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PHOENIX -- A's general manager Billy Beane is one of the smartest men in baseball. But sometimes Beane is credited with ideas that aren't even completely his.
The Athletics' unusual, seemingly illogical quick change from 2008 seller to late-2008 and early 2009 buyer has many in baseball suggesting that it's a case of Beane's mad genius at work. But it actually appears the impetus for the seemingly sudden switch actually came from above. According to one competing owner, the idea to change course and go for it this year came mostly from A's owner Lewis Wolff, who is telling friends that he's tiring of rebuilding and wants to win. According to that owner, Wolff gave a "win now" order.
Beane doesn't deny that Wolff sparked the idea, saying the owner made his suggestion "in a good way." Anyway, Beane went to work, forming a fun and dangerous $58 million team by combining a conglomeration of proven every-day players. Oakland made one monster trade for superstar Matt Holliday and signed multiple free agents to complement one of baseball's best stashes of young and talented starting pitchers.
The A's are considered to have among the best prospects in baseball (the Rangers, A's, Marlins, Rays and Red Sox are often cited as the top five), but are also giving themselves a shot to win now. If it works, it could become the blueprint for others.
"We are trying to rebuild, but also trying to put the best team on the field within the framework of rebuilding," said Beane, explaining the unusual strategy.
The celebrated GM, who initiated last year's stark rebuilding plan by trading away veteran pitchers Rich Harden and Joe Blanton, is the one who executed the new battle plan. And characteristically, Beane implemented the plan in superb fashion. He deserves credit for that (along with A's execs David Forst, Billy Owens and others).
With Wolff's go-ahead, Beane and Co. acquired Holliday, who is one year from free agency and an obvious rental star, to anchor the offense and shock the baseball world. Beane later added ex-A's icon Jason Giambi for power and fun, then waited to sign Orlando Cabrera, a consistent producer who just might be the bargain of the winter at $4 million, steady reliever Russ Springer and finally former superstar Nomar Garciaparra, who brings even more spice at only $1 million guaranteed. Oakland's front office is nothing if not adaptable; a few years ago, when then manager Ken Macha suggested they get Garciaparra, the Athletics' famed stat guys nixed the idea (of course, Nomar comes cheaper now, too).
"Billy did a tremendous job. He got Holliday, Giambi, Cabrera and Springer for what the Dodgers paid for Manny," one competing GM pointed out, though that GM conceded Beane gave up three prospects for Holliday and draft picks for the Type A free agent Cabrera.
Holliday gives the whole lineup credibility, but old friend Giambi adds a dash of panache. Only a minute or two after Giambi said Yankees GM Brian Cashman told him they weren't picking up his $22 million option (he had to be told this?), Giambi called his old boss and friend Beane, looking for his old job back.
Beane told Giambi on that phone call, "We're going to do some big things."
"I really bought in," said Giambi, knowing his old boss as he does.
Giambi said he feels like a kid who left home, went away to college (though for seven years) and is returning home to his parents -- though Beane is actually only a few years older than the 38-year-old Giambi, who does still seem like a kid in many ways.
The quick-strike acquisition of Holliday signaled the A's had partly moved out of the rebuilding phase. But Beane was also determined to surround Holliday with offensive firepower. After they failed to land Rafael Furcal, who appeared determined to stay in the National League, Giambi came for a relatively reasonable $5 million, then came Cabrera and Garciaparra for $5 million combined.
Giambi could go into sales when his ballplaying days are done. After inviting me to talk (who does that?), Giambi gushed, "You should see some of our young arms!"
Beane felt all along that he had the pitching talent, no matter how young, to survive in their spacious ballpark. Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill and Vin Mazzarro are three of the better young pitchers in baseball, although they may all be a year away.
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