This is Aaron Nieckula's second year as the Oakland A's minor league field coordinator. In addition to managing the Vermont LakeMonsters over the summer, Nieckula is responsible for running the A's spring training and fall Instructional League programs. He also coaches during the A's extended spring training program in Mesa. I spoke with the longtime A's minor league coach and former prospect on Thursday about the recently completed A's minor league spring training camp.
OaklandClubhouse: How was it running your second spring training camp? Was it different from last year or did it pretty much run the same way?
Aaron Nieckula: It was somewhat different. It was the same, but it was different. We have a new pitching coordinator, Gil Patterson, and he has his own philosophies and ways of doing things, which were awesome. Working with Garvin Alston was awesome, too. It was just a matter of getting used to [Gil’s] expectations and the way he wanted things to go with the pitching program. It was a little busier this year.
OC: You had a new hitting coordinator this year, as well. Did Jim Eppard bring any new philosophies over?
AN: It’s hard to say being the first time I have worked with him and it being only a few weeks, but I like the energy that he brought and I like some of the ideas that he brought in regards to the BP structure and the focus on things like situational hitting. He set up certain drills for each and every round [of BP]. I think the players were open to that and we really had a successful spring.
OC: Besides Richie Martin (knee), Lana Akau (concussion) and James Terrell (hamate), are there any other guys back at extended who are recovering from injuries?
OC: It is a shame about Martin’s knee injury so late in camp. Was he having a good spring before that injury?
AN: He was. As a matter of fact, he had just gotten down from big league camp a few days earlier. He was just playing the way Richie plays: hard and aggressive. It was just one of those freak accidents sliding into second base.
OC: It seemed like a lot of minor league players got opportunities in big league camp this year, even some of the first-year players like Seth Brown. Was there a lot of excitement amongst the players over getting those opportunities?
AN: There was. Anytime those guys get that kind of opportunity, it’s exciting for them. Not only do they get an opportunity to play with the big league team and impress the big league coaches, but they also get to see what that environment is like and they get a little bit of a payday. It’s a win-win for everybody. All of those players who went up received a lot of compliments from the big league staff with how well they did and the way they conducted themselves as professionals. They made a good impression. That bodes well for Keith Lieppman and the minor league program that he is running.
OC: J.P. Sportman is starting the year in Double-A despite missing a lot of last year with a hand injury. Did he have a strong camp?
AN: He performed very well. He’s a very good player. Very versatile and he had a very good spring offensively. He made a good impression on the coaches.
OC: Did he play much second base this spring or was he mostly in the outfield?
AN: I would say he is primarily an outfielder and an infielder secondarily. We did have him at second base quite a few times this spring to make sure he was getting his reps in both game situations and in early work.
OC: Both Nashville and Midland are going to have a tough time spreading out the at-bats between their infielders this year. Did any of the corner infield types like Renato Nunez or Ryon Healy spend any time in the outfield this spring, or will they continue to focus on corner infield only?
AN: I think the plan is to have them stay in the corner infield. I know that both Nunez and Healy were getting work at first base [in addition to third], so they will continue to develop at both positions. But I don’t think either of those guys were in the outfield. Max Muncy spent a little bit of time in the outfield, as well as at second base.
OC: It seems like Muncy is really growing into that super utility role. Do you see him playing that kind of a role at the big league level?
AN: Yeah. He’s very, very versatile. And he’s played these other positions very well. He obviously came up as a first and third baseman, but now he’s showing he can handle the outfield and second base. I think it bodes well for his future.
OC: Tyler Ladendorf is a player you have seen for a long time, dating back to when he first joined the organization in 2009. How has he grown as a player over the years?
AN: He’s grown tremendously. I think he has really embraced the super-utility role and being able to play every position on the field, except maybe catcher and pitcher, although I think he’d probably do a great job with those, as well, given the kind of athlete that he is. He has really matured as a baseball player in terms of his approach, his professionalism, his routine. Obviously his at-bats have gotten a lot better. He has a better idea of the strike-zone and he’s putting up much better ABs. He’s become a very versatile all-around player. He’s very valuable to the organization.
OC: I heard that James Harris had a really good spring. Did he standout in camp? Were there any others who jumped out at you with their performance in camp?
AN: James Harris had a very good spring. Seth Brown had a very good spring and obviously performed well enough to skip over Beloit and start in Stockton. Cody Kurz had a good spring and had an opportunity to go up to Beloit and help up there.
