The 2017 season was special for the short-season Vermont Lake Monsters, who won the Stedler Division and earned a spot in the New York-Penn League finals. The Lake Monsters were led by manager Aaron Nieckula for a fourth straight season. The 2017 campaign was Nieckula’s 13th as a manager in the A’s system. Nieckula is also in his fourth season as the A’s minor league field coordinator.
Donald Moore caught-up with Nieckula during the season to get his thoughts on his 2017 club, his position with the organization and more.
Donald Moore: Coach, how is everything going for you this year with this club?
Aaron Nieckula: Things are very well here, Donny. I’m very pleased with the play on the field, obviously, and very pleased with the way the guys are conducting themselves off the field and in the clubhouse, and with the host families in the community. Just a good all round year so far, so I’m very pleased with the team’s status at this point in time.
DM: Any particular stand outs you’d like to mention?
AN: One that comes to mind is Parker Dunshee. He has done an outstanding job for us on the mound this year in kind of a piggyback situation. Right-handed starter for us out of Wake Forest. He just has command of the strike zone, does an excellent job working the zone, does an excellent job controlling the running game and all that good stuff.
Ivan Andueza, his second year in the league, has really made strides in the right direction. True progress in the way he is composing himself on the mound with his aggressiveness in the zone, his ability to go deep into ball games, something he was unable to do last year. He has certainly made some progress in the right direction.
Wandisson Charles, a closer, a back-end guy that we have. To be honest with you, and this is not disparaging, but he couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn last season. He has a power arm, a golden arm, throws mid 90s to 100. This year is tremendous. It’s two ends of the spectrum. This year he is pounding the fastball in the zone, he’s working in his slider. He has great composure on the mound, pitching with confidence and it really shows. So he has really made some tremendous strides within one year.
And we have some guys on the position player side like Greg Deichmann. He has done an outstanding job for us this year. An excellent young man, plays the game the right way, plays hard, wants to be in the lineup everyday, tremendous offensive capabilities. He’s been a great hitter for us.
Logan Farrar came up from Arizona, was tearing it up down there and has kind of continued that trend here for the Lake Monsters. He’s been our three, four, five hitter. An RBI machine, great at-bats versus lefty and right handed pitching, just an outstanding job up to this point.
Anthony Churlin didn’t play much earlier in the year. A young kid, an outfielder, made some adjustments maybe mentally and physically and has done an outstanding job for us on the offensive end. He hit some home runs, hits for power, got some RBIs. Just doing a great job.
Those three are probably standouts that I wanted to mention and also Ryan Gridley from Mississippi State. He has been an iron man for us, played a lot of ball games, steady in the field. Shortstop, second base, it’s been great. I mean I could talk about the whole team concerning standouts, but overall I’m very pleased with just about everybody on this team and what they have been doing up to this point.
DM: What would you’d like to see the team improve on?
AN: Well, you know, we are always looking to improve in every facet of the game. No matter if you are doing it well or if it’s a weakness, but obviously the biggest thing is something we preach each year here, year after year, is our consistencies on the offensive side, which we kind of ebb and flow, ebb and flow. We’re good one game, bad the next game, we’re good two games, we’re bad two games, so if we can maintain some consistencies on the offensive game, I think that we’ll be in good shape.
Other than that, I’m very pleased with the way we run the bases. We’re aggressive, we’re opportunistic, always looking to take advantage of the defense and take the extra base. Our defense has been pretty solid this year. We’re pretty steady. I’m very pleased with our ability to make the routine plays, for the most part, and throw it to the right base and communicate and do all those things that are necessary to win ball games and get these kids developed for the next level.
Our pitching has been pretty steady. One thing on the pitching side that I would like to see is minimize is giving up the long ball. I think we lead the league in home runs allowed, so we have to make sure that we start to trend in the other direction and pound that zone and work down, and not up.
DM: Nuke, what are your official titles that you hold for the Oakland Athletics organization?
AN: My official title is field coordinator, so basically I’ll coordinate our spring training and extended schedule, so I also do our Instructional League program, as well. I’m also obviously the Vermont Lake Monster manager in the summer, so it’s kind of a hybrid role in a way. Kind of wearing multiple hats. It keeps things interesting and keeps the work flow pretty steady, so it’s a job I really enjoy.
DM: You own and run a baseball academy in the off-season and you’re affiliated with a few others as well. Could you tell me all about that, please?
AN: Sure. So back in 2008 I opened up my own academy. I didn’t have a facility, per se, but I was running it out of cages called Niekula’s Baseball Academy, basically just working with youth in the Chicago-land area, ages 8 to 18. Elementary kids, high school kids come in and I offer private instructions. I do some camps and seminars, coaching clinics and things of that nature.
And I’m also part-owner of a facility called Top Pick Athletics out of Sugar Grove, Illinois, which is a Western suburb. It’s about a 16,000 square foot facility. It has about six cages in there, a whirlpool, a workout area. It has a lounge for parents and the kids do their homework while they are waiting for their team practice or their private instructions, so things are going well. We just opened up last year and are doing very well. I’m looking forward to see what the future has in store for Top Pick Athletics over there.
DM: Any off-season plans?
AN: Well, starting after this season, we’ll have the Instructional League season, which goes for about a month from mid September to mid October. Then I usually take a couple of weeks off. I might go to the in-laws and do a little traveling up to Wisconsin with my family, but other than that it’s just get back into the grind of working with the amateur athletes in the off-season. It’s something I have done for a number of years. It’s something I really enjoy a couple nights a week and that is really about it, and then the whole thing starts over again starting next February. It’s amazing how quick and short the off-season really is.
DM: I want to thank you so much for your time and it’s been an honor and a privilege not only to speak with you and your entire staff and players, but being my friend, as well. Best of luck to you and your family and have a great off-season.
AN: My pleasure Donny, thank you very much.
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