Since joining the Oakland A's organization as a hitting coach in 2004, Aaron Nieckula has worn a number of hats. From 2006-2014, Nieckula was a manager in the A's system, guiding A's Low-A, High-A and Double-A affiliates. He took his teams to the post-season six times, and in 2014, Nieckula guided the Double-A Midland RockHounds to an improbable Texas League crown.
In 2015, Nieckula will take on a different role. In addition to continuing as a manager in the system (this time with short-season A Vermont), Nieckula will be the A's Minor League Field Coordinator. This new position gives Nieckula plenty of responsibility for guiding the A's minor league camps in the spring and fall. We spoke with Nieckula about his new roles and his 2014 championship team.
OaklandClubhouse: Congratulations on a very productive year! I wanted to talk to you about your new positions, as well as last year’s championship Midland RockHounds team.
First, what will your new role as field coordinator entail? What are you looking forward to with this new position?
Aaron Nieckula: First of all, I’m appreciative of the opportunity to even be considered for this position. Talking with my boss Keith Lieppman, our Director of Player Development, he made mention that they were thinking of creating a new position of Field Coordinator and kind of gave me the rundown of responsibilities and job description and so on. This came at the year-end review in September. He said he would get back to me about whether this position would come available. He called back at the end of October and the position was there and he offered it.
Basically, in a nutshell, my primary responsibilities will include all of the on-field scheduling and activities for minor league spring training. I’ll handle the extended spring training program and get that up-and-running. Once that is off the ground, I’ll do a little bit of traveling to the different affiliates, roving to help out in various capacities. Then once extended is over and short-season begins up in Vermont, I will manage our club there in the Penn League. The final responsibility for the Field Coordinator will be to handle all of the on-field activity and scheduling for the Instructional League program.
It’s kind of a hybrid role. It certainly has a number of different opportunities. But I am looking forward to the challenge that it presents.
OC: When you are a manager of an affiliate, you are obviously very focused on the 24-26 players you have on your squad at any given moment. Are you looking forward to being able to have more of a global view of the organization in your roving capacity?
AN: I am. When you are managing your squad, like you said, you are kind of in your own little world. You are focused on your 25 players and on your staff. You are in your town and you are there for the year. In this new role, I’ll get a chance to see the organization from Triple-A on down and see the various players we have and interact with the coaching staff. I’m looking forward to getting out and seeing all of the players that we have. I guess I will be doing not only more of a coaching and teaching role, but also an evaluation role, as well. That’s something I am definitely looking forward to.
OC: You have managed at a number of different levels in your career. What is the biggest difference between managing players who have more experience in professional baseball, as opposed to managing players just starting out their careers in pro ball?
AN: That’s a very good question. As a matter of fact, I was talking about that with Keith the other day. We had a lengthy conversation about it. The easiest way for me to describe it is at the upper-levels, like Double-A, it’s kind of like you have one hand gently on their shoulder. You are gently guiding them along their path and helping them to establish or re-establish routines and teach and coach and so on and so forth. Whereas, in the lower levels, you are really guiding them with two hands on their shoulders, directing them into all of the routines and playing the A’s way and what it is like to be a professional by establishing routines and introducing the long bus rides. It’s basically giving them the 101 on how the organization is run and what is to be expected of them as they matriculate through the minor league system.
OC: The team you had last year in Midland started off with a mix of players of different experience-levels, but by mid-season it was more uniformly an experienced group. One thing that struck me was how many injuries you guys had to overcome, from the second game of the season all the way through the playoffs. What was it about that group that was able to overcome those injuries and still win a championship?
AN: We had an outstanding group of young men on that squad. From guys like Dusty Coleman, Conner Crumbliss, Kent Matthes, Nate Long, Chris Jensen, the list goes on. We had an experienced group, not just from the sense of years of service but also from a maturity standpoint and knowing what their role was and what was at stake at that point in their careers. I really think the continuity in the clubhouse, the chemistry, the camaraderie, the way these guys gelled together, propelled us to the success that we had.
Myself, Don Schulze, Webster Garrison, Justin Whitehouse, Terence Brannic, we kind of just laid out the program and let them do their work without much interference. We coached. We taught. We instructed. We criticized. We praised. We just did the things necessary as a coaching staff and those guys responded. They just went out there and did a great job.
It was fun to watch and fun to be apart of. That was their team. We were just there to help guide them along.
OC: What did it feel like when you guys got the last out and captured the Texas League title?
AN: I never won a championship at the minor league level. I won championships in high school and college and stuff like that, but never as a minor leaguer or as a coach. It was special. It was an exciting time just to see the entire season happen right before your eyes, win that final game and the championship. It was a nice little reward for all of the hard work that the staff put in, the players put in and the organization in general put it – all of the rovers and coaches that came in and spring training. It’s a long season.
Granted, it’s not all about winning at the minor-league level. It’s about player development. But when you do win a championship, it’s gratifying. It’s like, ‘hey, we have accomplished something here that is pretty hard to do.’ You take it all in and put everything in perspective. It’s a nice thing to have for everyone involved.
OC: Your first baseman for much of the year was Max Muncy. He has a non-roster invitation to spring training this year. What kind of progress did he make this season?
