A's Front Office Q&A: Farhan Zaidi, Part One

Last week, we spoke to Oakland A's Baseball Operations Analyst Farhan Zaidi about a wide-range of Oakland A's-related topics. In the first part of the interview, he spoke with us about the A's recent draft and gave us his thoughts on players such as James Simmons, Danny Hamblin, Josh Horton and more...

OaklandClubhouse: I wanted to ask you your impressions of James Simmons. It's been awhile since the team has talked about starting a player as high as Double-A. What did you guys see in him that gives you the confidence that he can make that jump?

Farhan Zaidi: I think the one thing that you hear with James over and over again is just the command that he has. I don't remember off the top of my head, but I believe in Baseball America's ‘Best Tools' he was top-three in fastball command. I think if you are going to be placed aggressively for your first baseball assignment, I think that is the one area where, for a pitcher, you really have to be advanced is your ability to command the fastball. If you can do that and you can get outs with your fastball, that is really something that you are always going to be able to rely on.

I think that was the biggest thing with him. There are a lot of guys who have been drafted highly as college pitchers who have really good stats, but some of them are probably better equipped to make that jump than others. We think that James' fastball command is really outstanding, and it has given us the confidence to [start him at a high level].

OC: He's going to work out of the bullpen this season to limit his innings, is that right?

FZ: I think that is the plan at first. He is going to start out working out of the bullpen. I think we want to keep close track of the innings that he has thrown, including his college innings because he had a really big workload. We are going to be careful not to put unnecessary stress on him, but a lot of it depends on how he feels and how he does as he gets stretched out. It's kind of up in the air what his role will be all season, but he'll start out of the bullpen and go from there.

OC: But you guys see him as a starter long-term?

FZ: Definitely. I want to say that I read somewhere that this is a hint that we see him as a bullpen guy and that is absolutely not the case. I think he is going to be a starter all the way. Definitely I can say with 100 percent certainty that wherever he starts next year, coming into camp and having a chance to be stretched out and pitching with a fresh arm, he'll definitely be a starter.

OC: Was he the guy you were looking at in the months leading up to the draft as your number one choice, or were there a few guys that were in the running for that pick?

FZ: When you are picking fifth or sixth, I think it is easy to start zoning in on one guy, but when you are picking 26th, you are trying to develop a list of five or six guys that you could see dropping to you, but at the same time you would be very happy picking. I think he was in that mix of guys that we thought that there was a chance would be available and that we would be very happy taking. We had been looking at him all season. That is one of the reasons that when we were in LA – I believe it may have been that first series of the season – Billy [Beane] and David [Forst] actually went to see him pitch. He was definitely on the radar the entire time.

OC: Were you surprised with how the draft ended up with the team taking mostly four-year college players through the first 10 rounds or so?

FZ: Yeah, it was the kind of a situation where we have a draft board like every team has a draft board and we had high school players as well as college players on that board. It's not like we have a high school list and a college list and we kept going back to the college list. As it always is in the draft, it was strictly a best-player-available situation and those college position players we took after Simmons were all guys that were in our top-30 or so on our board. Those were all guys that we felt really good about.

I wouldn't say it was a result of some strategy that we wanted to go college-heavy in this draft. It was more a function of how the draft played out. Back in 2005, even, it wasn't like we approached that draft saying that we wanted to take a whole bunch of high school pitchers. It was kind of just how that draft board played out, as well. This year, I think it was a function of the fact that there was a group of college position players that we really liked and as long as guys from that group were available, that is where we wanted to focus.

OC: The A's took a couple of college closers in those first 10 rounds. When you are looking at college relievers, do you assess them and their stats differently than you would a collegiate starter who is throwing a lot more innings?

FZ: That is a really good question. I think that this is one of the cases where you do have an issue of the stats being somewhat limited just because almost every college closer has really good numbers. They mostly have sub-2.00 ERAs and more than a strikeout an inning. Even if you take those two numbers as a filter, and those are pretty good numbers, you are going to wind-up with a group of college closers, some of who are outstanding prospects and some of who are senior-signs. At that point, you really have to go to the scouting reports.

Now, the two guys that we took – Andrew Carignan and Sam Demel – had outstanding numbers and struck-out a bunch of guys and had had success on the Cape the summer before. They certainly had the numbers in their favor. But you can't just stop there in evaluating them. Our scouts who had seen these guys repeatedly really liked them, really liked their make-up, which is obviously really important with a guy that you see as a late-inning reliever down the road, and they felt that Carignan and Demel had the stuff to go along with those numbers.

There are college closers who have numbers, but don't necessarily have the stuff that you think will translate to pro ball. And the opposite is true too. There are guys who have big league stuff who have trouble with their command or give up homers or some other performance-related issue. What you try to do is match-up both aspects. There is some feeling that you have to pick and choose your spots when picking relievers in the draft because, at least by conventional wisdom, relievers are not as valuable as starters. But if you have guys who you think are big leaguers, you can justify taking those guys pretty much anywhere in the draft. When we are sitting around the room and talking about a relief pitcher and someone steps up and says that this guy is a big leaguer, that is a pretty strong stamp of approval and you are willing to look past any concerns that ‘oh, this guy is a relief pitcher and should we be looking at starting pitchers or position players here.'

OC: Has there been a change in the thinking about minor league relievers? I know in the past, most big league relievers were starters in the minors, but with guys like Huston Street and Chad Cordero pitching exclusively as relievers before coming to the major leagues, has the thinking changed about how the performance of a minor league reliever will translate to the major leagues?

