Oakland A's Post-Season Q&A: Farhan Zaidi, P2

Our post-season conversation with Oakland A's Baseball Operations Analyst Farhan Zaidi continues. In Part Two, we discuss the acquisition of Jack Hannahan, the future role of Jack Cust, the defensive value of Mark Ellis, and the reasoning behind the Milton Bradley trade...

For Part One of our conversation with Farhan Zaidi, please click here.

OaklandClubhouse: What was your evaluation process when you were considering trading for Jack Hannahan from Detroit?

Farhan Zaidi: With Jack Hannahan, it was the same process going back to when we acquired Jack Cust. You know that you are going to have a lot of playing time available and you want to go out and acquire a player who you think deserves a major league opportunity who, for some reason or another, hasn't been given an opportunity and is a player where people will look at his stat line and wonder what he would do if he was given regular at-bats at the major league level. That was the case with both guys.

With Jack Cust, he was sort of the typical guy where people would focus so much on what he couldn't do rather than what he could do and we just kind of put him in our line-up and said, ‘just do what you do well.' I think it was the same thing with Hannahan. In Jack [Cust's] case, we were looking for DHs and corner outfield-types with some performance history that we thought would do well if given consistent at-bats at the major league level. We did the same thing when we knew [Eric] Chavez was going to be, at best, day-to-day and possibly out for the season. We didn't want to just plug the hole. We wanted to go out and give a guy a chance who we thought could develop into a real asset for us, and that was Hannahan.

In essence, we took a look at all minor league third basemen, isolated the top performers, and reviewed our scouting reports on those players. In Hannahan's case, it was a difficult time of year to be looking to trade for a marquee prospect. Him being an older player [27] and having been out-righted off of the Tigers' roster, we thought he'd be a good target for a trade. In his case, I think it was the situation that he had outstanding performance, we had some history with him as a player – in that we had looked at him in the draft when he was coming out of Minnesota – and he was a realistic trade target, so we were confident that we would be able to work something out.

OC: Obviously, in an ideal world, Eric Chavez will be back and playing third base for the A's at the start of next season. If that is the case, where do you see Jack Hannahan fitting in on the team next season? I know he played some second base in the Tigers' chain. Are you looking for him to play a couple of positions this spring to add to his versatility?

FZ: Yeah, absolutely. As we already talked about, Chavez is a little bit of an uncertainty on whether he is going to be ready at the absolute start of the season, so a guy like Jack Hannahan who has now played 40 games at third base and has done a good job defensively and has held his own offensively, is a nice player to have. Like you said, he has played some second base and that was something that we talked about when we acquired him, saying that maybe he is a guy who could give [Mark] Ellis a day off occasionally and he was just so good and consistent at third base that that opportunity never arose.

Certainly going into spring training next year, he is a guy who we may move around the infield just because that added versatility will make him more useful at the major league level when some of these guys get back. I can definitely see that being the plan for him during spring training next year.

OC: Speaking of Mark Ellis, he is obviously coming off of another outstanding season defensively at second base. Based on your own analysis, can you quantify how much his defense has meant to the A's pitching staff over the last few years?

FZ: Just speaking somewhat generally, without trying to put a specific number on it, his defense probably adds one or two wins to the team's total every year. It doesn't sound like a lot to say one or two wins, but that is actually a lot. An above-average offensive player's offensive contribution is usually one or two wins. For a player to do that defensively, I think is a very big deal. There aren't that many players – maybe 20 or 25 guys at all positions – who add that much value defensively. We definitely appreciate and value his defense. Like I said, one or two wins probably means saving 20 runs a year or something like that. That's before you start to count his offensive contribution, which was obviously very strong as well this year.

That [defense] is something that we look at that is a little more difficult to get your head around analytically. With defensive positioning, there is a little bit more subjectivity about whether a player should have gotten to a ball or whatever, but one of the things that is important is to be able to weigh all of those contributions equally. Rather than just being able to say, ‘this guy is a good hitter, but he is not a good defender' or to say ‘this guy is a great defender and we just have to live with his bat,' we try to take the sum of a player's contributions and measure them all on the same metric to evaluate his overall value, which is something that we think is very important to evaluate players.

OC: You got to see Jack Cust play out in the outfield a lot over the last few months of the season. I know that defense will never be the strength of his game, but do you feel like you saw enough from him that you'd feel comfortable playing him out there if the opportunity presented itself for the team to add a designated hitter type this off-season? Or do you see him as the DH-only next season?

