Oakland A's Spring Q&A: Keith Lieppman, P. 2

PHOENIX - In part two of our spring interview with Oakland A's Director of Player Personnel Keith Lieppman, we talk about the progress of Michael Choice and Jemile Weeks, minor league coach staffs, the organization's increased international presence, Tyler Vail and much more...

To read part one of this interview, click here.

OaklandClubhouse: After a very successful run in the organization, longtime minor league manager Tony DeFrancesco has moved onto the Houston organization. Darren Bush has taken over as the Sacramento manager after three consecutive trips to the league championship series. What can we expect from him?

Keith Lieppman: I look at his track record, starting off as an independent league manager where you have to acquire players and the bus driver and be the hitting coach, really do everything. He was in charge of the whole process. We brought him in as a hitting coach and surrounded him with Todd Steverson and Emo [Scott Emerson] and that group kind of gelled together. It brought out this side of him. I hadn't expected that he'd be that kind of a manager. I had expected that he'd be a hitting coach and we'd bring him up in that area, but we saw this person who had a good feel for the game, who was cerebral. A very adept manager at understanding the fundamentals.

And then he's got these great communications skills with the players. He's one of the few managers that I've seen who has a very strict discipline as far as how to do things, where you are supposed to be and how to play the game and players actually like him. Most players don't like playing for managers who are tough. Usually you'll say a players' manager is a guy who throws the balls and bats out there and let's the players do what they do. But he's a players' manager, but with the other aspects of it. Players need discipline, they need structure. He provides all of that for them.

He's a very interesting guy. To have had the success at every level and last year he almost wins it again [he won the 2008 California League Championship and the 2009 Texas League Championship before losing the Texas League crown in the finals in 2010] before running up against a terrific team [Northwest Arkansas].

OC: The 2012 Kansas City Royals?

KL: Right. It really is. That's a good group. And they played them tough. I think they made one mistake. Mickey Storey hung a pitch to Eric Hosmer and that was it.

OC: Do you think there will be a benefit to the continuity of having guys like Chris Carter and Adrian Cardenas on the River Cats having played for Bush in previous years?

KL: I do. And I think he will bring a real calming effect to that group, where Tony was more out there as far as animation. There's kind of a quiet sense with Bush. The people of Sacramento are going to see a much different style but don't let the style fool you. What is thrown out as far as arguments with the umpire and that sort of thing, Bushie has been able to take that behind the scenes and he is very well prepared. Guys like Carter and probably Jemile Weeks, Michael Taylor, the guys that we are looking to have big years, are in good hands. The development program is important to him.

Just as winning has been a tradition [in Sacramento], I think you will continue to see both of those things. That is a winning town and you have to be able to do that for that club. So far, so good.

OC: Weeks had a nice major league camp and it looks like he is running around ok. Do you expect him to be able to start at Triple-A?

KL: Yeah, he has done everything he can do to win that job. He's in position, he's healthy and what's interesting is that he has set his own bar already. We've watched him be a force on the field, running balls out, taking great turns around the bases, putting pressure on the defense. All of the things we have been unable to see with him or have seen inconsistently, he has been able to do in big league camp. We are expecting to see that – if he is healthy – that kind of dynamic player. The heir apparent, you hope, to that second base job in Oakland.

That is the kind of player we are trying to push there. To use all of his abilities for the right purposes.

OC: Cardenas spent the off-season being a student [at NYU] and being away from the game a little bit. Do you feel like getting away from the game in the off-season can be beneficial to a player who has had some frustrations the year before?

KL: We are always talking about balance. That is an important part of the game, that you are able to take a step away from it and have perspective, but don't detach. It's finding a happy place where you are capable of pushing yourself but you have an understanding that there are things that make you feel better. The school gave him another identity that he can use to make him a better ballplayer, so I don't think that little time away did much. In fact, it probably helped him to appreciate the game and the position that he is in. When you start getting to Triple-A and you are on the roster and getting close, it pushes your buttons a little higher.

OC: Will he primarily see time at third base this season or will he be all over the infield?

