Oakland A's Spring Q&A: Keith Lieppman, P. 2

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 2 of the interview, we touch on Jermaine Mitchell, Arnold Leon, Daniel Thomas, Josh Horton, Adrian Cardenas, Grant Desme and more...

To view part one of this interview, please click here.

OaklandClubhouse: Jermaine Mitchell was a player who was really inconsistent last season with Stockton – brilliant sometimes and a non-factor others. What does he need to do to get to the next level?

Keith Lieppman: It's interesting. He is the quickest guy [in camp]. We ran the 60-yard dash the other day and we timed it. I think he ran about a 6.4. He has tremendous ability in everything that he does. He has so much ability. It's that consistency that we talked about on defense and the day-to-day frustrations of playing. He is trying to be consistent in all aspects of his game. That is the biggest key for him right now. As you say, there were a lot of moments last year when he was very good, and then there were times when he just wasn't the same guy.

People like that, you tend to try to help them at a level that they can have success, and he hasn't totally had that yet. I believe he hit only about .240 last season and the California League is a hitters' league, so more than likely, Jermaine will probably have to go back to Stockton. But we won't discount his talent. If he has a chance to make that club [Midland], and he has looked like he really improved, we would consider it, but more than likely, we'd like to see him be more consistent first.

OC: During the Cal League playoffs, we talked about Corey Brown and you mentioned that he was really going to be focusing on his two-strike approach this off-season. Is it too early to tell if there has been an improvement there?

KL: Corey actually came down early, along with Jermaine. A couple of these guys came down in early January and they have really worked hard here. That does not go unnoticed because we have our staff here working with them all of the time. Greg Sparks [A's Minor League Hitting Coordinator] has been with them and has talked to them a lot about how to improve in some of the areas that they fell short in last year.

Corey really recognizes the swing-and-miss and the need to cut down the strike-outs. He's made a concerted effort and he has looked really good thus far. But, again, we are starting games on Wednesday, so we'll get a better sense of what else we need to do.

OC: It seems like every other aspect of his game was good last year, except those strike-outs.

KL: Completely. He has opposite-field power and there were times that he could get into position and pull a homerun. He was a big part of the team and plus, he played really well on defense at both levels. You hope that maybe he is in a position to move to the next level and hope that he can succeed there. There are some guys who are on the fence. They had good years [in 2008], but that Double-A level is the most difficult jump that those guys are going to face and especially that ballpark [in Midland]. People have the misconception that the Texas League is an easy hitters' league, but it really isn't.

OC: Because they've got those winds coming in right?

KL: They do, especially at Midland. San Antonio is also a difficult place to hit. It's not like in the old days when you had El Paso, Midland, Arkansas, some of these ballparks were very easy to hit in. That has all changed now. It's a much more respected pitching league than it used to be.

OC: Tony DeFrancesco is back as your manager in Sacramento. Do you expect that he will be able to bring some continuity with what that team has had the past few years?

KL: Absolutely. I'm sure that he is disappointed after being in the big leagues. But he is one of the best employees I think I have ever had in terms of attitude and his ability to adjust to his circumstances. He is widely respected as a manager, with all of the titles, the job he has done in Sacramento and his ability to develop players. We have had great success with him throughout the years. Even with him coming back into our system, there is a renewed sense of purpose on his part. Some guys you would look at and they might be a little bit hesitant or disappointed or angry about being back, but he is far from that. He sees it as an opportunity to continue to help the players and sees basically where this is going to take them. And wherever he ends up is fine. He is a low-ego guy and he is working with the organization. Those types of guys are awesome to have.

OC: Todd Steverson has risen up quickly as a coach through your system. What are his strengths as a coach?

KL: He is an excellent outfield coach. I know he has been given a lot of responsibility by Bob [Geren] in terms of setting the defense and the accumulation of statistics. It's an on-going part of him that fits right into the kind of person that he is. He is very inquisitive and he is always looking for answers to help improve the defense for each one of those guys. He is a great instructor and a great observer and I think that that combined with his communications skills put him in a great position to help that big league club.

OC: Do you think it is helpful to have guys like Tony last year and Ron Romanick and now Todd this year on the big league staff who have worked with these players as minor leaguers?

KL: It's definitely great from my point of view, having watched these guys and their odyssey as they go through the minor leagues. As staff members, their desire is to get to the big leagues like the players. All of a sudden when they get their shot in the big leagues, it is just as rewarding for us to see your own people get to the big leagues. Billy [Beane], Bob, any of the people who have been in our system, recognize how important that is to our development system to not only bring your players up, but to bring up your personnel. It's basically a homegrown coaching staff, minus Tye Waller and Jim Skaalen. That is very important to us to at least to have the minor league coaches know that you are going to have an opportunity at some point in the big leagues.

OC: Fautino De Los Santos is still in the Dominican right?

KL: Yep. He is going to be here for extended spring. He has had a lot of success so far with the rehab part of it. He has started to throw off of the mound and we anticipate that he will be ready to pitch in games sometime hopefully in June.

OC: Is Daniel Thomas still lighting up the radar gun?

KL: Big time. He is exciting. He has really picked up where he left off during the Instructional League. He is a flame-thrower with a great breaking ball. We are really excited about him. Brett Hunter also continues to get better. There are some interesting guys who are all throwing in the low to mid 90s.

