OaklandClubhouse: It has been an extremely busy off-season for you guys already. Now that we’ve had a chance to catch our breath, I’d love to get your thoughts on the players the A’s have acquired via trades this off-season, starting with the Josh Donaldson trade.
One of the players in the deal obviously isn’t a prospect anymore, but Brett Lawrie is still a young player looking to reach that potential that so many people saw from him when he was in the minor leagues, although he has had stretches of success in the big leagues. What do you think he needs to do to become the player that so many projected him to be?
Billy Owens: The biggest thing we notice as we evaluate players and try to put together a baseball team, getting to that point of reaching your peak maturity generally falls between the ages of 25 and 31 or 32 years old. There are not that many superstars out there that break into the big leagues really young and go from prospect to star player right away. Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, those two guys come to mind. Ken Griffey, Jr. back in the day. But those guys are probably in the one percentile of baseball and most guys break-in and it takes a little while.
Brett Lawrie got to the big leagues at an early age – 22, 23 – and he’s got service time and he played pretty well for Toronto, but now is the time for him. He’s got elite talent, big-time power and can play defense at third base as well as anyone in the big leagues. He’s 25 years old with a chance to reflect on what has been so-far a three-year career and he has the opportunity to go forward and be a better player than he’s been. The talent is there. He was a high draft pick out of Canada, got to the major leagues quickly, the athleticism is truly elite, the power is there, so now that he’s a little older, this is a good chance for Brett Lawrie to blossom.
OC: Lawrie’s a guy who has had a bit of an injury history. He’s certainly not the first player the A’s have brought in who has had an injury history. When you guys bring in a player with that kind of history, is there a change that you have them make with their training or anything like that?
BO: For one, our medical staff and our trainers are the best in baseball. Having a roster that is hopefully 25-deep and 40 good players throughout, it gives you a chance to rest players if needed. BoMel [A’s manager Bob Melvin] is terrific at giving guys a day-off here or there. Maybe you monitor the innings every year. The days of Cal Ripken playing 162 games a year every year, a lot of times it just isn’t feasible anymore with the travel and the conditions that these guys are in. Trying to compete every day definitely gets more difficult every year. For a chance for BoMel to work his 25-man roster, we want to have as many talented players as possible. Giving a guy like Brett a blow here and there, a day-off or a DH day, we think it bodes well.
From a maturity standpoint, going back to that 25-years-old point, we acquired Jed Lowrie and he came to us with a similar injury history. We were able to control the innings and with our great medical staff, we were able to keep him healthy throughout most of his tenure here. We are hoping for Brett to do the same.
OC: The youngest player in the package you received from the Blue Jays was shortstop Franklin Barreto. You guys know as well as any organization how hard it is to hit in Vancouver, and he put together some big numbers last season. What do you project from him? Was he a player that you tracked back when he was an amateur in Venezuela, or did he land on the radar more when he started playing in the US?
BO: We definitely scouted Franklin Barreto back to his amateur days in Venezuela. Julio Franco, our astute scout, covers Venezuela. Myself, I scouted Franklin a lot. [Assistant GM] Dan Kantrovitz, who came back to the organization this off-season, was the head of our international scouting program before he went to St. Louis. He scouted Franklin, as well. Also David Forst, our esteemed Assistant General Manager, was able to see Franklin as an amateur.
He was probably one of the most sought-after and visible Venezuelan signees that I can remember over the past five years. He was really elite. As an amateur, he ran something like a 6.4 60-yard dash. His bat has always been explosive. He has a plus arm. He’s a good fielder. Just seeing what he did after the Blue Jays signed him as a pro – last year in Vancouver, hitting .311 while stealing 29 out of 34 bases, connecting on six homers, and playing a solid shortstop over 72 games. If you double those numbers [over a full minor league season], you have double-digit homers with 50 or 60 stolen bases and standing in the middle of the diamond, that’s a pretty unique player.
With his history and his athleticism and the make-up was known – we had seen him as an amateur all the way back to his early days playing. He was actually in the same academy in Venezuela as Renato Nunez, so we were able to watch Renato and then saw Franklin Barreto when he was 14 years old. We definitely have a long history with him. It definitely wasn’t a surprise to us what he did in Vancouver.
In that trade, to get a Brett Lawrie – who basically has similar talent to Josh Donaldson, but you just re-set the clock to where Lawrie is just 25 years old – and get a player like Franklin Barreto is exciting.
