Oakland A's Spring Q&A: Farhan Zaidi, Part 1

This off-season was one of the busiest in recent memory for the Oakland A's. The early returns on the moves the A's made this off-season have been positive. With two weeks before Opening Day in Tokyo, we spoke to Oakland A's manager of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi about the team's new players and the outlook for the season. In Part 1, we discuss outfielders, infielders and the Japan trip…

OaklandClubhouse: What were your impressions of Aaron Cunningham before he got hurt? Did he look like the kind of player you thought you were getting before you traded for him?

Farhan Zaidi: Yeah, definitely. He was fantastic. One thing that really stood out was the polish he had. He had major-league quality at-bats. Coming into camp, he only had something like 100 Double-A at-bats and he wasn't a guy who had an outstanding walk-to-strike-out ratio – it was solid but it wasn't outstanding. So to come in and have the kind of quality at-bats that he had was really amazing.

Our coaches were all raving about the kid. They said, in particular, the way that he played the outfield, with the all-out hustle and aggressiveness, stood out. Tye Waller [the A's first base and outfield coach] said the other day that ‘it sounds so simple but [hustle and aggressiveness] is something that you can't teach. A player either has it or he doesn't.' So Tye was really excited about how the kid worked and after seeing him in person this spring, and we'll see him in the minors there this year, I don't think there is any doubt in our minds that he can play centerfield.

He was a little bit on the bubble in terms of coming to big league camp, just because of the experience factor. As much as we like him as a player, there is an element of fairness involved with giving invites to Spring Training. There are guys who have spent more time in Double-A and Triple-A than Cunningham, but we really did want to get a look at him because we think he can move quickly and he put on a really good show for the big league staff. They are really excited about him.

OaklandClubhouse: Is the injury something that you are worried will linger?

Farhan Zaidi: I don't think it is something that we are worried about affecting him long-term. It's just a slow-healing bone in the wrist, so it is going to be a couple of months, but he's going to be fine.

OC: Will the determination of whether he goes to Double-A or Triple-A be decided in terms of what those two teams need once he is healthy or is that something that the front office has already planned out for him?

FZ: We haven't talked about it. If you were asking me off of the top of my head, I would say that since he's going to be coming back after a two-month lay-off, that might be the tie-breaker in terms of going to Double-A instead of Triple-A. It may make sense for him to start off in Double-A since he won't have seen live pitching for a while. So that is what I would guess, but you are right, we could have shuffling around. Right now, our Triple-A outfield is looking really crowded and the Double-A outfield isn't looking quite as crowded. But it could look completely different two months from now.

Ultimately, Aaron is the kind of guy where you just have to do what is right for him regardless of what the organizational depth chart looks like and where the different minor league teams are in the standings. My guess right now is that when he is healthy, he will go to Double-A.

OC: There have been some injuries in camp already. Is the depth that you brought in this off-season playing up the way that you hoped it would in terms of covering for those spring injuries?

FZ: Yeah, absolutely. [Oakland A's manager] Bob Geren commented the other day that the ‘seventh, eighth and ninth-inning guys' that he is getting to bring in this spring make-up probably the best group that he has seen in his time with the A's, even as a coach. The depth is basically at every position. Justin Knoedler, the catcher we picked up from the Giants, has been really impressive with his receiving and he had a big, three-run triple the other day in Peoria. We think this guy is a big-league caliber back-up and we feel fortunate to have a guy like that in the system. In the infield, Gregorio Petit has had a really nice camp. He got off to a really hot start. He's put together really good at-bats and everyone thinks he's the best defensive infielder in the system right now.

I've said this before, but I think that the injuries last year gave guys like Jack Hannahan and Donnie Murphy a chance to gain experience and those guys now are that next level of depth. Last year when we went to those guys, they were kind of unknowns. This year we now have a much better understanding of what we are going to get from them.

Even if you move into the outfield, I think there is a bigger group of guys who you can go to and feel confident in at the big league level. I'm not saying that these guys are guaranteed to come in here and be productive right away, but we've brought in the veteran Emil Brown and we have Travis [Buck] and we've been trying to play Jack [Cust] out there as much as possible just to improve his flexibility. And then you have the younger guys like Ryan Sweeney and Carlos Gonzalez and Jeff Fiorentino, who has had a really nice camp, and Todd Linden, as well.

Just going around the diamond, I think we have, with the exception of one or two guys, the same core of players that we had last year, but we just have so much more depth. That next level of talent is not only better, but I think it is younger, so that is good for us in the long run.

OC: Are Ryan Sweeney, Jeff Fiorentino, Carlos Gonzalez and Todd Linden all still strong candidates to make the Opening Day roster?