KL: That's the problem that we have with so many good players [at the same level]. We have [Steve] Tolleson and if Andy LaRoche winds up there or Eric Sogard, whoever it is, there is going to be a mix-and-match situation that those players are going to have to play different positions and they are going to have to be comfortable in different roles. Splitting time or however that situation plays out, it is going to provide opportunity, but each of those guys is going to have to understand how to use that correctly and to their benefit.

But [Cardenas] can play some third. He can play second. He can DH. There's a way to mix all of those guys in the lineup. Unfortunately most players want to have it be said to them ‘you're going to get 500 at-bats and you're going to play here everyday'. Sometimes in the game it doesn't play out that way. There's competition and there are needs at the big league level that you can't just tell somebody ‘here you go'. You have to continue to earn it. That's where we are going to have to be in that situation this year.

OC: Grant Green played every game in which he wasn't the DH at shortstop last year. Do you think he will see any time anywhere else on the diamond, or is he going to get 100 percent of his time at shortstop again?

KL: I think we are going to leave him there. As of late March anyway, that is our plan. We've talked about it a lot and really it's just his second full year, so let's just let him go out there and play and consistently get better on defense and improve his approach. The hitting, we are all confident that his instincts there will be really good.

OC: Do you think Michael Choice will be in Northern California with Stockton this season?

KL: I do.

OC: Are you as excited about him as it seems like people were over at big league camp?

KL: I am. He's just been outstanding. It's funny, but about the second week of big league camp, Mark Ellis grabbed me from behind and said, ‘Lipp, this is the real deal. This is one of the best number ones I've seen in years'. Coming from Ellie like that, he's watched guys over the years. Guys are just impressed. You watch him take BP. You see his speed. The overall tools that he exhibits. He's an exciting player.

OC: Looked like he cut down on some of the movement in the lower-half. Was that something that he did during the off-season?

KL: Yeah, we worked with him this off-season. He had kind of a three-piece swing with several false moves and his hands would go up and down. He's gone basically to more of a leg kick and has eliminated a lot of the movement with his hands and that has given him a more simplified approach.

OC: Does that give him more time to wait on pitches?

KL: It does. What he is so good at – he's like Carlos Gonzalez and other players like that – he has this innate ability to put balls in play. You don't want to take that away from him because he's so athletic. You just want to find a program, a plan that gets his foot down in time. Eric Chavez was a little like that, having the ability to take a ball off of the ground and go the opposite way with it. He has that kind of skill to be able to do that. We want him to have a nice, easy plan so that he doesn't focus too much on mechanics, although he did a really good job of changing his swing.

OC: Webster Garrison has been moved from the Midland coaching staff to head up the Stockton coaching staff.

KL: Yes and I'm really excited because he has Brian McArn as his hitting coach who was at Triple-A over the last six or seven years, has been in Venezuela and also he was the hitting coach for the South African team. So we have a very experienced guy at that level. In many cases, the minor leagues should be about having your best people at the lower levels. This is a prime example of a guy [Choice] who is one of your best young prospects who you want in the capable hands of a veteran coach. We are very confident that this will be a very good match for him.

OC: Todd Steverson [aka Trick] is back as a hitting coach again. Is that something that you are pretty excited about too?

KL: Absolutely. That's how he came to us originally after seven or eight years with the Cardinals and then starting off in Vancouver. But the thing is that he has skills in all areas. He can be a manager. He can be a coordinator. He can be a farm director. He has really good vast knowledge of the game.

He really augments that Sacramento staff and, in fact, he's had a big impact on our base-running. We are trying to instill a bit more aggressiveness. If you watch these games here, every ball in the dirt, you'll see one of our base-runners attempting to move up a base. We are the kind of club in Oakland where we are going to have to be opportunistic and will have to take advantage of defensive mistakes and create what we can. What we can make up for not having in the long ball area, we will try to make up for on the bases. That's sort of been an organization-wide mandate that Trick has been spearheading.

OC: Is he still working with your outfielders too?

KL: He is. He's a really important part of our program.

OC: How has Tyler Vail looked?

KL: Great.

OC: I saw some Vince Mazzaro comparisons. Is that accurate?

