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Oakland A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman discusses the Beloit Snappers and the Stockton Ports

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 two of the interview, we discuss the A's two full-season A-ball squads: the Beloit Snappers and the Stockton Ports. OaklandClubhouse: Is Dustin Driver’s move to the bullpen with the Beloit Snappers permanent? 

Keith Lieppman: I think that at this point, this is just another step. Where he ends up ultimately will be interesting to see. We are using him in shorter spurts and letting him just kind of go. He’s had three clean innings in a row [through Wednesday] and we are developing his program from that point on. We’ll probably get him some more extended outings and build him back up again. But confidence and controlling his delivery are really big parts of who he is. We are trying to simplify it in these little one inning burst and go from there. So far, he has responded very well to that. 

He’s a guy who has that good velocity and he comes right after you. The starting point of what we did with him in Extended was develop all of his pitches. Each pitch is in a different form of development. His change-up and his breaking ball. Right now, it’s all about fastball command and using his big arm. He’s having some success with it.

OC: The Beloit rotation has been really strong this season. Seems like every guy you have plugged in there has performed. Angel Duno recently returned from the DL. His K:BB is one of the best in the organization, which is really impressive for a 22-year-old. What are you seeing from him this season?

KL: We are really happy with the way that he came back after the two-and-a-half, three weeks he was on the DL. He’s come back in two- or three-inning stints and has been really good. He’s had a good slider and he’s hard for the hitters to read. He’s continued to pitch aggressively. We are just taking our time. We aren’t going to push him too fast right now.

He’s really made a big jump from last year. He started off this year a little shaky but the more the year has passed on, he has done really well. He understands that he can compete at that level. I think he’s developed into a really good prospect. He’s another product of our Dominican program and these guys are all starting to discover their strengths at the same time.

OC: Boomer Biegalski and Evan Manarino were the Snappers’ two All-Stars this year. Do you see either of those guys getting an opportunity up in Stockton before the end of the year?

KL: We’re just kind of in a position where it doesn’t look like there is a lot of room for movement right now. You’d definitely like to move people, especially guys who are maybe a little bit older. But both of those guys were really like Kyle Friedrichs [who moved up from Beloit to Stockton earlier this year], pitching with similar effectiveness. All three pitched very effectively for Beloit. I think both of those guys could have success in Stockton. It’s just a matter of finding room for all of these guys at the same time. We are seeming to run out of positions for everyone right now. They are both in the same position.

Biegalski has a phenomenal change-up and Manarino, as well. Those pitches are very effective. They have good command and are not afraid to mix pitches up in any count. Guys are guessing all of the time against them. They certainly know their craft and have done a good job.

OC: James Naile took a tour through the upper-levels of the organization for about a month, pitching at both Triple-A and Double-A. Now he’s back in the Beloit rotation. There were some questions before the season about whether he fits best as a starter or a reliever. Have you liked what you have seen from him as a starter this year?

KL: Absolutely. To go to Triple-A and Double-A with his level of experience is impressive. That’s how much confidence we have in him. He has a good sinker and he has no fear. It didn’t even phase him that we put him in those positions. I think we understood his make-up and that he’d be able to handle it. It was great for him to experience those higher levels. Guys up there taught him things. Players are really great for information on how to do things [like game preparation], sometimes more so than coaches. He got ideas and figured things out himself.

What was great was that he came back from both of those levels and wasn’t disappointed. He pitched well in Beloit. A lot of times you burst your bubble after you have been up there and get a sense of flying to game in Triple-A and seeing what the other guys are doing, but he understands it’s all about commanding his pitches and he learned a lot while he was there. I think those experiences just made him better. OC: I had an opportunity to see Kyle Friedrichs’ second start with Stockton when he struck-out 11 in six innings. I was really impressed with the movement that he got on all of his pitches. The velocity is obviously not at an elite level, but is there a major league model for him if he does reach the big leagues?

KL: The way that he has shown at this point, he’s got to be perfect with his pitches – which he is. He uses his change-up effectively. It’s got movement. But, it’s like you said, will that velocity be able to withstand hitters that can sit on off-speed pitches and deal with it? His will be more of a test of time as he progresses through the system, but I think we all believe that he is a prospect. His future is to be determined as he moves through the system.

