OaklandClubhouse: It's only two games into the Arizona Fall League season, but it looks like Grant Green and Michael Choice are off to good starts at the plate. What are your thoughts on their overall development and what are you hoping that they accomplish over the next month or so?
Billy Owens: Obviously Grant Green had a tremendous season in 2010 in the California League. He hit .320 with 20 homeruns. This year in the Texas League, he hit .290-plus and made the transition to the outfield. He is a very natural hitter. He easily uses the whole diamond. There is definitely some power in there. With Grant, it's just about staying consistent, having good at-bats. There is no question in my mind that he can definitely make that leap to the big leagues in the next couple of years and be somebody that hits as well as he is portrayed to.
Michael Choice, he's exciting. Every time he hits, his bat is a blur through the ‘zone. It's exciting to watch him. Anytime he swings the bat, the outcome could be a ball 500 feet, it can be a ball that's fouled straight back, he could just miss a ball, but you are on the edge of your seat because of the power and the quickness and the mesmerizing bat speed through the ‘zone that he exudes is just pretty remarkable.
Beyond that, Grant and Michael are both tremendous kids. Very hard workers. We call them "coach killers" because basically they are always grabbing a coach to get some sort of early work or stay afterwards and are always working on their games.
Going forward, I think that the organization and the fanbase are happy with what Jemile Weeks did this year as a kid that was recently drafted who made a splash on the big league scene and hit above .300 and Grant and Michael Choice, they will definitely be heard from soon.
OC: Are you concerned at all about Michael's contact rate or do you think that is something that will improve as he gains more experience as a professional?
BO: Honestly, if you really look at his second half, his strikeout total for the season was 134 and if you look at what he hit the second half, you'll see that he already started making adjustments. He's got a lot of pre-pitch movement. Some of it is natural and some of it I think he created over time. We were able to minimize some of that as the year went on. Just seeing the pitching day after day and, honestly, he's a guy who hit 30 homeruns and is a force, they are going to pitch him carefully. He had to make adjustments as the season wore on. If you look at his numbers from June 1 to the end of the year, you'll see that he started to make those adjustments.
We all have visions of Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera, guys who hit .330-plus in the major leagues with 40-plus homeruns, but if you are going to have the type of power that Michael Choice is going to eventually have in the major leagues, you are going to have to give something to get something.
OC: [On Tuesday] Tyson Ross got the start for Phoenix. It seemed like he never quite got back on track this season after the oblique injury. Is he healthy? Are his struggles a mechanical issue or is he still working through some soreness?
BO: I think Tyson, for one, he's always had an unusual, unorthodox delivery. He's had that since he came out of the womb. It was good enough to get him drafted out of the second round from California-Berkeley and get him to the major leagues after a year in the minor leagues. And now he has been on the elevator up and down, trying to get that consistency. He's got unbelievable movement on his fastball and he's got a slider that is a high-degree, hard-to-hit slider. It's just a matter of Tyson making pitches, staying consistent and holding his velocity.
He's shown flashes and glimpses of being that upper-echelon starter or high-leverage reliever. That ultimate role is still yet to be determined. We will continue to develop him as a starter, but that's always in the back of your mind. His fastball, when he's right, is 94-95 and moves like a snake and his slider can be nasty, so it's just a matter of him having that consistency.
Out here in the Fall League, he's working on staying cohesive with his mechanics, which are unique. Gil Patterson is our excellent pitching coordinator. He's working in concert with Tyson because there is only one player who throws exactly like Tyson – and that's Tyson. It's a work in progress, but we have to remember that he was drafted the same year as Jemile Weeks in 2008 and three years later Tyson has time in the big leagues and Jemile had arguably the most successful rookie season in the American League. Between those two guys, Eric Kubota, our Scouting Director, has to be happy.
OC: Speaking of Jemile, he hit those two homeruns at the end of his rookie season. I always thought having followed him in the minor leagues that he had a little more homerun power than he was being given credit for. Do you think he will develop more homerun power as he grows into his game?
BO: Actually, I think he was third on the team in slugging percentage. Off the top of my head, I think he had 22 doubles (21), eight or nine triples (eight) and two homeruns, so his slugging percentage was about .420 this year (.421). He actually impacted the baseball. He just didn't go over the fence that much this year. Certain guys just have a presence about them. They welcome that stage of playing in the major leagues, and he's one.
I've seen Jemile play since high school. I remember going to an All-Star game in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a national game. I remember seeing Jemile there for the first time and Ike Davis and that kind of resonated through his next three years in college. We were fortunate [to be able to draft him]. For me, I've always thought he was a Ray Durham. A table-setter with some pop who can steal bases. Defensively, Bob Melvin, Mike Gallego and Chip Hale are going to make him a better defender than Ray was.
OC: You mentioned Chip Hale [new A's bench coach] and Bob Melvin. You just signed Chip to a two-year deal and Melvin to a three-year contract. Those are longer-term commitments for those positions than had been made by the organization in recent years. What is it about Bob in particular that made the organization willing to make that longer commitment?
