Two weeks before the release of “Moneyball” last September, Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane decided that he wouldn’t have anything to say about the film. That decision led to speculation that Beane was “uncomfortable being cast as a genius at a time when the standings tell such a different story.”
While Beane later disputed that theory (“Billy is not the kind of guy who is looking for fame,” A’s owner Lew Wolff explained), you can’t blame A’s fans for speculating: the 2011 version of Beane’s A’s were in the midst of a failed season, and would finish well back of both the Rangers and Angels in the American League West.
But what’s astonishing about the 2011 A’s is that they were actually typical of how Beane does business. He builds a team around young pitching, waits for it to mature, harvests the benefits in the form of temporary appearances in the playoffs and then — just when the players he’s developed are about to make big bucks — he trades them away and starts again. It’s a standard practice for many small market teams, but Beane has made it an artform.
Take the “2002″ Oakland A’s — the “Moneyball” A’s. While the Brad Pitt film focused on Beane’s signing of players to replace departed free agents (primarily Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon), the team was built on a trio of young and talented hurlers: Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder. With them (and okay, with Scott Hatteberg and Chad Bradford), the A’s nearly went to the post season and, with a little luck, might have ended up in yet another World Series. But when that didn’t happen, Beane does what he always does: he shipped out his young hurlers (Hudson was traded to the Braves, Mulder to the Cardinals and Zito was signed as a free agent by the Giants) and started over.
Starting over for Beane means developing new young pitching — not putting former catchers at first base. The newest trio of developing young arms was even better than the Hudson-Mulder-Zito crew. It took a while, but Beane eventually reconstructed a starting staff that was, again, the talk of the American League: Trevor Cahill (12-14 last year, 18-8 in 2010), Gio Gonzalez (16-12 last year, 15-9 in 2010) and Brett Anderson (injured this year, but 11-11 in 2009, at aged 21).
Surprisingly — and shockingly for many A’s fans — Beane decided this trio would not do it, and he shipped them out: landing a soft tossing lefty (Tom Milone) and Brad Peacock (a potential Brad Radke) along with two others from Washington, and an unknown outfielder (now at Triple-A in Sacramento) and two pitchers from Arizona. Very few pundits gave Beane the edge, and he may well have given up one of the very best young lefties in Gonzalez. To top it all off, Beane then shipped out All Star closer Andrew Bailey to Boston.
So what the hell happened? Bailey, an A.L. Rookie of the Year, said that he understood what Beane was trying to do. “That organization is heading down a different road where they’re trying to get younger and build for a future in San Jose,” he said. Well, maybe: but it’s hard to get younger than 24 (Cahill), or Gonzalez (26), and Bailey was hardly ancient (27). And Oakland fans were decidedly not impressed: the howls could have been heard in Nationals Park.
It may be, of course, that Beane’s swap-happy off-season turns out to be a work of genius, and it is true that Oakland is trying to retool itself for a potential move to San Jose. But a look at Oakland’s trio of hurlers this year has to make you wonder: Bartolo Colon (okay, he’s been unbelievable, but he’s 38), the untested Milone (he’s young and good, but he’s not Gio Gonzalez — and Peacock is in the minors), and Brandon McCarthy — who wasn’t shipped anywhere and is a hard luck 0-3 on the season. Okay, the injury to Dallas Braden hurt, badly. But the sense in Oakland is that if Braden hadn’t gotten hurt, he’d be somewhere else.
Worse yet, A’s fans were furious with the swaps: At some point, he [Beane] has to stop trading away the talent he has and give them a chance make something special happen in Oakland,” one A’s pundit said. The Oaktown Breakdown was puzzled — didn’t Beane say that the team was “deep in starting pitching?” Why trade it now — and for another set of untested prospects? “There’s no fighting the latest rebuild so I’m just going to settle in and look forward to seeing whether these kids can be part of a bright future that always seems to be off on the distant horizon,” Swingin’ A’s wrote.
The view from Oakland in March, then, boiled down to this: the “out with the old and in with the new” was getting . . . ah . . . old. Then too, the “out with the old in with the new” seemed to boil down to “out with the young, in with the younger.” There are those who disagree. SFBay says that Beane now looks like a “genius.” Milone is pitching well, Beane freed up enough money to sign uber-prospect Yoenis Cespedes (a dead ringer for Vlad Guerrero at the plate), Andrew “Boom Boom” Bailey is on the D.L. in Boston and Trevor Cahill is doing a face plant in the Valley of the Sun.
Maybe Beane’s lost his touch — and maybe not. Even if Milone doesn’t work out, and Peacock doesn’t arrive in the majors anytime soon, even if Josh Reddick (the name pick up from Boston in the Bailey deal) turns out to be the “real deal” (he’s hitting .266 after sixteen games), Beane had to do something to put fans in the seats, at least until Oakland’s stadium problem gets resolved or, more likely, they move to San Jose. That something was Cespedes who, on Oakland’s opening night, launched what has to be the the longest home run in A’s history, some 462 feet from home plate in the Coliseum.
Has Billy Beane lost his touch? After an off-season of criticism, A’s fans now seem to be withholding judgment. The White Elephants haven’t tanked, at least not yet, and are holding their own in the powerful A.L. West. And Reddick and Cespedes (and maybe Milone), could keep fans in the seats. Or Billy could be smarter than we think: building a team for San Jose that will bring a pennant to a new stadium four years from now . . . or not.