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 two of this interview, we focus on several A's pitching prospects, including Dillon Overton, Dylan Covey, Raul Alcantara, Brendan McCurry, Daniel Gossett, Brett Graves, Corey Walter, Joel Seddon, Heath Fillmyer and Jordan Schwartz, as well as position player prospects Sandber Pimentel and Lana Akau, and much more.
OaklandClubhouse: Dillon Overton recently moved into the Midland rotation. He has been on a five-inning limit all year in his first full season after Tommy John surgery. Raul Alcantara appears to be on a different limit in his return from Tommy John with Stockton. Is there a difference in the approach to their rehabs right now?
Keith Lieppman: Yeah, you’re on it. There is a difference. Overton is a little further along than Alcantara. We were a little more concerned with the number of innings with [Overton] in his first full season back. We wanted to be able to have him get through a full season and not have to shut him down early. We just kind of prescribed five-innings, 70-80 pitches for him.
Alcantara, we just want to keep him at four innings for the full year since they are at very different parts of their rehabs right now. I think Alcantara’s surgery was nine months after Overton’s. So Overton is a lot further along than Raul is. In finishing this year, Alcantara is almost where Overton was at this time last year, where we tried to give him some stuff in the Arizona League and then we gave him time in Vermont. That’s kind of the way Overton’s progress went last year.
OC: How are they both doing stuff-wise at this point in their rehabs?
KL: Overton’s last outing, he started to finally see a little bit of an increase in velocity. We saw some 90s, 91s. He’s starting to pitch with a little bit higher velo. Really the only thing that hasn’t returned for him are those pre-surgery top velos that he displayed as an amateur. I’m confident that is all going to come back into place in time.
He has really done everything else very well, pitching in the mid-80s with a great change-up and an outstanding curveball and a big, competitive edge. He’s like Sonny Gray. He goes out there to compete. Even without his top fastball, he has still been able to pitch those five innings. He’s going to give up the occasional homerun, but barring that, he has been phenomenal.
Raul’s stuff has been good. He’s not throwing a whole lot of sliders and cutters at this point. He is throwing fastballs and change-ups mainly and working on his fastball command. At these stages of their rehabs, there is a process of learning how to pitch and not being so result orientated. It’s more about him getting his pitches and staying healthy. Next year will be a really different scenario where we will be able to increase his workload and kind of let him go with all of his pitches.
OC: Raul missed a year while on the 40-man roster with the injury. Would an appeal be made for an extra option year now, or is that something that happens down the road when he is almost out of options?
KL: I think that has to come a little bit further down-the-road and it would have display evidence that certain things prevented him from being able to develop [like an injury]. That would certainly have to come down-the-road. Right now, it’s just about taking care of things as we can, but that will certainly be an option down-the-road.
OC: Dylan Covey just went on the DL in Stockton. I believe it was a foot injury?
KL: Yeah, it was kind of a weird injury that he had. It was higher than your Achilles but affected the front of his ankle. It was hard for his push-off. It wasn’t a major injury but one that required that he miss a start. It wasn’t anything major. I think he should make his start on Saturday.
OC: How do you think his season has gone thus far? Do you feel like he’s made big strides over last year?
KL: Yeah. I think I mentioned to you during spring training that he had really had a great off-season program and it really carried over into the season. The mental game has improved tremendously. In the past, in typical situations like a runner on second and nobody out, he wouldn’t be as mentally tough as to make pitches to not allow hitters to move runners over. Or he would have a runner on third and less than one out, he’s now able to get the strike-out. He knows how to do those things now.
He’s learning how to pitch to limit damage and keep runners from moving or scoring. Holding runners better. His whole understanding of what it means to be a pitcher has improved tremendously. That hard sinker continues to work really well. The consistency is in and out, but far, far major improvement over last year in terms of competing. Last year, I think the damage control wasn’t as a good, but this year, he might give up a run or two, but he comes back and that is all they are going to get.
OC: I saw that Joel Seddon made a relief appearance for Stockton. Is he going to remain in the bullpen the rest of the year?
KL: We’ve always been interested to see if we could develop him as a starter. He was at South Carolina all those years as a bullpen guy and we ran his innings up way too fast [this year] and we were going to have to shut him down. I figured as a group we’d be best to keep him in the bullpen to keep him sharp. Next year we can reconsider where we go with him. But he’s been excellent as a starter. He’s developed all four pitches. He’s shown us that, if needed, he can pitch out of the bullpen with a little bit higher velos. If not, as a starter, he commands all of his pitches and is very effective.
OC: Brendan McCurry, who was in the same 2014 draft class with Seddon, has done a great job as the closer for Stockton this season. Last year, [former A’s minor league pitching coordinator and current bullpen coach] Scott Emerson mentioned that at some point McCurry might have to pick one arm angle to throw from, but for now, do you think McCurry has been able to remain consistent despite using the different release points?
KL: Absolutely. The thing about it is that it is that it’s not like he’s a junkballer. This guy throws 92, maybe 93, and from a variety of angles. At one point this year, I think he got into the trickmaster role a little bit where he thought he had to do all of the different angles and different breaking balls. He was trying to do too much. I have seen him just go an inning throwing only his fastball and have success. Those other weapons, if he throws them too often, it diminishes the command of his fastball.
