Last month, we brought you A’s Farm’s Consensus Top 10 Prospect List, taking a look at some of the team’s top young talent down on the farm. At the time, we offered our own analysis of each of the players on our list. But we wanted to talk with someone who could provide an even deeper insight into the players who represent the future of the A’s. And it’d be hard to find someone with more detailed information on the array of players in the A’s organization than the team’s director of baseball operations, Farhan Zaidi.
Farhan didn’t necessarily take the traditional route into baseball, earning a B.S. in economics from MIT and later earning his Ph.D in economics from UC Berkeley. He originally joined the A’s as a baseball operations analyst in January of 2005 and is currently entering his fifth season as the team’s director of baseball operations. Though he performs many different roles in his current position – including evaluating amateur draft targets, handling contract negotiations and developing advance scouting reports – as the economics major who feels a little disconnected when he’s too far away from his computer, Farhan is basically known as “the numbers guy” who oversees statistical analysis for the team.
We took the opportunity to talk to Farhan earlier in the week while he was making the long and boring drive back from the Royals’ and Rangers’ spring training facility in Surprise, Arizona after the A’s split squad had just lost to the Royals. He made a point of noting early on that he felt a little naked without his computer on hand and apologized for the lack of detailed statistical information that he’d have at the ready. But I think you’ll agree that, even without his computer, Farhan had plenty of valuable and insightful information to offer on all the A’s top prospects…
AF: How would you describe what you do in your current role as director of baseball operations?
FZ: It’s a real mix of stuff. The work that I was doing when I first started, which was conducting and supervising all the analysis, is still a very big part of my job. But it’s expanded into other things. Contract negotiations with agents – that’s something we split a few ways in the office. I travel with the team during the season. I’m pretty active in developing and maintaining the advance reports that we give to our coaches. And then I’m pretty active in the draft too. During the spring, I try see players who are guys who are first-round considerations for us. And I sort of manage the analysis that we do for the amateur draft as well.
AF: So as far as the amateur draft goes, you’re both going out and seeing the players in person as well as analyzing their numbers and performance?
AF: Aren’t you quite involved in analyzing and targeting minor league free agents as well?
FZ: Yeah, we don’t always get to aim super high on the major league free agent side. So pouring over the minor league free agents and being smart about which guys we bring in who can have a material impact on the major league team is a pretty big part of our operation. And guys like that, whether it’s Brandon Moss or Jim Miller or Evan Scribner, those guys play a big role for us every year. And in a year like last year where he have some success, they become all the more important.
AF: Well, I wanted to ask you about Brandon Moss specifically. Can you tell me a little more about what you saw in him that made you really sit up and take notice?
FZ: Yeah, it’s funny, he was a guy we had some history with. He actually hit a home run off of us in Japan all the way back in 2008. He’s a guy who was a very high level prospect with the Red Sox at one time and wound up kicking around a little bit and playing for a couple of different organizations prior to the Phillies. And what we try to look for with guys like that in the minor league free agent market isn’t necessarily just what their career track record is, but to try to look for some progression and improvement, where you can take advantage of a guy’s upward trajectory. And even a guy who’s a little bit old for a prospect may have figured something out that’s turned him into a potentially more productive player. And with Moss, there were a couple of things that we looked at. There was how he finished in the second half of his Triple-A season in 2011. If you look at his first half versus his second half splits, he really produced in the second half of that season. We got some good scouting looks at him as well, so the stats and the scouting reports lined up.
AF: Well, let’s get to the top 10 guys on our A’s prospect list plus maybe a couple of others. So starting out at the top of everyone’s list is your #1 draft pick from last year, shortstop Addison Russell. He obviously looked great in his first stint in pro ball last season, and he moved up through three different levels very quickly. So now that you’ve had a chance to see him in the major league camp this spring, what are your impressions of him at this point after having seen a little more of him?
