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Oakland Athletics front office Q&A: Keith Lieppman, part 1

Oakland Athletics Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman is in his 26th season as the A’s farm director and his 47th with the organization. I spoke with “Liepp” on Monday about several prospects in the A’s system. In part 1 of this interview, we discuss Jorge Mateo, Sheldon Neuse, Austin Beck, Nick Allen, Jesus Luzardo and much more…

Austin Beck/ Elizabeth Staub/Oakland Athletics
Austin Beck is adjusting well to the Arizona Rookie League. / photo by Elizabeth Staub/Oakland Athletics

OaklandClubhouse: You have been juggling new players coming into the Oakland A’s system the past few weeks. Sheldon Neuse was just promoted to Double-A Midland after about three weeks with the Stockton Ports. What were your initial impressions of Neuse? 

Keith Lieppman: Very athletic. I think he has great instincts. He just has a real sense for the ball, whether it is offensively or defensively. He has really good hands for both sides of the diamond [at the plate and in the field], too. He’s an instinctual player and he has really good make-up. He can play short and he plays third base equally well.

It’s hard to figure out where all of these guys are going to play in the future. Right now, we have a backlog of infielders and he’s leading that list. A really fine defender and he’s put up some good numbers in Stockton already. He got confident and comfortable really quickly.

OC: Do you anticipate him playing mostly third base in Midland with Jorge Mateo there at shortstop?

KL: Hard to say. We are pretty unpredictable how we do things in the future. [laughs] Never say never. You want to keep all of the options open. That’s probably the best description for a lot of people in our system. Who would think that Yairo Munoz would be playing centerfield in Triple-A right now? There are just a lot of interesting things that have happened in a short period of time as a lot of these kids move through the system. Versatility has really helped to allow these things to happen. It’s only making the organization stronger.

OC: What are your thoughts on Mateo so far? I saw a few games on and he looked like a pretty athletic defender.

KL: I haven’t seen him personally, but from what I’m getting from [Midland manager] Fran Riordan and others that have seen him is that he is an athletic, electric guy with great speed. He makes things happen and is very aggressive on the bases. He’s a constant stolen base threat whenever he gets on-base and he creates a lot of havoc out there. He disrupts pitchers’ timing and creates a lot more opportunities for the guys who are hitting behind him. Once he gets on base, there is a lot of action. I think that the Midland ballclub, the guys that are playing amongst him are really enjoying the new kind of aggressiveness that he has brought them.

OC: There has been a lot of speed brought into the organization over the past year or so through trades and the draft. Is it nice to have that element back in the organization after not having a lot of it over the past 10 years or so?

KL: It’s great. A guy like Kevin Merrell who just signed and is a great runner, he does the same kind of thing [that Mateo does]. It really helps. We’ve got a lot more average runners. Guys that are straight up 5 runners on the scale of 2-to-8 that have been introduced into the system that just creates a lot more opportunity to be aggressive. Going first to third, reading balls in the dirt, there are just a lot more opportunities to get better. It’s been a real pleasure to see that kind of speed showing up.

OC: That Vermont Lake Monsters team has played well all year. You mentioned Merrell and how well he has played. Greg Deichmann has also been very impressive. Have you been happy with what you have seen from the new draft class thus far?

KL: It’s been outstanding position-player wise to get guys like Deichmann and Will Toffey. Then you get a Merrell and even Ryan Gridley has been a really pleasant surprise. When he has been in the line-up there, he’s a real blue collar guy who gets the job done. He’s another aggressive player. I think that this draft has been really good on the position-player side and there have been some good guys coming out on the pitching side, as well. Parker Dunshee has been the real surprise of the draft so far.

OC: Obviously the scoreless streak jumps off the page with Dunshee, but his peripheral stats have been impressive, too. What are your impressions of Dunshee so far?

KL: He just fills the ‘zone up. He’s very aggressive and really has no fear out there. He is very focused and he obviously came out of a good college program and has a good sense of competing. There is an air of confidence when he stands out there and the hitters feel it because he isn’t afraid of them.

OC: Brian Howard has also been impressive out of that Vermont rotation. The A’s system has had a few really tall pitchers over the past several years, but it is still unusual to have a pitcher with his height (6’9’’). Do pitching coaches have to work differently with pitchers of his height, or did Howard come in with good mechanics already?

KL: Actually, very good. He’s another tough competitor. If you saw him pitch in the College World Series, you saw what kind of makeup he has and how aggressive he is on the mound. He’s a tough competitor. We love that part of it.

