A's Post-Season Interview: Farhan Zaidi, P. 2

In part two of our extensive interview with Oakland A's Baseball Operations Analyst Farhan Zaidi, we discuss the emergence of Dallas Braden, the concept of an all-lefty rotation, the health of Justin Duchscherer and more...

Click here for Part One of this interview

OC: What did you see from Dallas Braden this season? At the end of 2007, there were real questions about whether he could be a starter in the major leagues, but he seems to have answered those questions this season. What improvements did you see from him?

FZ: We were very happy with what we got from Dallas this season. Based on what he did at Triple-A last year, we didn't think that his performance in the big leagues in '07 was indicative of his ability. If you look at the numbers and at his peripherals, he was actually a little bit unlucky and just anecdotally, I watched all of his starts and I can remember a number of times where he got a little bit unlucky with a broken bat hit here and maybe a defensive misplay there, and he wound up with big, crooked numbers when he could have been out of it with little or no damage. I think 2007 was a little misleading for Dallas, but he certainly came back this year, both at the Triple-A level and at the major league level and pitched very well and very competitively.

We have a lot of young players like Greg Smith and Dana Eveland and Dallas and have put up pretty competitive ERAs for starting pitchers in the low-fours. If you look around the league, there are plenty of teams who have players who are even more highly touted than these guys, and when they first come up, it's difficult for them to sustain even that level [low-fours ERA] of performance. Having young pitchers who can give you innings and give you ERAs in the low-fours is obviously something that is hugely important. It is especially important given how we have to run this team in that we have to have good, young and inexpensive pitching.

We were definitely happy with how Dallas did [in 2008]. He showed that he had the ability to put together quality starts, which is what you are always looking for from these guys. I think he did a better job of going after hitters and maybe not nibbling as much as he did last year. I think it is natural with these guys that when they first come up and they get ahead in the count, they are trying to make the perfect pitch and then wind up wasting pitches and getting into deep counts and are not able to work deep into games. The fact that he was able to keep his pitch count down by pitching to contact a little bit more and not trying to make the perfect pitch when he got ahead allowed him to have more success this year.

OC: At one point this season, the A's were featuring an all-lefty rotation. As someone who has studied all of the different statistical aspects of the game, is that something that would ever concern you, the handedness of an entire rotation, or do you think it is best to just go with your best five guys, regardless of whether they are all left-handed or not?

FZ: We joke about it a little bit over here – if only our pitching staff got to face our line-up. [laughs] The pitchers would obviously be looking pretty good because our line-up is very left-handed, as well. I actually think that the handedness of the staff is less of an issue than the handedness of the line-up. Aesthetically, it looks better when you are mixing left-handers and right-handers, but from a purely functional perspective, throwing left-handers out there every day, I don't think is that big of an issue.

In some ways, for opposing teams, it makes it a little difficult for them when they are facing three lefties in a series, especially if they have a couple of middle-of-the-order, left-handed bats that they like to sit against lefties and they have to decide which games those hitters are going to play. They could wind up sitting their best hitters for two or maybe all three games of a series. I'm not necessarily saying that [an all-lefty rotation] is a distinct advantage, but there are advantages and disadvantages to it.

I don't think it is necessarily critical to have two right-handers in a rotation, other than purely aesthetic reasons. The other thing is that if you have left-handers who have reasonable success getting right-handed hitters out, whether it is with a change-up or because they really have good fastball command or whatever it is, then again it just boils down to an aesthetic thing and it really isn't a necessity from a functional perspective to have a good mix.

I do think we have concerns about the handedness of the line-up because a really left-handed line-up makes you vulnerable to good left-handed pitching and teams that have left-handed specialists in their bullpens. But on the rotation-side, I think it is less of an issue.

OC: Justin Duchscherer was a right-handed starting pitcher for the team for much of the year and obviously pitched incredibly well until he got hurt. I read that the surgery on his hip went well, but do you have a sense of whether he will be healthy come spring training? Does the team have expectations for what they can hope to get out of him next season?

FZ: We are expecting that Justin will be fine by spring. He definitely had his ups and downs [health-wise], but if you take a step back, the year that he had was really a huge success. It would have been nice to get more than the 22 starts that we did get from him, but getting the 140 innings in his first year converting back to being a starting pitcher was great.

Especially given that he had his own injury issues last season in the bullpen, so he was basically coming back from injury and going through a role change all in the same year, all of those things considered, and to have a two-and-a-half ERA like he did, was great. We think that having gone through what he went through this year will facilitate things even more next year. We expect him to do as well or better health-wise and performance-wise in '09.

