The 2015 season was a new chapter in Aaron Nieckula's career in baseball. The longtime Oakland A's minor league manager took over as the organization's minor league field coordinator. In this new role, Nieckula ran the A's spring training and fall Instructional League camps. He also managed the A's short-season squad in Vermont. We recently spoke with Nieckula about his first year in this new role.
In part one of this two-part interview, we discuss the new role, as well as several Vermont position players.
OaklandClubhouse: How did the first year in the position go with opening the year in spring training and closing down the player development calendar with Instructs?
Aaron Nieckula: It was a neat experience. I think like we have discussed before there were a few challenges. One was the fact that we were moving into a new complex. There were new logistics. I didn’t have much familiarity with the layout and how things were going to flow, so that was a challenge. Number two was being in the first year in the position, I wasn’t exactly sure how to do it. I had an idea from watching Juan [Navarette] and others run spring training before, so I had some idea, but that was a challenge in and of itself.
I have such a great staff to work with and Liepp [A’s Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman] gave me a lot of leeway to have the flexibility to run it the way I wanted to run it. I worked with all of the coordinators, Garvin [Alston], Sparky [Greg Sparks], Juan and Josh Cuffe [A’s minor league strength and conditioning coordinator] and Jeff Collins [A’s minor league medical coordinator]. All of those guys made it a lot easier for me.
The biggest thing that I took away from it was the constant communication between all departments. Making sure that everybody had time on their schedule and things were flowing smoothly, making sure that there weren’t any hiccups. Those guys made it really easy for me. It was kind of nice, too, because we kind of phased it in in four different phases, if you will. The first one was mini-camp for pitchers and catchers. So I kind of got my feet wet scheduling just pitchers and catchers, which was nice. Then we had mini-camp for position players. So then we had mini-camp with both pitchers and catchers and position players. Then phase three was full pitchers and catchers. Then the last phase was a full camp with the position players.
Breaking it up that way really gave me a chance to get my feet wet this first year. It was a great experience. Very challenging. Very rewarding. I loved the new position. I had a chance to come home for a few days after spring training was over and catch up with Beloit a few times and help out Fran [Riordan] and those guys out there. I spent some time at home and then went back to extended to help run the extended spring training program there with Ruben Escalera [A’s Arizona Rookie League manager] and Juan Dilone [A’s Arizona Rookie League hitting coach], Gabriel Ortiz [A’s Arizona Rookie League coach] and Gabriel Ozuna [A’s Arizona Rookie League pitching coach] and company. Then I went home again in June for about 10 days. Went to see Beloit again and helped those guys out.
Then we drove up to Vermont in mid-June and I managed the Vermont team this year. Great bunch of guys on that team. We didn’t have a lot of success on the field in terms of wins and losses, but I thought we had a lot of success with development. We had a great team. A bunch of great guys that came in and had tremendous work ethics, were very inquisitive and both the position players and pitchers were fun to be around.
A lot of those guys moved on to Instructional League, which was, like you said, the final chapter of year one, with running that program. It’s sort of a mini-spring training, if you will. It’s about a third of the guys. It’s run very similarly to spring training, but with more of an emphasis on individual instruction and classroom work. We also really emphasized base-running this fall.
Put it all together, I thought it was a success for year one. I’m looking forward to seeing what 2016 has in store.
OC: You got to spend a lot of time with much of the 2015 draft class through your time with Vermont and through Instructs. One of those players was Richie Martin. What did you see from his development from the start of his time in Vermont through Instructs?
AN: Tremendous development. First, let me talk about his character. Very humble young man. Very respectful. Kudos to his parents for raising a fine young man. He knows how to work. He has a tremendous work ethic. Sometimes he overworks. Occasionally we had to slow him down a little bit and – to use the old cliché – tell him this is a marathon and not a sprint. That’s always good to have that. It’s always better to have to reign a guy in than to have to push him to work. He’s got that aspect down for sure.
Defensively, he made tremendous strides. He already came in very athletic, very nimble. Tremendous range, plus arm, nice job on the double-play. He is a real leader on the field. A true field general out there. He takes charge in all aspects on the field.
Offensively, he obviously got off to a little bit of a slow start this year, but as time went on, he tinkered and he made some adjustments. I think by the end of the year, he started to feel a little more comfortable with all of the work he has put in with our hitting coach Tommy Everidge. He carried that into the Instructional League, where things went extremely well for him.
OC: Do you see Martin evolving into a top-of-the-lineup type hitter?
AN: Yeah, I think so. He’s got enough speed. He’s a good base-runner. He’s an aggressive base-runner. He wants to steal bases. He needs to learn that aspect a little more in terms of getting jumps and reads and what counts to run in, and so on. I think that with more plate appearances, he will be able to handle the bat a lot better. Execute hit-and-runs better and move the runner and all of that.
He goes to the right side extremely well. He knows how to get the head out and pull the ball, but his forte at this point in time is hitting the ball to the right side. I could see him as a one-two guy, sure.
OC: Mikey White played really well for you guys in Vermont and earned a promotion to Beloit. Then you saw him again in Instructs. What kind of growth did he have between Vermont and the end of the year? How did he look moving between short and second?
