Oakland A's Spring Q&A: Keith Lieppman, P. 1

PHOENIX - Oakland A's minor league spring training is in full swing. On Thursday, we caught-up with A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman. In a wide-ranging discussion, we covered early standouts in camp, changes to the Dominican program, the progress of last year's high school draft picks and more...

OaklandClubhouse: Has anyone really jumped out at you so far?

Keith Lieppman: You know the first one is Dusty Coleman. He has really been outstanding after a long injury and multiple surgeries and disappointments. He has come back and really looked good so far both offensively and defensively. Everything about his game is actually better than when he left. He is bigger and stronger and he looks great so far.

OC: He's not limited at all then?

KL: No.

OC: Do you think he'll go back to Stockton to start the season?

KL: He will probably start at Stockton just to get back into the flow of things, but he has certainly looked good enough to play at a higher level.

OC: Is it hard to find the appropriate spot for everyone in the infield with Coleman returning from surgery and all of the infield guys the team has drafted the last few years?

KL: It is really difficult at every level because we are starting to get backed up a little bit with some of our key personnel. And then you have someone like our Player of the Year Grant Green and Stephen Parker coming off of a huge year and they have to be pushed. And Michael Spina is another guy who really did well. So you advance the guys who had the great years. Sometimes the injuries put you a little behind the eight ball. You aren't necessarily in position, but it doesn't mean that you are out either. You find a way to make sure they get at-bats. In the end, things have a way of working themselves out.

[Coleman] will certainly get that opportunity. It's just unfortunate that he had to go through that long period of time of being out.

OC: Do you think sometimes when a player has that long of a layoff, it can give him the opportunity to work on things he wouldn't have worked on before?

KL: He couldn't swing during that period. His wrist was hurt to such a degree that he couldn't physically do much. But he did physically get stronger with lifting and his legs, with the agility and all of that. So he improved in those areas. I guess there is a silver lining in every injury if you treat them the right way. A lot of players don't look for the other areas that they could improve on and they come back less than what they were before, but he took it upon himself to make something out of it.

OC: Ryan Ortiz finished the year banged up. Is he back 100 percent?

KL: No, he's DHing right now and has been outstanding. He's another one who hitting-wise is doing great. He's squaring the ball up regularly. He's got a good approach. He's doing everything offensively. He just can't throw. He's in a throwing program and more than likely will start the season in Arizona [at extended spring training] and then we will see how things go from there. If there is a place where he can finish his rehab and still DH, certainly that would be looked at. But I think at this point the rehab is more important than the at-bats. He can get those here in Arizona and still stay sharp.

OC: How has Wilfredo Solano looked?

KL: He came back [here] after playing in a parallel league. I think they call it Paralela in Venezuela. He is probably going to start at this level [Rookie ball] and play a full year here in Arizona, unless things change dramatically between now and this summer. But he looks good. We've played him at short and second. He isn't probably in contention for one of those higher positions [with a full-season affiliate]. At 18, he probably isn't ready. But he certainly has looked good and we are happy where he is at.

OC: Is he adjusting to being here in the States? That's got to be a huge adjustment.

KL: Yeah. I think just having him here for Instructional League put him in a position where it wasn't too overwhelming. Now it is easy for him to assimilate into the group.

OC: Speaking of young players, how are Aaron Shipman, Yordy Cabrera and Chad Lewis fitting in?

KL: Probably the guy who has the best chance of going out to any of the [full-season] clubs is Cabrera right now. He seems to be the most advanced of the group. It's still a battle for Shipman and Lewis to see if they go out to the Midwest League, but it is probably more likely that they will start in Vermont and work their way up. That is probably the best way for their advancement right now. Don't try to push them above their level.

There is a silver lining in being [in Arizona at extended spring] everyday. You get one-on-one attention. You don't have the bad weather in the Midwest. Their development speeds up tremendously because they've got cages and they've got six instructors down here. There are people who can constantly individualize the attention. Whereas in a season, you are worried about the games. One day they may not hit or they may not play for four or five days in a row. That makes it difficult for them to improve their skills. They need to play and be out there every day.

OC: With Cabrera, do you think his polish comes from having a father who has been a player and a coach for so long?

KL: I think so. Also his ability to be in the Dominican [Cabrera is from the Dominican but went to high school in Florida]. We took him to the instructional league there. He has experienced a number of different environments and he has been around it his whole life. It's been advantageous for him right now.

OC: One guy who did jump from high school to the Midwest League last year was Max Stassi. I saw that he is on the Double-A roster at the moment. Do you feel comfortable with him going to High-A Stockton to start the year even though last year was a bit of a rough season for him?