OC: I read that the Cubs picked up Rich Harden's option and Cubs' GM Jim Hendry had a quote that ‘if we get 25 starts from him next season, we'll be happy.' Was it difficult when Harden was with the A's to manage the rotation when you knew going into the season that you would be lucky to get 25 starts and that there were always questions about whether he would be able to make each start?

FZ: There were a couple of things [that made it a hard situation to manage]. When we were sitting here in the off-season, it was always the exact same statement, which was exactly what Jim Hendry said: ‘if we can get 25 starts from Rich then we'll be happy.' From a planning perspective during the off-season, it made things difficult. You had to go out there and have a guy at Triple-A or in your bullpen who you think can take up those other 10 or 12 starts and keep you competitive in those games. It is pretty difficult when you have a guy whose best-case scenario is that he misses a third of his starts.

It's difficult from a planning perspective, but it is also difficult from an in-season perspective. Like you said, with Rich, some of these issues and injuries are chronic, to an extent, so it made it difficult during the season to manage the roster and manage the rotation. After every start, you had to reassess things and you had to keep someone in Triple-A on the same turn as him in case we needed someone to make a start in a pinch. It was a constant struggle for us. Certainly when he was healthy, the results justified all of the management that the situation required. But I think Jim Hendry's quote kind of captures it. You'd be happy getting one-third of the starts that you'd get from a regular, healthy starter, and that is still going to leave as an open question who will make those other starts for that team and how they will manage the roster.

OC: Shifting gears a little bit, the team had a few situations this season where they sent down a player to Triple-A who had been a regular starter, such as Travis Buck and Carlos Gonzalez. How does the team manage situations like that with young players?

FZ: It can be difficult, but I do think with young players that it is important to cultivate a culture of accountability. When we sent Travis down early in the season, he had been struggling. When we sent Carlos down, he had certainly had some positive stretches, but his plate discipline and his performance tailed off right before we sent him down. Objectively, there were very good reasons to send those players down.

We have been a young team for the past couple of years. We have been a team where guys have gotten opportunities that maybe in other organizations, they wouldn't have gotten those opportunities. While we want to continue to be a team that supports the development of young players, there has to be a sense of accountability with respect to performance. There can't be a situation where we say that ‘you are going to be able to play through anything because we are a team of young guys.'

I think Billy [Beane] had a quote earlier in the year where he said ‘we aren't running an Instructional League team here, we are running a major league team.' I think that kind of captures it. Fans and players and even the front office can get caught-up in the idea that we are really trying to develop young players, but at the end of the day, we have to be accountable for the performance of the team and the players have to be accountable for their own performance.

They need to prove that they have the mental fortitude that they can go down to Triple-A and swing the bat, and they know if they do that, they will be back up because we are a team that needs those young guys to perform. I understand the question. We've talked a lot about letting guys play through struggles at the major league level and work through some of those, but I think it is a tight balancing act. You want to give guys the opportunity to play through struggles, but you also need to maintain some accountability at the major league level.

OC: In watching the post-season, it strikes me that the Tampa Bay roster has a lot of similarities to the A's rosters from 1999 and 2000. I know that you guys have a good relationship with the Rays' front office. Is the mix of talent that the Rays have right now and the cluster of guys who are all about the same age what you guys are aiming for as the end result of this rebuild?

FZ: I think so. I think if you went around baseball, there are probably 10 or 15 teams that would tell you that the Tampa Bay model would be what they are aiming for, losing 90 games and then maybe getting to the World Series next year. Obviously, not all 10 or 15 teams can do that. It is not a unique strategy to us, which is why I bring up the 10 or 15 teams in the same boat, but when you are in a stage where you are trying to build something long-term, you just have to collect talent and if opportunities present themselves to consolidate talent at the major league level, you do that and hopefully things come together.

It's worked out very well for Tampa. We think just from an organizational perspective that we have just as much talent as anybody in baseball. But working out the timing of that talent and working out where all of those players fit in at the major league level, is still something that we are trying to figure out.

The Tampa front office did a very nice job of having drafted and developed a lot of players organically, but also supplementing those players with trades, whether it was getting Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett for Delmon Young or going out and getting Gabe Gross during the year this year. Sometimes after you have developed the talent, you have to make those types of moves to complete the major league club. That is definitely a blue-print for us and for a lot of different teams that are young right now and looking to improve.

Stay tuned for the final part of this interview, during which we discuss Henry Rodriguez, Fautino De Los Santos, Andrew Carignan, Vince Mazzaro, Eric Chavez, Huston Street, Joey Devine and more...

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