Oakland A's Off-Season Q&A: Keith Lieppman P2

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 part two of a two-part interview.

For Part One of this interview, click here.

OaklandClubhouse: What are you expecting from the guys who will be representing the A's in the Arizona Fall League [Jay Marshall, Jeff Gray, Brad Kilby, James Simmons, Cliff Pennington, Jeff Baisley and Raul Padron]?

Keith Lieppman: With Padron, we really want him to up his levels catching more veteran-type, older pitchers. We thought maybe [playing in the AFL] would help him. Especially after [Anthony] Recker got hurt, we thought that this was a good opportunity for Raul. Catching skills are really huge for him [to improve]. His communication with pitchers is a big part of that improvement.

There are some priority players [in the AFL], so Pennington will get to play a number of positions. He is going to get to play some third and some short and second, so that will diversify him a little bit. Baisley's participation is about his health. Just coming off of that knee injury, we are just trying to make sure that he can play every day. He might possibly play some first base, just to give him a break from playing third every day, as well. So there will be a little bit of expanding of their skills [in AFL].

Kilby, we are just trying to get him some situational work against left-handers coming out of the bullpen. Same with Marshall, to give him an opportunity to get some situational work in and try to get him a change-up to use against right-handers. With Gray, we are going to have him work on his breaking ball to use against lefties. Simmons is going to work on getting a better slider. Everybody's got their own little things that they are going to work on.

OC: Do you see Simmons being overwhelmed at all by having to face the higher level of competition that he has faced in Double-A and will face in the AFL, or has he handled that competition without much of a hitch?

KP: He's been really good. He has got a great attitude and he's aggressive. He hasn't backed off at all and he hasn't worried at all about the level of competition. Going to Double-A straight from college is not an easy task and he has handled it that alright. He just needs to have better secondary pitches to succeed long-term there. He really relied on fastball command and a change-up to get by so far. The development of that breaking ball will go a long way in helping him.

OC: Is Javier Herrera 100 percent recovered from his hamstring problems and will he be playing this winter in Venezuela?

KP: Yeah, he was just cleared to start playing winter ball. He should be up and ready to go.

OC: Are you concerned at all about all of the time that he has missed over the last two years?

KP: Absolutely. He was just starting to get it going in Double-A and really get on a hot streak and then he broke down. That's a key issue, just trying to make sure that he rehabs correctly. We have some guys who have the propensity to have those kind of injuries. Whether it is Pennington or [Richie] Robnett, we do have some of those guys who are wired that way and we really have to be careful with it. It's really important that they rehab the injuries all the way to end to make sure that they have the full strength. The rehab was almost a two-month rehab for Herrera.

OC: Is that something that the organization will monitor with Herrera this winter or is that something that you don't really have control over when he is playing abroad?

KP: We have a physical therapist down there in Venezuela who we are working with. Now it is just a matter of making sure that Javi continues on the strengthening program with him.

OC: Have you seen much of Vince Mazzaro this Instructional League? I thought he had an interesting season in that he would look unhittable at times and then sort of out of nowhere have a blow-up start.

KP: That's a pretty accurate assessment of his season. He has situations where sometimes the running game will affect his throwing to the plate. He also struggles at times with damage control. Stuff-wise, it is all quality. He has a good sinker that runs 90-93 and he's got a change-up that he is working on now, that is like a two-seam that will allow him to take something off of his [normal] change-up. It's just a matter of him being able to be more consistent because stuff-wise, it is pretty nasty stuff. He's kind of like [Trevor] Cahill, with that type of an approach.

OC: There were a couple of guys – Michael Richard and Adam Klein in particular – who stole a lot more bases than we would normally see from A's prospects. Is that something that we are going to see more of in the A's system?

KP: There were a couple of guys this year who were drafted who could run. We have been trying to add a few pieces with speed over the last few years – whether it was Jermaine Mitchell, who had 24 stolen bases this year, and then you look at Richard, who had 25 stolen bases [in short-season]. Jareck West and Adam Klein are also guys with a lot of speed. I know that trying to get some speed guys into the system was a priority for our guys in the draft, get some guys in the system who can run some more than guys that we have had in the past. I think the organization felt that we needed a few more speed guys. Shane Keough is another guy who might be able to do that for us.

OC: Matt Sulentic obviously had a disappointing start to the season, but hit better when he was sent down to Vancouver. How did he handle the demotion to short-season and where do you see him going from here?

KP: His attitude was really good. He handled going back to Vancouver very well. He had gotten into a rut where things just weren't really happening for him in Kane County. The Midwest League is a pretty tough league, and even though it is considered a Low-A league, the pitching there is just really good. He just wasn't able to get over that hump. He would get to that .200 level or a little bit over, but he was just wasn't able to get going from there. He went back to Vancouver and he hit pretty well there. He has hit well in the Instructional League, as well. He may have to go back to Kane County and hopefully he can move at some point during the year to Stockton and then things can really take off for him.

OC: Is Sulentic going to stay in the outfield?

KP: Yep, he certainly is.

OC: What did you see from Jerry Blevins after he arrived from the Chicago organization?