FZ: Yeah, nothing we’ve seen has made us any less excited about his long-term prospects. He’s a really good athlete. He has the potential to be a five-tool player down the road. And having him in big league camp is less about trying to get him into the immediate plans and more about giving him a taste of being around big leaguers and the big league coaching staff and a chance for our staff to get to know him a little bit better. I think it was a little bit overwhelming for him at first, but I think he’s getting increasingly comfortable. He played a few innings today and made a couple of nice plays in the field. It’s just exciting to have a kid like that who has those kinds of tools and backs it up with performance at a very young age. So, obviously, we’re excited about him. We’re going to let him develop at his own pace. But I think it’s been a really good experience for him and for our coaching staff to have him in camp.
AF: How likely is it that he starts the season at Stockton in the California League?
FZ: It’s a possibility, but we haven’t made a decision one way or another. He’s going to spend some time in the big league camp, and then he’ll spend some time in the minor league camp with the player development guys there. So that decision is still a little bit down the road.
AF: Well, you guys were obviously pretty aggressive in moving him along last year. Are you still prone to being aggressive with him as long as he shows he can handle things?
FZ: I wouldn’t characterize us as wanting to be aggressive with him but I think, more and more, I personally realize that every player really needs to be brought along at his won pace. Some guys have very slow and steady progress, repeating levels when needed. And for other guys, they can move really quickly and have the aptitude to play up to higher competition levels very quickly. So it really is a player thing, and that determination just hasn’t been made on Addison yet. But along the way, it’ll all be about what’s the best thing for him. And what past players have done, either inside our organization or with other teams, won’t have any bearing on it.
AF: Okay, second on our list is another guy who had a great minor league season and moved up through three levels last year and made it up to Oakland late in the season – and that’s right-hander Dan Straily. So how are you feeling about his development at this point and what he still needs to work on to clear that last hurdle?
FZ: Obviously, the prospect status that he has now is one of the biggest and most positive developments for our organization from last year, and it’s a testament to all our player development. But I think the most exciting thing about him, from both a scouting and a statistical thing, is his ability to miss bats. Probably the single best predictor of success in the big leagues is guys who miss bats and get strikeouts in the minors. And he obviously did that in spades last year. I think getting to the big leagues and getting acclimated to the discipline that hitters at this level have, that you don’t get quite as many swings and misses out of the strike zone, you have to be able to pitch in the zone, and you have to be able to pitch with your fastball. I think those are the kinds of adjustments that Dan’s going to have to make. And I think he started to make them a little. I think he sort of learned through his experience last year that big league hitters don’t miss mistakes the way that minor league hitters do. So you have less of a margin for error, and part of limiting your margin for error is not walking guys and not putting extra guys on base. So I think he’s going to come out this year with a better understanding of that and more aggressively throw more strikes, and I think those will be very good things for him.
AF: I interviewed him recently. And he seems to be a guy who’s pretty smart and really seems to like to think about pitching a lot, so hopefully that’s a good sign!
FZ: Yeah, absolutely. I get the exact same impression off him. And with a guy like that, you don’t even have to say too much to him because you know that he probably has a good awareness of who he is and what he needs to work on.
AF: Third on our list is your 2010 top draft pick, outfielder Michael Choice. After his big year at Stockton, there were big hopes for him last year at Midland. He struggled a bit in the first half and then, just when it looked like he was starting to turn it around, he got injured and missed the rest of the season. Obviously, he’s been hitting really well in spring camp so far this year. So what are your impressions of him at this stage of his development?