FZ: I was actually just talking to Eric Kubota about this last [Tuesday]. We were watching the College World Series and they had flashed up a stat about career saves because I think Blair Erickson was pitching, and I said that it was a little bit weird that all of those guys had pitched fairly recently [the ones on the leader board]. I asked him if the closer phenomenon was fairly recent in college and he said that it isn't that the closer phenomenon is recent in college, but that for colleges to put one of their best pitchers in the closer role is a more recent phenomenon. I think that is the root of where you are starting to see guys come into pro ball as relievers and stay in that role all the way through to the major leagues.

I think it starts with the fact that collegiate programs are starting to put maybe one of their top two or three pitchers in that role and they get drafted in that role and make their way through the system as relievers. Before, the top three pitchers on any college staff were the three starters.

I also think that the success of guys like Huston or Cordero have spurred other teams into thinking that these are guys who can move quickly and that maybe you can get instant dividends on. Joe Smith of the Mets is another example. I think it is really rooted in the fact that colleges are using some of their best pitchers as closers and guys are really groomed for that role at an earlier age. Maybe the fact that they are placed in that role in an earlier age helps them develop better as relievers over guys who were starters that were then converted to relievers in pro ball who would then have an adjustment period that would length out their development a little bit.

OC: Is there anyone who was picked after, say, the first four or five rounds who you think has a chance to be a real diamond in the rough in terms of performance in relation to the spot at which he was drafted?

FZ: I don't really want to pinpoint specific players because pretty much everyone who you pick at that point, even in the later rounds, is someone who somebody in the organization feels strongly about – whether it be an area scout or a cross-checker or even one of us. It's a little bit early to say because some of the guys who we took late who we really like are guys who we haven't signed yet and we are not sure that we are going to sign.

OC: You did go all 50 rounds this year for the first time in awhile.

FZ: Yeah, we did. [laughs] I think a big part of that was that we were looking to give ourselves some options. It gave us the opportunity to take some guys who were maybe undecided about going to school and maybe keep track of them over the summer. I think our scouts enjoy being able to keep track of a player over the summer – whether that player is a high schooler playing Legion ball or a college player playing summer ball. You don't want to do that if you have absolutely no intention of signing a player because it is unfair to the kid to be drafted by a team that isn't even interested in talking to him. Everybody that we took, we want at least to follow them and have a conversation with them. There is no guarantee that anything gets done, though.

OC: I know that Travis Banwart signed already, but I hadn't seen him on a short-season roster yet. Is he a guy who would be assigned to a full-season affiliate because he was already so polished as a pitcher?

FZ: I think he is going to wind-up in Vancouver. To be honest, I was just asking someone about this the other day. I'm not really sure, but I am pretty sure he is going to start in Vancouver.

OC: I know that 10th round pick Danny Hamblin was a re-draft from the 2006 draft. What did you guys see in him both years that made you take him twice? Do you see good power growth down-the-road for him, even though he had a shoulder injury in college?

FZ: The shoulder injury is unfortunate because, at least right now, it limits him to playing at first base. He can't really play third, but that is something that hopefully if his shoulder strengthens down the road, he'll be able to play a little bit at third. I think what we like about him is that he is a right-handed bat, which is an area where we are a little bit left-leaning in the organization right now. The fact that he is right-handed and the fact that he has some power – I believe he hit 22 homers after getting off to slow start this season – and all of our guys say that he takes one of the best BPs of any guy with a wood bat that you'll ever see.

Right-handed power is probably one of the biggest needs in our organization right now. We really liked him last year and we couldn't get anything done and he wanted to go back to school. In that spot, in the 10th round, we were very happy to get him there this season.

OC: What do you see from Josh Horton [A's third round pick] and how does he compare to shortstops you have drafted in the recent past, such as Cliff Pennington?

FZ: Everyone think that Horton is a player with really good baseball aptitude. What excites us about him is that he is a legitimate middle infielder who will be an offensive contributor on top of that. To have a guy in the middle of the infield who is also going to help you score some runs is great. He is a guy who we think can stay at shortstop. I know there has been some question about whether he can stay at shortstop [from people outside of the organization], but we really think that he as the arm and range to play at short.

He has had great walk-to-strikeout numbers throughout his career and even if you look at the way he has played in the College World Series, he has hit well against some really good pitching. The other thing about him that might be a little underrated is that he is a really good athlete. He was a quarterback in high school and the athleticism is something that our guys really talked about with him, so that is another aspect of his game that is really exciting. It's a little bit hard to compare him to other shortstops we have taken. Pennington was a different player. Coming out of college, one of his big tools was his arm strength and he maybe had a little bit better speed.

They are a little bit different in that the range of tools for both guys might be different, but they are both guys who are outstanding college performers. With Pennington, he probably would have moved a lot faster if he hadn't been bogged down by the injuries last year. Knock on wood, if Josh is healthy, he'll move pretty quickly through the system, as well.

Stay tuned this week for the rest of our interview with Farhan Zaidi. The remainder of this interview will be premium content. If you are not currently a subscriber to OaklandClubhouse.com, be sure to sign-up by clicking here .

In the remaining parts of the interview, we discuss the A's approach to player development and how the A's front office assesses players in their own system. We also touch on how the A's scout players from other organizations, especially those whom the A's make a waiver claim on or make a trade for. In addition, we talk about the production of Jack Cust and the affect of injuries on the ballclub.

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