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It Takes Time, Part IV: Oakland A's

This is the fourth - and perhaps final - installment in a series that asks what we Pirates fans can learn about how a new GM can remake a small-payroll team and position it to contend. Part I, about the Royals, is here; Part II, about the Rays, is here; and here's Part III, about the Brewers.

Being a major-league GM means something different now than it did five years ago. Billy Beane's A's are a case in point. Beane's story has been told many, many times, of course, often from one of two points of view: one that says Beane's a genius who thought rings around his peers, and one that says he just lucked into having three great starters come through his system at the same time.

Both sides contain an element of truth, but the whole truth is a lot more complicated, and it includes more actors than most of the loudest-mouthed commentators acknowledged. Beane's history with the A's says as much about other GMs as it says about Beane.

Beane inherited a bad but interesting team that had a young Jason Giambi in left field, a 21-year-old Ben Grieve ready to break into the lineup, and Miguel Tejada, Eric Chavez and Tim Hudson in the farm system. The '97 A's only won 65 games, but they had the beginning of an interesting core already in place.

Beane made a nice trade for Kenny Rogers soon after being hired. He also had a very good draft in 1998, grabbing Mark Mulder, Eric Byrnes and Gerald Laird, and picked Barry Zito in the first round in 1999. Other than that, though, Beane's first two years were characterized by a flurry of transactions that ultimately weren't that consequential - like the other GMs I've discussed in this series, he was building mostly through the draft.

Joe Blanton was part of
Oakland's 2002 draft class

Photo: Scot2342.

It seems to me that many of the things Beane became best known for - accumulating draft picks, shuffling through closers and so on - really began in earnest in 1999. But by then, the A's already had a pretty good team. Giambi had emerged as a superstar, and Hudson, Chavez and Tejada were all beginning to blossom as well.

The '99 A's did get good work from OBP machines like John Jaha, Randy Velarde and Tony Phillips. It's true that Beane was still paying Jaha millions two years after he did anything productive for them, Velarde was only a part-time player, and Phillips was near the end of the line. (A fourth OBP guy, Matt Stairs, was acquired before Beane took over.)

Still, these guys were very helpful players, and most were acquired at well below market rates. Without them, the '99 A's would not have been able to win anywhere near the 87 games they eventually won. But all of them were gone within a year or two, and other GMs quickly caught on to the game Beane was playing. After '99, the A's relied more and more heavily on core players Hudson, Mulder, Zito, Giambi, Tejada and Chavez, and those guys were acquired in the same ways most small-payroll GMs acquire their core players - through the draft, and through whatever was already in his farm system when he arrived.

Another way of putting it is this: the '99 A's were able to make up for some of their deficiencies by having a very good supporting cast and a very good bench, mostly because they had a bunch of underrated players with very good OBP. That particular loophole quickly began to close, however, and, beginning at the trade deadline in '99, Beane moved on to others.

For example, at the '99 deadline, Beane traded three players for Kevin Appier, then got two first round draft picks once Appier became a free agent a year and a half later. If I've got this right, Beane used one of those picks to take Jeremy Bonderman, who he then (unfortunately) sent to the Tigers in a six-player deal in which he received Jason Arnold, who he later traded for Erubiel Durazo, and Ted Lilly. It wasn't a very good trade, but Beane still got a lot of value from letting Appier leave via free agency. Other GMs didn't value first-round picks the way Beane did, which is also how Beane was able to rack up seven first round picks in the 2002 draft.

On the same day he traded for Appier, Beane made another important move by dealing mediocre closer Billy Taylor  for Jason Isringhausen, who almost instantly became a better closer than Taylor. After letting Isringhausen leave via free agency, Beane grabbed Billy Koch, then dealt Koch for Keith Foulke right before Koch imploded.

These strategies were interesting and effective, but they were probably less productive than the OBP strategy. There were two main reasons why Beane had no choice but to change. First is that GMs around the game simply got wise to Beane's tricks. The window for exploiting OBP closed pretty quickly, and others did as well. GMs were keeping an eye on Beane, and when they stole his best trick, he had to find others. But another reason was that individual GMs were getting smarter or being replaced by smarter GMs.

One particularly absurd trade illustrates the problems with trying to apply much else that Beane did to anything Neal Huntington might be able to do with the Pirates. On January 8, 2001, the A's traded Grieve to the Rays and Angel Berroa and A.J. Hinch to the Royals. In return, they got Johnny Damon, Mark Ellis and Cory Lidle. All three were very useful players, and the A's gave up very little to get them. Grieve was already falling apart by the time he left Oakland. Berroa - Rookie of the Year award aside - is/was a terrible player. And Hinch was a backup.

Think about this trade from the Royals' perspective: they traded Damon and Ellis, and they got Berroa, Hinch and Roberto Hernandez. The acquisition of Berroa was understandable, but why in the world would a bad team like the Royals have been interested in trading a legitimately good player (Damon) for Hinch and the aging Hernandez? Because Hernandez was a closer, and closers get saves.

