Keith Lieppman is embarking on his 16th season as the Oakland A’s Director of Player Development. During that stretch, Lieppman has overseen the development of three Rookies of the Year and a number of stars, including Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, Rich Harden and Eric Chavez. Under his supervision, the A’s farm system has continually been one of the most productive in terms of graduating players to the big leagues and in terms of winning games. Since 2000, the A’s minor league affiliates have the fourth most number of wins of any farm system in baseball.
We caught up with Lieppman at the A’s minor league complex, Papago Park, on the first day of A’s minor league spring training games, Friday, March 16.
OaklandClubhouse: Last year must have been a trying year for you with all of the injuries. How do you approach this season with so many guys having missed significant time, such as Daric Barton, Javier Herrera, etc.?
Keith Lieppman: I think we have really scaled back a lot of our efforts, as far as overkill with these players. We are just trying to get them healthy. That was the number one thing. You can’t avoid fluke injuries like what happened to Travis Buck and to Daric Barton. Both of them, you just can’t control those. Herrera, he had the Tommy John surgery, so he’s another one that we are working back to full strength. It seems like if you were a top prospect in the system, something goes wrong. Dallas Braden had a problem and Dan Meyer, it was a weird year.
You just go by and hope to get them healthy and anticipate that they are going to have big years. Buck has already shown really well at the big league level [in spring training] and Herrera was good while he was [in big league camp]. The other guys are in different phases. Meyer might have to start in extended spring just to make sure that he is healthy and has enough pitches under his belt because he really hasn’t pitched for a full year.
OC: At this point, is it really building the strength back in Meyer’s shoulder?
KP: Right, that is a big part of it. He also has to build up his mechanics and his workload needs to be built up. He’s just been so limited on what he could do over the last year or so. In a lot of ways, we are just building him back bit-by-bit and it is going to take him a lot longer than spring training allows to get him ready.
OC: With someone like Meyer who was a top prospect before he got hurt but has now missed so much time, do you really consider his age as much as you would with someone who had been healthy or do you throw it out the window?
KP: You almost have to. What we thought of him originally [when he joined the organization], he was on the fast-track and he still is on the fast-track once he gets healthy. I think things will go quickly [once he does get healthy] and it should come together rapidly for him, but there is this process that you have to go through to make sure that he is healthy again and that he is in shape and he has covered all of the other things such as fielding drills.
There are so many aspects of pitching that you have to address when you’ve been out for a year, like controlling the running game and all of that, you just can’t throw it all together in a two or three week minor league spring training. So once he establishes himself back, I envision things falling in place for him.
OC: It seems like you have a lot of pitchers in the system who are at that Triple-A level. How do you balance some of the new guys such as Lenny DiNardo with players who have been in the system such as Brad Knox who are on the cusp of Triple-A and probably should be at that level?
KP: Yeah, you are right when you look at that. We are at a real conflict because we have a lot of guys who had big years like the year before with Braden and last year with Knox and there are up and coming prospects like Ben Fritz, who is a high pick who has had time in Triple-A, who are all filtered in with all of these other guys that we have signed. There are going to be some tough decisions on who gets the opportunity to play at Triple-A, but there is only so much room, so some guys might have to start the season at Double-A and it is crowded there, too.
We have an over-abundance of pitching right now and typically we aren’t as heavy in that area. We have the younger guys coming up like Ryan Webb and Michael Rogers and Mike Madsen who are borderline ready to go to Double-A, but if things push back from the higher levels then they will have to go back [to Single-A]. It’s really a domino thing.
OC: For someone like Andrew Bailey, who had a lot of collegiate experience and clearly whipped through the Northwest League, is it harder for someone like him to skip a level if there is a back-log at the higher levels?
KP: Yeah, he was someone who pitched really well last season and another guy from the 2006 draft, Ben Jukich, also pitched really well. Jukich is a little bit older and we felt like he was one of the guys who could skip a level and go right into Stockton, as maybe was Bailey, but it will really depend on how far [the pitching glut] pushes back.
