Billy Beane called the winter holiday “my most enjoyable offseason ever,” which only makes sense given that the best good seasons are the ones you never see coming.
The Oakland Athletics of 2012 had that season, and even though Beane swears to this day it wasn’t as much of a surprise to him as it was to everyone else, the season they had was the one that will come first to his mind when he finally reaches reminiscence age.
It was the season they were never in first place except when it ended. It was the season in which they lost nine in a row and came out better for it. It was the year they swept the Yankees at home after being swept by the Yankees at home. It was the season in which they set the course for being buyers rather than sellers after nearly a decade of defensive driving.
And it set the course for a new kind of Athletics operation – one with expectations that exceed “finish the season,” “complain about the ballpark” or “wait for the revenue sharing check.” The A’s have plans like the big teams do, and grappling with those plans is the new Job One.
“I know things are supposed to be different now,” manager Bob Melvin said Sunday, “but I can’t look at it that way. To me, the new season is right on us, so right now is like last year. There’s no time to look up, and no time to look down.”
[PRATT: A's notes -- Cespedes arrives, Melvin motivates]
That is Melvin’s view, and he’s not only entitled to it but he must actually adhere to it. But outside the safe cocoon of Phoenix and Municipal and Papago Park, there is lots of looking up, and if you lean your head back far enough, lots of looking down as well.
The A’s are now expected to be more than just faceless and mediocre. They won the AL West, and they have inherited a potentially horrifying team in Houston, so their 94-68 record of a year ago isn’t going to be nearly so pretty in the new world order. And they got better over the winter, shopping for want rather than need, to the point where they not only have every need filled (injuries allowing) all the way down to third catcher, but they have too much of some things.
Like, well, outfielders. Sunday alone, Yoenis Cespedes reiterated his preference not to be a designated hitter, and Chris Young wondered aloud about the long-term plan for him. For both, the answer from Melvin has been an earnest, “Be flexible.”
That’s been a standard behavior in Oakland, only in most seasons it’s because there hasn’t been enough of anything to go around. This year, on paper, in mid-February, they have relatively lots of everything. On paper, in mid-February, and relatively – three things to remember when April comes.
Nevertheless, these are the conditions that prevail today. Since the last time Oakland had too much of anything was the late ‘80s, it is easy to see why Beane is so close to actual giddiness, and why Melvin is so focused on preventing slippage.
“Last year was special in part because we actually thought we were going to be okay before everyone did,” Beane said. “I don’t even think people thought much about us being at .500 at the All-Star Break, but that was kind of a signpost for us.”
In the meantime, Melvin was putting shovels into the ground every day, neither looking up nor down as per his own instructions.
“We went 72-38 in the last 110 games last year, and I didn’t know that until someone told me after the season,” Melvin said. “We just kept grinding the days, and that’s how we have to approach this year.
“I know some teams can get a little full of themselves after success, but I’ll be watching to make sure we’re working as hard as we always do. I don’t know if (complacency) is recognizable, but that’s more of a visual thing you see or sense. I always want us sitting on that edge.”
But edges cannot be manufactured. They must be believed within the body politic, and as with most edges, there is a fine line between keeping on your toes and lacerating your foot. The edge can be tweaked and refined and bent for individual needs, but it is its own moving target, and resorting to last year only works for a little part of this year.
“There’s only so much you can reinvent,” he said. “At some point it’s still going to be about the work and preparation you put in.”
But Melvin admits he’s too close to the process to see its effects in the macro sense, so he has to wait for the validation. Beane gets that privilege while it is happening, but the price he pays is that he has to trust Melvin’s judgment more than he ever trusted that of any other manager he has ever had. The Young and Jed Lowrie trades, the signing of shortstop Hiro Nakajima, those were material changes in the roster with which Melvin must work, but the daily row to hoe is Melvin’s.
And that relationship cannot change, even as everything around them does. How they handle that stability amidst all that change will determine if the A’s have actually embarked on a grand voyage, or just taken a quick sail around the bay.