OaklandClubhouse: I thought we could start with the two trades that the team made recently in getting John Jaso and Jed Lowrie. How do you feel like they are going to enhance the team that went to the playoffs last year?
Billy Owens: They just continue the theme we had last year of having as much quality versatility and depth as possible. Jaso, last year I believe he hit .275 with 10 homeruns and a high on-base percentage. In the minor leagues, he hit .291 and he's always had even strike-outs-to-walks. Last year against right-handed pitchers, he hit over .300 with a very high on-percentage. So you couple him with Derek Norris, who has historically hit very well versus lefties, and you have a good mix.
Jed Lowrie has played all four infield positions during his career. Last year he was actually a better left-handed hitter, but for his career, he has been a better right-handed hitter. You have a guy who has played shortstop, second base, third base, first base. He has had success hitting from both sides of the plate and he has gotten on base with a pretty good slugging percentage for an infielder. He will help create a good mix for [A's manager] Bob Melvin to orchestrate those moves across the diamond.
OC: In acquiring Lowrie, you gave up Chris Carter, who is a player we have talked about numerous times over the past few years. He finally had that breakthrough in the big leagues last year. Are you concerned at all that he may end up hitting 30 homers a year for a division rival, or was that just a risk you had to take to get the final piece of the puzzle?
BO: For one, with [A's GM] Billy Beane, if you talk to the other 29 general managers, they'll all say that he really knows the art of the deal. For any trade, you have to give to get and both clubs have to be satisfied. Honestly, you always hope that both clubs get what they want. Hopefully Chris does well in the future, but for our club in 2013, Jed Lowrie is a quality fit. He's a versatile player and he definitely fits our configuration by being able to switch-hit and being able to play all four infield positions. He's definitely a quality fit for us for 2013. It's a good trade in that both sides got what they wanted.
OC: In terms of roster construction, it's really interesting because you almost have two starters for every position. You could almost get away with a different starting line-up every day. That's kind of unusual. Was the experience of having to deal with so many injuries from 2006-2011 the reason that you have created such a versatile roster, or was that something that just sort of occurred organically last year that you have looked to continue this season?
BO: The major league schedule is 162 games in pretty much 185 days. You figure in all of the travel and the best of the best playing each other, so to have that depth and versatility is important. We have Coco Crisp, who is a terrific centerfielder, but so is Chris Young. Josh Reddick can play centerfield as well, and you have Yoenis [Cespedes]. So you have four quality outfielders who can really play all three outfield positions. Then you throw in Seth Smith, who is a solid corner outfielder who hits right-handed pitchers really well and, if given the opportunity, can hit lefties too.
Having those five guys in the outfield, and it's not just a 25-man roster. We are pretty confident that at some point during the year, that if we get down to Sacramento, there are other outfielders like Michael Taylor and Shane Peterson who can help the club, as well. Having as much versatility, depth and quality at every position on the diamond, that's pretty much what we are trying to do going forward.
OC: Changing gears a little bit, I know you are out scouting now for the draft with the high school and college seasons underway. Last year, you took three high school players with your first three picks. Did you guys feel like the high school class was a stronger group last year in general, or did it just work out that those three guys were at the top of your board when those picks were up?
BO: I think it was more of a coincidence as far as whether it was high school, junior college or college [players taken]. Eric Kubota [A's Scouting Director], David Forst [A's Assistant GM] and Billy Beane have always taken the tact of taking the best player available without a doubt. This last year, the way that it broke down, some of the college position players went off the board early. And actually, we picked 11th in the country and we thought that Addison Russell might get picked before us. We were elated that he was there. And then to get Daniel Robertson at pick 34 and Matt Olson in the sandwich round, as well, it was an exciting draft.
If you go back to the last 10 years or so, between Trevor Cahill, a guy we had success with who was out of high school, all the way back to Jeremy Bonderman in 2001, for the Oakland A's, we have drafted high school players [with top picks]. It's not like it is foreign to us.
OC: Russell had an outstanding professional debut and maybe even exceeded expectations last year. What did you see from him as a professional that either surprised you or confirmed what you had seen of him as a high school player?
BO: Addison Russell is definitely a player who has all five tools. And then you can add the sixth that he has the poise to be a true professional to all of the physical attributes that he has. It is a testament to Eric Kubota's scouting staff that we were able to see Addison Russell all the way back to his sophomore year of high school. I remember watching Team USA in Colombia last year and we were able to get five games there [with Russell playing].
And then Kelcey Mucker, our area scout in that region who signed Addison, was able to get multiple looks the whole season. From Billy Beane all the way down to Kelcey – Grady Fuson, Eric Kubota, David Forst, Sam Geaney, Michael Holmes, Marc Sauer, Ron Marigny – pretty much every level of scouting was able to go ahead and focus on the panhandle of Florida. We were able to get Addison. It was exciting when we got him and he was able to come out and show that he was well worth the 11th pick of the country last year.
OC: Last year was the first year with the draft under the new collective bargaining agreement that changed a number of things, including when players had to sign by and the amount of money teams were allotted to spend. Did you notice a change in the draft under the new rules and did you like how things went?
BO: There were a number of different things that went on. I think the best aspect of it was that kids like Addison signed early. I remember watching the Arizona Rookie League last year and pretty much every club had their top two or three picks as participants. That was exciting.
I coached at that level for three or four years and normally the higher picks don't sign until August 15th and 10 years ago later than that. So those guys never played Rookie ball. This year you had first-round picks versus other first-round picks. It gave those guys an opportunity to get their feet wet in pro ball and gave them a chance – like Addison – to accelerate where they were in the spectrum of pro ball because they were able to accumulate 200+ at-bats.
