Melissa Lockard Visits AN!

Melissa Lockard is the authority for online information regarding the A's minor league system. She administers the scout.com site OaklandClubhouse.com and also blogs for the Most Valuable Network on all things A's-related. The information she provides at Oaklandclubhouse.com is my chief source of "between the box score" information regarding A's prospects. She is in frequent personal contact with A's front office and minor league personnel and also frequently interviews A's prospects throughout the year. It's truly a privilege to have her share her opinions and her expertise here on AN, and I thank her profusely for taking some time out of her busy schedule to answer my questions with both gusto and depth!

 

  1. What do you make of the transformation of the A’s organization this past year? With all the trades and all the prospects brought in, is there enough talent in the organization right now to sustain a competitive big league team for the foreseeable future or will Beane need to deal more players (like Huston Street) to get more young talent and “complete” the rebuilding process?

First off, thanks for having me as a guest on the site.

 

The 2008 season has been certainly one of the most wild years of transformation within the organization from top-to-bottom that I can remember. A’s fans are certainly used to change, but generally that change had been limited to the big league club. This year, the change was throughout the organization. The monetary investment in the minor league system through international signings, over-slot draft signings, etc. was probably the most significant change. Up until this year, the A’s could only be so good at bringing in young talent because they were limited by budget and by scope of resources (less scouts around the country and overseas). They were pretty good at getting talent with those limited resources, all things considered. But by opening up the bank a bit, the A’s have now allowed themselves a much larger volume of players to choose from, and given their ability to develop talent once they have it, that can only be a good thing.

In terms of next year, I think a lot of whether the A’s can be competitive will have to do with the opportunities that are presented both in terms of who they may or may not bring in at the major league level via free agency or trades and in terms of what their competitors do (i.e., it will be a lot easier to be competitive if the Angels don’t re-sign Mark Teixeira or bring in a pitcher like C.C. Sabathia). You can never have enough young talent, so I would never say that the A’s have enough young talent right now, but they certainly have a good enough base of young minor league talent that they can afford to trade some of it for young major leaguers who can help them win now and over the next few years, if they choose to go in that direction. I think the organization has as much talent from top-to-bottom as any organization in baseball, but that talent, as is, is probably too green to compete next year. They’ll need some more veteran help, especially on offense.

 

2. Now that the minor league season has ended, do you think Beane did well with his trades? Obviously, the Haren deal was a big win-win for both teams, but what the about the Harden deal specifically…?

This will be a boring answer, but I really think it is too early to tell. Eric Patterson and Matt Murton were disappointing (although Patterson played well at Triple-A), but Sean Gallagher displayed flashes of being a solid young starter before being hurt and Josh Donaldson is one of the team’s top right-handed hitting prospects right now (he’s probably behind only Chris Carter). I think how Gallagher and Donaldson fare over the next couple of seasons will determine how we remember that trade. I will say that I don’t think the market for Harden was as hot as we like to think it was. Despite his talent, his value around the league has been diminished considerably by his injury issues, at least as far as I can tell.

 

In general, though, I think you have to take all of the deals that were made over the past 12 months and rate them as one giant move away from the team that went to the ALCS in 2006 and towards whatever the team will be in a year or two. As someone who has followed the A’s minor league system closely, I can tell you that the difference in talent levels between what the A’s had in the system over the past few years and what they have now is remarkable. In the past, the A’s affiliates might have been winning games, but often they won because their players were older and/or more polished than their competition. This year, the A’s affiliates (especially the full-season affiliates) were winning with players who were age-appropriate or younger than their level. There were noticeably more scouts at River Cats and Ports games this year and there was a definite buzz about those squads within the scouting community.

 

The depth in the organization is really good right now. In 2006, when Javier Herrera and Daric Barton missed most or all of the season with arm injuries, the system itself looked really bereft of top-shelf talent. This year, comparable-level prospects in Grant Desme and Fautino De Los Santos missed virtually the entire season and, while those injuries were disappointing obviously, their injuries weren’t nearly as devastating to the overall talent pool they would have been in past years.

 

It is my sense that the goal the A’s had with these deals was to build a large base of talent that was deep enough to sustain injuries and free agent defections down the road. They didn’t want to be caught-up in a situation where all of their eggs were in one prospect basket, so to speak. Some pundits have derisively called this strategy “quantity over quality,” but I think that is a misnomer. Certainly one could argue that the A’s should have held out for a Clayton Kershaw or Phil Hughes-type prospect for Dan Haren instead of going for the larger package. But I think the reality is that the Kershaw or Hughes-level prospects are not usually available in trades because their name recognition is such that GMs become shy about trading them. Also, you are putting a lot of stock in one player if you acquire only a Kershaw or a Hughes for Haren, as opposed to a group of players that you really like and can see roles for. The A’s are very good at identifying players in other organizations that they like and so trading for a big group of players is really their strength.