There are guys that can pitch in the mid- to high-80s, but he hasn’t been above that. There aren’t a lot of starters in the big leagues that do that, but there are some that do, so you never say never. We’ll continue to just let him pitch and evaluate each time.

OC: Heath Fillmyer is probably the opposite of Friedichs in that his raw stuff is electric and he sits in that mid-90s range. I’ve been impressed with how much better he is commanding the ball this season. Is that something you have seen from him this year?

KL: His fastball command has improved significantly. He has a better change-up and breaking ball this year, as well. Plus, he’s got this impeccable work ethic. He’s so prepared and he is beginning to understand and read hitters and read swings. He’s a student of the game along with having good stuff. He just had a little bit of a slow phase the last couple of outings. I think maybe he might be getting a little bit tired. We are going to give him a couple of days here between his next few starts. It’s been a long season when you are making every start and you work like he does. We have been really impressed with what he has done. He continues to be on that same path as guys who are approaching the upper levels like Daniel Gossett was earlier this year. Both he and Friedrichs are in that mix.

OC: Casey Meisner pitched well for Stockton last year but has really struggled this season. Is there something that he is working on that has caused these struggles?

KL: There are some mechanical issues with the way that he delivers the ball that cuts down some of his angle. He’s a big guy [6’7’’] and putting everything together for him may take some time. [A’s minor league pitching coordinator] Gil Patterson and [Stockton pitching coach] Steve Connelly noticed that there were some things that they have been really trying to iron out with him. That has been a process. There has been a focus on trying to get that into position. Anytime you do that, it takes away from your ability to compete. You are so focused on making these changes that it’s difficult to integrate those into the game. That’s the part that is hard. You need to make these adjustments but somehow do it without it impacting your performance.

It’s been a little more difficult for him, but the last few outings have been strong. He had a three inning stint [on July 9] where he maybe gave up a solo homer and that was it. Things are looking brighter for him. The work and effort he has put in is starting to pay off. [ed. note: after this interview, Meisner had a four-inning shutout appearance on July 14]

OC: What has your first impression of Zack Erwin been in his first season in the A’s organization?

KL: We jumped him up to a much higher level [than he pitched at last year]. We probably should have started him at the lower level. He didn’t have many innings in the South Atlantic League last year. We felt from what we saw in spring training that he could handle it. He’s held his own. There have been some days where he has had some rough outings and he has elevated. The pitches are up to where guys get good swings on him. He’s really focusing on getting back down in the ‘zone and using his change-up. I think it is just going to be a matter of time before he figures it out in a very hitter-friendly league. You’ve really got to make your pitches there. You go to High Desert or Lancaster and you make one mistake, you are going to pay for it. That’s all part of the learning curve right now.

OC: I saw Lou Trivino hit 97 out of the bullpen with Stockton. Has his velocity been up consistently since he moved into the bullpen?

KL: Yeah. I’ve actually seen some 98s from him. He’ll flash some really good velocities. We are thrilled with the velo. Now he just has to learn to control it. He’s a lot like Bobby Wahl. He’s going to get some swings-and-misses with the velo up in the strike-zone, but you’d like to see the pitch down more. He’s learning to throw strikes with it and that’s his biggest issue right now. Guys with the big velo just want to throw the ball past people and he’ll need to learn to be able to control that and change speeds with the fastball. If everything is the same coming at you speed, the hitters can eventually time it.

He has a pretty good slider to go with it. He’s developing. We are really happy with where he is at. He just has to be patient. He could be in Double-A, but there is just a ton of back log with our relievers.

If you look, we are starting to pattern ourselves after big league bullpens. A lot of our relievers are big velocity guys at our upper levels.

OC: Going to the position player side of things, Richie Martin missed the first month or so of the season with the knee injury. How do you feel his season has been going with Stockton since then?

KL: Really good after the disappointment of having that problem with the slide in the middle of spring training and the subsequent knee issues. He has played really good defense. He understands how the speed of that element of the game plays out and he has done really well. He’s making a big adjustment right now with his timing and rhythm in his swing. I think there are some nice things happening with that right now. He’s putting up more consistent at-bats and was unafraid to make these changes over the past two weeks. We are seeing marked improvement. It’s not going to be a straight-line fix, but certainly pitch recognition and his timing are much, much better. I think we’ll see much better results from him as he progresses. It’s just a little bit at a time for him. We are very happy with how he has done. We moved him aggressively to that level and he has handled it.

