2009 A's In Review: Q&A With Farhan Zaidi

With the minor league regular season in the books and the major league season winding down, now is as good a time as any to assess the 2009 Oakland A's season. We recently caught-up with A's Director of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi for a lengthy and in-depth discussion on the A's 2009 campaign. In this first part, we discuss the young pitching staff and the outfield situation...


OaklandClubhouse: I first wanted to get your overall thoughts on the 2009 season from an organization-wide perspective. Obviously, the win-loss record at the major league level wasn't what you wanted. How would you assess the 2009 season?

Farhan Zaidi: At the major league level, we went out there and made some veteran additions during the last off-season and wanted to give ourselves a chance to compete. We also talked a lot about having a good offense to give our young pitchers some confidence. I think [our intention] was a little bit of both of those things: giving our young pitchers some confidence by putting a good offense behind them and maybe seeing a window of opportunity to compete between hoping for good performances from our young players and seeing some opportunities out there on the free agent and trade market.

It was this sort of situation where we had to continue to evaluate things as they went along. First of all, you have to give a lot of credit to the Angels. They dealt with adversity early in the year and they have played phenomenally well all year. They have had some of their young players like Kendry Morales really fill in roles nicely for them. They kind of ran away and hid with the division and that made us have to re-evaluate things around the trade deadline and decide to give some of our young players more of an opportunity. We knew that was a possibility going into the season, but we also didn't want to have a season where we didn't necessarily feel like we had a chance to compete from day one. We tried to complement our young talent with some other players who could give us a shot, and we took our shot. I think that we are happy that we did because we were able to give some credibility to the team and also accomplish a lot of our development goals.

When you look at how we have played since the trade deadline – I actually just looked it up and we are a couple of games over the .500 mark – some of the young players have not only gained experience, but also played really well and have given us something to look forward next year. Ultimately, despite our disappointment over our won-loss record at the major league level, we were able to accomplish a lot of our development goals and feel like we fielded a competitive squad. So we are happy with that.

OC: How much did Justin Duchscherer's injury during spring training change your thoughts on the major league starting rotation? Were there any thoughts before the injury that Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill would be in the rotation all season, or did Duke's injury really impact the decision to have those two on the Opening Day roster?

FZ: I think that was not really the original plan. When we looked at our organizational depth charts going into spring training, we had all of our young pitchers starting in Sacramento. That was really the rotation that everyone was talking about – that Sacramento was going to have four or five really good top prospects in that rotation. Some things happened. Sean Gallagher got hurt and wasn't really quite himself. Duchscherer obviously was injured. Our intended rotation was very different from what we ended up with on Opening Day. We had to change things on the fly. The one thing we always said was that we were going to break camp with the best five guys. Brett and Trevor both had really good camps. Vinny [Vince Mazzaro] showed enough that when we needed someone a couple of months down-the-road, he was clearly on the radar and he was the guy we went with.

The other part of it was that we didn't know how long Duke was going to be out for. We thought it was going to be a month, then we thought it was going to be a couple of months. I remember earlier in the year, we had a lot of discussion about whether to even transfer him to the 60-day DL. If you think about that being an issue at one point, we thought that we were going to get him back pretty early in the season at that time. It obviously wasn't the case that we knew he was going to be down for the year and we were going to make a decision that we knew was going to be permanent.

So [the Duchscherer injury] factored in and it created another opportunity to open the season, but I think that if Brett and Trevor were among the best five starters coming out of camp – Duke included – they would have made the team anyway.

OC: From a financial perspective, is there any concern or regret that there wasn't that one month that Anderson and Cahill were in the minor leagues this season and, therefore, their service clocks have been credited a full year, or is that not a consideration when you set your roster?

FZ: I don't think that has ever really been a consideration of ours. The way we have always viewed it is let's get the best guys on the team. If they have solid years and there is never a reason to send them down, then they deserve to be here all year long. If they struggle, then they'll go down and they won't be earning that service time. I think we want to give the best guys the chance to succeed at the major league level. The service time issue obviously has a financial impact, but we've never made roster decisions based on that.

OC: How would you assess the young pitchers who have been in the rotation this season – Anderson, Cahill, Mazzaro, Gio Gonzalez and even Josh Outman before he got hurt? Do you see those guys as future anchors of the rotation? Were they what you expected them to be?

FZ: I think we expected some ups and downs, but to get a steady level of improvement throughout the season, and we expect that level of improvement to continue into next season. I really sincerely believe that all of these guys will be better next year than they have been even towards the end of this season. I think that Brett Anderson, based on what he has done start in and start out over the past few months, is probably viewed as one of the top young pitchers in baseball right now and probably one of the top left-handed starters in the AL – young or not – right now. I think he has really elevated his game and that has been an exciting development.

