Keith Lieppman is embarking on his 16th season as the Oakland A’s Director of Player Development. During that stretch, Lieppman has overseen the development of three Rookies of the Year and a number of stars, including Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, Rich Harden and Eric Chavez. Under his supervision, the A’s farm system has continually been one of the most productive in terms of graduating players to the big leagues and in terms of winning games. Since 2000, the A’s minor league affiliates have the fourth most number of wins of any farm system in baseball.
We caught up with Lieppman at the A’s minor league complex, Papago Park, on the first day of A’s minor league spring training games, Friday, March 16.
OaklandClubhouse: Last year must have been a trying year for you with all of the injuries. How do you approach this season with so many guys having missed significant time, such as Daric Barton, Javier Herrera, etc.?
Keith Lieppman: I think we have really scaled back a lot of our efforts, as far as overkill with these players. We are just trying to get them healthy. That was the number one thing. You can’t avoid fluke injuries like what happened to Travis Buck and to Daric Barton. Both of them, you just can’t control those. Herrera, he had the Tommy John surgery, so he’s another one that we are working back to full strength. It seems like if you were a top prospect in the system, something goes wrong. Dallas Braden had a problem and Dan Meyer, it was a weird year.
You just go by and hope to get them healthy and anticipate that they are going to have big years. Buck has already shown really well at the big league level [in spring training] and Herrera was good while he was [in big league camp]. The other guys are in different phases. Meyer might have to start in extended spring just to make sure that he is healthy and has enough pitches under his belt because he really hasn’t pitched for a full year.
OC: At this point, is it really building the strength back in Meyer’s shoulder?
KP: Right, that is a big part of it. He also has to build up his mechanics and his workload needs to be built up. He’s just been so limited on what he could do over the last year or so. In a lot of ways, we are just building him back bit-by-bit and it is going to take him a lot longer than spring training allows to get him ready.
OC: With someone like Meyer who was a top prospect before he got hurt but has now missed so much time, do you really consider his age as much as you would with someone who had been healthy or do you throw it out the window?
KP: You almost have to. What we thought of him originally [when he joined the organization], he was on the fast-track and he still is on the fast-track once he gets healthy. I think things will go quickly [once he does get healthy] and it should come together rapidly for him, but there is this process that you have to go through to make sure that he is healthy again and that he is in shape and he has covered all of the other things such as fielding drills.
There are so many aspects of pitching that you have to address when you’ve been out for a year, like controlling the running game and all of that, you just can’t throw it all together in a two or three week minor league spring training. So once he establishes himself back, I envision things falling in place for him.
OC: It seems like you have a lot of pitchers in the system who are at that Triple-A level. How do you balance some of the new guys such as Lenny DiNardo with players who have been in the system such as Brad Knox who are on the cusp of Triple-A and probably should be at that level?
KP: Yeah, you are right when you look at that. We are at a real conflict because we have a lot of guys who had big years like the year before with Braden and last year with Knox and there are up and coming prospects like Ben Fritz, who is a high pick who has had time in Triple-A, who are all filtered in with all of these other guys that we have signed. There are going to be some tough decisions on who gets the opportunity to play at Triple-A, but there is only so much room, so some guys might have to start the season at Double-A and it is crowded there, too.
We have an over-abundance of pitching right now and typically we aren’t as heavy in that area. We have the younger guys coming up like Ryan Webb and Michael Rogers and Mike Madsen who are borderline ready to go to Double-A, but if things push back from the higher levels then they will have to go back [to Single-A]. It’s really a domino thing.
OC: For someone like Andrew Bailey, who had a lot of collegiate experience and clearly whipped through the Northwest League, is it harder for someone like him to skip a level if there is a back-log at the higher levels?
KP: Yeah, he was someone who pitched really well last season and another guy from the 2006 draft, Ben Jukich, also pitched really well. Jukich is a little bit older and we felt like he was one of the guys who could skip a level and go right into Stockton, as maybe was Bailey, but it will really depend on how far [the pitching glut] pushes back.