OC: Mikey White really got off to a slow start, but I think he’s hitting around .300 over the past three weeks [.294 since All-Star break]. Is he making in-season adjustments that have led to these better results?

KL: He’s doing the same thing. There are some issues that he has dealt with mechanically. It’s really been amazing to see how he has improved over these past, like you said, three weeks. His plan has been better. He’s using the whole field and he is understanding a lot more over time [about competing at that level]. It takes a half a season to really utilize those adjustments for some guys. I don’t know if anyone has jumped to our High-A level and really dominated from the outset. You can go back to Nick Swisher [Visalia, 2002] and see that. There are a number of guys who have come into our system who have not jumped off to great starts and then they make the adjustment and move on from there. We understand what it is going to take to get these guys over the hump. It involves a lot of patience, on their part, as well.

OC: Around this time last year, Sandber Pimentel had that mid-season fall-off at Beloit where it looked like the grind of the schedule got to him. This year, he has been a lot more consistent and the numbers have been very solid. Are you pleased with his improvement year-over-year?

KL: Absolutely. To have not ever played in the United States and make the jump right to Beloit and then still be a young man and make the jump to Stockton, that’s a big move in two years and he’s handled it very well. With that, you have to have some failures along with the success to learn how to do it and there have been moments where he has struggled, but he’s stayed focused. No matter what happens, he bounces back. He’s left a lot of runners on base and then he’ll come back and drive-in a bunch of runs. He’ll make a silly error and then he’ll come back to make a diving play. You’re seeing a guy who his learning himself and how to play and he really hasn’t played that many games in the States. Patience is key with him, but even with that learning curve, he’ll probably hit 20 homers this year for Stockton or even better.

OC: B.J. Boyd was a player that you guys had to have some patience with when he struggled in the Midwest League, but he has recovered well the past two seasons. Are you pleased with how well he has played in his second season in the Cal League despite being forced to repeat a level he played well at in 2015?

KL: We’ve had meeting a lot with a lot of those guys there to explain that they need to just keep doing what they are doing. We are backed up a little bit position-player wise and pitching and we don’t have a lot of opportunities right now to move. They just need to keep getting better where they are at. He’s understood that and has done a good job of developing a really nice two-strike approach, fighting pitches off where before he might have swung-and-missed. Making an effort to get better pitches to hit and he’s shown some occasional power. He’s also gone to the opposite field well.

He has been a lot more consistent with his at-bats and the numbers are showing that improvement. He and James Harris both have had extremely good years.

OC: Harris was a really good find to pick him up as a minor league free agent. He was a first-round talent when he was drafted by Tampa. Do you think it was just a matter of time that he was able to develop into a productive player?

KL: I think it was a matter of him getting comfortable where he was with Tampa and now understanding the opportunity he has here is really essential to his motivation. His maturity is so much better. I saw him steal a base on the defense the other day. The defenders had their heads down and he was alert enough – no one was watching – to steal the base in between pitches. Those are the kinds of things that people begin to look for. He’s an excellent base stealer. He hits at the top of the line-up. He does everything that we have asked.  

The change of scenery. The maturity. His own awareness of himself and his impact on the game – he’s a really good teammate and spark plug at the top of that line-up. All of those factors have led him to playing like he is now. OC: Joe Bennie has always been a little old for his level, but starting at the end of last year and since early May this year, he’s been one of the better hitters in the system. Do you think he has a chance to reach Double-A this year based on what he has been doing?

KL: Along with those other guys, he certainly deserves that promotion, as well. We are trying to find the right position for him. We have tried him at third and at second base, as well as the outfield. He’s become the ultimate versatility guy. He can play nearly anywhere, but we are just trying to find the position that will carry him.

Ultimately, the thing that will carry him is his bat. His hard contact rates are among the top two or three in the organization. He keeps consistently being on top of the ball. He does have some swing-and-miss in there, so there is that involved, but once he learns to cut that down better and have a better plan and approach, he’ll be in good shape. The hard hitting contact is there. He’s gap-to-gap and he can swing it.

Stay tuned for part three of this interview, when we discuss the A's upper-level affiliates and the rise of Daniel Mengden.

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