Oakland A's Q&A: Keith Lieppman, Part Two

We conclude our interview with Oakland A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman. In this installment, we discuss Travis Buck's chances of making the big leagues this season, Daric Barton's defense and power potential, Matt Sulentic's ceiling, Jermaine Mitchell's potential, Javier Herrera's health and where he might play this season, the power relief arms in the A's system and more...

To read Part One of this interview, please click here.

OC: Switching to hitting a little bit, were you surprised how quickly Matt Sulentic was able to adjust to wooden bats and the higher level of pitching coming out of high school like that?

KP: I had heard a lot about him from the scouts during the draft meetings and they had talked a lot about his bat and they had also talked about how he didn't really have a position yet defensively, but they said that the bat would come really fast. You really don't anticipate when you send a high school kid into a college league [like the Northwest League], that he would do so well, so it was a surprise. I had heard how good his bat could be, but you just don't expect to see that right away.

I think we had Ben Grieve who was a high school kid who went to the Northwest League and he ended up doing okay in that league, so some guys handle it okay, but other get crushed so you really have to pick the right one that you really think can handle it. Sulentic is going to be a good player. Now he just really has to work on his defense.

OC: I know there had been some talk of moving Sulentic to the infield. Is that something that is going to happen or will he stay in the outfield?

KP: Not at this point. We are really just locked in on having him play in the outfield.

OC: He's a little bit on the smaller side. Do you anticipate that he will be able to put up the numbers to play in the outfield?

KP: Yeah, he's not really big, but he's put together well. He's very strong, he's just not physically tall, but he should be big enough to play in the outfield, absolutely.

OC: Another 2006 pick, Jermaine Mitchell, missed some significant time last season with injury, but looked fantastic when he was healthy in Vancouver. Are you expecting big things from him this season?

KP: Yeah, he is really fun to watch. He's very athletic. He runs well, puts the ball in play and he plays great defense. He is a good centerfielder. He is probably one of the best athletes in our system, so I think we'll be able to project him because of that athleticism and his skill level is going to improve a lot. In the Instructional Leagues, he made so many improvements that I think that along with his natural ability, good things are going to happen for him. I think things will come together pretty quickly for him. More than likely, he will start at Kane County and we'll go from there.

OC: And is Toddric Johnson likely to be in Kane County, as well?

KP: Yep, it is the same thing with him.

OC: Right now, both of them are centerfielders. Will they share time or will one be the primary centerfielder?

KP: It's funny. We'll try to play as many guys who are capable of playing centerfield out there. You know that we put Nick Swisher out there and most of his time in the minor leagues was as a centerfielder. And then he gets to the big leagues and he moves into the corners, but now with Mark Kotsay going down, there is a chance that Swisher could play some centerfield. We try to teach these guys to play the corner and centerfield. The guys who are capable of playing centerfield, we'll also put them on the corners. So we'll flip-flop those guys in center and the corners, to give them an opportunity to do both.

OC: Richie Robnett is another guy who has seen time in centerfield. He looked like he was on the verge of breaking out when he got hurt last season. Do you see him getting close to having it all come together?

KP: Especially after the fall. He went to the Instructional League, he went to the Arizona Fall League and he even went to Mexico Things are starting to, I guess, come together in his mind mentally. You know, physically, he's a specimen. He's outstanding and he really works hard. He just had to make these slight adjustments mentally with how pitchers are pitching him and I think that is the biggest challenge for him. How to adjust to what the opposition is doing to him. I think he is ready to take off. You look at his tools. He can really run and throw and he has great power and so forth. He's really right on the verge.

OC: Do you think it will be a benefit to him to have Todd Steverson as a manager again for the third straight year [this time in Midland, where Steverson will be managing for the first time]?

KP: Yeah, I think that Todd really pushes him in a number of ways, defensively, learning the game and being a professional. I think he really clicks with [Richie] and I think Richie is right on track to where he needs to be.

OC: Did Von Hayes [Midland's manager in 2005 and 2006] just decide to take a year off?

KP: Von had wanted to be the Triple-A manager, but Tony DeFrancesco has earned the right to keep that position and Von did not want to go back to Double-A so we didn't have anything for him. He just elected to walk away from the situation and hope that in the future something would open up.

