Billy Beane Follows the Masters
Branch Rickey was the inventor of baseball’s farm system, with the St. Louis Cardinals, and he developed another great system with the Brooklyn Dodgers. With both clubs, he was operating with a tight financial budget – and he also got a bonus if he came in under budget – so he brought in a constant stream of young players who had lower salaries, and he also used players from the farm system to bring in more cash.
Beane, too, is operating on a tight budget, so he brings in young players from a minor league system that is often regarded as the best in baseball, and he often uses players from that system to make trades.
Rickey’s system brought pennants to the Cardinals in 1942, ’43, ’44 and ’46, and World Series titles in all but 1943. With the Dodgers, he put together a team that won six pennants in 10 years, finally winning the World Series in 1956.
Beane hasn’t quite matched that, but the A’s made the postseason four years in a row, 2000-2003. and just missed last season.
Unlike Rickey and Beane, Walsh had the luxury of having a free-spending owner, Eddie DeBartolo – though his 1981 Super Bowl champion was at the low end of the NFL payroll scale – but he was a firm believer in keeping the team young. He often said he would rather risk letting a veteran go a year early than risking keeping him for a year too long.
Beane followed that example to the extreme with his trades of pitchers Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, two of the “Big Three”, in the recent off-season.
THE HUDSON trade was no surprise. The 30-year-old right-hander was in the last year of his contract and there was no way the A’s could afford to re-sign him in a baseball market that has gone crazy again. If Russ Ortiz could get a $33 million contract, what could Hudson command?
Beane chose to get something now for Hudson, rather than letting him play out his contract and get extra draft picks in compensation as he has in the past with stars like Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada.
Though Hudson is older, the Mulder trade was a better example of how Beane is following the Walsh dictum. Though Mulder is still a few months short of his 28th birthday, he had serious breakdowns in the second half of the last two seasons. In 2004, he went from starting the All-Star game to being one of the worst pitchers in the league for the second half.
Mulder had two years left on his contract, but if he started off as poorly this season as he finished last year – or even had another breakdown in late season – his trade value would have been very low. So, Beane pulled the trigger on a trade.
TO OPERATE this way, Beane has to keep a close watch on both his minor league system and others, and he has to have an excellent staff.
His attention to detail is legendary. He has gone to watch the A’s minor league teams in Sacramento and Modesto, and when he isn’t there in person, he listens to game broadcasts on the Internet. Listening to a Modesto A’s game last season, he heard that an A’s hitter had swung on the 3-0 pitch. He was on the phone instantly to the Modesto clubhouse.
Beane also knows he can rely on minor league director Keith Lieppman, who travels constantly throughout the organization to scout the players and give recommendations to Beane on which players should be moved up, either within the minor league system or to the major league club.
With the help of an excellent staff, Beane has made some good decisions on unheralded players.
First baseman Scott Hatteberg, for instance, was an unknown quantity when he was acquired. Second baseman Mark Ellis was seen as a throw-in when he was included in the Johnny Damon trade in 2002 but Beane had had his eye on Ellis for some time. “I wouldn’t have made the trade without him,” he told me.
So, when Beane picked up young pitchers Dan Haren, Danny Meyer, Kiko Calera and Juan Cruz in the Hudson/Muler trades, I was willing to trust his judgment.
Certainly, the A’s have some questions for this season, and they’re not limited to the pitching. They’ll have less power, with Jermaine Dye gone, and there’s a question whether Nick Swisher is ready to be a starter in the outfield.
“Nick is probably up about half a year early,” Beane said when I asked him about that, “but he hit 29 home runs (with a broken left thumb, which he didn’t learn until after the season) last year in Triple-A. What are we going to tell him: Go back and hit another 29 home runs?”
Without Dye’s power, and with the addition of catcher Jason Kendall, an excellent contact hitter and baserunner, the A’s may actually be a running team this year, no longer the station-to-station team of the past.
“We’re always re-inventing ourselves,” said Beane. “Who would ever have thought we’d have led the league in defense.”
THE IMPORTANT factor is that Beane knows what he’s doing. I know from reading about him what Branch Rickey did. I know from watching him what Bill Walsh did. Now, I have the distinct pleasure of watching Billy Beane following those great models to success.
E-mail Glenn Dickey at email@example.com
NOTE TO READERS: This column has also appeared on Marty Lurie’s website, loveofthegameproductions.com. Marty does a pre-game show, “Right Off the Bat,” before A’s games, a “Memories of the Game” show daily and, during the season, “Inside Baseball: Saturday night.”
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