Editor's note: This is the third in Jonah Keri's series of Q&As with players and executives from the Cactus League. Click to read interviews with Arizona GM Josh Byrnes and Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick.
After nearly a decade of cutting his teeth in the A's front office under Billy Beane, Oakland assistant general manager David Forst has become a pivotal member of one of baseball's most creative front offices and a candidate for future GM jobs. This offseason the A's made two trades for young talent, in the process restocking their farm system with an eye toward rebuilding and eventually replicating their streak of four straight playoff appearances from 2000 to 2003. Forst recently sat down to talk about the concept of success cycles, the A's efforts to beat the injury bug and the right time to open the checkbook.
Jonah Keri: This offseason the A's aggressively traded some of their best young veteran players -- guys like Dan Haren and Nick Swisher. Do you think there's such a thing as a success cycle for low-revenue teams, where you have to pick your spots on when you can contend? Or is it possible to contend every year, given that Oakland has more limited resources than many other teams?
David Forst: I think the success cycle applies to everyone. Whether you're the Yankees, Red Sox or whoever, you really need to know your place, setting up before the start of the season and knowing where you're going to go. Certainly for us this offseason, we'd been through a remarkable run of success for several seasons, finishing above .500, competing every year. For a team in our situation, that's not going to last forever. A big part of our evaluation of our current club and what we thought our future club would be was recognizing how we got into that situation in the first place, where we were in '98, and what those teams looked like before we turned into the playoff teams of the 2000s.
Keri: In the trades you made this offseason, was there a specific focus on getting a particular kind of player? It seemed like you got some really interesting pitching prospects, especially in the Swisher trade where you got Gio Gonzalez and Fautino de los Santos...
Forst: With respect to pitchers, we understand there's an attrition rate, both with respect to performance and injury. We did also focus on outfielders, not necessarily to get them specifically, but that those were the best players available. We feel there are some infielders out there that we can target, too. [Mark] Ellis is on the last year of his deal, Eric [Chavez] and Bobby [Crosby] are both coming off injuries, so we'd want to address our depth in that spot if the opportunity arose.
Keri: What was the tipping point that led the team to go with ... a rebuilding effort, a change of direction, whatever you want to call it? Was there one specific event that decided it?
Forst: Health was the issue for us last season and this offseason. It was a combination of Chavez's third surgery, [Chad] Gaudin's hip surgery, Rich [Harden's] biceps tendinitis -- certainly we don't want to single out specific guys for the decision, but the fact is that the things we'd experienced for a couple years were still going on. We felt like we were heading for a similar feeling like the one we had in 2007.
Keri: There have been some stories coming out about some of the equipment the team purchased in the offseason, making more of an effort toward preventative care. What else can be done? Do you feel injuries are just a necessary evil of baseball? Or do you see the team getting a handle on injuries and if so, how?
Forst: Well, I don't think we're willing to just sit here and say, 'It's going to happen.' At the same time, everybody in the organization takes responsibility. The trainers, the doctors, the front office are all in some ways culpable, all the way down to the players. We've set out to try and change the culture to some extent. Then there are the specifics you talked about: training work, mechanics, working with the training staff. We added a massage therapist. We took recommendations from Steve Sayles, our new trainer, as well as Larry Davis, who's now our new coordinator of medical services position. It's not one thing that's going to change our injuries. But hopefully, you combine a lot of these things and make a change -- again, change the culture as much as anything.
Keri: You mentioned Gaudin, but the three players to me who haven't lived up to expectations because of injuries have been Chavez, Harden and Crosby. Are these guys expected to be 100 percent come Opening Day? Do you expect 200-plus innings out of Harden, 550-plus ABs out of Chavez and Crosby -- full-fledged health and production?
Forst: The nice thing about it being [spring training] is we can be optimistic about everything. Bobby and Rich absolutely, they feel great. Bobby's worked out all offseason. Rich has gotten over a bout of biceps tendinitis he had in December. Chavy's probably a little different, just by virtue of having multiple surgeries this offseason. It's not easy for anyone to have shoulder surgery and then also back surgery. To his credit, he's worked hard all offseason. But I think we are prudently cautious, at least to start the season. I think it's not fair to expect much too soon, given what he had to go through this offseason.
Keri: Does Chavez's career path -- and obviously he's still young and still has time to become a star -- but does it change the way you think about long-term contract decisions?
Forst: I don't think we went into the Chavez contract not recognizing that there was risk. You understand that historically pitchers are more risky than position players, but that doesn't mean there's no risk with position players. Just because you can build the models and project stats going forward doesn't mean players live up to that all the time. In this case I do think that health has robbed him of the chance to live up to what everybody thought he was going to be. And like you said, he's still a young player. He's determined to be the guy who signed that contract. He really feels a lot of responsibility to the team and to the city of Oakland to be that guy.
Keri: The goal of every team of course is to win as many games as possible, of course. But is there a temptation, where you reach the point that you say, "OK, we're not going to win 95 games," to try and win 65? There's a payoff there, with high draft choices that can really benefit the team down the road. Can teams just flat-out say, "We're going to play our young guys all season and if we win 65 games we're cool with that?"
