Not Enough Cooks: Has the Vaunted Oakland A's Front Office Become Too Insular for Its Own Good?
As competing teams turn to large baseball operations departments, Oakland has opted to keep its braintrust small.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
For a couple of years at the start of this century, I spoke to Billy Beane fairly often. I miss our talks, even though nearly everything he said was off the record. I must have heard the words "just between you and me, Rob" a few hundred times.
But while some of the things he said I won't repeat until everyone's dead, I also think there's a statute of limitations that applies to others.
Back in 2002 or '03—in what might have been my last substantive conversation with him—I asked Beane what he thought about Boston Red Sox management's apparent intention to build a sort of "baseball brain trust."
I don't remember Beane's exact response. I do remember him suggesting the possibility of "too many cooks stirring the pot."
More than a decade later, Beane seems to feel the same way. "They're very happy with the people they have," the San Francisco Chronicle's Susan Slusser says, "and Billy likes having a tight little group. It's just the way they operate."
Does the way the Oakland A's operate still work, though?
Consider just these two facts:
1. The A's currently sport the third-worst run differential in the American League, just a shade better than the woeful Minnesota Twins and Tampa Bay Rays.
2. Last spring, Baseball Prospectus listed only two of Oakland's farmhands among baseball's 101 best prospects. They're losing and they seem well short of the young talent we associate with rebuilding.
Of course, just two years ago, this would have been a completely different conversation. At the All-Star break in 2014, the A's were defending AL West champs andsported an MLB-best 59-36 record. They seemed loaded for bear, having just traded three prospects to the Chicao Cubs for starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel ... and reloaded at the trade deadline, swapping Yoenis Cespedes to the Red Sox for Jon Lester.
Since then, everything's basically gone to hell.
From that All-Star break in 2014 until this All-Star break, the A's went 135-183. Or 135-184, if you count their shocking loss to the Kansas City Royals in 2014's Wild Card Game (in which they blew a 7-3 eighth-inning lead, and lost after blowing another lead in the 12th).
Shortly afterward, the A's made a couple moves that have looked, to this point anyway, almost nothing but bad.
First, they committed to free-agent DH Billy Butler for $30 million and (worse) three years. Halfway into that contract, Butler has been sub-replacement level and seems to have finally lost his every-day job; the A's will probably wind up gagging on a big chunk of the $30 million. Which was at least semi-predictable from the start.
A deal I did not dislike, though? A week after signing Butler, the A's traded third baseman Josh Donaldson to the Toronto Blue Jays for third baseman Brett Lawrie plus minor-league pitchers Sean Nolin and Kendall Graveman, and young shortstop Franklin Barreto. I wasn't alone, either; Grantland's Ben Lindbergh, nobody's fool, called the deal "defensible at worst and sell-high smart at best."
The deal might have been defensible, but the results are not. Donaldson somehow got even better since leaving the A's, with a legitimate shot at winning his second straight MVP Award this year. Meanwhile, Lawrie somehow avoided the Disabled List with the A's in 2015, but he couldn't rediscover the stroke he showed as a rookie with the Jays back in 2011. After the season, the A's traded Lawrie to the Chicago White Sox for two obscure young pitchers; maybe one of them or both will make their mark in the majors someday. That just doesn't seem likely.
Nolin and Graveman? Nolin won once for the A's in 2015, and was waived after the season. On a happier note, Graveman has become a reliable starter for the A's, with an adjusted ERA just a tick below league average. Almost every team needs a pitcher or two like Graveman, just to suck up five or six innings every five days. So, there's that.
There's also Barreto, considered the A's No. 1 prospect entering this season. He has struggled some in the Double-A Texas League, but he's still only 20 and remains a fine prospect.
Which is to say that even a season and a half later, it's way too early to know if the A's made a "good" or "bad" trade. We can only say it probably cost them four or five wins last year, and will do roughly the same this year. But next year and the year after and the year after that and the year ... well, that's largely up to Graveman and Barreto.
But while we don't have a crystal ball for the future, we do have a microscope for the past. So when we look at the A's poor record since 2014, it's natural to connect that performance to the signing of Billy Butler and the trading of Josh Donaldson.
Do those deals, though, embarrassing as they might seem today, tell us anything important about the organization today? Are Butler and Donaldson canaries in the coal mine?
By my count (granted, your count might differ) the A's have made nine or ten significant deals since trading Donaldson.
In rough order, they have acquired: Marcus Semien, Yunel Escobar, Ben Zobrist, Tyler Clippard, and minor-league pitchers Sean Manaea, Aaron Brooks, Casey Meisner, and Daniel Mengden; oft-injured veteran starting pitcher Rich Hill; first baseman Yonder Alonso; relief pitchers Marc Rzepczynski, John Axford, and Ryan Madson; and outfielder Khris Davis;
Meanwhile, they've traded a bunch of veterans, some of whom were about to become expensive (if not overpriced): Jeff Samardzija, John Jaso, Escobar, Zobrist, Scott Kazmir, Clippard, and Drew Pomeranz (along with a few minor leaguers, of course).
Trading Pomeranz has worked out terribly, what with Pomeranz pitching in the All-Star Game last week, then getting traded to the Red Sox for an outstanding pitching prospects.
But the A's have added three young starting pitchers—Graveman, Manaea, and Mengden—who are good enough (or at least healthy enough) to crack the rotation this season. They've added serious power in Semien and Davis, who entered the break with 19 home runs apiece, co-leading the team. And 36-year-old Hill is heading for the best season of his long, injury-plagued career; with the trade deadline looming, both Hill and closer Madson might be the A's most enticing trade bait.
The A's may not be the perpetual AL West contender they used to be—after all, baseball has been caught up for years now on advanced metrics. There's a perception that Beane is not as active as he once was. You know, before all the lucrative speeches and before he got a piece of the franchise and before David Forst gained the title of general manager and before Brad Pitt fired Grady Fuson and neutered Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Don't believe it. Beane got a loftier title a few years ago, with former assistant general manager David Forst losing the "assistant" from his title. But as Susan Slusser says, "The working dynamics have not changed."
So Beane's still pulling all the important strings. And if you think that he once had "the touch" but Billy Butler and Josh Donaldson suggest that he's lost it, I would just point you to all those deals since Butler and Donaldson—deals that, when looked at in toto, hardly suggest Beane has somehow lost his way. He's still that guy in the movie.
I do wonder, though, if Beane is falling behind, not on the field but off it.
There's just so much more data these days, and data needs parsing and parsing needs man- and woman-hours. One can't help wondering if "a tight little group" just can't keep up.
While it's difficult to compare the staffing of baseball-operations departments—for example, some teams include positions like traveling secretary in baseball operations, some don't, and teams use different names for the same jobs—the Athletics' official number of 21 in baseball operations is certainly lower than most.
Take the Los Angeles Dodgers, for instance. Granted, they're an extreme case, but they list 41 baseball-operations staffers, including nine devoted to "research and development": two senior developers, four senior analysts, and three analysts. The Cubs list 31 in baseball operations, including three analysts, a baseball systems architect, and an assistant director, research and development. The Red Sox' baseball-operations department is relatively small, but they've got a separate Information Technology department with 11 staffers.
"I simply can't say whether [the A's] have enough analysts or not," an American League executive told me, "because I don't know their processes. But given all the work we have on our plate, sometimes more cooks enable you to discover a better recipe more quickly."
At this point, it's just not clear whether the A's front office is built for what might soon become known as the Statcast Age. Billy Beane hasn't even hinted about making changes, though, so we're probably going to find out.
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