The 2015 minor league season is in the final stretch and the Oakland A's have made several moves of late that have impacted their minor league system on several levels. We caught-up with the A's legendary Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman to get his thoughts on how certain prospects are progressing.
In part one of this interview, we focus on the movement of shortstops up and down the system, the progress of Matt Chapman, Franklin Barreto, Matt Olson, Colin Walsh and Yairo Munoz, and much more...
NOTE: This interview took place a few hours before the Oakland A's traded Tyler Clippard for prospect Casey Meisner.
OaklandClubhouse: Have you ever had two players traded to you in the morning and then playing for you that evening because they are in the same stadium as your affiliate like you did with Jacob Nottingham and Daniel Mengden last week?
Keith Lieppman: We did have last year a player who traded dugouts, Nick Buss from Albuquerque. He switched dugouts on us. I happened to be there for that one. I’ve never had two at the same time though. It’s quite a moment. There is a lot going on in those poor kid’s minds as they switch dugouts. It’s an unusual experience.
OC: I imagine for them playing a whole series and them making their Stockton debuts in that series, the scouting reports have to be a bit backwards for them.
KL: It certainly worked for Mengden. He didn’t miss a beat [Mengden threw five shutout innings in his Stockton debut on Saturday, striking out eight]. He must have had a good report on his own guys because he threw really well.
OC: This morning it was announced that Mikey White and Gabriel Santana were promoted from Vermont to Beloit. Is anyone moving from Beloit to Stockton?
KL: Yeah, the guys going up are Trent Gilbert and Yairo Munoz.
OC: Do you feel like after nearly four months in the Midwest League, those guys were ready for a new challenge? Or are these promotions necessitated more by the injury to Franklin Barreto in Stockton?
KL: That was an initial part of it. It gave us the opportunity to separate all of the shortstops now that Barreto is out for awhile. It gave us Richie Martin, White, Munoz and Chad Pinder separately all the way up the system. It gives us an opportunity to have those guys play their natural positions.
Although with Munoz, it’s hard to say how he will really handle the rigors of a higher league. He was very good the first two months and kind of got into a funk. Now he will be tested at this level. This will certainly be a good opportunity for him in a hitter-friendly league, but plate discipline and selectivity will certainly be factors in how well he does.
OC: With Barreto, he got off to that horrific start, but then started to turn it on in May and never looked back. Did he make an adjustment at that point, or was it more of a matter of getting the swings in after he had a short spring training?
KL: I think all of those factors contributed. I think the double jump in levels was a big factor. The late spring training. The injury. His talent was always there. He’s a really gifted player. What’s interesting about him is that he has a swing that is built for the middle of the field to the right side. He’s not fooled on a lot of pitches. He can fight a lot of tough pitches off. Most pitchers are taught to go away from hitters and stay away and that doesn’t bother him. He had more trouble with pitches in the middle part of the plate and in, but he had begun to adjust to that, as well.
I think he’s a very talented player. He certainly showed us how he put up those numbers in Vancouver [last season]. He has great hands and some real hitter’s instincts. There is a little swing-and-miss, but it’s not enough that it alarms you at all. For a young player, he makes adjustments well and is very confident. When he was down, he never let it affect him. It didn’t bother him. He knew he was good and that he would ultimately adjust.
OC: It seems like Matt Chapman has been able to keep his confidence up even when he has struggled, as well, and he has made quick those adjustments. Do you see that with him?
KL: I obviously saw him in Beloit last year, but I really understood him when we brought him up to Midland for the playoffs. He really could have been the MVP of the whole series and really the last couple of games to get them into the finals. We took the pressure off of him – because he was obviously the youngest and least experienced on the team. Without the hoopla of being the number one pick, he was just there to do a job and help Midland win. Watching him perform in that environment without the pressures of [being a number one pick], I saw the true player that he is. He made outstanding defensive plays. He made play-after-play and he came up with several key hits. I think we came to understand that if you shave off all of the pressure and expectations, you can see a really, really good player.
Then he got hurt the day before the start of spring training. He came out [to Stockton] before he had really had enough at-bats against live pitching, there was an adjustment, but it didn’t take long to see who this guy really is. He’s a really good player. The power numbers are backing up everything that we expected. In fact, he’s already exceeding some of our expectations with the bat. We are very impressed with his year up until this point.
OC: You guys had to work with him to think more about driving the ball than simply looking to get base-hits like he did in college, right?
KL: Yeah. It’s funny. His swing is sort of like Barreto’s in that it was formed with the idea of hitting through the middle of the diamond and right-center. Learning how to adapt to guys who have advanced reports on him and know how to pitch him was something he had to do.
In the Cal League, you face your division a lot. Most of your at-bats for the whole year come against the same four teams. It’s a cat-and-mouse game the whole season in terms of adjusting. With him – and a lot of young players – it’s a lot about making the adjustment. It doesn’t really matter what the adjustment is, but you learn that throughout your career, you are going to have to make various adjustments. This was his first one: being able to understand his swing and what guys were trying to do to him and how to be consistent with it. He did a really good job of adjusting to guys who have a lot of advanced reports on him. He’s a target in that line-up because they look at the homeruns and the damage that he is doing, so they are pitching him carefully.