Typically we don’t feel an overwhelming need to skip a guy a level because we will generally take our first year pitchers [pitchers in their first full year in professional baseball] and limit them to 130, 140 innings, so whether they get them at Kane County or Stockton, that first year is just about experience and having them get the ball every fifth day and learning how to be professional pitchers because they have really only pitched for half a season at that point [in their careers].
OC: Has the plan been different with the pitchers drafted out of high school, such as Webb, Vince Mazzaro, Jared Lansford, Craig Italiano, etc.?
KP: Yeah, in fact, we shut them down – we did that with Mazzaro and Lansford last year – on about August 15th or thereabouts. That was kind of the cut-off date where they had gotten enough innings and experience at that point because we really wanted to send them to the Instructional League. We just made it point for their health reasons that once they reached, I believe it was 125 innings for each of those guys, that that was sufficient for those guys for their progress at that time. So that is going to happen to some of [the first year pitchers] again this year. We project that out from the very beginning so that no guy is going to throw that many extra innings if we can avoid it.
OC: Do you limit the types of pitches that they throw?
KP: Yes, definitely. We don’t encourage the split-finger. That is a pitch for later on in their development. We prefer to teach the change-up. It is just one of those cases where pitch development is so important, such as developing fastball command. At the lower levels, it is just so important to make sure that they develop that fastball-change-up combination and that is just the process of the development.
OC: How do you assess how Mazzaro and Lansford did last season? Their numbers were sort of up-and-down in certain areas, but they both made through a full season in good shape. Was that mostly what you were looking for from them?
KP: Absolutely. They were in the right league. The Midwest League is perfect for a high school pitcher, especially those who come with a little bit of a baseball background like Lansford, Mazzaro and Italiano – who is another player in the system who is rehabbing and who should be ready to pitch this year. In fact, we may just go with an eight-man rotation in Kane County. That is a possibility because we have a ton of really good arms that could make that work and it could control the number of innings.
OC: That is something the organization did a little bit back in the Tony LaRussa era right?
KP: Yeah. We have kind of come-and-gone with using an eight-man rotation. When we’ve had that ability with that many good arms, it has worked for us. But we’ve gotten away from it because we’ve had more seasoned guys and we haven’t had to protect the high school guys.
How it works is that one guy starts and then the projected second man in the tandem comes in in the fifth inning and you limit them to 75 pitches. Whoever started that turn would relieve the next turn, so the tandem flip-flops back and forth. We’ll probably do that for half a season and then perhaps return to a five-man rotation.
Typically spring training is so short that the pitchers are really only built up to 50 or 75 pitches at the start of the season, so they are only going to go four or five innings anyway just to start. That is just how it will work to begin with and then as the season goes on, we’ll probably go with a more traditional five-man rotation.
OC: Trevor Cahill [the A’s top pick in 2006] didn’t get a lot of playing time in the Arizona Rookie League last season. How did he look to you in Instructs?
KP: Really good. He’s got a lot of movement on his fastball. He’s got a good slider and good velocity. He’s really a good looking young pitcher. He just hasn’t pitched very much so that is the only downside with him right now. Ideally, he might be better suited to go to Vancouver, but with his skill and talent, if we see good things with him in the spring, we might take the chance to send him to Kane County.
OC: A couple of high school pitchers, Scott Deal and Kevin Bunch, from the 2005 class spent the 2006 season in Vancouver. What did you see out of both of them last season?
KP: Deal was really outstanding. He really handled the extended spring program, which starts about April 6th and runs until about the first of June, really well. He benefited from that quite a bit. Bunch had a groin injury and that limited him to very little activity for much of the program and when we finally sent him to Vancouver, he struggled because he wasn’t really ready, I think, physically.
OC: Is Bunch someone who might do extended spring again this year?
KP: Yeah, he might. He hurt his groin again. I don’t know if that is going to cause him to miss more time but he’s already been out three or four days with it, so I am assuming that he might have to start here [at extended spring training] just because of the injury.
OC: Switching to hitting a little bit, were you surprised how quickly Matt Sulentic was able to adjust to wooden bats and the higher level of pitching coming out of high school like that?
