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Beane: A's back in 'conversation' in AL West

@MikeLupica
July 17, 2019

The A’s played about as well in Japan to start the season as the Red Sox played in London a couple of weeks ago, losing their first two games to the Mariners. Oakland was six games under .500 on May 14 and 9 1/2 games behind Houston in the American

The A’s played about as well in Japan to start the season as the Red Sox played in London a couple of weeks ago, losing their first two games to the Mariners. Oakland was six games under .500 on May 14 and 9 1/2 games behind Houston in the American League West. When the Astros beat the A’s on June 2 in extra innings, Oakland was still 10 1/2 behind. Now, the club is 4 1/2 games behind. Here they come again, spending around $90 million on players this season, which for executive vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane is the same as throwing money around as if he just hit the lottery.

“We view every season as an opportunity,” Beane told me on Tuesday. “And as long as you stay in the game, even if you feel like you’re kidding yourself sometimes, guess what? You are in the game.”

Beane, who has operated on short money dating back to the 1990s with the A’s, then said this:

“We use every dollar we have to win games.”

The Rays have spent less. The Indians have spent more, even if the Tribe is closer to the bottom of the standings in payroll than the top. But those three teams -- Oakland, Tampa Bay and Cleveland -- are pretty much in a tie for the two AL Wild Card spots right now. Combined, they spend around $270 million on baseball players. The Red Sox, who are trailing all of them, spend nearly $230 million.

“What we’ve done again,” Beane said, “is play well enough to play our way into the conversation.”

Beane needs pitching the way just about all the contenders in the league do. He just made his first July move the other day, trading for the Royals’ Homer Bailey. On Tuesday night, the A’s beat the Mariners to get to 54-41 as the Astros were losing to the Angels. By the way, Beane is a realist, and he isn’t kidding himself about Houston, a team that he says has “the best talent base in the American League.” He knows what his team’s schedule looks like over the rest of July. But Oakland is in the conversation again. Baseball is always more interesting when it is.

I asked Beane this: “Are you ready to say you’re in it in the West?”

Beane laughed and said, “How about I say we’re not out of it?”

Beane is still only 57 years old. He joked that once, in the 1990s, he and his friend Brian Cashman, the Yankees’ general manager, were the young guys, and now they’re not. Beane still remains one of the transformative front-office figures in baseball history, even if the A’s have never won a World Series or played in one on his watch, and even as former Giants executive vice president of baseball operations Brian Sabean constructed three World Series championships in this decade on the other side of the Bay.

This isn’t just because Michael Lewis wrote “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” about Beane in 2003. This isn’t because Brad Pitt played Beane in the “Moneyball” movie. It is because Beane was a true visionary in Oakland, the first baseball executive to successfully use analytics to shift the odds despite some teams spending three and four times more than he could. Now Beane and general manager David Forst continue to figure it out with the A's, so often with “low-cost guys that other teams are willing to move.”

“We just hoped to hover around .500 and get to midseason,” Beane said.

Young pitchers from whom he expected plenty before the regular season -- A.J. Puk and Jesus Luzardo -- got hurt. Sean Manaea, who no-hit the Red Sox last year, still hasn’t pitched yet this season as he recovers from left shoulder surgery last year. But Mike Fiers is 9-3, Brett Anderson is 9-5 and Chris Bassitt is 6-4. The A’s are 39-20 over their past 59 games, and they are leading 5-3 in the eighth of a suspended game against the Tigers that they won’t complete until September.

And the A’s can hit, even with Khris Davis not having the kind of home run season his team has come to expect from him. Coming into 2019, Davis had hit 133 home runs over the past three seasons, the most in that span in baseball. So far this season he has just 16, which means he is fourth in home runs on the A’s after Matt Chapman, Matt Olson and Ramón Laureano.

Beane talks about Chapman and Olson and having “two pretty special players on the corners,” and how Marcus Semien has become one of the best shortstops in the league -- and, in his opinion, how he should have been an All-Star.

“I never try to be a snake-oil salesman,” Beane said. “I know when our team is good.”

Beane will find out a lot about his team over the next few weeks. There are seven games on the road against the Twins and Astros, then nine at home against the Rangers, Brewers and Cardinals before the A’s go to Wrigley Field. By then, the Trade Deadline will have come and gone. But the way to bet is that the Bailey trade isn’t the last one Beane and Forst will make.

“We never fold our hand and throw in our cards,” Beane said.

As usual, Beane just has less money to bet than most of the other guys at the table. But he is still moneyballin’ after all these years. Still in the game.

Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com.