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 three of this interview, we focus on the A's Triple-A and short-season affiliates.
OaklandClubhouse: Now that we are almost through two-thirds of the season, how is the new affiliation with Nashville going? Has it been a pretty smooth transition to having an affiliate in an East Coast time zone instead of a West Coast locale?
Keith Lieppman: Yeah, it actually has. What has changed is that we have used our Double-A club – which logistically makes sense because it is closer – to fill needs at that [Triple-A] level. Typically, when we were in Sacramento, we would use a spot starter from Stockton or whoever was the best pitcher from there. We would get away with those kind of guys.
Now, we are making the moves – whether it is Nate Long or Zach Neal – whoever has the opportunities to go up, it usually comes from Double-A. It makes more sense to give those folks opportunities than to give a guy from Stockton that one start. It has opened up a system promotion that has allowed Double-A players a chance to move in that direction.
I think there have been a few longer flights for guys to get to Oakland and be ready to play that night, but not really any glitches. It has been a great ballpark [in Nashville]. Certainly, we wish we would have had a better record there to initiate the ballpark, but it just hasn’t worked out as well as we had hoped.
A lot of the moves early, with the back-and-forth, the continuity of that club never really got set because of the wide variety of personnel from every organization. I think we only had two or three homegrown guys. Developing an attitude of who they were as a team and having them learn the philosophy of the Oakland A’s – it takes a little while to get that across to players. You are facing nine or 10 different organizations. People with their own beliefs and their idea of ‘this is how we do it’ and trying to bring that all together and then trying to bring the team together, as well, it’s a big challenge.
OC: What kind of influence has Barry Zito had on that team?
KL: He’s been probably the most excellent representative we could have had. We kind of kid him about being a part-time coach, but he helps a lot of people. I don’t care if they are pitchers or position players, he has been great. Whether it is offering his experience or his expertise, he is willing to give any kind of opportunity for those guys to talk to him about the game. He’s a true professional in everything he does and he has exemplified that with his time in Nashville. The guys love him.
OC: I was really impressed with Joey Wendle’s defense this spring and when the Sounds were out here in Sacramento. Has he been better than advertised defensively?
KL: He’s a real blue collar kind of worker. He’s better [defensively] than Eric Sogard was at the same point in his career. When Sogard came over from San Diego, he had not yet developed obviously into the player that he is now. People forget that Sogard wasn’t always tremendous defensively at second base to begin with. He worked very hard and got better. Sogie plays great right now defensively.
I think Wendle is ahead of where Sogard was at the same time and I think he is going to be that kind of defensive second baseman or better.
OC: Max Muncy has had a strange year. He makes it up to Triple-A and you think that he is going to have a full year there to develop, and then three weeks later, he’s in the big leagues playing a position he hasn’t played much in the past. How do you think he has handled everything that has been thrown at him this year?
KL: Again, here we are with being able to play different positions. He began as a very good first baseman, learned how to play third base and now he is playing there nearly every day. The opportunity to do that on a regular basis [in Triple-A] has absolutely helped him. [NOTE: Muncy was recalled to Oakland a day after this interview took place].
You get a taste of the big leagues and you want to be there, but in the long run, learning how to play third on an everyday basis, learning the nuances of the position, having Steve Scarsone and Webby [Sounds’ hitting coach Webster Garrison] there to lead him in positioning, all the different aspects that come with becoming a good third baseman, has only increased his ability to help us down-the-road.
He’s in a great position. He has the confidence that he knows he is capable of playing in the big leagues. The next time he gets there, he will likely have a good opportunity to stay.
OC: What are your impressions of Carson Blair in his first season in the organization?
KL: One of the most athletic catchers that we have had in our system in a long, long time. He has a really good arm and flexibility. He really can swing the bat. I didn’t really expect to see the adjustments that he has made with the bat – cutting his swing down and hitting the way that he has. He has really done a good job. He was a great acquisition as a free agent.
We finally got an opportunity to move him to Triple-A and he has been excellent in the month since he has been up there. I think all of us have liked what we have seen. He is learning how to lead a very veteran staff, which is pretty interesting. He has a group that includes Ryan Cook, Arnold Leon, Angel Castro, Phil Coke – this is probably the best experience that he could have to work with guys who have spent some time in the big leagues. He is sucking it all in. He can’t get it in fast enough. It will benefit him in the long run in the game.
OC: Turning to this year’s draft, what are your general impressions of the guys you have seen so far? Have any stood out for you?
KL: I was [in Vermont] for seven days and got to see them all on a consistent basis. This is the best position player draft we’ve had since the [Daniel] Robertson, [Matt] Olson and Addison [Russell] [draft in 2012]. I’m really impressed with that group. It’s a very similar group of people [to the 2012 group] that all seem to have the same make-up that that draft class had. They are energized, hard-working and eager to get better.
Skye Bolt is very athletic. He homered [on Sunday] and is starting to show the talent that people had seen in him. I know he had had a little bit of a down-turn in his career [in college], but I think there is nothing but upside from what I have seen from him. He’s been outstanding. He’s a very good defender and he understands the game. He did some things while I was there, like throwing instinctively to bases and made plays and knew where to go with the ball defensively, that I didn’t realize he had that capability. He has a real good awareness of the game and what he is trying to do.
