Click here for part one of this interview.
OaklandClubhouse: Next year's spring training will be a little different with the team opening the season in Japan a few days ahead of the US Opening Day. I know you all went through this in 2008 when the team last opened in Japan. Do you expect that you will get spring training started a little bit early to give some of the younger players more time in front of the coaching staff, or will it be the somewhat mad pace that it was in 2008?
Billy Owens: I think that, for one, whatever Major League Baseball decides is when will we start off our first game, they will probably be cognizant of us starting the season prematurely in Japan, which is an awesome experience. I was lucky enough to go on that trip last time and the people in Japan were amazing. The accommodations and just the whole culture, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was elated when Major League Baseball allowed us to go again.
As far as spring training goes, it's the big leagues. This year, we didn't finish where we wanted to finish. Next year, going forward, we have some questions that need to be answered as far as some of our younger players. We have younger players who are becoming veterans like Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill and Andrew Bailey. We hope that they continue to do well and flourish. It's just a matter of us needing to have certain guys get past the audition phase, seize the opportunity like Jemile Weeks did and go forward. We truly have some talented pieces in place, but we need players to take up the leash and assert themselves and act like they belong.
OC: What does the Japan trip mean to the organization? You made a nice foothold in the Japan market the last time through and cultivated some good relationships. With having had that experience and having had Hideki Matsui on the team for a full year, do you expect those relationships to expand this time around?
BO: There are good players globally who play around Major League Baseball. Major League Baseball has expanded and is totally global. You've got Ichiro up there in Seattle and Vladimir Guerrero just set the hits record for players from the Dominican Republic. You have factors globally and so it's always nice to have your brand out there and to have different experiences. Just seeing what we have done the past five or six years, we have proven that we will be aggressive in any market as long as the players are talented. It definitely doesn't hurt to expand your presence throughout the world.
OC: Turning to Instructs, are there any players who have stood out to you who have looked surprisingly good at this point?
BO: Going through minor league camp, it's a lot of fun. Keith Lieppman, our outstanding farm director, puts forward a great instructional league program. Murphy Smith [who was added to the A's Arizona Fall League roster late and started Opening Day for the Phoenix Desert Dogs], who started off in Instructional League and came over the Fall League, this year was in Stockton. He throws in the low-90s, is a strike-thrower and has a good change-up. His breaking ball is coming. He definitely had a positive year. Daniel Straily [also with Stockton] pitched well this year. He definitely improved his velocity, up to 94-95, with a good slider. Very, very competitive kid. Throughout the organization, there are definitely jewels. Maybe not consensus guys by the publications, but guys who will definitely be in the major leagues.
OC: How have Dominican Summer League imports Vicmal De La Cruz and Renato Nunez looked in Instructs thus far?
BO: Vicmal De La Cruz, for one, he had an amazing season in the Dominican Summer League. I believe he walked more than he struck-out and he had a ton of extra-base hits. Vicmal De La Cruz's name has a nice little ring to it, kind of like Fautino De Los Santos. Fautino is DLS. Vicmal is DLC or something like that. [laughs]
Vicmal can swing it. A left-handed hitter. From a body build standpoint, he reminds me of Raul Mondesi. He has a tenacious demeanor about him. His motor is always as high as can be. He's definitely going to hit his way off of the island and he will be aggressive over here in the States. They are getting acclimated. Along with Renato Nunez, these guys are 17-years-old and are in a foreign country and are having to learn a new language.
Renato hit six or seven homeruns [five] in the Dominican Summer League this year himself. He is making improvements at third base and he's got some real power and he's a smart kid. Between those two guys, they are definitely exciting pieces. They are still getting acclimated and are making adjustments and have been hitting the ball with authority here in Instructional League. They are not bashful by any means.
OC: Has [A's 2011 first-round pick] Sonny Gray looked as good at Instructs as he did with Double-A Midland?
