2009 In Review: Q&A With Keith Lieppman, P. 1

With the 2009 minor league regular season in the books, we thought it would be a good time to catch-up with Oakland A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman to find out his thoughts on the progress of many of the A's prospects, and the system as a whole, this season. In Part One of our conversation, we discuss Chris Carter, Brett Wallace, Jemile Weeks, Adrian Cardenas, Arnold Leon & more.

OaklandClubhouse: How would you assess this year?

Keith Lieppman: I think the main focus is our four top clubs – Sacramento down through Kane County – and to really get that development part going. The other two clubs [Vancouver and Arizona], it's really about first-year experiences and trying to get them to understand what it takes to play everyday. At the other levels, we really focused on trying to improve individually and trying to win as a club. I think that we were able to do that at every level. Even in Stockton, who didn't really come up with a great record, for a pretty good stretch there – before injuries and call-ups – had started to put it all together and looked like they were going to be something to contend with. I think that even though, as I said, they didn't have a great win-loss record, that club really improved, as well.

OC: How important is it to you to have winning teams? Do you feel like it is important for players when they get to the big leagues to have had positive experiences like that in the minor leagues?

KL: Yeah absolutely. It really helps at the level because when guys are playing well it is contagious. Players hook up onto that. Wherever you have players who are succeeding – whether it was Tom Everidge or Adrian Cardenas or pitchers like Graham Godfrey – it just brings other guys on board. Other guys want to compete and be better than them. It becomes kind of a habit. You compare that to some teams that are constantly losing, it becomes selfish. There is a lot of bitterness and performance tends to suffer. I think, in my experience, that better teams usually result in better individual performances.

OC: Both Chris Carter and Adrian Cardenas are going to be playing in the Pacific Coast League playoffs, but obviously they had a great impact on the Midland Rockhounds making the Texas League playoffs. What did you see from them this season? Did they accomplish what you were hoping they would?

KL: Yeah, especially Carter, who raised his average remarkably from last year. To have cut down on his strike-outs and improved his at-bats like he did is not an easy task in such a short period of time from last year until now. He is a much, much better hitter. His quality of at-bats have improved and he doesn't give a lot of at-bats away. He has really improved mentally. His focus is a whole lot better on every pitch as opposed to letting some at-bats get away from him. He's locked in the majority of the time and that is a really big part of his success.

OC: How about Cardenas? He struggled initially at Triple-A but seems to be hitting much better there now. Do you think he is getting close to being the hitter in Triple-A that he was at Double-A?

KL: He's really had to adjust to that level. Like Carter has, too. It's not an easy adjustment. At the very end, after 50 at-bats or whatever Carter got, he ended up hitting about .250 at Triple-A. Cardenas the first time really struggled and kind of got into a slump at the wrong time. The second time through I think he started to make the improvements. But that is really what that jump is – going from Double-A to Triple-A – is to get out of that environment where you are having success and reinvent yourself at a higher level where there is a better level of competition and there are more savvy pitchers and position players. That's the challenge. Both of them wanted that challenge. They were happy to struggle for a little bit to have the opportunity to improve their game. Sometimes you learn from failure. I think both are beginning to understand that.

OC: Where do you see their futures defensively? Carter has moved from first to the outfield and Cardenas back-and-forth from second to third. Do you have a sense of where they slot long-term?

KL: I think Carter eventually will reside at first base, but he has the capability to play in the outfield. It isn't a perfect position for him right now but he can take it out there and spell guys in the outfield. I think that he will wind-up at first, but he is really working hard to improve his game there. His preparation and his focus from pitch-to-pitch. We are really looking for him to make the same adjustments defensively that he made going from a .250-.260 hitter to what he put up there this year. He is really going to put a lot of focus on that area of his game.

I think second base is Cardenas' best position, but I think he has really improved a lot at third. The acquisition of a couple of different players – Brett Wallace in particular and the fact that we had Josh Donaldson playing some third – kind of changes the picture at the third base position a little bit. But I think just having him play [at third] and having him understand the position, he improved and it made him a better second baseman. He is still an adequate shortstop, as well, but I think his best position is second.

OC: And what about those three players that you got in the Matt Holliday trade, Brett Wallace, Clayton Mortensen and Shane Peterson? Did you get from them what you expected based on their scouting reports before they came over?

KL: Yeah, actually. The idea that we can have Wallace now after really eyeballing him in the draft is great. He was on our charts and high on the radar and I think a lot of us were disappointed that we didn't get him the first time around. And so to get him within a trade, I think everyone was pretty excited to get him over here. He was a prize piece with his bat. We've sent a lot of people in to see him. For instance, Juan Navarette [longtime A's minor league roving infield instructor] has worked with him at third base and Juan really thinks that Brett will be able to stay at third base and that there won't be the necessity to move him to first base right now. We are happy with that aspect with where he is at right now.

