Oakland A's Front Office Q&A: Billy Owens, P1

The 2013 season was a productive one for the Oakland A's both on the MLB level and in the minors. We caught-up with A's Director of Player Personnel to review the season that was. In part one of this interview, we cover Dan Straily, Sonny Gray, Michael Choice, Addison Russell, Daniel Robertson, Chris Bostick, Renato Nunez, Vicmal de la Cruz, Miles Head, Matt Olson, Nolan Sanburn and more...

OaklandClubouse: Starting with the major league team, was there anything that struck you about this group in 2013 that particularly impressed you, either in comparison to the 2012 group or in general?

Billy Owens: I think 2013 was definitely a year where we built off of what we did in 2012. In 2012, we could be perceived as a surprise team, whereas in 2013, everyone came in gunning at us. From Bob Melvin and his outstanding coaching staff to the players that were put on the field by Billy Beane, David Forst, Farhan Zaidi, Dan Feinstein on down were a cohesive unit and we were able to withstand all of the challenges during the regular season and win 96 games. It was pretty gratifying, maybe even more so than in 2012.

OC: You and I have talked several times about Dan Straily. He was arguably the team's most consistent starter during the final six weeks of the season. What was it that really clicked in for him at the end of the year?

BO: I think with Dan, there is nothing that truly prepares you for the major leagues. He came off of a fantastic 2012 season. He led the minor leagues in strike-outs while in the upper-levels and he had a handful of good starts for us [in the big leagues] down-the-stretch in 2012. In 2013, he had two outstanding starts to begin the year and because we have to maximize the roster, he ended up having to go on that 580 shuttle [between Oakland and Sacramento] a little bit.

Once he established himself and was able to stay on the roster for a long period, he got those consistent innings and he was able to acclimate himself. From there, after he was able to acclimate himself, his stuff was able to blossom at the major league level. There is nothing that replicates the big leagues. You have to have the consistent starts or at-bats at that level to establish yourself. In the major leagues, you are always trying to maximize your roster and you are looking to win everyday, so sometimes you don't get the consistent innings that you do in the minor leagues. That can make it tough.

OC: Sonny Gray introduced himself to a national audience in a loud way during the second game of the ALDS this season. You mentioned that nothing really prepares you for the big leagues. What was it about Sonny that allowed him to make such a smooth transition from the minor leagues to pitching at a high level in the big leagues?

BO: Sonny has outstanding make-up. He's a competitor, going back to when he was a high school quarterback. He's a terrific athlete and is probably our best fielding pitcher. He played in a big conference in the Southeastern Conference. Being a high pick, he was always a guy who other players were gunning for, so his pedigree was to meet expectations and rise to the occasion.

Handling Double-A, which was an advanced assignment in 2012, and making some alterations with his delivery, it took until the second half of that year for his athleticism and pure stuff to really come out and resulted in his Triple-A cameo. This year, in 2013, he really hit the ground running from spring training. He came out firing bullets right away. He had an outstanding season with Sacramento and then when he got called up to the big leagues, everything in his makeup, talent and heart said that this guy could handle any challenge. He's got tremendous stuff and he's a flawless fielder.

He was ready to rise to the occasion. Some people gravitate towards the big stage, and I believe Sonny is one of those guys.

OC: He didn't get a ton of playing time in September, but Michael Choice was impressive during the limited time he did have during his major league debut month. At this point, do you feel comfortable giving him significant playing time in the big leagues next year if that was how the roster ended up being shaped?

BO: I think if you go back with Michael to 2011 and he hit, I believe, 30 homeruns with Stockton. The strike-outs were a little higher than what he wanted. When we drafted Michael, the power in his game was so explosive. He hit some of the most jaw-dropping homeruns that you will see, but he also had to make some adjustments with his lower-half. That's what he has worked on, dating all the way back to his Stockton days. That carried over to Midland. That season got cut short [by a broken hand], but he was still able to hit around .286.