OC: Is that something that Matt Olson is dealing with, as well? The Texas League is sort of similar to the Cal League in that you face the same few teams frequently throughout the year.
KL: He’s one that falls into that similar category, but he already had that expertise in having that plate discipline. I believe Colin Walsh just took the lead from him in walks for the first time – I think that’s the first time anyone else has ever led [Olson's] team in walks, I think. We are just trying to get Olson to deal with a lot of the elements. He could have already 20-plus homeruns.
In that league, you can hit a lot of balls to right-field – especially in Corpus, Midland and San Antonio – and you aren’t being rewarded for that. There is game report after game report where it says [for Olson], ‘should have had a homerun by the wind knocked it down’.
Our hitters – from Dan Johnson to Nick Swisher and all the way through – have had to deal with those situations. That’s kind of been something that he has had to deal with. Without changing his swing, trying to keep his trajectory a little bit lower and learning to go the other way a little bit better. When it is all said and done, he is learning to be a much better hitter this season. Even though the homerun numbers aren’t what they were last year, certainly he’s hit enough balls that would have him on par with what he did last year [in a different league with different elements].
[EDITOR’S NOTE: On Monday night after this interview took place, Olson homered twice. He now has 12 on the season and four in his last five games.]
OC: How have you felt he has handled the time he has spent out in right field?
KL: Very well. Now he has increased versatility and you can think of a Brandon Moss scenario where it has been a real bonus for him to play out there on a regular basis. Olson is truly a superb first baseman and when you can take him and have the opportunity to teach him a new position, it's a bonus. It can take away from your offense a little bit to have to learn a new position and the transition from offense to defense is a little different, but he has done a good job with it.
His arm is good. As we progress, the need to have players who can fill a couple of different positions, especially with our roster make-up in Oakland, he will fit that bill really well.
OC: You mentioned Colin Walsh. He’s having an incredible year this year and he played well for you guys last year in his first season in the organization. What do you think of the changes he has made? Do you think he can carry-over this type of play into Triple-A and even beyond?
KL: Without a doubt. He really had a desire to improve during the off-season. I had a number of discussions with him about what he wanted to work on during the off-season and what he wanted to come back and show. Without a doubt, he’s been the most consistent, outstanding hitter [on Midland]. He and Chad Pinder take turns back-and-forth about who is going to be the best hitter every day.
It’s very impressive. [Walsh]'s doubles, his slugging percentage and now his walks. It’s been a career-year for him and it’s not a fluke. This guy is a solid performer. He’s also getting better at second base. Before we kind of threw him around [the field], and he can still do it. You can put him in the outfield and a few other spots, but I think his versatility along with this new hitting style – he doesn’t get cheated when he goes to the plate, and yet he’ll take his walks, which is evident in that he has 77 right now – makes him very valuable.
OC: That team is almost like the roster in Oakland when you have so many guys playing so many different positions. How do you think that has worked out this year to have Renato Nunez, Ryon Healy, Olson and now Rangel Ravelo all playing similar positions?
KL: I’ll tell you, it was a nightmare when I had to look at that at the start of this season. [laughs] We have talked a lot about it within the organization. Ryan Christenson [the Midland manager] has done a good job placing these guys in position to get their at-bats and increase their versatility.
There have been a lot of different scenarios that have played themselves out that have allowed this to take place. Ravelo missed half of the year [with a wrist injury], so getting him back and able to play first and getting opportunities to play was a big thing. He has proven to be a very good player from what we have seen thus far. It’s too bad that he had that injury at the beginning of the year. We had hoped that he would probably have been in Triple-A.
A lot of these guys in Midland are in the same situation right now where they are blocked from going to Triple-A. This is almost a whole group that you would kind of like to say could all move to Triple-A next year. Especially with the direction of the organization and maybe another youth movement with the A’s, then maybe a lot of these guys will be the replacements in Triple-A next year or in the big leagues in the next year or two.
OC: That must have been difficult to put that roster together. There are a lot of guys who have played well in Double-A and several more who performed well at the Triple-A level last year. Yet despite that, the RockHounds have played well as a team. Is it hard to get a team like that going in the same direction when so many of the players are likely disappointed that they aren’t getting that Triple-A opportunity?
KL: Yeah, you hit it right on the nose. I have had a couple of meetings with that Midland club when I have been there just to describe to them the situation that they are in, that sometimes baseball doesn’t give you the results that you want as far as moving to the next level. Your goal is to constantly improve and get better and not worry about the level that you are playing at.
There are obviously four guys in the bullpen in Midland that absolutely deserve an opportunity in Triple-A, starting with Ryan Dull, Seth Frankoff, Tucker Healy and Ryan Doolittle. You could go down the list of top performers and then you could do the same thing with the position players. There are probably eight guys on that club that deserve an opportunity and we’ll see what these trades do in the next few days. But barring anything opening up, the situation might not change [this year].
The only guys who have really gotten opportunities to move up are Nate Long and Zach Neal. Both due to injuries or whatever. Neal has really taken off with that opportunity and has put up a solid year. Until [Sunday] night, Long had really displayed his stuff and hung in there, as well.
You hope that there are opportunities for these guys to move to the next level. But I am confident that their time will come eventually. They just have to be patient.