Oakland A's Spring Q&A: Keith Lieppman

PHOENIX – This past off-season has been one of the busiest of Keith Lieppman's long and distinguished career as the Oakland A's head of player development. Since the A's started wheeling and dealing in December, Lieppman has been busy trying to figure out where all of the A's new and incumbent prospects will start the 2008 season. We spoke to Lieppman at Papago Park on Friday.

OaklandClubhouse: Was it a crazy off-season with all of the new guys the team brought in?

Keith Lieppman: It has been a very unusual off-season. I have never witnessed one quite like this. It was pretty normal until we had a meeting with Billy [Beane], the owners and the front office staff and, at that stage, that is when it all changed. That is when Billy sort of broke out the whole new format of how things were going to run in terms of operations and some of the changes with how we were going to do things.

OC: Were the main changes discussed at that meeting with the team's approach to scouting in the US and overseas?

KL: There were changes with the scouting and player development. At the end of the Instructional Leagues and the end of the Fall League here in Phoenix when everyone was in town, I think that was when the organization made a shift and redefined what they wanted to do. That is when Billy and David [Forst] pretty much laid out the direction of what they wanted to do. After that, I think there were a couple of points [during the off-season] when some of the guys came back in December and maybe weren't in the condition health-wise that the organization thought they were going to be. I think that is when the final part of the plan came together with the trades.

OC: What has changed from a player-development perspective? Are you running a different program now?

KL: To start with the scouting department, there was a situation where Billy knew that we were stretched with not enough scouts in the United States, so we added, I believe, five new scouts in the US. There were international issues where we needed more coverage around the world, so we addressed that issue. And it wasn't just a casual addressing. It was more that we need reports on all of these leagues and we need to know what players are available. We wanted to get into the international market in a more serious way.

We have always been looked at, as Billy calls it, an organic organization where we basically grow it from within. But there still is a group of players out there that we want to be aware of and be in the running for if there is an opportunity to go there. What that required was more coverage in Australia and going into Asia.

In addition, the playing field in the Dominican Republic really changed. We had taken the approach where we would sign a lot of guys for pretty low or mid-range bonuses and they weren't panning out. We weren't getting the results we wanted. Basically, in the past five years, the culture has changed in the Dominican. If you want to go in there, you are going to have to compete for players with the kind of money that is being spent. Billy basically told us now that we should find players that we liked and if it meant that we needed to increase the bonuses to bring those players in, we would go in that direction.

Basically, we started with the scouting department and then we added resources for the acquisition of those players. We have also added some cultural experts to try to make the transition to the United States easier for players who are coming from Latin America or from wherever they are coming from.

So it looks like to me that it is a very well thought-out plan and everybody is onboard. Billy also said to all of us, ‘if you had a wish-list, what are the things that you would do to make this a better organization?' There were things like adding some exercise equipment, adding some mental training or eye-strengthening programs. Those are things that are on the agenda and they are things that we think will make us more competitive and help improve the minor leagues. We are trying a different approach now to the mental aspect of the game, for instance.

OC: Is the mental-training program something that you started at Instructs or is it even newer than that?

KL: We just started it. We are trying to get a different point-of-view on how we doing things. In terms of hiring staff, we have hired more interns. We [the front office and coaching staff] wear a lot of hats here, and I think that is a good thing. We have been able to have a lot of success over the years with not a lot of people. Each of our staff members branch out and do a lot of things. But just to give them more resources, such as adding more roving instructors and that sort of thing, I think that has created a really good climate and is a good change.

OC: How have some of the new guys that you have had in minor league camp, such as Fautino De Los Santos, Brett Anderson and Chris Carter, looked to you thus far?

KL: We are all really excited about who we have acquired. Brett Anderson, Aaron Cunningham, Fautino De Los Santos, Chris Carter, they are all great athletes and they all have outstanding tools. Each in their own right has certain skills that make them very attractive players. They are all the best players from their old organizations and you put them in with our already existing players, and you immediately notice that your system has been strengthened.

It is too bad that Cunningham got hurt because we were really excited about what he was going to bring to the party. He really has good instincts in the outfield and he played really well in big league camp. Carlos Gonzalez really opened a lot of eyes before he got hurt. Ryan Sweeney is right there in the mix for a job [with the A's] as an everyday player.

