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Q&A: Forst talks formula for success for A's

March 31, 2017

David Forst left his native California to head east for college, playing shortstop at Harvard before giving pro ball a try for a couple of years. When that dream ended, he ultimately returned west to join the Oakland Athletics' front office -- and he's never left.That's not to say that

David Forst left his native California to head east for college, playing shortstop at Harvard before giving pro ball a try for a couple of years. When that dream ended, he ultimately returned west to join the Oakland Athletics' front office -- and he's never left.
That's not to say that Forst hasn't had opportunities, but he has declined to interview for multiple general manager positions, choosing to remain in Oakland, where he and his family have made their home. That has also allowed him to continue working with Billy Beane, who was promoted to executive vice president of baseball operations after the 2015 season, opening the door for Forst to become the team's general manager.
MLB.com recently sat down with Forst in his office at Hohokam Stadium in Mesa, Ariz., to discuss what he learned as a player, the trade of Josh Donaldson, turning the club around after two difficult seasons, and, of course, "Moneyball."
:: General manager Q&As ::
MLB.com: You were a four-year starter at shortstop and team captain at Harvard. Was baseball always your No. 1 passion?
Forst: Yeah, it was. When I started looking at colleges, I was always going to go somewhere where I could play. I grew up on the West Coast, thought about Stanford being a great school, but they weren't interested in me for baseball and it kind of changed my choices. Harvard luckily recruited me and brought me out, and it turned out to be great. Just to correct you, I did not start as a freshman; I got hurt freshman year and missed my whole freshman year. Depending on who you ask, I might have played shortstop as a freshman, but I did play shortstop the next three years, and it was a fantastic experience.
PODCAST: Listen to the full interview
MLB.com: Well, that's good; I don't want to be "fake news." You continued playing after you left Harvard in the independent Frontier League, then went to Red Sox camp in 1999 as a non-roster invite. When did you decide that playing wasn't in your future? And was that a hard realization?
Forst: In retrospect, I don't know that it was as hard for me as it is for a lot of guys. It was probably the middle of that second season in Springfield. I was in the Frontier League in '98, then I went to camp with the Red Sox, got released and went back to the Frontier League. I could tell in the middle of that second year that my skills were not getting better. I wasn't getting to balls I used to get to. At a time, 22 or 23 years old, when guys are supposed to be ramping up, I was not getting better, so I think it was pretty clear to me.
I had gotten what I wanted out of the pro ball experience; I wasn't ready when I finished college to be done playing, but those two years kind of got it out of my system. I had a great time and met some great people, but it was clear to me in that summer of '99 that it was time to move on.
MLB.com: Playing in Spring Training with the Red Sox, even though you didn't make it to the big leagues, did that experience help you when you when you started in a front-office job in terms of just having an idea of what players go through?
Forst: One hundred percent. It helped me in a number of ways. First of all, I realized when I was there as a 22-year-old, I was old. There were 18- and 19-year-olds vying for spots on what at the time was their Low-A club, the Augusta team. I was surprised that I was considered an old player at that point, so it really opened my eyes to the youth in the game and how players develop.
Also, just going through that experience of being released; going into the farm director's office and having him say to you, "This is the end of the road" -- I think that's stuck with me. And it's hopefully made me more compassionate in the conversations that we have with players and understanding what it's like to sit on the other side and hear that.
MLB.com: Your first few years here, you had a really young, thriving team with guys like Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada and the "Big Three" pitchers. How hard was it to see those guys one-by-one leave and not have the chance to keep that core together to see what they could accomplish given how close you got?
Forst: It's amazing how relevant that conversation still is. Any time we talk about a stadium -- and obviously, that's what we're hoping for in Oakland -- the carrot at the end of that is being able to hold on to your guys We've had good, young teams, and ultimately we've had to see these guys walk out the door for more money elsewhere. What we really want is to be able to hold on to our own guys.
MLB.com: Jed Hoyer talked about trading Corey Kluber to Cleveland when he was in San Diego and how that almost came back to bite him years later in the World Series. Is it tough to see a guy like Josh Donaldson thrive in Toronto the way he has after trading him?
Forst: We knew Josh was a good player when we traded him. We didn't have any illusions that he was going to go out and put up a clunker of a year after that; I didn't know he was going to win the MVP. That's part of our situation here. We knew that we were not far away from him taking up a big chunk of our payroll, and it wasn't sustainable. After that first year, he was going to start making $11 million, $12 million, up to $17 million, which I think he's making next year. We knew we were going to have to do something too soon rather than too late with Josh.
We can look on the field right now; Kendall Graveman, who is likely our Opening Day starter, and Franklin Barreto, who is our No. 1 prospect, both came from that trade. History is still waiting to be written on the results of that deal, but that's just sort of life in Oakland. You have to make those decisions on the Josh Donaldsons of the world.

