Oakland A's Instructs Q&A: Keith Lieppman

This is the final week of the Oakland A's annual Instructional League camp in Phoenix, Arizona. We recently caught-up with A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman, who has been overseeing the camp, to discuss who has been performing well at the camp, the philosophy behind "instructs," and more...

OaklandClubhouse: I wanted to get a sense from you how things were going in camp and if anyone was having a stand-out camp this season, a la Sean Doolittle last year?

Keith Lieppman: It's a little hard to say, especially with a lot of young players in a program like this where we are really focused on trying to get players to take away the focus on results. We are really interested in trying to change approaches and make adjustments and getting them to learn internal systems that make us work on the field. So much of this is geared towards things that are not particularly result oriented, although because of those types of behaviors, we are getting some really good results.

The premise of the Instructional League is all about looking at the individual and giving them capabilities so that they can handle the next level and then working with them physically on the mechanical changes and things like that. Also, learning how to operate as a team, that is another aspect of the Instructional League. We take our league guys and give them all of this information and then next year, we'll send some of these guys to Arizona (Rookie League), some to Vancouver, some to Kane County and some of them to Stockton. So these guys will usually be the centerpieces of each of those ballclubs next season. That's where the teambuilding and those sort of things become important. As you ask if there are any good performances, I think you have to preface it with all of the other stuff that we are doing, just to put those guys in a position to be able to do the little things well on the field.

Getting that out of the way [laughs], we are seeing really good performances. Rashun Dixon has been excellent. He's really worked on cutting down his swing and his effort level [on each swing]. Again, these aren't things that show up in the boxscore, but he's learned to relax at the plate and see the ball better. He hit a long homerun [on Thursday]. He's been just swinging the bat well.

We've seen Dusty Coleman, who we didn't really get to see a whole lot of this season because he signed so late, and he has made some tremendous improvements defensively and is making huge adjustments with the bat. He was really worried about some of his swing and misses during the season and he has learned some techniques to help with that aspect of his approach so he has been more consistent.

We've seen Franklin Hernandez really take off as a first baseman. I believe he has three or four homeruns down here right now and even though he had a great year in Arizona, he has upped his game to a whole different level. So we are seeing those kind of improvements out of guys.

We've had some injuries. Mitchell LeVier has been hurt and we had to send Jeremy Barfield home because of an injury, so we've got guys who we had hoped could have been here just come in and get hurt. We brought Shane Keough in and he's really focused in on his defense and throwing, really trying to make some adjustments with his game. He got off to a great start [with Kane County this year] and then kind of slowed up as the season went on. So he is here for some different reasons. Then we've got guys here like James Simmons, who is here to work on a few aspects of his game, like pitching inside and developing a better breaking ball. We have a wide spectrum of reasons for why guys are here to work on different things and make an improvement.

OC: I noticed that Brett Anderson was on the original roster for the Instructional League. I don't know if he wound-up participating.

KL: Nope. We actually took him out once he pitched those final two games for Sacramento [in the PCL playoffs]. We felt that he had reached enough innings for the year, so we backed him off. He left the season on a great note, to be continued when he comes back in the spring.

OC: He obviously had a lot of different experiences this season going from Single-A to Triple-A and stopping along the way in Double-A and the Olympics. Did you see a lot of growth from him as a pitcher from the beginning of the season to the end?

KL: His competitiveness is just so off-the-charts, and that fuels a lot of what he does out there. His make-up and presence on the mound really keep him active all of the time and that really says a lot about him. Pitch development was good. He really used his change-up well this season and his fastball command – he needs to learn to pitch inside a little bit better – but he basically did everything that we asked him to do. He's very good at 20 years old at taking information and putting it into the ballgame. We are really happy with where he is at right now.

OC: I think it has been a while since the A's had two 17-year-old hitters perform as well as Rashun Dixon and Nino Leyja played with the A's Rookie League team this season. Was it exciting to have players that young playing that well for the AZL A's this year?

KL: Definitely. In Leyja's case, we have had a number of young Latino players come into our system and not produced like he has. Guys who maybe played for two years in the Dominican and didn't have the instant results like he did in the Rookie League. He is an exceptional player. He is still not even 18 yet and he puts together a solid at-bat. Especially with as tired as he was at various points in the season. You can imagine a 17-year-old high school kid playing everyday. We don't typically like to do that to even the college kids, and he managed to persevere. He has a really good mental make-up and great tools physically. He is a really excellent player and will be a very good player down-the-road.

OC: I saw that Arnold Leon was on the original roster for instructs. Did you get him back from Mexico?

KL: Yep.

OC: Is he full-time property of the A's now?

KL: He is, but he still has responsibilities to the Culiacan ballclub. He did come here, but he has pitched pretty much around the clock for two years, between summer ball, winter ball, all through. Our purpose in bringing him here was really mechanical work. We had him throw only twice a week, an inning each time, to give him the opportunity to work with the staff to continue to develop him. He really needs a break because he'll go back to Mexico to play winter ball and they'll use him down there however they do and then he's going to have to come back to spring training again with us. We are taking every opportunity to make sure that he gets a little bit of a break with his arm when we can.