OC: Different than five years ago.

KL: A lot different. Back then, we couldn't find one that was in the low-90s. Now, most of our guys are hitting the low to mid 90s. We aren't a radar gun organization. We want people who can pitch, but now we have pitchers who have good arms too. You look at any of those guys in the big league camp, Andrew Carignan, Andrew Bailey, Ryan Webb, they are all in the low to mid 90s. In the big leagues, you watch Detroit and when their bullpen comes in – whether it is Joel Zumaya or whoever comes in – they are all throwing hard. Most bullpens are like that in the big leagues now. We've developed now to the point that we maybe don't have as many specialty guys. We are going to have hard-throwing, young arms in the bullpen who can get hitters on both sides of the plate out. It's going to be a lot of fun.

OC: Is Grant Desme back to full strength?

KL: He came to camp and was doing really well. He got through his rehab and was doing really well and then he came here and took a couple of swings and he pulled a rib cage. You know how those are. Sometimes those can linger on, so we are taking our time with him. He is hitting off of a tee and is kind of in a slow-down mode. We'll see how that responds.

OC: And Jeremy Barfield got a little banged up as well, right?

KL: Yeah, he was out chasing balls the other day and he had a slight strain on his hamstring. We are just going to wait on him and be a little careful with him. Those were two of kind of the minor injuries, but still they are enough to make them miss some time.

OC: Desme had struggled with a shoulder and a wrist problem last year. Were those healed before he injured the rib cage?

KL: Yeah, he is perfectly fine with both of those.

OC: Is it tough when you have a player like him who would have likely been up in Stockton at some point last season if all had gone according to plan, but because of the injuries will likely have to start all the way back in Kane County this year?

KL: Really, in reality, he has only played about five games for us. His name has been there a long time, but it is a similar situation with James Shull. It's a situation where you have guys who have been really good and then all of a sudden they get hurt and you just don't see them for awhile. They sort of have to work their way back in because in baseball, the clicker keeps clicking. More people keep coming. We make trades. All of a sudden, what was once an easier path is now involving more competition and so forth. Trying to find an opportunity for those guys can be difficult.

OC: I saw that Yusuf Carter was listed on the roster as a catcher. He had been an outfielder before, right?

KL: Yes. We actually had had interest in him as a free agent as a catcher. Now that we have him in our system, we are helping him make that transition to a catcher. That's kind of a work-in-progress right now.

OC: He's tall for a catcher.

KL: Yeah and he is very strong. He has some power. He had something like 13 homeruns last year. We drafted him a few years ago. I think we are going to get one more shot with him and see if he can make that adjustment.

OC: How is Jed Morris?

KL: He is participating fully in camp. He's healthy, which is the best news. He is still cancer-free. He put in a full season last year, but that was basically a rehab year. He was still not 100 percent. Even though it had been a year, it was tough to be 100 percent having gone through what he went through. We are going to try to get him in the mix this year, as well.

OC: Is it fun to have Ryan Doolittle in camp, the younger brother of another farm hand [Sean Doolittle]?

KL: It is. Ryan really turned it on a little bit in the extended program and started to turn the corner a little bit. The biggest thing with them is that they want to face each other. Maybe at some point we can get an intra-squad game together and have them face each other.

OC: I saw Adrian Cardenas working out at both second and short. Is that going to continue this year with him playing both of those spots as well as third base?

KL: Yeah. We are trying to evolve a lot of our infielders into being able to play multiple positions. Going back to the old days when Esteban German refused to play anything else but second base, that hurt him for a couple of years. All of a sudden, he became a sort of Chone Figgins, where he could play a lot of different positions, including the outfield. Esteban made a nice little career for himself doing those types of things.

Bobby Crosby had never moved out of one position. All of a sudden, as he got down the road, I wish we would have had him play multiple positions. I think with every other person in our system, whether it be Cliff Pennington or Gregorio Petit, we have had all of those guys play multiple positions. Cardenas is just one more in the line of guys who will do that. Our upcoming group, whether it is Michael Richard or Mike Affronti, they are all a part of that process. I think it is a good idea. It's something we work on in the Instructional League because you just never know what you'll need from someone.

OC: What about Josh Horton? Is he strictly a shortstop?

KL: He worked at second some in the Instructional Leagues. Right now, we'll probably just leave him at short, but he can play third and second.

OC: He kind of tailed off at the end of last season. Was that an injury or just fatigue?

KL: I think that it was the long first year. I think that was more of the thing with him than an injury. He has been down here early as well. He's looked strong so far.

OC: Is Arnold Leon going to go into the starting rotation?

KL: We still have him in that mix. We haven't totally discounted him as a bullpen guy, but we are going to build him up as a starter. We have been talking about having at every level, whoever the fifth starter was, having a tandem guy that goes along with that fifth starter so that you can have two people lined up so that if somebody is called up to another level, you have another guy who is built up who can take his place.

So many times you are desperate in the middle of the season. There is a call and you take someone to the big leagues and you don't have anyone in the minors built up, so you have to take one of the starters from another level and it's a domino effect for the rest of the system. It ruins your whole flow of your system and you are kind of mixing and matching. Jason Glushon pitched at all four levels last year and Graham Godfrey was moved around, and sometimes that takes them out of their rhythm. What we would prefer is to be able to take another guy at that level to fill those open spots and make a start if necessary.

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