The rest of the baseball world doesn’t quite know what’s happening with the A’s, but that’s been true for three decades as the management has been consistently ahead with new ideas.
That really started with the hiring of Tony La Russa as manager. La Russa made changes that eventually every other team adopted, primarily creating the role of closer for a pitcher who comes in at the start of the ninth inning and pitches only that inning. Dennis Eckersley became that pitcher, so successful that he is now in the baseball Hall of Fame. La Russa also slotted pitchers for the seventh and eighth innings. Now, every team follows that pattern.
When Billy Beane became general manager in the ’90s, he looked for smart hitters. That did not mean hitters who looked to take walks, as uninformed writers still think, but ones who looked for a good pitch to hit. When Chili Davis was the A’s hitting coach last year, that was exactly what he taught. If that good pitch was the first in the at-bat, the hitter should swing at it, but if he didn’t get a good pitch to hit early in the count, he should let it go.
And, of course, Beane has always looked for pitchers. Fans and writers were dismayed when he traded Yoenis Cespedes for Jon Lester last season, but Beane felt that he needed another outstanding pitcher to get to the postseason. The A’s lost the game that would have gotten them into the postseason, but Cespedes did little for the Red Sox, either, continuing a descent because he seems determined to try to hit every pitch 500 feet.
Strong pitching has been a constant in Beane’s time, with the playoff run in the early part of this century built around Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, all draft picks.
Otherwise, Beane depends on an excellent scouting staff to bring in position players. He doesn’t have much money to work with because of the frugality of the A’s owners, Lew Wolff and John Fisher, but he’s been able to find players who can help.
This year, he’s brought in another cast of largely unknown players, though third baseman Brett Lowrie has a solid reputation. The shortstop, Marcus Semien, is a clear upgrade.
One thing Beane always looks for is versatility. Ben Zobrist, though he was brought in to play second base, can play elsewhere and is in the outfield now because of a shortage caused by injuries to Coco Crisp and Josh Reddick.
Beane clearly does not believe in the myth that players must know each other well before they can meld into a team. Neither does manager Bob Melvin, who makes it clear to his players that there will be a lot of juggling throughout the year. He may be churning up inside but he exudes calm.
One of the no-nothings who has a blog rated Beane’s offseason as an F-minus. Smarter people know better. Making predictions for an almost totally new roster is hazardous, but just judging by what I’ve seen of Beane’s moves over the years, I expect them to be in contention for a playoff spot.