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Oakland A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman discusses the Midland RockHounds

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 three of the interview, we discuss the A's Double-A affiliate, the Midland RockHounds. You must have breathed a sigh of relief that Franklin Barreto wasn’t seriously injured when he was hit on the knee over the weekend. How do you feel his adjustment to Double-A has been going?

Keith Lieppman: We have talked to guys over the course of their careers who are hitting early in the count like he and Yairo Munoz and even Chad Pinder was going into last year. A lot of Pinder’s progress last year was him learning to still be aggressive but you don’t have to swing at every first pitch. Barreto has gotten back to a better plan to where he is seeing more pitches and recognizing balls that he can hit into play hard and those he has to leave alone. It’s been more mental more than anything. Just learning that he can be patient at the plate. That’s a lot of what we do in this organization is talk about selectivity without losing your aggressiveness.

His example has been a really good one. He has taken to this. He has learned to grind through some eight to 10 pitch at-bats. Those are the signs that he is starting to understand the approach when they can start fighting pitches off and waiting for mistakes.

[ed. note: Barreto left Saturday’s game early with a leg injury. He missed Sunday’s game and will be re-evaluated this week. He did leave the game under his own power.]

OC: How have you liked his work at second base? Seems like he’s gotten a lot more time there lately. KL: Actually he’s been good at both [second and short]. He’s still a candidate to be a shortstop. There is no definite idea yet where he will end up. He’s looked good at both spots turning double-plays. I think it’s great that we have had this opportunity to really develop a lot of players, including even Matt Chapman, at short.

So much with the shifts now, you do have players playing differently on the diamond that do require them to play short. In extreme shifts, Chapman [as the third baseman] would be playing shortstop, so we figured it would be good to have him play shortstop so that he understands the role the more that we shift. A lot of times, a shortstop is playing directly behind second base. It’s really created a whole new dynamic of mobility and versatility. We are trying to develop our players according to the way the game is being played at the major league level. We are starting that focus at a lower level.

OC: With Matt Chapman, the Texas League hasn’t hurt his power at all, but the strike-outs are way up this year. Is making more consistent contact something he is working on?

KL: He’s a lot like Richie Martin with his timing and his rhythm. That’s the only thing we see missing with his timing and approach. Everything else – the power, the opposite field power, the defense – are all there. His game is very, very close to exploding. He’s got it all going. In terms of cutting down his strike-outs, fixing the rhythm and timing with his swing will allow him to get more walks, recognize pitches earlier and be able to combine all of these things into that major league player that we think he will be. Again, it’s just a work-in-progress. Understanding his aggressiveness level. There are pitches that he is chasing right now that he is going to learn to lay off of as he matures.

With the Texas League, a lot of what we deal with in an eight-team league is that these guys are facing three other teams for the majority of their games each season. Really, how you do in that league is a product of how you fare against Houston, San Diego and Texas. That’s who you play most of your games against in that league. You are just matching up against those guys. The other division you only play twice.

When you face teams that frequently, you are really having to make major adjustments because you are probably getting 100 at-bats against each organization. You think you are getting a representation of a lot of at-bats against a lot of different pitchers and teams, but in reality, this is like the big leagues where they know exactly who you are and who you are facing. In a way, it’s good because you know exactly who you are facing and what your game plan is going to be, but there is a lot of cat-and-mouse, something that they are going face much later in their careers as they evolve into the big leagues.

OC: Chapman got off to that hot start. Did they adjust to him and now he has to adjust back?

KL: Absolutely. It’s constantly the way it is going to be in that league. They are going to look to expose any weakness that they can find. All of these guys go through it: Ryon Healy last year, Pinder, Renato Nunez, they all have gone through a similar process and it just makes them better. Along the way, there is a learning curve and an adjustment, but that’s just the ebb-and-flow of understanding that level. We just try to help them not panic about it. Our big mantra is make the first adjustment. Once you get familiar with doing that, you get comfortable with change and you begin to realize that it isn’t a big process, that you are going to have to make a lot of them in your career.

OC: Is Yairo Munoz going through similar issues? He’s still making a lot of contact but isn’t seeing the same results he saw in the Cal League last year.

KL: He’s another candidate for plate discipline school. He’s been swinging early in the count and he’s taking a little longer to make that adjustment, but his tools are all there. He has a big arm; he has power. As another young guy, he needs to learn that as you advance, in predictable situations – like getting a 2-0 or 3-1 fastball – when you get into counts that you can hit in, they aren’t as predictable anymore against advanced pitchers. That’s what he is going to have to learn how to account for. His adjustment hasn’t been as easy, but he has been working at it. Sometimes it just takes a little bit longer.

