The Oakland A's started spring with a crowded major league camp, with 63 players on-hand, the most…
Q&A With BP's Kevin Goldstein, Part Three
To view part two of this interview, please click here.
OaklandClubhouse: Another guy who had a big comeback year in 2008 was Matt Sulentic. Do you think that improvement was a product of the Cal League or is he for real again?
Kevin Goldstein: I think the Cal League helped, but I think people just throw ‘Cal League' out there a little too often. Stockton is in the northern half of that league, which isn't nearly the pinball machine that the southern half is. So it's not as huge of an effect. It's obviously way better than Kane County. The Midwest League is the toughest hitters' league in baseball now, even more than the Florida State League.
They took a really big risk putting him there, just from what he did at Kane County, but the decision was either to send him [to Stockton] and hope for the best, or send him back to Kane County, where the league could have gotten into his head a little bit and resulting in him really ending up with some confidence issues and stuff like that. I think he can hit. I'm not sure it is a ton, but if he turns into something between Jason Michaels and David Dellucci kind of bench outfielder, line-drive hitter, I wouldn't be shocked.
OC: Is he a step below the Aaron Cunningham-level of prospect then?
KG: I think so. I think that Aaron Cunningham is a way better prospect, but I do think Sulentic is a prospect.
OC: What about Josh Donaldson? I know there have been some divergent opinions on him based on his whacky season last year when he struggled so badly with Chicago and then ripped through the California League.
KG: I honestly thought that he was going to have a huge year. When they [Chicago] put him in Low-A, I thought, ‘oh, he is going to beat the hell out of these pitchers.' As you said, he really struggled [in the Midwest League] and then really just hit the crap out of the ball in the California League. I think a lot of the things with Josh Donaldson will come down to his catching. He still raw and messy back there. You are kind of betting that he can figure it all out. He didn't even catch full-time in college, he split time between catcher and third base at Auburn. I think there is more questions about him position-wise than offensively, even though he had such a weird season.
The reviews of him with the bat are generally pretty good if he can catch. If he can't catch and has to play third base or something else, I'm not so sure that the reviews are good enough to justify him playing somewhere else in the big leagues.
OC: I know it has been a little while since he was at third base. Was that a situation where he was moved off of third because it wasn't working out or because of something else?
KG: A little bit of both, actually. It was a little bit of a need thing at Auburn, as well. But at third base, he's not Brooks Robinson either. He doesn't really have a position right now. If he can figure things out at catcher, you don't need him to have as much of a bat. Catcher is the position with the lowest offensive expectation. Your first goal is to have him figure things out as a catcher. Having him play there full-time next year and if he can build on what he did during the second half after the trade, I think he is a guy who can definitely move up the prospect list.
OC: Speaking of catchers, Landon Powell is back in camp with the A's and this year is able to participate fully after being limited last year because of the knee injury. He probably isn't going to be a 110-game-a-year catcher because of the knees, but do you see him as someone who could be a useful back-up catcher in the big leagues?
KG: I don't know. He's such a difficult guy to evaluate right now. What does he do well? He hits for power and he draws a lot of walks. What does he not do well? It's stay healthy and stay in shape. It's funny but I'm more interested in seeing his numbers on the scale this spring rather than his numbers on the field. You say that he can't catch 110 games? Are you sure he can catch 50?
OC: He did the last couple of years, but ended up injured at the end of each of those seasons.
KG: Right. Plus, he is 27 now.
OC: Is the fact that the A's brought in Joel Galarraga from Mexico a sign that they don't think Powell can be Kurt Suzuki's back-up?
KG: I think it indicates that they aren't betting on it. I'm sure that they still hope he can.
OC: Two guys the A's picked up from Philadelphia – Adrian Cardenas and Josh Outman – are intriguing prospects. How do you view these two guys and do you see Outman as a reliever or a starter?
KG: I think Outman's ultimate role will be as a lefty power bullpen guy. He has outstanding velocity, but there is certainly some effort in doing what he does.
OC: Do you think he'll ever bring back his old throwing motion?
KG: Let's hope not. [laughs] His secondary stuff is just okay. He might be better off being a guy who you bring in in the seventh and tell him ‘let it go. Throw your 15 hardest pitches and then go take a shower and we'll go home winners,' as opposed to trying to get six innings out of him.
Cardenas is a really good hitter. He is such a good hitter. I just don't think he is a shortstop. I think he can be a .300 hitter in the big leagues. His swing is down-right pretty. He has a really good feel for contact and gap power and he's aggressively patient. It's a pretty special bat, he just doesn't have the athleticism to be a shortstop. The question is: which way is he going to slide? Second or third?
OC: Do you think he has the bat to stick at third?
KG: That's going to be a power question and there are a lot of different schools of thought concerning his power. I can find a scout who thinks he is going to hit 12 homeruns a year and another who thinks he is going to hit 20. If Scout B is right, he is a third baseman. If Scout A is right, you'll be hoping that he can maintain enough athleticism to play second.
OC: He didn't hit for much power at all after he came over to the A's in the trade. Is that something that you can look the other way on because he was 21 and playing in the Texas League, or is that a concern?
KG: If you watch him play, he does make consistent hard contact. What you are looking for is when he starts recognizing and knowing how to drive balls, as opposed to the approach of ‘I'm going to put the bat on the ball.' Then it comes down to him being able to get some loft and some backspin on those things. Right now, he is just squaring up baseballs. It's more of a gap power situation, but he has enough strength and he hits the ball hard enough that you think that he is going to grow into some power as he moves up.