This year, he came into spring training focused and the first day of big league camp, he was a man on a mission. His body got into a little bit better condition and his legs were strong the whole year. He made a few alterations with his swing where his swing was just a tad bit shorter and compact to the ball. Those changes were reflected in his .302 batting average [for Sacramento]. Over the years, we've seen that Sacramento is a very tough park to hit in, especially as it compares to the other parks in the Pacific Coast League. It was impressive for him to put up the .302 average, play outstanding defense and still hit for some power with the 14 homeruns, and he was a lot better from a production standpoint on the road, which is indicative of the [difficulty of hitting in that] ballpark.

He was able to establish himself and when he came to the big leagues, he was able to hit the ground running. He definitely asserted himself and got acclimated. You never know how the off-season or the final roster decisions will transpire. You always want to maximize your roster. Hopefully, one day we can get Joe DiMaggio or somebody like that during the off-season [laughs] and he would push someone else down [to Triple-A], but Michael had an outstanding season in Triple-A and he asserted himself in the big leagues when he got the opportunity in September. He has checked all of the boxes and from there, spring training and what happens in the winter will establish where he starts off in April.

OC: You mentioned that you were going to be heading out to the Arizona Fall League [on Wednesday]. Addison Russell has been really swinging the bat well at the AFL lately. What has it been like to see him develop so quickly? Has he exceeded the expectations you had for him before he was drafted?

BO: His make-up, his will to succeed, his drive, how competitive he is, probably the way he was raised, this guy is battling to succeed every day. His talent is immense. It's easy to get the stopwatch out and nestle in to see what he can do because he is a five-tool shortstop. He can make all of the plays with excellent range. His body control is outstanding. His arm is fabulous. He is able to hit for average. He can steal bases and he will hit for power.

All of that stuff is there, but the separator for me is that he is a great teammate. The coaching staff raves about his make-up in terms of being ready for early work and preparation. He is just so focused and intent on being an elite player at the top level that nothing fazes him. Whatever challenges and expectations you put on him, he is going to exceed those from a work standpoint. I'm excited to have him in the organization.

I have been with the Oakland A's for 16 years. I have certain names in mind that this guy compares to – and they are really lofty. But instead of saying those names, I'm just going to give credence to the idea that he is the most exciting prospect that I have seen for the Oakland Athletics in the 16 years I have been here.

OC: The organization released the 2014 minor league coaching staffs [on Tuesday]. Two members of the 2013 Beloit staff – manager Ryan Christenson and pitching coach John Wasdin – are moving up to Stockton for 2014, where I assume they will have some of their Beloit players next season. Were you happy with the work that they did with that young Beloit team, taking them to the playoffs in a tough Midwest League?

BO: Yes. Ryno and Wasdin, those guys are outstanding. Their preparation was meticulous. Their early work and their demeanor was calm in the dugout and the clubhouse. They were able to keep things loose and fun, but also were able to give enough tough love to be cohesive. The challenge was that those were young kids. You look at Daniel Robertson being in his first full season of pro ball. Renato Nunez skipping short-season and being there as a teenager. Matt Olson being there as a teenager. Chris Bostick [being 20]. The list is pretty lengthy in terms of the young talent that was there.

Ryno and John were able to keep that group cohesive and just did an outstanding job all year. They didn't leave any stone unturned and the feedback from the players, from their parents and agents, everyone just raved about the environment in Beloit this year. That club was one of our most fun teams to watch this year. They were outstanding. To see what they did as far as position-by-position was great. The promotions of Raul Alcantara and Michael Ynoa and to see what that infield was able to accomplish and to see Nick Rickles throw out 40-some percent of the runners and John Wooten playing outfield and third base and hitting 20 homers. It was a very exciting group. It was chock full of prospects.

That is probably our most cohesive group. Those guys just like being around each other. They are at the ballpark early and often. I think about what Ryan Dull and Tucker Healy were able to accomplish in the ‘pen up there. Those Beloit guys just gravitate towards each other. They hang out off of the field. It carried over from the year before and that's a fun group. From a staff standpoint, Ryno and John really led the way. Hopefully some of those players graduate to Stockton and they will stay a cohesive group up in Stockton.

OC: Chris Bostick is a fun story, being an end-of-the-draft pick that has quickly become a top prospect. Does his talent or style of play remind you of anyone?

