Photo by Kimberly Contreras

Oakland A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman discusses the A's AZL and Vermont squads

This week we caught-up with legendary Oakland A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman for a mid-season check-in on the progress of the A's minor league system. In part one of the interview, we discuss the AZL A's and the Vermont Lake Monsters.

OaklandClubhouse: This can be one of the busiest times of year in terms of player movement with the new draftees being integrated into the system. What is this time like for the Player Development Department?

Keith Lieppman: There is so much going on this time of year. This part of the year, in particular, is challenging.

OC: There were so many pitchers taken this year in the draft, especially in the higher rounds. Is it a challenge to find everyone innings?

KL: This year, for the most part, guys don’t need a whole lot of innings. Many of the guys that we picked have already pitched a lot and this is more of an introduction to pro ball. We are just going to get their feet wet and understand the pitching program. We want to gear them up to probably be able to handle Instructional League and then move on from there. There won’t be a big emphasis on innings. It’s more about understanding the game and the competition. This is more about getting them that first experience. Next year, we’ll get them ready for a full season. OC: A.J. Puk made his debut [Tuesday] and it was over almost before you realized it. It was one of the most efficient two innings I’ve seen.

KL: Yeah, 17 pitches. That was it. With most of them, we will be extremely conservative. I know that they are in good shape and are ready to go, but, as an organization, there wasn’t a push to even go three innings – in Puk’s case – right out of the chute. Just get your feet wet. He pitched very effectively. I saw the video of it [Wednesday] and he was solid. He threw a lot of strikes, 12 of 17.

OC: Is Logan Shore likely to go out soon or is he working on more of a progression? I know he had more innings this season at Florida than Puk did.

KL: Shore didn’t do much between the end of the season and the time that he signed. I believe it was 15 or 16 days off. He will probably progress a little bit slower. It will likely be towards the end of the month before he’ll go out. It’s not like it’s going to be a long time. Just a couple of weeks.

OC: Do you think Daulton Jefferies will pitch this year, or are you planning to be really conservative with him given the shoulder issue? 

KL: We are being really conservative with him right now. We are just reading how he is reacting to our program and the day-to-day throwing and the long toss program. Everything is geared towards a professional program, but we are monitoring how he is feeling physically about it. We are checking closely about how good his shoulder is feeling. There is no need to rush with him, either. We are basing it off of him. So far, so good with him, but there isn’t any need to push him.

OC: How is Kevin Duchene faring in Arizona? 

KL: We have had him basically in Arizona working things out. He is here working on his command and his change-up. He’s also working on some different stuff with locating his pitches. He actually pitched pretty well his last time out. I saw him pitch against the White Sox.

OC: Skylar Szynski’s debut wasn’t one to remember, but it looks like he has recovered well in his last two outings. With younger players like him, is there a concern that a bad debut can get in their heads or was he able to bounceback quickly?

KL: He handled it very well. When you look back a year ago and think about Dakota Chalmers’ first few outings, it was very similar. Chalmers had control problems off-and-on all last season. He had trouble commanding his breaking ball and delivering all of his pitches. The same is true for most high school guys. There is a learning curve. You’ll look up a year from now and Skylar will be just where Chalmers is, in a great position and doing very well.

Part of this process is learning to deal with failure and learning how to deal with the speed of the game differently. For a high school player, there are going to be bumps in the road. In the game in general, you are going to get bumped around at one point or another. It’s good to learn to make adjustments. There’s not a lot of pressure on these guys. There’s no expectation that they are going to be going to the big leagues in the next week or two. [laughs] They understand their role. They are just trying to learn to throw strikes and follow their game plan and have fun while they are doing it. That’s half the battle. You can’t take these things too seriously right now.

OC: Oscar Tovar spent a lot of the spring at Extended Spring Training before he had to serve his suspension. He was recently activated after completing the suspension. Before he had to sit out, had you seen a lot of progress from him?

KL: Absolutely. I actually saw him pitch in his first official outing, his 2016 debut, and he was a fluid, easy out of the hand 94-95. He looked really good for an 18-year-old. He was very effective. He gave up a couple of runs, but I was very impressed with how the ball got out of his hand and the life in it. He had a lot of life in his fastball.

OC: Wandisson Charles also has a big fastball, but command has obviously been an issue. Are you seeing progress with him? 

KL: He struggled a bit in his first few outings, but, again, he’s like a high school kid who hasn’t really had a whole lot of experience. He went out and had a horrible outing [on June 29], but I’m really proud of the way that he came back in his next two outings. He got his command back. Guys just can go into those places where they have a tough time getting their deliveries back together. Especially tall guys like Charles with long limbs. It’s very difficult to get your body under control, especially for a young kid. They are going to have moments like that where it doesn’t all come together. You just go back to the drawing board, have a good side and he’s come back to pitch well his last two outings.

OC: It’s been fun to see that Arizona A’s team running a lot. Cole Gruber might lead the whole organization in stolen bases by the end of the month. Has Gruber been fun to watch play?

KL: He has. Webby [manager Webster Garrison], he likes to run. That was something that he understood as a player and really as a manager throughout his career. He has been able to bring along guys with their speed and base-stealing abilities. He recognized that this guy has speed and the instincts and he gets on-base and Webby has been using that. So far, so good. He’s going to keep running with him and anybody else. Jeramiah McCray is another one. He looks like he could end up being the fastest guy in the system.