Typically we don’t feel an overwhelming need to skip a guy a level because we will generally take our first year pitchers [pitchers in their first full year in professional baseball] and limit them to 130, 140 innings, so whether they get them at Kane County or Stockton, that first year is just about experience and having them get the ball every fifth day and learning how to be professional pitchers because they have really only pitched for half a season at that point [in their careers].
OC: Has the plan been different with the pitchers drafted out of high school, such as Webb, Vince Mazzaro, Jared Lansford, Craig Italiano, etc.?
KP: Yeah, in fact, we shut them down – we did that with Mazzaro and Lansford last year – on about August 15th or thereabouts. That was kind of the cut-off date where they had gotten enough innings and experience at that point because we really wanted to send them to the Instructional League. We just made it point for their health reasons that once they reached, I believe it was 125 innings for each of those guys, that that was sufficient for those guys for their progress at that time. So that is going to happen to some of [the first year pitchers] again this year. We project that out from the very beginning so that no guy is going to throw that many extra innings if we can avoid it.
OC: Do you limit the types of pitches that they throw?
KP: Yes, definitely. We don’t encourage the split-finger. That is a pitch for later on in their development. We prefer to teach the change-up. It is just one of those cases where pitch development is so important, such as developing fastball command. At the lower levels, it is just so important to make sure that they develop that fastball-change-up combination and that is just the process of the development.
OC: How do you assess how Mazzaro and Lansford did last season? Their numbers were sort of up-and-down in certain areas, but they both made through a full season in good shape. Was that mostly what you were looking for from them?
KP: Absolutely. They were in the right league. The Midwest League is perfect for a high school pitcher, especially those who come with a little bit of a baseball background like Lansford, Mazzaro and Italiano – who is another player in the system who is rehabbing and who should be ready to pitch this year. In fact, we may just go with an eight-man rotation in Kane County. That is a possibility because we have a ton of really good arms that could make that work and it could control the number of innings.
OC: That is something the organization did a little bit back in the Tony LaRussa era right?
KP: Yeah. We have kind of come-and-gone with using an eight-man rotation. When we’ve had that ability with that many good arms, it has worked for us. But we’ve gotten away from it because we’ve had more seasoned guys and we haven’t had to protect the high school guys.
How it works is that one guy starts and then the projected second man in the tandem comes in in the fifth inning and you limit them to 75 pitches. Whoever started that turn would relieve the next turn, so the tandem flip-flops back and forth. We’ll probably do that for half a season and then perhaps return to a five-man rotation.
Typically spring training is so short that the pitchers are really only built up to 50 or 75 pitches at the start of the season, so they are only going to go four or five innings anyway just to start. That is just how it will work to begin with and then as the season goes on, we’ll probably go with a more traditional five-man rotation.
OC: Trevor Cahill [the A’s top pick in 2006] didn’t get a lot of playing time in the Arizona Rookie League last season. How did he look to you in Instructs?
KP: Really good. He’s got a lot of movement on his fastball. He’s got a good slider and good velocity. He’s really a good looking young pitcher. He just hasn’t pitched very much so that is the only downside with him right now. Ideally, he might be better suited to go to Vancouver, but with his skill and talent, if we see good things with him in the spring, we might take the chance to send him to Kane County.
OC: A couple of high school pitchers, Scott Deal and Kevin Bunch, from the 2005 class spent the 2006 season in Vancouver. What did you see out of both of them last season?
KP: Deal was really outstanding. He really handled the extended spring program, which starts about April 6th and runs until about the first of June, really well. He benefited from that quite a bit. Bunch had a groin injury and that limited him to very little activity for much of the program and when we finally sent him to Vancouver, he struggled because he wasn’t really ready, I think, physically.
OC: Is Bunch someone who might do extended spring again this year?
KP: Yeah, he might. He hurt his groin again. I don’t know if that is going to cause him to miss more time but he’s already been out three or four days with it, so I am assuming that he might have to start here [at extended spring training] just because of the injury.
Stay tuned tomorrow for the next installment of this interview, during which we discuss some of the A’s top position prospects.