OC: When you are evaluating these players, how much of your evaluation comes from what you see and how much comes from what appears in the stat-sheet?
KG: I can give you a speech on this one. [laughs] I think it is impossible to evaluate prospects without having both of those pieces of information. The thing I always say is that you need to find the little thing the guy is doing and you need to find out how he is doing it. There are guys who lead the Eastern League in ERA who aren't very good prospects. You see what they are doing, and it is great, and then you see how they are doing it, and they are mid-80s strike throwers or breaking ball guys who are just carving up inexperienced hitters who are never going to make it work in the big leagues. Then there is the guy with a 4.50 ERA who is a really good prospect because he's got monster stuff. You've always got to balance those two things.
Everybody – me or anyone else in this game – has their biases and their gut in terms of how they do things, but you do have to balance those two things on some level. I think that the higher up you go, the more you care about the numbers and the lower that you go, the more you care about the scouting reports, as a general rule. But you always need both.
OC: Has your approach changed at all since you moved to Baseball Prospectus from Baseball America?
KG: It's changed a little bit in the sense that I have access to I wouldn't say more data, but better data. We have Clay Davenport's translations. We have Nate Silver's projection system, which does a really good job of identifying comparable players more than anything beyond being able to nail projections better than anyone else. From my perspective, the best aspect is that it can help you find comparable players because it doesn't just base itself off of numbers. It bases itself off of age and level and handedness and height and weight and even draft status. It understands how much this guy was worth coming into professional baseball. To be able to confirm what you are feeling with your gut at times helps.
On the same token, I sort of do things in a similar way to the way that I did them at Baseball America. I probably have more contacts now for sure, but it is still very important for me personally to get out there and spend a lot of time on the phone talking to scouts and team officials and things like that.
OC: Do you travel a lot during the year or are you relying more on video to evaluate prospects?
KG: I travel when I can. I do rely heavily on video and on scouts. The other day, someone asked me if I had seen Trevor Cahill pitch this year. The answer is no. I certainly saw him pitch a lot last year in Kane County, but at the same time, my question was: ‘what would you rather have from me? Would you rather have my opinion from the one time that I took a plane and saw Trevor Cahill pitch, or would you rather have me distill the opinions of eight professional scouts that I talked to who saw Trevor Cahill pitch?' I would hope it would be the latter. I think that is far better information than if I got on a plane and saw Trevor Cahill pitch and told you what I thought based on that one outing.
It's far more important for me to stay connected with the people in the business who are going out to the games everyday and people who are paid professional evaluators who are making huge decisions for their team.
OC: For your top-100 prospect list, is that something that is a collaborative effort between you and all of the BP writers, or do you make that on your own?
KG: That's all me. It's my list.
OC: How do you rank that sort of a list?
KG: You sort of do it like you do a top-11, you are just starting with a way bigger list of players. On a bigger scale, you are kind of balancing a player's ultimate upside with his chance of reaching that ultimate upside. Those are the two things that you are trying to figure out. Honestly, on a purely process thing, I just start off with a spreadsheet and I go through all of my notes on all of my players and I make a list of guys who are very, very good who have to be in the upper part of this list. That was 40-something guys. Then I go through all of my other stuff and I say, okay, these are guys who are worth consideration and who might be on the list. I got very lucky this year because I did that list and double-checked it and my total number of players was 108. So I only had to cut eight dudes. Then you start ranking guys and saying, ‘oh, that's not right. I'd take that guy ahead of that guy.' Then you step away from it and look at it again. Then you step away from it again and you throw some names at people and get their opinions and, eventually, you put it out there.
OC: Is there is an A's prospect that you have an inkling will have a breakout season this year?
KG: I actually talked about this on my A's list. It's funny. They have so many prospects, it was actually kind of hard to name a sleeper, which I do on every prospect list, because usually that is a guy who I would rank in the mid-teens somewhere who maybe people wouldn't have heard of. The problem is that the guys that I ranked in the teens on the Oakland list are really good players who I already have talked about.
The one guy who I know has opened a lot of eyes in Oakland, and so he is certainly worth talking about, is Daniel Thomas. He was a 13th round pick last year and a guy who certainly comes with a lot of red flags. He was a 13th round pick for a reason. He has had a shoulder surgery. He's had two elbow surgeries, including a Tommy John. There is a lot of scary stuff there, but at the same time, he shows up in the Instructional League lighting up the radar gun at 98 miles per hour. I ask the exact same question to the guys with the A's – who is the guy I don't know about – and you hear a lot of people say Danny Thomas. He is certainly a relief prospect, but I think he is a guy who could put up some big numbers this year and move up pretty quickly.
OC: Is that a new thing to have relief prospects? It seems like in the past that your minor league starters would become major league relievers.
KG: It's not an incredibly new thing. I think you have seen more of it over the last decade or so. A lot of that has come with the acceptance and the value found in those fast-moving college closer types – the Huston Streets of the world. I think that people are more comfortable with saying, ‘if this is a guy who can help us win and move quickly, then it doesn't matter that he is a reliever.' I think you are seeing more teams willing to commit to a role like that for a player earlier in his career. That has really happened over the last five-to-seven years.
Kevin Goldstein's work can be found at http://www.baseballprospectus.com/. He will be in the Bay Area on March 26th for a book signing along with BP colleagues Gary Huckabay and Christina Kahrl. The signing will be at 7:30pm at the Books Inc. shop in Alameda.
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