Oakland A's Post-Season Q&A: Farhan Zaidi, P3

In the final installment of our post-season conversation with Oakland A's Baseball Operations Analyst Farhan Zaidi, we discuss the state of the farm system, the futures of Andrew Brown and Santiago Casilla, the major league debuts of Daric Barton, Dan Meyer and Dallas Braden, the development of Kurt Suzuki and the progress of James Simmons.

For Part One of this interview, click here. For Part Two of this interview, click here.

OaklandClubhouse: I believe both Andrew Brown and Santiago Casilla are out of options next season?

Farhan Zaidi: That's right.

OC: Assuming Justin Duchscherer and Kiko Calero are healthy again, are you comfortable going to camp with both Brown and Casilla competing potentially for only one spot or would you look to make a trade during the off-season to make room for everyone?

FZ: Well, relief pitching, at least right now, is probably one of our positions of best depth. And that's assuming that Justin Duchscherer and Kiko Calero are healthy. Part of the answer is that some of those assumptions are often difficult to make. The more depth you have, the easier it is to deal with those injuries. But I understand the question because players who are out of options are always a little bit tricky. You'd like to almost have them penciled in because you don't want to have to worry about whether this is a guy we might have to try to get through out-rights or whether this is a guy who we might have to trade in spring training.

Certainly there are configurations of the team where we see having both players on the roster going into next season, even if some of those other guys are healthy. But it is certainly possible that if we are in trade talks with teams, some group of our relief pitchers will come up just because, as I said, that is a position of depth for us.

So it is certainly possible that something could happen there, but we don't view either of those guys with any particular urgency in part because despite the fact that they both had their ups and downs, they both threw 40-plus [major league] innings and both had respectable ERAs, both struck out guys and for their first real consistent major league time, they acquitted themselves pretty well. We view them as definite options for the major league bullpen next year.

In my limited experience, these things [having players who are out of options] have their own way of working themselves out, whether players don't come back from injuries as quickly as you might expect or who know? [laughs] But I think the important thing with players like that who are out of options is that, in this case, [Brown and Casilla] certainly pitched enough and pitched well enough this year that we are comfortable with them being contributors at the major league level.

OC: Daric Barton obviously had an impressive major league debut in September. I thought that the timing of his recall to Oakland was interesting. He had been sort of a streaky hitter all season and was obviously coming off of a red-hot week during the first round of the PCL playoffs. Did his hot streak against Salt Lake play into the timing of when he was recalled? Were you hoping that bringing him up when he was seeing the ball well would increase his chances of having a successful debut or was it just time for him to be in the big leagues regardless?

FZ: He is certainly a player that we have obviously kept an eye on constantly as an organization to try to evaluate when the best time would be to bring him up to the major league level. Even going back to 2006, if he hadn't hurt his [elbow], he might have gotten to the major league level a lot sooner. Going back to the spring, he had a really good spring, but we felt that it was important for his development that he get a full season in at the Triple-A level.

Obviously, he got incredibly hot in June, but, again, that was at a time when we had players coming back in the outfield, DH and at first base that led to the playing time and roster crunch that resulted in us releasing [Bobby] Kielty and trading Milton Bradley. Even after we had made those moves, there still wasn't going to be regular playing time for Daric [in the big leagues] and we thought again that he could benefit from regular playing time at the Triple-A level.

As September 1st got closer, we really started to focus more on this issue and we were trying to figure out when the best time would be to bring him up. Once Sacramento made the playoffs, we all felt that it made sense for him to go through at least one round of the playoffs with the team. When he did what he did in the playoffs, he sort of forced our hand and put us in a position where we thought ‘this guy has had a pretty good season at the Triple-A level and he is absolutely the hottest hitter down there right now.' As it turned out, he got a perfect amount of experience [in the major leagues]. He got something like 72 at-bats, which is a good amount, while at the same time maximizing his experience at the Triple-A level.

I think if we had done it any sooner, he would have missed out on an important developmental experience of being in the Triple-A playoffs. Having the series that he did – not that we knew that was going to happen – but I think it gave him a lot more confidence. By the same token, if he had been left in Triple-A to participate in the PCL finals and then in the Bricktown Showdown, it probably would have been another eight or 10 days, which would have given him 40 or 50 at-bats [at the major league level].

