Oakland A's Spring Q&A: Farhan Zaidi, Part 2

In part two of our spring interview with Oakland A's manager of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, we discuss the impact of Mike Sweeney on the clubhouse, the injury status of Javier Herrera and Landon Powell, first impressions of Dana Eveland, Gio Gonzalez, Greg Smith and Fernando Hernandez, the growth of Henry Rodriguez, the composition of the bullpen with the addition of Keith Foulke and more…

For Part One of this interview, click here.

OaklandClubhouse: What are your first impressions of Mike Sweeney since he has been in camp?

Farhan Zaidi: He's been great. From day one, he's kind of taken a leadership role. We have a really good group of guys, but between moving [Mark] Kotsay and [Jason] Kendall and [Nick] Swisher and [Dan] Haren, those were kind of the guys who were the leaders and the big personalities on our team. To have Mike come in and assume a leadership role without really stepping on anybody's toes or without anyone feeling like this guy has just got here has been great. He is just such a respected figure in the game that I don't think there was ever that kind of sentiment from the players. The coaches and the players are all raving about the positive influence that he has been having in the clubhouse.

Ultimately, none of that stuff means a whole lot if a guy can't be a productive player. So far he has done really well. He's hitting .400 so far this spring and he has made a lot of solid contact and he's had great [batting practice sessions]. As long as he is a productive player for us, all of the stuff that he brings to the clubhouse is an added bonus.

OC: If Daric Barton is completely healthy, do you see any scenario where he and Mike Sweeney and Dan Johnson can all make the Opening Day roster?

FZ: I think if you just kind of do the roster math, it seems highly unlikely. I actually think that the Japan trip – because it allows us to carry three extra players – gives us more time. We don't have to make a decision before then. Not only that, because Chad Gaudin is likely to start the season on the DL, we can wait even until April 12 until we have to add a fifth starter. So we have some time before we have to make a decision there, but I think in the long run, it will be hard to carry three guys who are essentially first basemen and don't really play other positions.

OC: Is Javier Herrera still being slowed by the hamstring problem?

FZ: I don't think he was 100 percent [in camp] and I think that not being able to work out the way he would have liked to affected his conditioning also. Between not being 100 percent with his hamstring and being a little bit behind with his conditioning, it didn't make sense to push the issue [and have him play] during big league camp.

OC: How did Landon Powell look? Is he progressing well with his rehab on his knee?

FZ: Yeah. It's definitely really encouraging. In Landon's case, having a second set-back like that can be really discouraging. It's hard enough to come back from an injury that serious once, and to have to go through all of that again can be tough mentally. There were definitely concerns about how he would handle it, but he handled it really well. When you talk to him, he understands that he is getting to an age where he really needs to start advancing his career. Obviously, it's no fault of his own that he is where he is right now, it's obviously been the injury situation. I don't want to say that it there a sense of urgency, because that would be too strong, but I think he is operating with a sense of purpose. He's 26 years old and he's right on the cusp of the big leagues and I think that kind of kept him motivated coming back from the second set-back.

He has been taking batting practice. One thing that has held him back a little bit is with baserunning. He wasn't really able to do baserunning drills, so that's why he wasn't able to get in any games. He has been catching bullpens and he will continue to do so in minor league camp. Hopefully by the time the season starts, he'll be able to catch a couple games a week and DH the rest. That is very encouraging considering that the injury happened in July last year. His conditioning is good. He looks like he looked last year, and we were obviously very happy with the conditioning that he had last year. I think we are all optimistic that we will see him in the big leagues at some point this year.

OC: Turning to the pitching staff, the new guys seem to be off to good starts. What have your first impressions been of Dana Eveland, Gio Gonzalez and Greg Smith?

FZ: Dana has shown us what we knew about him already. He has just a real quality mix of pitches. He's got all four pitches and when he is going well, he can throw any of them in any count. He has good life to his fastball and he gets a lot of groundballs. He's done a pretty nice job. He's had some baserunners – he's walked a couple of guys and he hit a batter the other day – but he's also done a nice job getting out of a couple of jams. If you look at his actual stat-line, it looks pretty respectable. So far his results have been solid. As he continues to get comfortable with his new organization and gets comfortable in big league camp, I think he'll start throwing more strikes and that will be even better for him. That's really all he has to do. When you have his quality stuff, you just have to pound the strike zone. I think he knows that. He has just been a little bit anxious in his first couple of outings.

Gio and Greg Smith, being non-roster, younger guys, what has really impressed me is just that. Both of those guys have really just pounded the ‘zone. What you look for in young guys – and this has been true for our Rule 5 guy Fernando Hernandez as well – you just want them to come in throwing quality strikes. Spring Training is such a different environment between the different ballparks, balls getting lost in the sun and the thin air. You can only control so much as a pitcher, but you can control throwing strikes. That is what has impressed me most about both of those guys. Their stuff has been good.

