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September 6, 2012

On the Beat

Seeing the Forst for the Trees

by John Perrotto

David Forst certainly knows how to describe the Athletics' amazing 2012 season as well as anybody. After all, he has lived it as the club's assistant general manager and right-hand man to veteran GM Billy Beane. Forst was there at the start of spring training when seemingly no one outside the organization gave the Athletics any chance of contending. And he is here now, as the Athletics have become one of the biggest surprises in baseball by putting themselves in post-season contention for the first time in six years, even after being swept at home by the Angels in a three-game series this week.

So how does Forst break down the Athletics' improbable success and explain how they are 76-60 when only the most optimistic people believed the club could win 76 games all season? "It's been the perfect storm," Forst said "It really has been."

The Athletics seemed headed for a long year when they traded their two top starting pitchers, left-hander Gio Gonzalez and right-hander Trevor Cahill, as well as closer Andrew Bailey, in the offseason. After another year of going nowhere in their attempts to get a new ballpark built or with the Giants yielding their territorial rights to San Jose, the Athletics felt like they had no choice but to strip payroll down to a major league-low $55 million and cash in their best trade chips.

"It's too bad because I really thought we were building toward something there," Bailey said. "To see them trade Gio and Trevor and myself, it seemed like they were starting over. That's what it felt like."

Instead, the Athletics are in contention and Bailey's Red Sox are not. A big reason why is because the Athletics have received good returns on the trades of their three pitchers. They received left-handed starter Tommy Milone and catcher Derek Norris from the Nationals for Gonzalez; right-handed starter Jerrod Parker and right-handed reliever Ryan Cook from the Diamondbacks for Cahill; and right fielder Josh Reddick, who is shaping up as a cornerstone player, from the Red Sox.

"We felt good about the returns on the trades at the time we made them or we wouldn't have made them," Forst said. "We were very confident that the players we acquired could all help us in the long term. Some have probably developed a little faster than we anticipated. The key has been the pitchers. Milone, Parker, and Cook have all pitched really well for us. They have done a really good job of taking the place of the three very talented pitchers we have traded. And Reddick has played a major role for us."

The Athletics also took the money they saved and pulled a stunner by signing outfielder Yoenis Cespedes to a four-year, $36 million major-league contract, a deal that also gives the 26-year-old Cuban defector the option of leaving after the fourth year rather than the normal six years of major-league service time it takes to achieve free-agent status. It was a stealth move by the Athletics, who were never mentioned as a potential suitor in the weeks leading up to Cespedes making his decision.

"There was a certain amount of risk involved, but we had been able to watch Cesepedes play a lot in international competition, including the World Baseball Classic, and believed he was worth the price," Forst said. "Everyone knew he had a great deal of raw ability, but he also has a lot of baseball skills and a very good understanding of the game. We weren't sure he would be ready to start the season in the major leagues, but it didn't take long once he reported to spring training to show us he should start the season with the major-league club."

The prospect of being able to pair Reddick and Cespedes both in the outfield and the middle of the batting order for at least three more seasons has more than just the Athletics excited. "You're talking two potential superstars," said one National League scout who covers the Athletics. "Cespedes is just scratching the surface. He's still learning what life in America is all about. Just wait until he gets comfortable with the culture and can concentrate more on baseball. And Reddick, to me, was a potential star in the making when he was with the Red Sox. Now that he's getting a chance, he's proving just how good he is. Those guys make that team very dangerous, make them legit, and will do so until Oakland can't afford them anymore."

Yes, the future is always iffy when it comes to the Athletics. However, the present is plenty of fun: a nine-game winning streak preceded the A’s being swept by the Angels.

There is also a certain amount of anti-A's sentiment—and anti-Beane sentiment, in particular—among old-school baseball people, who were upset with the way scouts were portrayed in both the book and movie versions of Moneyball, and they also like to mock Beane for being one of the first GMs to show an interest in sabermetrics. Thus, the Athletics have had plenty of snide remarks made behind their backs during their playoff drought. However, Forst won't say the Athletics are having the last laugh.

