The brains behind the low-budget hits

Published: Sunday, October 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, October 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
In 1980, the Mets hired Terry Ryan as their Midwest scouting supervisor and selected Billy Beane in the first round of the amateur draft. They had no way of knowing that Ryan and Beane would grow up to become two of the best, most aggressive, most imaginative general managers in the major leagues, and who would figure out a way to build championship teams with relatively low payrolls.
Ryan's Minnesota Twins and Beane's Oakland Athletics have payrolls that, if combined, would be 60 percent of the Yankees' payroll. Yet the Twins ($60.5 million) and the Athletics ($64 million) will join the Yankees in the American League playoffs once again this week.
The teams have become familiar participants in these affairs and have an intertwined history. The Yankees beat the Athletics in five games in the division series in 2000 and 2001, and they beat the Twins in four games in 2003 and 2004. The Twins edged the Athletics in five games in 2002.
But why are these relatively poor teams able to play on the same stage as the Yankees? It's not because of Johan Santana and Barry Zito, but because of Ryan and Beane, though Ryan disagrees in his case.
"Any success we've had is attributable to the people who work here and play here," Ryan said. "We've had good people working here for years in the minor leagues, scouts, coaches. We promote from within for the most part. It's a spinoff of who you have down there developing and coaching and bringing people along."
Tom Kelly, the former manager, and Andy MacPhail, the former general manager, Ryan added, "turned this thing over to Ron Gardenhire, and myself."
"We haven't done anything too fancy," Ryan said.
Under Ryan and Gardenhire, though, the Twins have won three consecutive division titles and are in the playoffs this year for the fourth time in five years.
The Athletics are division champions again after a two-year playoff drought that followed a four-year span in which they were division champions three times and the wild-card winner once. Their success made Beane the epitome of low-revenue success, and he was the subject of Michael Lewis's book "Moneyball," which focused on Beane's method of finding inexpensive players through statistical analysis.
Beane, however, said he didn't think much difference existed between the methods used by him and Ryan.
"At some points we probably have different philosophies," Beane said, "but the foundation of it has been about the continuity that's existed in both organizations and the continuity that's provided through scouting and player development. When we get to the major leagues, we might have different ways."
Ryan agreed with Beane, saying that despite appearances, the Twins aren't necessarily different from the Athletics.
"I subscribe to some of that," he said, referring to the "Moneyball" method. "We're an organization that pays attention to statistics. I believe in some of the things I read; some I'm not sure I'm on board with. There are a lot of things in it that are valuable, whether you're into statistical analysis as much as another organization. Most organizations take that into account when they evaluate people."
Where there have been differences in putting their teams together, the Athletics might actually have come around more to the Twins' thinking. Ryan talked about the emphasis the Twins place on defense and pitching, especially the bullpen, and Beane discussed the developing importance of those aspects of his team.
"The sort of team we put together is probably going to be dissimilar to others," Beane said. "When everyone else is zigging, we're going to zag." But he added: "We changed dramatically over the last few years. People accused us of being a slow-pitch softball team: Get men on base and have someone hit a three-run homer. But we've become more defensive-oriented."
For years, the Athletics emphasized on-base percentage and sought players other teams shunned.
"There was a time when we could go after players who all they did was get on base," Beane said. "They didn't bring any other skills to the table. They couldn't field, couldn't run. A player like Matt Stairs wasn't given the opportunity because he was perceived as not being able to do the other things. Now players without skills are being pursued."
Because on-base percentage has become an in-vogue statistic, Beane said, the competition for these players has become stiff.
"People who have the highest on-base percentage are the highest-paid players in the league," he said. "We can't find it where it's undervalued anymore. There are no bargains any more in that area."
Instead, Beane said: "We have to find very good defensive players, and we put a good defensive team on the field. Now the criticism is we don't score enough runs."
Beane cited former Gator second baseman Mark Ellis and center fielder Mark Kotsay as defensive players the Athletics added. "We don't have any truly outstanding offensive players in the outfield, but we have very good defensive players," Beane said, naming Kotsay, Jay Payton and Bobby Kielty.
"We score just enough to win, and we pitch well enough," he added.
However Beane acquires players, Ryan said: "I've always admired him. They're always in the mix, always finishing strong. They always have minor league players come through. When they don't, they go out and get players. They make things happen."
So does Ryan, acquiring in recent years pitchers like Santana and Francisco Liriano in trades that stand out as some of the best and most one-sided ever.
Unfortunately for the Twins, and fortunately for the team or teams they will play, Liriano has an ailing elbow and is unavailable for the postseason. Santana and Liriano would be a deadly combination, especially in the best-of-five division series.
Ryan's efforts, though, haven't prompted anyone to write a book about him.
"I don't relish that," the soft-spoken Ryan said when asked about the possibility that someone would. "I'm embarrassed that you'd even ask."
SUBHEADGOESHERE CANO JOINS BATTING LEADERS Robinson Cano, the Yankees' second baseman, didn't appear among the official AL batting leaders until last Tuesday because he missed 37 games, including all of July, with a pulled hamstring. A player needs to average 3.1 plate appearances for each of his team's games to appear among the leaders during the season. He needs 502 for the season.
When Cano appeared Tuesday, he needed 483.6 plate appearances and had 484. He was hitting .342, second to Joe Mauer's .349. Heading into the final two games of the season, Cano was hitting .342, four points behind Mauer and one point ahead of his teammate Derek Jeter.
SUBHEADGOESHERE MOST VALUABLE, AND CHEAP, TOO There's a bit of lopsidedness to the salaries of the players who are the leading contenders for the Most Valuable Player awards. Not that salaries are a factor in selecting MVP's, but there are contenders in each league whose teams have benefited from a mere pittance of their pay.
At the higher end of the pay scale are Derek Jeter of the Yankees, $20.6 million; Lance Berkman of Houston, $14.5 million; Albert Pujols of St. Louis, $14 million; and Carlos Beltran of the Mets, $13,571,428. At a lower level are David Ortiz of Boston, $6,833,333; and Jermaine Dye of the Chicago White Sox, $5 million.
Then come the youngest players and maybe the most valuable: Ryan Howard of Philadelphia, $355,000; Jose Reyes of the Mets, $401,500; and Justin Morneau of Minnesota, $385,000.