At this point, in hindsight, even though it was a little unfortunate to take him away from the Sacramento ballclub that was such a great success story this season and was on such a great run at the time, they certainly did fine and I think that we are all very happy that we called him up when we did. I think every at-bat that he got, he got better and he's a guy that we can now see being a major contributor next season.

OC: I was impressed with how easily Barton seemed to be able to adjust to the speed of the major league game, especially defensively. Were you surprised with how well he was able to handle first base?

FZ: It helps that he is a pretty confident kid. In interviews you would read with him, he would say that he definitely had nerves out there, but also he has that sense of belonging that all really good young players have. I think that's a huge part of doing well on the field when you first come up is having a certain comfort level, which he certainly has. You saw it when he was at the plate, too. He didn't try to do too much. He stuck to the same approach that we saw in spring training and that he exhibited throughout the Triple-A season.

I think a lot of it has to do with his own inner confidence in believing that he belongs here and he has an approach that, offensively at least, translates really well to the major league level, which is that he sees a lot of pitches and he hits the pitch that he wants to hit and doesn't try to pull outside pitches or generally do too much.

OC: I always thought the questions about Barton's power were a little over-blown, but were you surprised with the opposite field power he showed and his high slugging percentage during his September call-up?

FZ: Just going back to the homerun that he hit on the last day of the season, that was pretty impressive for him to get that ball over that scoreboard in the opposite field. Having seen him in spring training the last three years and having seen him over the years, he has definitely matured a little bit physically and he has gotten stronger. He has always been a guy who seemed to be selective with the pitches that he chose to try to pull. He's not the kind of guy who is looking to hit every ball into the seats. On certain pitches, he is really just trying to dump the ball into left-field. When he gets a pitch he can drive, he really puts an impressive swing on it. I think we had all seen enough of him, and we had seen those swings where he was really trying to put a charge in the ball to know that this was a guy who certainly could be a middle-of-the-order hitter in the big leagues.

I think that sometimes people were fooled by that selectivity. They saw him with that good approach and watched him dump a ball into the opposite field and the question immediately started arising about whether this guy was really a middle-of-the-order first base-type hitter. I just think it speaks to his offensive versatility, that he is a guy who can drive a ball when the situation calls for it and at other times, he'll take what the pitcher gives him. Is he going to slug .639 for an entire season? [laughs] It would be nice, but I think it is too much to expect that, but he'll do fine.

I think I remember having similar conversations about Travis Buck when watching him in spring training this year. He would hit a ball in the gap and I would think to myself, ‘you know, everybody talks about this guy and wonders about whether he is going to hit enough homeruns, but I could get used to watching him hit balls into the gap and run-around the bases.' There is nothing wrong with doubles and triples, let's put it that way. Certainly, if you do hit them with the frequency that Travis and Daric Barton do, that's going to help you win a lot of games at the major league level.

With both guys – for instance, if you look at Travis hitting seven homeruns in his 280 or so at-bats – I don't think that anyone has any question that this is a guy who can hit 20 to 30 homers a year. It's the same situation with Daric. I don't think that there is any question that this is a guy who has very legitimate power and he could hit 20 to 30 homers in a season. But nobody is really fixated on that number. We are concentrating more on him getting his base-hits and getting his walks and getting on-base at a high percentage. If he is hitting the ball hard consistently, the numbers will take care of themselves.

OC: Kurt Suzuki got a lot more playing time at the big league level than you would have expected at the start of the season. How much of an advantage going into next season do you think Suzuki will have since he was in the big leagues for more than just a September call-up?

FZ: It's definitely huge. It's good because being a catcher is about so much more than just going out there and getting your at-bats in. Learning the physical necessities of the position is important. As the catcher, he is one of the first to come into the clubhouse every day. He has to sit down every day with the coaching staff. He goes over the game plan with them and then he sits and talks to the pitchers and goes over how they want to approach hitters. So much of being the team's everyday catcher is the preparation for the game, and knowing the league and knowing the hitters and all of that stuff.

There are things that Kurt can still get better at physically, things like blocking balls, especially like balls from pitchers on our staff, like say [Dan] Haren's splitter or Joe Blanton's curveball, so that will come with experience. But let's be realistic, he's been working on that stuff, like blocking balls, ever since he has been a catcher. It's not like he's come up here and he is learning these things for the first time. It is a very long learning process and we are just seeing the last little bit of it at this level.

