Oakland A's Mid-Season Q&A: Billy Owens, P. 2

In part two of our mid-season conversation, we talk with the Oakland A's Director of Player Development about Arnold Leon, Drew Granier, Murphy Smith, Sonny Gray, Dan Straily, Grant Green, Jemile Weeks, Hiro Nakajima, Stephen Vogt, Josh Donaldson, Eric Sogard and the value of depth and versatility.

Click here to read Part One of this conversation.

OaklandClubhouse: How would you assess Arnold Leon's transition back to the rotation after serving in the bullpen for pretty much all of last year?

Billy Owens: I think that starting gives you more opportunities. He has the delivery for it. He's a strike-thrower, has a nice breaking ball and a solid change-up and his velocity still hovers in the 92-94 MPH range. Starting gives you a chance to be on the pecking list of possible starters, but also, the fact that you are lengthened out, you can always go a little bit shorter, as well.

We have seen his velocity be anywhere from 92-94, pound the ‘zone, throw an abundance of strikes as a starter. His velocity is a tick higher than that in the bullpen. He still gives you an option of being a starter or a reliever in the Triple-A or big league level stretched out where if you didn't have him stretched out, you take away the starting possibility.

He's taken to it. I think people forget how young he is because he signed with us at a very young age. He's progressing, he's a competitor and I just think that this experience extenuates your pitches, it improves your command, and increases the brevity of your breaking ball. You have to use your change-up more. Just being lengthened out, there is nothing but positives to that. When called upon in Triple-A or the major leagues, it just gives us more possibilities.

OC: I know it is dangerous to compare anyone to Dan Straily in terms of what Straily accomplished last season, but Drew Granier has put together some very impressive numbers in Stockton and now with Midland. He wasn't a high round pick, but he has done nothing but impress as a pro. How would you assess him and what are his projections as a starter?

BO: First and foremost, obviously Eric Kubota [A's Scouting Director] does an outstanding job with our scouting department. Drew Granier is a tremendous story. Kelcey Mucker, who is the area scout down there in the Cajun territory, Michael Holmes, our esteemed Assistant Scouting Director, and Grady Fuson, our Special Assistant to the General Manager, were all down there to scout a higher profile prospect and Drew Granier just threw a gem that night. He basically pitched like he's pitched in our system. All of those guys wanted him earlier than we had him in the draft. Eric is very smart and knew where we could take Drew to get him.

That's just a great story in and of itself, and then it has steamrolled from there. He's been in our system throwing in the low-90s, touching 94. He attacks the ‘zone with the fastball. He's got action on the fastball. His curveball is swing-and-miss. His change-up is improving. I think going to Double-A, even in his first outing, looking at the Game Reports, he realized he had to throw his change more than he did in A-ball, so he adapted to that. He mixed in probably eight-to-10 more change-ups than he threw in any outing in Stockton.

The kid has weapons. Just looking at the strike-out numbers, I think he's top-five in all of minor league baseball in strike-outs. We are still an efficiency organization. A.J. Griffin throwing a two-hit shutout [Wednesday] in the majors and Dan Straily at some point will have the same efficiency that he had in the minor leagues and watching Tommy Milone, that's one thing that we definitely emphasize here. But it's nice to see the strike-outs too, and Drew has done that in spades and he will continue to do that in Double-A this year.

OC: Speaking of efficiency, Murphy Smith is leading the RockHounds in ERA as a starter. Looking at Smith's numbers this year, they sort of remind me of what Vin Mazzaro did with Midland a few years back, putting up excellent ERA and groundball rates without striking out a ton of hitters. With Smith's solid fastball and groundball rates, do you see him as a similar pitcher to Mazzaro?

BO: Murphy's fastball will top out at 94. He's always had the potential to breakout like he's doing right now. He's a guy who came out of the chute really well and then went to the California League and had a hiccup, went back to the Midwest League, pitched better. In the California League the second time around, he was solid and then in Double-A last year, he was pretty good. But Scott Emerson, our pitching coordinator, and Don Schulze, our Midland pitching coach, were able to do a couple of tweaks with Murphy's delivery. It's now along the lines of Kevin Brown, the ex-major league pitcher with the Dodgers, San Diego and so on and so forth.

He's added more deception to his delivery and with that deception, has created more life on his fastball, down in the ‘zone especially, which has resulted in the groundballs. His breaking stuff is still solid, although it can improve, and his change-up is getting better. His confidence in his change-up has definitely improved.

Scott Emerson is young as far as being a pitching coordinator in the game, but I think that he is going to be one of the top three or four pitching coordinators in the game right now. He has taken the baton from Gil Patterson and run with it. Emo is outstanding. I can't emphasize that more. Don Schulze has also done an outstanding job with the entire Midland staff. Scott and Don have done an excellent job working with Murphy. Between Murphy's mound presence, conviction and demeanor, he has definitely taken his game to another level, so I attribute that to Murphy doing an outstanding job, with the guidance of Emo and Schulzie being a main reason.