To be able to add those guys, and then to see the future with Greg Smith and Gio Gonzalez and bringing Anderson along and De Los Santos and Carter, it's fun. It really is. To see guys right on the verge of the big leagues and then to see guys who are not that far away and who have the skills to, I think, move pretty quickly through the organization is exciting.

Once we heard about these trades and our managers started to get a glimpse of who might be coming, they were excited. You see some pretty happy guys because it is always better to work with talent. To see these players and to add them to our existing talent should make for a pretty fun year.

It also makes for some pretty difficult decisions in terms of where players are going to play. We have added the players from the Haren and Swisher trades and then we added two players from the Scutaro trade and then the Kotsay trade, that's 13 players. Then you add the minor league free agents and the Rule 5 guys, which were moves we mostly made before we made those trades, you are looking at 30-35 guys more. That is making the decisions harder this year.

OC: Have you had to make more cuts than normal?

KL: We will. We are certainly in a position where there aren't enough jobs for the number of players we do have.

OC: Has that changed the mood of camp? Is it more competitive than normal?

KL: It is definitely competitive. Guys see the numbers on the lists. The lists are long and they have never been this long before. Plus Oakland is leaving on the 19th for Japan, so players we wouldn't normally see until the end of camp, we are going to see a lot earlier. So that changes things a bit on that end.

OC: Do you see Carlos Gonzalez starting the season at Triple-A with his injury set-back, or is that still a little bit up-in-the-air?

KL: It's still up-in-the-air, I think. That is a decision that will come from the top from Billy and David.

OC: How do you see that Stockton rotation shaking out? It seems like there are at least 10 good candidates to be in that rotation. Will you go with a modified rotation to fit them all in?

KL: We used to have an eight-man rotation system. We were the inventors of it back when Bob Cluck and myself ran it out there. And it worked. It was a very good program. In today's world, I'm not so sure it is an effective way to develop the pitchers, even though I really enjoyed it.

With the quality of the arms we have, I think we are going to take the five that we believe are the best starters and then start the other guys in the bullpen. Hopefully then we will be able to move guys up quickly by mid-season, or whenever the season dictates a move, and keep moving the other guys out of the bullpen and back into the starting rotation at that point. So we are hoping to fit everyone in through movement. That is the plan and hopefully that will all pan out.

OC: How does Jared Lansford look? Is he back to 100 percent healthy?

KL: Yeah, in fact, he threw [on Friday]. He has been pain-free. He pitched in Hawaii and he was able to finish the season comfortably out there with no hiccups. Right now everything looks good for him.

OC: Is he a guy who will start the season at High-A in the rotation?

KL: He is definitely in the mix. We haven't made a decision on him yet, but he is a guy who could start or come out of the bullpen. He might actually be better suited to come out of the bullpen with that hard sinker. He has a great change-up and he is continuing to develop that breaking ball. He is a swing guy who could go either way [in the rotation or the bullpen].

OC: How is Craig Italiano looking? Is he back to 100 percent?

KL: He threw [on Thursday] and his velocity was up to 97. He has had no problems at all from the concussion and he has looked really sharp for a guy who has had a really rough road behind him. He had that arm injury and then the concussion to overcome. He looks strong and focused and is moving along this spring at the speed we would like to see him at.

OC: How about Javier Herrera? Is he on a reduced schedule at this point because of his legs?

KL: Yeah. We brought him into camp and when he reported, because of the leg injury, he probably wasn't able to work as hard as he would have liked to on his conditioning because his legs were still bothering him. So he was a little out of shape and we scheduled three weeks of camp where we didn't allow him to play at all. [Friday was] actually the first time that he has been in a game this spring. We are gradually bringing him along and we anticipate by Opening Day that he will be in shape and ready to go, barring any other set-backs.

OC: Do you see Herrera and Carlos Gonzalez playing off of each other a little bit, being countrymen with similar skill-sets in the same outfield?

KL: Well, more than likely, Javi will start in Double-A.

OC: What are you seeing from Cliff Pennington? He finally made it out of Stockton last year. Do you see him getting closer to realizing his potential?

KL: He is in that boat right now where he is making that transition to Double-A where there is a little tougher competition. He has improved a lot of his game. He has worked really hard at it. This will be a very pivotal year for him to see how he responds. He has a lot more confidence and it looks like he is a lot more focused on what he has to do. Cliff has looked good in the spring. It is really just a matter of how it all has to play out.