Gio has been 90-92 with the fastball and he has thrown two different breaking balls, one that he throws when he is trying to throw a strike and another, harder one that he throws when he is going for a swing-and-miss. He's been great and he has been working in his change-up a little bit. We talked back in the off-season about his need to improve his change-up. It's fine when he throws it. I think he just needs to get into a frame of mind where he is comfortable throwing it and he is working on that. We are really excited about him. The coaching staff is really excited about him as well. He's another guy that I think no matter where he starts the year, I think we definitely envision getting a look at him at some point during the season.

Greg Smith, to me, has been one of the most impressive players in camp. From his first bullpen, you could tell that this is a guy who has a plan and is not throwing for the [speed] guns at all. It is easy to lump him in with a lot of the other finesse lefties that you see coming up through the minors and having a lot of success. Some of those guys are trick-pitch guys; some of those guys are just doing it with their savvy. But he's really a mix of all of those things. He can get it up to 90-91 when he wants to, but he is probably more comfortable working in the mid- to high-80s. That is when he can spot his fastball the best.

He's got a real quality breaking ball and a quality change-up and nothing is ever in the middle of the plate. I was talking with somebody the other day and I said that he has been throwing mostly in the mid- to high-80s, but there has really only been one hard hit ball through five innings [as of Monday], a double that Darryl Ward hit the other day. To me, that has been really impressive, his ability to keep guys off-balance. Again, he's not really a trick-pitch guy. He is doing it by mixing up his pitches and hitting his spots. He has really looked like a big league-ready starting pitcher. When we spoke over the winter, I said that this is a guy that I think we probably like better than some organizations out there. I think in Ken Rosenthal's latest piece, he had a little snippet saying that scouts think really highly of Greg Smith. Obviously, he is not on the roster yet. He's definitely a candidate to be the fifth starter, but it isn't something that will definitely happen at the start of the season. But we've gotten a really nice look at him so far.

OC: How about Henry Rodriguez? It sounds like he is throwing more quality strikes than he did earlier in his career.

FZ: He's a guy who has always had the stuff. The question every time he comes into the game is: ‘is he going to throw strikes?' So far, every time he has come in, he has come in throwing strikes. I was actually just talking to some of our coaches down in the clubhouse. Henry actually hit 100 on the gun in his outing [on Sunday]. Guys are just commenting that if you throw that hard, location doesn't really matter, as long as it is a strike. Guys just literally don't have enough reaction time to put the bat where the ball is when you are throwing that hard. You saw it in the game. There were established big league players like Craig Counsell who were just trying to hang in there, taking really late swings and trying to cheat on the fastball to try to put it in play. He has been absolutely overpowering.

It has been kind of fun sitting in the scout section and hearing them talk about him because he wasn't really that well-known coming into this spring. It has been nice to be able to keep him around because that wasn't necessarily the plan. He is a 40-man roster guy and so the original thought was that he was a guy that we were hoping to get into maybe one game and then we would send him down to get stretched out in minor league camp. But his stuff is so good, as long as he is throwing strikes, we can keep him around and allow him to get that exposure to big league hitters and get more familiar with the big league coaching staff. I think that it has been great for him.

OC: Do you still see him as a starter or as a reliever?

FZ: Definitely a starter. Anytime a guy comes into a game throwing 98, the immediate thought is ‘wow, this guy would make a great closer.' Ultimately, the most valuable pitchers in baseball are starting pitchers. As long as you think a guy can still fill that role – and we think Henry can – we are going to keep him in that role. There are starting pitchers who throw hard. Not to compare the players, but I think that it is a little bit the same situation that the Yankees are facing with Joba Chamberlain. He throws so hard, and they put him in that [relief] role and he had a lot of success and it is very tempting to leave a guy in that role. If you have a guy like that who you think has the stamina to throw 100 pitches and throw five, six, seven innings, that is really the most valuable thing you can get out of a pitcher is that length every five days.

So far in camp, Henry hasn't thrown a lot of change-ups – it has been mostly fastballs and breaking balls – but he is trying to mix those in. I think when he gets back to minor league camp, he is going to continue to work on the things that are going to make him a successful starting pitcher.

OC: How are you seeing the bullpen shaping up? Where do you see Keith Foulke slotting in?

FZ: Huston [Street] will definitely be our closer and [Alan] Embree and Keith are really the guys we see setting up for Huston, kind of like [Justin] Duchscherer and [Kiko] Calero were for us in the past. Kiko will obviously also be in that mix, health-permitting, which is somewhat of a question-mark. What we really like about the way that back-end of our bullpen is shaping up is that we have guys who throw strikes. Between Huston, Alan and Keith, those are all guys who come in the game and throw strikes. That's what you really want from the back-end of your bullpen.

