A's Year In Review: Keith Lieppman Q&A, P1

The Oakland A's are in their final week of their fall Instructional League. On Tuesday, we caught-up with A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman, who gave us a run-down on Instructs, the upcoming Arizona Fall League, his thoughts on the season that was, injury updates and more. In part one, we cover Wilfredo Solano, Michael Choice, Michael Taylor, Grant Green and plenty more...


OaklandClubhouse: How are Instructs going?

Keith Lieppman: Good. It's the first year that we've tried to do the two-team affect. We brought 56 players and we had a lot of success getting guys at-bats and pitchers throwing in more situations. It's really been good that way. But the injury bug continues to be a factor, especially with the attrition rate being high this time of the year. Guys just can't get through some of the injuries. With eight games remaining [as of Tuesday morning], it's down pretty much to skeleton crews making sure that we have enough to play everyday. So in one regard, it has been good [having the two teams], but in other regards, we are stressing the players just a little bit towards the end.

OC: Were there any new injuries in Instructs or were they all carry-overs from the regular season?

KP: There was a fluke injury with Tyreace House. He ended up taking a ball off of his thumb and then it turns out that he also had a wrist injury that created another problem for him. So he will actually have surgery today [on Tuesday] to clean up the issues with that wrist. He got it from both directions.

We also lost Zhi-Fang Pan, the shortstop. He has a couple of issues with his elbow so he has not been able to play a whole lot during this program. That was a big disappointment for us, especially since we were bringing him all the way here from Taiwan and then for him not to be able to play was a disappointment for everybody. I think it would have really been helpful for him to stay in the program.

Andrew Bailey, the namesake of our big league Andrew Bailey, continues to have elbow problems. He didn't do much [during the program]. Robin Rosario, a right-handed pitcher that we converted [from the outfield], has developed some elbow issues and really only pitched two innings down here. You anticipate that is going to happen occasionally with players who are going from position players to pitchers. There is a learning curve and also an injury curve. We dedicated a whole summer to really taking our time with him and it still popped up after just the second outing. We are aware of those types of situations and we try to prevent them and do everything that we can and still he ended up sore. So we had to take a little bit of a step backwards with him.

Omar Duran, the left-hander from the Dominican, his elbow is starting to give him problems, so he hasn't been able to hold up in the program. He had a real good summer program here in Arizona and we thought he was really on the way with this. But just after his first or second outing, he complained again [about the elbow] and he hasn't pitched since.

OC: Was it is his elbow last year, too?

KP: Yes, same thing.

OC: Has anyone really stood out performance-wise during both the advanced and regular Instructs games?

KP: Yes, a couple of guys. We have seen what we expected from A.J. Kirby-Jones and Michael Choice. Both of them came as advertised with the power and the power potential. Just amassing the numbers as far as pure power. The scouts were just in town to watch them take BP and they put on a show. They are just well-equipped in that dimension of their game. They are here to work on other things as far as defense and consistency with approach and all of that, but certainly they have stood out.

Kind of a guy off of the radar a little bit has been Ryan Lipkin. He's somebody who has been really impressive, both catching and with his at-bats. He has really impressed the staff. A lot of times catchers have a hard time coming in here and making their mark, but he definitely came and made his mark.

I forgot to mention earlier that Max Stassi came here for about a week but his shoulder is still continuing to bother him from the end of the season, so we shut him down and sent him back home. So he's not in the program.

Other players that have really impressed the coaches down here so far include Ryan Pineda. He's had a solid approach since signing late this year. After coming up with some big hits in Vancouver, he has come in here and really showed some power, but he is also learning how to move the ball around the field. A lot of these guys come in as power hitters and he's learning to use the whole field better.

Kind of a surprise guy who has a great body and is strong has been Josh Whitaker. He has hit a couple of big homeruns. This group of individuals we have in Instructional League has put us back into some of the old days of the bigger, stronger, faster Oakland A's. The old days with some of the Jason Harts, Eric Byrnes, some of the bigger, stronger, faster guys coming into the program. That type of guy that we used to draft, the bigger, more athletic guy. This draft is filled with those kind of guys.

Then we have some carryover guys who are here for a couple of reasons. We brought in Conner Crumbliss, even though he had a really good year, to work on playing both the infield and the outfield. He was outstanding [this season] and I think he led the minor leagues in walks [he did with 126 walks in 134 games]. He's here more for defense and working on becoming a better bunter and working on different dimensions to his game. We brought players in like Michael Gilmartin to work on things like bat angle and approach and using the whole field to become a better hitter. So there are a lot of guys who have made a lot of improvements up to this point.

Then you have the first-year guys other than the power guys. You have interesting kids like Aaron Shipman and Yordy Cabrera, who both are exciting to watch. They have a combination of speed and agility in the field and raw tools who are learning to play the professional game. They have been fun to have in the program. High school kids who are energetic and are just learning the game.

Then you bring in another influence who has brought a lot of energy in Wilfredo Solano [Solano was the A's headline signing from the international free agent market in 2009]. It's his first year in the United States and he is just starting out. He hit a big homerun for us a couple of days ago and he has played a pretty solid shortstop. We really like the group players we have here and by having the two teams, it has allowed us to get a ton of at-bats.

OC: Do you think that Solano can make the jump to the US next season?

KP: Yes. We'd like to bring him for sure to the States next year.

OC: Solano had a lot of walks for a young player in the DSL this year, but his average was really low. Do you think that was a product of the level he was playing at or do you think that he needs a different challenge?

