Owens Sees Big Future For Oakland A's

The Oakland A's win-loss record might be depressing, but even that can't wipe the smile off of the face of A's Director of Player Personnel Billy Owens. That is because Owens, who evaluates potential trade targets and free agent signings and scouts amateur prospects around the world, has seen the A's future and he sees a dynasty on the horizon. We spoke to Owens about the direction of the team.

Oakland A's Director of Player Personnel Billy Owens has had a busy 12 months. Owens, who evaluates virtually every player that the A's acquire either through trade, the draft, the free agent market or through international signings, has been at the center of the A's new approach to building their organization.

We caught-up with Owens while he was on the road, traveling from Seattle to Everett, Washington, where he was set to watch the A's short-season affiliate, the Vancouver Canadians.

OaklandClubhouse: You've mentioned how the goal of the organization this off-season was to strengthen the farm system. Was there an area in particular that the organization was looking to strengthen or was it the system as a whole?

Greg Smith is one of the young A's who has cut his teeth in the big leagues this season.
Billy Owens: I would say overall. The way that we did business before had kind of run its course. I think that we operated astutely in prior years and we had been in the playoffs five out of the eight prior years, and in terms of the guys we had drafted, we had had as many guys that we drafted don a major league uniform over the last decade as anybody, but we wanted to freshen things up a little bit. We wanted to get a little bit more aggressive.

We also thought as far as the Michael Inoa situation, investing $4.25 million in the most talented 16-year-old kid out there, maybe in the world, we figured that that was a better investment than giving that money to a major league free agent in the downside of his career.

OC: Looking at the system now, do you have it where you want it, or is there more to do in terms of strengthening the system?

BO: I think the biggest thing is that we went from having one of the five worst – if you go by what the pundits like Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus said – to arguably the best farm system in baseball, all in the span of one year. It was a miraculous recovery. We've also learned something over the past two or three years that this has got to be a relentless approach. It can't be a situation where once we have graduated a few of these guys, we let up.

With the situation we have this year in the big leagues with the injuries, a couple of the young guys are actually learning in the big leagues on the fly where in past years when we have been in playoff contention, those players would be probably in the minor leagues. We have resolved that there will never, ever, ever be any kind of neglect to our younger players and to our farm system going forward. Our deals I think are stronger and we will never put ourselves in the situation again where we have to do this whole metamorphosis again.

Billy Owens sees Adrian Cardenas as a future .300 hitter in the big leagues.
OC: When you say neglect, what do you mean specifically? Does that refer to instruction or going out and getting different talent? Because it seems like the team had a lot of draft picks in the last several years.

BO: Yeah, we've had draft picks and you can certainly scrutinize any draft and take a look at our hits and misses. But you can go all the way back to the Moneyball draft and you have Nick Swisher, who is a solid everyday player, and you have Joe Blanton, who is a solid third starter at the major league level. You've got Mark Teahen, who is an everyday player with the Kansas City Royals now for whom we were able to acquire Octavio Dotel. If you add that up, even though we did some other things with that draft, if you hit on three out of six or three out of seven picks that high in the draft, that is actually pretty good. So you can't really argue with some of the results. Maybe we are going to reposition ourselves to spend more money to get lucky later in the draft, but it is what it is [the past].

On October 26th last year, we had one of the worst farm systems in the game and now on October 26th, 2008, you can say without question that we are one of the top-five farm systems in the game and arguably number one.

OC: When you were out scouting the players that would eventually be acquired for Rich Harden and Joe Blanton, were you looking for a certain combination of players, or were the guys the team brought in all just guys individually that you liked?

Chris Carter hit his 37th homer on Tuesday night.
BO: I'm a guy who reads all of the blog sites and tries to read every last piece of information possible about a player. I'm not only going out there and seeing the players, but also reading about them. For every trade, first and foremost, you need a partner, so with the partners that were presented [for Harden and Blanton], you can try to say, ‘okay, we need to fill this position here' or you can try to get the best available talent for the players. If the deal makes sense, you go ahead and do the deal. It's not like you can position yourself to get the next Joe DiMaggio or the next Ozzie Smith at those positions. Once you find a partner, you try to work out a deal that is fair to both sides and accomplishes goals at both ends of the deal.

Once you have both general managers come together in agreement, you do the deal. I read pundits that say we need this or that particular position. For some of the positions that they are talking about and some of the players that they are targeting, when I read these sites, you need a partner for those players to be available, you know what I mean? We definitely know who the better players are at those positions, but having a partner and having a team be interested in the guys that we would be willing to give up and then making a fair trade from that, that is not an easy thing to do.

I think we are happy with the bounty that we got [in both trades]. It is unfortunate that Sean Gallagher hasn't shown exactly what he is capable of, but he is 22 years old. Unfortunately, he was healthy as a horse before we got him and he's had the dead arm, tired arm deal since then. Eric Patterson is starting to slowly assert what he is capable of doing. We have been following him since all the way back into his high school days, and his days at Georgia Tech and we watched him torpedo through the system with the Cubs. Matt Murton at some point needs to revert back to playing the way that he is capable and that he has shown at the big league level in 800 at-bats. Josh Donaldson, he was a player that we bought low on. He has gone to the California League and has done great.

