Oakland A's Spring Q&A: Keith Lieppman

The Oakland A's 2012 minor league spring training camp is officially in the books. On Saturday, we caught-up with the A's incomparable farm director, Keith Lieppman, to get a sense of how camp went. In this wide-ranging interview, we cover prospects at all stages of development, including Michael Ynoa, Vicmal De La Cruz, Ian Krol, Jermaine Mitchell and many more...

OaklandClubhouse: How did camp go this year? Was it similar to the 2008 camp in the way that there was increased competition for spots?

Keith Lieppman: It did play out similarly. For many of the guys, it was just a matter of what level to put them in. Competition did have some play in several of the situations, but mainly once the major league club made their decisions with their key guys who came down, it was somewhat easier to get a direction as to which way the rest of the guys would fall. For instance, a guy like Josh Horton, who was hurt last year, we thought he'd have a chance to play at Triple-A, he gets bumped back to Double-A. And maybe a guy who got called up [to Triple-A] late last year like a Tyler Ladendorf, may have had a shot [at being sent to Triple-A], but most of it had to do with our big league roster and the effect is to push everyone backward in certain cases.

OC: With the outfield situation and the first base situation in the big leagues, I imagine that the resolution of those situations had an impact up and down the organization?

KL: Absolutely. Almost so much that a quality player like Cedric Hunter is going to start the year at Double-A. Those kind of things are a result of the numbers. There are just too many people. We had a ton of outfielders with [Jason] Pridie and the large group of guys who were on the club. It has been an interesting mix to figure out how to find jobs for everybody.

OC: Is Jason Pridie going to be suspended at the start of the year, or has that not been decided yet?

KL: No, he is. He is suspended for the first 50 games.

OC: But the Sacramento roster will still include Jeff Fiorentino and Brandon Moss and guys like that?

KL: Right. And Michael Taylor, Grant Green and Jermaine Mitchell.

OC: Do you see Green and Mitchell sharing time in centerfield?

KL: At this point, we want to try to arrange a way for both guys to take the playing time there. It's going to be an interesting situation. We are still devising a plan to make sure that we can get them equal playing time, but we certainly want to make sure both guys get plenty of turns in centerfield. And that's not an easy thing to find time for both guys, but I think we'll be able to do that. They are both quality players and we want them both to experience that. It won't hurt them both to play off field either. Given that Yoenis Cespedes is the centerfielder right now in Oakland, then it's probably good that they learn to play off field as well.

OC: How has Jermaine been with his knee [Mitchell had off-season microfracture surgery on his knee]? Is he playing without restrictions or are there still limits on his playing time?

KL: Jermaine is 100 percent and he has looked very good this spring. He looks back to his 150 percent running balls out and he has a great work ethic. He is certainly playing hard and is ready to make his mark.

OC: I saw that Matt Sulentic was not on the Midland roster that was sent out on Friday. What is his current situation?

KL: He has a right elbow issue that has come up. He is undergoing treatments and is seeing doctors this next week to see exactly what is going on. His status is still undetermined, but he is definitely going to start the season on the DL somewhere.

OC: Is Yordy Cabrera out for awhile?

KL: Yep, he had a little issue with his lower back. It looks like he will start the year on the disabled list. We will start him at extended. Once he's able to get going 100 percent, he will go out to a club, but right now it looks like he will have to rehab here in Arizona.

OC: At this point, is whether he goes to Stockton or Burlington be determined by when he gets healthy and what is going on with those two teams at that time?

KL: Right. We would prefer to move him on to Stockton. That was our initial thought, but, as you say, these things can change at the last moment. But that was our initial thought.

OC: I had heard that Aaron Shipman was dealing with a minor injury. Is he back to being able to play again?

KL: No. He actually played in a game here [on Friday] and got a few at-bats, but with [Saturday] being the last day, we didn't want to ship him out until he was 100 percent either. Once he's healthy, he will join the Burlington roster.

OC: It looks like there is a pretty good group of talent staying for extended spring training with some recognizable names such as Michael Ynoa, Matt Thomson and Vicmal De La Cruz. I assume some of them are finishing rehabs and some are set to go to short-season?

KL: Yeah, Ynoa is almost done with his rehab. He is throwing bullpens and there have been no setbacks with him thus far. Things are really looking optimistic for him. This is the best we've seen him throw on the side and things just look really good for him.