AN: No doubt. All three of those guys had pretty good springs. The velos were pretty consistent. The numbers looked good. They were pounding the strike-zone. They all got stretched out to the five innings.
Fillmyer is an interesting person because he had a very poor first-half last year, but being the kid that he is – being strong mentally and just being a good character kid – he turned it around in the second half and that parlayed itself into a pretty strong spring. We are expecting pretty big things from all three guys in Stockton this year.
OC: A number of the players on the Nashville roster have risen through the ranks together and seem poised to join the big leagues together. Do you sense there is a bond between those guys as they enter a year where they may reach the big leagues together?
AN: I think so. I think anytime you can keep a core group of players together like that, like with a Matt Olson, a Renato Nunez, a Chad Pinder and Ryon Healy had to go back to Double-A for now, but he was part of that group too. I think it bodes well for their development. I think it has helped in their development and it’s helped the organization. At some point in time, I imagine that probably all of those guys are going to get an opportunity to play in the big leagues, whether it is with the A’s or another major-league organization.
OC: Did Pinder focus mostly on shortstop when he was sent down from big league camp, or was he still moving back-and-forth between short and second like he was in big league camp?
AN: He was mostly at short, although I do recall him playing at second base a few times. I would say that 80 percent of his reps were at shortstop.
OC: What kind of spring did Zach Neal have?
AN: He had a very solid spring. Zach Neal was being Zach Neal, pounding the strike-zone with a heavy 89-92 sinker. Worked with a good slider and a good change-up. He knows how to pitch. I don’t want to speak for him, but he might have been a little disappointed at being taken out of the rotation. Sometimes when you move to the bullpen, your stuff might improve. It could be a real opportunity for him to shine out of the bullpen in Nashville. With things shaking-and-baking [Eric Surkamp moving from Nashville into the A’s rotation], he might have an opportunity to move back into the rotation. We’ll see how that plays out.
OC: I know that Bobby Wahl’s workload was limited this spring as he worked back from injury. Did he look healthy when he was pitching?
AN: Yes. It was very impressive to watch him pitch. I think the rehab department did a fantastic job preparing him for getting back into a green jersey [players rehabbing wear yellow jerseys]. He was mid-90s with a heavy curveball and I was really impressed with the outings that he had this spring. I think he’s ready.
OC: Is there anyone currently at extended who had strong springs and look like they could contribute to a full-season affiliate this season?
AN: Tyler Willman, the right-handed pitcher, had a very good spring. It’s a matter of getting him a few more innings because he didn’t have a lot of innings last year. Once he gets built up – depending on what Gil wants to do – he might have an opportunity to go and pitch at a higher level.
If I go around the horn, I look at a kid like Jordan Devencenzi, who I had in Vermont last year. He came into camp and played very well. He had a good defensive camp and had some good ABs. If something were to happen with the catching corps, I think he’d be ready to go. Same with Tom Gavitt.
We have some very talented players in extended, like Eric Marinez. He’s a very talented shortstop/middle infielder. He may be a ways away yet, but I could see him playing at the higher levels at some point this year. If not this year, maybe next year. Jhonny Rodriguez, the young outfielder, is probably going to be coming with me to Vermont if things go well in extended.
Heath Bowers, the right-handed pitcher, also might have an opportunity to go up. He had a pretty good spring but just didn’t have an opening to go out to a full-season club. We tell those guys, ‘come to extended, work hard and at some point in time, things always happen.’
OC: How have the new coaching assignments gone? There was a lot of guys shifted around to different levels this off-season.
AN: Anytime you have the shuffle with staff, you are interested to see how guys are going to perform at their new levels. Obviously we have very capable staff members as teachers and coaches. Whatever level they are at, they are going to perform well. You look at Eric Martins, he had a successful year last year in Double-A and he’s up in Triple-A. You look at Brian McArn – who has been with the organization for many years – is back in Double-A after good years in Stockton. Tommy Everidge had a great year both inter-personally with the players and coaching-wise last year, so he’s up in Stockton. Steve Connelly had a good year in Beloit and now he’s up in Stockton. Don Schulze, the former big leaguer, was up with the Triple-A guys and now he’s working with the younger guys in Beloit. He’s home and in a good situation for him and his family.
Juan Dilone is a phenomenal resource for the organization in his ability to be a translator and work with our Latin kids. He has an opportunity to go up to Beloit and work with those younger kids. And with Webby [Webster Garrison] and his wealth of knowledge both as a hitting coach and a manager, he is able to share that with the younger kids at extended spring training and in Arizona.
It will be an interesting year to see how all of this meshes together.