need to narrow that game.  In the interim we need Duke and we need Joey because those guys are arguably two of our best pitchers on our staff.  But the pitching is going to be the key.  It's a little bit of a strange dynamic because while pitching is a concern, we think that we have the best group of pitchers in the minor leagues of anybody.  So it isn't like we're going to go out and find pitching because we have it here.  It's just matter of getting it to Oakland.  And hopefully it can perform and compete when it does.  That will be the key.  And to predict that, I just don't know.  I know these kids are talented and good.  But being a major league pitcher takes a little more than that.  Hopefully when they get here quickly.  I'm hoping the fact that there will be a really solid position player team around them will help their development.

Blez:  How concerned are you about Duke right now?

Beane:  We're always concerned.  Duke always seems to battle nicks here and there.  There is no questioning how good he is but durability has always been a bit of an issue. I'm concerned because he's one of the best pitchers on our team which was proven last year given his All Star selection.  He's one of the better pitchers in the league when he's out there.  It's been keeping him out there that has been a challenge.  He's as frustrated with the whole thing because this is his free agent year.  I believe he was supposed to throw yesterday and I'm not sure how that turned out but he's confident he will be fine.   But each day that goes by you get a little concerned.

Blez:  What do you think you'll do with the rotation if Duke isn't ready to go?

Beane:  That's a question better asked for later on.  Someone will be in there.  To say that we haven't begun discussing it would be a bit disingenuous because we have.  But since we don't have to make a decision there is no reason to publicly discuss it and create all the questions that come with that discussion when it's not necessarily needed.

Blez:  Is there a temptation to go out and sign someone like Mark Mulder who is coming off the injury to take a chance on him or maybe someone like a Pedro Martinez? 

Beane:  On Mark, my understanding is that he isn't ready to go out.  That's sort of moot.  But we've stayed away from signing the veteran starters because we have young guys that we want to be here at some point and I've never thought in our marketplace that that was an efficient use of your money.  Short answer is no.  It isn't really even something we pursued during the winter.  We've got great young pitchers here and we want to give them a chance to get up here.  It might be later than we want and it might be sooner than we expect, but they're going to be here at some point and we've just got to be patient with them.  Sometimes you just go out and sign a guy and it just winds up being window dressing at the end of the day.  What are you trying to achieve and what are you getting?  Not really talking about Mark, but those other guys might have different interests and want to go somewhere else.  We like to keep our slots open for our young guys and that's really where the success is going to come from is our young guys and it's going to be long term.

Blez:  It's interesting that you take that philosophy with pitching.  It's a really interesting mix of veterans and young guys on this club on the field.  You've got Buck and Barton, but you also have Nomar, Cabrera and Holliday-types.  How do you make sure that someone like Buck, who experienced a pretty big bump in the road last year, continues to develop and find playing time while bringing in so many veterans to bolster the offense?

Beane:  We've never had a problem having too many good players so it's too early to be worrying about having at-bats.  I think what we're saying here is if you hit, we'll find a spot for you.  It's really not a concern.  At the end of the day they'll be plenty of at-bats for everybody.  Ideally what you'd like to do, especially with the veterans, is to not put so much pressure on them so that at the end of the day, they don't break down at some point later in the season.  In Travis' case, here's someone we think very highly of and we expect him to get himself plenty of at-bats.  We've got plenty of ways to mix and match.

Blez:  Was that part of your goal this offseason because of the injury issues the last couple of years?  To create as much depth as possible.

Beane:  Oh yeah, as much as our payroll allowed us to.  We're never going to have the perfect team in our situation but we want as many good position players as we can.  Take a guy like Bobby.  If Orlando is playing short and Bobby becomes a pretty good right-handed bat available that can play a number of positions.  And we haven't had a player that caliber available to us.  The same with Nomar.  The idea that we can rest someone and have Nomar playing out there as a right-handed bat is great.  It's always been somewhere we've been short.  We always find a way to create at-bats where we don't necessarily want them so I feel pretty confident that getting these guys at-bats won't be an issue.


Coming Tuesday:  Beane discusses how the economic situation affected his decision-making this offseason, why he wanted Orlando Cabrera and Nomar Garciaparra and how Bobby Crosby took the Cabrera signing.