KP: I had heard a lot about him from the scouts during the draft meetings and they had talked a lot about his bat and they had also talked about how he didn’t really have a position yet defensively, but they said that the bat would come really fast. You really don’t anticipate when you send a high school kid into a college league [like the Northwest League], that he would do so well, so it was a surprise. I had heard how good his bat could be, but you just don’t expect to see that right away.
I think we had Ben Grieve who was a high school kid who went to the Northwest League and he ended up doing okay in that league, so some guys handle it okay, but other get crushed so you really have to pick the right one that you really think can handle it. Sulentic is going to be a good player. Now he just really has to work on his defense.
OC: I know there had been some talk of moving Sulentic to the infield. Is that something that is going to happen or will he stay in the outfield?
KP: Not at this point. We are really just locked in on having him play in the outfield.
OC: He’s a little bit on the smaller side. Do you anticipate that he will be able to put up the numbers to play in the outfield?
KP: Yeah, he’s not really big, but he’s put together well. He’s very strong, he’s just not physically tall, but he should be big enough to play in the outfield, absolutely.
OC: Another 2006 pick, Jermaine Mitchell, missed some significant time last season with injury, but looked fantastic when he was healthy in Vancouver. Are you expecting big things from him this season?
KP: Yeah, he is really fun to watch. He’s very athletic. He runs well, puts the ball in play and he plays great defense. He is a good centerfielder. He is probably one of the best athletes in our system, so I think we’ll be able to project him because of that athleticism and his skill level is going to improve a lot. In the Instructional Leagues, he made so many improvements that I think that along with his natural ability, good things are going to happen for him. I think things will come together pretty quickly for him. More than likely, he will start at Kane County and we’ll go from there.
OC: And is Toddric Johnson likely to be in Kane County, as well?
KP: Yep, it is the same thing with him.
OC: Right now, both of them are centerfielders. Will they share time or will one be the primary centerfielder?
KP: It’s funny. We’ll try to play as many guys who are capable of playing centerfield out there. You know that we put Nick Swisher out there and most of his time in the minor leagues was as a centerfielder. And then he gets to the big leagues and he moves into the corners, but now with Mark Kotsay going down, there is a chance that Swisher could play some centerfield. We try to teach these guys to play the corner and centerfield. The guys who are capable of playing centerfield, we’ll also put them on the corners. So we’ll flip-flop those guys in center and the corners, to give them an opportunity to do both.
OC: Richie Robnett is another guy who has seen time in centerfield. He looked like he was on the verge of breaking out when he got hurt last season. Do you see him getting close to having it all come together?
KP: Especially after the fall. He went to the Instructional League, he went to the Arizona Fall League and he even went to Mexico Things are starting to, I guess, come together in his mind mentally. You know, physically, he’s a specimen. He’s outstanding and he really works hard. He just had to make these slight adjustments mentally with how pitchers are pitching him and I think that is the biggest challenge for him. How to adjust to what the opposition is doing to him. I think he is ready to take off. You look at his tools. He can really run and throw and he has great power and so forth. He’s really right on the verge.
OC: Do you think it will be a benefit to him to have Todd Steverson as a manager again for the third straight year [this time in Midland, where Steverson will be managing for the first time]?
KP: Yeah, I think that Todd really pushes him in a number of ways, defensively, learning the game and being a professional. I think he really clicks with [Richie] and I think Richie is right on track to where he needs to be.
OC: Did Von Hayes [Midland’s manager in 2005 and 2006] just decide to take a year off?
KP: Von had wanted to be the Triple-A manager, but Tony DeFrancesco has earned the right to keep that position and Von did not want to go back to Double-A so we didn’t have anything for him. He just elected to walk away from the situation and hope that in the future something would open up.
OC: I know there was some talk that Tony would be promoted to be a coach at the big league level with the A’s, but he is now returning to Triple-A. Do you guys see Tony as a prospect from a coaching perspective?
KP: Absolutely. He is so well-prepared and organized. He motivates the players and he has a good rapport.