FZ: When we acquired him, it was to be the designated hitter. That was the motivation when [Mike] Piazza went down. [Cust] had always been known as someone who was more of an offensive player. So that was our original intention. But when we acquired him, our own analysis of his defense was that his defense wasn't nearly as bad as his reputation that he had coming here. However it looked aesthetically, he actually got to a number of balls. He has an average to above-average throwing arm. There will be an occasional misplay, but as difficult as that can be to watch, you can really put a value on how much that miscue was worth. The proper way to do that is to measure that along with his very positive offensive production. You get his offensive production whether he is in the outfield or at DH, so ideally you'd like to see him at DH.

But I understand your question, which is that if there was another player who was limited defensively, would it be worth putting him out there and living with the consequences to get more offense in the line-up? And I would say that is something that we are comfortable with and it is one of the reasons that we are happy with him having played out there as much as he did. I think with a player like him, it starts to become a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy when people start saying, ‘oh, you are not a good defensive player.' Then that player goes out there and has that in his mind mentally and he knows that he is making his money by hitting and maybe he's not focusing as much on his defense. I think, on the other hand, the fact that we played him out there as much as we did, he knew that defense was something that he would have to work on day-in and day-out with our coaching staff, be a little more diligent about his drills and be a little bit more focused when he is out on the field. I think you saw the benefit. There were still a few adventures out there, but he made a lot of plays that may have surprised people. Like I said, you can sort of live with the results when it's in the context of: ‘he's not a Gold Glove outfielder, but he's better than people think.' When you add in the offensive contribution that you can get from him, while he is playing in the field makes it a little more valuable.

It's definitely an option for us going forward [having Cust play in the field], and this is something that we have talked about with the team or roster construction in general. Just because the rules dictate that you can have a DH doesn't mean that you have to go out and get a guy who can't play in the field. It just means that there is a guy in the line-up that day who isn't playing a defensive position. To maximize your roster flexibility, ideally you would have 13 guys who could all go out there and play a position and rotate guys through the DH spot.

Some people will say that some guys are just more comfortable DHing and they produce more, but if you look at Jack's splits, for instance, his OPS was significantly higher when he was playing in the outfield than when he was DHing, at least the last time that I looked [957 OPS as an outfielder/ 874 OPS as a DH]. I think the ideal way to use the designated hitter spot is to rotate all of the position players through that spot and give guys a day off in the field.

OC: Obviously, the last two years the A's signed players [Mike Piazza and Frank Thomas] who were really not capable of playing in the field. If there isn't a big name available, do you see the team rotating players through the DH spot more and do you think it could lessen some of the injuries to have a guy like Travis Buck DH once a week or so?

FZ: It's definitely a consideration, especially when you consider the way the team lines up at the moment. Of course, this is assuming no moves, which is maybe not a fair assumption, but we've got [Nick] Swisher, [Travis] Buck, [Mark] Kotsay, [Chris] Denorfia, we have a pretty good collections of outfielders – Chris Snelling, if he is healthy, Shannon Stewart, who is still under consideration to bring him back, so you might have five or six guys out there and you might have no choice but to rotate those guys through the DH spot. That's definitely a possibility and because of the depth that we have at the outfield position, it might be the ultimate solution.

OC: Speaking of outfield depth, going back to June when the decision was made to designate Milton Bradley for assignment, what was the dream scenario for how the playing time would have worked out, assuming that players didn't end up getting hurt, as they did after that trade?

FZ: I can't exactly remember going back to that time what our playing time situation was. We had some subset of players hurt at every portion of the year, so to be honest, I can't quite remember who was healthy and who wasn't at that point in time. But, at that point, I think Jack Cust had emerged as an everyday player, Travis Buck was playing well, we knew we had Swisher, who was playing very well. I can't even remember where Piazza was, I think he was rehabbing. Shannon [Stewart] was playing every day and playing very well and I think Mark Kotsay was playing and we really needed to get him in the line-up. At the time, he was just wrapping up [his rehab] because I think he came back on June 1st, and there was still a belief that with more at-bats, he would start to feel more and more comfortable post-surgery and really start producing.

We had a lot of options in the mix and that was even before you talk about Dan Johnson, who almost has to be included in that mix because Swisher can go back and forth between the outfield and first. Keep in mind, too, that at the time we still had Daric Barton in the minors, who was someone we wanted to see in the big leagues at some point during the year.