MLB.com: You knew we weren't going to get through this without the "M word" coming up at least once.
Forst: At least once. I'll give you one. (Laughs.)
MLB.com: We all saw the Hollywood version of what 2002 was like; the winning streak in "Moneyball." What was it like actually being here for that and going through that?
Forst: It's hard to sort of separate the two right now. Every time I flip the channel on to TBS or TNT and the movie is on, I'll watch 15-20 minutes of it. It sort of becomes reality after a period of time. That was a great time in the A's history; we had back-to-back 100-win teams, we had all those players we've already talked about that fans still look to as big parts of this organization.
The 20-win streak was sort of indescribable; going through something like that, that was my third year in the game. I was sitting with people in the clubhouse, both staff and coaches, like, "This never happens; you never get close to something like this." It was a pretty amazing thing while it was going on. We felt like at the time that we had another team that could have gone all the way; it didn't work out in the playoffs. Never did I imagine it would be memorialized the way it was while we were going through it. We knew Michael [Lewis] was sticking around, paying close attention and taking a lot of notes, but who really knew what it was going to be?
MLB.com: You had no idea Brad Pitt was going to enter the equation at some point.
Forst: (Laughs) I would not have bet on that at the time.
MLB.com: The A's were credited by most as the leaders in the analytics revolution among baseball teams. Do you think the "Moneyball" stigma still follows the franchise around today? Or has the fact that all 30 teams now have analytic departments sort of lessened that?
Forst: Everybody is doing something. I do think there's a little bit of a narrative out there that, "Why aren't the A's better if they started this thing?" Fortunately, it's easy to ignore if you turn your internet off for a little bit. The reality is that whether "Moneyball" sped up this sort of changes in the game or not, it was all coming. We now all have access to pretty much the same information; Statcast™ has been pretty remarkable in how it's revolutionized what everybody has. Now you just need to dissect it and apply it. We don't spend a whole lot of time thinking about that narrative that came from the book.
MLB.com: Do you think Statcast™ has changed the way fans look at the game?
Forst: That's a good question. I think so. I think it's given them access to a lot of new things. Whether they care about exit velocity, route efficiency or those things, it at least has provided them a new way to look at the game. Any options are great for fans.

MLB.com With the Warriors' recent run and the Raiders' successful 2016, does it feel like the East Bay is giving San Francisco a run for its money as the sports capital of Northern California?
Forst: It would, except that everybody but us is leaving. ... But the Warriors have broken ground in San Francisco and they're headed into the city. The Raiders look, by all accounts, that they're going to Vegas. To some extent, it might be great for us. We are committed to Oakland. Our theme for the year, "Rooted in Oakland," really makes a lot of sense right now when you look at where the other teams are going. I'd love to sit here and say the East Bay is getting ready for a revival, but everybody is leaving us behind.
MLB.com: While prepping for this interview and going through the internet, I found that there is an autographed business card of yours on ebay for $39.99. Any thoughts?
Forst: Come on. That can't possibly be real. That is fake news. (laughs) There's a reason it's still sitting there on ebay.
MLB.com: After reaching the postseason for three straight seasons, the past two have been difficult, with 187 losses. How tough have these two years been on you?
Forst: Well, it's different than what we're used to, to be honest. 2015 was hard because we really felt like we still had a team to compete. We knew after losing that Wild Card Game in 2014 that we had to make a bunch of changes, but we thought we sort of retooled well and then injuries just devastated that team. (Ben) Zobrist, who was going to be such a key to that team, got hurt in April and we never really recovered from that.
Before 2016, we knew we were challenged, but we had made some moves, a couple trades. We brought in Khris Davis, who actually worked out great; but again, we were sort of sabotaged by injuries. Felix Doubront goes down literally the day before the season starts, Chris Bassitt gets hurt, Sonny [Gray] misses time in May. We're not in a position where our margin for error is big enough to overcome those kinds of injuries. They were tough. We were able to switch gears at the Deadline; in '15, we traded Zobrist and [Scott Kazmir] and brought back [Sean] Manaea and [Daniel] Mengden in those deals, who are critical to what we're doing now. We also got Jacob Nottingham, who we traded for Khris Davis last year. We were able to see that there has to be something good to come out of this.
Last year at the Deadline, the trade we made with the Dodgers with [Josh] Reddick and [Rich] Hill going there to bring back [Jharel] Cotton, [Frankie] Montas and Grant Holmes, who is one of our biggest prospects now; Cotton and Montas are going to be a huge part of our 2017 Major League club. The silver lining was we were able to shift gears at the Deadline both seasons and bring back important pieces going forward.

MLB.com: What's your assessment of the state of the AL West right now?
Forst: Man, it's tough. This has always been a tough division, and Texas and Houston are not slowing down. Houston has a good, young core, and you think about Altuve, Springer and Correa and all these guys being there for the long haul, it's a tough chore to compete with them. The Rangers are going to be good, Seattle obviously has made a lot of trades to focus on winning now, and Anaheim always has the resources -- and they just happen to have the best player in the game standing in center field, so you can never count them out. It's a tough division and we've got our work cut out for us.

Mark Feinsand is an executive reporter for MLB.com.