KP: A little of both. He is a really smart kid. He's already fluent in English. He's from Venezuela. He made it a point to try to follow our recipe for success while he was in the Dominican, which included being selective, having a discerning eye and still being aggressive. He bought into all of that and tried to execute it. He did really well, as you mentioned. He took a lot of walks. But what comes with that sometimes is a passivity as a hitter. He kind of got into that mode where he lost a little bit of that aggressiveness, but he did accomplish the other part of the approach – getting on base and walking and doing the things that we wanted. This program has allowed him to come out of his shell a little bit and has brought out the aggressive part.

Plus, as you mentioned, there's a factor when you are the youngest guy and everyone else is older, you play up to the level that you're competing in. He's been thrust into that kind of position [in Instructs] and he has readily accepted it. There is no stepping down for him. In fact, he's been a pretty good guy for some of the older guys to watch play with his style. It's sort of what happened with Jermaine Mitchell this year when we sent him up to Triple-A [from High-A Stockton], he had to up his game to make sure that it plays at the same level that the other guys are playing at. [Solano] has had good success at doing that. I think that sometimes that's a good thing for a player to go through.

OC: With Choice, are there going to have to be adjustments at all with the way that he loads up for the ball with the toe-tap and everything else, or do you think that's part of his swing that's going to stick with him?

KP: When you have a gifted player like that those are the things that you don't want to mess with right now. You want to make sure that he has good balance, good head position and that he has a good idea of himself. Those are the number one things. It is really difficult to change a whole lot of things. What would have happened if someone had tried to change Gary Sheffield with his quirky mannerisms and the things that he did? He was a very effective major league baseball player for a long time, just as there are a lot of players who have unusual techniques that they use. You try to quiet it down and you try to use it within the means that they already have, but you definitely don't want to immediately change it. He's had success like this, so you don't really want to just all of a sudden change it.

What we try to do more right now is work on learning how to make adjustments on small things and teach the players that making adjustments is a tool and sometimes it is more important than a run tool or a throw tool. Teaching the adjustment part of the game now will enable them not only to know how to make the adjustments but also how to coach themselves when they get to be top-of-the-line players. There's a method to the madness. It's a matter of teaching them one basic fundamental. It's a skill that they are going to have to have somewhere down the road.

OC: Are you concerned about his strike-out totals? Is that something he's working on or is it a by-product of being a slugger?

KP: It's a by-product. There are some things that will definitely help him with recognition. We've spent a lot of time in this program going through that. We've watched a lot of video to watch what the good hitters do, what pitches to take and how to prepare yourself, so he's getting a really good education about how to do it and these are things that he has probably never heard before. This is a good process to start. I think that strike-outs are going to happen, but I think that he can eliminate some of them by using some of these techniques. Basically, it's all approach oriented and it isn't all mechanical.

OC: How about the Arizona Fall League contingent? Are they in camp with you getting ready for that season?

KP: Grant Green has been here. He's the only one who has shown up here so far. He has been working with Juan Navarette [the A's minor league roving infield instructor] and has been doing some different things, trying to get ready. We may even get him in [an Instructs] game before their AFL season begins.

OC: What is your feeling about that contingent going into the AFL season, specifically the two younger players from Stockton [Green and Stephen Parker]?

KP: We are really happy with the situation with the league. What the league has done is to allow two A-ball players to be allowed to go to the Arizona Fall League [up from one]. Both Green and Parker probably would have had an opportunity to advance to Double-A a little bit earlier [but for the rule change]. Green maybe could have gone up in August and Parker could have gone later on and they would have been Double-A players. But with the way that our system was set-up, it was really tiered so that there wasn't a whole lot of movement. It was hard enough to get Adrian Cardenas and Corey Brown to Triple-A, let alone moving up people behind them. They really got into a position where they out-performed the league and probably should have been promoted to Double-A. I think that they are at that level where they can compete in the Fall League and continue to do well. Both showed great power numbers, RBIs and it will be a real challenge for them to continue to improve their defense and become complete players. The competition will really allow them to improve. That's what we are looking for right now.

OC: What are you looking for from Michael Taylor at the AFL?

KP: At this stage to find a consistent routine and approach offensively that he can trust and doesn't have to be changing all of the time. I know that he tried on a thousand different techniques, a lot of people were in his ear during the course of the season, a lot of coaches and traveling instructors. He was trying so hard to get everything perfect for an opportunity to get him to the big leagues that I think we want to go back and make sure that we have found something that is comfortable for him and allows him to use the tools that he has. Our big speech to these guys is to take their tools and make them skills.

Some players just kind of have off years. It happens once and awhile. Pretty soon they start searching for something new all of the time and it starts spinning out of control a little bit. I think a lot of things added to that for him this year. I think that aspect of it will help him. We have Greg Sparks [the A's minor league hitting coordinator] down here to work with him and we'll have people in and out of the program to make sure that he's lined up and is comfortable starting spring training next year.

OC: Were you pleased with the way that Brown and Cardenas played in Midland after being sent down?

KP: One of the hardest things to do is to reach a Triple-A level and then have to go back, especially if you believe that you belong there, like good competitive guys like Brown and Cardenas do. Both handled that very well and dominated when they went back down there. They both earned the right to go back up a little bit later in the summer. As an organization, you admire that capability because most players don't do well on the downturn. Both players got challenged by it and improved. I think that in a good way, it helped them, but there was some negative stuff that had to happen in order for that experience to unfold. They got challenged. They aren't happy about it, but they proved that they belonged [in Triple-A].

Stay tuned for part two of this interview, during which we discuss Josh Horton, rehabbing prospects, the A's moves to Burlington(s), Andrew Carignan, Fautino De Los Santos, Matt Thomson, Royce Consigli and more...

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