For the fourth straight season, longtime Oakland A’s minor league coach Aaron Nieckula will take on the double duty as field manager for the Vermont Lake Monsters and field coordinator for the A’s minor league system. As minor league field coordinator, Nieckula oversees the A’s spring training program, as well as the team’s extended spring training program and fall Instructional League.
We spoke with Nieckula on Thursday about how the 2018 A’s minor league spring training is unfolding.
OaklandClubhouse: How has camp gone for you so far? You’ve been here since February with the mini-camp guys.
Aaron Nieckula: It’s gone great. We had the mini-camp guys for a couple of weeks before the pitchers and catchers reported and another week before the position players reported last Sunday. Guys are just starting to get their legs underneath them and assimilating into the schedule. It’s been very successful. Lot of camp days. Triple-A and Double-A started their games this week and Low-A and High-A start their games Friday. Guys are really excited to be able to see a different jersey at the lower levels. I’ve been very happy with the work ethic, the mindset, the attitude. Just the way guys have been going about their business since the start.
OC: You had a lot of your Vermont team from last year in that mini-camp. I know you were excited about that group last year. Are you still excited about the Greg Deichmanns, Kevin Merrells, etc.?
AN: No doubt. Part of the reason why we have the mini-camp is to get these players ready to go over and help the big league club and make an impression. I always tell those guys: ‘You never get a second chance to make a first impression. When you come out on the field, make sure you are going about your business.’
It’s still a learning process because, for a lot of those guys, it’s their first spring training. They’re still learning the complex, learning the schedules, the good work habits, the good routines. It’s all about preparation so that when you do get that call to the other side, you feel well prepared, you’re confident, you trust the process, so that when you go out there and play you can make a good impression on the big league club.
But what a great group. And not just a great group on the field, very talented, but off the field. These are some good young men that we have in the organization.
OC: Kevin Merrell has a home run in big league camp already. We know about the speed and the defense, but do you see a little pop in his bat? Did he come into camp a little stronger?
AN: It’s funny that you say that, but a lot of the guys that I had last year in the Vermont have put on weight, but in a good way. They’ve come out a little bit stronger. They’re a year older and, yeah, speaking of Kevin, he’s not just a singles hitter. He can hit the ball out of the ballpark. Talking to guys on the big league side, they have been very impressed with that portion of his game, other than just the speed, of course. They didn’t realize he was as handsy as he was with the ability to put the bat on the ball and put the ball over the fence.
OC: Deichmann obviously has that power.
AN: To all fields, yeah.
OC: Is there a player that you’ve seen in your years with the team that he reminds you of?
AN: Maybe Nick Swisher. That’s the first name that comes to mind. Swisher was a fun-loving guy. Liked to have a good time. Deichmann has a similar personality, although Swisher was unique in his own way. There’s only one Nick Swisher (laughs). But, in terms of on the field, solid defender. He can run. He’s instinctual. He’s a good clubhouse guy. He plays the game the right way. So, yeah, I think Nick Swisher would be a fair comparison.
OC: Brian Howard and Parker Dunshee kind of led your pitching staff last year. How have they looked so far?
AN: They have looked very well. Both strike-throwers. Dunshee doesn’t have the velo, per se, but he has the knack. He has the mechanics. It’s repeatable. Obviously a tremendous work ethic. Good mix of pitches. And every time he takes the mound, he impresses. He’s done a really, really good job in his first spring training.
Howard is the same way. He has the big frame. Strike-thrower. Both of those guys are tremendous athletes. Tremendous workers. They’ve got a great attitude. So they opened some eyes and have made a nice impression. It’s early yet, and anything can happen, but I think they’ve both gotten off to a very, very good start here in their first spring training.
OC: Wyatt Marks mentioned to me that he didn’t throw his slider much during Instructs so he could focus on his changeup. He’s being stretched out as a starter after being a reliever in college. Do you think that is a role he can fill this year?
AN: Absolutely. Yeah. He’s a strike-thrower. He has a swing-and-miss pitch, or at least he did last year. This is a changeup organization. We love the changeup. We love the fastball command down in the ‘zone. Every pitcher that matriculates from the program in the minor leagues is going to learn the changeup. I think that would be another pitch that he would add to his repertoire to help him have success as a starter.
OC: I was talking to Keith Lieppman about some of the technology that you guys are using now to track different aspects of the game. One of those was a piece of equipment at the end of the bats that was giving readings on exit velo and other stuff. How much does that technology help you evaluate guys? Or does it just reinforce what you are already seeing with your own eyes?
AN: I think both. It reinforces and it provides us analytics so that we can go to the player with a number and say, ‘hey, this is your launch angle. This is your exit velo. This is your attack angle to the point of contact.’ All those numbers. We just have to make sure that when we get these numbers that we disseminate the information in a clear and concise format and that we don’t overuse it or underuse it or use it the wrong way and confuse people. It’s definitely a benefit for us and for the development of the player.
That’s what it’s designed for. Not just to give us numbers and show us numbers but to give us a way to include it into our development of the athlete, whether it’s a pitcher with Trackman or position player with a device on the bat or any other device that we have that gives us numbers.
OC: With the rules changes that were announced for Minor League Baseball this week, bunting will be a lot more important this season. Do the changes alter at all how you plan to run these last few weeks of camp? Or will the rule changes be addressed more once the season starts?