With the taller guys that we have had over the years, it takes a little bit of time, whether it is A.J. Puk or Mark Mulder, with these bigger guys, it takes a little time for them to put it all together. But once they get it going, they are big factors long-term because of the angle they can throw the ball down from. They are very hard to read and hit. Those kind of guys are great if you can develop them, but it may just take a little bit longer for them to get into the groove and be what they can be. I know Randy Johnson took a long time to be the great pitcher that he was. There are some growing pains and they are all so different, but the taller guys can have a little bit more difficulty in preparing themselves to compete.

OC: What is the latest with Jared Poche? Is he officially shut down for the year?

KL: He’s actually in Arizona. He threw a lot of innings [for LSU] this year and he’s down here now just kind of taking it easy. We’re going to put him on a throwing program and we’re going to build him back up to where we can send him home at the end of the year and he can have a normal off-season.

OC: Is it sort of a similar program to what Seth Martinez was on last year?

KL: Yeah. A lot of these guys come in with a ton of innings and our Instructional League will include some of them. Daulton Jefferies was invited last year to observe and just be a part of it, so some of our invitees this year will be like that. Guys maybe like Howard who have thrown a lot of innings but are here basically to get to know the system and learn a few things. It won’t really be a throwing type Instructs for some of them.

OC: Are Instructs invites coming out soon?

KL: We are getting very close. The next couple of days we should have a full list. The list is almost full now. We have a lot of Latin American players who we are considering. It’s a little bit more difficult to make the arrangements with the addition of all of the Cubans and the Colombians, we’ve really gone international with what we do. It’s a little more difficult to determine who belongs in the US at this time and how they are going to benefit and where they are going to be next year. A little more thought is going into this year’s Instructional League.

OC: One of our writers, Josh Nelson, spoke with Renato Nunez last weekend and he talked about how the situation in Venezuela is weighing heavily on his mind. Is there anything that the organization has done for the Venezuelan players – either in terms of logistics or support – who are dealing with the situation at home?

KL: [Assistant General Manager] Dan Feinstein has come up with a pretty good idea for the kids. He has offered our complex in the Dominican as a refuge for players if they aren’t going to get food or there are safety concerns or whatever reason. He’s talked to all of the young Venezuelans about the potential of them spending most of the off-season in our complex in the Dominican. I think that’s the best that we can do to help alleviate some of the stress that those kids are going under. Certainly from an organizational perspective, if we can get them food and playing baseball when there are problems at home, it may be the best scenario for all parties.

OC: The Vermont staff has a number of players who have graduated from the Dominican Academy recently. Jean Ruiz, in particular, has pitched well. What kind of pitcher is he as a 20-year-old?

KL: He doesn’t have a ton of strike-outs. He’s an aggressive sinkerball type guy. He’s not very big yet. He’s one of those, like a young Pedro Martinez, really skinny and hasn’t grown into his body yet. But he’s a live arm, quick arm and a guy who made the All-Star team in the New York-Penn League. It’s pretty impressive for a guy to come out of Colombia and be this impressive this early on.

OC: How have you felt Abdiel Mendoza and Oscar Tovar have handled pitching in a non-complex league?

KL: This has been a real push to get these guys out and into the system rather than them spending all of their time as we have as of late in Arizona. If they are ready and they can compete, we are sending them out and a lot of guys have done that this year. Tovar has the big velocity and Mendoza has been good. This has really been an effort on our part to get these guys out of the complex leagues. They are definitely guys that have out-pitched the Arizona League. They belong in Vermont and are on their way very quickly.

OC: Wandisson Charles gets a lot of notice for the 100 MPH fastball. Command is obviously still not perfect, but do you feel like he’s making progress in that area?

KL: Compared to a year ago, to think that this guy closed four games early in the year in Vermont and I don’t think he walked too many early. A year ago, he couldn’t throw the ball over the plate. It’s an amazing transformation for him. He’s maintained his velocity and he’s shown that he can stand out there with confidence. He’s another big guy [6’6’’] and it’s going to take him a little while to get into his timing and his release, but we don’t have a whole lot of guys who throw 100 in our system, so he’s somebody we feel very strongly about.

OC: You mentioned to me earlier that Jesus Luzardo was really impressive on and off the field. What were your impressions of him when he was in Arizona before he moved up to Vermont?