"I don't think it's vindication," Forst said. "We can't control how others perceive us. We're just trying to really enjoy the moment. It's hard to get to the postseason. My first four seasons here were from 2000-03. We went to the postseason every year and you start to think it's really a pretty easy thing to do. Then when you've lost as long as we've been losing, you get a greater appreciation for how hard winning really is. So, we're just trying to enjoy what's going on here and hope it continues."

---

A few minutes with Cardinals manager Mike Matheny

On if he thinks his team is ready to make another run in October to win the World Series like they did last year in Tony La Russa's final season as manager: "Well, we have to get into the postseason first, but I do feel like we haven't necessarily played our best baseball. We've had some good streaks, but we've also had a lot of stretches where we haven't played as well as I think we can. At this point, though, you really have to take things as they come. When you're locked into a pennant race, you don't have the luxury of looking too far ahead. I do think this team has the talent to beat anybody, but we have to worry beating whoever is on our schedule right now."

On the Cardinals' offense being inconsistent throughout the season: "It's been a lot of feast or famine. We've seen quite a bit of it this season. It's hard to understand why because we certainly have the ability to put something up there every night. You've got to give credit to the other teams at times, but I think we've given the other team a little too much credit too much of the time. Some of it is on us, too. We've got to start scoring runs with more consistency if we want to keep playing beyond the regular season."

On how the Cardinals' offensive slumps seem to coincide with the hitters drawing fewer walks: "We're not a team that necessarily goes up to the plate looking for walks, but there is something to be said about being patient. You want to be aggressive, but you also want to be patient when the situation calls for it. We lead the National League in on-base percentage, so I can't complain, but I would like to see us maybe be a little more patient when things aren't going well and make the opposing pitcher work a little more."

On the impact of right fielder Carlos Beltran, who was signed as a free agent following the departure of Albert Pujols in the offseason: "Carlos has meant so much to this team. He's filled a very big void and filled it very well. I don't know you ever replace a player the caliber of Albert, but I do know that Carlos has done everything we could have asked of him and been extremely productive. He's been banged up at times in the second half and that's caused him to struggle some, but I really feel he's going to continue to finish the season strong."

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Scouts' views

Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano: "I think his sore hip is a little more of a factor than they are letting on. He's not getting to some balls he usually gets to, and he's not getting the line as well."

Rays righthander Alex Cobb: "When he's in a groove, he's fun to watch. He works quickly, just gets the ball back, throws it, and gets people out. You can count on him getting you back to the hotel before room service closes."

Diamondbacks center fielder Adam Eaton: "He's their starting center fielder on Opening Day next year. He's got to be. He's a better player than Chris Young right now."

Twins utility player Eduardo Escobar: "I'm not sure he'll ever hit enough to be a regular, but you can put him all over the field and he'll catch the ball regardless of the position."

Royals second baseman Johnny Giovatella: "I love this kid. He makes things happen and he can really hit. Dayton Moore or Ned Yost will never convince me they made the right move by starting the season with Chris Getz as their second baseman with this guy stuck in Omaha."

Padres catcher Yasmani Grandal: "I don't think there is any doubt now that he's the guy there for a long time. He's got a chance to be an All-Star level player."

Mariners center fielder Franklin Gutierrez: "Some might debate on this, but I believe staying healthy is a skill and this guy doesn't have it. He's always hurt. You just can't count on him to stay in the lineup for more than a few days at a time."

Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen: "If I'm the Dodgers, I'd start being concerned by him continuing to have problems with his heartbeat. He's got a chance to be one of the game's best closers, and you just hope and pray he can stay healthy."

Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler: "He's a good hitter, I'll grant you that, but he might be the worst defensive second baseman in baseball. It's not only the errors he makes, but the plays he doesn't make that don't get called errors because he doesn't get to the ball. They should either stick him in left field or make him a DH."

Indians right-hander Justin Masterson: "I can't figure this guy out. He'll be lights out one time and you think he's ready to turn into a legitimate No.1. The next time, he either gets hit hard or walks the park. The ability is there, so you question the focus."