OC: Do you see him being stretched out next season as a starter at all, or do you see him staying in that bullpen role?

KL: We certainly feel that he has capabilities to start. I think we've looked at him as a potential starter next year. He's got the pitches where he can do that, but he has been pretty much groomed his whole career as a reliever. It wouldn't hurt to take a look at him in that role and see how he does.

OC: Tyson Ross and Brett Hunter are both in camp after having some injury questions this season. Are both of them looking healthy and throwing at full strength?

KL: Yeah, Ross has been great. He has had three appearances down here and he has been excellent. His arm has been good. He bounced back from a little bit of an arm problem late in the year and he has been throwing great. This is a good program for him. He is here more to work on his mechanics and the basics of his pitching routine and things like that. But we aren't interested in a whole lot of innings from him right now, either. Basically, he's here to learn the mental game and going through all of the drills that we do – fielding, learning how to control the running game, that type of thing.

Hunter, in his last outing, his velocity is starting to come up again. He's had some 94s to 96s. A lot better mechanics and a very good breaking ball, above-average, to go along with a solid fastball. He has been healthy and really has looked good in his two or three outings.

OC: I read a few scouting reports on Jason Christian that were raving about his defensive skills as a shortstop. You had mentioned that he was going to try a few different positions during instructs. Do you see him as a future shortstop down-the-line or are you still trying to see where he fits in position-wise?

KL: We've used him in a number of areas. He's got plenty of arm and he's got range. He's a taller-type player, more of a Bobby Crosby-type look, but he is certainly capable of [playing shortstop]. So I think you have to keep throwing him out there. What you have, though, is a situation where you start to have a lot of guys in the system [at one position]. You have him and Coleman and you have Michael Richard and Josh Horton and Justin Sellers, etc. Guys start to back-up a little bit, so you have to start moving some guys around the diamond to make sure they get at-bats.

As we did with Cliff Pennington and as we did with Sellers, they learned to play both sides of the diamond and when in doubt, move them to the other position. You look at Pennington, he was playing some short [with Oakland] when Bobby was down, and then all of a sudden, Mark Ellis gets hurt and Pennington can move over to second and he's equal at either position. So that's our goal is to not firmly say that one guy has to be this or that position. You try to offer yourself options as an organization.

OC: There were obviously a lot of guys like Pennington and Jeff Baisley and others who came up this season and made their big league debuts. Is it rewarding for you and the coaching staff to see these guys make it up to the big leagues and show well there?

KL: It's always exciting, especially during the Instructional League when they come back. We start each Instructional League with kind of a summary of who we are as an organization, who is in the big leagues and how they got there and what it takes to get there. And all of a sudden, Jeff Baisley will walk into the room, or last year, it was Danny Putnam who walked into the room. Guys who have actually made it into the big leagues and [the instructs players] see them in the weight-room and they see them out there practicing with us. Eric Byrnes used to do that to us all of the time. He'd come back after a big league season and he'd take BP and the guys would get to see what this guy is all about.

It's a reward to see them get there, but it is also a reward to see them come back and have the guys at the Instructional League see their work ethic and commitment to the game and those types of things. Certainly for the staff, it is a reward to see guys graduate to the big leagues because they really aren't rewarded any other way, so to see some of them make it up there and get off to a decent start, that gives us something to feel proud about, I guess. [laughs]

OC: Catcher Petey Paramore had mentioned to MiLB.com that he had changed his swing towards the end of his season with Kane County. Is he swinging the bat better in your opinion?

KL: The last two days especially, he has really made some adjustments and certainly his bat speed and the things that he was working on were much better. Again, it's back to that category of it may not be resulting in hard contact yet, but it is still the progress that we are looking for. We are measuring things in a much different fashion, so it is a little difficult to report exactly on how someone is doing. It's all subjective, I guess.

What we are trying to have them do is to try on a few different things because all change has to come through changing things. The Instructional League can be a political mantra about change, to borrow a phrase. [laughs]

OC: One player who seems to have gone through a lot of change is Carlos Hernandez. He got off to a rough start to his pro career last year, but ever since he went to the Arizona Rookie League last year, he has been lights out. What kind of pitcher is he and where do you see him down-the-road?

KL: He was a guy who was mired in extended spring. He was there after having kind of not a great year the year before. From that point on through when he got to Vancouver and then up to Kane County, the change has been remarkable. This kid just consistently used all of his pitches. He has an above-average breaking ball, a good change-up and a fastball in the upper-80s. His command is good.

He forced the organization's hand by consistently just going out and pitching. He's one of the unsung heroes of the season. To go to Stockton and win those last two [playoff] games for them, it's a remarkable story. I'm proud of the way he went about it because it isn't a guy's favorite trek to start the season in extended spring. Guys are down and they want to be on an everyday club, and he persevered and forced the organization to keep pushing. That's kind of how we see him, as a guy who has earned his stripes, for sure.

