It’s been a little over nine years since Farhan Zaidi first joined the A’s front office as a baseball operations analyst back in January of 2005. And while he now embarks on his sixth season as the A’s director of baseball operations, the team has also seen fit to elevate him to the position of assistant general manager, joining long-time A’s assistant GM David Forst. But rather than represent any particularly new or expanded duties, the title really just reflects a recognition of Zaidi’s overall importance to the organization. Zaidi, Forst and general manager Billy Beane form a powerful troika of top thinkers at the head of the A’s organization, and if there’s an important decision to be made, you better believe that these three are all in on it.
As far as Farhan goes, his responsibilities can span a wide range of issues on any given day from dealing with contract negotiations to developing advance scouting reports. But most of his time and energy is really centered around player evaluation, whether that involves setting up the team’s analytic infrastructure for evaluating player performance or just keeping a personal eye on the team’s player personnel. Zaidi usually travels on at least half the team’s road trips and personally scouts about thirty top amateur prospects each year in preparation for the draft. So, from soup to nuts, if it falls under the heading of player evaluation, it’s bound to be on Farhan’s plate.
Zaidi was good enough to take a little time to talk with us in his office at Phoenix Municipal Stadium just a few days after Addison Russell went down with a hamstring strain and just a few days before news of A.J. Griffin’s and Jarrod Parker’s injuries first broke. Of course, we wanted to know about some of the team’s top prospects and, as you can see, Farhan was happy to oblige with plenty of interesting information…
AF: I want to start out by asking you about a few of the A’s top pitching prospects. First off, is Michael Ynoa going to continue as a starter or are you considering having him pitch out of the bullpen?
FZ: We’re considering both. He’s pitched in some short stints in big league camp and looked terrific. I think that’s a role that he could thrive in right away. As a starter, I think he may have some ups and downs. It’s an ongoing evaluation for us, whether we have the time and whether he has the time to go through that development curve as a starter, or whether we need him as a bullpen guy to move rather quickly. Even if he does go to the bullpen, I think we would like to still see him go through the lineup one time – throw two to three innings. That might be a nice intermediate option. He only threw under 100 innings last year so, if we did use him as a starter, he would probably run out of innings at some point late in the season. So maybe if you keep him to shorter stints, it allows him to pitch through the year – we might as well spread it out over the course of the season. And that also gives you a little insight into how he’d do as a reliever, so maybe it just gives you more data both ways.
AF: What about Raul Alcantara? Obviously, he looked great last year and in camp this spring. He’s probably your best all-around pitching prospect and, at 21, he’s also one of your youngest pitching prospects. Is there any thought of taking it slow with him since he’s so young or, if he’s ready, will you just let him rise as fast and as far as his talent takes him?
FZ: Yeah, the plan right now is for him to start the season in Midland. He was arguably Stockton’s best starting pitcher down the stretch last year – and he’s very advanced. He’s a guy who throws a lot of strikes and has a good changeup, which is obviously important for a starting pitcher. But the major league coaching staff was very impressed with him from the standpoint of being able to understand and execute signs and little things like that. Sometimes a guy who hasn’t pitched above A-Ball can be overwhelmed at this level, but he was completely unfazed by those aspects of the game. And I think our guys were really happy with him…Our perspective has always been with these guys that their performance and maturity will dictate how fast they move. We don’t like to necessarily impose strict timetables on guys. If you’re good enough to work your way up and get to the big leagues, no one in this organization is going to stop you.
AF: So you’re not going to worry about starting their clock at too early an age.
FZ: Whether it’s age or whether it’s service time, those factors are dwarfed by ability to perform.
AF: By being a good player!
FZ: Exactly, we like those guys.
AF: Well, I guess that’s the main priority! Now Arnold Leon, who was once a highly-touted prospect and then had some injury issues, has been looking really good again this spring. So are you guys excited about what you’ve been seeing out of him so far?
FZ: Very excited…he’s looked terrific. He’s a guy who’s been in both roles, but I think we’ve always felt in the long run he was a starting pitcher because he has four pitches and he throws strikes. And the thing that we’ve really liked is he’s gone right after guys in camp, he’s been very efficient, he’s had short innings. And this has kind of been an area of development for Arnold. Coming from Mexico, there’s a very particular pitching style there which tends to be to nibble a little bit and go deep in counts, a little bit more of a finesse approach. It’s just a different style of pitching, not just from what you see here in general but what we try to teach, which is to go right at guys. If you get ahead in the count, we don’t necessarily want you wasting three pitches and winding up with a twelve pitch at-bat. And he’s done that really well here, so we’re very excited. He’s a guy who finished the year strong in Sacramento and most likely will start the year in the rotation there. And with Alcantara, probably our best two starting pitching prospects.