BO: Bob had managed in Seattle and had managed successfully in Arizona and had done several other things in the game. He was a stabilizer in the clubhouse, definitely communicates really well and was able to set out a plan. The players were very comfortable with the designated roles once he came on board. It was refreshing when he came on board for him to be in total control.
It is not unusual [for the A's to give out long-term contracts to coaches and managers]. I believe Ken Macha, when he was hired originally, received a multi-year deal. Billy Beane felt comfortable given Bob's experience level going into the job and the stabilizing force that he exudes, that he was able to offer him a multi-year contract.
Chip Hale is a great story. A Bay Area native coming back to the Bay. He played high school ball there [Campolindo High School in Moraga, California] before going to the University of Arizona. I've known Chip since I personally went to the University of Arizona myself. Actually, I went to high school at Bellarmine Prep, and the Bellarmine Prep swimming coach has won the CCS title for the last 20 years, Larry Rogers. Rogers is Chip's cousin. So I've known about Chip since I was 14 years old. So it's like he's coming home.
The first time I worked with Chip 18 years ago, I thought he had tremendous leadership qualities and I thought from a communications standpoint, he's one of the best I've ever met in the game. There's just a lot he brings from the positive attributes standpoint and he had a successful playing career as well. He's going to be a great fit for the green and gold and I'm happy that he's here.
OC: I know that Bob will want to set his own staff now that he's signed long-term. One of the coaches that the team recently let go was Ron Romanick, who has been with the organization for a long time. Was it difficult to let Ron go, given his contributions to the organization and his work creating the pitching program that the team has used so successfully the past decade or so?
BO: Honestly, baseball is about continuity, but it is also about relationships over time. Bob Melvin coming in having been successful in Arizona and having experience being a manager in Arizona and Seattle, there is kind of a comfort-zone of having your own gang on board. He's had a lot of freedom – along with Billy Beane – to cultivate his staff.
Ron Romanick, my first year with the organization was 1999 and that was his first year as the pitching coordinator. I was able to see all of the stuff that he was able to do over the years as far as establishing a pitching program and guys coming back in the off-season and special things like converting Marcus McBeth from an outfielder to a pitcher who got to the major leagues. Brad Ziegler is with Arizona now and is about to go through the arbitration process. Ronnie converted him into a submarine pitcher and now he is going to be a multi-millionaire. Other kids like Trevor Cahill. I remember when Trevor was drafted. He was recommended by our scout Craig Weissman and we got him in the second round that year. Ron developed that whole process of Trevor going to Low-A ball and High-A ball and Double-A and going through the process step-by-step. Ronnie has been with a lot of guys from the beginning.
The unfortunate thing about this business is that sometimes changes are made. He's definitely qualified and he's definitely a tremendous pitching coach and hopefully one of the other 29 major league organizations allows him to continue in that role.
OC: Switching gears a little bit, right before the end of the season, you made a trade with the Kansas City Royals to acquire Kila Ka'aihue. Now you have four true first basemen on the 40-man roster. I know that Brandon Allen and, to some extent, Chris Carter can play in left field, however, do you feel that there are enough at-bats for all four guys this spring [Daric Barton being the fourth] or will that be a situation you'll address before the start of camp?
BO: I think with Kila, he's had an amazing minor league career and through 500 or so at-bats in the big leagues, it just hasn't worked out for him. We've probably been one of the better organizations out there in getting a guy like Scott Sizemore who has gotten an opportunity after flourishing in the minor leagues and, for whatever reason, just hadn't gotten over the hump in the big leagues. We were able to acquire Sizemore this year and have him make that transition to third base from second base from the Tigers organization.
With Kila, along with Chris Carter, Brandon Allen and Daric Barton, you definitely have some guys for that spot. Barton was among the top-10 guys in the American League in on-base percentage [in 2010] and we got a glimpse of the power that Brandon Allen can mix in. That ball that he hit in Yankee Stadium is still amazing and is still going. Brandon is a really good athlete. Before the trade, we had definitely seen him play left field and first base. Actually, I live in Arizona, so I saw him a lot when he got called up this season by the Diamondbacks. Over the years, we were able to see him in the outfield and at first base. And Chris Carter. Sometimes it's a matter of seeing the other guys who have had success, like a Sizemore. Ones that dominated in the minor leagues and didn't do well in their brief big league trials. At 24 years old, at some point Chris will get over that hump and hopefully it is in our timeframe.
With the fans – and I'm sometimes as guilty as anybody of reading the temperature – it's somewhat hilarious to me that a player like Chris Carter who has averaged 30 homeruns a season from Low-A to High-A to Double-A to Triple-A and that has 136 major league at-bats at 24-year-old, that people think his book has been written. It has yet to be written.
Between all four guys, there will definitely be a healthy competition. They are all pretty young in terms of where they are in their careers compared to where their careers will end up. It's going to be fun to watch that competition and see them perform with the pressure on them with a chance to get their 400 or 500 at-bats and become the major league players that they will become.
Stay tuned for part two of the interview, during which we discuss some standout performers from the A's fall Instructional League, the team's Opening Series trip to Japan for 2012, the team's reach into the Japanese market and more...