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Oakland A's Minor League Notebook: Trying to piece together Opening Day rosters

Minor league spring training breaks on Saturday, but final roster decisions for the Oakland A's four minor league affiliates still remain unsettled. We spoke with A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman about how the rosters are shaping up.

With the Oakland A’s moving their big league spring training to the Bay Area on Wednesday evening, the A’s player development staff is busy trying to puzzle together their Opening Day rosters for the team’s four full-season affiliates.

A’s Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman says that this week is the most difficult of the season, as he and his staff try to set-up transportation arrangements for rosters that have yet to be finalized. The minor league season opens on Thursday, April 6, but minor league camp breaks on Saturday, with players heading to Nashville, Midland, Stockton and Beloit at that point to get ready for the season. Lieppman says that a number of significant roster decisions are still to be determined.

“There is such a wide variety of things that haven’t happened yet, like the major league team hasn’t finalized it’s roster and we have pending injuries that are mounting and we don’t know if they are going to be able to leave in a few days or not,” Lieppman said. “We are at a place where we need names for plane tickets by tomorrow, so it’s a bit wild to try to figure it all out, putting it mildly.”

One complication popped up yesterday when infielder Yairo Munoz injured his hamstring running down the line in a minor league game on Tuesday.

“We don’t know the extent of it yet. He’s a question mark. We have until the sixth to make a decision, although the team is breaking on Saturday,” Lieppman said. “Medical isn’t able to make a determination as of yet for how long the injury will be. That’s when you start flipping coins: do you send him or do you not send him?”

Outfielder Jaycob Brugman (leg), second baseman Joey Wendle (shoulder), catcher Jordan Devencenzi (hamstring) and utilityman Jermaine Curtis (hamstring) will be held back because of injuries. In addition, 2016 third-round pick Skylar Szynski is currently dealing with an elbow/forearm issue and will be held back in Extended Spring Training. Lieppman said Syznski was having an impressive spring before the injury popped up.

If Munoz is healthy enough to break camp, he will go to Midland and will be in the infield there along with Max Schrock and Richie Martin, according to Lieppman. Jordan Tarsovich, who was acquired this off-season, is also likely to go to Double-A.

Martin and Schrock spent nearly the entire spring over in big league camp and both impressed during their time there. With those guys away from minor league camp, the A’s minor league staff has been able to see 2016 draft picks Eli White and Josh Vidales play against more upper-level competition. White had off-season surgery to clean up some bone chips in his elbow and he rehabbed through spring training. He has been recently cleared to play full games.

“Both of those guys have looked very strong,” Lieppman said.

White and Vidales are tentatively slated to head to Stockton when camp breaks, skipping over Low-A, where they will likely be joined by 2016 Ports’ middle infielder Mikey White, who had a solid camp but is currently blocked in Double-A by Martin, Schrock and Munoz. Thumpers Chris Iriart and Sandber Pimentel are also expected to be on the Stockton roster, splitting time at first base and DH.

Position player assignments are still being sorted out, starting in Triple-A. The Nashville outfield will be impacted by whether the A’s re-sign Alejandro De Aza, who opted out of his minor league deal earlier this week to seek a big league job with another organization, and whether Oakland keeps Jaff Decker on the 25-man roster to start the year.

Matt Olson played a lot of right field for the Sounds last year, but Lieppman says Olson is expected to be the primary first baseman for Nashville this season. Franklin Barreto and Chad Pinder will share time at second and short (with Wendle joining them at second base when he is healthy) and Matt Chapman will be the primary third baseman. At this point, there aren’t any plans to have Barreto play in the outfield. Renato Nunez will back-up Chapman at third, Olson at first and see time in left field on occasion, but he may end up getting a lot of his at-bats at DH.

Lieppman noted that catcher Bruce Maxwell, who will open the season in Nashville, came into camp in outstanding physical shape and that Maxwell has done “an excellent job receiving.”

Lieppman also said that infielder Trace Loehr has had an impressive camp. He is slated to return to Beloit to start the season. Edwin Diaz is another Beloit infielder who had a good camp and 2016 Vermont Lake Monsters Miguel Mercedes and Eric Marinez played well this spring.

The pitching assignments are being held up while the A’s make a decision on what to do with Simon Castro and Cesar Valdez, who are both in big league camp as non-roster invitees. Ross Detwiler may also be offered a minor league contract if he isn’t able to find a big league job with another organization. Detwiler opted out of his deal with the A’s last week. All three would slot into the Nashville pitching staff, which would push back some of the guys otherwise slotted for Triple-A.

