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From the archives: Farhan Zaidi on the Nick Swisher trade

On Thursday, the Oakland A’s made their second blockbuster trade of the off-season, sending OF Nick Swisher to the Chicago White Sox for minor league prospects Gio Gonzalez, Fautino De Los Santos and Ryan Sweeney. We caught-up with A’s Baseball Operations Analyst Farhan Zaidi to find out how the A’s agreed on this deal and the organization’s assessment of the three players they got in return.

Gio Gonzalez / Photo by Chris Lockard
Gio Gonzalez / Photo by Chris Lockard

Less than three weeks after acquiring a package of six prospects from the Arizona Diamondbacks for number one starter Dan Haren, the Oakland A’s front office pulled the trigger on another big deal on Thursday, sending outfielder and number three hitter Nick Swisher to the Chicago White Sox for pitchers Gio Gonzalez and Fautino De Los Santos and outfielder Ryan Sweeney. We spoke with Farhan Zaidi, baseball operations analyst for the A’s, to find out how the trade came together and to learn more about the players the A’s received from Chicago.

OaklandClubhouse: I was interested in how this trade came together. Was it something that came together over the last few days or was it something you were working on for awhile?

Farhan Zaidi: As came out in the media about a month ago around the Winter Meetings, the Cubs did inquire about Swish at around that time. That, I believe, was prior to the Haren deal. At that point, we didn’t even engage in discussions with the Cubs because of Swish’s importance to the team and the configuration of the team and of the roster at that point.

A couple of weeks ago, the White Sox contacted us and basically asked us if there was anything they could do to motivate us to trade Swish. Kenny Williams kind of said as much during his press conference yesterday, that there wasn’t really a market for Swish and that [the White Sox] kind of had to create a market by being aggressive and basically meeting the A’s asking price. We went back-and-forth with them over the last couple of weeks and right from the get-go, we really targeted the two pitchers that we got in the deal: Gio Gonzalez and Fautino De Los Santos. They are two pitchers that we really like. There is always risk with these guys, but these are two guys who we believe can be top-of-the-rotation starters.

There was some understandable resistance on their part. In this day-and-age, parting with top-tier pitching prospects is probably the toughest thing to do. In reality, with the Haren deal, we understood that if we tried to go after two top-tier pitching prospects, that is really all that we were going to get back. So we tried to spread it out and get a few position prospects that we liked also in the Haren deal. We think that [the Swisher] deal meshes well with that deal on a couple of levels: one, we got some pitching back in this deal, which balances out the position prospects that we got back for Haren, and the other part of it is that we are still very high on Carlos Gonzalez and it still wasn’t clear that he necessarily had a spot on the team – not just this year, but going forward because Swish has a great contract and he was starting for the next five years – so this kind of clears a spot for him.

And we got Ryan Sweeney, who figures into the outfield mix and is a guy that we really like a lot. There has been some talk that he was just sort of a throw-in into the deal, and that isn’t the case. We think that he has a chance to be a very good everyday outfielder. When you look at what we got back in both deals, the fact that we got significant pitching back in both deals and the fact that we got at least one player who we think will be a very significant offensive outfielder in the Arizona trade in Carlos Gonzalez – and we think that Aaron Cunningham can be that down-the-road, as well – we think the two trades work very well together.

OC: I don’t think I’ve ever seen this many prospects go from one system to another in less than six months [this off-season, the A’s have acquired five players via the Haren and Swisher trades, selected one player via the Rule 5 draft and signed two minor league free agents who were all in the White Sox chain at the start of the 2006 season]. Have you scouted the White Sox organization more heavily than most teams or is it just a case of coincidence?

FZ: I honestly think it is just a coincidence. We don’t scout them any more diligently than we scout any other team. If anything, it might speak to the relationship that the Diamondbacks and the White Sox have and the deals that they have made over the years [Chris Carter and Aaron Cunningham came to the A’s through Arizona, which acquired them from Chicago]. And in our case, the fact that Billy [Beane] and Kenny Williams actually have a good relationship and are good friends, they were able to get this deal done because of their relationship. I think it is more about the relationships that these teams have than it is about something about the White Sox system that we really like.

OC: With Gio Gonzalez, he repeated at Double-A this year, but obviously put up outstanding numbers. Do you see him as someone who will need to spend time at Triple-A next season, or is he ready to compete for a spot in the big league rotation in spring training?

FZ: He’s definitely going to come to big league camp and is going to have a chance to show our coaching staff what he can do. I think one of the nice things is, particularly with some of the guys we got in the Arizona deal such as Greg Smith and Dana Eveland and we have some of our own guys in Dallas Braden, Dan Meyer and Lenny DiNardo, we have some guys that we can fill the rotation with. We don’t need him to be in the rotation at the start of this season, but he will certainly have that opportunity.

OC: Do you see something in his game that he will need to improve on to make that next step? Do you see his change-up as being playable now, or does he need to refine that to stick in the big leagues?