Vicmal is getting better and is working his way towards where we hope to be able to send him to Vermont later this summer. It just depends on how things go, but we are hoping he is ready to make that jump.

There are a lot of guys who didn't make [full-season] clubs like Kelvin Rojas, who had a great season with Arizona last year, and we are hoping that he will be able to go Vermont later this year. There is kind of a new wave of talent – there is the Solano kid [Wilfredo Solano] – who are good prospects. We are going to keep them in this program and hopefully they will be the mainstays of what we are going to see in Vermont this year.

OC: Is the plan still to bring over Renato Nunez and Jose Torres to the States to play in Arizona later this summer?

KL: Yes, in fact they are coming in on the fourth or fifth of this month. They will be here for extended spring. They are on the way now. We will definitely have them.

OC: How did some of the new guys fit into the system this spring, such as Miles Head, A.J. Cole and Raul Alcantara?

KL: Really well. Those were three really good selections. Everyone in camp enjoyed watching the future in those three players. Cole is a very exciting player. You can see down the road why people were excited about him. He will go to Stockton and be part of that rotation. Already a lot of the coaches have noticed the angle that he throws at and the way the ball moves and the power to his pitches. He really has a chance to be a good one.

Miles Head impressed us all. We put him at third base and he was very capable of playing third base. His overall game – he has good hands and he has an adequate arm to play there and his feet looked okay. There were no issues with him playing third. He'll get some time at third in Stockton. We just have quite a mix there with Tony Thompson and him trying to get at-bats and A.J. Kirby-Jones [at first base]. It's a little bit crowded, but we are going to have to juggle things in order to make sure that they get enough playing time and at-bats.

OC: Was that part of the reason that you decided to have B.A. Vollmuth go to Burlington, that you had so many third-base types lined up for Stockton?

KL: Absolutely. Vollmuth was outstanding this spring. He probably had the best spring of any of our players, but I'm not smart enough to figure out how to have three third basemen work their way to that level. Vollmuth had not played much [as a professional]. He only had a few at-bats last year, so it wouldn't hurt him to start there. As things progress throughout the season, we have the option of moving him quickly.

OC: With that Stockton rotation, is Ian Krol back to throwing 100 percent after his arm injury last year?

KL: Yes, he's perfectly fine. He threw some 92 and 94 [MPH] his last time out and looks to be ready to regain his position of where he was prior to the injury.

There's going to be a different style there [in Stockton]. We are probably going to run a six-man rotation in Stockton. We are not 100 percent, but we are leaning towards that. We've talked about it a number of times as a way to help spread out innings. With zero innings last year, it's hard to take Krol that far down the road and with young guys like A.J. Cole and Blake Hassebrock and so forth, we want to get them innings but to start the season, it doesn't hurt to give them that extra day. Later on if we need to, we can add more innings. We think this could be a good opportunity for them.

OC: I saw that Arnold Leon was on that staff. Will he get any innings in the rotation, or will he be strictly a reliever?

KL: He will be a reliever. We've tried to bring back guys who have had Tommy John as relievers and see if later on as they prove that they are healthy, they can be reinserted into more of a starting role.

OC: There are two former first-round picks on that Midland staff, Sonny Gray and James Simmons. How has Simmons looked this spring after an off-season of regular rest and not rehab?

KL: Much better. He's physically been able to regain his strength. He had a very good spring training. He regained all of his velocity and his pinpoint control was always something that was liked in the organization. He can put the ball where he wants. He is back up on the rise. He will pitch out of the bullpen to give other guys a chance [to start], but certainly things are on the upswing for him.

OC: Is Jose Guzman going to join the Midland bullpen or is he back with Stockton?

KL: Guzman is going to go back [to Stockton] because we moved Bruce Billings from Triple-A back to Double-A to start the year as a closer for the Midland club. With the moves back and forth to the big leagues, Billings would probably be the first guy out to go back to Triple-A or to the big leagues if they needed somebody.

OC: There are guys in the Sacramento rotation like Jarrod Parker and Brad Peacock who might not be in Triple-A for long. How do you prepare for scenarios like that where you know that there may be some guys who are only going to be in the rotation for a few weeks or a month? Are there guys that you already have in mind to replace those players in the rotation or is that something that you deal with when it happens?

