OAKLAND — In the midst of 2015, Marcus Semien’s first season with the Oakland Athletics, Billy Beane — as he does — was working out in the A’s Oakland Coliseum weight room during a game. With him was general manager David Forst, who had taken over Beane’s old position when Beane was elevated to executive vice president of baseball operations.
As Semien made one of his career-high and league-worst 35 errors, Beane had an idea. One of his former teammates — Ron Washington — had worked wonders with Eric Chavez and Miguel Tejada during his first stint with the club, from 1996-2006, right as Beane took over as GM.
“We’ve got to bring Wash in here,” Beane told Forst.
Oakland brought Washington in to take Semien to fielding boot camp, and because of the former Cal shortstop’s work ethic and versatility, Oakland stuck with him. Last week, he was among the four A’s infielders named as finalists for Gold Gloves.
After Oakland’s first playoff appearance in four years — preceded by three last-place finishes in the AL West — the A’s are, likewise, sticking with the talent they have, and giving that talent the tools to succeed. That includes a higher payroll over the next several seasons, and bringing Beane, Forst and manager Bob Melvin back on long-term extensions, which were announced on Monday.
“Typically, we tend to flip things around if things don’t work,” said Melvin, whose contract was set to expire at the end of 2019.
Melvin will now manage the A’s through 2021, at least, with a club option for 2022.
“Ownership was up-front with us, and they followed through with the timing and everything, so there really wasn’t a sense of anxiety,” Beane said. “I think we all wanted to work together. The fact that we’re here today doesn’t mean it took three weeks to do. It was just one of the few days we could announce it, so it all went pretty smoothly.”
Forst will be around until 2023. Beane, the architect of Moneyball, preferred not to disclose the terms of his deal, save for that he anticipates “having a long-term relationship,” with the club. Given that his promotion in 2015 also came with an ownership stake, it’s not a stretch to say he’ll be in Oakland well beyond 2023.
“The stability here is something we’re proud of,” said Beane, who will be entering his 21st season with the team next year.
Beane and Forst constructed the roster that now features an exciting young core, including third baseman Matt Chapman and first baseman Matt Olson (both Gold Glove finalists), along with designated hitter Khris Davis and right fielder Stephen Piscotty.
“As far as the roster is concerned, we were all going to be here for ’19 no matter what, so we’ve been working on that and thinking about ’19 for a while,” Forst said. “Certainly beyond that, we have a good core, and we hope is here into a new ballpark. [The extensions] help clarify things there.”
While Davis — who hit a league-leading 48 home runs, bringing his MLB-best three-year total to 133 — is under contract next year, All-Star second baseman Jed Lowrie — another Gold Glove finalist — is not. He was one of nine A’s who were declared free agents on Monday. That group includes starting catcher Jonathan Lucroy, starting pitchers Brett Anderson, Edwin Jackson and Trevor Cahill, late-season relief acquisitions Jeurys Familia and Shawn Kelley and outfielder Matt Joyce.
“There’s certainly guys who we are certainly trying to bring back, but in general, one of the things we have to address is pitching, and the starting pitching,” Beane said. “We had a slew of injuries last year, and we had a lot of young guys in the minor leagues who were hurt, so we’re going to have to, similar to what we did during the season, we’re going to need to create a starting pitching group that Bob can rely on every day.”
Melvin navigated 14 different starting pitchers, injuries to Chapman, Davis and Joyce and six different starting pitchers felled by season-ending injuries (including ace Sean Manaea, who will be out most of 2019). Towards the end of the season, he had to employ both bullpenning and using an opener to varying degrees, including in an AL Wild Card game loss to the New York Yankees. That earned him the Sporting News American League Manager of the Year Award.
“I’ve always felt that one of Bob’s biggest strengths is his flexibility, his ability to adjust to the roster that we hadn’t him,” Forst said. “He has always shown a great ability to adjust on the fly. This year’s roster was not easy … That’s why we’re confident in him going forward.”
Moving forward, Beane said, Melvin may have more to work with beyond just those arms, as ownership has committed to upping the team’s MLB-worst payroll in each of the next few seasons, although exactly how that will look and by how much it will increase remain a matter of debate.
“I think we’re going to take a more strategic view and look at it over a longer period of time, instead of just one year at a time, which I think is a good way to do it,” Beane said. “We’re having those conversations now. To give you a simple answer, yes, we anticipate the payroll going up.
“It will certainly go up, and it will go up continually, year after year after year. We’ve already had that discussion … We may want to look at a pool-type situation, X-amount of dollars over a five-year period, but those are all things that we’re talking with John Fisher about.”
Beane said the idea moving forward is to not have to rely so heavily on the bullpen, or to regularly use openers as Oakland was forced to do at the end of the season.
“Hudson, Mulder, Zito, I was a really smart GM there … everyone’s chasing that great rotation,” Beane said. “Very few teams have it, and it costs a lot of money if you’re going to go out there and buy it. Ideally, you create it organically through the draft.”
Speaking of the draft, another former Golden Bear — Daulton Jefferies, a 2016 competitive balance A-round pick — began to pitch in games late in the summer, and was up to 95 off the mound. He pitched in the fall instructional league.
A.J. Puk — the sixth-overall pick in 2016 — is playing catch at the A’s facility in Mesa, Arizona, and will be 10 months out of Tommy John surgery when spring training starts. He’s projected to be back, pitching in games, by the middle of the 2019 season.
James Kaprielian — a 2015 first-rounder out of UCLA who came over in the Sonny Gray trade from the New York Yankees — pitched in the instructional league after recovering from Tommy John.
Along with those three — injuries to whom set the club back a year, Beane said — Beane also name-checked Jesus Luzardo, the organization’s top pitching prospect, as among those who will form the foundation for future rotations.
“In the last couple years, we think we’ve really turned a corner, as far as what you saw on the field last year, and we feel like we can get better,” said Melvin, who improved the team’s win total by 22 games between 2017 and 2018. “This has kind of always been the place for me. I’ve been a couple places before that, but the minute I got here, going forward, I knew that this is the one place I really wanted to be, wanted to stay.”
The one principle not in attendance, team president Dave Kaval, was out and about working on getting the A’s a new ballpark. Winning brings in fans, Beane said, and that is of course his job, along with Melvin’s and Forst’s, but a new venue in Oakland is still a top priority, especially with the Oakland Raiders and Golden State Warriors set to leave town. Stability in baseball operations, Beane intimated, is due to a vision of the future from up top.
Melvin is now set to manage the A’s for over 10 years by the end of his new extension, with both Beane and Forst passing the two-decade mark. wBoth Chapman and Olson came up through the A’s system, and both Semien and Piscotty are East Bay natives. For the foreseeable future, they’re all rooted in Oakland.
“I think the thing that we all know that’s different, is the commitment the ownership has, with Dave Kaval and business operations has to really securing a new venue here in Oakland,” Beane said. “They’re serious about it. Dave’s not here today because he has meetings. It’s no disrespect to me, Bobby or David, it’s just that Dave is constantly working to secure a venue, and that’s the difference.”