Considering that he is one of the most prominent general managers in baseball, that he has built and rebuilt a couple of multi-season playoff contenders, that some people feel even Brad Pitt wasn’t glamorous enough to play him in a movie, it sounds a little weird to say this season could go a long way in defining Billy Beane’s legacy.
But here goes: The 2015 season will go a long way in defining Billy Beane’s legacy. And it’s Beane who signed himself up for this sort of professional scrutiny.
The Oakland’s A’s GM proved long ago that he is the master of small-market baseball economics, positioning himself in the sweet spot of the New Analytics wave that just about every team in every major sport has since embraced. His credentials in this regard are beyond debate.
What Beane’s detractors – yes, he has a few – have argued through the years that the GQ GM is content to rule over his remote little baseball kingdom precisely because it allows him to avoid the greater challenge of spending big to win a championship. On the other side of the bay, Brian Sabean has successfully embraced that challenge. Beane remains a brilliant fish in a small pond, and can cry poverty every time his team comes up short.
Last year, though, Beane broke character. For once, the A’s were midseason buyers, not sellers. Beane went all in, purchasing the parts he felt his team needed to make a World Series run. Those moves looked good on paper, but they were a disaster. The A’s floundered down the stretch and didn’t make it out of the wild card round.
Beane did not go into hiding, though. Far from it. He locked his door, dipped some chew and attacked his roster with a ferocity that seemed extreme even for him: nine trades involving 27 different players, and a thoroughly revamped ball club.
This time, the maneuvering raised eyebrows. Beane unloaded some of the most popular, and most productive, players on the team, including third baseman Josh Donaldson, catcher Derek Norris and first baseman Brandon Moss. Yes, the A’s got some interesting talent in return. But every free-spending sports team knows that when you dramatically reconfigure your cast – five new starters on Opening Day, in the A’s case – there’s no guarantee it will all come together efficiently.
And so the 2015 season becomes Billy Beane’s great crucible. If the A’s falter this year, if their lineup ends up punchless and their starting rotation keeps getting hurt and the team finishes with a losing record for the first time in four seasons, the anti-Beaners will have an armory full of ammunition. Yes, they’ll say, this guy can spot obscure talent and balance books. But the one time he aggressively pursued an immediate championship, he failed – and his frantic offseason efforts couldn’t clean up the mess. Beane’s reputation will be tarnished.
Now, consider the opposite scenario. The A’s have been up and down in the first four games of the season, but they have shown some promising flashes. What if Brett Lawrie and Ben Zobrist and Billy Butler and the other new Athletics wind up being as good as Beane leads us to believe they are? What if this team finds its chemistry and goes right back to the top of the AL West?
Then the narrative will sound like this: Billy Beane went hard after a World Series, saw it backfire, but reached into his top hat and pulled out a rabbit, a bouquet of flowers and a viable No. 5 hitter with power to the alleys.
It will be Beane’s finest moment. And that’s saying something.