To have Mortensen in the big leagues, you hope that it turns out like it did with Dan Haren however many years ago that was. Mortensen is kind of an unknown guy who had a little bit of big league experience, but a guy who was sort of off the radar. Then he came over here and I don't think anyone expected that he'd be in the big leagues finishing the season. Really, barring a couple of bad innings, he has had reasonably good success in the big leagues thus far.

I kind of look at Peterson like a Ryan Sweeney. Peterson has the ability to play infield and outfield and he is a good contact hitter. He's now starting to hit for a little power and is starting to figure things out. He is a good physical specimen who has put up great hitting numbers at both places [with the Cardinals and the A's] this year.

OC: One of Peterson's teammates at Midland is Jemile Weeks. He had an usual year where he got off to a great start once he was healthy, but then he has struggled down the stretch. Are you worried about the struggles at all or is that just part of the progressions of a young player?

KL: He came from a great [college] program at Miami, but, in reality, he barely played a month last year [in pro ball]. Starting in May when he really got to play, because he didn't really do much until then, this is really like a first full year for him. To consider that he is already up in Double-A and is going to the Fall League, that is really a lot to throw on a young guy. We haven't done that to anybody that I can remember. We've done it with some pitchers, but it is hard for a position player just to jump right to that level and have success. We are happy that he has had success in spurts. He is making those adjustments and he seems to be healthy and we are happy where he is at.

OC: Right now, the official A's contingent going to the Arizona Fall League is smaller than what teams are required to send. Have you already decided who will fill the other spots?

KL: We are just trying to confirm that they can all go, but I can give you the names of the guys that we anticipate sending: Mortensen would be one; Justin Friend would be the second; James Simmons is third; and the fourth pitcher is Sam Demel.

OC: Simmons has really struggled since coming back off of the DL for Sacramento. Do you think he is 100 percent?

KL: I don't think he's 100 percent. His two outings [since returning] have not been good. He hasn't recovered totally to be back into shape. I know that we are going to try to pitch him a little bit in the playoffs and try to get him ready for the Fall League. He missed at least a month, maybe a little bit longer, so he has to work his way back into pitching shape. We want him to go to the Fall League and work on his breaking ball, continue to work on his change-up and maybe look at adding a cutter or a split or something like that to add something to his arsenal.

OC: Graham Godfrey ended up making the Texas League post-season All-Star team. Did you see a big improvement from him, or were his improved numbers more of a reflection of getting out of the California League?

KL: No, he really made some adjustments. I really liked what he did with his off-season program and then he maintained it during the season. He stayed strong the entire year and I don't remember him even missing any starts. He was kind of the leader of that club and the bulldog, taking it out there every fifth day. He has more than 160 innings. It has been a remarkable year for him and he has earned that right to make that transition and hope to be ready for Triple-A next year. He's from out of that Marco Scutaro trade and people were really down on that trade, but the kid is still making his way up there and I think he's going to be a good one for us.

OC: Arnold Leon has really pitched well since moving into the starting rotation. Is that something you see him doing [starting] longterm?

KL: We have bounced back and forth with what is the best thing for him because in Mexico, he is a set-up man and sometimes closer in the winter leagues and, in the past, in the summer leagues. He has just pitched all year around for the past two years and we were almost worried that we were hurting the kid just by starting him, so we have been very conservative with him. Once we got him into his rhythm, we decided to give him his shot at starting. It's all fit perfectly for him. He likes it. He also likes the other aspect of it [relieving], so it is sort of a two-way street with him.

Fortunately and unfortunately, he'll probably go play winter ball again, so he won't be able to rest a lot again this winter. But certainly we think we have a good acquisition with him.

OC: Is it still his curveball that you think is his best pitch, or is there another pitch that you think has taken the lead?

KL: His curveball has improved. We added some velocity to it. He had been throwing it like [Vincente] Padilla does, throwing that 65 miles per hour curveball that just sort of floats up there. We got him to throw it a little bit harder and got him to get a little more spin to it, and it's been a really good pitch. Then if he wants to throw that really slow one every once in awhile, I think it changes the timing of the hitter.

For him, it's more about his location and getting a downward plane on his fastball. A lot of his problems in the past have been when he has gotten underneath some of his pitches. Now he is really getting on top of his pitches and is locating. With that has come a pretty good two-seam fastball that has some movement.

OC: Is his age [20] less of a concern at the level that he is at [Double-A] because of the level of competition that he has faced in Mexico?

KL: It's been pretty remarkable because he is really one of the very few really young guys that we've even tried to do that with. Having played in Mexico, as you said, has kind of been a barometer because he is much more veteran than most players his age. He is like the freshman who is playing with the seniors. By the time he is a senior, he has learned not to be afraid of anything. He's been in all of those situations. I think Mexico has been good for him.

Stay tuned later in the week for Part Two of our conversation with Keith Lieppman

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