AN: He was great. Not only did he play the middle, but he also played some third base. A very versatile guy. Played third, played short, played second. Got enough arm. Got enough range. Moves well. He handled it like a pro. When Richie came in, Richie was going to be the everyday shortstop and Mike kind of transitioned into a second base/third base role without any issues whatsoever. He just embraced it.
He wanted to work on his technique at both second and third because I don’t think he had played much third base [before this season]. He wasn’t as comfortable over there as he was at second base.
On the offensive side, he was probably one of our more consistent hitters while he was with us batting three. Good approach. A little bit of swing-and-miss at the off-speed but once he learns how to tighten up his selectivity, he’ll be just fine.
Once we had him in the Instructional League, it was the same thing. He bounced around the field. I think we had him play a little bit more at the shortstop position in Instructs [than he did in Vermont].
OC: Skye Bolt missed some time with an injury, but what did you see from him during his time in Vermont and in Instructs?
AN: He’s an interesting dude, and I mean that in a good way. This kid brings a tremendous amount of talent, skill and ability to the field. When you talk about tools, this guy is tooled out to the max. He can throw. He’s got a plus arm. He can run. He’s got speed. He has some power in his bat. He plays a good centerfield. When Skye Bolt is on and he is clicking on all cylinders, he is a special player to watch. Exciting.
He battled some nagging injuries during the year. Bumps and bruises and nagging injuries here and there, but when he was on and he was consistent, it was fun to watch him play. I could see him being another top-of-the-order guy with the way that he runs and his knack for stealing bases. He probably profiles for me as a centerfielder, but he has enough arm to play right. With his speed and the way he can track down balls, there’s no doubt in my mind he can be an everyday centerfielder in the big leagues. He’s just got to be able to put it all together.
AN: Seth was a little older for the league. I think he came in at 22 or 23, which isn’t a big deal, but he handled it very well. He was one of the leaders of the team by the way he plays. He plays with his hair on fire. He goes 100 percent at all times. That’s the only way he knows how to play, and I mean that in a good way. He runs hard. He plays hard.
I think he was one of our better hitters, one of our more consistent hitters throughout the season. He hovered around .280 up to .300. Showed some signs of power to the pull-side. Showed some knack for putting the bat on the ball. Aggressive on the bases. Probably one of our better – if not our best – base-runners. Not even just on the Vermont team, but in the Instructional League. He’s solid in a lot of areas.
When we had our individual meetings at the end of the year, I said, ‘you remind me a lot of [former A’s prospect] Jake Goebbert. You play good defense. You’re solid. You understand the game. You play hard. You can play a little bit of first base. Jake played first base. He made it to the big leagues playing first base and right field with the Padres.’ There are a lot of similarities there. I wouldn’t say that there is one plus, plus tool that is going to stand out, but he does everything solid to solid-plus. Everything he does and his blue collar make-up, he’s going to get a shot to play at higher levels.
Brett had his share of ups-and-downs on the offensive side, but I can say this about every kid on our team this year. He’s another kid who came in with character and integrity. Just a solid citizen. A nice young man. Plays hard. He played the corners most of the time. We tried to rotate him between left and right just so he can get some experience at both corners. We aren’t sure where he will ultimately play at the higher levels, so we got him reps at both.
I think he’s going to be a power hitter. He has a swing where he is going to be able to knock the ball out of the yard. I think he’s going to play good defense for you. Here’s another guy who comes to the park ready to play.
AN: I don’t think we had this award this year, but Trace was probably our most improved player from the first day to the last day of the season both offensively and defensively. Defensively, we had him primarily at second base, although he did play some short in a pinch. He also played some third base, where he hadn’t played before, and he handled it well. He was athletic enough and had enough arm to get it across the diamond.
But second base wise, it was awesome to watch his progress and see his development over the course of the year with his ability to make the routine play, move left and right. He did improve on his double-play pivot but that is probably going to be goal number one moving into spring training.
Offensively, early on, he had an inability to pull the ball or get that bat head out and hit the ball to his pull side. He worked extremely hard with Tommy to do that. Come August, he was pulling the ball on a consistent basis. He was spraying the ball all over the yard, but early on, a lot of the contact was to the weak side. It was hard the other way, but it was good to see him start pulling the ball.
With his selectively and his approach and the way that he handles the bat, I see him as a top-of-the-order guy like Richie. He can put a bunt down, execute the hit-and-run, move runners over, get on-base, and do those little things that help a team win. He’s another guy who comes to the yard ready to play and works hard. Tremendous work ethic by every single guy on this team.
Jesus Lopez, he never really got going. For the amount of talent that that kid has, he never really hit his stride. He showed flashes of brilliance both offensively and defensively, but I think the length of the season may have fatigued him a little bit. I will say that once he got to the Instructional League, he was a new man. It was impressive to watch him develop from the end of the Vermont season through the end of the Instructional League. I would say he was one of the most improved players from the end of Vermont to the end of the Instructional League.
Stay tuned for part two of this interview when we cover Dustin Driver, Chris Kohler, Bubba Derby, Lana Akau, Argenis Raga, James Naile, Chris Iriart and more...