OaklandClubhouse: You have a lot of new faces in camp this spring and I wanted to get your take on some of them. The first guy that I think probably anyone wants to hear about is Yoenis Cespedes. With all of the scouting you do internationally, I'm sure you had seen a lot of him before the team decided to make a bid. What do you like about him most as a player?
Billy Owens: For one, Cespedes is a very focused guy. He has a serious demeanor and his athleticism is off the charts. Watching him play internationally over the years – Chris Pittaro, one of our great scouts, and Craig Weissman and I personally saw him last year in Puerto Rico in the PanAmerican games, and also our new international scouting coordinator Sam Geaney saw him last year and this year in the Dominican as well – we did extensive background on him.
His athleticism really jumps out. His body is a freakish athletic build. Probably just from a physical standpoint, he is going to be one of the most impressive physical specimens in the big leagues. That really jumps out. His demeanor, as far as his attitude towards the game, he is definitely over here for business. He's got a lot of pride and a lot of focus. I think that once the dust settles and once he gets acclimated, we are going to be able to see his true ability out there on the major league diamond.
OC: What do you think the most important things are going to be for him feel comfortable? Is it just seeing the repetition of major league pitching or are there other things that need to click first?
BO: I think it is a conglomerate of things. We have Ariel Prieto, who actually probably went through a similar experience in being a first-round pick by us [in 1995] and got to the major leagues quickly from Cuba. It's tough to lose Ariel on the minor league side [where he had served as a minor league pitching coach the past few years], but right now his focus is going to be to help Cespedes acclimate himself to the 510 Oakland area code. You are going to a country where you don't speak the language and everything about it is foreign to you.
Actually, probably the diamond is going to be your sanctuary, playing baseball and everything that goes with it. The TV exposure, the day-to-day stuff off of the field, getting a bank account, dealing with the media, all of that along with trying to hit a major league breaking ball, is going to be a tough experience for anybody coming over here in such a hasty way. But that's where it comes down to the fact that Cespedes' make-up is off-the-charts.
He's going to go through a process where he is going to be playing against the best players in the world, and also the best players in the world who have the best information available to them at their fingertips. The battle of being in the major leagues is having the ability to play there, but also to be able to digest all of the changes in terms how the pitchers approach you and how the defenses position themselves against you.
OC: Has there been a decision about who will replace Ariel as the pitching coach in Vermont this year or will that come later on?
BO: That will come later on. Keith Lieppman, being the best farm director in the game, he's got resumes stacked high on his desk and there are going to be plenty of people who want that opportunity.
OC: The team has quite a different looking starting rotation than you did last year. You brought in a number of young guys this off-season who are competing for spots. Starting with Jarrod Parker, what has impressed you about him thus far and what does he need to do to get better?
BO: I think Jarrod, for one, is an extremely athletic kid. You can tell that right away. He's not tall but he's built very well. You can tell that he has been a good athlete his whole life. He has a unique arm slot. He probably throws the ball from a higher slot than most guys, especially for his height. He can create a downward angle with his arm slot and his fastball definitely comes in at 91-95 MPH on a downhill plane.
His change-up is a well above-average major league pitch and he is comfortable throwing that in any count. Right now, it's probably the best pitch of his repertoire. His curveball is still coming along. It will show flashes of what it was before his Tommy John surgery. There have been a couple of glimpses where it has been there, and even a plus pitch, but it is definitely behind the other two pitches right now.
OC: Do you feel that there is any pressure to get the guys you acquired this off-season to the big leagues quickly since the team traded away three pitchers that made so many starts for you last year, or will it be more incumbent on when those young pitchers are truly ready for the big leagues?
BO: I think performance is going to dictate the timetable. When Billy Beane and David Forst set up their plan during the off-season and we were able to trade accomplished pitchers in Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill, we were able to get good returns. Just look at what Jarrod Parker has been able to do thus far in big league camp. The other day, 3.2 innings, no runs. Brad Peacock had four starts last year in the major leagues and he had 177 strike-outs between Double-A and Triple-A and the big leagues.
Tom Milone has come over here as polished as anybody. The fact is that Tom Milone can throw all of his pitches on both sides of the plate. He can change speeds at will; he can read hitters. He just has an innate moxie and feel on the mound that is advanced beyond his years. It's going to be an exciting group. You don't want to put any timetables on anything, but the opportunity is definitely there for those to achieve it if they want it.
OC: Being left-handed and having an above-average change-up, Tom Milone has been compared to Dallas Braden. Is that a fair comparison in your mind, or do you feel that they are pretty different pitchers?
