Oakland A's Spring Q&A: Keith Lieppman, P. 1

The Oakland A's minor league spring training camp is underway. We caught-up with A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman at Papago Park and discussed with him some of his thoughts and early impressions of a number of prospects in the A's system. In part 1 of the interview, we touch on Vince Mazzaro, Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, Michael Ynoa, Rashun Dixon, Matt Sulentic & Ryan Webb.

OaklandClubhouse: I wanted to talk to you about a few of the guys who are still up in major league camp, Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill and Vince Mazzaro in particular. Has how well they have pitched affected where you think they should start the season?

Keith Lieppman: I think that when you look at it from a minor league point of view, it is the development aspect that we get involved with. Once they get into that arena of the next level and they are under the scrutiny of the big league manager and the pitching coach, all of a sudden, they might profile differently than in the minor league system. Especially when you start hearing that from other major league scouts who are looking at our players. Those words get back to our people and all of a sudden there are raving reviews of all three of those guys. Then you match them up against who they are competing against and you can't discount them.

They are in a position where stuff-wise, the may have better stuff than the guys they have gone against. Then it becomes a matter of experience and, if and when they start to have problems, are you willing to stick with them. Those are some of the concerns that you think about when you talk about bringing someone up quickly through the system. If they are good enough and they are better than the existing guys who are there, why not give them a chance? Certainly stuff-wise, we all know that they profile out of this world, certainly better than anyone else that we have in our system.

OC: Last spring when I spoke with you, you pointed out that both Mazzaro and Ryan Webb reported to camp looking different and that they had really grown into their bodies and were throwing a lot better than the year before. Is there anyone this year that is standing out like that?

KL:, Those guys [the young pitchers in big league camp] all came into camp a lot more mature. Jared Lansford looks different and Andrew Bailey. You look at all of our young pitchers – Andrew Carignan – having been with us now for a full season and through the Arizona Fall League, they come back different. They are more focused, more mature. They get a taste [of the big leagues] and they know that they are close. They have played against pretty much the best players in the Fall League and they understand that if you do well and you work hard, there is a really good chance, especially in this organization right now, to move. We are seeing some guys who have taken on that air.

Webb, like I said last year, he has done that again this year. He hasn't been great in every outing, but there have been times when he has pitched very well.

OC: Do you see him moving into the bullpen as he moves higher?

KL: There is a chance that he could go that direction but I think you just look at his stuff and there is still starter stuff there. He has the capability. He has a good change-up and a really good slider. He could end up in the bullpen, but he has opened up a lot of eyes this year too. He has been at 95 miles per hour with his fastball. He just has to focus and continue to mature and not make as many mistakes. They make you pay at the next level. He has found that out.

OC: You've got a lot of tall pitchers right now. Is it harder to get them to repeat their deliveries than it is with the smaller guys?

KL: That can be the case sometimes, but most of these tall guys are pretty athletic, starting with Michael Ynoa, who was here. It was really just a good experience to see him. He is a big guy who is tall and gangly, but is very athletic. He is going to grow into his body as well. Whether it is Webb or him or this kid Jonathan Hunton, who we picked up this off-season, he is about 6'10''. Angel Garcia is about 6'7'' and Andy Sisco, who is 6'9'' or 6'10''. All of those guys are good athletes and they have responded well so far to the stuff that we are doing.

We've done some different things this year with Bob Alejo [A's strength and conditioning manager] coming in with his strength and conditioning program, we have taken that through the whole system. Judd Hawkins is doing it for us at this level. We are actually timing sprints, measuring long-jumps. We are using a lot of different techniques to try to improve our players' athleticism and conditioning. We are really trying to avoid that disabled list. That was the idea that Billy Beane had come up with, that we would try to improve at all levels, so there is going to be an increased focus on strength and conditioning in our system.

OC: I spoke with Garvin Alston last week about his new position as the rehab coordinator for pitchers. Do you think that that position will help you guys meet that goal?

KL: Definitely. To have one person totally lined up for that job will be beneficial. Garvin is very good because he knows the pitching coach side of it and he is also able to help with the rehabs, so we've really improved ourselves. We have a new video coordinator for the minor league system, as well. We have a new and improved video system called Dartfish. That is really going to help us. We are going to have on-line capabilities with all of our video, so we can share that video across the system.