Looking at a few guys who were further down the draft, Seth Brown is very interesting. He can play outfield and first base. Chris Iriart is very powerful, strong player. He has a little bit of Jason Hart, who we had at the same point in his career and developed into a big power-type hitter. Steven Pallares is very good as far as centerfield. He can play all of the outfield positions. I know he played a lot of infield during his amateur career, but he looks good in the outfield. He can hit in a lot of different places in the line-up.
That, combined with players on that Vermont team that are like draft picks like Trace Loehr and Jesus Lopez, who are young and just kind of getting started, it is a really interesting group of position players in Vermont. Nick Collins has done a really nice job with the pitching staff. I’m really happy with those guys. It’s a nice crew we can build with.
KL: Yes, definitely the health has been great. You’ll see Driver [on Sunday] with five innings and one run. You’ll see spurts like that with these guys from time-to-time. We expect that young pitchers are not going to be all of the time perfect. They are going to have their moments when they don’t have their command.
The good thing for Kohler is that he has rediscovered his breaking ball. Now it’s back to tackling fastball command and inconsistencies with deliveries. Given it’s the first time out competing, we aren’t concerned about the inconsistency from these guys this season. I’m really enjoying watching them. When they are on, they are both very good.
Another guy I forgot to mention from the draft on that Vermont squad is Brett Siddall. He tore up the Arizona League and then hit a homer in his second at-bat in Vermont. He’s also showed a strong part of this draft. Real physical guys like Brown, Iriart, Siddall. These are really strong, physical guys.
OC: Kind of like the prototypical Oakland A’s prospects from the late-1990s, early-2000s in terms of strength and physical build?
KL: Yeah. Absolutely. These are people that Grady Fuson [current Special Assistant to the GM and former A’s Scouting Director] is proud of. That was kind of his MO, the kind of players that he would draft.
OC: From that Arizona squad, there have been a couple of guys who have come over from the Dominican and have gotten off to good starts this season, Jhonny Rodriguez in particular. Have any of those guys stood out for you?
KL: Rodriguez is a power-hitting, left-handed batter. If the draft had gone a different direction, he probably would have deserved an opportunity to move to Vermont. The extended spring he had when he came over in early May, he really deserved that opportunity. He played really well. He has shown flashes of being a complete player. It’s just unfortunate that that’s the way the match-ups are right now that he doesn’t have that opportunity, but he’s distinguishing himself really well in the Arizona Summer League. He has gap-to-gap with occasional homerun power.
OC: What about Luis Barrera? He was a pretty high-profile signing but he didn’t play all that much last year. He’s hitting better than .300 with a good on-base percentage. Is he starting to figure it out this year?
KL: He’s physically fit. He lost about 25 pounds. He’s ripped. He’s much more focused. He had some off-the-field issues in the Dominican, just personal things that probably impacted how he played last year, and one minor injury, but he’s right alongside with Jhonny Rodriguez. The way that they are performing has been outstanding. They are the top players on that club right now.
There is a shortstop named Eric Marinez. He sort of has an Angel Berroa-look to him. He is very aggressive and has played similarly to what Berroa did when he was a young player with us. I think Berroa walked only five times in 700 at-bats, or something like that, when he was in A-ball. This guy is similar to that. He’s just learning how to play correctly, but he’s showing athleticism and fine shortstop instincts and a big arm. One more guy we can put on the list of shortstops.
OC: That suddenly seems like a position of strength within the organization.
KL: Yeah, really quick.
OC: How has Dakota Chalmers looked in his first few outings?
KL: Good. He has a variety of pitches. He is just gaining experience facing more advanced hitters, but the velocities have been as advertised. He has a good arm. He’s a solid performer. He’s just cutting his teeth at this level. I think this is the right spot for him. People who have seen him throw his sides or throw for the first time are impressed. Once he gets to fill out and become more dominant that way and stronger, he is going to be a reckoning force in our system.
OC: Do you expect Boomer Biegalski to debut soon?
KL: He should be coming out shortly. He’s thrown some simulated games. I anticipate he should be out in the next couple of weeks.
OC: Is Dustin Hurlbutt being kept on a short leash since he is in his first full-season back after Tommy John surgery?
KL: Definitely. He’s a candidate to move to Vermont. He has pitched very well. We have had so much pitching at both [short-season] levels. We have 18 in Vermont and 19 in Arizona, so we are over-loading with a lot of pitching right now. We are trying to wade through everyone that we have, but he certainly is someone who is worthy of a promotion sometime this summer.
OC: Do you see any rehab guys going out this summer? I saw that Jeff Urlaub was back on the mound for the AZL team last week.
KL: Urlaub is the first out. He has pitched twice and the need may have to come to put him back into the system soon. These trades that could be going on in the next week [NOTE: this interview took place before the Tyler Clippard and Ben Zobrist deals], it’s hard to know where people may turn up, so I don’t want to say for sure where anyone might go, but he certainly could help us in Double-A or Triple-A if the need is there. He’s the first out.
J.P. Sportman is going to start taking some swings here. Andy Paz is getting close. Tanner Peters is getting close, as well. Those are the guys that are in proximity to getting out here in mid-August.
OC: Thank you so much for giving me so much of your time!
KL: No problem.