Oakland A's Front Office Q&A: Billy Owens

On Thursday, we caught-up with Oakland A's Director of Player Personnel Billy Owens for an in-depth Q&A on the team's recent draft class, as well as his thoughts on the outlook for the A's big league team the rest of this season and the possibility of a promotion to Triple-A for Midland outfielder Jermaine Mitchell.

OaklandClubhouse: Starting with the draft, how surprised were you when Sonny Gray was still on the board when it came time for you to pick?

Billy Owens: I don't think it was a surprise. Overall it has been pretty well documented that this has been a historic draft when it comes to the quality of college pitching. There were a lot of guys who were selected in the first round and a lot of guys who were on the periphery of being selected in that round who maybe fell in the sandwich or second round.

Every organization probably ranked the first 10 or 15 college pitchers who went in the first round or supplemental round differently. Everybody had them in a different order. Even internally it comes down to you having to comb through the selections and really decide who you are going to put in what order. The fact that he was there, I believe that we were fortunate, but I don't think it was a surprise.

OC: What do you like most about Gray?

BO: I think, for one, Matt Ranson is the scout [for the A's] who has that territory. He is very familiar with Sonny Gray. He was the scout who had Gray in his territory when Gray was in high school, as well. So he has been on our radar for three years. Our assistant scouting director, Michael Holmes, has also seen Sonny Gray since his junior year of high school, so we have documentation from his junior year of high school, his whole high school draft year before the Cubs selected him [in the 27th round in 2008], and we saw most of his starts in college. We also saw him on Team USA. Matt and Michael have done a great job.

Forget about the stuff, and you'll be able to preview that in the College World Series, but we like his heart. We like his tenacity. We think he's a tough kid. He's competitive. We think he's a winning ballplayer, not just a pitcher. All of those attributes, we were glad that he was there for the 18th selection this year.

OC: You mentioned the College World Series. If things go well for Vanderbilt, Gray will likely have at least two more outings. Would his workload in the College World Series impact his development this year, assuming he signs soon after the CWS ends?

BO: I think Vanderbilt is a tremendous program and a terrific school and Tim Corbin [Vandy's head coach] is doing a hell of a job in his nine years there. Their pitchers have gone out and thrown really well in professional baseball. If you are a college baseball player, it's the highlight of your college career getting to Omaha and hopefully having the chance to win the College World Series. Hopefully in Sonny's case and the Vanderbilt Commodores who are participating, they will put in a full effort and not worry about us. After their season culminates, we'll talk about the professional process.

OC: Your second pick came in the third round with B.A. Vollmuth. Can you tell me a little about him? Will he sign soon?

BO: Kelsey Mucker and our great scouting director Eric Kubota are in the process of talking with B.A. Vollmuth. We saw him play in high school and then move on to college. They [Southern Mississippi] went to the College World Series I believe his freshman year. He played in the Cape Cod League last year. So we've definitely logged a lot of at-bats. His main attribute is the fact that he has serious power. The A's have always been starving for serious right-handed power and B.A. Vollmuth has the potential to carry that attribute.

He played shortstop and third base in college. We envision him as a third baseman. He's strong and he has wicked bat speed. Hopefully we come to an agreement and at some point he's an Oakland A. We would definitely be excited.

OC: Bobby Crocker and T.J. Walz were both re-drafts by the A's. How much does the familiarity of having drafted a player before play into taking him again?

BO: I think with both guys, there were very good reasons [why they didn't sign the first time]. Bobby Crocker got a chance to go down to Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and further his education and develop his skills. Our west coast cross-checker, Scott Kidd, and one of our top administrative guys, Sam Geaney, actually scouted Bobby all the way back to high school. Then when Bobby went down to Cal Poly, SLO, J.T. Stotts is a scout for us who works in that territory and saw him then. Having seen 40 at-bats or so in high school and having seen him play for three years at Cal Poly, SLO, having the connection of having drafted him out of high school, and having had him come to our workout when he was in high school – basically having seen the matriculation of his skills develop in those three years, there's definitely a comfort level. That's why we were the first team to call his number.

T.J. Walz, he had a big year in the Big 12 last year as a junior. We thought that his talent level was probably easily in the top 15 rounds. He fell to the 50th round last year because he was pretty adamant to teams that he wanted to graduate from college. He accomplished that goal this year. He had another outstanding season for Kansas and he got to stay in school and graduate and now he's ready to embark on his professional career. We are definitely excited to have Bobby and T.J. and to have been able to draft them before and then draft them again.

OC: When you pick guys towards the end of the draft who are either high school players who have strong commitments to college or college juniors who are strongly leaning towards going back for a senior year of college, people sometimes wonder what the purpose of picks like that really is? Is it that you get a chance to get to know the player a little bit better before they go on to whatever they are going to do next year? What is the general thinking behind those picks?

BO: For one, there are 50 rounds in the Major League draft and there are at least 1,500 players who get drafted, so after awhile, you definitely have to pull cards to select players. In these cases, certain times – and we've done this before – we've taken a player and their college commitment wasn't quite as strong as previously reported. Or maybe we can extend upon them a monetary value that they are excited about.

One thing that a lot of the public doesn't realize, our college scholarship plan that Major League Baseball provides for the majority of players who sign is rock solid. It's as good or, in a lot of cases, better than what the colleges are offering. It's good until two years after a player finishes his career, whether he flames out in two years or plays 40. Once that is explained and once that signing bonus is extended, maybe we can get lucky and secure a player who we thought was firmly entrenched in going to college.

OC: In Round 11, you took Chris Lamb, who is from Berkeley and went to Berkeley High. He has said that the A's were his favorite team growing up. I know it isn't the primary reason you take them, but is it fun to be able to take guys like that who have a local connection and grew up knowing the history of the team as well as they do?