Brett Hunter was one of several tough signs that the A's drafted and signed this season.
Adrian Cardenas was born to hit. He is a smart kid who is capable of using the whole field. He is going to be a Jose Vidro-caliber second baseman and maybe even possibly a third baseman. We've even been playing the kid at shortstop to keep all of our options open. Josh Outman has been topping out at 97 miles per hour. And Matt Spencer has done a hell of a job at Stockton so far.

We are overjoyed with who we have. It is hard to turn a TV on, though. Rich Harden is one of the most talented players in baseball. He couldn't stay on the field for us and we had to do what we had to do. Joe Blanton was a pillar of health for us. Whether you liked Blanton or not, when you looked up, he was always pitching in the seventh inning. There is something to be said for that and hopefully he continues to do that. But we accomplished our goals with those deals.

OC: One of the players that you picked up this off-season, Chris Carter, I've read some things that sort of malign his abilities a little bit, but having watched him all season with Stockton, he just seems like one of the more exciting power hitters the team has had in a long time. What is your feeling about his ceiling as a power hitter and just as a player in general?

BO: As a player in general, Chris Carter is everything that we expected. I think he's even capable of more. He's got another notch or two to move up in terms of being the pure hitter that he is capable of. I think he is capable of being more consistent than he has shown this year. His power is amazing. Thirty-six homeruns already. His doubles are out of this world and his slugging percentage is fantastic. If you look at what he has done since June 1 on, it will boggle your mind.

To me, he's not a designated hitter. We've got to find a way to get a home for him, a defensive destination, where he is the most comfortable and productive, but he runs better than you think and he throws better than you think, so his final tally will not be as a designated hitter. He's got some ability on the defensive side of the ball.

Billy Owens says that Billy Beane and Co. have a plan and that this season has gone according to that plan despite the big league struggles.
Offensively, he's everything that we expected. We got lucky. We scouted him last year pretty extensively in the South Atlantic League and we played a lot against the White Sox last year during the Instructional League. We did our homework. His moon shots are pretty incredible. A 21-year-old kid with 36 homeruns at a High-A league is remarkable. The kid is a hard worker and he cares about his craft. We will get together with him and find a defensive position that he feels most comfortable with. He will be heading to Hawaii this winter and I expect big things from him in the future.

OC: The preliminary rosters have the A's will sending Andrew Carignan, Andrew Bailey, Sean Doolittle, Adrian Cardenas and Josh Donaldson to the Arizona Fall League. Are you excited about that group and where they might be at the end of the league?

BO: I live in the Phoenix, Arizona, area myself and that is the time of the year that I go to an Arizona Fall League game every day. The A's contingent of Arizona Fall Leaguers has been strong over the years, Huston Street among others, but this cast of characters this year is going to be among the best of all 30 teams in MLB and it is going to be fun to watch.

OC: How much of your scouting is done in Arizona during the fall when the AFL and the Arizona Instructional Leagues are going on and all of those prospects are together in one group?

BO: It's fun to see all of the guys congregated in one area, but it is also a situation where you have to put things into perspective. Certain pitchers threw a certain number of innings during the year, so they aren't quite ready. I remember seeing Ryan Zimmerman in the fall league. I had followed him all the way through when he was in college, so I knew what kind of player he was. It's funny because he got drafted and played Double-A first thing and then got called up in September and hit .400 in the major leagues that year. By the time he got to the Arizona Fall League, he was tired and played like seven days and he looked terrible. I could hear guys mumbling in the stands saying, ‘I read about this guy and this guy doesn't have anything.' I was kind of chuckling because I knew what kind of player he was.

Catcher Josh Donaldson, who was acquired in the Rich Harden deal, is scheduled to head to the Arizona Fall League.
You can go back and look at the history of the Fall League and not to say some of the players' names, but go back and look at the MVPs of the Arizona Fall League over the years and it's actually not that great. The Fall League is all about fine-tuning. It is also great [for scouts] to do a body check and see what these guys look like up close and personal and see swing planes and the shapes of breaking balls, that sort of thing.

A lot of times, it is a lot of relief pitchers that do well because they haven't had as many innings during the year so they are at full throttle. In most cases, your A-1 starting pitching prospect has accumulated a certain number of innings during the year, so he is usually going to be on a very short leash at the fall league or he isn't going to be there. So that affects everything there. ‘Doc' Halladay pitched in the fall league in 1999, but more than likely, a guy of that caliber, you are not going to see in the fall league. The Instructional League is great for your new draftees to see what pro baseball is like and to get them used to the grind. It's good in terms of scouting for the body check, but it isn't the elixir.

OC: How much have you seen of Rashun Dixon and Nino Leyja in the Arizona Rookie League? What is your impression of them thus far?

