Athletics

Billy Beane opens up on Marcus Semien-A’s contract, Astros scandal

Billy Beane opens up on Marcus Semien-A’s contract, Astros scandal

It's a busy time for Billy Beane and the A's. 

After being eliminated two consecutive seasons in the AL Wild Card Game, Beane and the A's front office are trying to improve a team that won 97 games last year and bridge the gap between them and the Houston Astros. 

The A's executive vice president of baseball operations spoke with NBC Sports California in an exclusive 1-on-1 interview from the MLB Winter Meetings in San Diego on Tuesday, opening up on a range of offseason storylines affecting the green and gold on -- and off -- the field. 

What’s next for Marcus Semien?

On a personal level, it makes all the sense in the world that the A’s want to keep their MVP-caliber shortstop, and that Marcus Semien would want to remain long-term with the MLB franchise right around the corner from where he was born and raised.

If only baseball were that simple.

“I think the first order of a business standpoint is getting through this arbitration season [in 2020],” Beane told NBC Sports California on Tuesday, indicating that a bigger picture agreement is not immediately right around the corner.

“Guys who have years like Marcus usually get significant raises, and that’s the anticipation we’re expecting for him through the arbitration process. Anything beyond that, we’d be better served at discussing after that one year is in place.”

Semien can become an unrestricted free agent in 2021.

Houston’s scandal affecting the A’s

Insiders know MLB’s investigation into the Houston Astros cheating scandal remains active and aggressive. Much as electronically stealing signs would have impacted the playoffs, it also would have greatly affected Oakland, who lost the AL West by six and 10 games, respectively, to the Astros in the last two seasons.

“If true, it certainly would have had a huge impact on us much as anybody,” Beane said.  “It would be extremely disappointing and you’d hope that Major League Baseball would do something to make sure that never happens again.”

Instead of projecting what punishment could rectify the situation, Beane was more introspective about allegations that span back to 2017.

“My first thought, if it did happen, is how good our guys are," Beane said. "When you think of winning 97 games back-to-back years, it’s a compliment to the guys in our room, and how good they are."

A’s biggest targets?

With the exception of roles to be won at second base and a backup catcher, most of the fielding positions seem to be spoken for in Oakland. Add in a historically promising starting rotation on paper, and what exactly are the A’s trying to accomplish before opening day?

“It’s obligatory to say that you’re looking for an extra bullpen arm, and that would probably be the case with us," Beane said.

The story of Oakland’s relief core was Jekyll and Hyde from 2018 to 2019: From one of the most dominant in the majors to last season, where Liam Hendriks unexpectedly became the team's All-Star closer after being designated for assignment in 2018.

“Bullpens, from year to year are probably the most volatile in terms of performance," Beane said. "Last year we struggled with it, and mainly was with the same cast of characters too. Sometimes, it’s hard to figure out.”

While some additions are still necessary, Beane did note that the “makings of a good bullpen” are already in place.

[RELATED: A's stars Semien, Hendriks voted to All-MLB Second Team]

Can Khrush bounce back?

The stats were once scary-consistent for Khris Davis, who hit .247 in four straight seasons and eclipsed 40 homers from 2016 through 2018. But in 2019, the designated hitter's averaged dropped 27 points (.220) and he also hit 25 fewer homers (23). All of this in a year where he signed a big contract, and suffered an abnormal injury playing left field.

“Khris took it really personally too,” Beane said. “He’s got a lot of pride, you could tell it was really bothering him, he feels like it's his responsibility to hit 40 homers every year. And he had done that. For him to struggle last year, I think it kind of snowballed on him.”

It was difficult to know entirely whether Davis’ struggles were mostly physical, mental, or a combination of each. But the confidence is that a reset button will only help the slugger in 2020.

“The hope is, with a long offseason he’s able to forget it, and do what he usually does: hit .247 and hit 40 home runs,” Beane said. 

Why A's players don't mind trade-offs with extended protective netting

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USATSI

Why A's players don't mind trade-offs with extended protective netting

OAKLAND -- Back in December, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred declared that all 30 ballparks will extend their existing protective netting in advance of the 2020 season.
 
The movement has its reservations among fans but seems universally supported among players. Even in Oakland, where ample foul ground already buys added insurance.
 
“It will be tougher to interact with the fans, maybe to throw a ball to them,” A's shortstop Marcus Semien said Friday at the team's media day. “I love throwing a baseball to a kid. But, at least they will be safe.”

