Oakland A's Spring Q&A: Farhan Zaidi, Part 1

With two weeks left to go in spring training, the Oakland A's are getting closer to Opening Day. Over the past several weeks, the team has had a chance to take a close look at some of their brightest young prospects in big league camp. We spoke to A's Director of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi about some of those prospects last Tuesday in Phoenix. This is part one of that interview...

OaklandClubhouse: Obviously this spring is a lot different than last year's spring training, which was truncated thanks to the Japan trip. Is it nice to have this extra time to allow all of the position battles to play out?

Farhan Zaidi: Yeah, definitely, particularly with our starting pitching situation. We knew coming in that we were going to have upwards of 10 candidates for the five rotation spots. Just the fact that we are getting to see multiple guys and are getting multiple guys stretched out is helping the competition. I think having a longer spring – particularly young guys like Trevor Cahill, Vince Mazzaro and Brett Anderson – to get to see them as many times as we have gotten to see them in this environment against major league-caliber players, particularly later in the spring when those guys stay in games longer, I think that from an evaluation perspective, it is really helpful.

OC: Obviously you guys are high on all three of those guys, but are you surprised about how well they have done [NOTE: This interview was conducted last Tuesday morning before Mazzaro had given up any runs this spring.]

FZ: Personally, the guy who has really surprised me is Mazzaro. He is a guy who we got asked a lot about this winter in trades. I think that is because Anderson and Cahill were assumed to be untouchable, so he was the next guy that teams would go to. Mazzaro is one of those guys who, I think, is much more highly regarded by teams than he is by the prospect publications, even though he is pretty highly regarded by them, as well. Other clubs have been on him for awhile. He was great in the Texas League and then sort of struggled in Triple-A, so I think that we were trying to be somewhat level in what we expected when he came here [to camp]. But he's been fantastic.

The thing that has really impressed me about him has been his maturity on the mound. He has been very calm and he has also thrown strikes. I think he has only walked one guy in eight inning. He has consistently been ahead in the count. He has thrown quality strikes, too. He has thrown his fastball on the corners and thrown sliders that have been breaking out of the ‘zone and have been good pitcher's pitches. He has been better than I expected, at least, and I mean that as a compliment.

The other guys are so highly regarded and I had seen them both pitch before and I knew how good they were. The fact that they have good stuff and throw strikes, particularly early in the spring, when pitchers are a little bit ahead of hitters, I almost expected them to do what they have done. It's going to be interesting to watch all of them as they get stretched out and they start having to face major league caliber hitters and turn-over a big league line-up two or maybe three times and see how they do with that.

OC: Is there a concern about skipping a pitcher from Double-A straight to the big leagues? Anderson had a handful of innings at Triple-A in the playoffs, but, for the most part, both he and Trevor would be skipping a level if they made the team.

FZ: It's more comfortable when guys pitch and succeed at every level. You like to do things that way. It looks nicer on paper and psychologically, you feel a lot better about doing that. But there are guys who can do it and if anybody can do it, it's these guys. They are both incredibly mature and they both pitched in the Olympics, which helped them. They probably would have had some time at Triple-A last season if they hadn't gone to the Olympics and then Trevor came back with an oblique issue, which effectively ended his chances of pitching at Triple-A last season. It's always nice to get guys to Triple-A, but it is not always necessary, especially when you have guys with their kind of abilities.

The biggest thing going up those levels is that they throw strikes. That is a little bit of a concern with Cahill because his walk-rate was a little bit high in Double-A, but he has done a good job of throwing strikes here and Anderson has never had an issue throwing strikes and his walks are always really low. I think those are the kind of guys who can make those aggressive jumps.

OC: You have a lot of pitchers who use sinkers as their primary pitches. Does that change the way that you evaluate middle infielders, especially up-the-middle?

FZ: I think it is moreso that these days when we look at players and evaluate players, you get more bang for your buck on players who save you runs on defense rather than giving you runs on offense. I think it is moreso that than being overly concerned about protecting our pitchers, although that is a nice benefit, particularly in a year like this year when we are going to have a young pitching staff. If anything, I think it goes the other way. We almost look for pitchers who get a lot of groundballs because we know that we are going to put a good defense out there because that is one of the most cost-efficient ways to put a team together.

OC: One guy who is definitely not a groundball pitcher is Edgar Gonzalez, who you picked up late in the off-season. Is he a guy that you had followed for awhile?

FZ: We talked to Arizona last spring about making a trade for him, which, of course, was before he had the injuries that he had last season. He is a guy who we have always thought could compete as a starter. He throws strikes and his stuff is good. He has been 90-92 pretty consistently down here and he has good secondary stuff. If you actually look at his statistical splits, he was kind of hurt by the homerun environment in Arizona's home park. He had always been a better pitcher on the road. The other thing is that for a guy who was a swingman, he didn't have very pronounced starter or reliever splits. He actually did okay as both a starter and as a reliever. Statistically, some of those splits were attractive to us.

We watched him a lot last spring when we were talking to Arizona about trading for him and we were able to catch a lot of him in the Mexican League over the winter. And he threw well there. His major league stats don't really jump out at you as someone who you would make a target, but between his stuff and because of what we thought would have been misleading stats because of his splits, we thought he would be a nice guy to throw into the competition.

And he's not that old himself. I think I read somewhere that when he was called up, he was the youngest pitcher in the big leagues, which makes sense because it seems like he has been around forever and yet he is only 26.

OC: Sort of like Jerome Williams.

FZ: Yeah. There is actually a lot of similarities between the two guys. It was unfortunate that we had to send Jerome out [to minor league camp], but it was really a consequence of having so many guys still in the mix for the rotation and not having innings for all of them. We are going to try to get him into more big league games [this spring], but it was more of a numbers thing.