Trevor has had kind of streaky season. He has tried to find himself a little bit. It has been more of an adjustment for him because he is kind of a unique pitcher. He uses different arm angles and he is a sinker guy, but he did strike-out a lot of guys in the minors. I think he has had to learn over the course of this season how to try to get early contact as opposed to getting two-strikes and trying to make the perfect pitch. I think that created some problems and that was one of the causes of his inconsistency. But over the course of the season, with Brett and Trevor, ups-and-downs aside, any time that you can have guys who have only a handful of starts at Double-A who can come up to the big league level and, as starters, put up ERAs in the fours, that is a pretty tremendous feat. All told, I think that Brett and Trevor's seasons have to be considered a success.

Vinny obviously came up and was terrific in his first few starts. Down the stretch, he has been battling fatigue and still going out there, at least until recently, despite that. I think the fatigue has snowballed on him a little bit. Because of the fatigue, he's had some outings where he has had some high pitch counts early in outings. Any time that you are making a lot of pitches in a short amount of time, those are high-stress pitches with guys on base, so that only adds to the fatigue level. I think that we are still very optimistic about him going into next year. He is going to be 100 percent [physically] and I think that he will be better for having made these starts at the big league level. Even when he struggled, you could still see that the stuff was there, the fastball-slider combination. I think with Vinny, even when he has had starts where he didn't end up with the best stat-line, his stuff has still been there every time he has gone out. I think that is encouraging.

Josh Outman was really one of our best pitchers before he got hurt. In some ways, you have to wonder how much better things would be [win-loss wise] if he hadn't gotten hurt and Dallas [Braden], for that matter. Even without those guys, we have been able to play over .500 coming down the stretch here. Josh is a guy who there was a lot of talk about using him as a reliever because he is a power lefty, but within our own organization, we always felt like he had the stuff to be a starter. He was really starting to find his groove when he got hurt, which was unfortunate. To have a power lefty like that who has three pitches and who throws strikes, at least he was getting better and better about increasing his strike percentage around the time he got hurt, is a great asset to have. We are hopeful that he is available to pitch at some point next year, but regardless of when he comes back, we are very optimistic about his long-term prospects and we definitely view him as a starter.

The last guy in that group – Gio – it's kind of an up-and-down thing with him. Obviously, he's had some good starts, but his last time out was a bit of a step back. If you look at the ups-and-downs that he is having now versus the ups-and-downs that he was having last year and early this year [in the major leagues], there is still kind of an upward trajectory. When he pitches well, it has been better than it has been in the past, and when he pitches poorly, I don't think he is at quite the level of struggles that he has been at in the past. I think there is still steady improvement with him.

He still has to improve in the same ways that he has had to over the past couple of years, which is to really work his change-up into his repertoire so that he has something other than his fastball and curveball, which are definitely good pitches for him. Also, he just needs to be more consistent throwing strikes. He has to keep the game from speeding up on him when he is battling his command or when he leaves a couple of pitches up and gives up some hard hits. I think that his main thing is going to be slowing the game down and containing the damage when he gets in trouble, and I think that he is getting better at that.

OC: Do you feel that Dallas Braden can be that veteran presence at the top of the rotation next year, or do you think the team needs to go out and get a more veteran-type to lead that rotation next year?

FZ: I think we definitely view Dallas as a very positive veteran influence on the staff because he has been around, he has pitched through pain and showed his toughness as a competitor. The fact of the matter is that if the other guys on our staff took advantage of their ability or their talent level to the extent that Dallas does, we would have a pretty good rotation. I think that Dallas is a fine example of someone who really makes the most of his ability and I think his stuff really plays up because of his competitiveness and desire. He is a great example for the staff.

I don't think that our perspective on Dallas being a good veteran leader would prevent us or stop us from going out there and adding additional veteran pitching help if the opportunity presented itself. I don't think we would ever say, ‘well, we already have a veteran in Dallas, so we don't need anyone else.' I think this year showed – and you see it time and again with every team in baseball – that you can never have enough pitching depth. Even if we have five or six young guys who we view as viable candidates to start in the big leagues next season, a couple of those guys could certainly start in Triple-A and continue to develop there. I don't think that Dallas' presence or the fact that we have a good core of young starting pitchers would prevent us from adding more veterans if we thought that they were good opportunities.

OC: Turning to the outfield situation, which is as crowded at the starting rotation situation, I thought it has been an interesting year. There have been guys like Rajai Davis who have really stepped forward, while guys like Travis Buck and Aaron Cunningham have gone back-and-forth between Triple-A and the big leagues. How do you see that all shaking out next year, especially now that Scott Hairston is on-board?

FZ: There will probably be some competition for jobs going into spring training next year. At the big league level, we have to go with the guys who are performing. The only fair way to award playing time is a meritocracy. The guys who play well and perform get to play and that is basically how Raj forced himself into an everyday role. We would acknowledge that we viewed him when we claimed him off waivers and even through all of last year as a really good fourth outfielder because of his speed and defense. But he has been one of the better everyday players in the league since the All-Star break.

