Yesterday, we brought you Part 1 of A’s Farm’s exclusive interview with A’s assistant general manager and director of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, where he gave us the lowdown on top prospects like Addison Russell, Daniel Robertson, Michael Ynoa, Raul Alcantara and Arnold Leon. In Part 2, we’ll cover Billy McKinney, Billy Burns, Max Muncy and more. So let’s get back to the action – we rejoin our game, already in progress…
AF: Another guy who’s spent a little time in the big league camp this spring is last year’s top draft pick, Billy McKinney. So what have your impressions been of him to this point?
FZ: I think the more times he’s come over, the more comfortable he’s been. I thought he was a little gun shy in his first couple of at-bats, which is totally understandable. But his performance last year somehow went a little under the radar, maybe because it was mostly in Arizona – he spent the last ten days in Vermont. But he did about as well as you could expect a high school position player to do. And we’ve seen some of that the more times he’s come over – the quality at-bats, the swing. You know, his bread and butter is going to be what he does offensively. And all that he‘s given us is positive in the times we’ve seen him.
AF: Now what are your thoughts about the guy who everyone seems to be most excited about this spring, Billy Burns?
FZ: The combination of elite speed and the ability to get on base isn’t as common as you would think. First of all, there aren’t that many elite speed guys. And the guys who do have elite speed don’t necessarily make enough contact or walk enough to really fully leverage that speed. I think he’s one of the best handful of guys at that in the minor leagues. And he’s got his strengths and weaknesses like every player. But he knows his strengths and he tailors his game to fully exploit those strengths. He tries to put the ball in play. He hits the ball on the ground. He has the speed to cover a lot of ground in the outfield. And I wouldn’t say he’s got Josh Reddick’s arm, but what he does is he gets to balls quickly. He’s accurate and he releases balls quickly when he does get to them. We saw him have a couple of assists in a game. And that was an area where we had some questions about whether he had the arm to play center field, and so far he’s shown every ability to play out there. So his all-around game has been great. And I think what coaches love is having a guy like that who knows what he has to do to be successful and knows what he has to do to help the team as much as possible. And obviously he’s really excited the fans, which is great. You know, he’s only spent about a month at Double-A, so he’s got a little bit of a ways to go. But we know the speed is going to play at this level for sure. It’s just letting some of those other skills catch up with that part.
AF: I don’t think people realize how inexperienced he really is. He’s only had about 30 games above Class-A. So do you anticipate him getting a little more time in at Double-A this year?
FZ: That’s the plan for right now. Things can change seeing how the rest of the depth chart plays out. But for a guy who hasn’t been switch-hitting for that long, getting more left-handed at-bats will be big for him. And in that sense, if a guy is still learning to swing from one side of the plate, you don’t want him to just be trying to stay afloat. And that’s maybe what moving a guy like that too aggressively might do. We want him to get comfortable hitting from the left side of the plate. So sending him back to the level where he finished last year and had some success makes some sense. But he’s a guy who’s made a strong enough impression that I wouldn’t be surprised to see him with us at some point this year.
AF: Now I want to ask you about a guy who, along with Addison Russell, has moved up the ladder more quickly than anyone, and that’s Max Muncy. How do you view him at this point?
FZ: Very advanced bat. He’s sort of lived up to every expectation we had when we drafted him…but the way things look right now, he’s probably going to go back and start the year in Midland. But he’s a guy who could move quickly because he has a pretty polished game, particularly offensively.
AF: Would you say that, along with Addison Russell, he’s as close to being major-league ready as anyone you’ve drafted in the last couple of years?
FZ: Yeah, I think from the position player side, that’s a fair statement.
AF: I’ve talked to him a few times and I get the impression that he’s a really smart hitter who’s got a pretty good approach to things.
FZ: Yeah, very cerebral guy – probably for us, the poster child for the kind of approach we want. We want guys to control the zone. And that means both not swinging at pitches out of the zone but also looking to do damage when you’re in hitter’s counts. And I haven’t seen the guy take a bad at-bat, so that’s very exciting. He has the kind of consistency that some of our younger guys still need to develop.
AF: Are there any somewhat under-the-radar guys in the A’s system you’d suggest people might want to keep an eye on?
FZ: You know, one guy who has a chance to move pretty quickly is Tucker Healy, who started in Beloit and finished last year in Stockton…Every time Tucker’s name comes up, whether it’s regarding the depth chart or whether a team asks about him in a trade, which has happened a couple of times, and I go back and look, I’m always taken aback by how good he really was last year. So maybe not a guy who has the pedigree draft-wise…but between Beloit and Stockton last year, he had a 1.31 ERA and in 48 innings, he had 10 walks and 74 strikeouts. I mean, it’s ridiculous. And then the year before that in Vermont, he had 45 strikeouts and 13 walks in 29 innings. I would say he’s very under the radar.
AF: What about any position players?
FZ: I would say it’s harder for position players to slide under the radar. But two guys I think could take a big step forward are the first two college position players we drafted last year – Chad Pinder and Ryon Healy. Not that those guys are under the radar, but they didn’t get a ton of reps after signing. They’re both guys who are very advanced, and I expect them to either start the year in Stockton or wind up there at some point. And advanced college hitters can put up some noticeable numbers at that level.
AF: And Pinder was hindered by injuries much of last year.
FZ: Yeah, I don’t think we’ve seen any sort of true indication of his ability level. He’s a guy who could have gone as high as the late first round. So he could sneak up on people.
AF: And he’s staying at shortstop?
FZ: Yeah, I think we’ve been happy with how he’s looked there.
AF: And what about Healy position-wise at this point? He’s primarily a first baseman but you also had him at third a little bit last year.
FZ: I know we tried him at third base. Our guys liked him there. I think we’ll continue to at least give him a chance there. He likes playing third and he wants to get better there. So when a guy is being challenged on the defensive spectrum the fact that the guy wants to do it and wants to get better is always a big factor.
AF: Now one last general question about the draft. You guys have drafted a lot more high school players in the past couple of years than you had in the past. And David Forst has said that he feels you have so much more information available on high school players now than you did even five years ago that you really feel a lot more confident going with high school guys at this point. Would you agree with that assessment?
FZ: I think so, yeah. It’s sort of having a comfort level, seeing these guys the whole previous summer before their senior years playing in these summer circuits where they face a good level of competition…Now people have a long history of these guys dating back at least to the summer before their senior years. And scouting staffs are a little bigger now, so you get more looks…and we don’t think it’s a useful strategy to just lop off half of the draft pool and say we’re just taking these guys. We’re probably going to lose out on talent if we do that…and just to be clear, that’s not something that’s happened in the last three years. I think the balancing of value between high school and college guys is something that probably started ten or fifteen years ago and has sort of very slowly and steadily worked its way into what I think is pretty close to parity at this point. And that’s because of team’s drafting tendencies but also because of the correction of what was once a pretty big information asymmetry between these players.
AF: Great, thanks a lot – that was even more informative than I’d hoped!
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