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Kubota and Lieppman Visit Athletics Nation Part 2

Again, I don't want to talk about the game. The Red Sox are unquestionably in the A's heads this year, not to mention that they are likely the best team in the American League. By a wide margin.

Yesterday was part one of the Eric Kubota and Keith Lieppman interview. It was questions submitted by you, Athletics Nation, for the A's front office.

Today, the interview concludes. Enjoy and perhaps this will help distract from our team's poor performance the past three games going back to Sunday.

Athletics Nation: There has been some talk that the minor league pipeline for the A's is in the process of drying up. Can you address this? I think it's a little short-sighted, given how hard everyone initially criticized the Moneyball draft and then within a half year, Teahen was highly-touted and both he and Murphy were swapped for available talent. Beyond the current obvious crop -- Blanton, Swisher, Garcia -- isn't the system currently well-stocked and possibly more stocked than ever before? Especially in light of the past two drafts?

Eric Kubota: We are quite excited about where our minor league system is at. At this time, we have three clubs that will definitely be in the playoffs (Modesto, Kane County, Phoenix) and two who are close to clinching playoff berths (Sacramento, Vancouver). There was a point last week where each of our clubs was over .500 and collectively we were more than 75 games over .500. In most cases, it is our newer crop of players who have been the keys to success at each level. Also, as you point out, we traded Teahen and Murphy for major leaguers who have key roles in our push for a post-season berth. If you look at the number of players from the past three drafts who are already at AA or above, I think you'll find a large number. Huston Street is already at AA after being drafted this June. Omar Quintanilla has been red hot since his promotion to AA earlier this month. Steve Bondurant was very, very good in Kane County and has moments of brilliance in his short time at Midland. Danny Putnam got off to a hot start in Kane County before tiring here late in the year. AND, both Vancouver and our Phoenix rookie team have had great seasons with a number of strong performances.

Athletics Nation: Granted, it's hard to compare with: Giambi, Chavez, Tejada, Hudson, Mulder, Zito, Hernandez, et al. How do guys like Johnson, Morrissey, Sullivan, Putnam, Windsor, Suzuki, Powell, et al project forward?

Eric Kubota: Once again, it's impossible and unfair to make comparisons with players who have become some of the best in the game. All I can say, is that we are as excited about our minor league system, and the players who are in it, as we have ever been.

Athletics Nation: And/or how would you rate the drafts against each other, even in a hypothetical kind of way? Seems like the 2004 draft was a major coup and possibly better than the Moneyball draft.

Eric Kubota: We feel very good about each of our last three drafts and are excited to see how they turn out.

Athletics Nation: The A's seem to favor the idea that good starters are generally scarcer and more valuable than good relievers, and that to maximize value, good young pitchers should usually be given every opportunity to succeed in a starting role first. Is that an accurate summary of the organization's outlook?

Keith Lieppman: We have stuck with the program of keeping most of the pitchers as starters until it becomes completely clear that they are better suited for the bullpen or for a major league need.

Athletics Nation: How teachable is plate discipline? Despite the increased emphasis on this skill in recent years, it seems that remarkably few players are able to successfully make significant improvements in this area once their tendencies have become established. Is there an age threshold after which a player's level of plate discipline is more or less entrenched? If so, is that age closer to 14 or 16 (i.e., before you ever get your hands on them) or 22? (I have Javier Herrera in mind in asking this question.)

Eric Kubota: This is a difficult question to answer. In general, we feel that it's difficult to teach plate discipline although it is something that we talk about daily at the minor league level. Most players that we draft have been in serious baseball programs from a young age, and many of those players have been taught to be very aggressive. In these kinds of cases, it can be difficult to change a player's style of hitting, but there are always exceptions to that rule.

With regards to Herrera, and in the case of a lot of young international players who are just starting to play here in the States, the player is not just having to deal with baseball. Not only are they dealing with the day-to-day stresses of playing and trying to make it to the ML but they are also dealing with a myriad of other cultural issues, such as language, food, etc.. This is a lot to deal with for any young person and can have an effect on the field. I believe that Javier was a more disciplined hitter when he played in our Dominican program (even though he was also dealing with living in a different country then as well), and I believe that his game will continue to mature as he adjusts more and more, both on and off the field. I think you'd be hard pressed to find many more talented players than Javier Herrera in the minor leagues, and it will be exciting to see how his career progresses.

Athletics Nation: I want to know what you look for (or are asked to look for) in catchers. It seems to be like the A's place qualities like game calling and defense ahead of offense. Also, how is it determined if a catcher is a good game caller?

Eric Kubota: On the amateur level, we are always looking for catchers who have good defensive ability and can hit. It's very difficult to determine who can call a good game, because very few catchers in college or high school call their own games. Almost all college coaches call pitches, so this is one area where catchers have a lot to learn once they turn pro. We try and determine what kind of aptitude a catcher has with the thought that they will be better suited to learning this important part of catching.

Athletics Nation: Moneyball is about players valued by the Athletics who are, or at least were, underappreciated by the rest of baseball. What about former A's players who were undervalued by this organization, but now appear like they are or will be successful major leaguers. Is there anyone that jumps to mind?

Eric Kubota: No.

Athletics Nation: What is your educational and/or professional baseball background and how did it lead to becoming the A's Scouting Director?

Eric Kubota: Graduated from Cal in 1986 with a bachelor's in political science. Started working as an intern for the A's while a student at Cal, and have been with them ever since. Was originally hired fulltime in November of 1987 as a PR assistant, but also had the opportunity to do projects in baseball operations for Sandy Alderson and Walt Jocketty. I was lucky to be taken under the wing of our scouting director at the time, Dick Bogard, and started working fulltime in the scouting department in November of 1989 as Assistant Director of Scouting. Became our Pacific Rim Coordinator in 1997, and became Supervisor of International Scouting in 1999. Named Director of Scouting in the winter of 2001.