KL: Very much so. He has a live arm. Doesn't quite have the sinking fastball that Vinny has yet, but still, an 18-year-old with a great body, good arm and a tremendous desire to pitch. A really upbeat kid. We are very excited about him. What was he a fifth-round pick? I think he's a steal in that round. He's really like a sponge right now. He'll go to Burlington [Iowa].

OC: Are any guys being held back until the weather warms in the Midwest League or is that not much of a factor this season?

KL: At this point, the only guy who might get held back is Zhi-Fang Pan. He came in with a little bit of an arm problem.

OC: He had that in instructional league right?

KL: He did and it still hasn't resolved itself like we expected. He is going to have to get himself into better throwing health before he is sent out. But, again, that won't really hurt him. Once he's ready, we will look for an opportunity to move him, but he will likely start the season in Vermont.

OC: How would you describe him as a player?

KL: Very top-of-the-order hitter. Slashing, Ichiro-approach. Plus, plus speed. There were times last year that he was 3.9 [seconds] to first base. He knows how to bunt. And a middle of the diamond guy. He can play short or second. He could be an impact-type guy at the top of the order.

OC: You have to know about 10 languages now.

KL: [laughs] Yeah. With the influence of Dan Kantrovitz coming in to pull new people in, we are in Korea, we are in Taiwan, we are in France, we are in Venezuela, the Dominican, Aruba. We are all over the place. We have really made a move where Billy [Beane, A's GM] is trying to push that aspect of acquisitions. International has been one of those areas.

OC: Dan mentioned that Seong-Min Kim, the new signee from South Korea, will play in Australia this summer. Is that a normal situation where players are lent out to that league?

KL: It's an easy logistical move. They are able to go to Australia. It's not that far away from home and the level is geared towards teaching. There is a lot of information and they have a great academy. It gives them a good foundation for when they come over here.

OC: Oliver Box, who was signed by the team out of Australia a few years ago, never played in the regular season for a US affiliate and was released this off-season. What happened with him?

KL: He just didn't quite fit. Things didn't progress as easily as we thought they would. His skills behind the plate, he really struggled defensively. It was just one of those situations you get sometimes. I don't know if he was homesick or what. It's a difficult thing to take 17, 18 year old kids and transplant them and put them in this environment. I think that was part of it as well.

OC: Is Josh Leyland still around?

KL: Yes, he will come to extended spring.

OC: Shawn Haviland is on the Double-A roster right now. He had a ton of strike-outs for Stockton last year and maybe pitched above the level that some expected of him. What was the key for his success?

KL: He's got a really good breaking ball and a good change-up. He's a really intelligent pitcher, who knows how to locate and change his speeds. He's the Greg Maddux-type guy who has to execute pitches and put them in places, but, still, he throws in the low-90s. His velocity stayed there. He'll go to Double-A. He deserves a chance to pitch there on a regular basis.

OC: Will there be cuts this year?

KL: Yes, there are a whole bunch to go [note: two days after this interview, the first round of cuts occurred with five players let go].

OC: Is it a situation like two years ago where you just have too many players at certain positions?

KL: Yes. We are at that place now. Practically the entire Triple-A roster, especially pitching-wise, is sixth-year [free agent] acquisitions, so that has totally stalled out most of the Double-A guys who are trying to move up. Then that has a push-down effect throughout the whole system. It's where the top stops, there is a little bit of back-up at Double-A and then there is the build-up from guys who had good years and there is just this crunch. It pushes people out side-to-side. They aren't necessarily bad players. You just have to make decisions.

OC: Are you going to lend anyone out to the Mexican League this year given how well that worked with Bobby Cramer last year?

KL: I'll tell you, if that could be the case, we'd look for someone to send because that was a great situation with Bobby.

OC: Was it nice for you to see him have that kind of success in the major leagues last year considering the road he has taken?

KL: It was, especially considering the different roles he has taken, the injuries he has sustained and even the ups-and-downs with us, not to mention what he suffered before [with Tampa], to see him winning games in the big leagues last year was a real treat for all of the people who had watched it and seen it. Most people just hear the story, but to see it in person was a little different.

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