FZ: Yeah. We haven't really had, as a staff, an in-depth discussion on which way we are going to go in the outfield. I think there are a couple of ways we could go still. There are a couple of spots that are still very much up for grabs. Once you get beyond Travis, Emil and Jack [Cust] – and Cust is more of a DH – you have two or three outfield spots that I think are still up for grabs a little bit. Ryan was set-back obviously after his first at-bat of the spring when he had a little bit of an injury, so we have been trying to get him caught-up in terms of getting some at-bats. Carlos has a very mild hamstring issue, which is why he didn't play [on Sunday], but I think he should be good to go [on Tuesday].

So it is a little bit hard to answer that question. There isn't a big organizational secret that I am keeping from you. It's just that we haven't had to have that discussion yet and we kind of want to let it play out a little longer. Each of the guys at this point have shown, in stretches, the kind of ability that we can get excited about. With Carlos, even the outs he has made have been loud. It's always impressive when you have a guy like that who is consistently making hard contact. Sweeney and Fiornetino, we thought that they were both among the best defensive corner outfielders in the minors and they can both play center. They have both made outstanding, highlight reel catches this spring. They have all shown us flashes of what we think they can do.

Actually, it's a little bit unfortunate that we have the Japan trip coming up that is going to cut our spring short a little bit. With the make-up of the team and with the fact that we do have a lot of guys that we like and we want to be able to take long looks at, it's a little bit of a shame that we are playing something like 10 fewer days this year. We are getting there, though. We are down to 44 players this week. We just really haven't decided which way we are going in the outfield yet. It is still very much an open competition.

OC: How is that Japan trip going to play into the roster decisions? Is there any flexibility with the roster for players who might not be ready for the Japan trip, but might be ready for Opening Day in the US?

FZ: Major League Baseball has been somewhat flexible with the rules for the Japan trip in allowing us a three-man taxi squad. Basically we are going over there with a 28-man roster and two guys who are either option-players or non-roster players. We are going over there with 30 guys, so that helps a little bit. Because of the way the time lapses [in between the Japan trip and the US Opening Day] and the way that our fourth and fifth starters can be used, we may have the flexibility to carry a reliever or two for that series and then option the relievers down and then bring in the guys who are going to be in the back-end of our rotation.

There is some give-and-take. If you were to ask me in a vacuum if I preferred to start the season like everyone else is going to, I would probably say yes. But there is some flexibility. Someone like Chad Gaudin, who is not going to make the trip and who we have a rehab schedule laid out for, will give us some flexibility and allow us to carry an extra reliever because he can rejoin the team when we need a fifth starter [a couple of weeks into the season]. In that respect, it gives us some flexibility we wouldn't be able to have if we were starting the season normally. You can perceive it as a little bit of an advantage in that respect, so I think there is some give-and-take.

OC: Would the 15-day DL include any of the days in-between the two Boston series, or would the days only count actual days the games are played?

FZ: The DL definitely doesn't count all of the days in-between the two series. We've kind of had to do the math on some of these guys. I don't remember exactly, but it definitely includes the game days in Japan and it may include one day after.

OC: Some of the non-roster guys in camp such as Knoedler, Brooks Conrad and Todd Linden have looked good thus far. Are they guys that you are excited about?

FZ: Definitely, and I would add Wes Bankston to that list, as well. He's a guy that we've liked for a while. In our sort of never-ending quest for right-handed power, he was a guy that we had on our radar. He's come in and done a very nice job.

Conrad is another guy who falls into that same category, a guy that we have liked for a long time. In his third year in Triple-A, his average fell a little bit even though he did hit for power last year. Sometimes I think when a guy has a down year like that, it creates an opportunity for us to get him. If Brooks had had the same year last year that he had in 2005 and 2006, he probably would have gotten a roster spot somewhere or it would have been a lot more competitive to get him into the organization. He has really excited the coaches. We have tried to move him around a little bit. We played him at shortstop for a game just to give him a look there and to increase his versatility. I definitely see him helping the big league club at some point this season.

OC: Do you feel comfortable with the infield depth even if Eric Chavez has to miss a significant amount of time?

FZ: I think so. We talked a little bit this off-season about bringing in more of a veteran guy to back-up third base given our uncertainty about Chavy's healthy, but we did really like the way that Jack Hannahan played last year and he has had a great spring. I would put Donnie Murphy in the same boat. He did a good job for us down-the-stretch last season and he is having a good spring, as well. And bringing in a guy like Conrad has helped us there, too. I think we are pretty comfortable.

Obviously, Chavy is a different kind of player, with the Gold Gloves and the power that he brings to the line-up. Particularly after trading [Nick] Swisher, Chavy's power is something that is a bit of a premium for us. But I do think that we feel comfortable with the guys we have in the organization and I do think that that added depth really helps.

Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 2 of this interview, in which we discuss the battle for the fifth starter spot, first impressions of Gio Gonzalez, Dana Eveland and Greg Smith, the make-up of the A's bullpen, thoughts on Mike Sweeney, Henry Rodriguez's control and the health of Javier Herrera

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