Lieppman noted that 2016 Midland pitchers Jake Sanchez, Kyle Finnegan, Ben Bracewell and Lou Trivino have all had strong camps.

“They’ve looked like big leaguers. As good as they were last year, they have been just as good this year. That whole group has been great,” Lieppman said. “We’ve sent them over to big league camp for a lot of games and they have looked very solid there, as well as in minor league camp.”

The A’s have a glut of starting pitching in the system and Lieppman says they are considering utilizing eight-man starting rotations for every full-season affiliate but Nashville to increase the innings for as many pitchers as possible. The eight pitchers would tandem start, with one getting the official start and the other coming on in relief and then flipping those roles the next time through the rotation.

Logan Shore, A.J. Puk and Daulton Jefferies will all be in Stockton to start the season. Grant Holmes is expected to start the year in Double-A. Dakota Chalmers is slated to report to Low-A Beloit. Currently, Angel Duno and Dustin Hurlbutt are the two members of the 2016 Beloit rotation that will head up to Stockton to start the year. Evan Manarino is also slated to be in the Stockton rotation. James Naile and Kyle Friedrichs are headed to Midland, while Casey Meisner and Brett Graves are set to repeat in Stockton thanks to the backlog of starters in Double-A despite the fact that both looked solid in camp.

Lieppman says it can be a tough sell when players are forced to repeat levels.

“It’s a challenge. We’ve had a lot of meetings the past couple of days to talk about that and how these are just some of the things that come along with baseball. Sometimes you are dealt a bad hand or you have to repeat what you did the previous year,” Lieppman said. “We stress the importance of understanding that you have to get better regardless of the level you are playing at. It’s not where you are right now, it’s where you end up. Wherever you are pitching, you can get better. That’s the appeal to excellence and to trying to improve themselves and to get them to realize that they can work so that when you get an opportunity to go to the big leagues – like a Ryan Dull – you’ll get there and stay. That’s the way we try to talk about it. Especially with pitchers, it’s really about improving their stuff, their command and their ability to throw to both sides of the plate. It’s not really the level that matters.”

Lieppman has been pleased with how the new coaching assignments have worked out this spring.

“We’ve had a really good spring for staff development and they have executed this program extremely well,” Lieppman said. 

He anticipates that final roster decisions will go down to the final day of camp. 

Releases 

The A’s made their first cuts from minor league camp on Sunday and four more players have been released since then. In addition to the 10 from Sunday, the A’s released outfielder Justin Higley, utilityman Max Kuhn and infielder Ryan Howell. Pitcher Tyler Willman asked for and was granted his release this week, as well.

Higley, a 13th-round pick in 2013 out of Sac State, split the last two seasons between Stockton and Beloit. He is a career .240/.314/.397 hitter in 353 games. Higley has as much speed and raw power as anyone in the system, but he has struggled to make consistent contact throughout his career. He struck-out 168 times last season.

Kuhn missed all of last season after having right shoulder surgery. A 13th-round pick in 2014, Kuhn hit .241/.320/.376 with 10 homers in 131 games for Beloit in 2015.

Howell was a 15th-round pick out of Nevada in 2015. A Bay Area native, Howell spent all of last season with Beloit. He posted a .345 OBP but hit only .216 in 107 games.

Willman was a 12th-round pick in 2014 out of Western Illinois. A Wisconsin native, Willman pitched close to home for part of last season, posting a 2.91 ERA in 21.2 innings for the Snappers. He struck-out 21 but walked 23.

Rehab Updates

Zack Erwin (elbow scope) threw his first batting practice today and his rehab from off-season surgery is progressing. Chris Kohler, Dustin Driver and Kris Hall have all had set-backs in their rehabs, however.

July 2nd Group

Of the players the A’s signed on July 2nd, only Lazaro Armenteros was invited to spring training, but the rest of the group will join Lazarito in Arizona at the start of Extended Spring Training, where they will spend six-to-eight weeks working with the A’s player development staff in Mesa. That group will then return to the A’s Dominican Academy for the start of the Dominican Summer League, which begins on June 3rd. They are all candidates to return to the States later in the summer for the Arizona Rookie League, depending on how they fare in Extended. 

Lazarito made his big league spring training debut this past weekend, to much fanfare. Lieppman has been impressed with how the teenager has handled his first taste of baseball in the United States.

“He’s done really well. He’s got really good plate discipline for a 17-year-old. I have been very impressed with what he has been able to do at his age,” Lieppman said. “In some case, he’s taken some third strikes, but he doesn’t swing out of the ‘zone a whole lot. He's squared the ball up. He’s got a great run tool. He seems to have a pretty good feel for hitting.”


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