Athletics Nation: If a talented pitcher is going to be a reliever in the bigs, it seems to make sense to use him that way in the minors so he gets used to the special demands of relieving. Doing so, however, cuts his innings pitched by maybe 40-50%, which makes him, overall, less experienced on reaching the majors. Have the A's thought about ways to get prospects more total innings while still giving them bullpen experience -- say, a spot start pitching 3 or 4 innings? On a related note, many teams strictly limit starters' pitch counts in the minors to protect their arms. What kind of limits do the A's put on minor-league relievers to prevent injuries?

Keith Lieppman: We keep starters below 75 pitches at the rookie league level. We keep starters at the other levels below 100 pitches. Early in the season we operate around 75 to 80 pitches. Side work is strictly monitored by pitch counts and pre-games are also counted. Long toss programs, daily warm-ups, and all volumes are kept and recorded by the pitching coach. Unnecessary throws are all eliminated. Relievers cannot throw 3 days in a row in a game. They are limited to get up in the bullpen 3 times, and if they are not in the game by then they are done for the day. Their warm-up pitches are numbered. If they exceed a certain number, they are unable to pitch for 2,3, or 4 days depending on the volume during the game.

Athletics Nation: Does the emergence of Baker in AAA, and the recent drafting of Powell and Suzuki indicate that Jeremy Brown's future is with another organization? Has last season's thumb injury hindered his hitting this year, or is he just having a down year?

Eric Kubota: We are happy with Jeremy's progress. After an extremely slow start with the bat, he is close to .260 at this time with great on-base numbers. With regards to Baker, Powell and Suzuki, it is our feeling that you can never have enough good catching.

Athletics Nation: What does the organization expect to see from a highly-regarded prospect who is demoted due to poor performance? A good example would be John McCurdy.

Keith Lieppman: When a player is sent back due to performance, it is all about that player's ability to make adjustments at the higher level. When performance suffers, then confidence goes down and typically it is better for that player to go back to a level where he can have success. Attitude is an important aspect of handling failure, which happens at every turn, some players respond more quickly than others. It is better for a player to go back to a previous level than to continue to do poorly at the original level. We have had pretty good success not having to do that over the past few years.

Athletics Nation: Some leagues are considered a "pitchers" league (FSL for example) and others (Texas) a "hitters" league. I've heard the PCL referred to as both. Is there such a distinction and if so what do the A's consider the PCL to be?

Eric Kubota: The PCL is pretty neutral, especially when you consider that Sacramento is a very fair park to both pitchers and hitters.

Keith Lieppman: The PCL and Texas Leagues are examples of leagues that have a variety of parks and playing conditions. Each if so different that it is very difficult to say one statement about each league. Tucson, Las Vegas, and Albuquerque are launching pads while Tacoma is very pitcher friendly. Midland and San Antonio are geared more toward pitching with the wind being a big factor. No way you can base an entire league because all of the parks are all so different.

Athletics Nation: If the A's had to restock the entire starting rotation with pitchers already in the Oakland system, who would the five starters be? Who are the top five starting pitchers in the system right now?

Keith Lieppman: There are a number of good pitchers in our system. Blanton, Rheinecker, Reames, Bondurant, Knox, Bazzell, Sullivan.

Athletics Nation: I would like to know about the A's Dominican Academy. Is it still in existence? If it is no one seems to mention it and have the A's turned away from Caribbean talent in your quest for college players?

Eric Kubota: Our Academy is still alive and well. This is a very important part of how we acquire talent. Jairo Garcia is a product of it, as it last year's AL Rookie of the Year Angel Berroa. Jesus Colome or Tampa Bay, Miguel Olivo of Seattle, Franklyn German and Luis Vizcaino are a few of the other player in the ML who were orginially signed by us and developed in our academy. All of our current Latin players (including Javier Herrera) are products of the Academy and we value the program very strongly.

Athletics Nation: I'd like to know what the A's do to try to determine if a player's arm is sound before drafting him. For instance, is there any way we can possibly tell if the arm was terribly overworked in high school? Obviously the A's try to alleviate some of this problem by taking college pitchers, hoping that any arm fatigue will have showed itself by now. But what about a rare HS pitcher that we might take, a la Jeremy Bonderman? What are the A's doing to improve on this prediction process?

Eric Kubota: Aside from reviewing medical reports and possibly having a player examined by one of our doctors, it is up to the scouts to be very observant in following pitchers, especially high school pitchers. We would monitor a prospective high round draft as much as possible and it would be up to the scout to try and determine if there might be any concern with the arm. The scout might determine this by looking at how much a pitcher throws and if he's overworked, or by looking at a pitcher's mechanics and arm action to see if it looks like anything might indicate arm problems.

Athletics Nation: What happens in the draft room when a player you were holding out for in the later rounds gets scooped up just before your turn? Does the time crunch help forestall a panic, or does it make it worse?

Eric Kubota: We have a preferential list of players which we continue to modify as the draft goes on. When our turn to pick is approaching, we have a number of options, so we just move on to option No. 2 if No.1 gets taken. This is all a part of the prep process which we spend a week prior to the draft on.

There you have it. I want to say thank you so much to Eric Kubota and Keith Lieppman for taking out so remarkably generous with their time.

The A's may not be able to beat the Red Sox, but they are one classy organization to spend this much time talking to the fans.