Oakland A's Spring Q&A: Keith Lieppman, P. 1

Oakland A's minor league camp is in the final stretch. We caught-up with A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman over the weekend to discuss standouts in camp, plans for Opening Day assignments, and more. In part one, we discuss Raul Alcantara, Michael Ynoa, Sonny Gray, Addison Russell, Daniel Robertson, Matt Olson, Josh Bowman, Arnold Leon, Nolan Sanburn, Murphy Smith, and more...

OaklandClubhouse: It has been a little bit longer spring than normal this year, with big league camp opening earlier and the start of mini-camp coming when it did. Has that changed the pace of this spring at all?

Keith Lieppman: No, actually it's been kind of a positive situation for us. It has given us time to really stretch out our starters within our system, whether it was Sonny Gray, Josh Bowman, different guys. A lot of these guys went to big league camp, but a bunch we brought to our mini-camp, like Murphy Smith and guys like that, they are all built up to five, six innings now. So that part of it has been very productive.

OC: Did anyone stand-out from the mini-camp that you were particularly pleased to have had the extra time to work with them?

KL: I mentioned Murphy Smith. He made some terrific adjustments. There were some mechanical things that he was really working on to try to improve himself. I think he found that he made a number of improvements. It's a non-competitive situation and they are more likely to take some risks that they wouldn't normally take during the season. It's given them the freedom to treat it almost like an Instructional League. Through that, Murphy was really one of the guys who benefited from that.

OC: Scott Emerson (A's minor league pitching coordinator) mentioned that Raul Alcantara was working on his breaking ball. Did you see that pitch improve this spring?

KL: Definitely. As he moves ahead, that was pretty much the one area that he needed. He was pretty much fastball-change-up last year. To add that other pitch has come along pretty strong thus far. Because of the camp and starting in the Dominican prior to that in late January, that was the emphasis. We had a goal with him and he ended up coming out of it pretty good thus far.

OC: He didn't have very many swings-and-misses last season with Burlington. Do you think the breaking pitch is going to help him get a lot more strike-outs?

KL: I think fastball command and then the ability to have more weapons should help him. At this stage, we just want to still focus on quality strikes. Just to have another piece to that starter stuff, it is just a natural progression that is going to have to fall into place if he is going to progress.

OC: With all of the cold and late-season snow in the Midwest this winter and spring, will you have to adjust how you plan to send players out to that league, or will you be able to stick to the plan anyway?

KL: No, I think that in most cases, a lot of organizations go through the same thing. We have 14-16 teams in the Midwest League, so a lot of people go through that process. Whether it is Michael Ynoa or Alcantara, they are all probably going to go through that at one point or another.

Ynoa is going to start the season there. He has looked extremely good up to this point. High velocities – mid-90s – a much sharper breaking ball and he has been very healthy. We don't think the pitching is really effected that much by the cold in the Midwest. Given the proper situation as far as strength and conditioning and arm care and all of that, that shouldn't be a real issue with our arms.

OC: With Ynoa, in an ideal world, is there an innings number that you would like to see him hit or an innings limit?

KL: We are playing with some different ideas where we are going to try to keep him with three-to-four inning stints, but also at some point extending him. We feel that his development will also require that he is going to have to throw longer stints at some point. Stretching him out at first three and four [innings] and then taking him up a little higher, but I would say that we are going to play it month-by-month and gradually go out with it.

He's a unique guy that has not pitched at all, so we are going to have to pay attention to it. It's hard to put a hard-and-fast number on how many he can or can't throw. We are sort of in uncharted territory, but certainly three or four innings to start with and then trying to expand as we go on. As we get further into the season, we'll re-evaluate how far we really want to take him.

OC: Do you see him as having starter potential still, or is the fact that he is now on an option year clock, so to speak, change how you would want to develop him?

KL: I think that looking at him, he has starter's stuff. It's all there: his velocities, the sharpness of his pitches. He just hasn't ever had to learn the routines or the day-to-day rigors of having to be an everyday pitcher. Having been in this program for so long, but never being able to get out and be with a full-season club, there are going to be a lot of first-time things for him that most pitchers have already experienced. That is going to be part of the process, learning what it's like to be on a regular pitcher's schedule.

OC: Do you see Nolan Sanburn being on that Beloit staff, too, or do you see him going up to Stockton?

KL: He would have been, had he not been injured up to this point. He's got a little shoulder issue going on right now. He's going to start in the extended spring program. I'm not sure how long he will miss. Right now, it looks like he's not going to throw for a couple of weeks. Then we'll advance and see how it goes from there. He has some kind of tendinitis, but hopefully we'll be able to get him back up and running here shortly.

OC: You have your trio of young first-round picks from a year ago, Addison Russell, Daniel Robertson and Matt Olson. It sounds like Addison will start in Stockton. Will Robertson be starting in extended spring because of the knee injury, or will he go out when camp breaks?