OC: I know there was some talk that Tony would be promoted to be a coach at the big league level with the A's, but he is now returning to Triple-A. Do you guys see Tony as a prospect from a coaching perspective?

KP: Absolutely. He is so well-prepared and organized. He motivates the players and he has a good rapport.

OC: What has your impression been of the prospects playing in big league camp this spring, such as Daric Barton, Travis Buck, Kevin Melillo, Kurt Suzuki and Mike Mitchell, etc.?

KP: Well, Buck, as good as he has been doing, he is still being considered [for a major league roster spot]. Maybe it is not likely, but who knows? Andre Ethier was in the same mold as Buck and he ended up being ready. Sometimes an opportunity is what allows a guy that chance to prove that he is ready and maybe Buck is just like Andre. You don't really know for sure, but he is showing signs that he might be close.

OC: It seems like Barton has been hitting everything in sight. What are you seeing with Barton's defense?

KP: He is about where Dan Johnson was and Johnson turned himself into a really good first baseman. Barton is the same. Coming from being a catcher and Barton has also played some third base, he has the tools. He has very good hands. It's just learning the situations at first and adjusting to the way the ball comes at you differently [at first base]. He has all of the equipment to be a good first baseman.

OC: Is he someone that you see developing more homerun power down the road?

KP: You know, he hit one the other day. Things are starting to come together. He doesn't feel it all of the time, but he is starting to get a sense of when he swings where the ball is going off the bat and really feel it. When you start hitting for power, you can actually start to reproduce it and you can feel it and you can sense it.

A lot of guys really try to hit for power and just nothing happens, they just don't feel it, the ball doesn't come off the bat right, there is no backspin. Barton has gotten to that place, like Buck has, where they sense what is happening and it kind of moves fast from here.

OC: I know that last season Melillo was concentrating mostly on improving his defense. Have you seen a big improvement there?

KP: Very much so. I think that he has really worked hard at it and he continues to make improvements. Every opportunity, he'll take groundballs with Mark Ellis and he works a lot with the infield coach up there, Bob Schaefer, as well as Juan Navarette [the minor league fielding instructor] and he has a good balance right now with combining his work offensively and defensively. He understands that the guy ahead of him should be a Gold Glove second baseman and he's got to kind of be in the same category.

OC: Melillo played a little third base in the AFL. Is that something that he will continue to work on to improve his versatility?

KP: Absolutely. However you can help a guy like that out to become someone like an Antonio Perez, to put him in a position to be a utility guy at the big leagues if that is how his first entrance at the big leagues will have to be. So you try to expose him to a number of different positions. I believe he even played a game or two at short, so if he can do all three, it will certainly make his route that much easier.

OC: The A's currently have a lot more hard-throwing relief prospects than in year's past. Is that something that the organization has been looking to develop more of?

KP: It's interesting. Mitchell had come off of Tommy John surgery, so we hadn't really seen things like that [throwing hard] happening with him early and then all of a sudden, he starts flashing some 91, then 92 and the next thing you know, he's 94, 95. When he got healthy, the arm came back, the sink was there and he just sort of appeared out of nowhere – just because he had been hurt – but the velocity has really started to come up and increase.

We have a hard-throwing guy like Jason Ray. We tried him out as a starter, but we ended up thinking that he might be better suited out of the bullpen. That way, he can just stay consistent at 94, 95 with his fastball and know that he is in there for a short period of time. We have a number of good, young arms in terms of velocity.

There is a guy named Jeff Gray who started throwing some 93s and 95s last season in Kane County and Stockton. So we are starting to get some velocity guys in the system. We have traditionally had more off-speed, command, control guys and not a lot of hard throwers. Before, Santiago Casilla was really the only guy we had who was a 96 or 98 guy and now you have a Craig Italiano who can really get it up there.

OC: Is the thought with Italiano will have to move to the bullpen because of his injury?

KP: Not yet. I think we can still develop him as a starter, but we are certainly going to watch closely the number pitches he throws and how his shoulder feels.

OC: Were you surprised with how quickly Marcus McBeth was able to make that transition from position player to pitcher?