AN: I think once the season starts, the managers will address that with the team. Speaking of the bunt, we definitely have a new approach, a new mindset with it. We’ve made it clear to the players that this is going to be an important part of the game, that you’re always going to use it. Andwhen you do get called upon – whether it’s in the minor league games or in a big league game – you will need to get it down. We’ve practiced bunts in BP and with the new rule changes, the bunt will become more prevalent, especially if you put that runner on second and need to get him to third base.
At the end of the day, it’s all about skills development, so we have to be sure that we run a program that teaches these young men all of the skills and gets the ready for their season, wherever they may go.
OC: As a minor league manager, the changes will obviously impact your strategy and how you manage some ends of games. Do you like that aspect of it?
AN: There’ll be an adjustment period. I’m probably more of a purist, but you have to adapt, you have to evolve with the rules. They’re pushing the status quo. They’re trying new things. The biggest thing for me is that I’m all about pushing for the health of the players, especially the pitchers. They’re fragile. They’re not fragile in terms of mentality, but that’s their arm.
I’m more for maintaining the integrity of the game, but at the same time, maintaining the health of the player in terms of pitch counts and innings and putting position players on the mound and stuff like that. There will be a period of adjustment but, at the end of the day, you have to change and evolve.
OC: Guys like Lazarito and Norge Ruiz and Miguel Romero are here now for a second year. Do you feel like it is an easier adjustment for them this spring after having been with the organization for a year?
AN: Most definitely. Anytime you go through a spring training or an Instructional League or a season, it gets a little more comfortable. It’s always an adjustment for Latin players to come over and I’ve got to give a lot of credit to Dan Feinstein, Steve Sharpe and the others in the international scouting department for their approach with the higher learning academy that we have to increase the assimilation process for Latin players.
Down in the DR, they have a bunch of English classes and classes on the American way of life. This year in Vermont we had English classes set up for them and got some positive feedback from the players on that. This year, moving forward, we’re going to have English classes in Beloit. So in the DR, Vermont and Beloit we’re going to have three levels that are going to have English classes and teaching these kids not only the language but the American way of life. And that makes it more comfortable for these guys, as well.
OC: Wandisson Charles was one of the players who participated in those English classes in Vermont last year. He took a big step forward last year, pitching in the backend of your bullpen. How do you feel he’s progressing?
AN: I feel like he’s really progressing. From where he was in Instructional League in 2016 to where he was this past Instructional League in 2017, he’s been a tremendous success story with his development. Now, he still has a ways to go, obviously, but from where he was control-wise to where he is has been leaps and bounds. He’s really embraced the learning process, not just with the English classes but what we’re trying to do on the field, as well. He’s such a nice young man. Hard worker. Control issues at times, but he’s getting much better. He’s fun to watch.
OC: Oscar Tovar looked to me like he added some strength in his lower half since last year. Is he coming along development-wise?
AN: Most definitely. He’s definitely one of those guys that we can talk about putting on weight in a good way, adding strength. He’s always had a golden arm. Mid-90s. Another great kid. Always says hi, thank you, please. Very respectful. He’s got a nice work ethic, too. I’m telling you, these kids are great to watch go about their business. Tovar is special. Now, whether he’s a starter or a reliever remains to be seen, but he definitely has the talent to be a major league pitcher.
OC: Jean Ruiz opened eyes last season. What has he come into camp looking like?
AN: Jean’s a strike-thrower. He has great secondary pitches and a great mindset on the mound. He had a very successful campaign in Vermont last year. I think he’ll be fighting for a spot at a higher level. Anything can happen, but he’s another great young man. A little more of a quiet guy. A quiet leader, in a way. Guys tend to gravitate towards him. They watch him work. They watch him pitch. They watch what he does. He sets a nice example for the rest of the Latin players.
OC: Nick Allen was in the mini-camp and has gone over to the big league games a decent amount already. You’ve seen him in Instructs and here in spring training. Where would you rate him defensively?
AN: Oh, he’s top-notch. For such a young man, he has a mature approach about him. Not just the way he plays the game, but his professionalism and his approach. He just fits in really nicely into the system. Excellent defender. Has a great arm. Knows where to be. I only saw him a little bit in Instructional League, but just from that little bit of time, I got to observe how he plays the game the right way. He’s 19 years old, but he plays the game like he’s 25, 26. He’s been around the game a long time. He must have been raised by his parents the right way and he’s been very well coached. He’s come into pro ball and has hit the ground running.
OC: Ryan Gridley has played some second and some short for you since turning pro. Is he a guy who you think can handle both positions?
AN: Without a doubt. He’s very athletic. He’s got good hands. He’s got a good arm. Very hard working. I think he embraces the versatility role. We tell these guys, the more positions you can play and play well, the better off you’re going to be because you’ll have more opportunities to play. When you get more opportunities to play, you get more at-bats, more innings, more chances to be seen.
I think he was a shortstop by trade. We moved him over to the right side of the diamond. He played second base very well. I’m sure he could even handle third base. He has enough arm to play third base. And even outfield. Guys like that are very valuable. He’s embraced the fact that he might have to play more than one position.
OC: Is it easier to teach that versatility when you have someone like a Chad Pinder who you can point to as using those skills at the big league level?
AN: No doubt. You want these guys to model themselves after someone in the major leagues. That’s what scouting is all about. You kind of compare what a player is currently to what he can be in the major leagues. When you have an in-house guy like Pinder who can play multiple positions, or a guy like Matt Olson who can play first base and the outfield, you can certainly use that as an example for them to follow.
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