KL: He's going to be a little bit delayed just because of the injury. His rehab is on course, but it has taken just a little bit longer than expected. Typically, you like to get 50-60 at-bats before a guy leaves spring training and he hasn't even played in a game yet. Monday, we are hopeful that he will get his first at-bats and will get up-and-running here.

That doesn't really give him enough time to have a fair chance to compete, especially after last year. He didn't get that many at-bats because he was hurt during the Instructional League. It doesn't hurt him to spend three weeks or a month at extended before sending him out.

OC: Olson will be in Beloit to start the year?

KL: Yeah, Olson has looked good this spring. He has swung the bat well. He has been one of the better performers that we have had. He's also played good first base and has opened up a lot of eyes. We liked him a lot last year, but he has really impressed here. So far so good thus far for him.

OC: With sending Russell to Stockton, is there any concern about sending a player that young (19) to High-A, or do you feel like he won't have any trouble adjusting to that level?

KL: I think as an organization, I think the front office, player development, we have all sat down and had these discussions about him. I think it is pretty much the general consensus that Addison is in the right spot. There is never 100 percent certainty in any decision, but you look at his make-up and what you see as his ability to recover from failure, and he seems to fit all of the categories of someone who can handle temporary failure or adversity.

All players face that at certain junctures of his career. That he was able to handle it right out of the chute with the success he had last year, he may go up there and do quite well to continue this rapid rise through the system. You know the kid has all of the tools. I don't think there is a whole lot of downside to that decision from our point of view. We think he's in the right spot.

OC: The 2012 version of the Stockton Ports struggled pretty much all season. For the players who return to Stockton this year who played there last year, do you think they will be able to handle the Cal League better this time around?

KL: Most performing players from last year won't return. Miles Head already moved up to the next level. Hopefully he will be able to make that adjustment to the higher level. He was a little in-and-out last year with his performance in the second half in Double-A. He'll be able to start in Midland and we'll see how he handles it.

As far as guys from last year, Chad Oberacker, there is a good shot that he will go to Double-A. We are still trying to figure out what to do with Josh Whitaker. He had a good year last year. Whether he goes to Double-A, the last week will determine a lot about where he and Myrio Richard start. Different guys that you really want to look at. Rashun Dixon is in the mix. You have a lot of different players that you hope will be able to handle that level and put up big years.

OC: What about Blake Hassebrock? Do you think he needs to go back to Stockton, or will he move up to Double-A?

KL: I think Hassebrock will start in Stockton and we'll try to get him to a point where he has some confidence where he begins. As things start to take off, he certainly could move at any time during the year. He needs to really experience a solid month or two months of dominating hitters and executing pitches just to move him up right now.

OC: Josh Bowman put together a really nice 2012 season for Stockton and his second-half was somewhat reminiscent of what Dan Straily had done with the Ports in 2011. Do you see Bowman as having the potential for a breakout season this year based on what he has done this spring?

KL: Well, we are going to start him in Double-A. He is one of the guys that we are going to move up. We've got a pretty good sense of how far he is going to be able to go. He made such big progress from last year. I don't know who the next guy is who is going to pull of this Straily or A.J. Griffin-type of a year, but we are hopeful that he can be mentioned as a potential. It's exciting when you have two guys in your system who have done that.

I'm watching Sonny Gray today [Saturday] and he is throwing one of the best games I've seen him ever throw. Sonny will probably start in Triple-A. If he can pitch the way he did today, it was a big, big improvement for him as compared to earlier this spring.

OC: Is it his fastball command that has improved for him?

KL: Yes, that's definitely what we were looking at today. He was able to execute his pitches. He was able to throw his breaking ball for a strike and he was able to use his change-up. Those were all factors in the way that he has handled himself.

OC: Arnold Leon had sort of an unusual spring in that he was in big league camp and then he went to the WBC and had that incident with the brawl in the Mexico-Canada game and then went down to minor league camp right after that. Has he been back on a normal program since then? Were there any lingering issues that came out of that?

KL: I think he's in a position where I think everyone understood the situation he was put in and certainly he's back. There has been no mention of it. We are going to have him in a role as a starter. That's the only thing that is really of importance right now. What happened there certainly doesn't have an impact on what is happening with his career.

OC: So are you going to stretch him out as a starter with Midland or will he go to Sacramento to his get his innings there?

KL: That is to be determined. There is a chance that he will be in Midland to start with because it will give him a better opportunity to pitch. It doesn't really matter. Either level will benefit him at this stage just to stretch him out. As well as he has performed and improved, he's still in a position to be in either place and be fine.

Stay tuned for the second half of this interview, during which we discuss Miles Head, Jefry Marte, Renato Nunez, Vicmal De La Cruz, Michael Choice, Grant Green and more...

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