As the A's ripped through Spring Training this year with a gaudy Cactus League record of 22-10, it was all going as planned. The offense clicked. The defense was sharp. And as expected, the pitching was fantastic. Everything about their house was in order.
Then came an 8-18 start to the regular season, which set the tone for a mostly moribund first half. The offense sputtered. The defense was inconsistent. The starting pitching was mostly solid, but the bullpen was a huge disappointment. Clearly, the house wasn't as sturdy as March and early April made it seem.
Re-enter Billy Beane. As foreman in construction of the house, Oakland's general manager knew it was time to start drawing up plans for a remodel.
"As we were putting together the team that we came out of Spring Training with, we really liked what we saw," Beane said. "We thought it was a very good, very balanced team. Obviously with the start we got off to, some things needed to be addressed.
"At the same time, you want to resist a knee-jerk reaction to start making moves because a team starts off poorly," Beane said. "Because I always said we were just a good team playing bad baseball in the early going."
Semantics aside, the A's were a mess early on. Shiny new leadoff man Johnny Damon was hitting under .220 for the first two months. Second baseman Jose Ortiz, hyped as a potential Rookie of the Year candidate, went down in the first few weeks with a calf injury and never made it back to Oakland. The cleanup spot in the batting order didn't clean up anything, leaving MVP Jason Giambi to a life long on not-entirely-unintentional walks. The bench was a total non-factor.
And the bullpen. Yikes. Virtually the same 'pen that carried the A's to the 2000 AL West title quickly carried the A's only to the 2001 league lead in blown saves. And it wasn't all Jason Isringhausen's fault.
The need for a remodel was obvious. The funding for such a project is always an issue for Oakland, though, because it is that rare, unexplainable bird: a small-market team in a major market. Throw in any number of trade options relating to the impending free agency of Giambi, Damon and Isringhausen, and you've got yourself a doozy of a dilemma in the critical month of June.
Fortunately for Oakland, Beane doesn't do overwhelmed. Together with Assistant GM Paul DePodesta and Team President Mike Crowley, he made a series of crafty moves that -- along with several significant on-field developments -- shaped the team that stormed back from 10 games under .500 to 100-plus wins and a runaway victory in the American League Wild Card race.
"What Billy's done with this team is amazing," says Jason Giambi. "To not only keep us together, but to bring in reinforcements the way he did, I don't think many people thought that was possible."
The first big front-office move was picking up Ron Gant, who came in a July 3 trade with Colorado. That was in response to an equally significant move in the clubhouse: John Jaha retired July 1.
Jaha, an All-Star slugger in 1999, had been counted on to provide protection for Giambi. All he really provided, through injury-induced inactivity and ineffectiveness, was an excuse for the team's poor early offensive production.
"John retiring was important because that let everyone know that he was no longer option [in the cleanup spot]," Beane says. "I think for a while it was, 'We'll be fine when John gets healthy,' but this eliminated that. Now it was, 'This is a problem. What can we do about it?'"
For less than three weeks, Gant was the answer. Then Beane pulled off the summer's stunner: Just before the trading deadline, he got Jermaine Dye in a three-way deal July 25 -- Ortiz was one of the three prospects the A's surrendered -- with the Royals and Rockies. According to Giambi, that move sent a mind-soothing message.
"There was still a day or so before the deadline, and you never really now what's gonna happen in this business when you're dealing with a small-market team and big-name free agents," he explains, "but when Billy went out and got Jermaine, I think we all kind of got the feeling that this was going to be our big push. We all wanted to stay together, anyway, and this, in a way, told us that we were."
Dye drove in 50 runs in his first 50 games in the cleanup spot. Gant became something of a clubhouse leader despite Dye's presence cutting his playing time. Giambi's load, in general, lightened considerably.
"What Jermaine provided for Jason is obvious," says A's Manager Art Howe. "Where Ronnie has helped out most isn't obvious. Before he got here, Jason was the only real veteran leader."
So that fixed the cleanup-spot problem and strengthened the A's bench. A far less-heralded move had double-bonus points, too. When Beane picked veteran catcher Greg Myers off the free-agent scrap heap June 24, he gained for Howe a dangerous left-handed bat off the bench (he's hit seven homers for the A's in limited action), and he gained for starting catcher Ramon Hernandez a mentor with 14 years worth of big-league wisdom.
"Huge pickup," Howe says of Myers. "Ramon's a tremendous talent, but at 25 he's a young catcher handling a pitching staff that's young, too. Myers has been great for Ramon, and for our offense."
Hernandez, it should be noted, is one of many homegrown talents on the A's roster. Among them are Giambi, shortstop Miguel Tejada, third baseman Eric Chavez and starting pitchers Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito.
Beane's fingerprints are all over the fix at second base, too: When Ortiz went down, Frank Menechino stepped up. Another scrap-heaper, Menechino is a 30-year-old New Yorker who was one of the few feel-good stories of the first half, becoming a fan favorite with gritty, productive play, and a clubhouse favorite with his inimitable humor. Beane got him in the Rule 5 Minor League draft in December 1997.
Menechino's production tailed off in the second half, and he now shares time with F.P. Santangelo, a utility guy that Beane signed to a minor-league in early April. Santangelo was called up from Triple-A Sacramento on July 31, and the A's won 18 of his first 20 starts.
Some of the problems took care of themselves. Damon rediscovered his stroke right around the All-Star break, and although he never got the average over .265, he did a much better job of setting the table in the second half. The pitching turned it around in an even bigger way. The A's playoff rotation of Mulder, Hudson, Zito and offseason pickup Cory Lidle has been the most effective quartet of starters in the game after June 1, and after replacing Gil Heredia as the team's No. 5 starter in July, rookie Erik Hiljus went 6-0.
The defense benefited from a couple of slight tweaks, too. The outfield Oakland broke camp with had Damon in left, Terrence Long in center and a mish-mosh of players sharing right. A couple of months into it, Howe moved Damon to center and Long to right, which made Damon feel more comfortable but still left a gaping defensive hole in left.
Then came Dye, a Gold Glove right fielder who moved Long over to left. Long had never played there before, but he's had the whole second half to adjust, and today Howe says he has what "might be the best defensive outfield in baseball."
As for the bullpen? Beane pretty much left it alone, and it got better, too. The starting pitchers have helped, of course, because they routinely work late into games. The improved offense had a say, too, in that it has gave the 'pen much bigger leads to protect. But the relievers deserve some credit; particularly Isringhausen, who came on strong late in the season and matched his career high of 33 saves.
"The bullpen's had a lot of stuff said about it this year," Isringhausen says, "but if you throw out that patch of the season when the whole team was going bad, I think we've been just as good as last year."
As a whole, the A's appear better than they were last year. And there stands Billy Beane, the proud architect, blueprint in hand.
"This year," he says, "has been gratifying to say the least."
Mychael Urban is the site reporter for oaklandathletics.com and can be reached at email@example.com. Site Manager Kieron Slaughter contributed to this piece.