AF: So he’s really in a good position to be moving up at some point.
FZ: Absolutely, he has really good stuff. For a guy who walked as few guys as he did last year, to be throwing up to 95 mph with four pitches and those kinds of walk rates, that’s a really exciting combination.
AF: What are your impressions of Matt Buschmann, whom you signed as a minor league free agent this offseason?
FZ: He was terrific in Double-A and Triple-A last year. I think he had an ERA under 3.00 and more than a strikeout per inning at both levels. He pitched really well the other day. He was up to 93 mph, which is the velocity we’d seen from him in the past. So he’s going to be in the Sacramento rotation. And based on what he did last year, he has the chance to be a factor for us…When we were looking at the minor league free agents and his name came up, I remembered him being a guy we really liked when he was in the San Diego system…and he was a high priority for us in the free agent market.
AF: Now you’re looking at having Philip Humber pitching out of the bullpen in Sacramento this year, right?
FZ: For sure, yeah.
AF: And you’re looking at having Andrew Werner pitching out of the bullpen in Sacramento too, right?
FZ: Yeah, he was actually pretty good as a starter in 2012 in the Padres system. He worked his way up from Double-A up to the big leagues. He took a step back last year, but he’s a guy who has some funk and deception. And we think it’s a good opportunity to try him in that role. Teams are always looking for lefty relievers, so we’ll see how that goes…Even last year when he struggled, he was still pretty good against left-handed hitters.
AF: Now I want to ask you about a few of your top hitting prospects. You’ve probably had the chance to see more of Addison Russell up close with your own eyes this spring than you ever have before. So what are your thoughts about him at this point?
FZ: He got off to a little bit of a slow start, but his last few games before he got hurt, just a lot of loud contact – just really exciting. If you think about how he started last year in Stockton, he was struggling early on. Now he’s moving up to Midland. I think people should have realistic expectations. That’s the single biggest jump in the minor leagues in our organization, going from the Cal League to the Texas League. We’ve had many college guys – Sean Doolittle, Nick Swisher back in the day – who really struggled in Midland. They hit in Stockton, they hit in Sacramento, but…it’s a tough place to play. So Addison is going to have his work cut out for him. And I think people are going to have to be patient with what he does on a daily basis. That said, knowing he’s going to have to make that big jump, seeing how he’s handled big league pitching in these games has been pretty exciting – good at-bats and obviously good performance.
AF: He certainly seems to have the ability to learn and make adjustments fairly quickly.
FZ: Yeah, guys with natural ability who have aptitude, you see that. You saw it with Yoenis when he first came over here in 2012 – he got better every month. And I think you’re absolutely right. That’s what we saw from Addison last year in Stockton. That’s what we’ve seen in a shorter time frame in big league camp here. And hopefully he continues it in Midland, because once you get to Double-A, there’s no soft spots in the pitching rotations like you see in A-Ball. So it’s going to be a challenge. But certainly, if he continues that sort of development curve, he should get on track there at some point.
AF: Is there anything in particular that you want him to work on there or are there any aspects of his game that you feel need to be fine-tuned a bit?
FZ: I think the biggest thing for him is going to be making sure his contact rate doesn’t slip too far. His strikeouts were a little high last year. Like I said, he’s going to be facing tougher pitching. And that’s going to be the thing to monitor with him. Especially for a guy with speed, you want those guys putting the ball in play and letting their legs do some work for them. So I think that’s probably going to be the single biggest stat that I’m going to be monitoring.
AF: Another guy who’s been making some appearances in big league camp for you this spring is Daniel Robertson. Now he’s expected to start the year at Stockton, and he’s been playing pretty much exclusively at shortstop up to this point. The closer that Addison Russell gets to the majors, do you start to think more about possibly giving him a little time at another position?
FZ: You know, when we drafted him, he was a guy who we saw starting at short but maybe moving to third eventually. But he’s been so good at short that we want to give him every opportunity to stay there. There are just so many things that can happen between now and the day that they’re both in the big leagues and we have to decide who’s playing what position. So from a development standpoint, we want both guys playing as much shortstop as possible for as long as possible.
AF: So you don’t feel that you’ve reached that fork in the road quite yet.
FZ: Yeah, we’re not at a point where we have to make a decision one way or another.
AF: Well, hopefully you will be soon.
FZ: Yeah, that would be a good problem to have!
Be sure to check back tomorrow for Part 2 of A’s Farm’s exclusive interview with A’s assistant general manager and director of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, in which he gives us the lowdown on some of the A’s most promising young position players like Billy McKinney, Billy Burns and Max Muncy and how the A’s have come to love high school players!
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