DePodesta learning his craft with A's

A's assistant GM Paul DePodesta discusses his job along with the challenges of remaining a contender year in and year out in Oakland.

Originally Published: March 11, 2003
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

Paul DePodesta isn't a household name, not even in households where the big-screen TV is frequently tuned to ESPN. And this doesn't seem to bother him a whole lot, because he's young and he knows his time will come. At least for now, DePodesta still serves as Billy Beane's right-hand man, and last week I sat down with him in his office at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, spring-training home of the Oakland Athletics.

Neyer: I'll start with an easy question ... Aside from keeping everybody healthy, what is spring training about for you?

DePodesta: In a few specific cases, it's about evaluating players. We took three players in the Rule 5 draft -- pitchers Buddy Hernandez and Mike Neu, and outfielder Rontrez Johnson -- and this is really our only chance to see them, because we basically drafted them because of their numbers.

What is Beane thinking?
Billy Beane, what keeps you awake at night?
"We need to stay healthy. Until (Jim) Mecir gets back, we're going to have some young guys in the bullpen, guys that have some ability but haven't proved anything. So until Jimmy gets back ... actually, it doesn't keep me up, because I think it's great that we've got the opportunity to develop these guys. Then when Mecir gets back, we'll have created a lot of depth for ourselves. But I'd say that's probably the biggest thing right now. And also, we like Ted Lilly a lot, but we're going to ask him to throw a lot more innings than he's thrown before."

What should keep Billy Beane awake at night:
Two-thirds of his outfield. Granted, the pitchers will be happy to see Terrence Long in left field (rather than center) and Chris Singleton (rather than Long) in center field. But Long's now put up two seasons worth of pretty crummy numbers, and the 30-year-old Singleton sports a .313 career on-base percentage. Yes, the defense is going to be better than it was. But unless something close to miraculous happens, Long and Singleton will have A's fans -- and perhaps Billy Beane himself -- longing for the days of Ben Grieve and Matt Stairs.

Neyer: I know about Johnson because he used to play for the Royals, but what can you tell me about Hernandez and Neu?

DePodesta: Both of them have been great in the minors, but they don't show up on the prospect lists because of their size. For us, though, effectiveness is much more important. (Mark) Mulder's 6-6, (Barry) Zito's 6-4, and (Tim) Hudson is 5-10 or 5-11. And the guys we drafted are both 5-8 or 5-9. We don't really have a bias. Different guys can do it different ways, and we try to avoid outsmarting ourselves. It's who can get outs, and we really don't care much how they're doing it.

So that's really what the next few weeks are about. We don't need to sit here and watch Miguel (Tejada) or (Eric Chavez) or Mark Mulder. We will watch them, but they're here just to get ready. Then there are some guys here who are truly competing, and those are the guys who we're trying to evaluate as best we can, trying to balance the objective knowledge that we already have -- that's why they're here -- with the subjective that we see and what we think they might do at this level. There are a lot of conversations with our coaching staff, and eventually we have to make the best decisions that we can, even though it's not the ideal timeframe for making those decisions.

Neyer: Do you have room to keep all three of the Rule 5 guys?

DePodesta: Yeah, we could. I don't know that we will, but mathematically we could.

Neyer: Do you think you could go out and find two major-league quality relief pitchers every year in the Rule 5 draft, or was this an odd year?

DePodesta: No, this was odd. We actually haven't been all that active in the Rule 5 draft. We took Bo Porter four or five years ago, and we took Jason Grabowski last year -- we really love him, by the way, and think he's going to help us -- but this year we just had a lot of space on the roster. (Jim) Mecir got hurt early in the offseason and we knew he was going to be down. We knew that (Keith) Foulke, (Chad) Bradford, and (Ricardo) Rincon were, health permitting, going to be locks for our bullpen. Otherwise, things were pretty open, so we actually had spots. There are guys we liked this year in the Rule 5 draft who were first basemen, or corner guys, who we didn't take because they didn't have a real good chance of making our team.

This year was pretty rare in that there were guys that we liked and we had spots open for them. But I think it'll be fairly rare that we take more than one guy in the Rule 5 draft. If we do take somebody, we're going to expect him to contribute right away. We don't have the luxury of carrying a guy for a year. It's also gotten too expensive. We carry a guy for a year now, he's making $300,000, and then we send him down to Triple-A the next year, he'll make something like $240,000, and we just can't afford to pay that kind of money to somebody in Sacramento. By the time he gets to the majors and is able to contribute, it might be two years and half a million dollars after we drafted him, and that money might be better spent elsewhere. So we're looking for guys who are going to help us right away.