3. How about Vince Mazzaro’s breakout this year! Do you think he’s fundamentally changed as a pitcher and a prospect and will one day be a solid big league starter, or was his remarkable Texas League season more about him making a few minor changes and getting lucky on balls-in-play?

I’ve always liked Mazzaro’s stuff and had been disappointed in his results with Kane County and Stockton. Especially in Stockton, there were many days when he looked like one of the best pitchers in the league, but then, on other days, he wasn’t locating his secondary stuff and his fastball became rather hittable. I think the biggest issue with Mazzaro the past two seasons, honestly, was that he was (and still is) very young and still learning to pitch and still growing into his body. He filled into his frame in the off-season and came into camp in great shape. I think there had been some thought about having Mazzaro repeat at High-A this season, but he was so impressive this spring that they couldn’t hold him back. He was able to repeat his delivery much better and he had a better understanding of how to pitch in certain situations.

 

For me, Mazzaro is one of the A’s top pitching prospects. He will be only 22 next season and he already has four solid pitches that he can throw for strikes, and he throws hard (91-94). Mazzaro has a good build for a starter and he has shown the ability to be very coachable, which is important. I recognize the concern that Mazzaro’s strike-out totals weren’t that impressive this season, but he isn’t a junk-baller getting by with a trick-pitch or a grizzled veteran who is pitching smarter than his competition. He has the stuff to be a strike-out pitcher, but the real focus for him this season was pitching down in the strike-zone. As a result, he induced a ton of groundballs. I think he has the stuff to get the strike-out when he needs it (kind of like how Mark Mulder used to be with the A’s).

4.

Do you think that Gio Gonzalez will settle down and become an effective big league starter?

Gio is a very excitable guy and I think it takes him some time to get comfortable wherever he is playing. Like Mazzaro, Gio is very young and I think he is always conscious of trying to fit in with an older group. The more comfortable he feels, the better he seems to pitch. That being said, he has some things to work on, in my opinion, beyond just calming his nerves. He has very good stuff (his fastball is usually 91-93 and his curveball is outstanding), but he needs to get more confidence in his change-up. He also needs to throw more first-pitch strikes. Triple-A hitters had a tough time making contact off of Gio when he got ahead in the count, but when he was falling behind, he was in trouble. I know that is the case for every pitcher, but Gio especially needs to work on getting that first-pitch fastball to set-up the rest of his pitch sequence. He got better as the year went on with Sacramento, but I think he regressed in that area in the majors. That could be an area that smoothes out for him when he gains more experience. He definitely has the stuff to be a solid major league starter for a long time.

 

5. You did an interesting comparison on your site about Mark McGwire’s age-21 season and Chris Carter’s age-21 season and basically came to the conclusion that Carter had the better one. Do you think he can one-day become a 40-homer hitter in the major leagues and do you think he’ll ever find a defensive position he can handle adequately?

 

I’m not sure if you can ever project a young hitter to hit 40 homers in the majors, but I will say that people who have been around the organization a long time have said repeatedly this season that Carter hits the ball harder and further than anyone they have seen since McGwire. He has a long swing and I think he will always strike-out a lot and be susceptible to slumps, but when he gets a pitch he can handle, he doesn’t miss them, and when he is hot, he is nearly impossible to get out. McGwire became the hitter he became with the A’s in part because of that raw power and in part because he developed a command of the strike-zone that was almost unrivaled in the big leagues. Carter has work to do to command the ‘zone like McGwire, but the tools are there to be a big-time major league slugger.

 

The defense will be a work-in-progress. Carter is actually pretty athletic, although he looks like he is all arms and legs. He has a stronger throwing arm than you would think and he has okay speed once he is on the move. I liked him best out in right field this season, but I think the organization is going to continue to try him in a few other places before there is a conclusion on what position he will play. I know they don’t want him to settle for being a DH.

6.

Daric Barton: bust or trying too hard in 2008 and will still turn out ok?

His season was a real head-scratcher, huh? I think we had all gotten so used to seeing him put up consistently solid numbers at every level that we forgot that he was only 22 at the start of the year and still learning this game. I’m not a swing expert, but it looked to me like his swing got a little long and loopy for most of the season. I don’t know if he was trying to hit more balls in the air and hit homeruns or what, but it didn’t really look right. I think his strike-zone judgment was okay. He struck-out a bit more than he normally does, but he was still walking a decent amount, especially when you consider that pitchers obviously weren’t afraid of a guy hitting around the Mendoza line with no power. His track record and his strong September are both solid arguments for believing that this was just a bump in the road for Daric. But I do think it was troubling that he wasn’t able to make a correction that worked until the end of the season. I definitely think he deserves another chance to show it was a fluke, but I don’t think he can expect to be in the big league line-up everyday if he has a bad spring or a slow start.