BO: Yeah. I think that you are always looking for talent. You look at the Atlanta Braves and gaze out to right field and you see what Jason Heyward is doing. And behind the plate they have Brian McCann. Those kids grew up watching TBS and watching Bobby Cox and the Braves do their thing.

We are like anyone else, we have strong roots at home. Tyson Ross is currently on the disabled list, but the excitement of selecting Tyson Ross in the second round even though we perceived him as a first-round talent, we were excited to select him. I think not having the burden of going in the first round and being selected by his hometown team was exciting to him. Having those local roots and a connection to your hometown is great. That extends even to me, having grown up in San Jose, California, being able to work for the Oakland Athletics is pretty exciting.

All things being equal, you might sway towards the local roots, but obviously we are in the talent acquisition business so we are going to go for the talent first. But if it is equal, we are going to go with the kid who has the local ties.

OC: Brandon Magee was the 21st round pick from Arizona State and he mostly plays college football for the Sun Devils. Also, Shane Boras, who was taken in the 39th round, didn't play a whole lot for USC this year. What did you see from those two guys that made them worth drafting despite the lack of playing time?

BO: It goes back to Jeremy Schied and Eric Martins. Jeremy Schied is our area scout in the four corners and he's located in Phoenix, Arizona. Even though Brandon hasn't played a lot of baseball in the field the past two years, Jeremy has been able to see him play some in the summer and has been able to focus on the at-bats and the batting practice before hand. Who knows how it will shake out if they will eventually sign with us, but for now it gives us a chance to follow these guys in the summer and see them play in a game atmosphere, which they weren't able to do in college, and from there you can make more of a guessmitation on what their true value is. It's nice that our guys identified them. From there, whether it be injury or, in Magee's case that he played football and wasn't able to get on the baseball field, we will follow them in the summer and see how it works out.

OC: Is the plan for 23rd round pick Cecil Tanner to work with the A's pitching coaches for awhile to rebuild his mechanics before he goes out and play in competes in game action?

BO: Definitely you want to go step-by-step with the development process. We have tremendous pitching instructors throughout the organization, so we'll give him a chance to get re-acclimated and see where it goes.

OC: There wasn't much information out there about Alfredo Unzue, the Cuban pitcher who you took during Day 3. What is his story?

BO: It's something that when you get to the 34th round, he had some solid numbers pitching over there in the Cuban major leagues and it's a position in the draft where you can take a shot. Hopefully we can get a chance to see him pitch again this summer. Hopefully he'll plays in some kind of league or workout environment. When you start getting to rounds 30 through 50, the draft is very important and everybody hopefully gets an opportunity to play professional baseball, but those guys are obviously in a little different light than the guys who go in the first two days of the draft. How you process them and what kind of attention you give to them ultimately is going to be decided on a case-by-case basis.

OC: Turning the big league team, I know it has been a tumultuous couple of weeks for the A's. What do you see as the direction for the team for the rest of the year?

BO: We have 95 games left. I think we are going to try to be the best team in the American League West for the remaining 95 games. I think Bob Melvin is experienced having won the NL West with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2007 and him having already managed in our league with the Seattle Mariners. His calm and his presence has already been felt throughout our clubhouse. Having that certain set line-up, I've seen a couple of veterans do better – Hideki Matsui has hit a couple of homeruns since Bob has taken over.

Right now, we have to get healthy. We have to perform. Certain guys are going to eventually perform to their baseball card. Josh Willingham is currently hitting .230 with 11 homeruns. He will eventually hit, as long as he's healthy, as he is capable of hitting. David DeJesus is another solid veteran who eventually will have his numbers. And the infusion of the younger guys, Jemile Weeks has been a sparkplug these last few games. I also think it is a good idea that Kurt Suzuki will get a few more days off to rest and get back to being the kind of player he is capable of being for the entire season.

With that, there is no white flag here. We are going for it. We are trying to win ballgames. We made that move with Bob Melvin going forward to try to win as many games as possible for the next 95 games. Nothing is out of the question. Our position isn't great right now in terms of winning the AL West, but right now we are trying to win on June 16th and go from there and try to win tomorrow.

We're not planning on punting on third down at any point the rest of the season. We're still looking to go for it and try to win as many games as possible over the course of the next 90 plus games. I'm a firm believer in certain players eventually performing to their baseball card and we still have the bulk of the season for those players to accomplish that goal.

OC: Since you are currently with the Midland Rockhounds, I had to ask about Jermaine Mitchell. I know the outfield in Sacramento is incredibly crowded right now, but is it hard not to move up Mitchell when he is having a season like he is having when he isn't a particularly young prospect?

BO: It's definitely exciting what Jermaine has done thus far. Just to see him put up the extra-base hits and the on-base percentage and the speed has been prevalent, as well. It's definitely been recognized in our organization and throughout baseball. Kudos to Jermaine for having an awesome season to date and hopefully he stays hungry and that continues.

Baseball has a way of working itself out. I remember back to Rich Amaral, he's a guy who didn't make the big leagues until late in his 20s. Keith Lockhart is another guy who comes to mind who maybe got a cup of coffee early but didn't get sustained playing time until late in his 20s and even into his 30s. And he carved out a major league career.

Every day that you wear a uniform, you have an opportunity. It would behoove Jermaine and the rest of the Oakland A's – whether it be in the Major Leagues or on the farm – to prepare every day, put out their best efforts and perform to their utmost capabilities – and you never know when you are going to get recognized or promoted. You have to stay hungry and stay focused and good things will happen.

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