Neyer: I know that Jeremy Brown isn't a candidate for the big-league roster yet, but how has he looked in camp?

DePodesta: Everybody talks about his body (he's 5-10 and clears 200 pounds with some room to spare), and you still hear some snickers in the crowd when he comes up, but it doesn't prevent him from doing what he needs to do to be a successful player.

Neyer: I know he can hit, but how's his glove?

DePodesta: His defense is very good. He's actually built almost like the ideal hockey goalie. He's very good at blocking balls. He's got quick feet, and he's quick to second base with his throws. With all the hype about the 2002 draft, with us getting seven first-rounders or whatever, he's the only one that's here (in the major-league training camp), so people are starting to pick up on him. Ideally, if everything goes well, maybe he can reach Double-A this year, and we'll see how it goes.

Neyer: Do you think Brown is your best prospect at this point?

DePodesta: Among position players, yes. Overall, (pitcher Rich) Harden would probably be No. 1. He came in the other day, pitching in his first big-league spring-training game, and his entire first inning he was throwing 97 and 98 miles an hour. Second inning, he was 95 and 96. And he just throws so ... easy, that the scouts behind the plate could hardly believe it.

Neyer: Now, how do you make sure Harden doesn't get hurt?

DePodesta: The pitching program that (A's pitching coach) Rick Peterson has put together, we've had tremendous success with that. We just haven't had a lot of guys go down. We have a very conservative throwing program, but we also do a lot of preventative stuff. Not only the throwing program, but also with our exercise program that our trainers have designed. We've had a tremendous amount of success with that; knock on wood, we haven't had anybody since I've been here go down.

Mark Mulder
Mark Mulder was 10-2 in 16 starts in the second half last season.

Neyer: That leads to the question, do other teams ever try to pick your brain when it comes to preventing injuries to pitchers? It seems to me that baseball teams, more than any other sport, are reluctant to copy what other teams are doing. For example, very few teams use Leo Mazzone's program, even though he's had amazing success with veteran starters and the guys in the bullpen for something like 10 years. But nobody seems to have copied him, even though he's written a book talking about how he's done it.

DePodesta: As an industry, we're very poor copycats. Even when we do copy, we don't copy well, and we don't understand the circumstances around that particular situation. Like when Cleveland established the blueprint of signing young players to multi-year deals and building a stadium, everybody else thought, "Well, that's a panacea." Except everybody forgot that the young players the Indians were signing were Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez and Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton. Which is an unbelievable package of players, and then they got good as soon as the stadium opened. So everything worked perfectly, but it's not going to work like that everywhere else.

Neyer: I've been wanting to ask you for a long time, what kind of guy has the courage to turn down a GM job?

DePodesta: (Chuckling ... ) Well, when I got the offer from the Blue Jays, I was pretty happy here. This just wasn't a situation I was dying to get out of. I felt there were still some things to accomplish here, and I also felt that if I waited, I'd be better in another year, or another two years.

Dan O'Dowd told me -- when I was first working in Cleveland -- he said, "One thing to be aware of, when you're a GM candidate, is that there are three different possibilities: you're not ready, or you're ready to survive, or you're ready to succeed."

You have to be ready to survive, or your career can end almost immediately. Ultimately, what you want is to be ready to succeed, right from day one. When the Blue Jays offered me the job, I definitely felt like I was ready to survive. I felt like I was on the cusp of being ready to succeed, but I knew that if I waited another year -- now it's been a year-and-a-half -- then I could really hit the ground running.

And I did want to wait for the right job rather than the first job.

Neyer: What is the "right job"?

DePodesta: That's hard to pin down, because circumstances change. I think it's a combination of ownership, and resources, and even geography. But all those elements can change, even geography because teams get new stadiums, and then you say, "Hey, I'd love to be there now, with that kind of a ballpark."

That obviously greatly affects resources, and ownership always affects resources and of course your working relationship. Up to this point, I always felt like I should be willing to go anywhere to do anything, especially if I could be around great people. But when you make that last step? When I make that decision, I want to be there for a long time. I hope to be there as long as I want to be there, like Sandy (Alderson) was here, and John (Hart) in Cleveland, or even John Schuerholz in Atlanta.