He goes right after guys. There is no fear and this guy is dominating at times. He’ll give up hits from time-to-time, but the combination of the good fastball command and those different angles, I think he is best-suited to keep doing what he is doing but pitch off of his fastball.
OC: Corey Walter is another 2014 draft pick having success for Stockton. He has vastly out-performed in the pros what you would have expected from him coming out of West Virginia. What has been the improvement that has keyed his success?
KL: To go from where he did right to the Cal League is impressive. He really impressed us during the Instructional League. He has a really heavy, hard sinker and he has developed a little bit better slider. He has shown he can step right in and compete. He has made tremendous advancements this season. He started off a little slow, but we expected it wouldn’t be easy – better competition and a double-jump in levels. He’s handled all of that and he’s very confident right now. He’s one of the stabilizers of that bullpen.
OC: During spring training, we talked about how there were going to be several “challenge” promotions, moving guys from Rookie ball to Low-A and short-season to High-A. Obviously the overall record for the Beloit squad hasn’t been what you generally like to see, but are you still feeling good about those challenge promotions?
KL: Some of them have worked out well. Really the catching was the push a little bit with Jose Chavez, Argenis Raga and Andy Paz. There have been a number of guys [pushed aggressively], but really the catchers is where we saw it the most. Raga has obviously gotten a whole lot better. We are very comfortable with him catching. It looks like he’s starting to hit a little bit in the second go-around with Beloit.
But the guy who we left in extended who has really turned it on is Lana Akau. You just never know. By keeping Lana in extended, it gave him a little bit more time to work on his swing. But there is a trade-off. Keeping guys in Arizona too long drives them crazy. They go nuts, but in reality, if it gives them more time to work on something, it can be a good thing. It was definitely beneficial for [Akau] to stay in extended and work on his swing for six weeks there. He has come back as a completely different hitter and he has done a great job receiving.
It’s hit-and-miss sometimes with your predictions about who to send out where. The decision to double-jump [Franklin] Barreto ultimately turned out to be a very good decision. Pushing certain guys with the catching, for instance, it has not been a really great scenario for Chavez because he is still trying to find his swing and now with the addition of [Jacob] Nottingham and the way the catching situation is going, he’s going to get to play but not as much as you would like to see.
OC: What about Sandber Pimentel? Do you feel like it has been a good experience for him to be in full-season ball right from the Dominican Summer League?
KL: Absolutely. To go from where he was, there is such a big learning curve that a lot of people don’t understand. Culturally, learning how to play the professional game, how to be a good teammate, there are so many conditions that these young Latin players have to encounter when they come to the United States. How to live in a host family’s home. There’s a lot of stuff behind the scenes, not to mention the day-to-day having to play and in a foreign land. It’s a grind on them.
He was able to get off to a great start. He hit a little bit of a down streak, but I think he’s going to finish strong. He’s certainly everything we thought he would be. He’s has shown power. This has forced him to really focus on his defense. He’ll look back on this year and realize how much he has improved in a few short months. I’m happy where he is at. It has been a good experiment and a good experience with him.
OC: Beloit starters Daniel Gossett and Brett Graves have not put up the numbers that maybe you would expect from college draft picks going to the Midwest League. Are you seeing improvements from them that don’t show up necessarily in a boxscore?
KL: [A’s minor league pitching coordinator] Garvin Alston and I just came from Beloit and there are some things that they have improved on as far as their overall game plan. Certain pitchers worry about their velocity and that they weren’t getting enough swing-and-miss. There are a lot of things going on in their heads that we are not concerned with but it is more in their heads. Trying to get them to understand what their development process is, whether it is dotting the down-and-away fastball back-to-back or learning to use the fastball inside, using sequences, etc. Those are the things we are trying to get them to focus on. Learning how to pitch.
For instance, Graves may not have had the big velocity that he had in college, but he has learned to pitch and develop a curveball that is working right now. He’s learning how to use a two-seam fastball and executing pitches rather than last year in college or in Vermont, just trying to over-power hitters with belt-high or letter-high fastballs. That doesn’t really work as you progress up levels.
Both Gossett and Graves have learned innumerable lessons about execution and staying within themselves and how to be pitchers. Both had gotten away [in college] with stuff that they have cleaned up and nobody can probably see those improvements in the box scores.
KL: It’s funny. Fillmyer is still a work-in-progress. He’ll have an outstanding start and then, like [Sunday], he wasn’t able to command it and he threw a lot of high fastballs. We expected that. A position player who changed to the mound. He’s a tremendous athlete. He’ll go to the Instructional League and the process will continue on. I don’t think anybody expected that this would be an easy one or two month deal. This is going to be a process, but our expectations are still very high for him.
I just saw Schwartz pitch on Saturday night. He had a great first inning. Dialing in 93, 94 MPH fastballs. But then, a little something goes wrong – a bad pitch, he hits a guy – and the wheels fall off in the second and third inning. It’s just a matter of maintaining consistency with him. Even though it is in Arizona, he has a definite plan. I know Garvin is really working with him to continue to repeat his delivery. They have moved him to the other side of the rubber. There are a lot of things going on with him. It’s just a matter of him getting the confidence back to do it all.
With both guys, the stuff is there. They have a long way to go, but they are making great strides and I think they are on-track. Even though there was a little bit of a set-back with them, as an organization, we feel they will be back and they will be fine with us.