Oakland A's Spring Q&A: Farhan Zaidi, Part 2

In part two of our spring interview with Oakland A's Assistant General Manager and Director of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi, we cover some of the changes in the A's bullpen, the impact of being out of options on a player's chances of making the team, as well as newcomers Drew Pomeranz and Chris Jensen, the overall state of the A's farm system, and more...

To view part one of this interview, click here.

OaklandClubhouse: There have been several changes to the bullpen this off-season. Jim Johnson, Luke Gregerson and Eric O'Flaherty are well known commodities, but the team added two left-handers via the waiver wire this off-season in Fernando Abad and Joe Savery. What kind of pitchers are they? Do you consider them more LOOGY-types or are they candidates to pitch multiple innings in the middle of a game?

Farhan Zaidi: I think both guys have the sort of stuff to where they aren't purely left-on-left guys. Both guys have had at least certain stretches of success against right-handed hitters, as well. With the trade of Jerry Blevins, there is obviously an opening there in our bullpen. In our division, with Prince Fielder and Shin-soo Choo in Texas and Josh Hamilton still in LA and Robinson Cano and Logan Morrison being added to the Seattle line-up, its become even more important to have left-handed pitching – not just starting pitching, but particularly relief pitching.

We just wanted to create some options for ourselves in that regard. Abad is a guy who was throwing 97 at the end of the season with Washington. He has a history of good command and that's what we want. We want guys who are going to come in and throw strikes. He fit the bill. He actually pitched really well during the Caribbean Series. We are certainly looking forward to getting a long look at him in camp.

Joe Savery is a guy who has been on our radar dating back to the 2007 draft. He's had a bit of an up-and-down career, starting off as a pitcher, then spending half of the 2011 season as a position player and doing quite well, and then coming back in a bullpen role and having some periods of success. Stuff-wise, he reminds me a lot of Craig Breslow, who was another guy who we were able to pick up off of waivers and who was pretty productive for us.

Savery is not a guy who is going to throw 95 and he is not a guy who necessarily has a wipeout breaking ball against lefties, but he's got a good fastball. It's sneaky. He has two secondary pitches that he can use dating back to his days as a starter. And he's got great make-up. He's a great competitor. Those are all things that intrigued us about him. Being at the point of where we are, we were just trying to give ourselves some left-handed options and he made a lot of sense for us.

OC: There are a number of players in big league camp who are out of options going into camp. How much does being out of options play into whether a player makes a 25-man roster coming out of camp, or are jobs based purely on a merit basis?

FZ: That's a fair question. At one point, we were a little more concerned about a player's option status when we were bringing guys into camp. We were a little bit more particular about shying away from guys that were out of options, knowing that we might lose them. But I think we have gotten to the point now where we understand that there is value in just having depth in spring training. You might have a guy who isn't an obvious Opening Day roster player, but with an injury here or there, you might need him.

At the same time, if you are in a position like we are in as a team with competitive aspirations in the coming season, I don't think you try to do too much. You don't want to over-manage the situation and try to keep the guy who is out of options over a more deserving player who has an option left. We are in the mindset of firing all of our bullets and our best bullets to try to succeed this season.

When you are in more of a rebuilding mode, you are little more concerned about protecting your assets and that is obviously not the mindset that we have right now. It's going to be a largely, if not entirely, merit-based competition for those open spots.

OC: Looking at your non-roster invitee list, there are several guys who were drafted by the San Diego Padres when [Special Assistant to the GM] Grady Fuson was with that organization and others who have played for managers such as Tony DeFrancesco and others who have been part of the organization in the past. How much does familiarity with players when you have people within your organization or connected to the organization who know these players well play into who you pursue on the minor league free agent market?

FZ: I think it is pretty significant. It sort of works two ways. One way is that it adds to the knowledge base that you have on these players, not just in terms of on-field ability, but also what kind of players they are in the clubhouse. When you are bringing in minor league free agents who are oftentimes going to be the veteran presence in Double-A and Triple-A, you want the character guys. So [that knowledge] is pretty important.

I think the other part of it is that it is helpful in recruiting these guys because a lot of the players that we pursue are being pursued by other organizations. If they feel that they have some connection to our organization and they know Grady when they drafted them or played for one of our coaches somewhere else, I think that they are more likely to sign with us because they don't feel that they are going to be lost in the shuffle or over-looked if they have some strong personal connection. I think it not only helps us with the evaluation, but it also helps with the players getting sold on coming here when they have some personal connection.

OC: There have been several minor league coaching changes over the past two off-seasons. How much do those changes impact the player development program, or is the system that Keith has in place so smooth that changes don't impact it that much?

FZ: I think Keith is always two steps ahead not just of when coaches are moving on but also on our side of things in terms of him anticipating not just where he may need people to step in but also who the best candidates are to move into full-time coaching jobs or move up levels. He is so good at evaluating the on-field staff and knowing what their potential is and having a feel for their career trajectory. That is just something that he has developed in all of his many years of doing this as well as he has. We are lucky to have a guy like Keith who has such keen awareness not only of our organizational needs but also of individual coaches' ability and potential.

It winds up being very seamless. I think our coaches work really well together. Although Todd [Steverson, former A's minor league hitting coordinator now with the Chicago White Sox] is a big loss, we are thrilled that he got a major league coaching job and a lot of the things that he developed and the philosophies that he developed in conjunction with the rest of the organization, those things live on because the communication between him and the rest of the coaching staff was so good when he was in his coordinator role.