OC: Sonny Gray is another pitcher in the system who is having an outstanding season. There isn't an opening in the A's rotation at the moment, but do you think he is getting closer to being big league ready just in terms of his pure development?

BO: Sonny Gray is an outstanding athlete. High school quarterback and he is probably the best fielder we've got on the mound in the minors or the majors. This kid is just a tremendous athlete. He has quick feet, a powerful arm and he's got weapons on the mound. He's a 2011 draftee, so he's only in his second full season of professional baseball. He'll heat you up to 96. He'll throw that breaking ball that is a plus pitch at 82 miles per hour, and he gets plenty of swings-and-misses on that breaking ball. His change-up is improving.

Adding that third pitch, that change-up, is still something that we emphasize, especially for a guy like Sonny or like Drew Granier, who can get so many strike-outs with just the fastball and the curveball but they need that change-up to take the next step for the major league level.

Sonny can hold at 95 and his command is improving. You can see that confidence and that momentum gaining with every start. Going into Sacramento a couple of weeks ago, this guy couldn't wait to get the ball every five days. When he did, he attacks. It's crisp. It's in the ‘zone. It's 95+ and he has a breaking ball that is swing-and-miss that is one of the best in the minors and the change-up is definitely there.

You never know when the situation will arise. You always hope that you are going to only need five starters in the major leagues all year and it all goes according to plan. But it is nice to have depth, and Sonny definitely provides that.

OC: What are you hoping to see from Dan Straily during his time in Sacramento?

BO: For the most part, as much as we want to talk about the phenoms in the game – the Strasburgs and the Clayton Kershaws and the Miguel Cabreras and the Mike Trouts – for the most part, the major leagues are still the biggest hurdle in the business. You go A-ball to Double-A, and that is a tremendous jump. Then Double-A to Triple-A is a tremendous jump. And guess what? The major leagues from Triple-A is the biggest jump going. If we go around all 30 teams in baseball and we look at their best players, hardly anybody goes to the big leagues and stays there without a hiccup.

It's a natural progression to get your feet wet in the big leagues, learn what the league is all about, go down [to Triple-A], get better and the next time you go up, it's a little bit better than the first time. You might go down again to learn your lessons. At some point, as Josh Donaldson has shown, things just click after you have done that ride on 80 to Sacramento, and when it clicks, it is something like what Donaldson is doing right now.

Dan Straily has major league ability and, with less than 20 starts in the major leagues, he's in the process of learning the league, seeing the best players in the world and facing them day-to-day. At some point, he'll make that ascension and stay like Donaldson did.

OC: Obviously his hitting has been just fine this year, but how would you assess Grant Green's fielding in his move to second base with Sacramento?

BO: He's getting more comfortable. We just want to emphasize, for one, in Oakland, it is a spacious ballpark. The foul territory is well chronicled. We end up playing a lot of one-run, close games in the big leagues where every aspect of the game is critical. You have to hit, you have to hit for power, you have to field, you have to throw and you have to pitch well. Anyone that wants to make a major impact for the Oakland A's this year and beyond, they need to be a complete player.

It's nice that Grant is settled in this year at second base. He has played exclusively there. He is making the plays. He is improving there. I think his work ethic is tremendous. He's getting groundballs. He's making the plays. As he aspires to be a complete player to add to our major league picture, he's hard at work everyday improving. I don't think that anything is final.

You look at Eric Sogard. Once he got traded from San Diego over to us, he went to Triple-A, played two years there, had more walks than strike-outs, played a lot of shortstop and he improved all aspects of his game. Right now, Grant is in the finishing touches. He's hitting [as of Thursday morning] .316. He's got nine bombs. He's a doubles machine and he's improving his defense at second base.

Guys that we call up to the major leagues, we are trying to get everyone to buy in and be a complete player. Looking at Stephen Vogt. Steve Vogt had 39 games caught last year between Triple-A and the majors. He worked on a lot of things in the off-season. He came in and his reputation was not as a stellar defensive catcher and he improved. He definitely went down there and [Sacramento manager] Steve Scarsone, [Sacramento pitching coach] Rick Rodriguez and the entire pitching staff raved about his defensive ability. You get to the point where we thought that he was becoming more of a complete player.

I think with Grant, Jemile [Weeks] and anybody else in Triple-A who aspires to play for a promising team here in 2013 in Oakland, we are really emphasizing being a complete player.

OC: Jemile Weeks got some time at shortstop earlier this year, although I believe he has been DHing a decent amount lately. How would you assess his season so far? He's walking more than he is striking out. Has he gotten back to being the hitter that he was his rookie season with the A's when it seemed like he was more focused on getting on-base than hitting homeruns?

BO: I don't think Jemile was ever just trying to hit more homeruns. I think that was a fallacy that was created because he had a really good year and was top-five in the Rookie of the Year balloting and hit .300. Then last year, the pitchers adjusted and things didn't go the way they went the prior year.

