Part one of the conversation with Keith Lieppman appeared on Friday. Today in part two he talks about how minor leaguers make adjustments to their new surroundings–geographic or organizational–and how the A’s assist them.
Baseball Prospectus: Is there any sort of aspect to this camp, that’s non-baseball, where you’re focusing on life, or something to assist the Latin American talent in being a pro baseball player in the United States?
Keith Lieppman: Well, it’s interesting that you mention that. We just hired [Dominican native] Kelvin Todd, an ex-player of ours. Once we decided back in November, when we held this summit in the Dominican where we brought eight of our scouts, our top cross-checkers–everybody came to the Dominican to look at the talent–we made a decision, and Billy directed it, that we were going to be more involved because the landscape had changed down there. Our typical bonuses had not met up with what other clubs were doing down there, so we had to up the ante–and we did. We went down there and signed a lot of players in a very short period of time, so we had to start thinking in terms of what do we have to start doing to make sure these player’s needs are met. And that’s where we hired Kelvin to be our Facilitator of Latin American Operations, so his job is to go to the Dominican, and prepare these kids to come here. He lives here, so when the kids come here, there’s a program that is going to meet their English needs, their cultural needs, their day-to-day needs–because they’re in a situation in the Dominican, and even here in camp where we feed them, we take them to their doctor appointments, we do everything for them–but once they leave here to go with you at Kane County, they’re on their own. So we need to prepare these kids. We’ve made a huge investment down there with our complex and with signing bonuses, so we really want to make sure such a program exists and this is a new aspect to it. We’ve just brought this out, and it’s going to evolve, and these kids will benefit because once they do what they have to do to just get to the US, a lot of them just go into ‘survival mode’ and this program really opens it up to prepare them and give them a good plan.
BP: I know other teams have programs where part of it is, here’s how to order a pizza, here’s how to do laundry–just making the survival mode part easier.
KL: There are other unique aspects to it. A lot of Latin American players come here, and they love to cook. They cook their specialty dishes that they can’t get here, and that can create problems in some of the hotels; they burn something and a fire alarm goes off and there are always some wild issues that you get phone calls about on a regular basis. It’s the difference of going to a mall and understanding things. You’re a young player here for the first time and you go over to Fashion Square mall down the street here and you’ve never even been in a mall before–it’s like you’ve died and gone to heaven. The problem is, it’s all something you can just see–you can’t afford anything there, because you don’t have a lot of money. So when they do get money, you have to explain to them, you don’t go to Fashion Square, you go to T.J. Maxx. You go where you can afford things–and there’s so much more that goes into helping them understand their existence.
BP: What about basic stuff like housing for all these guys, how does that get arranged?
KL: We use a living quarters, like hotels close by, and a lot of them can cook, which is good so they’re not always eating out, because you know there’s not a lot of kids getting rich in the minor leagues. So we have close to 100 guys in the hotel there. We leave it open where they can live out if they want, and a lot of guys have their wives or girlfriends here and make their own arrangements to live away from the hotel, and that’s fine with us, but this is an unusual year where we have so many that have opted to be at the hotel. Then, we provide breakfast here at the facility for them, from 6-8 a.m., and we give them lunch and they’re on their own for dinner. So they get plenty to eat here.
BP: You talked before about adjusting to a new system. Is that harder for a guy like Carlos Gonzalez, who’s already spent a lot of time in one organization, doing things the Diamondbacks way? Just how different is it going from that to doing things the Athletics way?
KL: Well, sometimes you just have a language issue, but Carlos speaks English, and he’s fine there, but there still are things that are maybe missed in translation in just terminology–how you say things. It takes a while to get everything you want said–it might take a whole season for all of these players to come up and see the things we do a little differently here. Some people say, “freeze on a line drive.” We might say, “lean back on a line drive.” There are these subtle, little things that are different. In the paper today, it talked about how the A’s and Giants have this big emphasis on baserunning. What the baserunning plans were with the Diamondbacks or White Sox could be totally different. Baserunning has a wide variety of differences from organization to organization about how you teach reading a ball in the dirt; we have a thing we call a ‘read zone’ around first base, where another organization might focus more on breaking up a double play. So we have a different aggressiveness and terminology–so that’s where the differences are. Look at the explanation of the delivery we just saw from Gil [Patterson, minor league pitching coordinator]. That presentation could be given in every different camp in a way different format in a very different way, and those are the challenges because you don’t know what a player picked up from his previous organization.
BP: I like how he talked about how he’s not going to change how somebody does what they do, and how he’s fine with each pitcher having their own mechanics, but rather how the goal is just going to be about providing some structure to it.