Forst: To be honest the draft pick never comes into our minds. You never sit back and say, "It's OK to win 65 games." As competitive as we are and certainly as competitive as Billy has a reputation for being, it's never OK to sit back and say we're comfortable with winning 65 games. But at the same time, you don't sacrifice a chance at long-term success to win 75 or 80. We looked at the team we had on paper coming off 76 wins and figured if everything went right, maybe we'd win 81 games and finish .500. Is that in itself worth striving for? I think we've set the standard a little higher. We had a couple of 100-win seasons. We went to the playoffs four years in a row. That's what we're striving to create. So if along the way you have to endure a rough season to get there, it's not fun but maybe it's the best thing for our business.
Keri: So as far as a recent example of a team following a similar path, you have Dave Dombrowski and the Tigers. It was interesting the way they went about that building process. They had some tough seasons where they spent their time building their farm system and acquiring some good, young players. Then they signed guys like Pudge Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez -- when they were still a below-.500 team. So you're thinking, "Hmmm, so they're going to get to what, 79 or 80 wins?" Of course these were two guys who would later help the Tigers go on to win the pennant. So at what point does a team like the A's say, "OK, we're at this stage, time to go out and look for higher-priced, more established talent"?
Forst: That's a great example. Dave did a fantastic job. They were able to look ahead a couple years and see what they had coming through the pipeline, see the Verlanders and the Bondermans and the Zumayas, where they got to the point that they sensed what they had around them. That's part of the process we're starting right now. We traded for nine players in two deals. We added a couple more players in the [Mark] Kotsay and [Marco] Scutaro deals. Let's get to a point where we really know what we have. Then as we go forward, we can pick and choose our spots about where to add talent and where to spend money. But if we get to a point where we know ...[Kurt] Suzuki, [Daric] Barton, [Travis] Buck, Gio Gonzalez, Carlos Gonzalez, Dana Eveland ... if we get to the point that those players have developed, hopefully, we'll get to the point that the Tigers reached, where we'll be able to add a couple of players who will help us take the next step.
Keri: One player the A's got a lot of traction from, and me being a stathead I was thrilled when it happened, was Jack Cust. Tampa did terrifically with Carlos Pena obviously. Are players like that only going to get a real chance on lower-revenue teams? Pena had signed with the Red Sox but never really got a clean shot at a starting job. To get that chance, does it almost have to come from a team that may be going in a bit of a different direction? Is there less pressure on a building or rebuilding team to take a chance on that kind of player?
Forst: I do think there's a certain amount of credibility you have to have to make a move like that, and Jack Cust did a great job for us last year. The Red Sox did sign Carlos Pena, but they also spent money to have David Ortiz be their DH and Kevin Millar to play first base. So a lot of it comes from opportunity.
Keri: Barry Bonds! Left field is probably the A's weakest position right now, depending on which way you decide to go at the start of the season. He's in the Bay Area already, the A's are a team that prides itself on performance analysis, and Bonds still projects to be a productive hitter. Is there just an industry-wide philosophy that says, "Wink, wink, we're not going to do this"?
Forst: You expect me to answer this on the record? [laughs]
Keri: On the record, off the record, whatever you want to do.
Forst: On the record, this team has committed to young players.
Keri: Such as Emil Brown.
Forst: We're at a point where we need to start evaluating what we have for the next few years. We obviously don't comment on free agents. The best answer I can give is that we're looking for a team that can improve every day for the next five years.
Keri: We've seen a lot of bright, young executives become GMs over the past few years, with some of those guys coming through the A's system. Is there a stage at which you feel you'd be ready to make the leap? If someone came to you with a really compelling offer today, would you consider it?
Forst: Sure, I would consider it. But I'm thrilled with where I am, professionally and personally. I got into a great situation over eight years ago. It's about more than just being a general manager somewhere. I didn't take a job with the A's because I wanted to be a GM some day. I wanted to work in baseball and it's worked out great. I've worked for a great organization and a great guy, with Billy. Just as importantly, I love living in the Bay Area and my wife is happy there. So when you talk about taking a GM job, you're talking about a huge lifestyle change. That's not something I'm looking for right now.
Keri: The A's are moving into a new ballpark in a few years. You'll have a different environment, with foul territory that's probably a little smaller than the area of the Louisiana Purchase. Do you start to plan player acquisition strategies in that direction? Do you think, "OK, this park is going to play differently; let's develop a different kind of player"? Does any of that factor into the equation at all?
Forst: I'm not sure those microdetails really come into it right now. The fact is we can't assume we're moving into a new ballpark until someone puts a shovel in the ground. Once that happens, we expect the business model to change, that the increase in revenues will change our ability ... mostly to hold onto our own players. That would be the biggest advantage of a new park in Fremont. The details -- how does the park play, what are the dimensions -- I'm not sure you know those things until you're in the park for a year or maybe more. I know everyone is curious to see how Washington's park plays this year. We've seen new ballparks over the last decade.
Keri: San Diego's [Petco Park] was quite surprising how it ended up playing.
Forst: Yeah, exactly. You never do know. You can run as many wind pattern tests as you want, build the dimensions, whatever. Until you're in that park, you probably don't know. I think we expect to adjust. That would be a good problem to have, because it would mean we have a new stadium.