PHOENIX, ARIZONA – Over at Phoenix Municipal stadium, the crowds are already starting to gather for what will be a heavily-attended spring training game between the Athletics and the Cubs. About a mile away from that park, down a road that winds through the Desert Botanical Garden, one arrives at another collection of baseball fields. Without a set of light fixtures rising above the trees, the complex would be nearly impossible to spot from the road, and even the turn into the parking lot is hard to find. There’s a small sign marked Papago Baseball Facility, joined by an Oakland A’s logo about the size of a compact disc. There are no other cars on the road as I turn in, and the first parking lot is completely empty. After turning into a parking lot that is accessible only by driving around a gate, it’s pretty clear that at the very least there are some players here–as marked by the abundance of Range Rovers, Denalis, tricked out pick-up trucks and the fancy sports car with the customized license plate “STRIKE1”.
But there are no fans, just a set of fields and half-fields named after important figures in Athletics history, from Connie Mack to Rollie Fingers to Tony LaRussa. Between two of the fields, on an elongated mound built to accommodate five pitchers from end to end, hurlers shake hands with catchers they’ve just met and begin today’s work, which consists of 45 pitches. Behind them, farm director Keith Lieppman–who has been affiliated with the A’s since the days of Reggie Jackson and Vida Blue–watches with a pair of front office staffers as they discuss how good newcomer Brett Anderson looks, both in terms of body and stuff, and how one left-hander’s long stride needs to get reeled backed in order to improve command and hopefully velocity. The only sounds other than the murmurs and the occasional question or comment from pitching coordinator Gil Patterson are the sounds of balls popping into catchers’ mitts. This is Oakland Athletics minor league camp, and it sure feels like it’s a long way from the big leagues.
As the pitchers split into groups to work on specific aspects of their delivery, Keith gave me a tour of the complex. Afterwards, he sat down with me in his office for a frank discussion on the philosophies of player development, the resurgent A’s system, and some of the unique challenges that come with territory of trying to find the next big thing.
Baseball Prospectus: How long have you been with the A’s?
Keith Lieppman: This is my 38th year. I started in 1971 as a player, I was drafted out of the University of Kansas and I spent nine years as a player, another eight as a manager, and I’ve been the farm director since 1992, so I’ve been able to see a lot in those years.
BP: So under how many GMs have you held the position?
KL: Just two, Sandy [Alderson] and Billy [Beane]. That’s a good thing, when you have a stable front office.
BP: You get to keep your job longer…
KL: Yeah, and you get to do fun things, and work together. It really makes a difference when you have the continuity where you have good people at the top who understand the importance of development. One thing about Sandy and Billy, they both gave us autonomy–yes, we follow things they want to do–but, they pretty much let us work and do the best we can with what we got and it’s really been a good relationship.
BP: Right now, you just have pitchers and catchers here, with position players coming in a few days. You’re going to end up with how many kids here?
KL: It’s going to jump to probably around 135 by Monday.
BP: So here’s the uncomfortable question. By the end of March, how many of those guys will still be around?
KL: Well, there’s 95-100 jobs, with people to play at the four levels. Then, our extended spring–we can carry 38 to 40 players. So, doing the numbers, there are going to be 25-30 people that aren’t going to have positions–just purely by the numbers. I was talking to a farm director with another club recently, and this year seems to be the most difficult because of the continuing ability to add foreign players. Before, you were limited to the number of visas because of the way it worked, but now, you can expand to a higher limit of 50 or 60 and so teams are bringing more players in internationally, and signing more players out of the draft. There’s still just six places to play them over the course of a year, so decisions have to made a little quicker. Opportunities aren’t as available, and it’s just becoming a more difficult game for a player to make their way through. So it’s a tough gig.
BP: So, you’re talking that you’ll release guys during the spring.
KL: Yeah, 20-25.
BP: Does that happen here in your office? Am I sitting in the “you’re getting released” chair?
KL: It depends. Sometimes you go to the other office. It’s an awful, awful experience, but there have been plenty, and yes, your seat has been occupied before.
BP: But you understand it–you were released yourself, no?
KL: Absolutely. If you ever play this game, you’re going to get released–it’s almost a guarantee. So, as much as there is a birth, and a death, there’s going to be a release.
BP: And you went right into managing as soon as you were done, right?
KL: I helped out Jose Pagan–he was the Triple-A manager in 1979, and he didn’t like to coach third base, so he enlisted me to be his player/coach, so I did that and I really enjoyed it. And then the next year I had an opportunity to manage in Modesto, and that was just a huge jump. That was probably a bigger jump mentally then going from Double-A to Triple-A, or Single-A to Double-A. Going from being a player to a manager, there was just no comparison. I practically killed myself the first year because it’s just such a difficult transformation.
BP: So at what point–and why–did you move from managing to your current role?
KL: At the end of the ’87 season, I had been at Triple-A for three years as a manager, and an opportunity came, where Karl [Kuehl, then the A’s farm director] came to me and said, “I think you’d be a good traveling instructor, and I’d like you to help me by setting up spring training, and the instructional league, and taking care of all the programs.” I had just had twins, and the thought of having to move families around for next however many years it was going to be… I could just stay based in this area and make my trips out, and it would be a more stable lifestyle, so the combination of the two things led to me being the Director of Instruction for four years. Then Karl eventually moved into the front office as a special assistant, and that opened up the position for me. My first year here as a farm director was perfect, because Karl had set up such an intense program; it probably could have run by itself for four or five years, so I was lucky. We had a great staff, and it was a perfect fit. I knew about the game, but my staff had so many years of experience that it made my transition so much easier.
