Billy Beane Confident In Oakland’s Chances Heading Into MLB Season

After several years of reduced payroll and mediocre play, the Oakland Athletics look to be ready to field a contender in 2011. The A’s were active this offseason acquiring pieces for once, a stark contrast to in recent years. The offense may actually be dangerous at times, and their pitching staff…well, their pitching staff is what might carry the A’s into the postseason for the first time since. Billy Beane, the organization’s famous general manager, explains how the struggles of the past few seasons were all part of the process of getting the team to the place it’s at now in. Beane joined Murph & Mac on KNBR in San Francisco to talk about the A’s busy and productive offseason acquiring players, how the past two offseasons afforded Oakland the opportunity to be more aggressive this winter, what he believes free agent acquisition Hideki Matsui can still bring to the table beyond just his presence and experience playing on winning teams, whether he thinks this particular team will benefit or struggle from the expectations of many that they are AL West favorites heading into this season, if he thinks the top of the A’s starting rotation can match the greatness of the Zito/Hudson/Mulder trio, his plan for the No. 5 spot in the rotation, and how the Giants winning last year’s World Series didn’t make him change his approach, but instead only reminded him how great it is when the Bay area has competitive baseball teams to cheer for.

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On the team’s busy and productive offseason acquiring players:

“Yeah this was the busiest one since I’ve been here. We weren’t able to get everything we went after, but we were able to quickly shift to other areas and other players that were available and get a lot done. I don’t think it was a perfect winter but nevertheless very productive.”

On why the A’s were so active this offseason adding players compared to in recent years when they did little other than to unload much of their talent:

“Yeah if you actually follow the papers you saw that we said that. After the ’07 season we were starting to get up there a little bit payroll wise, and quite frankly I didn’t think we had the core we needed more young players than we had. And so we did take a step back and reduce the payroll. And it took a couple of years to develop in particular these young pitchers to the point where we thought it was a good enough team to (A) to add to, and we also had the payroll flexibility. So, yeah, stepping back a few years ago, it was something that we consciously did. It started with the [Dan] Haren trade, and this year we did have a little flexibility relative to what we had in the past. So we were able to do some things.”

What he believes Hideki Matsui can still bring to the table beyond just his presence and experience playing on winning teams:

“Well you’re right, with a young team, there is something to be said about his presence. He’s someone who’s hit in the middle of the lineup in Tokyo and New York and Anaheim, so he should have no problem doing it here.  And it spreads out our lineup a little bit. From a playing standpoint, after a slow start last season, he still had a pretty good year; I think he hit 21 home runs. I think he’s capable of more. He had a little bit of a balky knee at the beginning of last year, which I think contributed to his slow start. He’s feeling great now, so I think he’s capable of certainly at minimum duplicating what he did last year, and it’s quite possible he could do better. And the other thing is he really did want to come here. At the beginning of winter we reached out to few potential free agents, and Hideki was quite adamant that this was his first choice, and that made it a lot easier as well.”

On if he thinks this particular team will benefit or struggle from the expectations of many that they are AL West favorites heading into this season:

“It’s a good question. I think with different teams they react differently. Murph probably remembers when you were covering us, I think it was the ’01 team, we came in and had a relatively experienced but still young team. We had gone to the playoffs in 2000 and we had acquired Johnny Damon. It was a great, great team. We went into spring training and had an unbelievable spring training. We were sort of the talk of the winter and I think we jumped out of the gates and we were absolutely miserable. I think we were 2-12 or something like that; it took us a while. And I think a little bit that that team did react to the expectations and it hurt them.  I think for us it’s good. I think it’s good for the self-esteem with a young club, and I think if you look at the response, we don’t have a full squad yet, but just about every player has been in here for over a week, and so I think that’s a sign of what they’ve read and their reaction to what they think the team will be. I mean at the end of the day, I think I’d rather have them say that it’s a team that can win than a team that can’t win when it’s all said and done.”

Whether he thinks the top of the A’s starting rotation can match the greatness of the Zito/Hudson/Mulder trio:

“We’ve been hearing that comparison a lot. I think one of the unique things about this group of guys — particularly when you take Anderson, Cahill and Gonzalez– these guys were all high school drafts and they all got to the Big Leagues at the time that Hudson/Mulder/Zito were either juniors in college or just signing. So they’re a lot younger than that group and they got here a lot quicker. But listen, that’s a tough group to compare yourself to because in Zito’s case and in Huddie’s case, as soon as they came up they were All Star caliber pitchers from Day 1. Mark it took a year before he made the All Start team. But these guys had some growing pains their first year, which you would expect from 21-year olds to be honest with you. But last year…what they did last year is that they performed last year like I thought they would this year. So I think they really took a giant step forward and really surprised everybody. In Dallas’s (Braden) case, Dallas has really been good since he signed a pro contract. He’s not a real big guy, so he battled a few injuries coming up. But he’s always been a relatively effective pitcher from Day 1. He seems like the old man in the bunch, but he’s still in his mid-20s. I think it’s a good group. I think it’s a little deeper because we have four guys, but I think when it’s all said and done they have a chance to accomplish some of the things that the previous group did.”

On what the plan is for the No. 5 starter in the rotation:

“For us, we’ve got a number of candidates in the fifth spot. Brandon McCarthy, Josh Outman whose coming back from the Tommy John — a year and a half, fully healthy and ready to go, Bobby Kramer who came up for us last year and pitched very, very well; and we’ve got Rich Harden as well. So the idea there amongst those four guys — and they all have talent — is you’d like to get 35 quality starts out of that position, everybody would. But we think the talent level of those guys is above most normal fifth candidates that most clubs have. Although there’s a few clubs that may have some more proven guys, it’s a good group to choose from. And that will be a good competition to watch in the spring.”

Whether the Giants winning last year’s World Series has added extra motivation or changed his or the organization’s approach in any way:

“Not really and the reason I say that is I think the most intense the rivalry has been that I can remember was probably 20 years ago back when Tony [LaRussa] was here. The late ’80s, the ’89 World Series and Al Rosen was still over in San Francisco. It seems to me that there was more intensity then than there is now. Now as you said, they’re not in our league. Certainly we share the airwaves and the newspapers to some extent, but what I think it did more than anything is it’s been awhile since there’s been a championship in the Bay area, and I think it kind of reminds you of what it does and how it energizes the area. In particularly, I don’t think there’s any getting around the fact that San Francisco, one of the greatest cities in the world, the Giants certainly one of the biggest franchises in Major League Baseball history, when they win and it’s in San Francisco, you realize the sort of impact that it has and the energy that it brings everybody. But I’ve been sort of been in this game a long time and have been with the A’s for 20-something-plus years, so from my standpoint, it didn’t really sort of change my day-to-day thinking. And like I said, I think the rivalry was a lot more intense back when I was a player and in the early part of the ’90s than it is now.”

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