AN: Tremendous. Very coachable. High-level aptitude. Really good work ethic. It was fun watching him develop over the course of the year. He was probably one of our more consistent hitters. He had a few ups and downs here and there. It’s very tough to be a left-handed hitter in Midland with that wind blowing in. It can be very frustrating and disappointing. Honestly, I think he was better than what his numbers showed offensively.
Let’s not overlook how he played defense. He was probably one of the best defensive first basemen in the league. And I think he’s probably athletic enough where if he had to make the switch to the other side of the diamond and play third base, I think he could handle it. As a matter of fact, he did play a handful of games at third base for us and it went very well. He just needs to work on his mechanics and reading the angle of the ball and that sort of thing. You could even put him in the outfield if you wanted to.
Max developed well in all facets of the game. He’s just a fine young man and was a pleasure to coach.
OC: You had a chance to coach Matt Chapman at the end tail-end of the season and the post-season. What did you think of him? He had some big hits during the post-season.
AN: You go to the old saying that you never have a second chance to make a first impression. Let me tell you, this kid came in and not only did he perform well on the field, but this young man also fit in like he was there all year. Very mature, very respectful. He fit into the clubhouse group. They embraced him right away as one of the guys. This kid has a very bright future ahead of him. He was our Team MVP, I believe, in the playoffs. Came up with some big hits and some key defensive plays that don’t show up in the box score but show up in the internal game reports we write each night.
He was just fun to watch. All of the guys on that team – from A to Z – were fun to watch. They did their job. Matt was certainly part of that.
OC: Daniel Robertson joined you during the playoffs after there was an injury to, I believe, Hiro Nakajima. He moved over to second base to play alongside Dusty. How did he look? Do you think he’s ready for Double-A?
AN: I do. We could go and on about all of these guys, but he’s definitely another one. It was a little bittersweet because obviously we wanted to see Stockton do well in the playoffs and win the league championship, but they got knocked out in the first round. I was talking to Keith and he asked ‘who do you want? Robertson might be available.’ I said, ‘we’d love to have him because of the Nakajima injury.’ He came in and we had to get permission to move him over to second base. He was very athletic and versatile and handled it well defensively. He also had some big hits for us on the offensive side.
I think he’s ready for Double-A. I think he’s a very gifted, very intelligent player. He has a high aptitude and is very focused and wants to succeed, wants to get better. I think he’ll do fine in Double-A. Might be a bit of an adjustment period because he is so young, but don’t let the age fool you. He’s wise beyond his years.
OC: After losing Raul Alcantara and Tanner Peters to injuries early in April and Zach Neal to promotion soon after, the pitching staff was relatively stable the rest of the season. Three guys who were workhorses for you were Nate Long, Chris Jensen and Murphy Smith. Was a big part of your success being able to turn to those guys reliably whenever it was their turn to go?
AN: It was. You mentioned all of the injuries that we had to overcome and that’s true. The guys faced adversity and kept plugging away and did great. I’ve had Nate a couple of different seasons in the minor league system in Kane County and Burlington and so on and so forth. And Murphy Smith same way. Chris Jensen was obviously new to the organization, but those guys were anchors of the staff. Murphy bounced around between the starting rotation and the bullpen a little bit. Chris Jensen was in the rotation all year. Nate Long, here’s a guy who was going to be in the bullpen and ended up the ace of the staff. They contributed significantly to the success of our team.
I think that’s important. When you have continuity and consistency like that, especially from the starting rotation, I think it helps with success on the field.
OC: Ryan Dull got off to a little bit of a rough start last season, but by the end of the year, he was one of your most consistent relievers. What was the difference for him as the season went on?
AN: I think it was more of a confidence factor for Dully. He’s got great stuff. He’s got to trust it and not try to do too much. Sometimes he tries to nibble and be too fine. But if he just goes out there and throws and doesn’t think too much about what he’s going to do and just goes out there and lets it work, the sky is the limit for his abilities. He was one of our go-to guys in the playoffs. He really did a great job for us all year long.
OC: Is Billy Burns the fastest player you ever coached?
AN: Billy Burns, unequivocally, is the fastest player I have ever coached. Jermaine Mitchell is up there. He was a speedster too. Billy was fast. He was smart. He was aggressive. Just a fun player to watch on the bases.
OC: I know he’s a free agent right now, but you had a chance to coach Dusty Coleman for several years. What kind of player would a team be getting if they signed Dusty this off-season?
AN: First and foremost, they would be getting an outstanding citizen and an outstanding young man. I don’t say this very often, but Dusty is the kind of guy who I would let date my daughter. He’s just that quality of an individual. So a team would get a great dude, an excellent clubhouse guy. Not necessarily a rah-rah guy, but someone who sets an example by how he performs, how he works out, how he practices, his work ethic, how he handles himself.
He was probably one of the best shortstops in the Texas League last year and one of the best shortstops I have ever coached. Versatile. He can play any infield position – shortstop, third or second base. Easy to coach. Never gripes, never complains. If he does raise a question or if he does have an issue with something, he always raises it in a respectful manner. Just a great teammate and a great individual to have in an organization. Whether or not he’s back with the A’s or somebody else, I think he adds value to wherever he ends up.
OC: When do you head to Arizona?
AN: Minor league mini-camp starts the 21st [of February], so I think I’ll be down there on the 18th of February.