That is kind of how we view things, that the best guys get to play. I don't think that anyone can dispute that that is the way we have awarded playing time between all of our young outfielders this year. I think that there is this conception that certain guys have fallen out of favor with the organization, but the fact is that there were guys who were simply playing better than those players. We still really like Travis and really like Aaron, but we couldn't justify playing them over guys like Raj and guys like Ryan Sweeney who were producing at the major league level.

We like the fact that we have that depth. We like the fact that we have five or six guys that we consider major league caliber outfielders. I think there will be some competition for those jobs in spring training and, ultimately, the guys who deserve to play will be in the line-up and the guys show something during the season will be used at some point. There is nobody in that group that we are down on as an organization. If we had a guy who was in Triple-A who was hitting .400 with an .800 slugging percentage and we didn't call him up, then I could understand someone saying that there was a rift between that player and the organization. But ultimately it is the best players who give us the best chances to win who are playing.

We like having that depth because we are not a team that is going to go out there and sign a bunch of free agents. Having a lot of depth is a great thing for us because it covers us if guys take a step back performance-wise or if we have injuries. You always wind-up needing a lot more than the guys who are in your Opening Day line-up. I think those guys are still very much in the picture, and we view them all as part of our future here in Oakland.

OC: What about Jack Cust? This year, he had to play a lot of outfield, especially early in the year when Jason Giambi or Nomar Garciaparra were DHing. Do you now view Cust as more of a DH or do you feel comfortable running him out there in right field?

FZ: Defense is never going to be his forte. There have been stretches this year and last year when he played an average right field. If he can do that, then it is a nice luxury to have a DH who you also feel comfortable playing out in the field. There is no rule that the DH has to be somebody who can't play defense. Having a DH who has the versatility to go out and play in the field gives the manager some flexibility. Jack brings some things to the line-up that we don't necessarily get in other places. He is leading the team in homers again and is up there in walks. Those are things that we obviously value. It is a fair assessment that someone like him who is relatively young who we don't have to go out there and pay free agent money for is definitely a viable candidate at DH. That doesn't mean that we wouldn't consider putting him in the field if there is an injury or if we have an opportunity to go out there and sign a player who we think would really improve the offense that involved the DH.

OC: Is there a concern that his numbers are down this year? It seemed like he changed his approach a little bit, maybe in an attempt to cut down on his strike-outs, and perhaps that deflated some of his numbers, especially early in the season.

FZ: You hear this from players all of the time, but baseball is obviously a constant game of adjustment. He didn't look that different to me early in the year. Maybe he was pitched to a little differently because of some of the other guys we had in the line-up, but I think the talk about him really changing his approach is a little bit exaggerated. He has always been a streaky guy. He has cold streaks and he has streaks where he can carry your team. He has shown some of those hot streaks coming down the stretch. He has been one of the reasons that we have played so well over the last month-and-a-half or so.

He has been working with [A's hitting coach] Jim Skaalen and he has added a toe-tap to improve his timing and that is one of the things that he attributes to him being able to get back on-track this year. That is something that is always going to be the case with all of these guys. When things aren't going well, guys are going to make adjustments and you hope that those adjustments work and that their production jumps from there. I credit him for doing that. I think early in the season, he had some struggles, but I don't think it was because of any huge change in his approach and it certainly wasn't something that we asked him to do.

OC: For the Scott Hairston trade, what were some of the thoughts behind bringing him into the fold at the time the trade was made and on giving up three power arms like Gallagher, Ryan Webb and Craig Italiano for him?

FZ: It was a significant price to pay, but Scott is a guy that we always really liked and have tried to trade for in the past. He got off to a really good start with San Diego this season and this was one of the first times that he had had a chance to play [in the big leagues] as an everyday player. We viewed it as a good opportunity to go out there and deal from a position of depth, which is power arms and guys that all three of which right now at least are pitching out of the bullpen. And the bullpen is definitely a position of strength for us right now. They were dealt for a guy who potentially brings the team a right-handed source of power, which has been an ongoing issue for us. And also a guy who, when we knew at the time we had to at least consider trading Matt Holliday, would be able to slot right in in left field, hopefully in the middle of the order, and give us some production there. He is also a guy who we knew we would have for a couple of years after this year.

I think it was a matter of dealing from a position of strength in relief pitching and power arms, which we still have a good stock of within the organization, for a guy who could be a right-handed power bat in the middle of our line-up. He has had his struggles. He's had some injuries that he is working through and his numbers aren't what they were when he was with San Diego earlier this year, but he is still a guy who can play good defense and he can run the bases for you when he is healthy. And he is a guy who can hit you 25-30 homers for you over the course of a full season. That was the reasoning behind the deal. He brought a dimension that certainly after we traded Holliday would have been missing from the team.

Stay tuned throughout this week for the final parts of our conversation with Farhan Zaidi. We cover a range of topics with Zaidi, including the Matt Holliday trade and whether the team is satisfied with what it received from St. Louis based on what it gave up to get Holliday, the development of top prospects such as Chris Carter, Grant Desme and Adrian Cardenas, the front office's view on the A's major league coaching staff, dealing with deadline signings from the draft, early 2009 draft pick standouts, and more…

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