It's been a fascinating offseason for the Oakland Athletics to say the least. For the first part it looked like he was simply tearing it all down and throwing in the towel on 2012. Many were in favor of this plan. But then Billy Beane suddenly re-signed Coco Crisp. Then he shocked many by signed Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. And finally, he brought in likely future Hall of Famer (if the PED suspensions don't stop it from happening) Manny Ramirez. And the team had the look of not necessarily a contender for the AL West crown in 2012, but it won't be the same walk in the park that it might've been prior to the late offseason moves.
I sat down with Billy Beane in his office in Phoenix, Arizona with a few days left in spring training before the team departed for Japan. As always, I enjoyed the interview and it remains my favorite part of my "job" to be able to talk shop with a guy I consider the smartest man in all of baseball.
This is the first of two parts so I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed conducting it. Another season start is just around the corner. Go A's! Hit the jump for my interview with Oakland A's GM Billy Beane.
Tyler Bleszinski: How would you characterize the moves you made this offseason?
Billy Beane: I haven't had to characterize them but if I had to, there are two things you'd need to look at. We needed to turn back the clock a little bit on the service time of our players. And the other thing is we had a few good young players but if we're going to succeed, we need a lot of good young players. I'm not in the habit of characterizing my own moves but those were the two primary reasons we did it.
TB: It seemed to baffle some fans because at first it seemed like you were moving forward with, well, we'll just be terrible for a while, get some great draft picks and build towards something special down the road.
BB: I'd like to build towards something special down the road.
TB: I think it wound up being a curveball when they saw the (Yoenis) Cespedes signing and the Manny signing.
BB: No one tries to be terrible and I guarantee you had we not made the moves we did we would've been terrible.
TB: I think I know you well enough now to know it isn't easy for you to accept being terrible.
BB: If we take the three pitchers we traded back then we would've had to build an entire outfield with about four million dollars. You're just not going to be able to do that. We weren't going to be better than we were last year because of the players we lost. This was the only way we had a chance. Even if we took a step back last year, this was our only way of moving forward. It was going to be so hard to add anyone, because of the payroll issues, to add anything to the club. What we usually do is that any money that we have left over we're going to use it to try and improve the team. The misconception here is that we're just taking profits and putting it in our pockets and we've never done that. We've basically spent what we have every year. That's why you can't overreact to things in November and December simply because there's a lot of winter left. You can't look at the winter in a linear fashion because it just doesn't work that way, as it's an entire process.
TB: Has that changed a lot in your time as GM? I remember just a few years ago a lot of the stuff was happening in November and December and now it appears like it's going over into January and even February.
TB: Why do you think that is?
BB: There's been years that we've been aggressive and we have had money out there for a number of players but players haven't been interested in coming here. In a number of cases we offered more money. That's happened the last three offseasons. But there seems to be more players out there in January. We signed Grant (Balfour) in January. He was still out there and we had money. This year it was Cespedes. The timing on that helped us because had he been a free agent earlier in the winter it might've been a little more difficult for us to sign him, because a lot of teams would have a lot of capital left. When he was finally allowed to become a free agent there were a number of teams that might've been interested that had already spent a good portion of their money.
TB: What was that process like in terms of signing him (Cespedes)?
BB: It was actually pretty smooth. When he first became a free agent we had our guys down there and were staying on top of things. I don't think early in the winter we had any illusions that we were going to be able to sign him. We'd seen him in a lot of the amateur tournaments and as much information as you can have on those guys, which is admittedly not a lot, we'd seen him play in every tournament we could see him play. We did spend the whole winter to continue to try and get as much information as we could. Most of those players you don't know a lot about. But we did take some time to get to know him.
TB: And certainly watch his YouTube workout video?
BB: I actually couldn't get through the whole thing.
TB: Why? You aren't a Christopher Cross fan or what?
BB: (laughing) Yeah you got me. I don't think there's any denying his physical talent. The adjustment will start with him culturally. This is a major change in his life. And then the major leagues.
TB: Does he speak any English?
BB: No. Ariel Prieto will be with him throughout the entire season.
TB: Did you travel down and see him down there?
BB: No. Early on I sent all our guys down there but I didn't go down. When he first started working out for people it was in October and November and I didn't think we were going to be in a position to sign him because of what we thought he might command. We did stay on it though and when it happened it happened relatively quick in January.
TB: The Manny Ramirez signing, did you give any thought to the potential impact and role Manny could play in helping Cespedes given that they're both right-handed hitters and Manny speaks his language?
BB: We looked at each move independently. Although having a guy like Manny who does speak the language and knows the league as Manny does, as he's a student of hitting, it would certainly be a benefit. But it wasn't the reason.
TB: Outside of being a remarkable athlete, what do like about Cespedes as a baseball player? Does he have a lot of holes and learning to do?