OC: The organization did a lot of winning in the minor leagues this season, especially the full season affiliates, and to come home with two league championships must have been pretty exciting. Do you think that winning in the minor leagues helps build winning teams in the big leagues?

KL: Yeah, I think it is huge. It is something that Billy Beane really likes to talk about. But it takes on sort of a different sense in the minor leagues in the sense that we don't, for instance, platoon hitters. Sometimes in a ballgame, you have a chance to match-up and bring in somebody who might give you a better chance to win, but at some point, you are going to have to have your prospects, your players who are going to reach the big leagues, face that situation. So at the risk of not winning, you still have to develop.

We still focus on winning, but how you win by is developing proper approaches and attitudes. We reach them through a different angle. You win through preparation with the staff, proper base-running. We gear ourselves more towards that. You look at our track record over the last 10 years and I think we've had only one season under .500 the entire time [in the minor leagues]. We have a way we do things here and a way we develop players and it results in winning, but it is all about doing the little things correctly.

OC: Are some of the guys that you brought in as minor league free agents this past season, such as Jesus Guzman, Brooks Conrad or Casey Rogowski, players the team would consider bringing back next season?

KL: We haven't totally gotten to that point where we are looking at it yet. Each of those guys did a great job for us. Rogowski was a tremendous asset to that club [Sacramento]. He really helped them win. You look at Guzman leading the league in hitting. We also had Chris Farley, who went up and down and did a nice job for us in different roles. We had role players who came in from the six-year market and did great. If you are looking for a third baseman in your system, Guzman is certainly someone that you would have to look at. He put up monster numbers before he got hurt. Conrad was also excellent, 28 homeruns and a tremendous grinder on that ballclub. He was instrumental in helping Sacramento win that championship.

So that's the nuts and bolts of it. If you can carry some of these guys and they aren't blocking some of your younger players coming up, you'd love to have them. But you've got to look to the future and see that you have, say, Justin Sellers coming up or we have Tom Everidge coming or we have this guy coming. Then you have to make the decisions about who gets the playing time and you can't promise six-year free agents jobs and then not give them to them. That's kind of the hard part of this time of the year when you have to truly identify who is going to get those at-bats next year.

OC: Everidge is an interesting guy because he sort of seems to fly under the radar, but every year he seems to post something near 100 RBIs and more than 20 homeruns. Where do you see him slotting in?

KL: He certainly has put himself into a position where he can't fly under the radar anymore. When you put up those kind of numbers every year, it's not a fluke. We are assuming that he is the real deal. Once you do it at Double-A and put up those kind of numbers, you deserve the opportunity to move on to the next level. Guys like him who maybe had to wait a little bit longer to get their opportunity at the Triple-A level, whenever the timing comes, so be it. Sometimes you get backed up behind a Daric Barton or Wes Bankston. Timing, luck, there are so many things that are involved that allow a guy to progress through the system. In his case, there were a few guys ahead of him. This may be his opportunity next year. You just hope that they are ready when they get that chance.

OC: I saw that Anthony Recker signed on with a Dominican team for the winter. Are there any other guys with plans for the winter?

KL: He is going to play for Escogido and Jeff Baisley is going to play for one of the teams in Caracas, Venezuela. I know that both Danny Putnam and Richie Robnett are in discussions about contracts with teams in Mexico. And Jason Windsor is in contract negotiations with a team in Mexico, as well.

OC: Is Windsor back to 100 percent? His numbers didn't show at the end of the year, but at least he was out there on the mound.

KL: Yeah, that is part of the process of coming back from injury. His velocity is not 100 percent but he is getting it back pretty quick.

OC: Brad Ziegler's rise to the big leagues has to be one of the more inspiring stories for these guys in the Instructional Leagues. What was it like to see him finally make it to the big leagues and then dominate like he did?

KL: Ron Romanick [A's bullpen coach and former minor league pitching coordinator] was here [on Thursday] and we had a long conversation where we kind of traced Ziegler's path from the time he was a starter and even as far back as when he was a recently signed starter with Modesto [in 2004] to the big leagues. I know that everyone has kind of traced that path in their different ways, but to have been here [while he was learning the new throwing motion] and actually seen him struggle and things not go well and kind of be a little bit ‘what's that guy doing over there' during Instructional League as he was trying to get this thing going, was amazing. We also talked about discussions he had with Chad Bradford and thinking ‘is this guy ever really going to do it?'

There was never a clear-cut path for Ziegler even when he did put up good numbers. Seeing him fly under the radar and seeing him struggle made it that much better for all of us who kind of watched it and knew how really difficult it was for him just to get to the big leagues. He had put up good numbers in 2007 and was pretty much still unnoticed around the league. He got to the point where he, too, forced the organization to give him a chance. His numbers at Triple-A were out-of-this-world. I think that was part that all of us as minor league staff members, we watched this kid from Day 1 and he really taught us all a good lesson about perseverance and attitude.

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