KL: I saw him pitch a couple of times. His command of the fastball and his overall ability are impressive. He wanted out of here quickly. I know he had been in the Gulf Coast League [the Florida complex Rookie League]. He’s that kind of competitor in that he wanted to prove that he didn’t belong here. He did that very quickly through his outings in Arizona. He wants to compete and get better. Another young, high school kid who is rapidly making his way [through the system]. He didn’t have a great first outing for Vermont but that’s all part of the process. I think he’ll be able to handle that league and be able to move up next year very quickly.

OC: Is he under restriction in terms of the pitches that he can throw given where he is at in his Tommy John rehab, or is he able to throw everything at this point?

KL: He’s okay. We’ll probably just shut him down at the end of the year. Let him finish the season and get him as many starts as we can in Vermont up until Labor Day. Then he can have a nice off-season and rest, recuperate and be ready for spring training.

OC: First-round pick Austin Beck and third-round pick Nick Allen are getting acclimated to pro ball in the Arizona Rookie League. How do you they are handling their first few months as pros?

KL: I think they have been outstanding. Both of have come here and they associate well with all of the other guys. They aren’t holding themselves out differently just because of the bonus or where they were selected. These guys are just part of the team. The make-up and mix just to begin with of the personalities and the way they conduct themselves as young men has been the best. It really stands out from the very beginning.

Then on the field, they both have great skill-sets and tools. You watch Allen in the field and he’s everything the scouts had talked about as far as his energy, his hands, his quickness. He’s a pleasure to watch. He’s a great defender. He’s had a little bit of a bone bruise on his thumb, so he hasn’t been able to swing the bat quite as well of late, but early on at the plate, he was really, really good. A few growing pains just with the physical aspects of playing everyday.

With Beck, he’s got speed and tremendous power. He banged one out the other day, a big, long homerun. It’s there. It’s just a matter of getting used to the environment and the little bit better competition [as compared to high school]. But he’s doing all of the right things.

They are in the right spot and are making a lot of everyday adjustments to playing professional baseball.

OC: Would you compare Beck’s transition to Billy McKinney’s first six-to-eight weeks in the AZL?

KL: I think Beck is a little bit further ahead of where Billy was at that time. Billy might have had done a little bit better [numbers-wise], but it took Billy a little bit longer to adjust than Austin just on the day-to-day basis. Numbers aside, Beck seems to be handling it really well.

These guys are getting used to umpires who have a little different ‘zones and things that they aren’t used to. Some of the umpires are their age or younger. It’s a little bit different for each player and each scenario. They seem to be handling it well, but there are a lot of adjustments. Playing everyday and getting to know a lot of new people and taking on new ideas. They both keep their heads down and they are doing great so far.

OC: The game [on Sunday] night was crazy [AZL A’s scored seven in the bottom of the ninth to tie then lost 9-8 in 10 innings after loading the bases with no outs in the bottom of the 10th].

KL: I was at that game. A lot of really good things happened. But it was unfortunate to watch the bases loaded and then you don’t score.

OC: The whole runner on second to start the inning thing must have been a little deflating after you score seven runs in the bottom of the ninth to force extras [in the Rookie League, extra innings begin with a runner on second base].

KL: At the time it’s deflating, but as I sit here after the fact, I’m thrilled that it didn’t go 17 innings and I had to burn my whole bullpen and try to scramble to find pitching again. I actually like the rule. When it came out, I wasn’t a big fan of it, but we could have used it a few times this season in Stockton and Beloit when I have been scrounging, looking for another person to pitch [after a long extra-innings game] and cringing that I’m going to have to throw another position player [on the mound] with the fear that he might get hurt. This rule, even though I’m an old-school purist, will help player development and protect guys from injury.

OC: Lazarito highlights the group of last year’s July 2nd class that came over to the Rookie League this year. How has that group adjusted to playing in the US this year?

KL: They haven’t missed a beat. They have been here since the Instructional League. [Lazarito] has done really well. Growing more and more confident. He is starting to free swing it a little bit more. When he first got here, he was very controlled and didn’t really let it go. I’m seeing pretty good swings right now. He doesn’t worry about the swing-and-miss. He gets after it really good right now. He’s beginning to feel it a little bit and he takes great BP. He squares a lot of balls up. The launch angle might be a little high right now. He’ll miss up a lot of times, but that’s going to get better as he gains understanding of his swing and himself. Huge power in there.

Stay tuned for the next portion of this interview, when we discuss Franklin Barreto, Renato Nunez, Matt Olson and much more…

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