OC: You also got back two pitchers in that trade who are major-league ready, or at least close to it. One of those pitchers, Sean Nolin, was a player I heard you had seen a lot of during the Arizona Fall League. He was teammates with the A’s AFL contingent on the Mesa squad. Was his stint in Arizona what convinced you guys that he was a player you wanted to target, or was he a player you were interested in before that?
BO: With most of these guys, we see them as amateurs and then you can chronicle their progress throughout their minor league career and when they reach the big leagues. Sean is a guy who we were able to scout for a while. We talked to the Blue Jays about a separate deal I believe two or three years ago, and we saw him all the way back in the Florida State League. That’s when he started to assert himself in the prospect rankings. He had a really good year that year in the Florida State League and touched Double-A. Then in 2013, he had a really solid season between Double-A and a couple of spot starts in the big leagues.
We tracked him extensively over the past three years. His velocity has sort of crept up over the past three years. He was more 89-92 a couple of years ago. This year in the Fall League, he was a solid 91-94. The breaking ball showed more swing-and-miss possibilities. The change-up is solid and he throws strikes. He is a big, physical pitcher who throws strikes and he has some weapons. He is definitely on the cusp of being a solid major-league starter.
OC: Does Nolin have any similarities to Drew Pomeranz? They are both similar-sized physically.
BO: From a physicality standpoint, definitely similar bodies. Their pitching styles are different. Drew’s got that real lively fastball. The velocity might be the same as Nolin’s, but Pomeranz’s action on the fastball might be different. Nolin has probably a more advanced change-up. Their repertoires are different, but they are physically similar.
OC: Kendall Graveman made one of the more impressive first-full professional season rises through an organization that I have seen from a starting pitcher who wasn’t a first-round draft pick. Were there significant adjustments that he made coming out of college that allowed him to make those improvements so quickly?
BO: Graveman, he definitely made a meteoric rise last year. The addition of the cut fastball, he talked about it in a few interviews. He developed a cut fastball in High-A ball last year and it really complimented his sinker. Before he was a sinker ball pitcher, pitch-to-contact, try to get a groundball early in the count guy. Once he developed that cut fastball and that gave him that contrasting look of being able to sink on one side and then cutting to the other, and he can also lengthen the cutter to give it more of a slider-type action. He was just able to carve both sides of the plate with the ball moving in opposite directions. That kind of propelled him this year to go from High-A ball to Double-A to Triple-A to a few appearances in the big leagues.
What’s amazing about Graveman is that as soon as the transaction went down on the Josh Donaldson deal, there were a handful of teams that called on Graveman that had significant interest. His value is very high.
OC: Is there a major-league pitcher that either pitched for the A’s or another team in the big leagues that you would compare him to? With that cutter, is he similar to Justin Duchscherer, or is it a very different weapon for Graveman?
BO: I say it is a different weapon. That’s a good comparison. Duke had probably more of a variety of pitches. Graveman has a tick more velocity than a Shaun Marcum, but similar stuff probably as Marcum but with just a little bit higher velocity.
OC: Moving to the Brandon Moss-to-Cleveland deal, Joe Wendle didn’t get a full season at Double-A last year because of the hamate bone injury he suffered mid-season. Does he need time at Triple-A, or do you see him being able to compete for a big league spot right out of the gate this spring? What kind of player do you project Wendle to be?
BO: He’s got an exciting bat. In 2013, he had right around 16 homeruns and drove the ball well the whole season. Last year, he had the hamate bone injury that affected his numbers, but then he came back at the end of last year and had really good numbers the last three or four weeks of the season.
He’s an offense-oriented second baseman. The glove is steady at second base. Okay range and we like the bat and the make-up. We are excited to have him.
OC: Will he get a chance to compete for a spot on the big league team during spring training, or do you think he needs time in Triple-A?
BO: The way we normally operate around here, we aren’t afraid to push guys. However, I can’t recall anyone making the team without spending some significant time in Double-A and Triple-A before they get the call here. There are always special cases over the years, but we reward performance and it’s a step-by-step process.
Stay tuned for part two of this interview, when we discuss the six players the A's received in the Jeff Samardzija and Derek Norris deals. We also touch on the changes in the A's front office, the A's current pitching depth chart, saying good-bye to longtime prospect Michael Ynoa and more...