A's Win With System. . . Giants Problems. . . 49ers
Why? Reader Tom Ryugo suggests a reason: That Beane’s mistakes don’t hurt the team so much because the productive A’s farm system keeps churning out both position players and pitchers who can overcome any errors in judgment. Productive and farm system don’t appear in the same sentence in any discussion of the Giants.
This is nothing new for the A’s. The nucleus for the three-time World Champion teams, 1972-74, came from players who were signed and developed by the A’s, some of them signed even before the A’s left Kansas City for Oakland in 1968. In the Walter Haas years, the A’s had the Rookie of the Year in three consecutive seasons: Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire and Walt Weiss.
But the great team of 1988-90 were also built around veteran players, some of them, most famously Dennis Eckersley and Dave Stewart, who were considered on their way out when they came to Oakland but were rejuvenated by manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan. As the players got older, the team inevitably declined because Haas had fallen in love with his players and didn’t want to let them go.
When Steve Schott and Ken Hofmann bought the A’s in 1995, general manager Sandy Alderson advised them to put their money into the farm system and get rid of the veterans.
That meant some lean years at the start of the Schott/Hofmann years. But Alderson assured me that better years were ahead. “People always judge an organization by what’s happening on the major league level,” he said, “but sometimes, success on the major league level can hide problems in the minor league system. Our situation is just the reverse. The players we have in the system now will bring us success down the road.”
He was right. Beane, who had been the assistant to Alderson, took over as general manager before the 1998 season. Since then, the A’s regular season record is third-best in the majors, behind the Yankees and Braves. Since 2000, it’s second only to the Yankees.
And no, the A’s haven’t won the World Series in that time, which seems to be the sole criterion for the anti-Beane contingent. But, neither have the Giants, and the A’s have a much better chance of winning it in the near future.
The A’s have both a financial and emotional investment in their farm system. When they bring up players and pitchers, they expect them to stay, so they don’t send them back at the first sign of trouble, as the Giants always do. So, right now, they’re getting solid contributions from farm system products Eric Chavez, Bobby Crosby, Nick Swisher, Dan Johnson and, the latest addition, Travis Buck. Joe Blanton is a solid starter. Huston Street, now on the DL, won the Rookie of the Year award two seasons ago. Rich Harden has shown flashes of brilliance when he’s been physically able to pitch.
The Giants have two promising young pitchers, Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, and Noah Lowry has pitched well, too. But Pedro Feliz is the only farm system product who’s a regular, and the Giants have nobody else who looks capable of being a starter.
There are other factors in the A’s success. Beane is always aware of players elsewhere in baseball who might help the A’s. The latest example: When Mike Piazza went on the DL with a shoulder injury, Beane immediately contacted the Padres about Jack Cust, and quickly signed him. I don’t believe Cust will have a long major league career, because it appears pitchers have figured him out, but he kept the A’s afloat for a couple of weeks with his power hitting.
Pitching coach Curt Young has also done wonders with castoffs from other teams. Chad Gaudin was released by Tampa Bay, but he has become the No. 2 starter for a rotation which leads the majors in earned run average. Lenny DiNardo was a Red Sox castoff, and he’s emerged as a good end-or-the-rotation starter. Joe Kennedy wasn’t highly regarded but he’s also been an effective starter, though cursed with abysmal run support.
Young also deserves credit for the development of Dan Haren, who may be the best starter in the American League right now.
There is a bit of irony in the A’s/Giants comparison, too. Since they moved into their new park in China Basin, the Giants’ management has felt they had to have a contending team each year to keep up attendance.
But now, the Giants, with their veterans-only policy, are fading and may even finish last in their division this year. It is the A’s, who keep replenishing their team with players from their minor league system, who are the consistent contenders.
MODEST FELLOW: A scout in the A’s press box told me a story about Nick Swisher’s professional start that shows the essence of Swisher. In his first full professional season, Swisher was playing at Class A Modesto and was frustrated when several of his drives to right field were stopped by a severe wind blowing in.
He was told not to worry because, in June, the wind would shift.
“June!” said Swisher. ‘I’m not going to be here in June.”
He wasn’t. After 51 games, he was promoted to Double-A Midland and hasn’t looked back.
BODY FAT: Some NFL players are almost too fit. They work out constantly and bring their body fat to a level which is too low to protect them against injuries.
“We’re very conscious of that,” said 49ers coach Mike Nolan after practice one day. “We have minimum levels of body fat, as well as maximum. I’m not going to play a player who has only two per cent body fat. He’d be in danger of really serious injury, like to a liver or kidney.”
GIANTS STRUCTURE: I’m always amused by the follow-the-leader tendency of the sports media. One guy develops a theory and then everybody else follows.
The latest example is that of Giants’ decision making. Though owner Peter Magowan has always played a role, it’s only been lately that the local media has figured that out. Now, Larry Baer has been brought in as well; one columnist said that Baer was behind the re-signing of Barry Bonds this year, that reasoning derived from the fact that Baer called columnists who criticized the signing.
In fact, Baer has often talked to writers, including me, because he’s better at presenting the Giants’ strategy without offending anybody. Brian Sabean doesn’t like to talk to the media, except for the KNBR cheerleaders who afford him a reverence usually reserved for the Pope. Magowan’s approach, which he’s used on me, is to bring out a sheaf of statistics to show you what an idiot you are. Yeah, that works.
But the reality is that Baer is seldom involved in baseball decisions, and Sabean is chiefly responsible. Magowan has to sign off on everything and he certainly influences the general philosophy, but it is Sabean who makes the decisions.
The Bonds signing? I think that was a desperation move. Though he had the money to make a big splash in free agency, Sabean totally whiffed on getting the slugger the Giants needed. So, they had to sign Bonds, and we’ve seen why already this season. When Bonds isn’t hitting home runs, the Giants have no offense. On Sunday, the .235-hitting Rich Aurilia was their No. 3 hitter – and the Giants, without a Bonds homer, closed out their series against the A’s with 21 scoreless innings.
DOUBLE SWITCH: It was a delicious moment when a double switch by Giants manager Bruce Bochy and an injury to backup catcher Elizier Alfonzo forced Bochy to use Pedro Feliz as an emergency catcher last Friday night. In the American League, with the DH, managers can keep their best players in the game. But, let’s be realistic: The chance that they might see a double switch keeps National League fans streaming into the park.
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