KL: There’s no black and white. I think that’s when you understand baseball. In the old days, when I was around–and I was fortunate enough to be around Billy Martin in my first year as a manager–and there was Eddie Matthews and Harmon Killebrew and Art Fowler, and every night was a party, or an activity that involved some kind of beverages; I’m sure people know the history of Billy Martin. And to those old-school guys, baseball was black and white, and they would argue–over and over again–about is it quicker to throw from one arm position or the other as a catcher, and they’d almost get into fist fights over it. These guys had a definite opinion, and they weren’t going to get off of it. It was an old-school mentality where they’d say, “We understand the game, we’ve figured it out and there’s no disputing it.” And if you did, they’d blow up and bring up evidence and judge, jury, verdict. I think we’ve evolved enough to understand that people might have strong opinions, but it’s not black and white and there are a lot of things that filter in. You can’t tell me that with our view of selectivity and discipline, that if we’d get Vladimir Guerrero and put him in our system, does that mean he couldn’t do what he can do? I mean, that’s what we have to be aware of. When you try to clone people to be a certain way, that you’re going to be a good selective hitter–am I going to tell Guerrero that? Are you kidding? He’s the best bad-ball hitter in the world, and that’s how he does it.
KL: Exactly, and that’s the point: to understand when somebody is that talented. Take Eric Chavez; he could walk more, but he also hits a lot of balls in a lot of weird places. Have you ever watched him field? He’s an unorthodox defender. He’ll play balls off to the side, but he’s absolutely a Gold Glove third baseman. He does it a lot different than Brooks Robinson did. He doesn’t get in front of every ball and knock it down, but he’s got great hands and that allows him to do certain things. Being able to understand that difference is a super challenge for us in development because you don’t want to take away gifted things. Carlos Gonzalez has a lot of gifts defensively for example, so you just try to put players in a position where you give them direction, but don’t take away the things that they do well.
BP: Speaking of Gonzalez, because of the situation in the big leagues where to trade of Mark Kotsay leaves a pretty big opening, do you start thinking about or working more with him in center?
KL: Absolutely. He’s been playing out there a lot, and I think if he goes to Triple-A he’ll be put in that role…
BP: You just said ‘if’ he goes to Triple-A.
KL: Well, at the same time last year, Travis Buck–and that was a longer spring training because we leave on the 19th this year because of the games in Japan–he wasn’t even sniffing the big leagues. He was in everybody’s mind as a guy who was going to Triple-A. So he has a great spring and then the injuries start to mount up at the big-league level and he makes the club and the rest is history. Given a longer spring training, Carlos Gonzalez may have been able to do that, but I think the jury is still out about just how good this kid is.
BP: With you guys breaking camp early for the Japan trip, does that screw you up at all?
KL: Well, our first game on the minor league side of things isn’t until the 12th or 13th of March, and the big-league club leaves on the 19th. It doesn’t give us much time to make decisions, especially in the big leagues. They’re going to take five extra guys–so 30 players will go to Japan–everybody else is going to come down here. So typically, we wouldn’t see a good Triple-A, or 4A, or whatever you want to call them–a ‘last week send-down guy’–until maybe the last two or three days of spring training. Those guys stay in the big leagues because they need a guy to fill in on those split squad and ‘B’ games. So we’re going to see those guys a whole lot earlier, which is going to be a different MO. What most spring training teams do, they play their position players up, sometimes two levels, and the kids get comfortable and think to themselves, “Oh, I can play at Triple-A,” but they don’t realize that every team has moved their A-ball guys up two levels, so everyone thinks they’re a Triple-A player, but they’re just playing against A-ball players. So having these real Triple-A players here early may stop some of that.
BP: So at what point do you actually open up a spreadsheet or whatever and start saying, this is my Double-A rotation and this is my shortstop at Stockton and this is my backup catcher at Sacramento and things like that?
KL: I’ve been doing that all winter [laughs]. You know, and guys like [Kevin] Mellilo or Landon Powell, or [Gregorio] Petit–you already know they’re going to be at a position at Triple-A–there’s a group where you know where they’re going to be placed. It’s just the odd position where you have a guy like a Ryan Sweeney or a Mike Sweeney involved with a few of these decisions at the big-league level affecting things, but the core is pretty much there. The big question is, with all of our acquisitions we made, most of them are from Double-A on down, and that’s where it’s created a glut, especially with pitching. So that’s my biggest concern: how to evaluate, in a very short period of time, that many pitchers and give them all a fair chance. I’m always reminded of that famous saying, that baseball is not fair, so you do the best you can with it, but it is a concern because our system is generally one that doesn’t bring a lot of extra players–everyone that comes to spring training usually gets a job, but that’s not the case anymore where we’re going to have to make some really tough decisions between one guy and another and it’s just going to come down to numbers at times and that’s unfortunate, but what are you going to do?