OC: What has your impression been of the prospects playing in big league camp this spring, such as Daric Barton, Travis Buck, Kevin Melillo, Kurt Suzuki and Mike Mitchell, etc.?
KP: Well, Buck, as good as he has been doing, he is still being considered [for a major league roster spot]. Maybe it is not likely, but who knows? Andre Ethier was in the same mold as Buck and he ended up being ready. Sometimes an opportunity is what allows a guy that chance to prove that he is ready and maybe Buck is just like Andre. You don’t really know for sure, but he is showing signs that he might be close.
OC: It seems like Barton has been hitting everything in sight. What are you seeing with Barton’s defense?
KP: He is about where Dan Johnson was and Johnson turned himself into a really good first baseman. Barton is the same. Coming from being a catcher and Barton has also played some third base, he has the tools. He has very good hands. It’s just learning the situations at first and adjusting to the way the ball comes at you differently [at first base]. He has all of the equipment to be a good first baseman.
OC: Is he someone that you see developing more homerun power down the road?
KP: You know, he hit one the other day. Things are starting to come together. He doesn’t feel it all of the time, but he is starting to get a sense of when he swings where the ball is going off the bat and really feel it. When you start hitting for power, you can actually start to reproduce it and you can feel it and you can sense it.
A lot of guys really try to hit for power and just nothing happens, they just don’t feel it, the ball doesn’t come off the bat right, there is no backspin. Barton has gotten to that place, like Buck has, where they sense what is happening and it kind of moves fast from here.
OC: I know that last season Melillo was concentrating mostly on improving his defense. Have you seen a big improvement there?
KP: Very much so. I think that he has really worked hard at it and he continues to make improvements. Every opportunity, he’ll take groundballs with Mark Ellis and he works a lot with the infield coach up there, Bob Schaefer, as well as Juan Navarette [the minor league fielding instructor] and he has a good balance right now with combining his work offensively and defensively. He understands that the guy ahead of him should be a Gold Glove second baseman and he’s got to kind of be in the same category.
OC: Melillo played a little third base in the AFL. Is that something that he will continue to work on to improve his versatility?
KP: Absolutely. However you can help a guy like that out to become someone like an Antonio Perez, to put him in a position to be a utility guy at the big leagues if that is how his first entrance at the big leagues will have to be. So you try to expose him to a number of different positions. I believe he even played a game or two at short, so if he can do all three, it will certainly make his route that much easier.
OC: The A’s currently have a lot more hard-throwing relief prospects than in year’s past. Is that something that the organization has been looking to develop more of?
KP: It’s interesting. Mitchell had come off of Tommy John surgery, so we hadn’t really seen things like that [throwing hard] happening with him early and then all of a sudden, he starts flashing some 91, then 92 and the next thing you know, he’s 94, 95. When he got healthy, the arm came back, the sink was there and he just sort of appeared out of nowhere – just because he had been hurt – but the velocity has really started to come up and increase.
We have a hard-throwing guy like Jason Ray. We tried him out as a starter, but we ended up thinking that he might be better suited out of the bullpen. That way, he can just stay consistent at 94, 95 with his fastball and know that he is in there for a short period of time. We have a number of good, young arms in terms of velocity.
There is a guy named Jeff Gray who started throwing some 93s and 95s last season in Kane County and Stockton. So we are starting to get some velocity guys in the system. We have traditionally had more off-speed, command, control guys and not a lot of hard throwers. Before, Santiago Casilla was really the only guy we had who was a 96 or 98 guy and now you have a Craig Italiano who can really get it up there.
OC: Is the thought with Italiano will have to move to the bullpen because of his injury?
KP: Not yet. I think we can still develop him as a starter, but we are certainly going to watch closely the number pitches he throws and how his shoulder feels.
OC: Were you surprised with how quickly Marcus McBeth was able to make that transition from position player to pitcher?