Lofton not done

Several seasons ago, Kenny Lofton seemed to be slowing down, perhaps headed for the end of his career. Playing for Pittsburgh in 2003, he batted an impressive .403 during a 26-game hitting streak in April and May. But he was hitting .277 when the Pirates traded him to the Chicago Cubs on July 22.
The trade, in which third baseman Aramis Ramirez went with Lofton, turned out to be terrific for Lofton and the Cubs. He batted .327, and they won the division title.
Three years later, at 39, Lofton is still playing and playing productively. He was hitting .297 for the Dodgers before their final two games and had 30 stolen bases (in 34 attempts), ranking him 11th in the National League and making him the oldest player to steal 30 this season. He was also the eighth-hardest NL player to strike out with one strikeout for every 12.6 plate appearances.

San Diego surprise

Josh Bard didn't last long in Boston. Assuming the role of backup catcher when John Flaherty retired, Bard inherited the job of catching Tim Wakefield's knuckleballs. The only problem was he couldn't - catch them, that is.
Deciding they had to do something quickly, the Red Sox called the San Diego Padres four weeks into the season and asked for Doug Mirabelli back. They had traded Mirabelli to the Padres for second baseman Mark Loretta, but they wanted Mirabelli in Boston in time to catch Wakefield against the Yankees on May 1.
Liberated from Wakefield's nightmarish knucklers, Bard blossomed, going into Saturday's game hitting .339, 101 points above his career average. Bard, 28, has benefited in another way. He is most likely going to the playoffs; the Red Sox aren't.
The Padres also benefited in another way. Joining them in the trade was a rookie relief pitcher, Cla Meredith. He became a member in good standing of the Padres' bullpen early in July, a month after his 23rd birthday, and has been instrumental in the team's march to the playoffs.
Meredith has a 0.91 ERA, allowing five runs in 49 2/3 innings in 44 games. At one stretch he gave up no runs in 33 2/3 innings over 28 games.

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