Only four men have been elected to Baseball's Hall of Fame solely based on their achievements as general managers: Ed Barrow (Yankees), Larry MacPhail (Reds, Dodgers, Yankees), Branch Rickey (Browns, Cardinals, Dodgers, Pirates), and George Weiss (Yankees, Mets).
Teams run by those men won 34 league titles and 22 World Series. And if winning World Series is the only way to get into the Hall of Fame as an executive, then Billy Beane doesn't have much of a chance. Because to this point, Beane's Oakland Athletics haven't won a single World Series, or even a league title.
My colleague Alan Schwarz has argued that John Schuerholz belongs in the Hall of Fame, and I don't know that Alan is wrong about that. But if we're going to start putting general managers in the Hall -- and it's been a number of years since that actually happened -- then shouldn't we already be thinking about Billy Beane, too?
In 1999, the Athletics ranked 11th in the American League in payroll, and fifth in wins.
In 2000, the Athletics ranked 12th in payroll, and second in wins.
In 2001, the Athletics ranked 12th in payroll, and second in wins.
In 2002, the Athletics rank 12th in payroll, and first in wins.
And with most of Oakland's stars signed through 2004, at least, there's no reason to think the Athletics won't be favored to win the American League in each of the next two seasons. At least.
It's pretty clear that Billy Beane is the most successful general manager in the game today, based purely on what his teams have accomplished relative to their financial resources. In fact, Beane has been so successful that he makes other baseball executives nervous. He makes the Commissioner's Office nervous because he proves that competitive balance is about far more than just payrolls. And he makes other general managers nervous. How can they complain about not having enough money when that #@&%$ out in Oakland is winning division titles with less money than just about anybody?
So what did those nervous baseball executives do? With enthusiastic help from the players, they opened up Beane's toolbox and they stole one of his favorite tools.
This past June, the Athletics owned seven of the first 39 picks in the draft. That's a lot of picks, and nobody knows better than Billy Beane what to do with them: college players, college players, and more college players.
How did the Athletics get so many picks? They had their own pick, of course, at No. 26. But they also had six other picks -- three in the first round, and three more in the so-called "sandwich round" before the second round -- as a result of losing free agents Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen.
Eventually, most of Oakland's current stars will move on to greener pastures. So to prevent the franchise's current success from becoming an "aberration" (to quote Commissioner Bud), eventually the roster must be restocked with more homegrown stars. Of course, the only way to accomplish that is through the draft.
But you only get one first-round pick, one second-round pick, etc. So it's hard to build a great team solely through the draft. It can be done, but it takes a lot of smarts and a fair piece of luck. Pick up some extra draft picks, though, and suddenly the odds get a lot better.
And that's what Beane has figured out. Teams aren't allowed to trade for draft picks in the traditional sense ... but when a team acquires a prospective free agent with little intention of re-signing him, then trading for draft picks is essentially what it's doing. The Athletics will pay Ray Durham approximately $2 million this season. And for that $2 million, they receive not only his performance for the remainder of the season, but also two high draft picks next June. If you ran a pennant-contending team looking to get better through the draft, wouldn't you pay two million bucks for two months of Ray Durham and a couple of draft picks?
Gosh, I sure would. I don't have any idea if Billy Beane would have traded for Durham without the promise of excellent compensation next June, but I do know that he had those draft picks on his mind when he made the deal.
But now those draft picks are gone -- poof -- like so many magician's rabbits, courtesy of Commissioner Bud's "historic" agreement, which eliminates all compensation for lost free agents.
And so if Billy Beane wants to wind up in the Hall of Fame, it looks like he'll have to get there without anybody else's help.