KL: What we have are people who are capable of taking roles like that, such as Carlos Hernandez, who is going to start the year in the bullpen. He is able to be built back up, if need be. We have Billings, who is going to start the year as a closer in Midland, but he can easily be put back in a role as a guy who can fill innings as a starter. He is capable of doing both. There are some swing guys who are capable of doing both.

Then we have some guys who you hope will be capable of moving ahead, whether it is a Sonny Gray or a James Simmons or whoever. There are opportunities to advance them when needed.

OC: In terms of Chris Carter, do you see him at first base only at this time? Is he done with the outfield for now?

KL: Yeah, especially with as many outfielders as we have. There are five outfielders in Triple-A and six outfielders in the big leagues. So at this stage it doesn't look like that would be the best thing for him [to play in the outfield], both logistically and mentally. I know that it may have affected his at-bats a little bit to be put out there. There was some confusion as to learning a new position and not being able to focus on his at-bats, so I think this will be best for him to DH and play first base.

OC: With Manny Ramirez, will he be participating in extended spring training, or does he leave the organization for a month or so and then return when his suspension is almost complete?

KL: No, I think he will be in extended spring and will play in those games there. He is eligible to play in those games, so we will prepare him and get him ready for when he is ready to go back to the big leagues.

OC: I've read where he has been really helpful with the younger players in teaching them about hitting. Has that been the case as far as you have seen?

KL: Especially with the younger kids here, he has made himself available to talk to them about on-field issues and off-field issues, things that he has experienced that he might be able to give them insight and wisdom into. He has been very, very helpful to all of these kids. He takes the time. He has a real commitment to help people. We have been thrilled to have him part of the program. He's been nothing but a pleasant guy to have around us and he has followed whatever we have wanted him to do. It has been a great experience to have someone like him around who has had been a player of his caliber.

OC: Do you think some of the other teams are going to think that is an unfair advantage during some of those extended spring games? [laughs]

KL: It definitely has it's advantages. You see a lot of clubs who bring major league guys down here for rehab, so it happens all of the time. It's just whatever the injury and what the big league club has available, but there are some big league players who come through here for this program.

OC: I saw that Anthony Capra and Beau Taylor were on the extended spring roster. Are they there because of injuries?

KL: No, with Capra, he has not been able effectively to get his delivery. This happened with him at the same time last year. We have been trying to retool a few things with him to try to get him back to where he can pitch and repeat his delivery. Hopefully that will put him in a better position to compete.

Beau Taylor has had an injury but he has just now caught four innings [on Friday] and is just now starting back. When he gets 40 or 50 at-bats, he'll be ready to go out and join a club.

OC: It looks like you were able to spread out your top catcher prospects between the four levels pretty evenly. Do you anticipate Max Stassi and Ryan Ortiz being able to play full seasons now that their shoulders have been repaired?

KL: Well, certainly you would hope that that would be the case, but you know that there can be some ups-and-downs. You don't want to over-do it where you have them catching six days in a row or something like that. Initially we will split time to keep them at the position. In the end, we hope that they will be able to play 90-100 games, with DHing a little bit. You hope that they will be able to collect 500 at-bats, or maybe 450. I think that is the goal with both of those guys.

OC: How has Derek Norris looked? Obviously at the plate, he has a lot of power and patience, but how has he looked behind the plate?

KL: Very good. He has been very good with understanding what the pitchers need to throw. He does very well with understanding pitcher-catcher relationships. There's a whole lot that seems to be going on that I wasn't aware of until I got a good look at him. It appears that he has the ability to handle guys. You see his physical strength and how he has been able to handle the bat, but he has been very good with the glove and the fingers as well.

OC: Was it helpful to have been able to see him in the Fall League the past two years?

KL: He was there and a lot of people got a chance to see him, but I'm not sure how in-depth they were able to calculate from that. But certainly he's a better hitter than his numbers showed last year and he has the power potential there. He is a really good acquisition.

OC: Last question, were there any releases in camp this year?

KL: We had Josh Lansford, Max Peterson and Yadel Marti. We have had injuries and we probably brought just enough players to make up the extended roster and the four clubs. Right now there don't seem to be any other releases yet.


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