Can Billy Beane Work His Magic Again?

Last season was a most forgettable one for the Oakland Athletics and general manager Billy Beane. The A’s produced a mere 68 wins, which was the lowest output in Beane’s 18 years at the helm in Oakland. In October Beane, who has produced six division titles and two wild card berths as a general manager, was promoted to Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations, and his trusted understudy David Forst assumed the role of general manager. While the titles may have changed in the front office, there is no mistaking the fact that Beane has been heavily involved in crafting this year’s team. However, as the team files into Hohokam Stadium in Mesa, Arizona, for spring training, Beane might be facing one of his tallest tasks in recent memory.

Beane has made his career (and legend) on thinking two steps ahead of the competition and is the epitome of someone playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers. Whether out of necessity to survive or sheer genius, Beane has been on the forefront of baseball’s sabermetrics movement. But this season the A’s head into the season facing what seems to be an uphill battle to reach .500, let alone making the playoffs. This leads one to question whether the recent moves by Beane have gone a bit too far outside the box, thus leading to a team destined to struggle for several years.

One may recall that prior to last season’s last-place debacle, the A’s had been in the playoffs three straight seasons, and in 2014 went “all in” down the stretch in acquiring Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija with designs on a deep postseason run. Unfortunately that season’s postseason run was limited to one game, as the Kansas City Royals topped them in the wildest of Wild Card games, 9-8 in 12 innings. The matchup saw the A’s blow a 7-3 lead in the eighth inning, cough up the tying run in the bottom of the ninth, and blow yet another lead in the 12th which ultimately sealed their fate. That game on September 30, 2014, could certainly be looked at as a springboard for the Royals’ future playoff success, and quite possibly underscore the beginning of a long-term downfall for the Athletics.

In order to acquire Lester and Samardzija, Beane had to give up valuable and fairly controllable commodities, namely Addison Russell and Yoenis Cespedes. The loss of Russell and Cespedes was further compounded in the 2014 offseason when Beane felt inclined to trade Josh Donaldson due to concerns over future salary constraints. In no uncertain terms the Donaldson trade was a travesty for the A’s. Donaldson produced an MVP season for the Toronto Blue Jays, while the only current major league player the A’s received in return was Brett Lawrie. Lawrie’s lone season in Oakland was a dud as he was his typical underperforming self on the field, and grated on teammates off the field, before ultimately being traded to the Chicago White Sox in December.

While Beane cannot be faulted for gunning for a title in 2014, the repercussions of the team’s proverbial swing and miss could haunt them for quite a while. Beane has always operated with a small margin for error and the apparent misfires on Donaldson and Samardzija trades, coupled with the ugly Billy Butler signing, certainly has placed some recent tarnish on the glean of Beane’s legacy. It would be tough for any team to lose the offensive firepower and potential of Donaldson, Cespedes, and Russell, let alone a team with the strict budget of the A’s. Now it appears Beane is tasked with reshuffling the deck and acquiring more young talent while trying to keep his head above water at the major-league level.

The question heading into this season is, can Beane and his staff pull yet another rabbit out of their hat and produce a contending team? Oakland, on paper, doesn’t appear to have the horsepower to contend with their division foes, which include the defending American League West champion Texas Rangers, the up-and-coming Houston Astros, and the once-again-retooled Seattle Mariners. It will be interesting to see if Beane can cobble together yet another playoff team in 2016.

This year’s starting rotation looks to have more questions than answers behind blooming ace Sonny Gray. To help counter the potential shortcomings in the rotation, Beane has taken a page out out of the aforementioned Royals’ book in bolstering his bullpen depth in adding John Axford and Ryan Madson, although it could be argued each of those players has plenty of questions too. The offense has the look of a classic Billy Beane crop of gritty players led by Stephen Vogt, Josh Reddick, and recent addition Khris Davis. Manager Bob Melvin will certainly have his work cut out for him in order to keep this team in contention for a playoff berth come September. This year will not be the first time people have taken the A’s for granted, but given a track record spanning nearly two decades, it certainly would seem foolish to doubt the mastermind of Billy Beane.

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