Observing baseball, we talk about the phenoms like Manny Machado, who took the league by storm, but a good example of not throwing caution to the wind is Wil Middlebrooks of Boston, who is a fabulous player. Not to talk about another team's player, but just as an example, he hit .300, was in the top portion of the Rookie of the Year balloting in 2012 and there were tremendous expectations this year. He will eventually thrive in the major leagues, but he had a bump in the road and he was sent down for the hotter Jose Iglesias.

Jemile pretty much mirrored those results a year earlier where there was so much excitement and expectations. A .300 season, adulation in the off-season, expectation going into spring training. The book is long in the majors. They have video. They have advanced scouting reports. That's probably the biggest thing that makes the majors more difficult than the minors.

Obviously the players are better and the top starting pitchers you'll never see in the minor leagues, unless they are on the way up like King Felix. But just the volume of the information that they have on every player changes how they will attack you. With that, things change. Three hoppers that went for you the year before, or line drives that went for doubles and triples, a lot of times from the advanced scouting report, maybe that guy made a diving play the next year. There are a lot of different issues that can lead to what they call the sophomore jinx. Joe Charboneau will be the first to tell you what the sophomore jinx is.

It's not going to deter you from going back to Triple-A and, as you said, have more walks than strike-outs, increasing your versatility. That only bodes well. If you look at what is going on in the big leagues, one of the most valuable players in the big leagues is in Tampa named Ben Zobrist. He is a guy who can play second, short, right, third base, dabble in centerfield. He can switch-hit. He has increased his power. Everybody in baseball would like to have a guy like that. He's another guy who initially went to the big leagues, didn't do well, went back to Triple-A, increased his versatility, gained some strength and now he is a stalwart down there in Tampa. There are a lot of lessons if you pay attention. Nobody just goes to the big leagues and thrives and lives happily ever after. There is always a bump in the road and a conundrum to be solved.

Jemile is down there in Triple-A with more walks than strike-outs and he is increasing his versatility, which would be huge to increase his versatility. The next time he goes to the big leagues, I think it will be lessons learned.

OC: How has Hiroyuki Nakajima handled being in Triple-A? Obviously his expectations were to be in the big leagues when he signed. Has he been a good influence on the River Cats and do you think he has started to adjust to US baseball at this point?

BO: I think he is an outstanding person. I don't speak Japanese, but through my interactions with him through his translator, this guy is upbeat, ready to play everyday, has a zest for the game, loves to be around the yard, whether it is Sacramento, Tokyo or Oakland. He's a hard-worker and a very good influence.

He's learning the North American game. That's something that as much effort as you put into the diligence and the background before you bring somebody over, the language barrier, the different styles of play, it's a tremendous adjustment. If you look around baseball, whether it be Japanese, Cuban, Latin American, there is always an adjustment that first year. It's tough.

It's not unchartered waters. He hit a homerun a couple of nights ago. His numbers are improving steadily. He's going through an adjustment period, but from an attitude perspective standpoint, he's been tremendous.

OC: Touching on the big league team for a moment, they are right in the playoff race despite having to deal with a number of injuries already this season. Are you guys encouraged that the depth has held up and that the team has been able to maintain a high level of play despite some major injuries?

BO: It's just fun to be around them right now. As you said, Billy Beane, David Forst, Farhan Zaidi, Dan Feinstein as architects of putting together the big league club and all of the depth together. All of the moves they make, they emphasize playability, versatility, efficiency and effort. When you bring those components and you trade for a guy like Jed Lowrie, who is a .300 hitter who can play anywhere in the infield, and two years ago they trade for Josh Reddick, who can play a Gold Glove right field and can move over to center. There is a method to every one of these moves.

One of the main things has been that versatility and being able to play those different spots. Josh Donaldson is a plus defensive player at third base. He has had a couple of innings at shortstop this year. He's a good catcher. Obviously for him, being a potential Gold Glove caliber third baseman, there is a lot of different avenues you can go. But the fact that he is versatile, initially when he got called up last year, that was still a factor in the equation.

Bob Melvin and his staff, that's almost like having an extra player out there. Those guys are outstanding: Bob Melvin, Chip Hale, Mike Gallego, Tye Waller, Chili Davis, Curt Young, Darren Bush. These guys are great. They add a certain element to this team from a playing standpoint, from an interaction standpoint that brings a different dynamic to the field. The last 162 games of Oakland have been fun.

As we go through July, August, September, who knows how the season transpires, but the depth will be tested. We've hopefully planned for that, but you always keep adding. You always want to keep adding pieces. If you can add another starting pitcher for depth, if you can add another infielder who can play multiple positions, you do it. If you can add another outfielder who can play all three positions, you do it. If you can add someone else who can catch, you do it. Anything that you can do to increase your volume of versatility, your depth, your efficiency and your effort, you do it.

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