KP: I just got to see him in Sacramento on a couple of occasions and he was dominating at that level. He closed out some big wins for Sacramento in the playoffs against Salt Lake and New Orleans. He threw strikes, he has an above-average fastball and he has a good enough breaking ball that he was really able to dominate that level. He was really outstanding and that is why he was called-up to the big leagues and put right into the 7th inning situations for [Bob] Geren up there. Everybody really likes him. I think they are going to work on his breaking ball a little bit, but it looks like he is going to be a good pitcher for us.

OC: Is he someone with at least an outside chance of making the Opening Day A's roster next season?

KP: Yeah, I would say that he would be high on that list.

OC: What did you see from Dan Meyer in his transition from Triple-A to the major leagues? He obviously hit a few rough spots, but were there any positives that you saw?

KP: Yeah, I think the fact that he got to make a number of starts and experience that level of the better hitters was a good sign. With his velocity back, it gave him an opportunity to refine parts of his game, the areas that need to be sharpened up. As far as his command, he has heard enough that he wasn't that concise with his pitches that he'd reach the 6th or 7th inning and be out of bullets, that now he realizes that he if he misses up in the strike zone like he did with [David] Ortiz in Boston, it will hurt him. It is all about his command. I'm sure that that is what he is really focusing on this off-season.

OC: In terms of injuries, is Landon Powell someone who is expected to be ready at the start of spring training, or is it looking like he will have to miss a good portion of the start of the season?

KP: I think Landon is probably going to show-up for spring training, but the projections are right now that it will be at least a month into the season before he is actually catching and able to do things. His hitting will come quicker than the catching part, the squatting and all of that.

OC: So then the intention is to have him remain an everyday catcher? Is there a concern that his knee won't be able to hold-up as a catcher now that there have been two traumatic injuries to it?

KP: I think the chance of reoccurrence is probably great with the two surgeries. That is why he is really trying to control his weight and do everything in his power to be in top condition. Certainly the knee is something that you have to worry about. We are hopeful that we don't have that same occurrence. His catching skills make him what he is. He's a switch-hitter with power and the whole thing, but with his great receiving skills and his throwing, there are really no other places for him right now [than at catcher].

OC: Is Mike Mitchell on a rehab program that will allow him to pitch in spring training or will it last into next season?

KP: Mike Mitchell is on course for spring training right now, but this is still early in the [rehab] process. We certainly hope that he is lined-up ready to go for that.

OC: You probably got to see a lot of that Sacramento ballclub this season. What struck you about that clubhouse? They seemed like a pretty resilient bunch.

KP: They had a really good staff. Tony DeFrancesco really did a great job with that club. The second factor was the really good veteran guys, like Lou Merloni and Dee Brown and Jorge Piedra. Anybody who came in there were more selfless than most typical free agents, the mercenary types who are only after their own best interests. Somehow this group gelled together and they knew that there were a whole ton of call-ups. Merloni and Piedra didn't get called-up, but they were still great citizens on the club. They really helped the younger players. Jeremy Brown was kind of a catalyst in that group.

They all just kind of hung together and they set a goal to win the PCL and they weren't to be denied. They really went after it, which is pretty unusual in Triple-A. Most guys if they don't get called up [in September], they just sort of fold-up the tent. This group wasn't like that at all. They were a very unusual Triple-A team. Probably unlike any one I've ever seen before.

OC: What did you see from Jeremy Brown? It seemed like he had a good offensive season and that he improved a little defensively, as well.

KP: Yeah, he really did. He really had a nice year. He can hit. I don't think anybody questions his ability to hit. His range improved a little bit behind the plate. He was a pretty good leader for us behind the plate.

OC: Those 2002 college draft picks aren't minor league free agents yet, are they?

KP: Nope. They aren't free agents yet.

OC: When I spoke to Brian Stavisky towards the end of the season, he was looking to try to line-up a spot on a winter league team? Has he been able to line-up a team yet?

KP: Not yet. We are trying to get him and Danny Putnam and [Richie] Robnett lined-up, but nothing has happened yet.

OC: Robnett played in the Mexican League last year, right?

KP: Unfortunately, he didn't do that well. In order to get called back there, it is more difficult if you don't do well. Plus, the Puerto Rican situation where they aren't playing there this year, a lot of the guys that were playing in those leagues have gone on to play in other leagues. That has caused a problem for placing some of our American players.

OC: Is anyone going to play in the Dominican League this winter? Is Santiago Casilla going to play?

KP: I think he is, but I don't know of any other guys in our system who are going to play there. Ben Fritz and Brad Knox are going to Venezuela to pitch.

OC: What did you see from Knox this year? He pitched well, but didn't have a lot of strikeouts. Is that a concern, or is it a situation that as long as he is getting outs, the team is satisfied?

KP: Yeah, that's pretty much how we feel. He pitched some big games for us and he has done that throughout his career. He doesn't have the tremendously over-powering stuff, but he finds ways to get outs. At some point, you have to consider that someone who knows how to do that really has some value. He changes speeds well, he has a good change-up and is starting to develop a good cutter. He's trying to be in that mold of someone like a [Justin] Duchscherer. He doesn't have the over-powering stuff, but Knox finds a way to make the right pitches. He just knows how to pitch.

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