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March 23, 2010

Spring Conversations

Oakland Athletics

by Kevin Goldstein

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It has been six years since David Forst was appointed assistant general manager of the Oakland Athletics. No longer attached to rumored jobs with other teams, Forst is generally seen as the heir apparent to Billy Beane, and he took some time this week to talk about spring training, the team, and, of course, what A's discussion is complete without the word "Moneyball" coming up?

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Kevin GoldsteinThe team has been around .500 this spring and, like all teams, you've had some players look good and some players really struggle. How much weight, if any, do you put into spring training on both a team performance level and an individual player level?

David Forst: On a team performance level you try to put almost none, just because on any given day you go out there and see the lineup we're running out there in the seventh, eighth, ninth innings and the guys we are playing. Wins and losses are really the last thing you look at. Ideally you'd like to be at least around .500 so you know your main guys are playing well at some point. If you lose too many games, that becomes an issue where it's a culture/environment thing, but on a team level you put very little stock in it, and on an individual level, it depends on the guy and his standing with the club. There are certainly guys who come in to spring training and need to perform to either make an impression or actually make the club. As much as we tell ourselves that we're better off considering the last year or two or three years, you are always subject to what you see during these four weeks, for better or for worse.

KG: Getting to the 2010 club, a lot of talk has been about Ben Sheets. There seems to be some kind of surprising move every year. Last year it was the Holliday trade, and that turned into prospects, and this year it's all of a sudden Sheets going to Oakland. Is it the same kind of thing where maybe Sheets can help you win, but if he's pitching well and you're not in the race you can just turn him around for prospects?

DF: We really don't think too much about the second part of that equation. I mean, we really think this guy is going to help us win. In both the Holliday and Sheets cases we had the payroll flexibility to make the move. It didn't really block anyone significantly in either case. Even in Sheets' case, where we have a good group of young starting pitchers, most people would argue that it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world for some of those guys to get more development time in the minors. Even guys who spent a lot of time in the big leagues last year, other than (Brett Anderson), nobody has really forced our hand to say we can't write your name in pen in the rotation. So in Ben's case, we had the money within our payroll constraints. We had a slot where we needed a starting pitcher to anchor the top of the rotation and if he's the guy who goes out there like his years with Milwaukee he definitely makes us better.

KG: That takes us to the roster this year, where there are some other new faces like Kevin Kouzmanoff and Coco Crisp. At the same time, for the last couple of years when you talk about the A's, you talk about all the young talent and all the prospects you got through trades and the draft, and a farm system that has tended to rank at the top. You're seen as a rebuilding team, but then you're acquiring Sheets and Holliday. Can you rebuild and win now?

DF: I think you have to. We have an obligation, to ownership and our fans, to try and win now. There are not many teams in professional sports that can really go out there and credibly say, "You know what, we're going to punt this season." You can't do it, you can't do it in today's environment, so you have to rebuild and still put a credible product on the field at the same time. It's a tough balance, but we feel we've done it. We haven't sacrificed anyone's spot on the major-league roster where it would have hindered the development of a player or our team. 

KG: You talked about wanting to make sure that young players really step up and say they're ready. Two players that have struggled a bit in spring training are Chris Carter and Michael Taylor. When you see those two struggle but you have a guy like Daric Barton, who has played well and is probably going to get a shot at first base, and you have a truckload of outfielders, is there almost a sigh of relief there in just knowing that you can easily send the young guys back to the minors?

DF: Well, I'm not sure it's totally fair to judge their spring performances, as neither guy has really played consistently. You mentioned Barton, and to his credit, he's played consistently and really performed. He's one of those guys who have come in and basically grabbed a job, so to speak. Michael and Chris have had decent at-bats, but they haven't been out there for two, three, four days in a row getting three or four at-bats like a lot of the major-league guys have. So it's not entirely fair, but at the same time, I think we knew there was a good chance that they were going to start the year in Triple-A and would really have to wow people in order to push their way on to the major-league club. You know, kind of the way Travis [Buck] did in 2007. Travis just gave us no choice that spring because he hit every ball hard—I think he finished up at .350-something that spring—and just really made the decision for us. Chris and Michael haven't really gotten going like that, but I certainly wouldn't label their springs a disappointment. It's been good for our major-league staff to get to work with them, and I think Triple-A time is what's best for both guys right now.

KG: And with that, do you start to think about what happens if they both go to Sacramento and start raking? Do you think about that, or just say it's a nice problem to have?

DF: That's exactly what we say. These things always work themselves out, and it's never a problem to have too many good players.

KG: Looking a little deeper into the system, one question I got all of last year was where is [Michael] Ynoa? He never showed up in a box score. I know he's pitched some this spring. Can you talk about what happened last year, how he's looked so far this year, and what the plans are for him in 2010?