That was part of the wish list that we talked about with Billy [Beane] in a meeting of scouting and player development [before the 2008 season]. He basically asked us what our wish list would be with the goal of trying to improve our player development and scouting and what we need to get there. These additions are the fruition of some of those talks, having a strength and conditioning intern at every level who will basically travel and be in control of the whole conditioning aspect for each team. Before we had to use trainers. Now we have a strength coach at every level. That is a big move for us to try to get these kids to get better. We are moving ahead, especially with the increased time in the Dominican Republic. We are spreading out. We have international scouts who are in places like Taiwan and all around.

OC: How were your trips to the DR this winter?

KL: Very good. We've seen a lot of our younger kids making progress. Robin Rosario has been very good. He is going to be here [in Phoenix] starting in April. We are starting to be very impressed with some of the talent that we have gotten down there that we can start moving quickly into our system. Right now, we just have Gregorio Petit and Santiago Casilla [in the big leagues] and then Henry Rodriguez and Javier Herrera are close and we have Raul Padron. There are a few Latin prospects scattered in our system, but we are hoping that we have more Latin American talent in the system going forward.

OC: When Ynoa was here, was that to get his feet wet before extended spring so that he could get to know the complex and the way things are run over here?

KL: It was kind of the idea that we would let the press see him a little bit as part of a group because with Oakland in spring training, this was really a good time for everybody to get to see him and meet him, rather than him being a distraction at some other point. This was a good environment for us to bring him here and show him how we do things and then bring him back when he is ready to come back.

OC: Do you think he and Rosario will be in the Rookie League this year?

KL: That is the idea. We don't have any firm plan. The extended program is a difficult program. Ynoa has only pitched in 15 innings down in our Instructional League there, so we don't really know how he is going to respond to different competition. The guy has probably never given up a homerun. He probably hasn't had any failure, for the most part. There is going to be some maturing in terms of how he is going to handle certain situations and failures. It's a process. Not to mention that he has to learn a new language and a culture, like any Latino player who comes here.

OC: I saw Rashun Dixon on the practice field. He is a real specimen.

KL: Isn't he? He is very impressive. He hit some balls [on Sunday] in BP – I just happened to be out there throwing batting practice to him – and he puts fear into you even with the screen in front of you. The ball comes off of his bat a little differently than most guys. He is exciting. He is very raw, though. We are trying to get him to repeat his swing and get balanced, just the basic things that comes with a really talented young kid who has probably never had to work on those things. He is working well on that.

We have some decisions to make on what is best for his long-term future. It is whether to give him a month or two in extended spring just to work on those things versus moving him to Kane County where the weather is bad and there are a lot of rainouts. The consistency in terms of playing time might be hard to come by at that level, especially early in the season. The flipside is that he can spend some time in this environment and then perhaps move very quickly from that point on.

OC: Is it more difficult for young hitters to hit in the Midwest League? Are you more and more tempted to have young hitters skip that level rather than endure a situation similar to what Matt Sulentic experienced in 2007?

KL: Once they go through Vancouver, it has already been a shock to them. That is one of the most difficult parks to hit in in North America. That's what happened to Sulentic. We gave him two opportunities to overcome those ballparks. We started him in Vancouver and then he went to Kane County and then he failed at that level [in 2006]. He then went back to Kane County [in 2007] and failed. Last year, we said that he had done everything that he could at those levels. Neither one of those ballparks [Vancouver and Kane County] are particularly forgiving. We decided to give him a shot in Stockton [in 2008] and it worked in his case.

Sometimes the struggles are good teachers. You are forced to overcome the obstacles. Sometimes you can make the argument that it is good to let people go through that experience, even though it is not pleasant for everybody. When you do decide to make a move like that with a player [having him avoid repeating a level he has struggled at], it doesn't always work out serendipitously like with Sulentic, who ends up hitting.300 [.309] and has a great year.

OC: Is he 100 percent recovered from his broken arm?

KL: Actually, he ended up having another issue. He is not here yet. He lost about 25 pounds due to an illness during the off-season. He is just now beginning to gain the weight back. We didn't want to bring him here and have him scuffle. He is still at home and we expect that he might be in a position to come here in about a week.

OC: He's a candidate to start the year in extended spring training then?

KL: Yeah, maybe for a short time. We don't think it would be worthwhile to send him out until he is healthy.

OC: That probably doesn't hurt the attempts to lessen the logjam in the minor league outfields?

KL: [laughs] Well, there are logjams everywhere right now. We are really backed up in a lot of areas.

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