BO: There are a lot of similarities and you can throw out a lot of different comparisons, but Junior Spivey, a guy who came up with the Diamondbacks and made an All-Star team, is one that comes to mind. From an injury standpoint, Spivey's career was cut short, but from a talent perspective, Chris Bostick is very similar. Very athletic, offensive-minded second basemen. The ball comes off of their bats with authority. They can drive the ball into the gap, they can steal a base and they can drive-in runs.

Chris' make-up, from the day he walked into rookie ball, he was ready to play. There was a total professionalism and desire to be an outstanding major league player someday. He has a work ethic and a drive to succeed. It's incredible.

It seems like I'm saying that about a few of our guys. We've had guys like this in the past, but a lot of these young kids in our system – I'm not sure if it is from the development standpoint or because they played various places before they come here – but some of these guys are ready to play as soon as they come here. Chris epitomizes that desire and that will to succeed. The talent is real. The ball comes off of his bat well, he runs well and he still out there taking fungoes and working with the best infield instructor in the game in Juan Navarette. Chris, his arrow is definitely pointing up.

OC: I have heard a lot of great things about Daniel Robertson's defense at shortstop. Is that something you consider to be a plus-tool for him?

BO: If you look combined from an error standpoint, Addison Russell and Daniel Robertson – two teenaged shortstops in full-season ball – their error total combined doesn't reach 30. Which is pretty remarkable.

Daniel is just fundamentally sound. He's confident. He catches the ball cleanly. His footwork is exemplary. His throws are on the money. He is fearless and he ranges well on pop ups. He is a team leader out there. He's into the game and into every pitch. It's to the point where sometimes, honestly, he's almost too intense on the field and you just want him to relax and enjoy the game a little bit. He's so focused and he is such a competitor and he wants to do so well that sometimes you want him to throttle back just a touch. But this kid is focused and there is no question in my mind he can be a major league shortstop. Defensively the tools are there and the range will surprise you.

OC: Both Matt Olson and Renato Nunez had big power years for Beloit despite playing in a league not known for power. Is power going to be the big asset for each of them moving forward?

BO: Definitely. You can look at Matt Olson this year and he pumped 23 homeruns and had 90-something RBI and he walked in the 70-range and he plays plus defense at first base. In an organization full of plus defenders at first between Anthony Aliotti, Daric Barton and Max Muncy, Matt Olson fits right into that conversation. His defense and the way he turns a 3-6-3 double-play, ranges on pop-ups and scoops up balls in the dirt is some of the best in the organization already. He's a baseball rat and he's a big kid.

This is a lofty aspiration, but Olson is like a Kent Hrbek with that lumberjack body and a good athlete. Olson has those same physical attributes. You hope he can become that kind of a player down the road. The power is real. He's strong and physical and the ball jumps off the bat. As he continues to climb the ladder, he will continue to improve.

Renato Nunez is a natural hitter. No question about it. I believe he hit in the .260-range this year. It wouldn't surprise me if that is the worst average he produces for us going forward. That long season kind of takes its toll and he's still just 19-years-old in the Midwest League. He put up outstanding numbers – 19 homeruns and he drove in 83. His strike-out to walk ratio will improve as he climbs the ladder and he sees how pitchers attack him. He's able to drive the ball to the opposite field like a left-handed pull-hitter would. It's something special to see that come off of his bat.

With a bat like that, he's got confidence and make-up. He believes he is a force with a bat in his hands. He'll continue to ascend to the major leagues and be an offensive force. From a defensive standpoint, he just has to learn to keep on getting his work in everyday and keep grinding away and that will continue to be a positive, as well.

OC: Vicmal de la Cruz has been lumped with Renato Nunez because they were part of the same international signing class. de la Cruz has struggled the past two seasons in the Arizona Rookie League. What has gone on with him the past two seasons that has prevented him from having the same kind of success he had in the Dominican Summer League?

BO: Vicmal and Renato came in together and Vicmal did outstanding in the Dominican Summer League. It just hasn't carried over to the States yet. There have been a few issues that we were able to resolve internally. He is putting the work in. I just came from the Dominican Republic and he is putting in time and getting his body into improved conditioning and is getting more at-bats.