DF: Well, the plan now is pretty much what we were hoping to do last year. It was unfortunate that he had the elbow issues last year. We obviously were incredibly conservative with his treatment, with rehab, with his throwing program—he was 17 last year, and there was just no reason to push him. Our plan for this year is already going. He was in the Dominican instructional league, he's now in spring training, and he'll start in extended spring. Depending on how he pitches, he'll then go to either Arizona or Vancouver, and we'll treat him like we would—or even more conservatively—than we would a high school guy. We'll try to get him anywhere between 75 and 100 innings this year depending on how he feels, and we'll let him go from there. He does feel good, he was up to 92-93 [mph] easily in the Dominican, and he's working his way back there now in spring training. He's still just so young, that there's no reason to force the issue.

KG: A little more than two months from now, your team will pick 10th overall in the draft. Last year, you took a Scott Boras client in Grant Green with your first pick, and then later on spent first-round money to a high school catcher. The year before, the pick was a toolsy guy in Jemile Weeks. Have we seen a change from your organization in the stereotypical Moneyball philosophy when it comes to drafting?

DF: Well, it depends on what you consider the Moneyball philosophy. If the Moneyball philosophy was to take only college players and nothing else, then yes, you've seen a change, but I would argue that that's never what the philosophy was. Going back to the drafts where we took [Trevor Cahill] and [Vin Mazzaro] and went through some high school pitchers, it was a matter of those guys falling to a point where we thought their value was correctly placed. As for Green, we've never shied away from Boras clients, just for the value and the slot we never felt it was the right time until Grant came along and we were thrilled that he fell to us where we picked at 13. A high school catcher might not be a typical A's pick, but [Max Stassi] isn't a typical high school kid. We felt he was a special kid both physically and maturity-wise, and I think everyone that went to see him play recognized that.

KG: Just on a related note, I have to ask, are you sick of the word "Moneyball"?

DF: [Laughs]. No, I wouldn't say I'm sick of it. I'm just not entirely sure how often it's used correctly. Michael Lewis gets mad at me if I say I'm sick of it, so I don't want that.

KG: So we know the truth here; you're just basically talking around it?

DF: ...Yeah [Laughs].

KG: Sticking to the whole stats-and-scouts thing for a second, I think about a guy like Farhan Zaidi, who is your main stats guy, and the last two times I've seen him—first time was in Phoenix watching 18-year-olds throw off a mound, and the second time was Low-A Kane County where we really just sat and talked about scouting. Teams talk a lot about combining the numbers stuff with the scouting stuff, and marrying the two. It seems from the outside that you're not just marrying the two; you're almost cross-training in a way. Can you talk about how that works?

DF: There never has been this huge separation between stats and scouts for us. Maybe it was portrayed that way in the book because it was a better story, but it's never been that way. Since the minute we started using numbers, whether it was with Paul [DePodesta] or bringing in Farhan to specialize in that, we've always understood and believed in the power of the scouting report. In fact, you talk about marrying the two, the numbers that are put in scouting reports; those are like stats on their own. So when a guy puts an OFP [Overall Future Potential] number down, you have a formula where you use that subjective evaluation as its own statistic. Farhan very much believes in going out to see guys himself so he can understand what everyone else in the room is saying, and whether it agrees or doesn't agree with what the numbers say on paper. So, there's never been that separation. Billy [Beane] played the game, and he believes in the numbers as well, and that goes throughout the system. Whether it's [farm director] Keith [Lieppman] who is on the field or Eric [Kubota] in scouting, everybody believes in the idea that the best decisions are made when the stats and the subjective evaluations agree.

KG: So, one question comes from the Twitter people, as I told my followers about this interview and requested questions. My favorite comes from 'CoEasley,' and it's a tough one: In the matter of a few months, you traded for, and then traded away Brett Wallace. Was that more because of what you saw in Taylor or because of what you didn't see in Wallace? And adding from my side, it's incredibly rare to see a prospect-for-prospect trade, especially with two Top-50 prospects. Why do you think that is, and what was in place to make this one happen?

DF: Well, to answer the first question, it was without a doubt because of what we saw in Michael Taylor and not because of what we didn't see in our short time with Brett Wallace. We had gone after Taylor before in a [potential] Holliday trade. The Phillies had shown some interest in Matt, and Taylor was a guy we targeted. [Player personnel director] Billy Owens went to see him play in the middle of July last year, and Michael was a guy that we had targeted just as much as we had targeted Brett. When the opportunity came up to swap the two with Toronto, we felt like Michael was a better fit for our current depth in the organization. We've currently got Barton, Carter, and [Sean] Doolittle all coming at first base, and ultimately we thought that's where Brett is going to end up. He did a nice job at third base at Sacramento, but we know how difficult that position is. We've seen one of the best ever to play that position in Oakland for the last decade [Eric Chavez] and how much of an impact it can make defensively. So we felt like that's where Brett was going to end up and we had some guys to fill that spot. What we didn't have was a guy coming up like Michael, who had a chance to be above-average defensively, run, hit for power, and obviously hit for average the way he's done in the minor leagues. So it was certainly about Michael. As far as why you don't see those trades; I'm not sure that situations even come up that often where you can part with a guy in your system who you like that much. It's natural to over-value your own guys because you see them so much and you talk about them so much. There are just very few situations where you are going to be comfortable giving up one of those guys. Maybe it just worked out that we hadn't become so emotionally attached to Brett, so we were able to pull the trigger.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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