OC: Over the off-season, the organization said good-bye to minor league pitching coordinator Gil Patterson, who moved on to the New York Yankees. Scott Emerson is the new minor league pitching coordinator. Pitching has obviously been a big part of the A's development program. Do you see a change with that part of the program under Scott?
BO: For one, that has been the hallmark for the Oakland A's for the past 20 years. When I came on-board, Ron Romanick was the pitching coordinator for years and it goes back to when we made the playoffs five out of seven years. Gil Patterson came on from that and Gil did a tremendous job for us. And Scott Emerson, who is actually a former minor league teammate of mine so I am always excited to talk about him, has coached at every level of the minor league system. He was probably the bridesmaid before when Curt Young got the pitching coach job.
He has definitely been a major component to our pitching throughout the organization since he came on-board. He's coached at Low-A, High-A, Double-A, Triple-A and in the winter leagues for us. People gravitate towards Emo. His personality is exceptional and his knowledge of pitching is second-to-none. Gil did an outstanding job, but we are lucky to be able to pass the baton to Scott Emerson.
OC: Last year you had something like 20 rookies contribute to the big league team at various points during the year. Obviously that isn't something that you'd like to see every year, but what kind of effect on this season do you think having that many guys on the team who had their rookie years together?
BO: I think, for one, it's a testament to Bob Melvin and his staff to put guys in the proper position, to put the talent in the right positions to give those guys an opportunity to succeed. It's Billy Beane and David Forst who did a great job calling up those guys at the right time when they were having success in Sacramento. They were really able to gel in the major leagues. Going forward, now those guys have more experience. Now that they have major league innings and major league at-bats underneath them, it should bode well for their success.
But, honestly, we are always positive about the future, but those guys are going to have to make adjustments, too. Now the league has seen them for a year and they are training just as hard and they have advanced scouts. It's going to be exciting to see how our guys adjust going forward, going from somewhat of a surprise when the talent manifested and Bob Melvin and Billy Beane put it all together and we were able to succeed last year.
It's very exciting because I believe that we enhanced our roster and hopefully we are going to be able to meet the challenge again in the AL West. The AL West is a heavyweight division.
OC: Speaking of the AL West and advanced scouting, did you guys have to do any special off-season preparation for the new team in the division – the Houston Astros – who are coming over from the National League and are a team that the A's haven't played much at all over the years?
BO: That is something that will happen during the season. It is a little different because if you look at the AL West, pretty much you have seen those guys over the years during the regular season and you've seen those guys over the years in spring training, as well. So now, the Astros train in Kissimmee [Florida] and [GM] Jeff Luhnow is going to do a good job there going forward.
It's different, but all of these players – from high school to college to the minor leagues to their time in the big leagues – they are getting scouted every day. Maybe not from an advanced scouting standpoint, but someone is watching everything that they do every day and will have reports from guys all the way back to when they were 16 years old and now they are 25 years old and in the big leagues. The information will be there and once they get to that top rung in the major leagues, then it is up to those guys to execute.
OC: Switching gears again, you were in the Dominican Republic to see a showcase for "July 2nd" talent last month. Was it nice to be able to see those players in a more organized showcase rather than having to wait to see particular players give workouts like it had been in the past?
BO: First and foremost, Sam Geaney – our new international head – is going to do an outstanding job with that program. Oakland A's fans are definitely going to get to know Sam over the next few years and he is going to do a tremendous job all over the globe.
But going back to the Latin America showcase. It's something where over I'd say the last couple of years, the process down there has gotten exponentially better. The players play games. They organize different events. The event I went to in January was pretty much Major League Baseball hosted it and a lot of the top Venezuelan players took on a lot of the top Dominican players and they sprinkled in some other players from Panama, Colombia and Nicaragua. So they were all in an organized setting. There were probably 400 attendees watching in that venue. So the kids got exposure to all of those scouts in an organized venue and they got to play against real competition.
Five years ago when those kids started playing in those games, the 15-year-olds didn't know cut-offs and they didn't know relays and pop-ups and certain game situations. They were more geared towards a workout. Now they are more programmed for a game setting. It still makes evaluation difficult. It's never easy. But the process down there has dramatically improved.
OC: Michael Ynoa was added to the 40-man roster this off-season. You got a chance to see him pitch some last year during the short-season. What are you hoping to see from him this spring and what do you think would be a good goal for him for the regular season?
BO: I think in his situation just accruing as many innings as possible and making as many starts as possible and having an injury-free year. That would be exciting. The kid has talent, so if he is healthy and injury-free, we like what the talent possibilities could become.
OC: Do you think he still has time to develop as a starter given the number of option years he has now, or do you think a reliever path would be easier at this point?
BO: Yeah, I still think so. I don't have his birthdate in front of me, but he's still a 21-year-old kid who has pitched X number of innings in pro ball. He's got talent and him being healthy and hopefully injury-free this year would be the biggest hope from the organization. After that, we will see where he goes.
OC: Renato Nunez came over last year and had a strong debut in the Arizona Rookie League. What kind of improvements did he make and what are you looking for him to do this year?
BO: Renato is a great kid, for one. I think he led the Arizona Rookie League last year in doubles and he hit a lot of homeruns, as well. Actually at third base defensively, he really improved. He is a hard-working kid. He did a lot of work with Juan Navarrete, our outstanding roving infield instructor, and he definitely improved his defense.
No question last year he swung the bat well and you can expect that going forward. He is definitely going to be an offensive threat. He sees the ball well. He's hard working. He makes adjustments. It's definitely encouraging what he did last year, and actually this year we expect more of the same.