You just hope that he is able to translate his talent – improve his plate discipline, hit for the power that he is capable of doing, control the ‘zone and really run around that outfield like he did initially in his career. There is nothing from a player development or scouting standpoint. You just want to keep on being positive, work hard and put all of the players in a position to succeed. At some point, they have to bang the door down themselves.

OC: Nolan Sanburn had an injury at the beginning of the season, but he was able to pitch out of the bullpen the second half of the year. Do you see him getting back into that starter-development track next year if he is healthy?

BO: I think that he is definitely an option as a starter. It just depends on what Billy Beane, David Forst, Keith Lieppman and Scott Emerson decide. But the stuff is off the charts. He's 95-plus with action. The breaking ball is definitely lane-changing and crippling at times. He's got a good change-up. He's a very good athlete.

He has some of the best stuff in the organization going forward. I can't pigeon-hole him into a role. But from Low-A ball, guys are succeeding all the way up to the major leagues for A's for the past five or 10 years, and Sanburn definitely has the stuff to succeed like that. It's all there from a physical standpoint. Hopefully, next year in 2014, he can build off of that outstanding stuff that he has.

OC: You mentioned Raul Alcantara earlier. The progress he made from a pure numbers standpoint from last year to this year was really impressive. Do you see him as one of the top pitching prospects in the organization now?

BO: Yeah. Honestly I felt like he was the year before too. We challenge our players. We have always thrived on that. There was a time when we had two High-A teams and no Low-A team when I first started with the Oakland A's in 1999. We traded for Raul Alcantara. Sam Geaney, our International Scouting Director, he did an outstanding job. He ran into Raul Alcantara in the Gulf Coast League the year before we traded for him from the Red Sox. Geaney was able to identify him as a future potential major league starting pitcher.

We were very, very excited to get him, and once we got him, even in 2012, the velocity was up to 94. The breaking ball was on the cusp and he had a good change-up. If you watched him, his preparation in-between starts was meticulous. In the stands, he always paid attention more so than the average pitcher in the minor leagues. He was able to tread water in an advanced assignment in 2012.

This year, he hit the ground running. The maturity showed. The fastball tickled that 95-range. The breaking ball got better and the change-up was really good already. He was able to improve his sequences and was just getting acclimated to that level and catching up. When you are a teenager in a full-season league, the talent might be there, but the results might not be. This year, he was able to combine the talent with the results.

When I saw him in the California League late in the year, I was almost jumping out of my seat. I was so excited to see this kid mixing his pitches, commanding the strike-zone and throwing a ton of strikes. Not so much just the stuff, but the focus. I try to watch what these guys do for preparation between games. How they run the outfield and take care of business in between starts. I would probably rank Raul Alcantara as being among the top three or four within the entire organization in preparation between starts.

OC: Miles Head was included in that deal that brought Alcantara to Oakland. In 2012, he had a great season, but this year, it seemed like the shoulder injury must have been bothering him even before he went out for the year with the injury. Do you think this was just a lost season for Head, and will he enter next year with a clean slate?

BO: I don't think any year is lost. Hopefully you can learn and progress. The talent is still there. From an at-bat perspective, getting as many at-bats as possible is important because every level is more difficult. Because of a lot of different circumstances, he didn't have the at-bats this year. But anybody who knows Miles Head knows that he is a natural hitter. The ball comes off of his bat in every direction. He is going to have power down-the-road.

There are challenges and sometimes guys hit a bump in the road. It's not in the same category, but because they both play third base they can sometimes be compared. In a lot of these interviews talking about Josh Donaldson, we talk about how we always believed in the talent. The results weren't always there but the talent always was. Things don't happen right away. Miles is still young. He is a deceptive athlete. We are just going to go ahead and give him a clean slate for 2014. Hopefully right now he is grinding somewhere and getting everything together physically and next year, going forward, it's going to be fun.

Stay tuned for part two of this interview, during which we cover Michael Ynoa, Billy McKinney, Bobby Wahl, Dylan Covey, Drew Granier, B.J. Boyd, Max Muncy, Bruce Maxwell, Iolana Akau, Dustin Driver, Chris Kohler, Ronald Herrera, the departure of Todd Steverson and more...

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