BP: Let’s talk about what happened during the offseason. I just did my organizational rankings, and I ranked the system No. 2 overall, but before all of these deals, that ranking would have been in the 20s somewhere. Do your plans change for camp or this season when all of a sudden there is all of this new top-shelf talent that gets added to the system?
KL: Yeah, we recognize that there are going to be 30-35 people here that weren’t last year–between the minor league free agents, the Rule 5, and the people we got in trades. You have this array of people that have been taught a lot of different things, and here, we are very structured in our system, as you just witnessed–this is the way we do things, and this is the way we run our pitching program, and everything is pretty much set. We have a good offensive approach with our selectivity and discipline, and there are certain things about the A’s where it’s just “this is who we are and this is how we do things,” and in our minor league system, that’s pretty much cut and dry. We have a way of running our business.
Now, all of these other guys that have come from different places with many of them having a few years of experience, it’s a tremendous challenge to get them on board with what we think is important. So there are these adjustment periods–and we understand the adjustments we’re making, but we want the players to change their attitudes to not that of fighting it all the time, but having an open attitude and trying to understand where we’re coming from, so it’s going to be a two-way street and we’re going to try to be open to their ideas. We’re going to try to understand where they are coming from and what things made them comfortable and we may have to accommodate some of their things. We don’t want to take away their game, obviously, but we want to help form them in a certain direction, so it’s a give-and-take situation and I’m not going to be quite as structured with some people who maybe have a definite idea of how they do things well.
I mean, I’m not going to go change Brett Anderson right now. If I thought he had to do something differently, I would talk to him quite a bit before I talked about making any kind of adjustments, so it’s a combination of making sure our staff is aware of it; we’ve had meetings already about how they have to meet to needs of new people. Anytime you put people in a new environment, they’re either going to try too hard to over-impress people, or they’re going to come outside of their game, because they feel the pressure of the new environment. So our job is to create an atmosphere where they can succeed, and that is our message to our staff. What’s interesting, as I was reading some books on leadership, is that people who can create things and create ideas–that’s exceptional–but what is interesting is what happens when you try to implement the plans that people create: you have to be just as creative. That’s the thing that I’m understanding with this situation: you don’t just have to create something, you have to implement it. And the creating is awesome, but just as important is how you are going to get it to sift down through the system, so that’s where our challenge is right now, to continue to uphold our ideals and what we think, but then mix it all together with these people that don’t really know what we’re doing yet. By the end of a year or two, we’ll all be back on board. Typically, we have just six or seven guys, maybe 10 at the most, who are new to the system, so this is something new to deal with.
BP: Thinking about some of the top new names that came over in all of these trades, are there any that have really impressed early on? I mean we just saw Anderson, and he’s clearly in excellent shape compared to last year and threw the ball really well.
KL: Yeah, and that’s the first time I’ve seen him off the mound. I didn’t see him pitch last year, but our people in Stockton were raving about him when they saw him last summer in the California League. When I saw him throws his side sessions the first two times, you can see why he’s an intimidating force on the mound. He really looks good–quick arm. Gio Gonzalez has looked great. Carlos Gonzalez has made a big impact at the big league camp. He’s opened up a lot of eyes with his athleticism, his ability to throw–you’re seeing a lot of tools there.
There’s a cyclical nature to our business. Like you said, we were in the 20s ranking-wise before the trades, and it’s been a long time since we were at that point, but it goes in cycles. We had a long period there where we provided a lot of players to the big leagues and continued to do it, and there are certain times where you just can’t continue to do it, and it happens to every organization. So, we haven’t gone into any kind of panic mode. What’s been great is that Billy recognized it, and realized that we needed to do this, and once he started telling us what his plans were and the direction–adding additional scouts, realigning our cross-checkers, even changing our philosophy about situations with tough signs or agents that don’t want to negotiate. We’ve always kind of taken the small-market approach with those things, and Billy said let’s bag that idea. We need to expand ourselves to provide the organization with every possible player–we want knowledge, and we want information on these guys because maybe we’ll start going in that direction. Billy wants reports from Japan, on more of the international talent that’s out there. We want to be on the same level as other teams to negotiate with these people, and so he expanded our whole operation during a very interesting meeting that we had with our owner and from that point on we’ve been moving forward.
From a player development point of view, to watch six players from the Diamondbacks and three from the White Sox and two from the Blue Jays–I can see how we jumped to No. 2 so quickly. And our managers are excited, because they know that they’ll have some really good players to work with. In the last year or two, we spent a lot of time dipping into the independent leagues, but now, we have so many players. You look at that Stockton club and that rotation will have three pitchers from your Top 100, and cracking into that rotation as a minor league player, there’s just not a lot of room.
BP: That rotation will likely have Anderson and Trevor Cahill, as well as Fautino de los Santos, who I didn’t see–is he here yet?
KL: He gets here Friday.
BP: Visa problems?
KL: Well, their appointment was backed up a week–they were supposed to be here on the third, but that just didn’t work out, so they finally got their visas done; they expedited them, so they’ll all be here tomorrow.
BP: So you mean all of your Latin American players? They all get their visas at the same time and come en masse?
KL: That’s how they do it in the Dominican. Your club has a slotted date where you get your approvals and then make an appointment, and our approvals came in late so the last date available for our club was just last Friday. So we had to turn things around and change tickets and get everything done quickly. It’s been an adventure, but they were able to play in games down there and pitch, so they didn’t miss anything, and they’re coming to us already in shape.
BP: Do they all come in one plane?
BP: Isn’t that a little scary? I mean, I’ve known companies where the CEO and the CFO can’t fly together, for obvious reasons.
KL: You know, you’re right about that. I never really thought about it, but that’s a lot of talent on one plane. That’s funny, I’ll throw it out to Billy [laughs].
Look for Part 2 of Kevin’s conversation with Keith Lieppman this Sunday.