BO: Yes. For one, he's got an awesome demeanor about him. He's tough. What he did at Vanderbilt speaks for itself and then for him to walk into Double-A firing bullets – 94, 95 miles per hour – with tremendous swing-and-miss breaking balls, both a curve and a slider, was impressive. During Instructional League we are in the process of improving his change-up and having him gain trust in his change-up, but there's no question that he's a major league pitcher. Now it's just a matter of where he falls in that one-through-five [starting rotation] line.
OC: Is Max Stassi back to playing without restriction or is he still limited by the recovery from shoulder surgery?
BO: Max has been swinging the bat a little bit. He's a cage rate. He's catching every bullpen possible and has gotten a little game action, but he's definitely not close to 100 percent in terms of arm strength yet. That is still a process. I'm definitely optimistic about him accomplishing that before spring training. As far as him working hard and him being a baseball rat and him being around the field every day, he'll get through it because no one is going to work as hard as Max. Once he's able to catch without restrictions, you'll see the talent elevate itself.
OC: Are Tommy John survivors Pedro Figuero and Arnold Leon throwing in games yet or are they still doing just bullpen work?
BO: Definitely. They have been pitching out here in Instructional League. Figueroa has been up to 94, 95 with a nasty slider. Seeing him from Day One and then in the Northwest League, he always reminded me of Damaso Marte, who has been a 10-year major league player who throws hard and is definitely intimidating versus lefties. Figueroa definitely has that kind of talent. It's been good to see him back with the velocity.
Arnold Leon is a smart kid. The first time I met him when he came over here four years ago, he did not speak one syllable of English. Now his English is full bore. He's bi-lingual. He picks things up quickly and he's a strike thrower. He's not back all the way velocity-wise to where he was in Double-A a few years ago, but he's definitely on the rise and I'm optimistic for sure that he will achieve that by the end of spring training next year.
It has been good with both of them. Figueroa, he's exciting to watch.
OC: Sean Doolittle, left-handed pitcher. How is he looking? Given that he is on the 40-man roster, he is going to have a little bit of a clock on him [before he uses up his minor league options]. Do you think he can move quickly through the minor leagues now that he has made that transition, much like Marcus McBeth did?
BO: With Sean, he's a very competitive kid. Mentally for him to be at the complex the past three or so years without being able to compete, it has been tough on him. Now he's in a different position and he's able to go out there and compete. He's already had that batter-pitcher confrontation. Now he's just on the other side of it.
It's probably a lot different than Marcus McBeth, where Marcus was a kid who played predominantly centerfield in college and who didn't make the conversion until four or five years of pro ball. Sean is a kid who pitched on the weekends in college. He was one of the main starters at Virginia. He was a two-way talent who just got drafted higher as a position player. It's not like he's never done this before.
The biggest thing is that now that he can go out there and compete again and be a baseball player and just unleash the energy that he has been waiting to unleash the past three or four years, he's been chomping at the bit to do that. Hopefully it works out. Honestly, things work itself out [roster-wise].
You look at this year with the Diamondbacks in the playoffs and the surprise teams out there who make the playoffs and even going back to what I said a few weeks ago, that I guarantee no publication last year had Jemile Weeks in their top-100 prospects or even probably listed him among the top-five prospects in any publication [for the A's], and here he is one of the top rookies in the American League. [OaklandClubhouse did rank Weeks fifth among A's prospects coming into this year]. Things change quickly.
Going forward, we have a healthy franchise. Billy Beane is a quintessential GM to work for. One thing they didn't portray in the [Moneyball] movie is that Billy Beane is tremendously loyal to the people in the organization and he allows us to do our jobs. It's exciting to work for him and going forward, I think that we have some talent that is going to have a chance to play well in the major leagues.
Our Triple-A team this year won their division by 17 games. Being able to see a lot of the guys who got called up around baseball from Double-A and Triple-A, they played against those guys. So it's not like it's a foreign experience. Hopefully when the Hot Stove starts churning we can make some moves like with Brandon McCarthy last year or a Josh Willingham, but we also have some pieces internally and it will be exciting to finally get some questions about them answered.