The other nice thing about all three of those guys is that they can get out both righties and lefties. Over the last few years, Keith has actually been better against lefties as opposed to righties because of the change-up. It gives the manager a little more freedom, and that's what you want in the eighth and ninth inning: guys who can get both lefties and righties out and can give you a full inning. I definitely see those three guys at the back-end of the bullpen.

OC: Was the Foulke signing something that kind of came along because he was suddenly on the market, or was the team actively looking for a reliever when Foulke began throwing well in his showcases?

FZ: I think part of it was the organization, in particular Bob [Geren], has a relationship with him. That always makes it easier in situations like this when a guy is coming back from an injury or, in Keith's case, a retirement, and a guy is looking around for the right opportunity and it's not really about the money. I think that put us in an advantageous position. I think that, particularly this year, we wanted to think opportunistically and whenever we had a chance to add a guy we thought could help in any way, we wanted to take a good look at him. That put us in a frame of mind to sign Keith.

I also think that with moving Duke into the rotation and taking an important part of the bullpen out, that Keith will be a good asset because they are not dissimilar pitchers. In between moving Duke into the rotation and with Kiko's health a question-mark, we liked the idea of having another guy who has been a closer in the past and who has pitched big games throughout his career in the bullpen. We knew that we were going to have some young guys between Santiago Casilla, Andrew Brown and Fernando Hernandez – once we added him in the Rule 5 – and Jerry Blevins, and then later we ended up adding Joey Devine, so we have a mix of younger guys that we didn't necessarily want to throw into that eighth inning fire right away. So I think Keith made a lot of sense for us.

OC: How have Casilla, Brown, Blevins, Hernandez and Devine looked to you thus far?

FZ: They have all looked good. Our results for the most part this spring have been really good. Jerry gave up a couple of runs late in the game against the Mariners the other day, and Devine finally got on the mound the other day – he was battling some back spasms – and he was hitting 94, 95, so he had good stuff. They have all looked good.

With Casilla and Brown, I think it is all about throwing strikes and staying ahead of hitters because they both have very good fastballs and they both have put-away breaking balls. I think that as they get more comfortable in their roles, they'll continue to do that. Both of those guys went through stretches where they did really well and stretches where they struggled last season. In those stretches, they were falling behind guys consistently. I think getting ahead of guys will be something that comes with experience. So we are expecting them to continue to improve along those lines this year.

Fernando Hernandez has come in and done a very nice job. He has come in and thrown strikes. He's been 88-91 with the fastball, which is right where our reports said he was. He has a great mix of pitches. He has a quality breaking ball and a quality change-up. Just in terms of the pitch-mix, he actually has more of a starting pitcher's mix. Some of our pro scouts who saw him last year said that if this guy can get stretched out, it isn't out of the question that he could be a starting pitcher in the major leagues because of his mix. Being a Rule 5 guy, we see him as a part of that bullpen as a middle-inning guy, maybe give you a couple of innings. The luxury of being a strike-thrower like that is that if you are economical with your pitches, you can be that guy who gives a few innings out of the bullpen.

OC: What is the mood of the front office now that you have had a chance to see some of the guys that you acquired this off-season in action? Are you feeling pretty optimistic about the future of the team?

FZ: Definitely. You probably got this the last time that we talked, but we have been enthusiastic about it the entire time even before we showed up in camp. It's a different feeling when you get see these guys in the flesh and it feels good to see those guys perform well early on in camp. But I think the best part for us has been for the coaches to get a look at these guys and get excited about the direction of the team and to have the fans come out to our games and start putting faces to the names.

That was one of the reasons, I think, that we took such a PR hit early on in the off-season. The headlines weren't ‘The A's Trade Nick Swisher For Gio Gonzalez, Fautino De Los Santos and Ryan Sweeney,' it was ‘The A's Trade Swisher For Three Prospects.' Nobody knew who those guys were. Now you have our fans coming out to the games and they see Gio putting up zeros on the board or Sweeney make a great catch in right-field, those players start feeling real to people, to our coaches and our fans. So I think that there is definitely a very optimistic and upbeat feeling around here.

I think it has been nice to be recognized in a few places. Buster Olney [of ESPN] said the other day that Henry Rodriguez was considered the best prospect in the Cactus League right now. Ken Rosenthal, the other day in his piece, stated that we might be a surprise team and that scouts have been impressed with what they have seen with our young guys. Those things are gratifying. You don't make moves for them, but between hearing that kind of commentary and seeing the fans come out and cheer the performance of the team, it has really been a fun spring.

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