OC: Jumping to Vermont, Miguel Mercedes has been off to a terrific start. What kind of hitter do you expect him to be after watching him in Arizona the past couple of years?

KL: He has raw power. Big raw power. We thought we would give him a 6 or 7 [on the scouting scale] just for raw power, but he has definitely learned to control it. He is beginning to narrow his strike-zone and, with that, he has been able to draw more walks and get better pitches to hit. I was there a couple of weeks ago and he was having great at-bats and using the whole field. But then they’d make a mistake in the ‘zone and he’d either double it or hit it out. He has some really good ideas about the way he approaches the game. That’s what really has brought him this success. I think he’s second in the league in hitting [.369 BA through Wednesday]. And it’s not a soft hitting either. The ball just zooms off of his bat and he is grinding through at-bats.

Before he would just have a big swing, just let it fly. Now he has purpose, better selectivity and plate discipline. That all combines for a really good start to the season for him.

OC: Luis Barrera is another graduate of the Dominican Academy off to a good start for Vermont. How has he progressed over the past two years?

KL: Just watching how he has turned into a complete player has been great. I don’t know how many assists he has [five in 22 games], but he’s really throwing well from the outfield. He’s a tooled up guy. He runs well and he has really good instincts stealing bases. He’s a top of the line-up guy. Knows how to bunt and can bunt for a hit. He really understands his role. Once he began to understand that, he’s been at the top of that line-up and has really been a key ingredient to that Vermont club playing a lot better.

He plays solid defense. Can play all three outfield positions. Can go the other way at the plate. Just what you are looking for with a leadoff hitter. Occasionally he has a little pop, but right now he is playing a smart game and has a good approach.

OC: Was he a guy that you had pegged to stay in Vermont all short-season, or did he play he way onto the club during that period before the draft picks start being assigned to affiliates?

KL: That is the interesting part of the first opportunity for these guys [outside of a complex league]. That happened with Yairo Munoz two years ago. We weren’t sure where he might fit. In this case, the same is true for Mercedes, Barrera and really Jhonny Rodriguez. They are all in that same place in their careers. Each has proven in some regard or another that they can play in that league, that it isn’t too fast for them. I know that Rodriguez has slipped off the ladder the last week or so, but he was really putting together good at-bats.

I’m really proud of these guys. They have worked hard in Arizona. They spent a lot of time in the Fire League and in the Instructional League. The hard work is paying off for them.

OC: Last year you talked about Eric Marinez reminding you of Angel Berroa. Are you still seeing that in him this year?

KL: Yes. He has played a great shortstop. We have had to move him back and forth because of Eli White going there, so he has developed some versatility. But he has a big arm and good flexibility. He has played really good defense. He’s learned the little parts of the game. That’s one of the differences is that once you leave Arizona, it takes on a whole other element playing against the league and you can’t make as many mental mistakes. They are growing as players and improving. All four of those guys would fit into the category of making major moves in their careers.

OC: You talked briefly about Dakota Chalmers, but he’s off to a very nice start with Vermont. What did he work on during Extended and the spring mini-camp that he has been able to carry over to the season?

KL: The first thing was his effort level with his fastball. You talk about being a max effort guy at that age probably isn’t the best thing. Better to try throwing 94-95 and throw strikes than 98 and have crazy command. He’s learning how to better locate his fastball without as much effort and keep it in the ‘zone to try to get outs early in the counts. He is learning to win those conversion counts, those 1-1 counts. Those have been really big for him.

As he has done that, he’s gained confidence. I’ve seen him pitch in Lowell a couple of weeks ago and his confidence on the mound and his mound presence is pretty good for a young pitcher. He’s had to pitch out of a number of jams. He still isn’t perfect with his command. He’ll still walk a few guys and there were a few errors behind him, but he has learned how to pitch out of it and not try to do too much.

OC: There was some buzz about Brendan Butler and his arm strength during Instructs last year. Is he kind of an under-the-radar guy for you?

KL: Yeah. It’s funny. We needed an arm in Stockton a few times and we were looking for somebody who had a big enough arm and we thought was good enough that could handle it and he did a good job with that. He just continues to do well. He pounds the strike-zone with his fastball and he is very aggressive. He has done a really good job for that club. Having been in Arizona last year, he fully understands what he needs to do and has presented well there. 

OC: Jesus Zambrano has had a rocky season this year after a good season last year. What do you think has been the cause of his struggles this season?

KL: I think part of it is that pitchers who pitch year round – Arnold Leon went through this and Andres Avila and Jake Sanchez have gone through it – a lot of the pitchers that we have that do that go through some dead arm periods. I think that is part of the scenario. When you pitch that much, you just have periods of time when you need a rest and don’t get it. In his case, I think that has contributed to his struggles some. 

He hasn’t been as down in the strike-zone this year. His pitches have been around thigh high. He’s also been making a lot more mistakes than he did last year at this time. It just bounces in and out with him. At this point, we are trying to give him a lot of time in between pitching and maybe don’t take him as far [in an outing] because if he pitches winter ball again this year, the cycle never stops.

OC: His winter team had wanted him to pitch even more than he did last year, right?

KL: Right. He pitched very well down there. He had some solid starts. When they call you asking for more starts out of a guy in winter ball, they aren’t wrong. They have the talent. They see that he is a good player. We are just trying to slow that process down.

Stay tuned for part two of this interview, when we discuss the Beloit Snappers and the Stockton Ports.

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