OC: Looking at the minor league system, there have been a number of promotions to the big leagues and trades that have thinned the ranks of the upper-level talent, to some extent, the past few years. Where do you think the overall talent level in the A's system stands right now?

FZ: I think the biggest thing that we want to ensure when we look back retrospectively every season is that we feel like the farm system was able to impact the major league team at some level. Last year, you had the huge impact that Sonny Gray had, who was one of our draftees. But even guys like Stephen Vogt and Dan Otero who come over from other organizations but come up through Triple-A and impact the team, I don't think you can diminish the value of players like that.

I think that is what we look at with our farm system. It's not just the guys that we have drafted and are developing, but it is also guys who have been brought in through trades or waiver claims or minor league free agency that can impact the team, as well. This year you have that same thing with young players like Drew Pomeranz, who isn't technically a rookie but could play a big role for us this season, or a guy like Billy Burns, who we got in the Jerry Blevins trade.

I do agree that there has been some attrition in our farm system over the past couple of years, but I think that is a function of graduating some players and making some trades for guys that have helped us compete over the past two seasons. There is a little bit of a cost you have to pay to compete. [The minor league system] continues to be an emphasis of ours, but while we have this core team intact that has had the success it has had the last couple of seasons, then we feel it is only fair to them to make that a little bit of a priority even if that is at the cost of some of the players that we have drafted and developed through the farm system that we thought had some longterm potential.

OC: Drew Pomeranz has been a starter for most of his career, but he did find some success as a reliever with the Rockies at the very end of last season. Do you still see him as a starter?

FZ: We have seen him throw a bullpen now. He managed to get out there [on Tuesday]. You see the guy and you see the ease with which he throws. He made a strong impression with a lot of the people that saw him throw [on Tuesday]. A guy like Drew, his greatest value is if he can succeed as a starter in the big leagues and we still believe he has that ability. But, as you said, late last season with the Rockies he had a handful of relief appearances and threw great. He was dominant at times. That is not something that is going to be lost on us as we pare the roster down to 25 guys.

As I said earlier, it's going to be a merit-based competition and if he is the best option for a spot in the bullpen, then that is something that we are going to take a hard look at. Certainly early in the spring we want him to get in his work as a starter and to get stretched out as a starting pitcher. It is something that we will continue to monitor.

OC: Is it hard to evaluate pitchers who are pitching in Denver or Colorado Springs when you are looking to make a trade? Is it hard to know from afar what kind of impact the altitude is having on their mindset or their stuff in general?

FZ: That's absolutely true. In Drew's case, there is some pedigree to fall back on based on his college career, where he was drafted and how quickly he moved early in his career with Cleveland. His time in Colorado and Colorado Springs, you can put those numbers into some context with park adjustments, but as you suggest, that only gets you so far. It's not just a matter of making these statistical adjustments or corrections. There is also the fact that pitching in altitude causes the ball to move differently and it may have some effect on pitchers' psyches because they are going to have less success.

I don't think you can necessarily draw a straight line between what a guy does in those environments and what their park adjusted numbers are going to look like and assume that is going to be it. I think that the same thing holds for position players, too. We had Seth Smith the last two seasons and he did a great job for us. I think there was some concern about what his numbers would look like out of Colorado and he performed pretty well for us.

I think when you have someone who is pitching or hitting in a really unique environment, it's really one of the tougher challenges to project how he will do away from that. In those cases, it is really important to look at the total body of work. That's a lot of what we tried to do with Drew. Not just look at those numbers but take the totality of his career and performance and try to imagine how things might improve for him in an environment like ours.

It's definitely one of the more difficult things [when evaluating players]. We have obviously made some trades with Colorado, so we haven't necessarily shied away from it, but it is probably one of the trickier types of evaluations that we have to do.

OC: The other pitcher you received in that deal with Colorado – Chris Jensen – faced the Stockton Ports a lot this season when he was pitching for Modesto. Does it make it easier to acquire players from the organizations that you have a lot of overlap in terms of minor league affiliates being in the same leagues, as opposed to the organizations that don't overlap with your affiliates much?

FZ: I think it absolutely does. You have reports from those teams' coaching staffs on opposing players, so you have a body of information based on that. We have pitch tracking systems in all of our minor league parks. Whether we have that information from players when they are in their own parks can be a little hit-or-miss. Certainly when they come into our stadium, we can collect that data. There is significant value in that.

I do think we tend to know those players a little bit better. In a perfect world, you have equal amounts of information about all players at the different levels. You don't want your data information collection to be biased against one group of players or the other. But that's some of the reality of it.

Chris is a guy who went to USD and a lot of us saw him before the draft, so there was some added familiarity from that. As I said, he is a guy a lot of us saw before the draft. He was a little bit of a project at that time and was primarily an arm-strength guy. But certainly with the numbers he put up in the Cal League last year, he has taken a step forward and has become more of a pitcher. He was an important second part of the deal for us.

OC: I was going to ask you about that USD pitching staff. It must have been good over the past few years given the number of guys you have in the system that have come from there [Jensen, A.J. Griffin, Dylan Covey, Trevor Bayless and the now-retired Matt Thomson]. Do area scouts play a big part in that when you see clusters of players coming from the same program in the same system?

FZ: I don't think you want to over-play that angle. You probably run the risk of putting too much stock in and getting your hand caught in the cookie jar. But that's a program where we have had some success plucking guys out of. Guys that have not just maintained their performance from college, but have improved it. That is sort of the track record for that program. You probably weight that a little bit, but you don't want to over-weigh it.

Stay tuned for part three of this interview coming later this week...

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