To read part one of this interview, click here.
OaklandClubhouse: Did Nick Collins finish the year early because of an injury?
Aaron Nieckula: Yeah, he did. He got his bell rung. He took a foul ball to the mask and I think he sustained a concussion so we wanted to shut him down.
OC: Collins was one of two mid-season All-Stars for the Lake Monsters. Did he play well both behind and at the plate for you?
AN: Yes, he did. He put together a solid year for us. Defensively, I thought he was a take-charge type player. He showed good leadership abilities. Showed the ability to handle the staff and manage the staff out there. Felt very comfortable with him leading the team out there on the field, kind of an extension of the coaching staff. He is really knowledgeable about the game, too. It just goes to show his pedigree and where he has played and how he was brought up, but he is very knowledgeable about the game. He calls a good game.
In terms of his physical tools, he threw well enough. He blocked well enough. I thought he received well. He handled the umpire/catcher relationship really well. He was just an overall solid defender. Once again, I don’t think there is any one tool that is going to blow you off of the face of the earth, so to speak, but he’s just a solid-average dude behind the plate.
Offensively, he was good for us. He was very consistent. He was right around that .260/.270 mark and had some good at-bats right in the middle of the order. He’s another guy who I think is going to hit for some power once he understands his swing a little better.
OC: Chris Iriart came in seeming like he’d be a power hitter. He drove in a lot of runs for you. Do you see him filling that run-producer type role as he develops?
AN: He is an RBI machine. He has a PhD in driving guys in. You know, he scuffled. He got off to a decent start and then he tanked for a four-to-six week period. I’d say maybe late July, first week of August, it started to click for him and he started to rebound. He started to lay off pitches out of the ‘zone and he made a lot more hard contact. He just put together better ABs.
Through all of the struggles, the kid had tremendous emotional control. He was under control. He kept working. He kept having fun out at the ballpark. He was definitely our run producer. You put him in the three-four-five [spots in the order] and with a runner on base, he’s definitely the guy I’d like to have up in those situations. His power is mostly to the right center alley. That’s where his bread-and-butter is. Not to say that he can’t pull the ball and hit it out, but I would say that right-center is his forte at this point.
Defensively, he was adequate. He has quick feet and a quick glove. Sometimes too quick. I thought he moved well around the bag. He has a plus arm. It’s impressive to watch him throw. Now, as a first baseman, you don’t get the opportunity to show off the arm that often, but when he did, it was awesome. He probably has enough arm to profile as a right fielder. Not to say that he is ever going to make that move, but, if need be, he’d have plenty of arm to make that move.
OC: Steven Pallares went 10 or 12 games into the season before he struck out for the first time. He seemed like one of the better bat control hitters on that team. Did he carry that into Instructs as well?
AN: Yes. He was probably our most consistent hitter in terms of approach, walks-to-strikeout ratio. He carried it over to the Instructional League. He was working on certain things with Tommy [Everidge] in terms of staying over the ball and being taller in his swing. But his approach was one of the best on the team. If he can tighten up those mechanics, he will be able to drive the ball on a consistent basis.
He’s another guy who is athletic. He can run. He is a solid base-runner. He plays solid defense. Tremendous young man. Good work ethic. All-around good person.
OC: His batting stance is one of the more unusual ones that I have seen. Do you think that will stick around or will it get more conventional?
AN: I think over time it might get a little more conventional. He was working on some things with our former minor league hitting coordinator Greg Sparks in the fall. He was working on making a few adjustments with his stance, so I think that’s something that will change over time.
OC: Your pitching staff in Vermont was an interesting mix of pitchers who came out of the high school ranks a few years ago and more experienced college arms from this year or recent drafts. Bubba Derby seemed to lead that pack. His innings were limited some during the regular season. How did he look in Instructs? Did he still have a lot left in the tank?
AN: He was awesome. He picked up right where he left off in Vermont. His innings were limited after the amount of innings he had thrown during his college season. Here’s a guy who doesn’t necessarily have a plus fastball. He just pounds the ‘zone at the bottom and works in and out and has a devastating change-up. He just knows how to pitch. He has a good idea of what to do out there. He does an excellent job repeating his mechanics and he stays within himself. He doesn’t let adversity phase him one bit.
OC: Chris Kohler and Dustin Driver both missed virtually all of the 2014 season with injuries. Do you think this season was a success for them purely by virtue of the fact that they were able to pitch the entire year?
AN: Both struggled a little bit in Vermont. Both also showed signs of brilliant potential that they have, but it just wasn’t on a consistent basis. Driver, I’d have to say he was one of the most improved pitchers from the end of Vermont to the end of Instructional League. He was pounding the ‘zone at 94 to 96. Throwing a good curveball. Working on his change-up. He did a nice job. I think he can take that into 2016 and build upon that.
Kohler, same thing. He was coming back from his injury and still needs to build up the stamina. He has to work down in the ‘zone a little better. He elevated fastballs sometimes and he had an inability to make an adjustment and get those balls down on a consistent basis. Secondly, is his curveball. He has a great curveball, but it just needs to be thrown more consistently for strikes. Once he hones in on that, I think he’s going to be a dominating left-handed pitcher.
OC: You saw Jordan Schwartz during spring training and again in extended and briefly in Vermont before finishing the year with him in Instructs. It had to be a trying year for him in terms of results, but is he making progress after all was said and done?