BB: We're still learning a lot about it. We simply don't know enough yet. Someone asked me recently, is he going to hit? It's a great question and we just don't know yet. But if we knew for sure that he was going to hit he would've cost $100 million.
TB: And he would've been out of your range.
BB: Yeah. But he's got tremendous skills. Any decision that you make when you have a limited amount of information, there will be a certain amount of risk to it. What we've really been impressed with is his work effort. It's just been off the charts. In fact we've had to hold him back. He almost works too hard. He's here at the ballpark at seven in the morning out on the field doing something. He's an explosive athlete. I don't know if you saw the first game he played but the ball really jumps off his bat. He's a threat. He's going to have some growing pains. He's a tremendous physical talent with a great work ethic and that's an ideal combination.
TB: When do you make the decision about whether or not he starts with the big club?
BB: It will probably be 11th hour (Author's note: Billy actually made the decision two days after I interviewed him so it was not really 11th hour). We're going to take advantage of all the time we have and it will probably be a last minute decision.
TB: There was a rumor just yesterday, and I know how you feel about rumors so apologies for even asking it, that you were still actively seeking more talent right now in the international market.
BB: We're keeping our fingers on it but there's nothing imminent. There was a rumor that we put out a significant amount of money to another free agent player but that's completely false.
TB: Did it happen to be a shortstop?
BB: Yeah an infielder. But it was completely false. Dan Kantrovitz (former scouting staffer with the A's) who got taken away from us by the St. Louis Cardinals. He's overseeing international and domestic for them which is a great promotion for him. He did a great job of really building an infrastructure here for us in looking at the international market. Sam Geaney who was our assistant scouting director, is going to take over as the coordinator of international scouting. He's taken right where Dan left off. But Dan did a fantastic job and worked really hard the last three years of putting the pillars in place. We're way farther ahead than we were years ago in knowing what is going on from an international standpoint.
TB: Speaking of international, how do you feel about where Michael Ynoa is right now?
BB: Right now he's ready to go. He got cleared.
TB: Do you know how he's throwing?
BB: No he's just getting over here but we know that he is healthy and that's the important thing. With him it's always been a matter of health. It's been two years sometime during the season when he had the Tommy John surgery. I don't think there's any denying his talent. When he was out there, he's been really good. Remember he's only 20 so he's very young and this would be a good year for him to take off.
TB: Where do you think he's going to start the season? What level?
BB: We're still talking about it. It's likely he might stay down here in the extended program for a little bit just to get him up to a certain amount of innings. We're going to try to get him out as soon as we can to a full season club.
TB: When you were building the team this past offseason, was there a certain date that you were aiming for this team to come together? For example, I'm looking towards 2015. How much did the stadium situation and what you were anticipating happening with that impact the decisions in what you got back?
BB: No one has winked at us or let us know anything about the stadium situation. We were going to have to do this any way. And truthfully if we're still in a state of limbo in a few years, we'll simply have to do it again. That's what surprised me going back to your first question. No one should be surprised by anything we do. We've done this for 15 years. It isn't because we're trying to irritate people. We do it because we have no choice. If we're still in the same situation we're in now in the future, we'll have to do it again.
TB: It's all about the cycles then and the cycle will constantly repeat itself?
BB: Yeah and the cycles are shorter so that's the problem.
TB: That's what I'm saying. It seems like it's happening more quickly than ever before.
BB: Even if you look at the history of our moves, Jason (Giambi) and Miguel (Tejada), they stayed the whole six years here up to free agency. And then the next group of guys, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, Tim was entering his free agent-to-be-year and Mark was entering his four plus year. Then the next group the Dan Haren and Nick Swisher's had just become arbitration-eligible. Now you're down to the zero to three guys. One of the reasons is when you do move guys you're trying to get as much as you can back. The return on players who are now into their arbitration years isn't much any more.
TB: Because they're more expensive.
BB: They're more expensive and teams that are going to give up good young players want to have as much control of what they're getting as much as possible. So the cycle keeps shrinking. Each group of guys has come down shorter and shorter. The cost of acquiring young players has gone way up.
TB: Yet even though it seems to be getting more difficult, it's been widely reported that you've signed an extension to be with the A's through 2019.
BB: Yeah it's not completely done. And it's not that cut and dry.
TB: You must be enjoying the cycles is what I'm getting at, if you're willing to entertain it.
BB: Listen every year I've had an opportunity to leave here and I stay here. I do love this franchise and I have to believe that there are bluer skies ahead. But we're going to need to hear something soon. We really are. It used to be in our league, we had the Yankees (payroll) and everyone had to deal with that. Then you had the Red Sox. Now these cable deals that these teams are signing such as the Rangers and Angels and their payrolls are going there too. And don't kid yourself, Houston is right around the corner. They're going to be a high revenue club in our division and they have a pretty bright guy taking over that club. They're going to do a good job and they're going to do it right and when they do they're going to have the capital to keep it around.
