This off-season, the Oakland A's promoted Farhan Zaidi to the title of Assistant General Manager and Director of Baseball Operations. Zaidi is entering his 10th season with the A's, and he has played an important role within the A's front office, providing statistical analysis for the purposes of evaluating current and possibly future members of the A's organization. Zaidi works with all parts of the A's front office, including the amateur and professional scouting departments, player development and the coaching staff.
We recently caught-up with Zaidi to discuss the state of the A's as they head into the 2014 season. Below is part one of that discussion.
OaklandClubhouse: Congratulations on the promotion. Has your day-to-day changed much since you were given the new title?
Farhan Zaidi: Thank you. There may be some small changes here and there, but, by and large, it’s going to continue to be sort of business as usual for us. We run pretty well as a unit, so there aren’t going to be any big changes or shifts in responsibilities.
OC: There has been a lot of talk about the uniqueness in the structure of the A’s front office in the sense that you and David [Forst] and the two Billys [Beane and Owens] and Keith [Lieppman], etc. really work together to share a lot of the front office duties. Do you think that arrangement allows you guys to explore some more creative paths for player evaluation than you would be able to in a more top-down management approach?
FZ: Yeah, absolutely. I think there are two things that come from the top with Billy [Beane] that creates that environment: 1) his leadership style is very empowering of the people working below and around him. There isn’t really a strict direction from him on how he wants you to do things or do your job in general. That creates a lot of the room that we have to be creative in our evaluation process. The second part of it is that he is a very intellectually curious guy himself. He will come across ways that business is done in other industries or other sports and he is constantly wondering how we can adopt the best practices from industries outside of baseball. For an industry that tends to be on the insular side, that tends to be a unique perspective, I think. He definitely brings that to our organization.
A third part of it is that there is a lack of formality and hierarchy to our front office and that has allowed the cultivation of a lot of close relationships that may not exist at the same level as other organizations where different parts of the organization might be a little more siloed or where their work might not allow communication between one side of the organization and another. Here there is a constant and free flow dialogue in every direction that creates an atmosphere that is very conducive to creative thinking.
OC: You are nearing 10 years in the baseball industry now. What has surprised you the most about working inside of baseball that you wouldn’t have expected when you were following the game through fantasy sports or just as a fan?
FZ: It’s funny, after the promotion happened, I received a number of congratulatory emails. One person forwarded me an article that had a line that said ‘A’s promote long-time executive.’ [laughs] I don’t really think of myself that way, but this is going to be my 10th year, so it has been awhile. Obviously Keith Lieppman and others have been with this organization a lot longer than that. I think that level of stability is pretty unique within the industry.
As far as things that have sort of surprised me is having to adapt to the reality of baseball, which is that there is a lot more gray area than it appears from the outside looking in, whether it is specific player evaluations or a specific way to evaluate players. Some of this is created by the culture of people following the sport and covering the sport, where there is a rush for instant analysis of every move that is made. There is a desire for that content, so that is not a knock on it, but I think when you are working in the industry, I have learned to be more measured when I evaluate either our own moves internally or, frankly, evaluating moves by other teams.
I think when I first started, I would say, ‘oh, that’s a great move’ or ‘that’s a terrible move.’ Over time, you realize sometimes you are right and sometimes you are wrong. Just like with players, they will often say the game will humble you, I think that is sort of true in the front office, too. You learn that you can’t evaluate players or transactions within a few weeks from a black-and-white framework.
OC: It has been striking over the past two seasons how much better the A’s have been able to withstand injuries than they were during the previous four years or so. How much of that has been as a result of the front office learning from 2007-2011 and altering how the roster is built, and how much of that has been just better fortune?
FZ: I think there are a bunch of different factors that have helped us improve our performance as an organization in that area. I think one is just a greater emphasis on evaluating the type of players that we are bringing into the organization. Being a little bit more systematic with looking at players’ medical files and trying to really nail down what type of risk we might be getting into. Nick Paparesta has been our trainer for the past couple of years. He has done a great job of incorporating that type of structure into our decision-making as far as evaluating players for acquisition.
Generally players coming into our organization are being held up to a higher – or at least more systematic – standard than they were in the past. That is not to say that we don’t occasionally take on players who represent some medical risk, but it is just that I think we have a better understanding of that risk.
We have also had a continued focus on not just keeping those guys healthy but also knowing what those players’ limits are and not stretching them past those limits. Nick has done a great job understanding what limits those players have – whether it is number of innings or number of pitches, or whether it is the number of at-bats or reps that position players get. Him really being able to tell us when a guy needs a day off and understanding that sometimes you have to take a step back on a certain day for the sake of the long run.