OC: It seems like you have almost too many players – particularly position players – for too few positions in the upper levels of the A's system. The Michael Wuertz trade helped alleviate that some, but the organization is still pretty crowded in certain positions. Do you anticipate that you are going to have to make more trades like that to loosen it up a bit at the top levels?

FZ: The problem is that you can't really seek out those trades. It's hard to create a market for guys at that level. We might have to make some decisions on releasing guys or offering guys to other organizations. But it's not a big organizational secret. Anyone can write-out our depth chart and see that at both Double-A and Triple-A we have a lot of position players and pitchers.

It's really, in part, due to all of the trades that we made to acquire these young players over the past two years because we still had our drafts and we still had our guys coming up through the system and all of a sudden, you inject 10 or 15 new guys into that list. Something will have to give. We are going to let the spring play itself out and then see what our health situation is. At some point, we are going to have to make decisions.

That was what made the Wuertz trade easier to make – that we knew we had so much depth and it wasn't even clear where those guys were going to play for us.

OC: One guy who has seemingly been "stuck" the past year or so is Danny Putnam. He was a first round pick and has made his big league debut and he had a good season last year. Is it tough with players like him who have "earned it" in many ways but you can't really reward them for it because there aren't enough spots?

FZ: Yeah. Definitely. That's sort of a situation where it is not that clear if you are going to be able to create a trade market for a guy like that, but if he has an opportunity to go to another organization and play every day in the outfield, that is something that we would consider. Obviously, we'll cross that bridge when we get to it. There are a lot of people in this organization who really like him, but you are right, if you look at the fact that we brought in Matt Holliday, that makes it tough. Anything that you do at the major league level trickles down. Bringing in Orlando Cabrera and Nomar Garciaparra in the last week or two has repercussions all over the organization, as well.

We definitely have more guys that we see as prospects who maybe should be playing everyday in Double-A and Triple-A than we have spots for.

OC: Speaking of ripple effects, if Daric Barton starts the year in Triple-A, would that end any chance of Sean Doolittle being in Sacramento, or would you be comfortable putting Doolittle in the outfield much of the time?

FZ: Our guys really do think he can play in the outfield. He did it in the Fall League and he definitely has the athleticism to play out there. It's not out of the question that both of those guys are on that team. Sean's ability to play in the outfield, as well as having the DH spot, I don't think we've ruled that out.

OC: Given how well Doolittle hit in the Arizona Fall League and has hit during major league spring training, does that alleviate any of the concerns that might have cropped up over his dip in production in Midland during the second half of the season?

FZ: I do think so. We were in constant contact with the Midland coaching staff and they said that they thought he seemed a little tired and rundown at that point in the season. Being a guy who was a two-way guy [in college], and now having to focus completely on being a position player and getting that quantity of at-bats, that definitely wore him down.

He was so good in the Fall League. I would say that of the guys in big league camp, probably he and Ryan Sweeney are the two guys who have made the most consistently hard contact. I mean of all of our positions players. He was really, really impressive and I think that is putting a little bit of pressure on us to try to find room for him in Triple-A. It's not out of the question that he might go back to Double-A and maybe be more productive there to start the season and then move up. But he certainly has made it a topic of conversation.

OC: Was it fun to have Chris Carter in camp, especially during batting practice?

FZ: It was. We just haven't had that kind of physical presence in our line-up, or had that kind of physical presence even as a prospect in the organization for so long. I think it was exciting even for our big league coaching staff to be exposed to that and seeing a guy who might be a pretty important part of the future of this team. The other thing about him is that he works really hard. When you look at his stat-line, you might have concerns about his batting average or his strike-outs, but when a guy works that hard and is still pretty young, you kind of feel like he has a chance to get better in those areas.

OC: Did you get a chance to see Michael Ynoa throw when he was here?

FZ: I didn't get a chance to see his bullpen. I saw him throw in the Dominican last year, but I didn't see him this time. It sounds like everything went well. I saw him out here [at Phoenix Municipal Stadium] warming up with the team, but he didn't throw that day. Some of the stuff I read in the press, but the fact that he tried to speak in English was pretty impressive. It's not something that you see from everybody. It's nice to see that kind of motivation.

OC: What about Andrew Bailey and Andrew Carignan? Both performed well in big league camp. You have a lot of hard throwers now for that bullpen, which is different than the Keith Foulke bullpens of the past. Do you think that is what succeeds the best, especially in October baseball?

FZ: We are still pretty performance-driven in our evaluation of guys, but what we have liked about Carignan and what we have liked about Bailey after he was converted to the bullpen is that they both just put up really good numbers. Bailey is really more of an 88-93 guy. Carignan throws harder, definitely.

I don't think we made a conscious decision to add more velocity to the organization, but some of those guys like Carignan and Sam Demel were taken in the 2007 draft when we really felt like we had to replenish our system with some guys who were going to move quickly. Relief pitchers are always part of the plan when you need a group of guys to move quickly through the organization. That was part of it, but I wouldn't say it was a conscious decision.

I still think that Justin Duchscherer is a guy who doesn't throw very hard, but who is probably the best pitcher in our organization. I don't think we'll ever shy away from a pitcher just because he doesn't throw hard. I will say that in the minor leagues, we now probably have more of an evaluation on stuff than we did five or six years ago. We were very performance-driven back then. If a guy was young and put up very good numbers as a pitcher in the minor leagues, no matter what his stuff was, we viewed that guy as a potential target. Now I think we are a little more suspicious of that profile and we really need to see something stuff-wise that is going to translate to the big league level. So there may have been a bit of an organizational shift, in that sense.

Stay tuned for the second half of this interview later this week...


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