OC: The Midland rotation has been a bit patchwork at times this season, with several guys pitching in a tandem situation at various points this year. It was interesting to see Corey Walter move into the rotation in mid-April. He’s pitched really well in the rotation after pitching in relief last year. Was there something that he added that has allowed him to make that jump to the rotation?

KL: [A’s minor league pitching coordinator] Gil Patterson saw him in the spring. I think our plan would have been just to leave him in the bullpen but he thought that Corey could develop three pitches with him. He really liked Corey’s sinker a lot and thought that this was somebody that we could grow with. The problem is that he can only throw so many innings because he hasn’t thrown that much in the past. He’s been limited to these four- and five-inning stints, and could stay in the bullpen the rest of this year, to build him up to 100 innings, so next year he can go 140-150 innings, if he continues to be a starter.

Gil’s idea was to keep pushing a long those lines. Corey has shown that he has that capability. His slider is very solid and he’s working on a change-up. He definitely has starter-type stuff. He gets up to 94, 95 and has a hard sinker.

OC: Daniel Gossett has been one of the nice success stories this year. What gave you guys the confidence to move him up to Midland so early in the year despite his struggles in Low-A last year?

KL: He was dominant [with Stockton] with all of his stuff. Down in the strike-zone with all four pitches and he was over the plate and he was locating them. He was absolutely on top of his game. His velocity had spiked up to 93-95. There wasn’t really anything that we felt needed to be refined at that level. We needed to find him a challenge at the next level. So far, so good. The first few outings there were excellent. He kind of ran into a bit of trouble [on July 7], but his stuff is there. He’s a smart guy and an older guy from an accomplished college program. I think he’s in the right place right now and is improving as he goes on. He’s facing better hitters and is doing well. 

OC: Bobby Wahl has run off a good last six weeks. Do you think he’s finally harnessing his raw stuff? 

KL: Absolutely. We are really happy to see him make this adjustment. Before it was about velocity and overpowering hitters. Now he is able to still use the high velocity, but now he is locating better. Those walks were killing him – sometimes they were back-to-back walks – and now he’s learning to command the fastball a lot better. He has been very aggressive. They have been pitching him later in the games and have been giving him an opportunity to feel that set-up or closer-type role.

OC: Is Dylan Covey close to returning from an oblique injury?

KL: He was. We had him on a rehab program, but he’s in a place where he may have re-injured the oblique. He’s back to resting again. Those obliques can be really tough. It’s a tough scenario for him. He gets to a certain level and it puts too much strain on it. We’re backing him off right now. 

OC: Raul Alcantara is back on a regular schedule after returning from Tommy John surgery last year. Where would you peg his progress right now?

KL: I believe at this stage, we are limiting his innings from this point on. You may see him come out of the bullpen or making shortened starts. The velo is back. The slider is good. He did everything we asked as far as rehab last year with the surgery. He’s good to go and performing well. I don’t think we are going to extend him too much further this year. Like many of our pitchers, we are very conservative at this stage with trying to push them too far. At this point, he’ll continue to pitch on a regular basis but maybe not as far into the game.

OC: Have you liked how Kyle Finnegan has looked since he moved into the bullpen?

KL: Really pleasant surprise. He fought it so much in Stockton, but I think the move has really freed him up. He’s pitched in some really big situations for us there. A lot of same scenarios with the high velocity guys who just kind of let it fly. They have learned how to control their emotions and their pitches. He has a really good breaking ball and has figured ways out to command his fastball well. He’s in a good position along with Wahl and Jake Sanchez. All of those guys coming out of the bullpen have done a really great job. Like I said, that whole bullpen is 92-96 and guys have to come out there facing some really good arms.

OC: Jake Sanchez had a lot of success in the bullpen last winter in the Mexican Winter League. Was that something that led you guys to believe that moving him from the rotation to the bullpen would be a good move for him?

KL: Absolutely. He’s come out of there with no fear. He isn’t afraid to come out there in the ninth inning in tough situations. He likes to battle. His velo has spiked considerably since coming out of the bullpen. There are no easy marks in that Midland bullpen. There is nobody on that staff that is really easy to face. Trey Cochran-Gill has started to get us excited even more. His velo is spiking again and his slider has come back. He went through a bit of a dead arm adjustment period, but he’s a young guy – 23 – who is battling in that league. A lot of good things going on with that Midland club.  

Stay tuned for the final installment of this interview, in which we discuss the Triple-A Nashville Sounds.

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