But the issues of learning our pitchers and learning the hitters in our league, that is all stuff that he is going through for the first time. To take care of that process, or at least get a big head start on that process, in a half season this year is huge. I think our entire team is going to be better for it. He is going to be a better catcher. Our pitchers are going to be more confident in him and more comfortable throwing to him and I think it is going to be a huge plus for our team going into next year.

OC: Dan Meyer and Dallas Braden obviously had some ups and downs at the major league level, but had great seasons in the minor leagues. What do you see as their next steps?

FZ: I think you said it best. They were great in Triple-A and we got to watch them a lot on MiLB.tv and going up to Sacramento for a few games. They clearly proved themselves ready for the next level as far as that was concerned, but they definitely both had their struggles up here. I think that was a result of a combination of a few things. For one, almost every starter has a bit of a struggle when he first gets up to the big leagues. In fairness to both of those players, if you look at their splits, I think they were both more effective as relief pitchers. There is that Earl Weaver school of thought that that is how to break pitchers in. Break them in in the bullpen and get them used to big league hitters and then put them into the starting role.

Unfortunately, with a guy like Dallas, we didn't have that luxury because we were so desperate for starting pitching early in the year. We called him up after he had had only one or two Triple-A starts. I think the big thing with Dallas is just getting more experience. The fact that he has so little Triple-A experience, I think that was a little bit exposed when he got up here. Having Triple-A experience helps prepare a pitcher for the big leagues because at least at Triple-A, you are facing hitters with a little more experience, a lot of guys who have had some major league experience, a lot of guys who have been around for a long time. A lot of people say that the talent is really the best at the Double-A level, but I think the biggest challenge for pitchers is to learn their craft at the Triple-A level. That's the level that you have experienced players who can make adjustments and think through their at-bats and think about pitch sequences.

Dallas just really needs more experience facing experienced hitters, and thinking a little bit more about pitch sequences and not just going to his change-up whenever he needs a swing-and-miss pitch and getting it because he is facing over-anxious hitters who haven't really thought through that the next pitch coming could be a change-up. We still really believe that Dallas has a future as a starting pitcher. For him, it's just a matter of him getting more experience starting in Triple-A or pitching out of the bullpen in the major leagues or even starting in the big leagues, if he proves himself worthy of doing it. He definitely has the weapons to be getting major league hitters out. His fastball is sneaky quick and he's got a pretty good breaking ball and his change-up is obviously a very good weapon for him. He had 55 strikeouts in 72 [big league] innings. That is, for a rookie pitcher, a pretty impressive number.

As far as Dan Meyer goes, it was obviously just a feat for him to be pitching considering the very small likelihood the doctors gave him that he would even be pitching again. He widely exceeded our expectations with his performance this season, especially his last couple of months in Triple-A when he did so well. I don't want to read too much into his performance at the big league level because if you looked at his stat-line, you would say that that is the kind of thing that happens to a starting pitcher when he first comes up to the big leagues. Starters struggle, they get hit pretty hard and as time goes on, they learn and they get better. There are very few starting pitchers who come up and deal right away at the big league level. I'm very happy that we had a chance to get him up here and he was able to get some experience and to start to get a sense of what you need to do to get major league hitters out.

I think with both of Dallas and Dan, I think they both now have an appreciation for how much preparation it takes to get major league hitters out. I spoke to a lot of guys who watched [Dallas and Dan] at Triple-A and they got a lot of their strikeouts when hitters chased pitches out of the strikezone. Players would chase on Dallas' change-up and with Dan, I think he got a lot of strikeouts just throwing sliders hard in the dirt against both lefties and righties. When you get to the major league level, hitters aren't swinging at those pitches. It's just a matter of making the adjustment and knowing you have to have a little more faith in your secondary pitches to keep hitters off-balance. I think that will come in time. I think we all believe that they will be good starting pitchers over time.

OC: I believe that Meyer is in the same situation as the aforementioned Brown and Casilla in that he is out of options. Could it be the case that even if you believe in Meyer as a starting pitcher long term, you may carry him next season as a reliever to avoid having him go through the out-right waivers process?