AN: When you talk about Schwartz, I think of that Johnny Cash song, “I’ve been everywhere, man”. He was in extended. He was in Beloit. He was in Vermont. He was back at extended and in the Rookie League and then he was in Instructs. He was kind of like a rubber ball, bouncing around everywhere. He never really got a chance to get comfortable.
He’s a kid who has got great stuff. He has electric stuff. It’s really more of a mindset for Jordan. Once he gets comfortable mentally and can stay within himself then I think his stuff is really going to start to blossom.
OC: One of the “veteran” guys in Vermont – even thought he was a 2015 draft pick – was Kyle Friedrichs. He had one really bad outing that inflated his ERA, but otherwise was pretty consistent for you guys. Would you describe him as a groundball/efficiency type pitcher?
AN: Yes, groundball-efficiency guy. He’s going to eat up a lot of innings. If he stays as a starter, he could probably go six-plus innings a game. He’s a low-effort [delivery] guy. He doesn’t have a dominating fastball, but he can locate it down in the ‘zone. He has a good curveball and change-up, so he has a good mix. He knows how to pitch. He’s very inquisitive. He’s always asking questions and looking for ways to not only improve his pitches but to improve his preparation for the next time he prepares for an opponent.
He understands that he doesn’t have dominating stuff. He knows what he has and that he has to work with what he has. Once players can realize what their strengths are and that they need to work within themselves and what they can and can’t do, they better off they can be. I think Kyle is ahead of the curve on that one.
OC: James Naile did a nice job for you guys in a closer role. Do you see him being able to serve in a back-end of the bullpen type role moving forward?
AN: No doubt. First and foremost for me, being a back-end guy is more about mindset and mentality and he’s got that for me. In terms of stuff, he’s 91-93 with a heavy two-seamer that’s as heavy as a bowling ball. He works in a good slider. He is probably a guy who is going to stick as a reliever, and probably as a back-end guy. Things can change, but he did a tremendous job for us in the back-end in Vermont.
OC: Lana Akau was in Vermont at the start of short-season before moving up to Beloit. His bat seems to be coming around after a couple of years of figuring it out. What kind of all-around catcher do you see him being?
AN: He is a tremendous athlete. For as young as he is, I think he has a good knack and knowledge of the game. He handles the pitching staff extremely well. He probably has some of the best hands in the organization in terms of the catching position. He calls a good game and handles the umpires well. Blocking is probably the weakest part of his game. I think that is something that he is going to have to really work on, especially keeping the glove down. We worked on that this entire summer and he worked on that this fall with Gabe Ortiz. Throws well. He’s a sub-2 guy. He has accuracy on the bag and quick feet.
He is a hard-working young man. He sets a good example for the pitching staff and they like throwing to him.
OC: Another catcher that you saw briefly in Vermont was Argenis Raga. He moved around positions earlier in his career, but Keith Lieppman mentioned that Raga was getting more comfortable behind the plate. Did you see improvement from him defensively this year?
AN: I think so. Here is another young man who is athletic, has good size and moves around pretty well. He is still learning the position, how to block, receive, throw, all that good stuff. He works hard. I’m really impressed with a lot of our young players and how they work. They really do on a daily basis. Raga, I had him and then he was promoted up to Beloit. One thing he really improved on this year was his offense. From where he was to where he is now, he made tremendous strides. Not only with his approach and selectivity but also with his ability to drive the ball. He was hitting three-four-five for us before he went up to Beloit and I think he kept it up with them there too.
OC: In terms of Instructs performance, was there anyone that really jumped out at you or surprised you during that camp?
AN: Ryan Gorton, who went from catcher-to-pitcher, did a tremendous job with us in Vermont. Him and Naile were our back-end guys. He did a phenomenal job during Instructs, as well. Really pounds the ‘zone, has a good mix and a great mentality. He’s a fine young man. He really impressed me this fall.
Heath Fillmyer was fantastic. I got a chance to see him Beloit a little bit when I was traveling before the Vermont season. Even though he got off to a slow start in Beloit, he finished very, very strong and parlayed that into a very strong Instructional League. Mid-90s, pounding the ‘zone, aggressive mentality. That was fun to watch.
Jhonny Rodriguez, our young Dominican player who was down in Arizona this year. He’s 18 years old and has a lot of bat speed and a lot of power. He’s going to be a tremendous hitter. Once we tighten up his strike-zone and he learns how to handle the bat a little better, he’s going to be a really good hitter, no doubt about it. He’s already good for his age.
OC: How did Sandber Pimentel look after his first season in a full-season league?
AN: He looks the part. You just look at him and he looks like a beast. And he is a beast. When he is on and he’s focused, he’s a dangerous hitter. He’s definitely a middle-of-the-order guy. He’s going to be a run producer. He’s going to hit for power. I know he scuffled a little bit there in the backend of the Beloit season. He came into the Instructional League and made a few adjustments. Mentally, physically, emotionally, psychologically, he really put together a nice fall for us. He worked his butt off at first base, too. That was good to see.
OC: With your background in catching, what were your first impressions of Jacob Nottingham?
AN: I think right now he is a pure hitter. He has the ability to drive the ball and hit homeruns. I think the weakest portion of his game right now is his defense. I think he worked extremely hard at that in the fall to shore up his receiving, blocking and throwing. He certainly has the tools to be a catcher in the big leagues. Now it is a matter of putting it all together and tightening up those areas that we just discussed. I think he’ll be just fine. I think pitchers like the way he works back there.