TB: What keeps you so attached to this franchise then? Is it the hope for that new stadium and the bluer sky?
BB: Yes. I do like the building process. I really like the group of young players that we have. I don't know what they're going to do this year. We acquired 10 players for those three players. I think on some level all of those 10 will be major league players. We've got the 11th pick in the draft this year. We've got three compensation picks this year. We've got four high picks. This is the first time we've had this many high picks in a long time. We're also starting to see guys like Michael Choice, Grant Green and Sonny Gray. Michael (Ynoa) will be back. We have a very good chance of having a lot of good young players which is what you need. You need that because you're going to have attrition and injuries with some of them and some of them aren't going to perform at the level (you expect them to). Then you'll be left with the rest of the guys. We have a much larger pool so I have a lot of hope for this group. I think this group will have a chance to play in a new stadium.
TB: You talk about your feeling about this group and it's had an exceptional spring training, at least record-wise. Do you put any stock at all in winning and losing during spring training? At least maybe helping out the vibe and culture of the team. Or is it, this is just spring training and means nothing?
BB: A little bit of everything you just said. It is just spring training. Bob (Melvin) has the perfect pitch to the guys. He really emphasizes yes, it is just spring training but when you're a young guy trying to make your mark it does mean something in terms of creating a positive environment. Listen, I'd rather be winning games down here than losing games. I saw Arizona down here and they had a terrible year down here and then they had a great regular season. I don't put much stock in performance. I will say this, this has been the best-run spring training since I've been here. Guys have played really hard.
TB: You mean from the manager's standpoint?
BB: Everything. It starts with the manager. He sets the tone and Bob had a plan when he came out here as to how he wanted guys to perform and how he wants them to play the game. They've done that every single game. They care. They're out there playing like they care. What you don't want is to have young players say, "Well this is spring training I'm just getting into shape." That's for veteran guys. We don't have enough veterans to have guys saying that.
TB: Do you think it helps that you have open competitions for so many positions? It seems like a lot of the team is unsettled. Even with the Sizemore injury and him going down, third base is still kind of up in the air. There are very few spots that are already decided. You probably have two starting pitching spots with Bartolo Colon and Brandon McCarthy nailed down. You've got the catcher spot with Suzuki. You've got Pennington at shortstop and Weeks at second base. Almost everything else is seemingly up in the air.
BB: It probably does help. I think we come into spring with an idea of who is going break with us. There might be a performance during the spring that might tilt you one way or the other. We've always tried to resist three-week auditions as the reason for making a decision. But it's hard to watch a guy who is playing well and not have it impact you. The guys on the field don't know that though. They're all fighting for a spot and I do think it has something to do with the spring we've had. I said this in our (internal) meeting today and I'll say it again right now, this is the best-run camp since I've been here.
TB: Ever? That you've been involved in.
BB: Since I've been the GM, yeah. During Tony's (Larussa) years, it was a different team.
TB: Veterans going through the motions.
BB: Yeah exactly. I remember with Bob Welch down here he had like a 10 ERA and then he won the Cy Young. So they're preparing differently. Going back to my time as GM, I know that in 2001 we had a really good camp but we had a really good team. We started out like 15-3. Given that there were so many young guys here, I've been pleased on a daily basis. They've cared about every inning in every game which is what you want to see. It's been a lot of fun.
TB: Do you think this team can compete with payrolls as big as the Angels and Rangers this year?
BB: Those are good teams. You never say never with young players. I think more than anything this spring has at least made them feel like they can compete. We'll see at what level. But I think they know that there are a bunch of guys around them that will be here for a while that have a chance to get better. This team has a chance to get better over the course of the season. It's also a team that by and large, the core of it will return next year. You've got a young guy like Josh Reddick, and Colin Cowgill has had a fantastic camp. The young pitchers. Then you have Dallas Braden and Brett Anderson coming back at some point during the season. Dallas before Brett. Those are two good players to bring in. I think it's a good building block going forward. I don't have any idea how they're going to perform because there are so many new guys.
TB: Should they all wear nametags like Brandon McCarthy suggested?
BB: (laughs) Yeah. You know what? This is more fun for me than last year simply because we had so many free agents, that we knew that everything had to be perfect in order for it to work. Everyone had to stay healthy and even if they did a lot of them weren't going to be back the next year any way. That's not a lot of fun for me. I want to create something...
TB: That's building.
BB: Building, exactly. The trendline is important to me. Where is the trendline going to hit? I'm optimistic that this is a group of players that is going to make a real solid core for us for a while, along with all the draft choices. It's a more enjoyable time to be running this club. Last year we knew that we put all our eggs in one basket and we knew if it didn't work we didn't have enough young minor league players and extra draft choices. That's all changed significantly.
Coming Tuesday morning: Beane discusses the rotation, the centerfield quandary and what it was like to go to the Academy Awards (hint: he feels a bit uncomfortable doing the red carpet thing).