FZ: Definitely. He worked a couple of times out of the bullpen and actually did fine in that role. Again, I always go back and forth. A lot of times you wind-up putting these guys in the rotation out of necessity, but there are times when I think that in a perfect world it does make sense to break all pitchers in out of the bullpen and eventually stretch guys out and move them back into the rotation once they have a feel for how to get major league hitters out.

In some ways, as you said, it might be out of necessity [to put Meyer in the bullpen] because of roster considerations, but in another sense, it might just be the best thing for him to have him throw out of the bullpen and maybe be in a long role where he can build up some innings and maintain some length, but also maybe pitch in some less pressurized situations and not have that pressure of being that guy every fifth day. That might be something that benefits his development anyway, and it may also be partly out of necessity.

OC: This season there were a handful of pitchers who were selected out of college in 2006 who made a difference on playoff squads, i.e. Joba Chamberlain. James Simmons, the A's first pick this season, already pitched at Double-A. Do you see him as a pitcher who could possibly make his major league debut within a year of being selected?

FZ: Simmons ultimately acquitted himself pretty well at the Double-A level. He had that sub-4.00 ERA. He came out and was light's out and then he struggled for awhile and then he kind of got his bearings back a little bit. Part of that was that we had originally planned to have him pitch out of the bullpen only this season to keep his innings down, but he pitched so well that we tried to challenge him with a couple of starts. I think it was a little bit too much for him to handle given his college work load and he went back to the bullpen and finished off the season well.

If you were to draw up a player who could move very quickly through the system, it would be a guy like him who has great command and who throws strikes and is a college pitcher who had a lot of success in college and is an intelligent guy who has an idea of how to pitch. He's definitely the prototype for moving aggressively, but just like everybody else, he's probably going to go to minor league camp [next spring] and then based on what he shows there, a decision will be made on where he will be assigned and where he'll start the season.

It's not a situation where we have a time-line for him all mapped out. He's only got 29 professional innings. He might be ready some time next year or he might be ready two years down the road or even after that. It was just a situation this year where we knew he had the polish to make the jump to Double-A and we wanted to see how he would do and we knew that he was going to be pitching limited innings and probably pitching out of the bullpen. That probably made us more aggressive with where we assigned him. Once we move him back to the rotation, there are going to be a number of factors that will go into where we decide to send him. We don't feel any urgency to push him along any faster than his development would otherwise indicate.

OC: How do you asses the system as a whole right now? Where do you feel the system's strengths and weaknesses are at this point?

FZ: Going into this season, most people viewed our top three prospects as Buck, Barton and Suzuki. Now those guys are all in positions to be major contributors to our team next year. They all did really well in whatever time they had at the major league level this year. Going into this year, I think a lot of people viewed our system as being pretty weak, and yet we are coming out of it with three major league ready players that we feel pretty good about.

It's very easy to sit down and have these competitions and play different farm systems off of each other in terms of what players are there in the system that you can really dream on who can be franchise players. Ultimately, it is about how many guys you are actually graduating to the major league level and who become important parts of your team. I understand where some of the criticism is coming from. I would say that we are probably behind a lot of teams in terms of high ceiling talent, but that is partly because of our draft philosophy.

It's also partly because realistically guys who have high ceilings are players who we move very aggressively and who get to the big league level very quickly. There are probably organizations where Travis Buck would be in Double-A or Triple-A right now. I think that the aggressiveness with which we push guys and the aggressiveness with which we create major league opportunities for guys when we think that they are ready for it is partly what makes it seem like every off-season ‘wow, they did have those guys, but now those guys are at the big league level, so now the farm system is significantly below-average.'

The other thing I would say is that looking at our team now, we have a lot of young players and there aren't a lot of obvious voids that we want to fill from the farm system. One place I think we can definitely improve is with our starting pitching prospects. We have a couple of guys lower down in the system, but nobody maybe who is ready to step right in.

On the whole, I would say that if you are going to judge our performance based on actually graduating players to the major leagues and having them become important parts of the team, then I think the farm system has actually done quite well. But I agree that if you sit down and critically list who are the top few prospects in this organization and how would I rank them relative to top prospects in other organizations, in that head-to-head comparison, we might not always look as good. I think it is a testament to a lot of the player development people in this organization that they keep managing to push players along and have them contribute at the major league level.

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