Oakland A's Off-Season Q&A: Keith Lieppman P1

We recently caught-up with Oakland A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman, who is currently over-seeing the A's Instructional League season. We spoke with Lieppman about A's prospects who are participating in the Instructional League and in winter league baseball, as well as the progress of some of the A's top prospects. This is the first part of a two-part interview.

OaklandClubhouse: How is the Instructional League going? Are there any standouts thus far?

Keith Lieppman: It's hard to pinpoint someone specifically because they don't keep a whole lot of stats. We keep some records of it, but nothing to specific. In terms of some individual performances, Shane Keough is having a pretty good Instructional League. He is starting to make better contact and looks to be using his speed tool a little bit better in terms of stealing bases. He is kind of getting some of the rough edges off.

OC: With Keough, do you think his struggles this season were a result of coming back from his back injury last season?

KP: No, I think with him it was just that he hadn't played very much baseball in high school. He's just somebody who hasn't had that much experience out there on the field. I think it is just a matter of getting the repetitions and being out there. The talent is there. I just think he's just a little bit behind because he got a little bit of an opportunity at the JC level, but prior to that, he hadn't played much.

In terms of who else is playing well [at instructs], the same guys who have impressed are continuing to do well. Sean Doolittle has been outstanding at the plate and on defense. He has hit a lot of doubles and an occasional homerun. He really continues to be a good draft and he looks like somebody who is going to get there pretty quickly.

OC: I know that his defense was a big plus part of his game coming out of college. Is that something that you have seen from him in the pros?

KP: Yeah, definitely. He's got great hands and he picks up a lot of errant throws. He is just a really confident kid, both in the field and at the plate. He's pretty solid.

OC: There were a few position players who made the jump from being drafted to a full-season affiliate this season [Doolittle, Josh Horton and Matt Smith]. Do you think that was a smooth transition for those guys?

KP: It's not really any different than what we did with [Cliff] Pennington and [Travis] Buck. Those guys were drafted and went to Kane County almost immediately. In both cases, they were able to get through [the Midwest League] pretty quickly. Pennington has been held back a little bit by injuries since then, but Buck has been able to move up the system pretty quickly obviously. The better players seem to handle that transition okay.

The Midwest League is not an easy league to jump into. Hitting-wise, it is rated more as a pitchers' type league. There is not a lot of offense in that league if you look at the stats. I think those guys have handled it pretty well.

OC: There was a little more power in Vancouver than in recent years with both Corey Brown and Danny Hamblin reaching double-digits in homeruns. Do you think those guys are a little more ahead of other recent draft picks in terms of developing the power aspect of their games?

KP: Unfortunately, both of those guys didn't get to come to the Instructional Leagues. Hamblin was here, but he pulled a groin and got hurt, and we haven't been able to see Corey Brown because of the hand injury. Unfortunately, those are two guys we felt would really benefit from the Instructional League and neither of them are able to be here right now. In fact, Horton now has a hand injury that is preventing him from fielding. He can hit, but he's not able to grip a glove. Our top guys are not really getting the same opportunity that we would hope that they would get [in the Instructional Leagues].

OC: Are the Instructional Leagues a good jumping off point for the first spring training for guys who were just drafted?

KP: Yeah, it really is. There is so much information. It's just an incredible program. It goes through every aspect of Baseball:101 from the physical aspects such as how to do your work professionally and become a better professional to all of the mental aspects that cover the things that you have to do to become a big league player. There is a constant process. Every day there is a 45-minute seminar on at least one aspect of the game and when you miss all of that, you are just playing catch-up a little bit. You are just going to have to get through it as quickly as possible during spring training.

OC: The A's have sent three players to the Hawaiian Winter League this year [Jared Lansford, Jermaine Mitchell and Justin Sellers]. I know it is the first season in awhile that the A's have sent anyone, but do you think that that league will be a good winter experience for some of these younger players?

KP: It's our first try at it since in the 1990s when we sent Ernie Young and Jason Giambi there. We used to send players and then the league sort of went by the wayside and we never sent any players until this year. Last year, we felt like there was going to be a need to give guys who had been to a few Instructional League a chance to participate [in the Hawaiian Winter League] and that playing in the league might give them a chance to elevate their games. Cliff Pennington or Anthony Recker or somebody like that [would have been candidates last season], but we just didn't get on-board soon enough. So this year is just a trial year really to see if our guys get what they need.