KP: Yeah, definitely. In fact, we were just talking about how difficult a transition it is not only to move from position player to pitcher, but also to be thrown in there as a closer. Not too many guys go from being a position player to a starter or a closer, especially a closer. When you factor all that in, to have him closing games and developing pitches, it is remarkable that he has been able to do as well as he has with limited innings in limited appearances. To put him in the fire like that, it’s not really fair, but he likes it. He likes to get the ball, he likes the competition, so he has sort of eeked out his role as a closer.
OC: Would there ever be a situation where in a game he wasn’t pitching, they would throw him back out there to play in centerfield?
KP: [laughs] No, he has had his time there. I suppose if there was a rare situation where it could happen, but it hasn’t happened yet.
OC: So the era of the Tony La Russa using the pitcher as a pinch-runner in the 10th inning is a thing of the past [laughs]?
KP: If Tony were still here, he might think about it. Marcus is certainly capable of playing out there. In a lot of cases, he’d probably be a defensive upgrade. He used to have throwing contests between him and Javier Herrera before Marcus turned into a pitcher. They’d get in centerfield and just have these ego tests to see who could out-throw the other and it was impressive to watch the two of them before Herrera’s surgery.
OC: Is Herrera back to throwing like 80-90 percent at this point?
KP: He’s probably 80 percent right now.
OC: Are his reps in the outfield going to be limited early in the season?
KP: We are going to throw him out there. He needs the experience so probably we’ll have him just not throw. In certain situations, he’ll just lob the ball back [instead of throwing it full throttle]. It’s a long, big picture thing with him.
OC: Will he start in Stockton?
KP: After missing a year, he might be best suited to start there and then maybe move after that.
OC: He was slated to start out in Stockton before he got hurt last season?
KP: Probably, but, you know, as good as he was looking last spring, there was some thought that he might be able to skip [to Midland], but that is not an easy switch.
OC: Is Tommy John surgery an injury that affects a player’s swing or is it just really with his throwing?
KP: It is mostly the throwing, yeah. He has actually come back swinging the bat pretty well. He’s looked good.
OC: Erubiel Durazo is another guy in camp who had that Tommy John surgery. I was surprised that he never got a chance at the big league level last season. How has looked to you? Is he all the way back?
KP: Absolutely. He had a great winter ball season. Eighteen homeruns, the ball getting off of the bat a lot better. He appears that he is back to being maybe even better than he was before. He has been very strong.
OC: Does he have an opt-out in his contract if he isn’t placed on the 25-man roster coming out of camp?
KP: Yeah, he does.
OC: Did he get much time at first base this winter?
KP: I never did see him in the field, I think he mostly DH’d. I know he has really been working at it here. Bob Schaefer has spent a lot of time with him, fielding and throwing. Thus far, everything has been good.
OC: Another roster question: does Casilla have one more option left?
KP: Yes, he does.
OC: He missed a lot of time last season. Was it an elbow or a shoulder?
KP: He had an elbow.
OC: For guys like Brant Colamarino and Brian Stavisky who have had some time at Triple-A, but now have guys ahead of them in the system. Is it a difficult situation for guys like that who probably are more advanced than Double-A at this point, but might have to play there again this season?
KP: Extremely. You know, that is where you hope that there is an opportunity for them maybe elsewhere. Maybe you trade them or change positions or find some other avenue so that they can get a shot. That is the difficult part of this business. There becomes a pecking order or the competition just gets to the degree where one guy gets to play over the other and it becomes a situation where one guy has to sit or go back a level.
Both of those guys deserve chances, especially Stavisky. He has led the organization in walks, he has been a consistent .300-plus hitter and you root for those guys to get an opportunity and they really deserve it. Sometimes, maybe there is someone like a Ricky Ledee or someone who the major league team has to have ready for right now that may get the opportunity [at Triple-A] over him. It comes down to the make-up of the big league club and also trying to push the young prospects along and you just hope that he can be a part of it.
OC: Is that the most difficult part of your job?
KP: Without a doubt, it is difficult to balance this and to be fair with these guys and be up-front and tell them the situation. You try to give them the head’s up for why we are doing this and the reasons behind it, but for some of them, it is just about numbers and things that they really can’t control.
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