There is very little that Neal Huntington could learn from this, because there really aren't very many GMs in baseball who are that dumb anymore. After dealing Damon and Jermaine Dye to the A's for pennies on the dollar, not even Royals GM Allard Baird was that dumb anymore - while he never became one of baseball's great GMs, he'd largely learned his lesson.

And in the meantime, the Indians hired Mark Shapiro, who promptly began remaking Cleveland into the top-tier team it is now. Boston hired Theo Epstein, who was basically like Beane with a better approach to scouting and twice the payroll. Before the 2003 season, Epstein grabbed OBP machines David Ortiz, Kevin Millar, Jeremy Giambi and Bill Mueller for relatively little, and won a World Series a year later with three of those guys playing prominent roles. Subsequent GM hires around the game - from Andrew Friedman of Tampa Bay to Paul DePodesta of Los Angeles to Josh Byrnes of Arizona -  were a lot more similar to Beane than to Baird, and some more experienced GMs, like Doug Melvin and Kevin Towers, became more like the new breed too.

This is not to say that GMs had to emphasize statistics to have success - far from it. But both are important, and the relative importance of each depends not only on how you use them, but on how others use them as well. If you're the only GM who knows about OBP, then you can gain a massive advantage from that. If no one else is drafting college players, then there's a massive advantage to be gained from that. If all your competitors are interested in and knowledgeable about those things, then there's no longer any advantage to be gained.

Beane's drafting strategy, for example, might have worked better if other teams weren't already basically valuing high school and college players properly, relative to one another. It is true that teams weren't valuing pitchers correctly - whether they be high school pitchers or college pitchers - but Beane was no less guilty of that than anyone else. He took two pitchers in the first round in 2002 who didn't make the majors (Ben Fritz and Steven Obenchain), then took one more in the first round in 2003 (Brad Sullivan) who never made it out of Class A. Meanwhile, Beane couldn't wait to get rid of Bonderman, a 2001 pick out of high school; the Tigers were happy to snap him up.

Actually, given the Athletics' payroll and the fact that many of Beane's drafts have involved lots of late first round picks, grabbing high school hitters probably would have been a better course of action. The A's, like all small-payroll teams, live or die on impact talent, and Beane's drafting strategy was unlikely to produce it, which is one reason the A's are having problems now. His 2002 draft, which included seven first-round picks, brought in Nick Swisher, Joe Blanton and Mark Teahen. That's not a terrible haul, but Blanton and Teahen probably had little chance of developing into impact players; they were close to being known quantities when they were drafted. While both have value, neither is the sort of player the A's need most of all. (To be fair, Beane also drafted Jonathan Papelbon in the late rounds but failed to sign him - that would have helped considerably.) Beane's 2003 draft, which featured three first-round picks, has yielded Andre Ethier (another complementary player) and little else. In 2004, Beane had four first round picks and only got Huston Street and a bunch of low-upside guys.

It's not so much that Beane's recent drafts have failed to produce talent - they've just failed to produce the right kind of talent, and they've failed to produce as much talent as you'd hope. Stockpiling draft picks by letting other teams snatch up free agents was a great idea; drafting mostly college players was not such a great idea. (To be fair, again, though, Beane probably saw drafting college players as a short term strategy to help him quickly fill holes on the major-league team. That may make some of his drafts a bit more defensible. But it would be bad news indeed if a team in the Pirates' position were to use them as a guide.)

On one level, though, you have to admire Beane's attempt to snag talent in the draft by focusing so heavily on one type of player. It didn't really work, but it was a gutsy, iconoclastic move, and gutsy iconoclasm is a great characteristic of Beane's. When he has a strategy, he really has a strategy, and he won't do things tepidly. It's this quality, more than anything else, that Huntington can really learn from. Few GMs would have the guts to trade both Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder while their teams had a legitimate shot at contending. Few GMs of contending teams would pull the trigger on as many trades as Beane has. And few would embark on the rebuilding program Beane has begun this offseason. The GM of a low-payroll team simply can't be tepid.

In the end, then, I don't think Huntington will have much to learn from Beane about the strategies Beane is best known for. OBP is completely played out, and Beane really isn't a great model in terms of drafting and developing. Even the idea of attempting to exploit inefficiencies works that well anymore. And if there are more unexplored areas that can be exploited by small-payroll GMs, I doubt they have anything to do with statistics. Maybe they involve Latin American talent, or nutrition, or injury prevention, or maybe there's something to be gained through the kind of personality testing the Orioles have started using. (If the idea has potential, the Orioles probably didn't find it. They're the Orioles.)

Whether or not any such vistas exist, though, the main points here are pretty obvious: draft and develop great talent, and be bold in pursuing it. A large part of the Athletics' success had to do with the core of great players he and his predecessor drafted. Beane was certainly able to get the most out of that core by exploiting stupider GMs and finding market inefficiencies. Now, though, most of the stupid GMs are gone, and the market inefficiencies are getting smaller and harder to find.