A valuable commodity in the lower rungs of the Oakland minor-league system, Burlington manager Aaron Nieckula is in his sixth season of managing in the organization. Nieckula coached the Kane County Cougars to a second round Midwest League playoff appearance in 2010, and now moves to southeast Iowa to lead a new group of A's minor-leaguers this summer.
As his team prepared for game three of its season-opening series with Clinton, Nieckula sat down with OaklandClubhouse to discuss a variety of topics, including the development of 2010 second-round pick Yordy Cabrera.
OaklandClubhouse: What is the early-season plan for Cabrera, who is playing in a full-season league after being drafted out of high school last summer?
AN: He's a 19-year old young man in this league, so he's got a development in front of him. We want to bring him along at a pace that's comfortable for everyone involved. I think the plan is to let him go out there and play as much as he can.
In terms of the order of the lineup, that's subject to change. I put guys where I feel they're going to have the most success. If he can prove that he'll put up good ABs in a consistent basis and knock the ball around the yard, I have no problems moving him up. At this point in time, I've got guys one through five that are pretty solid with where they're at.
OC: How much time have you had to work with him prior to the season?
AN: I was not at Instructional League last fall, so the only chance I got to see him perform was at spring training. I was extremely impressed with the skill set he brings to the field every single day.
The first day I was out there hitting fungoes was Monday, March 7th. We were out on field four and it was all optional workouts. I was hitting ground balls to Yordy at shortstop and I honestly thought that he was an older player. I thought he was a Double-A or Triple-A guy, because of his actions on the field were pretty smooth. I got to see him for about three weeks and it's a small sample size, but I think he'll only get better as time goes on. He's a hard-working young man.
AN: Rick Magnante, the manager in Vancouver [last year] had nothing but high praise for every single one of these young men. He had great things to say about Tony and Kirby.
I was impressed with Tony throughout the spring. He had some great ABs, hit for a little power and worked the counts. He did a nice job for us over at third base and I had him playing first base [Saturday]. Kirby-Jones has tremendous power and good selectivity, too. He drew quite a few walks in spring training and did a good job defensively. I'm excited with what we have at the corners.
In the field, Tony is probably one that may have a little more versatility, in terms of playing first base compared to A.J. playing third.
OC: How does the outfield stack up with a batch of newcomers joining Tyreace House, who returns to the Midwest League for a second season?
AN: I think we've got an outstanding outfield, starting in left field with Douglas Landaeta. He had a great year at Vancouver and hit for some average, power and ran the bases a little bit. He'll need a little work on his defense, but I know he's a hard-working young man that wants to improve.
Tyreace House is as fast as they come out there in center field. He's much improved on his defense and routes, with his ability to get to the baseball, and has a strong arm.
"Rolls" Royce Consigli is 19 years old and had two phenomenal years down in Arizona, so he earned this opportunity to come up here and play. He has a beautiful left-handed swing. There's some work to do with his defense, but he's got the tools to improve.
Jose Rivero was a Rule-5 from the Arizona organization. Everyone was raving about his bat speed throughout spring training. I didn't have much of a chance to see him in spring, because he was bouncing around the other levels. He's another solid outfielder with a good bat.
AN: They're both very defensive-oriented catchers that throw receive, throw and block the ball very well. That's going to be a strong point. They both did a great job during the spring and are here for a reason. Petitti has a well above average arm. I'm consistently getting his pop times at 1.85 or 1.9 with accuracy on the tag. I'm excited with what we have behind the plate.
OC: In the rotation you have four pitchers who had no starting experience prior to 2011. What is the strategy for them early in the season?
AN: A majority of these guys pitched out of the pen last year. A.J. Griffin had 15 saves for Vancouver last year, so he hasn't really been extended other than what he did at instructional league and spring training. It's going to be a learning curve for a lot of these guys. There will be times they get fatigued because this is their first time going five-plus innings. We're going to stretch them out as much as best we can and see how they do as starters.
Our pitching coach Jimmy Escalante raves about what these guys can do and the talent they have. We're excited with not only our starting pitching, but some of the guys we're bringing out of the bullpen like Daniel Tenholder and Zach Thornton.
OC: What special accommodations do you have to make in the spring, as far as the weather across the Midwest League?
AN: It's funny this time of year – you just don't know what you're going to get. It was 38 degrees our first night and 76 the next. We just try to get them on the field whenever we can for infield or BP, to take advantage of the weather when it's nice.
OC: On paper, this looks to be a very young team with 16 players from the draft class of 2010. How prepared is this group for what can be a grueling first month in this league?
AN: Rick Magnante did a fantastic job of grooming these guys and introducing these guys to professional baseball and the way things are done. He's helped these young men play according to our Oakland A's minor-league mission statement and philosophy. I've been impressed with what they've done every day and prepared and worked hard. They play the game hard, even in spring training.
OC: For you personally, Kane County was home since it was only a few miles away from your family in Aurora. How has the adjustment been to Burlington?
AN: It's been fine. You just go where they tell you to go. You really have to love the game and make the sacrifices. But I've been very fortunate the last eight years being in Kane County, with the exception of '09 when I was in Stockton, and now I'm only three hours away in Burlington. Anytime you have the chance to coach or manage in your home city or close to it, you try to take advantage because those opportunities don't present themselves often.
OC: Finally, tell us about some of the differences between the ballpark in Burlington versus what you had in Kane County?
AN: It's certainly different. I think Burlington has a very nice surface. It's extremely slow – the infield grass is extremely thick and dirt is soft. A lot of ground balls are eaten up. What's normally a base hit through the infield is now an out. But that's not a big deal. You just play with the field you have and do the best you can.
There are some other intricacies that are different. There's probably more foul ground in Burlington, the right-field fence is higher and center field might be a little deeper. But that's what makes baseball interesting – no two ballparks are the same.