Also, some of it is that we have taken chances on a few guys and we have gotten lucky that they have stayed healthy even beyond expectations. You take a guy like Jed Lowrie, who coming into last year had never played more than 100 games in a big league season [he played 154 games in 2013]. Some of that was an evaluation thing in that we looked closely at his injuries and we felt that it was unfair to label him as injury-prone and that he had had some bad luck in terms of impact injuries. The other part of it was a combination of the good fortune of not having those impact injuries last year and Nick staying on top of things and developing a strength and conditioning program with these guys and all working together to make sure that we have guys on the field as much as possible.
That has definitely been something the past couple of years that has worked in our favor. I think it has been a perhaps underrated part of the success that we have had.
OC: It has been a busy off-season for you guys once again. I wanted to get your take on one of the transactions made in December when the A’s acquired Craig Gentry to take on the fourth outfielder role that was filled by Chris Young last season. One of the players the A’s traded for Gentry was Michael Choice, who I felt had a lot of similar aspects to his game as Young – good speed and power with some swing-and-miss to his game. Gentry is also a right-handed hitting fourth outfielder, but he has a much different skill-set than Young and Choice. What is it about Gentry’s skills that you feel will enhance that fourth outfielder spot on your roster this season and perhaps beyond?
FZ: Between Michael and Gentry, with the players we have and where we are in 2014 in a season where we are trying to contend, Craig is just a better fit. First of all, he is a pure centerfielder and he has been one of the best defensive centerfielders in baseball over the past few years. I think as time has gone on, Michael can certainly play centerfield, but he has become more of a corner outfield guy.
Another thing with Craig is that he has a good skillset for a guy who is going to come off of the bench and probably be a platoon guy. I’m sure there will be stretches where he plays for us regularly, but when you have the secondary skills that Craig has in terms of the base-running and the fielding, you can come off of the bench a couple times a week and really impact the game. When you are a guy that carries a lot of value in your bat, which I think is true of Chris [Young] and is certainly true of Michael, it’s a little bit harder to come in and swing the bat and impact the game just in that dimension twice a week or what have you. I think that in that sense, Craig is a really good fit for us.
We want to have the option of keeping Coco Crisp off his feet in centerfield whenever possible, so having another pure centerfielder on the roster really helps with that. I’m a huge fan of Chris Young. I think he is going to have a really strong bounceback season with the Mets. Unfortunately for him, I think he got caught a little bit as a square peg in a round hole last season because he is an everyday guy who probably needs those everyday reps to produce at his accustomed level. He had a tough time, I think, adjusting not only to not playing everyday, but also to having to play positions other than centerfield.
I think after that, it became more important to us to understand that if this is a role that we want filled on this team, it is somewhat incumbent on us to find someone who has performed in that role before and who can succeed in that role. Craig Gentry was at the absolute top of our list. When you look at the advanced metrics on his base-running and his defense and the value that he has created in those dimensions, he rates surprisingly high – at least to the casual baseball fan – in terms of the value he can bring. His value was no secret to the Rangers, either, which is why acquiring him came at a high price in terms of the prospects that we gave up.
I don’t think that was a deal where either side pulled a fast one on the other side. Both sides knew what they were giving up and what they were getting. In that sense, I think it was a good baseball trade.
OC: In signing Coco Crisp to his extension, was it easier to commit to him for more seasons because you knew you had Gentry under team control for a few more seasons and a prospect like Billy Burns possibly joining the 25-man roster in a year or two?
ZP: I think we’ve come to understand that centerfield is one of the toughest positions to fill no matter what. It doesn’t matter who your incumbent is, it’s always a good idea to line-up guys behind him. We approached [the Gentry and Burns trades] with the idea that Coco might be here beyond this year and he might not. In either case, we wanted to be well positioned at a spot of scarcity regardless of the way that platoon goes. I think we have come to appreciate that it is not that easy to find guys that can play good defense there and contribute in other ways.
To be able to get not just one guy, but two guys that we think can be long-term viable possibilities there is huge. With Coco, there is the issue in the short-term of having an insurance policy in centerfield. But there is also the issue in the long-term of the fact that he might be a guy who needs to DH some as time goes on. That will maximize the number of at-bats he gets, so it is nice to have some other options.
Coco can play as much centerfield as he wants to and he is capable of, but it’s nice to have some other options.
Stay tuned for the rest of this interview, when we cover the A's revamped bullpen, the progression of top prospects Addison Russell, Michael Ynoa and Raul Alcantara, the state of the A's farm system, and much more...