KP: Yeah, definitely. In fact, we were just talking about how difficult a transition it is not only to move from position player to pitcher, but also to be thrown in there as a closer. Not too many guys go from being a position player to a starter or a closer, especially a closer. When you factor all that in, to have him closing games and developing pitches, it is remarkable that he has been able to do as well as he has with limited innings in limited appearances. To put him in the fire like that, it's not really fair, but he likes it. He likes to get the ball, he likes the competition, so he has sort of eeked out his role as a closer.

OC: Would there ever be a situation where in a game he wasn't pitching, they would throw him back out there to play in centerfield?

KP: [laughs] No, he has had his time there. I suppose if there was a rare situation where it could happen, but it hasn't happened yet.

OC: So the era of the Tony La Russa using the pitcher as a pinch-runner in the 10th inning is a thing of the past [laughs]?

KP: If Tony were still here, he might think about it. Marcus is certainly capable of playing out there. In a lot of cases, he'd probably be a defensive upgrade. He used to have throwing contests between him and Javier Herrera before Marcus turned into a pitcher. They'd get in centerfield and just have these ego tests to see who could out-throw the other and it was impressive to watch the two of them before Herrera's surgery.

OC: Is Herrera back to throwing like 80-90 percent at this point?

KP: He's probably 80 percent right now.

OC: Are his reps in the outfield going to be limited early in the season?

KP: We are going to throw him out there. He needs the experience so probably we'll have him just not throw. In certain situations, he'll just lob the ball back [instead of throwing it full throttle]. It's a long, big picture thing with him.

OC: Will he start in Stockton?

KP: After missing a year, he might be best suited to start there and then maybe move after that.

OC: He was slated to start out in Stockton before he got hurt last season?

KP: Probably, but, you know, as good as he was looking last spring, there was some thought that he might be able to skip [to Midland], but that is not an easy switch.

OC: Is Tommy John surgery an injury that affects a player's swing or is it just really with his throwing?

KP: It is mostly the throwing, yeah. He has actually come back swinging the bat pretty well. He's looked good.

OC: Erubiel Durazo is another guy in camp who had that Tommy John surgery. I was surprised that he never got a chance at the big league level last season. How has looked to you? Is he all the way back?

KP: Absolutely. He had a great winter ball season. Eighteen homeruns, the ball getting off of the bat a lot better. He appears that he is back to being maybe even better than he was before. He has been very strong.

OC: Does he have an opt-out in his contract if he isn't placed on the 25-man roster coming out of camp?

KP: Yeah, he does.

OC: Did he get much time at first base this winter?

KP: I never did see him in the field, I think he mostly DH'd. I know he has really been working at it here. Bob Schaefer has spent a lot of time with him, fielding and throwing. Thus far, everything has been good.

OC: Another roster question: does Casilla have one more option left?

KP: Yes, he does.

OC: He missed a lot of time last season. Was it an elbow or a shoulder?

KP: He had an elbow.

OC: For guys like Brant Colamarino and Brian Stavisky who have had some time at Triple-A, but now have guys ahead of them in the system. Is it a difficult situation for guys like that who probably are more advanced than Double-A at this point, but might have to play there again this season?

KP: Extremely. You know, that is where you hope that there is an opportunity for them maybe elsewhere. Maybe you trade them or change positions or find some other avenue so that they can get a shot. That is the difficult part of this business. There becomes a pecking order or the competition just gets to the degree where one guy gets to play over the other and it becomes a situation where one guy has to sit or go back a level.

Both of those guys deserve chances, especially Stavisky. He has led the organization in walks, he has been a consistent .300-plus hitter and you root for those guys to get an opportunity and they really deserve it. Sometimes, maybe there is someone like a Ricky Ledee or someone who the major league team has to have ready for right now that may get the opportunity [at Triple-A] over him. It comes down to the make-up of the big league club and also trying to push the young prospects along and you just hope that he can be a part of it.

OC: Is that the most difficult part of your job?

KP: Without a doubt, it is difficult to balance this and to be fair with these guys and be up-front and tell them the situation. You try to give them the head's up for why we are doing this and the reasons behind it, but for some of them, it is just about numbers and things that they really can't control.

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