Neyer: Makes sense to me, but I suspect most of us would have a hard time making the decision you did, if only because you turned down what would presumably have been a huge raise.

DePodesta: Yeah, when I came back here and got my next paycheck, it was like, "Wow." But I think the hardest part for me wasn't even that. It was not knowing when that next shot was going to come. Is it going to come next year, is it going to come in five years, is it going to come 10 years from now? I didn't know, I still don't know, and I think that's the hardest part for me.

Neyer: At this moment, there are literally thousands of bright young people who want to be the next Theo Epstein, or the next Paul DePodesta. So what's your advice to somebody who wants to be you?

DePodesta: A huge part of the game is dealing with people. We're glorified human-resources people. Our product is people, all of our capital is human, and so it's just a huge part of what we do.

I was reading an article about one of the winter trades, and it said, "They should have just done ..." Somebody here printed it out, and we were passing it around, and I circled that line and I wrote, "If it were just that easy." I think what's hard for people to realize is that it really isn't that easy.

A huge part of the game is dealing with people. We're glorified human-resources people. Our product is people, all of our capital is human, and so it's just a huge part of what we do.
Paul DePodesta, A's assistant GM, on working in a front-office position

Billy is a master deal-maker. He's fantastic, a great salesman. So it's not just knowing who to acquire, but it's also how you go about doing it. It's also, how do you build a team? How do you manage an entire major-league coaching staff? And a scouting director, and a farm director? You have to get everybody pulling on the same end of the rope.

A lot of people who have written letters or called me, asking how to do it, and the first thing I tell them is, "The first thing you have to realize is that when you first get to an organization, you're really going to have nothing to offer other than hard work."

That's the key. Growing up, I always thought I knew a lot about baseball. I played in college. I played with a bunch of guys who played pro ball. I played hundreds and hundreds of games. Because of my body type, I was an on-base machine (I haven't hit a home run since tee-ball), and I was always fundamentally sound because I had to be. But I got to the Indians, and it didn't take but three or four days of being around the minor-league complex in spring training, and I realized, "I know nothing."

It was overwhelming at first. At that point, I realized that the best I could offer was just grinding out anything they needed done. And it was probably something like two years later when I gave them something that actually added value to the organization. I just didn't know a lot about the game, or at least not about the way this game works.

So the advice I normally give is, "Don't go in thinking that you're going to revolutionize this organization. Go in ready to work very hard. Keep an open mind, and listen to everybody."

Neyer: How does somebody get into an organization in the first place?

DePodesta: You have to be really lucky. That's a huge component, but there's just not much you can do about it. But you can do everything possible to put yourself into position to take advantage of an opportunity, which is doing your best to increase your luck. I went to work in the Canadian Football League and the American Hockey League, because I wanted to get as much experience in sports as I possibly could. I tried to meet as many people as I possibly could, so that should there be an opening in baseball or football or whatever, I was going to find about it, and I was going to fight for it.

And that was basically what happened. I found out about the internship with the Indians from somebody I worked with in the Canadian Football League. I was incredibly lucky. There's no way I would have gotten this job if Dan O'Dowd hadn't met with Billy Beane the week before and decided he didn't want the job. He's the one who told Billy, this is the guy you gotta go hire. So there's a huge element of luck, but I think there are ways to position yourself to take advantage of any opportunity.

I tell a lot of people, you can't go into it thinking, "I want a job in baseball operations." You have to go in thinking, "I want any job in a major-league front office, whether it's in tickets, in sales, in marketing, in p.r. or whatever it is. And once I'm there, I should go introduce myself to somebody in baseball operations and say, 'Anything you need to get done -- inputting scouting reports, doing the radar gun, charting pitches, working in the video room -- whatever it is, in my off-hours I'd be thrilled to do it.'"

You get exposure to those people, you learn the language of scouting (which is a completely different language), so when an opening in baseball operations does come up, you're the obvious candidate. You can hit the ground running. But what I think a lot of people don't realize is that you're not going to spend your first year sitting on Billy's couch, talking trades.

Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published in April by Fireside, appears here regularly during the season and irregularly in the offseason. His e-mail address is rob.neyer@dig.com.

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