Sunday, April 4, 2010

From (500) Days of Zobrist: Billy Beane and the Mystery of the "Abnormal" GM

It's Easter, and I have to do a lot of cooking soon, but I wanted to write a bit on Beane, who just released Jack Cust yesterday. I find this fascinating because it's just another layer of one wacky off-season by the once "genius" general manager from the Oakland A's. I'll let this piece speak for itself, but check it out in its original form at the Fantasy Baseball Blog I run with fellow writers Luke and Prof Sox at (500) Days of Zobrist.

Amazingly, general managers can have worse off-seasons than San Francisco Giants general manager Brian Sabean (and I know this because I am a Giants fan).

Dayton Moore of the Kansas City Royals is slowly making his case for baseball's most questionable GM after signing Coco Crisp and trading for Yuniensky Betancourt last year, and signing Scott Podsednik and Brian Anderson this off-season.

However, one of the most questionable off-seasons may have come from the team on the other side of the Bay Bridge and their general manager: the widely-hailed Billy Beane.

How big is Beane? He was the focus of a book ("Moneyball") that had a profound change on how people looked at baseball and baseball statistics, and had Brad Pitt slated to play him in the film adaptation of "Moneyball," a much better fate than Paul DePodesta, who has Jonah Hill playing his part (whether or not the movie will come out is a different story, however).

Yet the GM who could do no wrong in the early 2000's, has showed some questionable decision making the last couple of years.

He signed Matt Holliday and Jason Giambi in the off-season, though it was widely hailed by critics that neither guy was a fit for the young up-start A's. Holliday was traded away for a couple of prospects before the Trade Deadline (including top Cardinals third baseman prospect Brett Wallace), but Giambi performed so poorly that he was released by the A's in August, after it was obvious that no team was willing to trade anything for him by the Deadline.

2009 though pales in comparison to what Beane has done this off-season.

First, he traded away Brett Wallace to the Blue Jays in a three-way deal that involved Roy Halladay with the A's receiving top Phillies prospect, centerfielder Michael Taylor. A couple of weeks later, Beane signed outfielder Coco Crisp, another centerfielder.

To bolster the team's pitching, Beane signed Ben Sheets to a one-year deal. Not necessarily a bad deal until you see the price tag: $10 million. He signed Frank Thomas to a one-year $500,000 dollar deal in 2006 and he couldn't sign Sheets, a guy with injury history for anything less than $10 million? (What happened to the "Don't overpay for free agent pitchers" mantra he stuck by in "Moneyball?")

A couple of months later, he traded for Adam Rosales and Wily Taveras, another outfielder, whom they released a week later, (probably because there was no room for him in the A's outfield).

And if that wasn't enough, Beane re-signed Jack Cust, who was non-tendered earlier in the off-season, to a one-year, $2.65 million deal in January. Yesterday, the A's waived Cust in order to make space on their 40-man roster for Tyson Ross.

I can only say one thing.

What...the Beane...doing?

Though he doesn't have to deal with Wily Taveras, the outfield is stacked beyond belief, but stacked in a questionable way. The A's have Rajai Davis, Ryan Sweeney and Travis Buck returning from last year's squad. Eric Patterson tore up Triple-A Sacramento and is a candidate to be a platoon outfielder should he be given the opportunity. Add Crisp and Taylor to the mix and you have one confusing outfielder situation.

What's going to happen? Who knows. What do I think about it? I would be very cautious if you have an Oakland A's outfielder on your fantasy team (Rajai Davis comes to mind). With this kind of depth and competition, a slow start by any starting outfielder (Davis, Coco Crisp, Ryan Sweeney) might not be tolerated. Don't be surprised to see manager Bob Geren yank guys quickly and replace them with up and comers such as Taylor and Patterson. That hurts especially if one of those guys he yanks is starting on your fantasy team (cough...Davis...cough).

The outfield situation though is just the tip of the iceberg. The Sheets signing and the Cust release-sign-release to me are unfathomable. If anything, all it shows is that Beane has no idea what he wants. He knows the A's time in Oakland is ticking, so you get this feeling that he's trying to put all the chips in so he can win right away in what could be their last year or two in Oakland. However, he knows his reputation as a general manager and he doesn't necessarily want to break from that either (thus explaining why he is stocking his team with so many outfielders; it's assets to trade at the Trade Deadline).

That being said, Beane has to make a decision. This tip-toeing from one side to the other isn't going to cut it, especially for Oakland fans, who have had to suffer some mediocre seasons since their ALCS run in 2006.

I find all of this sad though because at the heart of it, I have a lot of respect for Billy Beane. "Moneyball" changed my outlook on baseball and for years, I envied the A's cost-effective, younger teams that always achieved better than expected results year after year. To see Beane be lost like this and look closer to Sabean and Moore rather than Theo Epstein of the Red Sox (a guy he groomed for the most part) and Andrew Friedman of the Rays is just confusing, almost unfathomable.

What has been the reason for Beane's decline? I think I can point that to a possible reason:

The rest of the league (or at least most of the league anyways; the Royals, White Sox, Giants, and Mets still are going old-school, for worse unfortunately) adapted to advanced stats and cost-efficiency in terms of building a ballclub, including the richer teams like the Red Sox, and Beane didn't have the leg up anymore on the competition like he did in the Early 2000's.

So what does Beane do? Instead of continuing the course, it seems as if he has been panicking these past couple of years, almost like a teenager going through an identity crisis. ("What everybody is going Goth too since 'Twilight' was released?")

Without things coming as easy as they used to, he resorts to deals that were uncharacteristic of him before, hoping that they "will make a splash" despite what popular people think. Beane is a super-contrarian by nature. He doesn't want to succeed they way everyone else does, and if he has to go against what got him to be successful in the first place than he'll do it, because it seems as if he is more concerned about doing something "different" rather than doing something "right." How else do you explain the Giambi, Crisp, Cust, and Sheets signings?

Maybe all these questionable signings are just ammunition for something big. After all, you can never doubt the ability of Beane, a GM whom some other GMs refuse to negotiate with (because they know he will ask and GET a lot in trades).

But it just doesn't feel like the same old Beane, and like Macbeth, it seems as if we are seeing the last, crazy days of the abnormal, unique, once widely hailed, now dubious, baseball front office mind.

It may be early, but thanks Beane for everything you've done for the game of baseball. Baseball fans appreciate it.

(Except Toronto fans who had to have J.P. Ricciardi, your former assistant, as their GM from 2001 to 2009. He guided them to ZERO playoff appearances in his tenure. They are probably enjoying this Macbeth-esque fall almost sadistically after what they experienced during the Ricciardi-era.)

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