BO: I don't really try to force comparisons, but yeah, Dallas Braden is a guy who dominated at every level. When Dallas went out and punched out 18 guys in the Midwest League two months after the draft, you said, ‘okay, he's throwing 87 [MPH], but he punched out 18 guys.' But then he went to Stockton and annihilated that level throwing 87. Then he kept on going to Double-A and just blistered through that. He went all the way through Triple-A and dominated, but the fact that he threw 87, you still wanted to see it on the major league diamond. Lo and behold, Dallas is in his fifth year with us and he's an outstanding major league pitcher. In that regard, looking at Tom Milone's career trek, he and Braden are very similar.
OC: Looking at a guy you've had a few years now in Tyson Ross. It looks like he's been a lot sharper in a starting role this spring than he was at the end of last year. He is a guy I know that there has been a lot of debate about internally and externally as to whether he fits long-term as a starter or a reliever. Are you confident that he can fill a starting role this season?
BO: I think that with Tyson, you have two things: if he is efficient in the strike-zone, his 91-93 MPH fastball that can move like a snake can be a dominant pitch. His slider is an above-average pitch. The biggest thing is efficiency and durability throughout the season. In that regard, hopefully Tyson can continue to assert himself like he has done so far in camp. That will create a role for him, whether it be starting or relieving.
OC: With his struggles at the end of last year, were those more mechanical or was he having some physical issues, as well?
BO: I think mainly Tyson worked on his change-up to a point where his change-up definitely became a solid pitch in his arsenal. He was able to iron a few things out with Gil Patterson, our outstanding pitching coordinator. It was more a few tweaks here and there coming back from the injury and more focused on improvement versus performance.
OC: I have noticed that over the past few years, there has been a real change in the A's bullpen from guys who were maybe more "trick-pitch" pitchers or guys who had unusual deliveries to guys who are really over-powering. I think you currently have seven or eight relievers who can regularly hit 95 MPH or higher. Is that something that you think is more common around baseball now or is the organization more actively seeking out hard-throwing relievers than they were in the past?
BO: I think that honestly Billy Beane and David Forst have a plan and watching Billy and David put together a bullpen over the past decade, they have done a really good job every year. I think the biggest thing is that they have been able to create different angles with [Brad] Ziegler. They were able to draft a closer like Huston Street who had a good slider. Then other times they were able to acquire a guy with a power arm like Ryan Cook.
They are able to identify who can get guys out. You can get major league hitters out by deception, or you can get major league hitters out with over-powering fastballs, or various other ways. I don't think there is a specific way that you have to get hitters out. We aren't looking for a particular way to get guys out, just guys who can get out major league hitters.
OC: Have you been surprised with how well Andrew Carignan has been able to respond over the past year after struggling with the arm injury and then the foot injury the previous two seasons?
BO: I think Andrew is throwing the ball like he did when he came out of college. People forget that in Midland a few years back , Andrew Bailey – the great closer – was Andrew Carignan's set-up man in Double-A Midland. That year in the Arizona Fall League, Bailey was Carignan's set-up man as well. The next year in major league spring training, Carignan was throwing the ball absolutely wonderfully and then he went down with an injury and had to battle through it for two years. But now he is fully healthy and when he is healthy, he is a very productive pitcher.
OC: Two young lefties in camp – Pedro Figueroa and Sean Doolittle – both have injury histories, although those histories are completely different. What are you expecting from both of them this season?
BO: Sean Doolittle is an ultra-competitor. It really broke my heart to see him get hurt after reaching major league camp and leading the team in RBIs with 18 a few years ago. He was a tremendous first-baseman and was actually a pretty good outfielder. But with all of the injuries, with Sean being the all-time career leader at the University of Virginia in wins on the mound, it was a natural progression for him to move him to the mound to see if he can stay healthy that way. Being the competitor that he is, he has been able to crank it up to 93-94 MPH. We are trying to refine his slider. He looks like a pitcher, especially for someone who hasn't done it for a number of years, but just refining his repertoire and his mechanics are still a work-in-progress. The fact that he is such a competitor, we think that will expedite it.
Pedro Figueroa has done an outstanding job in major league camp so far. His fastball has been sizzling at 94-95 MPH. His slider can be a swing-miss pitch. I saw him back in the day in the Northwest League and the comparison I drew with him would be similar to Damaso Marte, a very successful reliever in the big leagues for a very long time.
OC: Are both of them projected to be relievers this year?
BO: I think that with Sean, we still just shaking off the rust for not being a pitcher for the past five years. With Pedro, he is coming back from Tommy John surgery and really missing the past 18 months. He has such an explosive fastball with a good slider that I think, honestly, he can be a good starter or reliever. It's just a matter of what the need is sooner rather than later.
Stay tuned for part two of this interview, when we discuss some of the A's young position players and the influence of Manny Ramirez.