He's behind, right now, Kevin Melillo, Brooks Conrad and Gregorio Petit. But he is in a position where he is going to get regular at-bats and he's going to determine his own destiny based on how he plays. He is going to play everyday at Double-A and we'll see how he does.

OC: Are he and Justin Sellers going to switch back-and-forth between second and short at Double-A this season?

KL: Yeah. The plan right now is to bring them both along. It's great because you just never know where you are going to need somebody and that versatility will always be an asset for those players.

OC: Brooks Conrad has been impressive thus far this spring. Do you see him filling the role that J.J. Furmaniak and Donnie Murphy held last season?

KL: He's been very impressive so far. He is one of the guys that we've looked at this spring who has really opened up some eyes, just with his grinding-out approach to at-bats, the tough plays he has made on defense. He just continues to do all of the little things right that a utility guy has to do to impress the staff. Utility guys are usually put into the games as late-inning replacements, so you have to know that that guy is going to be able to catch the ball and throw it well on a consistent basis. Those are the things that Murphy did last year and Furmaniak that allowed them to be called up at varying times during the season. So far, Brooks has been doing the same thing.

OC: Has anyone stood out for you as a surprise so far in minor league camp?

KL: Ryan Webb, who struggled last year when he went to Double-A, has looked really good. He has gotten himself into great shape and he looks like he's really come into manhood. He's a high school kid who is starting to reach his potential. He came out the other day throwing 93-95 with a hard slider and great stuff. So he has been impressive.

You saw Vince Mazzaro pitch [on Friday] and he has really leaned up and it looks like the baby fat is gone. They have gone through all of the stages that high school players go through; the different degrees of confidence, learning themselves and making adjustments. Then you start to see them bloom. It has been fun to watch those two guys jump right out at you.

OC: Do you see Webb at Double-A at the start of the year?

KL: He is certainly on the list. Depending on the moves from the big leagues and how it all falls into place, we'll have to see. He is certainly being looked at in that role. We'd like to find a place for him there.

OC: Do you usually find that there is significant improvement with players who go back to Double-A for a second time?

KL: Yeah, especially for the guys who have gone there and had to go back to Single-A. The toughest thing in baseball is when a player gets to a level and struggles and then has to be sent back to his previous level. In many cases, the rest of that season is lost because they are frustrated and it is hard sell to try to get them to recover at a level that they feel like they have already been able to be the top guy at. We try to keep players at a level where they can succeed and hopefully not have to move backwards. I think that Ryan learned a lot from that experience last year, and given the opportunity again, will hopefully be able to succeed there.

OC: The system appears to have a little more speed than in past years. Do you think we'll see a little more running this year?

KL: It really starts at the big league level. Before, we were really more of a station-to-station style club and we didn't really have the abilities to do a whole lot on the bases. We really had to wait for the three-run homer. Now, we are really seeing the team go more first-to-third and advance on balls in the dirt, so there is a little more of that atmosphere of aggressiveness. A lot of times in the past, our guys had good judgment, where they would check-in at the bases but not necessarily take the extra base. Now, with the added speed, what I am seeing at the big-league level – which is very exciting – is that good judgment translating into extra bases. Guys are really aggressively looking to take an extra base on the defense when they can.

That has really started in the big leagues and it has really caught fire with us in the minor leagues because we want to have the same mentality as the big league guys. That is something that we have been talking a lot about: when you hit a ball and you are running to first, the idea is that you force the defense to make the plays on you. That is the aggressiveness that we are trying to look for. It is an attitude of aggressiveness that we are preaching right now, especially on things that we can control, such as our hustle and our work ethic and how we play the game.

Bob Geren has talked a lot this spring about playing fundamentally correct baseball, making sure that we do all of the little things the right way. That is the kind of club that we are going to have to have to win games. We are not going to be able to make a lot of mistakes. As an organization, we are adopting a lot of the same philosophies.

At the big-league level, Bob has created a culture this year [of playing hard and fundamentally correct]. Some of the veteran guys from last year, whether it was Milton Bradley or Mark Kotsay or Jason Kendall, everybody sort of had their own agenda about how the game was going to be played. This year, Bob has created his own culture, which is really his style and what the organization wants to do. He's got a young team that works together well and I think that it is going to result in a team that is going to be fun to watch.

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