Going Deep: Billy Beane
A's general manager aims to stay ahead of the pack
See also: Previous Going Deep with Joe Buck
With all the hoopla surrounding Billy Beane and his management of the Athletics several years ago, I tended to be more reserved, saying, "The scouts gave him cheap stars like Hudson, Mulder and Tejada. Re-tooling the club will be the real trick." Now he's turned it. The A's just won 93 games and went deeper into the postseason than any Oakland club since the team went to the World Series in 1990, fueled mostly by the Danny Harens, Frank Thomases and Mark Kotsays he acquired without the draft. I sat down with Beane a few days after the Tigers swept Oakland from the playoffs to talk about his evolving shopping lists, what he wants from his next manager and how--gasp!--his A's might one day lead the league in steals.ALAN SCHWARZ:
I didn't think you could keep the A's competitive while losing as many key players as you have, particularly Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson. What did you personally prove this year?BILLY BEANE:
I think the thing everyone's most proud of around here is the ability to adapt. I think that the misnomer about us in Oakland is that we're very dogmatic. We're dogmatic about our desire to win, and try to do it in any possible way that we can.
But if you look at the genesis of our club over the last eight or nine years, we essentially went with at one time with a slow-pitch softball team, waiting around for three-run homers, that wasn't particularly adept with the glove, to a team that isn't particularly adept at hitting three-run homers and is a very good defensive club. You have to have good pitching, that's certainly been a constant thread, but the accent to that good pitching has changed dramatically. So I think what we're most proud of is the ability to adapt and change, and try to acquire skills that are available to us in our marketplace.SCHWARZ:
When did you realize that you needed to adapt from the old walk-and-power philosophy? Around when you lost Jason Giambi after 2001?BEANE:
You hit it right on the head. When a club like the Yankees comes in and says "the skills he has we want to pay for," it quickly became apparent to us, as well as to some other teams in the marketplace doing the same things, that we were going to have to change. Teams are being run by a lot of very bright guys that were viewing some of the same things that we were viewing as well.SCHWARZ:
You're talking about adapting, but when I profiled you for Baseball America in 2002, you called yourself "draconian"--quite proudly.BEANE:
I would still be accused of being even despotic from people who don't know me. Listen, whatever we believe in, its implementation is still done with conviction and the utmost of self-confidence within the organization.
The one thing I'm very proud of is that there's very little turnover here in Oakland. We have a tremendous amount of people who have been here for a long, long time: the Keith Lieppmans and the Eric Kubotas and the Chris Pittaros and administratively the Ted Polakowskis. We're well aware that all plans need to be adjusted on the fly, because as soon as you think you know something to be absolute fact, you're probably in trouble.SCHWARZ:
And you're probably not alone, either. Which brings me to this: As different as your club looks today from what it did three or four years ago, with defense over power, how different might the club look again, philosophically, three or four years from now?BEANE:
I would suspect you're right. The way we started this whole run for us was ideally how anyone would want to build a club: a sound foundation of drafting and developing players. Over the last couple years we've sort of been a more year-to-year organization. And until we're in a situation where we're, revenue-wise, in a position (to sign marquee free agents), it's probably always going to be changing. There are going to be shifts in what people value. I always joke around, "One day we will lead the league in stolen bases." (laughs)SCHWARZ:
Your farm system doesn't appear nearly as strong as it has before. Part of that is the team graduating a bunch of players recently, but you had only a few guys make our minor league top 10 prospects lists.BEANE:
Baseball America is sort of like an open-source program--it's a compilation of a mass of opinions, so it's sort of wisdom of the crowds, which is a good thing . . .SCHWARZ:
You're getting all (New Yorker writer) James Surowiecki on me.BEANE:
Right, people accuse me of talking business books too much. But that's what it is. And I would have to say that there are other guys that we like who might not have made your lists.SCHWARZ:
But what role can your farm system play moving forward, given that it isn't nearly as deep as it has been? I would imagine it means having to trade for the next Danny Haren.BEANE:
I wouldn't disagree with that. We've had an incredibly productive farm system for a decade plus, and the same people who were picking them then are picking them now. But you're right, there is probably a little bit of a lag right now relative to the way it was in the past. That being said, we just graduated Huston Street, Nick Swisher and Joe Blanton, so we've still got a very young core up here. We've got time to sort of take a breath and get to the position where we're once again graduating young players. Bobby Crosby is still very young. Haren. I think the next couple of drafts are going to be very critical for us.SCHWARZ:
You've used compensation draft picks very well to make up for losing free agents. What are you hearing about whether compensation picks will be gone from the upcoming Basic Agreement?BEANE:
I'm hearing the same thing everybody else is. I have to operate under the assumption that it's still going to be there, but I think it's been well discussed that there's a possibility that it could be gone.SCHWARZ:
Which is a perfect segue for talking about Barry Zito. Do you go after him, or is his leaving sort of a fait accompli at this point?BEANE:
It'd be disingenuous to say that we're going to be able to compete with some of the other clubs. That's just a fact. But Barry really enjoyed his time in Oakland. I know that if he leaves, it won't be easy, and knowing that, I think there's always a chance. But to be totally frank, it's probably not realistic.SCHWARZ:
What are your instincts about your ability to keep Frank Thomas?BEANE:
I think we're optimistic with Frank. We've had conversations, positive conversations, so the will on both sides I think is there. At the end, it always comes down to the team's ability to pay and what the player's willing to take, but I'm optimistic.SCHWARZ:
Obviously, one member of the team who won't be back is Ken Macha, whom you fired a few days after the season. What do you look for in a manager? What role does he play in your organization?BEANE:
Bobby Cox, the way he protects his players, he's the lightning rod when he needs to be. He's quick to smile, very comfortable, very genuine. In my impression, you want to play for him, you know he's on your side. I would say the same things about a guy like Joe Torre.
But it's about talent. A baseball team is about the players. The great managers, and there are a lot of them out there, are good leaders and master psychologists at the same time. The idea that you can strategize your way with poor talent to a division championship, I don't quite buy into that. If someone disagrees with me, so be it.