BO: They are both really exciting. First, I was fortunate to be with Kelcey Mucker [A's area scout] and he did an excellent job of signing Rashun Dixon. Kelcey was with him every step of the way this year. He was beating down the table at the draft to get him. Me and Kelcey went down there and saw the kid play before we inked him and met the family. The mother is outstanding. She is going to be a very good support system for the kid, and the kid himself has outstanding make-up.

Rashun is a physical specimen. He is a plus runner. I shudder to think of being an opposing defensive back when he was running the football. He has tremendous bat speed and power potential. He already has the eight homeruns and you can see the stick-to-it-iveness of his character when you see that he has something like nine triples and only two doubles. When the ball is in the gap, he is coming like a locomotive. He's got tremendous make-up and desire and he is a physical specimen. He might even be a tick better or more advanced than Kelcey even thought when we signed him. I think going forward this kid is going to make amazing strides in the Instructional League.

Nino Leyja is an excellent hitter. The numbers are definitely indicative of his abilities. He's got a smooth swing and an advanced approach for anyone in the Rookie League, much less a 17-year-old kid. His bat stays in the ‘zone a long time. Defensively, like any young shortstop or second baseman, he needs to be smoothed out, but for him to go straight to rookie ball at 17 years old and put up the numbers has been exciting.

Rashun Dixon was a stand-out football player in high school.
It goes back to that summit meeting that we had last October where we decided to take a lot more chances. We got some guys that are the right age. This is the most exciting time we've ever had watching rookie ball games to have these guys instead of having the college seniors of the world. Sometimes those guys make it at that level, too, and we've actually had some scouts start off that way, too, so it is all good. But this talent is exciting.

This year, I think the fans don't realize it, but we accomplished what we set out to do. If we don't have any injuries at the big league level, we are actually over .500 and we might have been in position – well the Angels have the best record in the game – but we might have had a chance to challenge them for a while.

But going forward, we have shed our payroll and our farm system is back. It is exciting to turn on the computer every day and see what's happening, to see who did what where. Did Carter hit a homerun? Did James Simmons throw seven shut-out innings? Did Vince Mazzaro do his thing? It's been refreshing. You hate to turn the TV on at 7 o'clock at night sometimes, but Billy [Beane] has got a plan, like always. He is the best GM in the game and this plan is in place. We are going to take a mulligan on the 2008 season at the major league level, but this is going to be the impetus going forward of a dynasty-type situation again.

OC: Besides Inoa, is there anyone that you have seen over in the Dominican academy that might be coming over to the States next season that we should keep an eye out for?

BO: I think we did a good job in Venezuela signing Jose Sayegh and Diego Ledezma. We also signed a shortstop named Gabriela Santana recently. He is kind of a J.J. Hardy. A wiry body with a nice swing and power potential who can handle the position. We have guys going forward. I just think that our guy in Venezuela is awesome, Julio Franco. You take a look at the 40-man roster and we've got Gregorio Petit, Javier Herrera and Henry Rodriguez. These guys have signed for pauper prices and have made it all the way to the 40-man roster. Now we have given him the keys to the ignition a little bit and are spending a little more money.

Raymond Abreu is down in the Dominican and his legion of scouts are very capable and have been awesome over the years. Now we are committed. We are in the game. We aren't on the sidelines any more internationally. Randy Johnson has just been at the Olympics and he has been to Asia and Australia. We get his e-mails and reports and the web cams. We went from being on the sidelines to being a major player relatively quickly. This was part of Billy's plan. This Inoa kid, he is probably the best talent in Latin America along with Felix Hernandez and K-Rod. He's got those kind of capabilities as long as he stays healthy.

Young Ryan Sweeney has been a bright-spot for Oakland this season.
As a franchise and as an organization, I can't say anything more. It has been great to work here over the past 10 years and I'm looking forward to continuing to do things here. When they write our epitaph, I think they'll say that we got a mulligan on 2008. We've been to the playoffs in five of the last eights years. We took a bath at the major league level this year, but our organization has gotten healthy from young players doing well in the big leagues this year and guys getting adjusted to the big leagues this year and having plenty of talent – if not the best talent – in the minor leagues in all of baseball. Everything about what we are doing makes sense. I think starting in spring training 2009, it won't just make sense to the front office. It will make sense to everybody.

We get our kudos throughout the game from people who have seen the guys we have acquired and have seen our young players at the big league level. It has been very exciting. It doesn't show in the wins and losses at the big league level, but when I turn on that computer at night after a long day of scouting and I see that Chris Carter has hit number 35 or 36 and I'm up late at night watching Brett Anderson throw seven innings to win a bronze medal, Adrian Cardenas is just born to hit, and Aaron Cunningham is hitting .300 with a .500 slugging percentage and a .340 OBP and looking like the Aaron Rowand comparisons, it's worth it. And every day is like that.

You just have a huge smile on your face and we are kind of that guy around the corner and you don't see us coming and then we will be hitting you right between the eyes and we will suddenly be good like we were in 2000 and the years after that.

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