The Oakland A's have a crowded major league spring training camp, with 63 players on-hand, the most…
Q&A With BP's Kevin Goldstein, Part One
Kevin Goldstein: About eight or nine years.
OC: Has the industry changed a lot over the past few years with the increase of information available online?
KG: It's funny. I don't think the industry has changed so much as the interest has ramped up significantly. Honestly, when I started working at Baseball America in 2003, they were, in a lot of ways, the only game in town. Now I am doing this at Baseball Prospectus, and you have the Scout.com websites. I think you guys do a really great job of in-depth, single-team reporting. Guys at Baseball America or even myself don't have the time or the manpower to dig that deep into the system and give you daily reports on Stockton. [laughs] And even beyond the Scout.com sites, there are other sites with prospect coverage. There is really so much prospect coverage now. The industry really hasn't changed but the level of interest has ramped up significantly, which is great for me.
OC: You have covered the A's for both publications. Obviously, the system has improved greatly over the past 12 months. Do you think that the system is back to having the level of talent that it had pre-Moneyball, when they were building those good teams with young players like Eric Chavez and Miguel Tejada, or does it still have a ways to go to reach that level again?
KG: I certainly think at that time it was one of the best systems in baseball and I think right now it is one of the best systems in baseball. On that level, you can say yes. But when you talk about the players that were coming up [in the late 1990s], those were mostly hitters. I think the premium part of the A's system right now is pitching. It's similar in that all of a sudden, the A's do have one of the best systems in baseball, but now it is more pitching oriented. Obviously, there are hitting prospects, but now the cream-of-the-crop stuff is pitching.
OC: One of those pitching prospects is Gio Gonzalez. He had an up-and-down first season in the A's system, but there were a number of people who were surprised to see Gonzalez fall so much in rankings. What caused his stock to drop so much?
KG: I don't think his stock has plummeted so much as if you look at where he stood at the start of last year, the A's have added so much talent around him. There are so many new names on that list that have kind of passed him up, which I think has happened more than him falling on his own. At the same time, I think that he is a guy whose inconsistency really kind of baffles and almost annoys scouts and even some people in the A's front office. You see him one day, and he looks like the greatest thing since sliced bread. Then you look at him five days later and he can't get out of the second inning.
A lot of that revolves around his command and control and a lot of that revolves around him learning to – and I think he is learning to – make adjustments at the upper levels in the sense that back in High- and Low-A when he was leading the Southern League in strike-outs, you were talking about a guy who was getting a lot of those strike-outs out of the ‘zone. The more experienced kind of hitters are laying off of those pitches. It's about altering what he does and taking a little more attacking kind of style.
Another thing is that he was so much better out of the bullpen during that last week of the season. A lot of people said, ‘gee, maybe he is a reliever.' And that certainly changes his value proposition.
OC: Do you think his sort of ‘curveball first, then fastball' approach will hurt him in the major leagues where it helped him in the minor leagues?
KG: I have certainly heard the same thing. The scouting term for that is ‘pitching backwards.' There is certainly a long history of guys who pitch backwards who can sort of dominate in the minors, but in the big leagues, they scuffle a little more. There is less of a margin for error at the big league level with that style. The A's officials still have a lot of confidence in him as a starting pitcher. He's competing and is probably the front-runner going in [to spring training] for the number five [starter's] job. He is still a very good prospect. Like I said earlier, I don't think he got passed up by being bad so much as he got passed up by so many new names that were added into the system with all of the trades.
OC: Another guy who creates a lot of controversy among prospect-watchers when discussing his ceiling is Chris Carter. I got to see him play quite a bit in Stockton and he hit some balls further than any I've seen before. Is there a concern about his contact rate and the fact that he does strike-out as much as he does? Is that something you think that he can correct, or does that just come along with being a slugger like he is?
KG: I think it is a little bit of both. There is definitely a balancing thing that has to go into it. But when you have Chris Carter's kind of power – and that is, you saw it, legitimate 80 power, it's top of the scale power – you can live with the strike-outs. The more power that you have, the more willing that you are going to be to forgive the strike-outs. Beyond the power with Chris Carter, he is always going to strike-out some. He's never going to be Tony Gwynn. He's always going to strike-out probably 120 or 130 times a year. He's never going to hit .320, but I think he has enough natural hitting ability to hit .280 with a ton of power. He just has so much power. He really seems like one of those guys who could hit 40 homeruns in the big leagues.
A lot of things will come down to his consistency. If you saw him a lot in Stockton, you probably saw him sometimes be really good and sometimes be really bad. He's such a streaky hitter. But the optimist would say, if he shows at times that he can dominate, then he can dominate. He has special, special power. He is certainly one of the top five or six brute strength power guys in the minors. You can live with the strike-outs. Do you want him to strike-out that much? No, but it kind of comes with the territory.
OC: I don't know if you had a chance to see him out in the field much, but the A's were moving him around between first base, third base and right field last season. I think it will probably come down to him being a first baseman or a right-fielder, but does his value change depending on where he ends up playing position-wise?
