http://www.scout.com/mlb/athletics/story/1706167-2016-year-in-review-ver... Since 2004, Aaron Nieckula has been an important figure in the development of Oakland A's prospects. Nieckula was the A's Low-A level hitting coach in 2004 and 2005 and then from 2006-2014, he served as a manager at several levels. In 2014, Nieckula led the Double-A Midland RockHounds to a Texas League title in what would begin a dynasty that has now stretched to three straight rings.
Before the 2015 season, Nieckula earned a promotion to minor league field coordinator. In this new role, Nieckula runs the A's minor league spring training and extended spring training camps, as well as the A's fall Instructional League. He still wears his manager's cap, skippering the Vermont Lake Monsters during the New York-Penn League short-season. During the season, Nieckula spoke with Donald Moore about his club and his plans for the off-season.
Donald Moore: How is everything going so far this year with the team?
Aaron Nieckula: For the most part, things are going pretty well. We got a very good group of young men. They come in, they work hard, blue collar; they have done what we have asked them to do. They have a good work ethic in terms of performance in the field. There has certainly been a few areas that we're somewhat weak in, but there are certain areas where we are extremely strong. For the most part, I have been very pleased how these guys have came in and played professional baseball, for the first time for many of them.
DM: How do you feel the team has performed as unit this season?
AN: I think we have to break it down to really answer that question accurately. So we'll start with the pitching. I think the pitching has been fantastic, both starting and our bullpen work. We have had a number of guys promoted to the next level. They have come in and proved themselves, so they have earned an opportunity to earn a promotion to Beloit. They have been pretty consistent, for the most part, and since day one, we have had a few lapses here and there, with two-out walks and lead-off walks and containing the running game and things like that, but that is going to happen at this level and we continue to talk about it and hope these guys make the adjustments and get better.
And we move on to defense. Defensively we are very poor. We haven't performed well defensively. We seem to lack focus or concentration with our ability to make a routine play, but at the same time, we have had some outstanding plays, every single one of these guys have come out there and made a big play and we record on our game reports and so forth, but collectively as a group, I think we are near the bottom of fielding percentage and we give away a lot of runs. We have given the opponents way too many opportunities to put runs on the boards. So that is something we are going to continue to preach and stress and work on until the last day of the season, understanding in order to be a championship-type player, you have to play fundamentally sound defense and not give the opponents too many opportunities to score runs.
Offensively,I think we have been pretty strong. Guys have really grasped the notion of selectivity, working at-bats, we have seen some tremendous abilities from certain individuals, and we put some runs on the board. We have had the opportunity to get runs in on the board, so offensively I think we are pretty strong. We have been pretty consistent since day one and our base-running has been pretty good. We are right at a 75% success rate in stolen bases. I think we have been aggressive for taking the extra base, had opportunities to put extra runs on the board
DM: Any particular standouts you'd like to mention?
AN: Oh yeah, we'll start at the top of the order. Luis Barrera has come in from extended and has done an outstanding job in the outfield for us. He has done a nice job for us at the top of the lineup and he has been very impressive with the way he has played.
Eli White coming in in his first season as a player from Clemson, and he has done an outstanding job both defensively and offensively. Here's a kid that understands the routine play and he has the ability to be fundamentally sound and he has put up some tremendous quality at-bats this year at the top of the line up.
Nate Mondou has taken a hold of the second base job. I mean this kid has been absolutely phenomenal for us offensively. He has a great approach, very selective and he has a nice swing. He puts the bat on the ball and it doesn't matter if it is a righty on the mound or lefty on the mound, the kid has an excellent approach either way. He works extremely hard on his defense, and he understand it is somewhat of a weakness of his right now, but he comes to work everyday and puts on his works clothes. He comes in wants to get the extra work make himself better.
Miguel Mercedes, our first baseman-slash-DH, has done an outstanding job, He was leading the league in hitting for a while there. He has gotten into a little bit of a slump in the last seven to 10 days, but I think he has the ability to make the adjustments to get himself back on track with a big game for us with a home run or base hit. He has done a great job for us up to this point. He's another one first time out of extended and in a regular season here.
Another guy doing well for us has been Brett Sunde who hasn't been an everyday guy for us as a catcher. When he does get his opportunity, he's ready, prepared and he keeps himself fit, physically and mentally ready and prepared to play the game. You know he plays a few games a week, but when he gets in there, he takes advantage of his opportunities.
DM: How do you feel A.J. Puk is progressing for the first time playing professional baseball?
AN: So far, so good. We knew coming in he had a power arm. He has plus secondary pitches and sometimes there is a little bit of a transition to get acclimated to the professional game but when he takes that mound, he is a commanding presence. He looks very intimidating. He has the 90 miles plus fastball and he utilizes his off-speed. It's just a matter of tightening up his command. Once he does that, the sky is the limit for him. Very nice kid and he has a very low demeanor, as well.
DM: You run a baseball academy in the off season (the Nieckula Baseball Academy). Could you please elaborate some more on that for me?
AN: Sure, it's the Nieckula Baseball Academy. We basically teach individual training for youths in the Chicago land area, the Western suburbs, ages 8 to 18. Most of the students we have are 12 to 14/16 years old, so we have junior high and senior high school kids. We do baseball clinics in the Western suburbs and we travel if someone wants us to come out to a different suburb, we'll go. Then there is also another facility that I am co-owner of that is called the Top Pick Athletics, which is in Sugar Grove. It's a 15,000 square foot facility, and the grand opening is September 1st, so things are going well. It gives me an opportunity to stay in baseball during the off-season and work with the younger kids so I can give them some of the knowledge that I have learned over the years. It's a lot of fun working with these young kids.
DM: Off-season plans?
AN: Take care of my family. We just had twins in January, so they'll be 9 or 10 months old by the time off season rolls around. I'll really have my hands full with my new set of twins and an 8 year old.
DM: Coach, thank you so much for your time and the best of luck to you and your family.
AN: Sure, thank you, and you got it, man.