An NBC News investigation last year found at least 808 reports of fan injuries from baseballs from 2012 through 2019. The total was "based on lawsuits, news reports, social media postings and information from the contractors that provide first aid stations at MLB stadiums."
 
On May 29 in Houston, Chicago Cubs outfielder Albert Almora Jr. lined a foul ball that struck a two-year-old girl in the head. Earlier this month, an attorney representing her family told the Houston Chronicle that the girl suffered a permanent brain injury, remains subject to seizures and might need to stay on medication for the rest of her life.
 
“It sucks, and I don’t want to see it anymore,” third baseman Matt Chapman said. “I’ve seen fans looking at their phones, not paying attention. I’ve seen people holding babies and not paying attention.”
 
Chapman understands the inconvenience but predicts eventual workarounds to make sure fans get their access, yet remain protected in critical situations. 

“I don’t understand why fan safety would be a bad thing,” he said.
 
In an era where exit velocities are measured with extreme precision, it’s scary to know that a baseball traveling 100 miles per hour could be headed straight towards someone who might not be able to protect themselves.

Even if they are paying attention to every pitch.
 
“We hit the ball so hard,” Semien said. “And sometimes we’re a little early. Or late. And now that they are up by the dugouts, you just say, 'Thank you the nets are there because that could have been bad.' ”
 
Even pitchers realize the dangers of line drives in foul territory. Starter Mike Fiers spends a lot of time in road dugouts, where he and other players often remark about how close young kids are sitting to the action.
 
“They’re in a bad spot,” Fiers said. “I feel like a lot of people don’t know that. It’s tough when those foul balls go in because everyone always watches and hopes nobody gets hit.”

[RELATED: A's teammates 'respect' Fiers for outing Astros' scandal]
 
As if there weren’t already enough thoughts running through the typical MLB hitter's mind, the concept of additional netting should at least take risk out of the equation. 
 
“No one wants to be that guy who hits a ball in the stands and hits somebody,” A's manager Bob Melvin said. “Our fans are baseball’s lifeline. You have younger kids in there. It’s a nightmare to think about. I think all players are in favor of that.”

A's Bob Melvin recalls celebrating Ichiro Suzuki, Adrian Beltre's careers

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AP

A's Bob Melvin recalls celebrating Ichiro Suzuki, Adrian Beltre's careers

OAKLAND -- Without fail, every time -- there's BoMel.

Just as the 2019 season opened up, Ichiro Suzuki decided he would play in his final major-league game in Tokyo. A's manager Bob Melvin was at the top of the opposing dugout paying his respects as the 10-time All-Star bid farewell to the game of baseball.

Suzuki made sure to personally run over to Melvin and shake his hand.

Ever the professional, Melvin knows he's been able to witness some amazing things across his illustrious career.

"I think the longer you're around, the more you really understand those type of days," Melvin told NBC Sports California. "I know when I was a player it wasn't something I had a focus on, but Ichiro, I had a close relationship with him and his career is one of a kind, so you want to see how he's embraced -- you want to be there for something you know you're going to remember for a long time."

The Texas Rangers retired 21-year veteran third baseman Adrian Beltre's number in Arlington a few months later. The team hosted the A's, and there was Melvin, at the top of the dugout paying his respects once again. 

And despite being on the other side of Beltre's retirement ceremony last season, and receiving "a lot of pain from Beltre over the years," Melvin knew what he did during his time in the game had to be celebrated.

"The fact that he's such a great player and such a good guy, and I've had so many conversations with him and -- a Hall of Fame-type guy -- you want to be out there and really feel good about watching it and seeing how he's embraced by the fanbase."

These were some of those significant moments Melvin's collected over the years.

Beltre has a certain unique quality to him. Well, it's more of a rule, really.

Do not -- under any circumstances, touch his head. Unless maybe if you're Elvis Andrus.

"No -- I don't even think I'd try to go there," Melvin said. 

"We did have a funny conversation," he recalled. 

[RELATED: BoMel calls Fiers' a hero for revealing Astros scandal]

When it was Yoenis Cespedes' first year, the A's were in Texas and Cespedes had slid into third base. 

"His ankle was a little funky -- we weren't really sure, I went out there, and [Cespedes'] English isn't very good, so Adrian was translating for us, which was really funny."

"I could tell at times, he was trying to get Cespedes out of the game and Cespedes was looking like 'No, no, no,' so it ended up being a funny situation, but I've spent a lot of time on the other side against Adrian."