I think with Milton Bradley, the reality was two things: 1) he really had a difficult time staying healthy with us and that manifested itself out in the first half of the season this year, and even last year, when I think he played only 100 or 115 games [actually 96]. Realistically, when you are putting together a roster and you have all of these other options that emerge because of the injuries that we had, one of the most difficult things to manage is a player who has a lot of day-to-day issues where you don't know on any given day whether that player is going to be made available. With the other injuries that we had, it was just difficult to manage the situation.

I will be the first person to say that Milton Bradley has all of the talent in the world and when he is healthy and when he is going well, he is one of the most fun players to watch play in baseball. But we had other injuries and other players who had earned playing time [while Bradley was out]. We sort of backed into this situation given that Travis Buck was a player who we didn't envision making the team [in spring training], but once he made it, it was clear that he was one of our best players. I think there are other organizations that would have said, ‘well, let's just keep Milton on the team and send Travis Buck back to Triple-A and know that we have him there if we ever need him' and basically give ourselves maximum flexibility. But I think this organization has not been built making decisions like that, pushing guys back just for the sake of having depth. I think this organization is more about saying once a young player has proved his worth at the major league level and it is clear that he is a major league player, he deserves to stay there. And I think Travis had earned that right.

I would say the same thing about Jack Cust. He had his ups-and-downs, but at the end of the year, you look up and he had a 900 OPS, which is something that Milton has done only once in his career, and I think even that year, he only hit 400 at-bats. I can understand that there was some frustration on the fans' part [when Bradley was traded] because of the talent that Milton possesses and the fact that you can dream on him when he is in the line-up and producing like he did during the ALCS last year. On the same token, when you are looking at 162 games and you have a guy who is playing half of those games or two-thirds of those games, it puts an incredible strain on the rest of the roster. You might say, ‘well why was he there in the first place?' [given Bradley's injury history], but at that point other options had emerged that weren't there at the start of the season. Even with Kotsay, he had come back from his surgery earlier than we had anticipated. It was just a combination of those guys emerging, Mark coming back earlier than expected and something just had to give.

OC: What was the thinking behind going the DFA route as opposed to dealing Bradley when he was still on the active roster? Were there attempts to move him before he was DFA'd or do you find that the team's leverage isn't really as compromised when a player is DFA'd as it would seem?

FZ: I would say that we had some relatively informal discussions prior to that point, but nothing concrete, I don't believe. I think there was a lot of frustration on the fans' part in that they believed that we had compromised our position or whatever leverage we might have had trading him. And I have just found that, based on my own experience, that that is totally not the case. The fact of the matter is that when you designate a player for assignment, if there are teams out there that are interested in that player, they will call you.

Everybody sees the transaction report. Everybody knows that player is available. Any team that was interested in Milton Bradley got a transaction bulletin that said that this person has been designated for assignment. In a way, and I know it sounds a little bit crude, but designating a player is almost like free advertising. Instead of picking up the phone and calling 30 GMs, you are putting it out there by saying that ‘we are moving this player, feel free to make your best offer over the next few days.' I can see why a fan looking in from the outside might feel like your leverage is compromised because you have to make a move at the end of those 10 days, but if this is a true market that is operating then everyone should come forward to you with what they were willing to give up in a trade.

I think it is a little bit over simplistic to say that your leverage is compromised when you DFA a player. Obviously, from a roster perspective, it is always ideal because he comes off the roster right away and you are able to bring in somebody else who can take that player's spot, whether it is on the 40-man or it is usually on the 25-man, In this case, as is the case with any other DFA, the industry as a whole knew that the player was available and knew that we were going to move him in the next 10 days and the teams that were interested came to us and we talked to them. I don't think that operated any differently than it would have if we hadn't DFA'd him.

OC: I believe that there had been an initial deal in place involving Milton Bradley and Kansas City. When that fell through, had the team already had Andrew Brown with San Diego in mind as a target, or did that deal develop later?

FZ: San Diego had some interest while we were talking to Kansas City, so we knew that there was some interest there. When the deal with Kansas City fell through once they expressed some reservations about Milton's health status, we just went back to San Diego. Andrew Brown is a player who we had followed. When he was out-righted by San Diego this spring, he was a player we had talked about claiming because we had very good scouting reports on him and he is a player who has good stuff and who has always struck a lot of players out in the minors, which is what we look for in a relief pitcher. At that point, he was a fairly obvious target for us. It came together pretty quickly after that point.

Stay tuned for the rest of this interview later this week.

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