FZ: With him, his real out-pitch is his curveball. But he has a fastball which is solid to plus and the change-up is probably his third pitch, but we think that it compliments the rest of his pitches well. For him, it is just a question of getting experience against higher-level competition. He actually had a pretty decent year in 2006 with the Phillies in Double-A pitching in a hitter’s park. He still struck out more than a batter an inning. But it was still impressive to see what he did this year, lowering his ERA by more than a run and a half, improving his strikeouts, lowering his walks, reducing the number of homers he allowed. His numbers were just so much better across the board.

The other thing about Gio is that he just turned 22 in September. He is a very young guy. That experience against hitters that have been around for awhile who have played at higher levels could be valuable for him. I think the more experience that guys have with that, the better. He could definitely benefit from Triple-A time, but if he comes into spring and we think he is ready, he will certainly have that opportunity.

OC: When you are evaluating pitchers who might not yet have the type of change-up that you would like to see, do you have confidence that they will be able to develop a better change-up once they are with the organization because the A’s have always emphasized, and had success developing, the change-up?

FZ: That is a very interesting question. There are different theories even within our organization about pitcher development. There are people within the organization who really believe that the kind of guys you want to add to the system are guys who can spin a breaking ball because you can’t really teach that. There are other guys who think that fastball command is the big thing and that you can actually teach a breaking ball. They believe that if a guy can’t spot his fastball, that is something that is very hard to learn later on. The one thing that nobody says is that a guy has to have a great change-up before he arrives in the organization because he won’t be able to develop it.

Certainly, Ron Romanick, who was our minor league pitching coordinator for a long time and is now the bullpen pitching coach, has been a big proponent of changing speeds, not just by developing a change-up, but also by adding and subtracting off of the fastball to keep guys off balance. That actually is something that Gio already does well. But changing speeds is certainly something that has been taught to our pitchers throughout the organization over the last few years, certainly since Ron has been here. I don’t think that is a huge focus of ours with Gio because his change-up, like you said, is certainly playable now. But if he does wind-up spending some time in the minors, I’m sure that is something that he will be asked to focus on.

OC: With Fautino De Los Santos, he sort of came out of nowhere this season. Did you have reports on him prior to the 2007 season, or is the evaluation based on what he did in 2007?

FZ: It’s mostly based on this year. In some sense, when guys come over here to pitch in the US for the first time, it is almost like guys who are just drafted that you get to see for the first time as a professional. In our looks at him this season, he was just so dominant and there was just so much to like there – obviously, if you look at what he did statistically, it really jumps off of the page at you – that we have confidence that despite the fact that there is a somewhat limited track record, we believe he is one of the top-20 or so pitching prospects in all of baseball. We think both of these guys would fit in that category.

OC: Do you think he is ready for Double-A, or do you see him joining that Stockton group?

FZ: It is certainly something to think about adding yet another premium guy to that Stockton group. It is getting a little ridiculous [laughs]. He’ll certainly have the opportunity to compete for a spot in Double-A. I think he fits in a similar category with Brett Anderson. They are both guys who pitched in Low-A ball and made the jump at the end of the season to High-A and are certainly guys that we think have the polish to make the jump [to Double-A]. But it might also not be the worst thing in the world to start them off in Stockton and have them work their way up based on their performance and comfort level. We haven’t really made a decision on where Fautino will start the season.

OC: Is he going to come to big league camp?

FZ: We haven’t made a decision on that yet.

OC: With Ryan Sweeney, he is a guy who has had a cup of coffee in the major leagues, but he hasn’t had a chance to establish himself at that level. Do you see him starting the season in the big leagues or going back to Triple-A?

FZ: He will probably be in the mix. Obviously with the trade of Swish, we do have an opening in the outfield and Sweeney has spent two years in Triple-A and we certainly believe he deserves a shot at playing in the big leagues. He will certainly have the chance. He has spent the time in the minors and I think that one thing that people tend to forget about this guy is that he played this season at 22 years old. I know there has been some written that he may have peaked as a prospect last year and his numbers at Triple-A were not as good this season and maybe the power isn’t going to develop, but he is as old as some of the guys who were taken in the draft this past year and were in Rookie ball.

We think there is some growth left there. Even beyond that, we like this player as he is now, even if he doesn’t develop more power, despite our confidence that that might happen. He’s a guy who we think will hit for average. He is an excellent fielder and a good base-runner and he does a lot of things that help you win games, even if he doesn’t end up being a guy who hits 30 homeruns down-the-road. I think, in a sense, he has been handicapped by the fact that he has a big frame and people look at him and immediately expect him to be a guy who is going to generate a lot of power without recognizing the other stuff that he does do well. The fact is that he is very athletic and that helps him on the field and on the base-paths.

He will definitely have an opportunity to compete for a spot [in the big leagues]. We are definitely not of the mind that we are going to keep him in Triple-A until we see some sort of power growth explosion from him.

OC: Do you think he plays well in centerfield or do you see him as more of a right fielder?

FZ: We think he can play centerfield certainly. I think his athleticism is really underrated by people. He has a nice swing and people see a frame that should develop power and a lot of focus with Sweeney is on what he is and what he can be offensively. However, we think this guy is one of the best defensive outfielders in the minor leagues. He is an excellent corner outfielder and we believe that he would make a solid to above-average centerfielder, as well.

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