OaklandClubhouse: How has Instructs gone this year?
Keith Lieppman: Very good program. At one point we had all players 20 years and younger manning every position. I think the only position might have been catcher where we didn't have an 18, 19-year-old on the field. Much different look than the previous Instructional League with the young draft. Guys like [Daniel] Robertson, [Addison] Russell, [B.J.] Boyd. It's really a fun group. Kind of the next wave of the future of what I see the system moving towards, which is a bunch of really fine young players who are just starting out.
OC: How did you feel those young players adapted this year? It seems like a lot of them put up some really good numbers and you were able to move some of them up to more advanced levels than Rookie ball. Was that something that you had planned, or did they surprise you with how polished they were when they got into professional baseball?
KL: I think it was a combination of both. They certainly came highly touted. They were drafted at the higher levels and a lot of effort went into selecting these guys. Then they get here and you see an Addison Russell or a Daniel Robertson and they pretty much dominated this level in Arizona. You begin to understand that you have a unique player who is capable of doing more. In the case of Russell, we just kept adding on because he was able to continue the way he had done at previous levels. We realized we had good players who could handle each of the levels of competition. [Russell] has dominated at this [Instructional League] level down here as well. He has looked really good.
OC: The three first-round picks – Russell, Robertson and Matt Olson – are obviously going to be grouped together in a lot of people's minds for awhile. Are you going to try to keep together as they move up in the system? I know that in the past the organization has tried to pair players together when it has made sense to do so.
KL: For the most part, the way that we move people through systems, we typically would go through a first year at a Rookie level and then move to the Midwest League, which is Beloit. We keep them together to start with and then you have a situation with someone like a Russell who has already gone there and performed at that level and looked good enough. You don't want to hold anyone back either. If Russell is capable of playing in Stockton next year, that is certainly an area we would be open to looking at.
For the sake of just keeping them together just to keep them together, if you have a player that is maybe better than what that plan profiles, you have to move him ahead.
OC: What are you anticipating with the new relationship with Beloit next season? You have been able to maintain your spot in the Midwest League but are moving affiliates for the third time in four years. Are you pretty familiar with how that affiliate is run?
KL: Not that much. We are very pleased with the front office there, the people that we have met there. The situation is good. The prospects of a new stadium have been in the air for a while there. We certainly thought that might be a potential good situation to open a new stadium there in the next few years. There are definitely some plusses there. There is a really nice housing program there for young players. A closeness to Chicago.
There are a number of areas that we felt would benefit the players there. Ted [Polakowski, the A's director of minor league operations] and I are going to travel there in the next couple of weeks to officially meet the people in person and take a look at everything. We are happy with the selection and look forward to being there.
OC: You guys have been with the Midwest League for quite some time now. What is it about that league that you have liked as the spot for the first full season league for your players?
KL: It's definitely a challenging league. It's a big step up for these guys and it gives them an opportunity to see what this level is all about. It gives them a chance to experience the first elements of playing a long season, which includes some adjustments to the weather at the start of the season, to the 140-game schedule. There are certainly some things that are thrown at you. The league is typically more of a pitching-type league. But it does create opportunities for hitters as the season moves on. You have to make adjustments and I think that that is an opportunity for our younger players to understand that they are going to have to make those adjustments throughout their careers.
Obviously you play in those types of environments [in the big leagues] early in the season in Chicago and in Eastern cities, so it's a preparatory-type league. It gives them an opportunity to see what baseball is going to be like. We've certainly had interest in the South Atlantic League at certain times, as far as the weather is concerned. There are some travel concerns in that league, but we're open to a number of scenarios and we can find plusses for all of the first-season, A-ball clubs.
We are accustomed to the Midwest League and we are happy to have been a part of it with Kane County and even back to Madison. We've had a good tradition in the league. A lot of good players have gone through there.
OC: You have re-upped for two more years in Vermont. How is that relationship with the Lake Monsters working out? It has to be a lot different to have players on the East Coast rather than in the Pacific time zone like you did with Vancouver.
KL: It really hasn't been that big of an issue. There are a few travel concerns if you have to get someone to a new place quickly. But, for the most part, it's seamless. We really like the people there and have signed on for two more years with them. We have been really happy with the situation. It's a great town. The players are taken care of nicely there.
The variety of the New York-Penn League has been good. I think playing different organizations is beneficial. We have been playing mostly western clubs [in the other leagues], and all of a sudden we are playing the Red Sox or the Tigers. It's a different environment and it has given us a little different perspective. We haven't missed a beat with that [move]. We are happy with the scenario that we have there.
OC: Speaking of the Tigers and in general the post-season run, I read that you had moved up one of your Instructional League games so the guys in camp could watch game 162 when the A's clinched the AL West on TV. Also, there were guys who didn't make the post-season roster who were working out at Papago. What kind of impact did that have on the Instructional League camp to have the big league team in the post-season and have that sort of atmosphere surrounding the organization?
KL: It's funny because for a whole lot of years, it became normal. That was the typical because we would be in the scenario where for all of those years, we were going to the playoffs. We became accustomed to that. It was expected. Now to have a new group come in since '06 and not have that opportunity to really experience that – especially with this new young group – we are hopeful of a new tradition and expectation that the A's are going to be part of something in the post-season every year.
To have them all kind of be aware of guys who were in this Instructional League not that long ago – [Dan] Straily, [A.J.] Griffin and last year [Sean] Doolittle – it shows them that when things go right and start to happen, you can go through the system very quickly. Being in touch with those players I think was very important for the organization and these young players.
There is a certain pride factor in the fact that they are seeing where they want to be on the big stage.
OC: How much pride do you and your minor league staff take in what the A's accomplished this season with so many of those guys having come up through the system and many of them spending a significant amount of time in Sacramento even this season? Do you guys feel like your fingerprints are all over this year's team? Has that made it special for your staff?
KL: That was the talk that we had in our Instructional League meeting. We went around the room and were able to talk about the influence coaches had on players on that team – whether it was Garvin Alston, the rehab pitching coordinator down here who had a huge impact on Doolittle, or whether it was Greg Sparks with Brandon Moss and Chris Carter, or Todd Steverson with the overall hitting program. I could tell each staff member that they had made a contribution to the whole. I think that is the part where we all feel like we are a part of something.
We had scouts come in and tell their story about the players they acquired and about what they do in the system. When you come to understand the whole program, you get to see how everyone had an impact on the major league club. So that's where the pride comes in. We're all having a little bit of the big piece. We all feel like contributors in that. That's where the pride comes in, to see it come to fruition and to know in some way we all had a part in it, that's exciting.
In the minor leagues, we all enjoy being teachers and developers, but to have it all play out as it did this year certainly is very important.
OC: You have been with the organization for a long time and have seen the different waves of success that have popped up over the years. Does this team remind you of any of those teams, or is it a pretty unique set of players and circumstances?
KL: I've told a number of people – and I've been here a long time and have witnessed these in different ways – and this is a totally unique scenario where a lot of role players became special players. It was interesting to watch how guys at Triple-A who were labeled as Four-A type guys who were just waiting for their opportunity became a big part of the program. Then added to that, the phenomenal stories. I don't think anybody can truly understand a Doolittle, Straily and a Griffin.
And then you've got the rehab guys like [Pedro] Figueroa, who comes off Tommy John and makes his appearance. I don't think I've ever seen a team that really relied on teamwork, team play and chemistry the way this team did. This is a very unique group. The times I went up there, they were completely focused on winning baseball. It was interesting to watch how it all came together. Outside of the organization, guys like Brandon Inge who came in. It really all came together for an exciting finish.