Braves right-hander Kris Medlen: "I know people might think I'm out of my mind, but this guy reminds me of Greg Maddux. He puts almost every pitch exactly where he wants it, he works fast, he's a good athlete, he's smart—basically everything Maddux was."

Cubs right-hander Jeff Samardzija: "I know it's been a long season for the Cubs, but one of the good things is that Samardzija looks like someone you can count on in the rotation. I was skeptical that he was good enough to start, but he's proven me wrong. He's going to be a good one."

Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton: "He's the only thing that keeps people from falling asleep in the Marlins' new stadium."

Reds first baseman Joey Votto: "The Reds are in a perfect position with him because they have such a big lead in the NL Central. They can ease him back in the lineup and gradually build him back to where he is ready to play every day in the postseason."

Angels outfielder Vernon Wells: "He's really settled into a reserve role there and is making a contribution. But $21 million is a helluva lot to pay a fourth outfielder."

Mets third baseman David Wright: "The Mets have to sign him long-term from a public relations standpoint to show their fans they still can be competitivem but he is also still a really good player. For me, he's a premier player who is worth big money."

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Front office types’ views

Astros: "I know they've taken a major hit with their record by deciding to go with all kids, but it's going to pay off in the long run. They're going to have a lot better idea of who can and can't play by the time the season is over and they can plan accordingly. It was a smart move by Jeff Luhnow. It's given them a head start on rebuilding.

Blue Jays: "I remember back when the SkyDome (now Rogers Centre) opened in 1990 and everyone thought it was the eighth wonder of the world with the retractable roof. Now, it might be the most depressing place to play in the big leagues. Even though they have money, they're always going to have a hard time attracting free agents because you're in a foreign country, and the ballpark also doesn’t help."

Brewers: "It's easy to say a manager is good when his team is doing well like the Brewers did for Ron Roenicke last year. That made for an easy first year for him. But what really tells the story is how things go when times are bad, and what's impressed me is that Ron's guys are still busting their tails for him. That shows you the type of person he is and the type of respect he has earned in that clubhouse."

Giants: "I admire the heck out of Bruce Bochy, but using 11 pitchers in one game (an 11-inning loss to the Padres on Tuesday) is a perfect example of why Major League Baseball needs to do something about the September rosters. I like the idea of being able to have more than 25 players available but I think you have to limit how many are eligible for that's night game, either 25 or 27 or 28, something reasonable."

Nationals: "Everyone focuses on their pitching—and rightfully so—but it helps to have power hitters in the postseason because you need those guys who provide some instant offense when you're facing quality pitchers every night. The Nationals have enough guys who can hit the ball out of the park that it's going to make them very dangerous come October and why I think they can win it all even without Stephen Strasburg."

Orioles: "You know who I'm happy for? Dan Duquette. For all the shit he put up with in Boston, he's proven that he's a pretty darn good GM with what he's done this season. He's made a lot of under-the-radar moves that have helped that club."

Phillies: "They've played much better lately. I don't think they're far off from being back in contention next season if Ruben Amaro makes a couple of good moves."

Pirates: "They look like a team that's on its last legs to me. You can only play on emotion for so long and then talent eventually plays a determining factor. They're still a little short on talent to be a playoff team."

Red Sox: "I think John Henry and Larry Lucchino want Bobby Valentine to have to play out the string and suffer as much as possible before they fire him at the end of the season."

Rockies: "I'm shocked that they are going to stay with their four-man rotation next year and piggyback their starters with relievers. You do that in the minor leagues. That's player development stuff. This is the big leagues."

Tigers: "For all the talent they have, it's a dysfunctional team. They aren't very athletic, and they don't catch the ball. That's why on the days they look bad, they really look bad."

White Sox: They're the biggest overachievers in baseball. I just love that team, and I'm pulling for them to get to the postseason. They deserve it with the type of energy and effort they put forth on a nightly basis."

---

This week's Must Read comes from old friend Michael Silverman of the Boston Herald and explains how Bill James is regaining prominence in the Red Sox' front office.

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

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