7.

There’s been some talk on the site that Aaron Cunningham looked just a bit overmatched by major league fastballs during his September callup. Did you notice that and if you did, do you think he’ll get so more seasoning at Triple-A to start next season?

I didn’t really notice that. I think his struggles late in the year had a little more to do with his aggressiveness than anything else. He seemed to be getting himself out at times and swinging at pitchers’ pitches. I think he will be given a long tryout during spring training for a spot on the roster, but I think he’ll have to earn an Opening Day roster spot with a big spring. If it were up to me, I’d give him a little more time at Triple-A to work on his pitch selection and on defense. Given that he is so young, there is really no reason to rush him. Even if he starts the year at Triple-A, though, I think he’ll spend a decent portion of the season in the big leagues.

8.

What’s your opinion about Jason Giambi possibly coming back to Oakland in 2009?

Nothing would surprise me and he certainly brings a level of production at the plate with him that the A’s just don’t have right now. However, I think the A’s are looking for players who are going to be with the team for a couple of years, as opposed to just one season, so I think the A’s would have to be convinced that Giambi would be someone to keep on the team for a couple of seasons. He’s also a hard fit on a team with Jack Cust, given the defensive “prowess” of both players. The fact that Giambi is left-handed also works against him as it relates to the A’s. But it’s hard to find 30-homer hitters, so you never know. He’d be following in a long Oakland tradition of homegrown superstars returning to the A’s towards the tail-end of their careers. If I had to give it odds, though, I think it is less than a 50 percent chance that he comes back to Oakland. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in Anaheim next year, to be honest, given that Garret Anderson isn’t likely to be re-signed.

9.

Cahill and Anderson: who gets to the majors first, who’s going to be better long-term and will they be ultimately good enough, together, to give the A’s a Big Three-type rotation that can vault the team into perpetual competitiveness, a la 2000-2004?

I can’t really predict which pitcher will get to the big leagues first because there are so many factors that go into when a player is called up, but I think it is not a huge leap of faith to think that we will see both of them in the majors at some point next season (health-permitting, of course). They have had such similar career paths and they have become good friends over the past year, so it would be cool to see them form a tandem at the top of the A’s rotation, a la The Big Three.

 

I think expecting any tandem to be like The Big Three is hoping for too much, though. I’m not sure we will see a situation like the one that developed with Mulder, Hudson and Zito for a long time. Those guys were all uniquely special and exceeded all expectations when they were with Oakland.

 

That being said, Cahill and Anderson are both blue chip pitching prospects. It is probably a coin toss between the two of them in terms of which one is the better prospect. Cahill’s sinker might be the best pitch between the two of them, but Anderson is a little more polished than Cahill right now in that he has great command of his secondary pitches, where as Cahill’s secondary pitches can be a little more inconsistent. Anderson is also a lefty who can throw 93 MPH, which is a little more rare. Like Mazzaro, Anderson and Cahill are very coachable and they have made a lot of improvements already in their young careers. Between Anderson, Cahill, Mazzaro, Gallagher, Gonzalez, Greg Smith, Dana Eveland, Dallas Braden, James Simmons, Tyson Ross, Brett Hunter, Travis Banwart, et. al, I think the A’s rotation should be in pretty good shape over the next few seasons.

10.

Can you mention just a few of the lower profile Latin American signees from the past year and what they might bring to the table in a few years?

Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten down to the Dominican academy to see any of the A’s new signings in person, so all I have to work with on them are scouting reports, which can only tell you so much. The guys that I heard the most about (besides Michael Inoa, of course) were Jose Sayegh, Robin Rosario and Diego Ledezma. Sayegh and Ledezma were signed out of Venezuela this July (the A’s have a very good, long-time scout there named Julio Franco (no, not that one)). Sayegh is an outfielder who is supposed to have a good power potential and a good throwing arm. Ledemza is a catcher who is supposedly has solid defensive skills. He actually played a handful of games in the Dominican Summer League this year despite signing in July. Rosario signed over the winter and he played all season in the DSL. He didn’t produce power numbers, but his on-base percentage was impressive for a player his age. He is reputed to have good speed and a plus-plus throwing arm from the outfield.

11.

What can we expect from Adrian Cardenas as he matures? Do you think he’ll end up being a 2nd baseman or 3rd baseman long-term (or was there anything substantive to him playing at short in Midland?)