KG: Sure. Every position comes with its offensive expectation. Honestly, when it comes to Chris Carter, I think it will come down to him being a first baseman or a DH. I don't think he has any chance to play third and I don't think he has much chance to play the outfield. He's not even that good of a first baseman right now. First basemen need to mash. They need to fit in the middle of your line-up. You need less of that from a third baseman. Corner outfielders need to hit a ton, too. At times, position means everything for prospects. For instance, there are prospects out there right now who are catchers with great bats, but you know that they aren't going to be catchers long-term and that changes their entire value.
OC: Another guy who came over to the A's in that deal with Carter is Aaron Cunningham. He is a guy who seems to do everything pretty well, but who doesn't have one stand-out tool. Is he underrated because of that?
KG: I think at times he is overrated because of that. [laughs] It depends on who you talk to, but you can get into both situations where he is underrated because he doesn't have many weaknesses or sometimes he gets overrated because he doesn't have any weaknesses, but doesn't have any massive strengths. People who are on Aaron Cunningham think he is going to be a nice hitting outfielder. People who are not that on him kind of see him as a Travis Buck kind of guy. And now you are back to a corner outfielder with maybe a borderline bat for the position. I like Aaron Cunningham. I don't love him. I think he is a good prospect, but not a great one.
OC: Is it one of those things where there isn't much projection with him because he isn't that big of a guy?
KG: Sure, yeah. He's a good hitter. He's got a little bit of power. He can draw some walks. He doesn't have that one kind of blow away tool or skill that really makes you go ‘wow.' That's where stars come from. Stars are the ones who make you go ‘wow.' He is going to be solid, for sure. And that isn't a bad thing at all. Those solid guys make a heck of a lot of money and have good careers and are really valuable, it's just that you ask the question – is he an impact guy? I don't know a whole lot of people who think that.
OC: One guy in the A's system who is a big ‘wow' guy, or at least it seems that way until we get a chance to see him in person, is Michael Ynoa.
KG: He is a WOW. [laughs]
OC: How did you approach ranking him? I know that I struggled with it myself given that he hasn't competed against affiliated competition yet and I hadn't seen him throw. How did he jump over some of the other more established A's prospects?
KG: There were a couple of things going on there. The first thing was that I am lucky enough to have at least seen video of him. I've seen him throw. But more important than anything that I can get seeing video of him is that I have talked to, I believe, 12 people who have seen him in person, saw him at the workouts in the Dominican and were at that one sort of legendary workout in front of tons of people that was a showcase for him.
Ranking these Dominican prospects is a difficult thing. But when you talk to people who have actually seen him pitch and you talk to people who have evaluated him and put dollar values on him, they don't say what they usually say about really great Dominican teenagers. They don't go, ‘oh, wow, he's really good.' ‘He's really toolsy.' They are using phrases like ‘I've never seen anything like this.' Or ‘there has never been a 16-year-old like this; it's historic, it's unprecedented.' They use words like that. That changes the dynamic pretty significantly. It does require a lot of dreaming, but the sky is just the limit with him.
OC: How quickly would you expect him to move up? Is the Felix Hernandez model a good one to use for Ynoa, or is it really an unknown path right now?
KG: I think it is more unknown. Obviously, you'd like to see him move quickly, and obviously he has the skill to where that could happen, but you don't want to force anything. In talking with people from the A's, I think they are actually going to be pretty cautious here. They really value the commodity. They don't want to make a mistake. They don't want to rush anything. A lot of this entire year for him is going to be an adjustment year of this is life as a professional baseball player, as opposed to worrying about how many outs he is getting. Getting him on a consistent throwing program, having him get consistent work with coaches, improving his English, stuff like that.
They have really no expectations of this year beyond throwing a handful of innings in a short-season league. They'll spend the whole first half of the year very slowly getting him used to his new life and then getting him just a little bit of on-the-mound, in-game experience in preparation for a lot more in 2010. It might be a little slow. I think that expecting him to be in the big leagues at 19 is a pretty risky thing to expect. I think they are going to take it slowly. He could absolutely explode and earn that right [to be in the big leagues at 19], but you don't want to push it.
OC: The A's have obviously had a lot of success developing pitchers over the years. Does the organization a prospect is in affect your evaluation of that prospect at all? In other words, would a pitcher in the A's organization be more likely to reach his ceiling than a pitcher in an organization that has struggled to translate its minor league pitching prospects into solid major league pitchers?
KG: I think the A's definitely have a respected development program. I think one of the keys for them has been just stability in the sense that you think of a guy like Keith Lieppman [A's Director of Player Development], who has been there forever. I don't know if you ever talk to Keith.
OC: Oh, yeah, all of the time.
KG: Is he not the greatest guy in the world?
KG: I think that the A's benefit from that continuity that starts with Keith and some of the other folks who have been with the organization for a long time. That certainly helps their prospects. They definitely have a program in place that they stick to and that has worked for them. But I don't factor in the organization too heavily when evaluating prospects. It's more about the individual player and his particular skill-set.
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.
Stay tuned throughout the week for the remaining portions of this interview.
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