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OaklandClubhouse: How is Tampa?
Billy Owens: It's good. I just got back from Caracas, so it is nice to be back in the US.
OC: When you are in Venezuela, do you feel like the A's have a bigger presence there than the organization did a few years ago because of the recent big signings the team has made?
BO: Without a doubt. In the Dominican and Venezuela, we can contact the agents and buscones and we definitely have full access to the better players right away versus five or 10 years ago when they wouldn't take us seriously with all of the top guys. But now we are definitely part of the fabric down there in Latin America.
OC: One of the big signs the team made out of Venezuela last year was Renato Nunez. Is he still in Venezuela or has he traveled over to the Dominican complex to get ready for this season?
BO: Our guys, they start training in the Dominican in preparation for the Dominican Summer League starting on January 24th. They will do all of their preparation and they will actually go home for a little bit and then start-up again in April when extended spring training commences. They will be there until the Dominican Summer League starts.
OC: In your opinion, are Nunez and Wilfredo Solano [the Venezuelan player the A's gave their largest international bonus to in 2009] similar players or different players?
BO: They are different players. Nunez is a guy we tracked really since he was 14 years old. Julio Franco [the A's lead scout in Venezuela] and myself were at work-outs down there three years ago and we ran into Renato and started to develop a track record with him and got to meet his family. Dan Kantrovitz [A's coordinator of international scouting] came on-board last year and we continued the process. From there, we were very familiar with the player. He can definitely swing the bat. He uses all fields and has power and his defense at third base has come along strong.
Wilfredo Solano started off in the middle of the diamond at shortstop, but he's already getting bigger and stronger, so eventually he might move to third base. He can play a little second base, as well. He uses the field well. He has more of a flat swing, a line-drive stroke. He's a very intelligent kid and has a good family background. He definitely really enjoys playing the game. I thought he got acclimated to the States really well last year during the US Instructional League.
It's good to have those guys in the fold.
OC: I assume that you are in Tampa to do some scouting in advance of this year's draft. You hear a lot of people talk about how deep this year's class is. Do you get the sense that this is a really deep draft as you travel around the country?
BO: I think so. Although, for the most part, there is usually similar talent in most drafts. Maybe certain guys get anointed earlier. Right now, you have Anthony Rendon, who was a solid talent coming out of high school, but maybe wasn't as high on the prospect radar. Atlanta took him in the draft [in 2008, 27th round] and made a pretty good run at him. But it came down to signability and he got a great opportunity to go to Rice University. Gerrit Cole is a guy who was a first-round pick of the Yankees [in 2008], but he had his heart set on going to UCLA. He has been a force there. Matthew Purke is a guy who was taken in the first round, as well, by the Rangers two years ago and then, for whatever reason, they weren't able to sign him and now he went 11-1 at TCU last year and is an up-and-coming prospect for this draft.
I think guys have anointed themselves and are already on the radar, so it is more about going through the season and figuring out what order you place the prospects. I don't think it is really that much different than prior years, though. I remember going back to the 2005 and 2006 drafts and guys were talking about how lean they were. Then lo and behold, you are talking about the Lincecums, the Garzas, the Tulowitzkis, the Longorias and the Ellsburys, the Ryan Zimmermans. Some of those guys just weren't anointed early. But they were still very talented.
OC: A few years ago, the organization made a concerted effort to put more resources into the scouting department. Do you think that has paid dividends over the past few years?
BO: I think without a doubt. For one, we have always stressed player development and scouting. If you look at the 42 year history of the A's in Oakland, we've had as many Rookies of the Year as any team in baseball. We've always built from within. During our successful run from 1999 through 2006, most of those guys were homegrown players. But towards the end of that, I think we realized that we needed to take a step back and actually put more resources into the player development and scouting. Get global and add more scouts domestically. Take advantage of opportunities later in the draft, like a Max Stassi or an Ian Krol [who both signed above-slot contracts after the 2009 draft]. Really just re-focus on the inner core of a baseball team.
I think it is going to pay dividends on the major league level in 2011 with that organic pitching staff, and also we'll see guys establish themselves such as Chris Carter and some of our other young position players.
OC: Speaking of homegrown players, how disorienting will it be to see Eric Chavez in a different uniform this spring?
BO: Eric Chavez is a tremendous person. He had 13 wonderful years for us. In the 42 year history of the Oakland A's, he will go down as the greatest third baseman in Oakland A's history. He tops Sal Bando and Carney Lansford on that list. We were lucky to have him for 13 years. We wish him the best.
OC: When the 2010 season ended and the front office sat down to plan for 2011, what were your goals for what the team needed to add before the start of spring training?
BO: We wanted to fortify our depth and augment our talented, young pitching staff with more offense. I think that we accomplished those goals by trading for Josh Willingham and David DeJesus and signing the professional hitter Hideki Matsui.
Also, we have guys internally who should help. Coco Crisp, hopefully he will stay healthy this year. We saw a glimpse of how dynamic he can be and it would be great to have that five-tool centerfielder for the bulk of the games this year. Kevin Kouzmanoff is a gritty, lunch pail, steady presence at third base and hopefully he can get back to the offensive numbers that he enjoyed in San Diego.
OC: Not that you guys aren't motivated every year, but is there any extra motivation to get better when the World Series winds-up being your cross-town rivals and your division rivals?
BO: I just would like to congratulate Brian Sabean and Bruce Bochy for a tremendous run last year. It was exciting to see our Bay Area counterparts have success. Independent of that, we set forward our goals in 2007 with the rebuild. We started to see the fruits of our labor last year with the .500 season. Our organic pitching staff took a step forward. We led the American League in earned run average. And now 2011 will be the culmination of the rebuilding project and going forward, it's time to win some baseball games.
OC: Is there a player either on the roster or not who maybe people aren't talking about that you think is ready to take a big step forward in 2011?
BO: I think the beauty of our roster is that we have tremendous depth and we also have guys who have been dinged up in prior years who may not be sexy prospects but are still just as talented as a lot of prospects around the game.
At the big league level, we still have players who can continue to take strides forward. Last year, one year ago today, there were still concerns about what type of player Daric Barton was going to be. He established himself last year in the major leagues as an outstanding defensive player and he led the league in walks. I think we are on the cusp of what he can do offensively. Cliff Pennington established himself defensively as a dynamic player, a player who can use his legs and he was still able to contribute offensively.
Depth-wise, if you go forward now, Ryan Sweeney hit .295 the last two years at the major league level and now he is amongst many talented outfielders, Coco Crisp, Josh Willingham and David DeJesus.
OC: What were your first impressions of Michael Choice last year as a professional? Did he come in and do what you expected he would after taking him in the first round?
BO: Yeah, Michael Choice, he's definitely got light-tower power. Anyone can notice that right away. He has power to all fields. The thing that really stands out about Michael Choice is that he plays so hard, that he is so intense. He's thirsty for knowledge. He's a grinder. He really cares about the game, his teammates. He is very similar to Greg Vaughn. He fits that profile. It's going to be exciting to see him in major league camp and also what he does on the field in 2011.