KL: Yeah. I think at this stage with what we have seen so far and having gone through big league camp and just being in the position where he's at right now, it's a positive move. He's receiving the ball well and he has a really good sense of handling the pitching staff. There are so many things about him that are exciting. There are some things about his offense that will need to be continually worked on. He has a tendency to chase outside the ‘zone, but the power is there and he has a really good approach. And that's just experience at that point.

It's really the reverse situation for him. Most catchers go the other way – they are hitters first and then learn to receive. He is maybe one of our best catchers in the system defensively.

OC: What is Ian Krol's situation at the moment? I see he hasn't been pitching in games.

KL: He strained his forearm. He will probably have to start the season in Arizona. It wasn't as bad as Andrew Bailey's, but a similar type of injury.

OC: The organization has signed a number of high-profile, if that is the word for it, talent from the international market recently. Has that changed the feel of the Dominican Academy?

KL: It has. It has sort of changed our approach down there. We have put a full-time American trainer there all of the time – Phil Mastro – and we've implemented a strength and conditioning program that mirrors exactly what we are doing here. We have a full set of educational classes that include intense English classes. We are upping all aspects of our Dominican program to match the type of talent we have acquired with Renato Nunez and there is a kid named Michael Soto we really like. There is a whole lot of money that we have invested in these kids down there right now. Vicmal De La Cruz is another. He will be here for the extended spring training program.

OC: Could he stick in Arizona or will he be sent back to the Dominican Summer League when that season starts?

KL: A lot of these kids, according to their contracts, they are going to lose a whole lot of money if they spend their first year in Arizona. So in that case, he may only be able to be here through extended and then the instructional league. He may have to go back and play the season in the Dominican.

OC: He's pretty advanced then?

KL: Hitting-wise. He's got a great attitude. He's one of the best young pure hitters I've seen. It's a matter of putting him in a position where he can learn all of the other finer things. He has no English skills. It's going to be a very interesting progression for him when he walks in here because he doesn't have any skill level at all [with English].

OC: I saw the "Tommy John bunch" Michael Ynoa, Pedro Figueroa and Julio Ramos hanging out together. How are they progressing?

KL: Really good. No set-backs. Nice, conservative program that is leading them into pitching at some point this summer. We are hopeful. They are still in the flat-ground portion of their rehab. It's an ongoing process, but they are on target. There are going to be set-backs later when they step back up on the mound and break some curveballs off and change-ups. It's also been good to have them here since January 23rd or whenever it was.

OC: Is the plan to have them spend the year in Arizona?

KL: They'll be here until we have the opportunity to send them out. Wherever it is, it isn't important where they pitch. It's a matter of getting innings.

OC: With Ramos, it looked like he was right on the edge of a breakout season before getting hurt. How much does an injury like this set a player back who was just about to make that leap?

KL: I don't know how some of these guys came back from their Tommy John surgeries in 10-12 months. It's beyond my understanding because I've watched Joey Devine and Josh Outman, really most of our Tommy Johns do not come back in that short of a period of time. It's more like 12-18 months. Fautino De Los Santos, it took him almost two years to fully recover. These guys are currently in that grey area right now [roughly 8-9 months removed from surgery]. I would tend to predict it will take longer than shorter, unless it is remarkable.

OC: With Fautino, he had some control issues in big league camp. Is he still trying to find that consistent release throwing mechanics?

KL: Yeah, it's all about his direction of his body. He's a power pitcher who has one of those Bob Gibson finishes where he falls off to the first base side [of the mound]. Some people can get away with it. He's gotten better. He's down in the ‘zone. He had a good outing [on Wednesday]. Threw two good innings in 18 pitches, so that was a little bit of a break-through. He's on track and since Henry [Rodriguez] is gone, he's probably our best arm in the system.

OC: Do you think he will be able to jump up to Sacramento or will he start in Midland and work his way up?

KL: He may have to start in Midland just because of the backlog we currently have in Sacramento right now. But he's still being evaluated and certainly after [Wednesday] it was a very important step for him. He looked good.

OC: Did Andrew Carignan have a set-back? Is that why he's on the rehab list?

KL: He did. He hurt his foot and he's in a boot right now. We are on a wait-and-see with him. He's on a no-throw right now. He's like Adam Rosales, but not that bad, but he looks like him with his boot on. A matching pair.

OC: But it wasn't anything to do with his arm at all?

KL: No, no. His arm is good.

Stay tuned for more of this interview later this week.

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