So far so good though. Jermaine Mitchell is off to a good start [.389 BA through Sunday]. And Justin Sellers has been fine [.286 average through Sunday, including a walk-off single in Sunday's game] and Lansford is off to a good start [two runs in 4.2 innings with four strikeouts]. So far we are pleased with how it is going. I'll have to get reports from scouts over there to generally get an idea of what the league is all about. On paper, however, right now it looks good.

OC: Is another advantage of this league to see some of the young Japanese prospects in terms of scouting talent?

KP: Yes, I know that our Scouting Director Eric Kubota is really interested in spending some time over there. And there are a couple of our scouts who are going to spend some time previewing and taking a look at some of the players from the Pacific Rim.

OC: After missing nearly the entire season, is Jared Lansford back to 100 percent healthy again?

KP: Yeah, he made a couple of outings during the Instructional League. He hadn't pitched since April, but his velocities were good and there were no signs of soreness or injuries, so we are assuming that he is ready to go.

OC: Craig Italiano's season was cut short by a scary injury [he was hit in the head with a line-drive]. Has he been able to get back up on the mound and face live hitters at this point?

KP: He's thrown two simulated games and probably [this] week will be in a live game. He has gone through all of the processes. His arm is back in shape. Now it is just a matter of getting him back on the field.

OC: Is that a tough injury come back from? I know that Brad Ziegler went through a similar experience a few years ago. Do you ease pitchers back in slowly after something like that happens?

KP: Yeah, we really try to make it an easy transition, but it never is. I know we have had some discussions. Ziegler has talked to Italiano and has given him some tips and has just talked to him about forgetting about it and just going back out there and pitching. It's not that likely that you are going to get hit again. It's rare that that happens. But it is hard to eliminate that memory, there is no question. He seems to be handling it pretty well.

OC: His arm is fine after the surgery from the year before?

KP: Yeah, in fact his velocities and all of that were very good in the spring and it was just an unfortunate line-drive that ended his season.

OC: The Kane County pitching staff was pretty impressive and Trevor Cahill in particular was quite good. What did you see from him growth-wise from the beginning of the season to the end?

KP: For one thing, when he came to spring training, he was a little bit sick. He put on about 20 pounds by midyear and physically developed by getting a bit stronger, which gave him a little bit more stability with his delivery. He developed a little bit of a better sinker. He learned a change-up. He just pounds the strike zone. This guy just throws a lot of strikes and he isn't afraid to throw the ball over the plate. He gets a ton of groundballs.

OC: Jason Fernandez started the season in the Kane County bullpen but ended up pitching well out of the Cougars' starting rotation. Do you see him as a starter or a reliever?

KP: I think he has good enough stuff to be a starter. He has a good change-up. He is part of the group that helped to take Kane County through a pretty good second half, along with Cahill and [Henry] Rodriguez. That's a pretty good group of young guys that we have coming up.

OC: Henry Rodriguez wasn't in the Instructional Leagues was he?

KP: No. We wanted to give him a rest for a couple of weeks because [Caracas] is probably going to really use him a lot during the off-season with the winter league.

OC: Is it helpful when you have a number of prospects who are playing on the same winter league team, like with Caracas having guys like Rodriguez, Gregorio Petit, Javier Herrera, Raul Padron and so on?

KP: We moved Padron over to the Fall League, so he'll probably have a chance to go over there at the end of November. Their pitching coach, Julio Franco, is [the A's] scout over there, so he keeps track of our players during the winter. That is a big help because he can give us a good view of the league. With him coaching our players, guys like Petit are being looked at all of the time.

OC: It seems like Petit made a big leap forward in his development this season. I know he got a lot of playing time for Caracas at least early in the season. Do you think that experience helped him to compete against a higher level of competition?

KP: Yeah, and it also helped him to be with a bunch of veterans in Triple-A this year, like [Lou] Merloni, Dee Brown. These were good Triple-A guys who were good for the development of the younger players. Sometimes players learn more from other players about how to play the game. The older guys really took Petit in and gave him some on-the-field training. That happened for Petit in Venezuela, as well, with [Marco] Scutaro and some of those guys down there who have played the game for awhile. It's kind of a nice situation where some of the veterans will take a younger player and teach him how to play the game right. Petit has taken it all in and made some huge leaps. He's a good player.

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