The A’s rule of thumb for developing most of their middle infielders is to have them play all over the infield. You’ve seen that with Justin Sellers, Cliff Pennington, Gregorio Petit, Mike Affronti, etc. It increases a player’s chance of making a big league roster to be able to play more positions. Since Cardenas hadn’t seen any time at short since turning pro, the A’s had him playing there with Midland to add to his versatility. I think it remains to be seen whether he slots best defensively at second or at third. It may depend on where there is an opening at the major league level at the time he is ready to be promoted. As a hitter, he has a great line-drive swing and an advanced feel for using the whole field for someone his age. The power hasn’t really shown itself yet, but I think most scouts see him having above-average power for a middle infielder. Unfortunately, he’s a non-priority player for his position at the Arizona Fall League, so we probably won’t see him playing regularly until later in that season, but it will be interesting to see how he matches up against the advanced, older pitching at the AFL.

12.

Related to that question: are you at all concerned about the organization’s relative weakness at the 3rd base and shortstop positions? And do you think that Beane will need to target a capable player for one of those positions in his next trade?

I think that is of some concern because clearly Bobby Crosby isn’t the future for the team at shortstop and Eric Chavez is such a question-mark. Cliff Pennington, Gregorio Petit and Eric Patterson are all players who have some usefulness, but a strong team probably has those guys as utility players and not starters. Jeff Baisley is a guy who could surprise. He really hit well at Triple-A this year and was hitting well at Double-A last year before a knee injury ruined his second half. He’s got great hands and decent range at third and a right-handed power-hitter in the A’s line-up would be a welcome sight. But he’s certainly not a sure thing.

 

I would imagine that shortstop is the position that makes the most sense for the A’s to focus on improving through trades, maybe by sending a package of prospects for a young, major-league shortstop who is under the team’s control for a few years that they can build around. The offense needs major improvement and shortstop is the one position where they could add an established offensive player and not block the development of one of their top prospects. Crosby’s contract could prevent them from adding a shortstop, but it would be disappointing to see that level of production out of the shortstop spot next season.

13.

James Simmons has been the topic of some conversation on the site. Some observers believe that without overpowering stuff or an adequate mix of pitches, he won’t ever be much of a major league starter. Others point to his great command, good changeup and great numbers in Midland after getting proper diagnosis on his sleep apnea as proof that he can be a good number 3 or 4 starter in the majors. What is your opinion of young James?

I think Simmons’ stuff is better than people give him credit for. He isn’t Max Scherzer in terms of velocity, but he can reach the low-90s with his fastball and he has great placement of that fastball, which is key. He was one of the better Texas League pitchers for most of the season and he was one of the youngest. His July (2.76 ERA and 43 strike-outs against four walks in 42.1 innings) was ridiculous. The A’s have pushed him aggressively, starting him at Double-A, then sending him to the Arizona Fall League and inviting him to big league camp last season, and he has responded well to all of those challenges. He isn’t a finished product, by any means, but what he has accomplished thus far is impressive. I think he has as good of a shot as anyone to have a successful major league career. It is entirely possible, by the way, that the River Cats will sport a rotation at the start of next season that includes 22-year-olds Simmons and Mazzaro and 21-year-olds Anderson and Cahill.

14.

Who’s your early pick to be the breakout candidate of the year in 2009?

I reserve the right to change this pick come spring training, but I see Matt Sulentic having a big year next season. He had a great year with Stockton, but he was kind of lost in the shuffle with all of the great prospects that the A’s had on that team this year. The time missed at the end of the season didn’t help either. Very quietly, Sulentic hit better than .300 and showed some power. He has also turned himself into an excellent defensive right-fielder, which is pretty amazing when you consider that he was being pigeon-holed as a defensive liability when he was drafted. He’s another guy who was given a challenge by the organization at the start of the season and he responded to that challenge, big-time. I see him taking it to the next level in 2009.

15.

Finally: as an expert on the A’s minor league team, when do you realistically expect the team to be relevant to the postseason picture once again? And as a side note to that, will that team reside in Oakland, Fremont or out of state?

Unfortunately, I’m going to leave you all on a boring note and say that I’m really not sure of the answer to either question. The A’s have a ton of talent, but obviously not all of that talent is going to pan out and some of it is going to arrive in the big leagues at different times. I think if the A’s wanted to go out there next year and be competitive, they probably could because they have the chips to make a few trades, some money to spend on free agents and their pitching staff is already good enough to be competitive. We’ll have to see what kind of moves they make this off-season. If they don’t add some offensive talent at the big league level before next April, they won’t be competitive this season, I’m pretty sure of that. I will say that I would be surprised if the A’s are still playing under .500 baseball in 2010.

 

As for the location of the A’s next home playoff game, I would venture to say that it will be the Coliseum, but only because I am an optimist and I can’t see them missing the playoffs every year from here until 2012, which is probably the earliest they would move into any new facility. I’ve always thought the threat of moving outside of the Bay Area is somewhat of an idle one. There just aren’t that many great markets still available and, at least in this economic environment, there aren’t too many cities clamoring to build publicly financed stadiums (which would be the A’s biggest incentive to leave this market). I think the A’s will stay in the Bay Area somewhere.

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