FZ: Yeah, he’s looked terrific in camp, and I think it’s encouraging because this is a continuation of the way he finished the year. He was really the hottest hitter in the Texas League when he, unfortunately, got hurt. And it’s too bad for his development that he missed out on the end of the season because who knows how far he could have gotten. You never know how a guy’s going to come back from injury, physically and mentally, in terms of missing the reps that he missed. But he’s been one of the most effective hitters in camp. He’s hit all the pitches. He’s hit good pitching. It’s not like he’s getting all these hits against minor leaguers or guys who are in late in the game. He’s played a good center field, which is also a major part of what he could potentially offer. The biggest thing for him, when we first got him, the one thing that really stood out about him was just the bat speed. Just sitting in the scouts section, you could hear everybody’s breath be taken away every time he’d take one of those big swings. And the issue for him was shortening up and refining his mechanics to the point where he could really hit that high quality pitching. And I think this has been one of the best jobs that our player development has done – giving him a swing that was simple enough that it could work at the major league level. And that’s what he’s really shown so far this spring.
AF: So do you see him as a potentially legitimate major league center fielder then?
FZ: He’s still playing center field. As long as he’s playing center field, he’s a potential major league center fielder. He has the physical ability to stay out there. And part of it, quite frankly, is gong to be, when he reaches the big leagues, what the big league outfield looks like, where we have needs. That might be as big a part of the equation as where we think his best position is.
AF: Is it reasonable to expect that we’re going to see him starting the year at Sacramento?
FZ: Yeah, that’s the hope. And certainly he’s done nothing to dissuade that notion so far.
AF: Fourth on our list is another #1 draft pick who started out the year at Midland, right-hander Sonny Gray. And like Choice, he started out the season a little wobbly – I guess he was working on his delivery along with his changeup – and then he started to put it together a little more at the end. So where do you think Sonny Gray is at this stage of the game?
FZ: Well, he’s a guy who now in two straight big league camps has really turned heads with his stuff, with just the life on his fastball and then his curveball – he has those two big league pitches. Sonny’s a guy who’s really stood out in the past couple of years. For him, it’s really been a couple of things. One is working and refining his changeup. He has a good changeup – he just really has to learn to trust it and use it more. And another part of that is he’s probably got to not have things speed up on him when things unravel a little bit. Sometimes he maybe just needs to not out-think himself on the mound and just trust his stuff, because his stuff is clearly major league caliber. We really liked the development of him last year. It’s not easy for a starting pitcher to go straight to Double-A and stay in that rotation all year and actually finish the year in Triple-A. So we’re very optimistic about him continuing that progression. He has things to work on, but we knew he had things to work on when we drafted him, and he’s already improved in those dimensions.
AF: Fifth on our list is Grant Green. He’s obviously moved around a lot since he was your top draft pick back in 2009. And I’m really curious how you see him profiling as a potential major league player both at the plate and in the field.
FZ: You don’t want to put too much pressure on players or give them too much credit before they’ve achieved the same level as the comp you’re using, but the guy that I think Grant Green could develop into is a Michael Young type player. I think he has that kind of profile. He’s really a gap-to-gap hitter who has 15-20 homer power. He just has a natural knack for hitting that makes you believe he could be a .300 hitter in the big leagues. And defensively, it’s been a little bit of a work in progress for him. But just like with Michael Young, Michael Young’s a guy who’s moved around and played a few different positions, and a lot of his value to the team was his ability to move around, not just within a season, but across seasons, and sort of fill in depending on where the team needed him. And I think Grant is kind of building up that sort of versatility, which I think could be a huge benefit to a team. So in a perfect world, you hope he turns into that Michael Young type of player.
AF: Well, hopefully it’s a matter of turning a liability into a virtue if he develops this tremendous versatility then. But where do you see him as strongest in the field at this point?
FZ: The best position that I’ve seen him play really is the position he’s playing right now, which is second base. I was joking with someone about this today saying, “He plays second base like he’s too good to play the position.” But I actually like that. He plays it with that kind of confidence, with a little bit of flair. But I like seeing him with that kind of confidence in the field. He can make all the plays at second base. When you play second base, you have just a little more time to get over to first, and that I think has relaxed him a little bit. He has good range, and I think he just has a comfort level at second base. I think he’s always had the defensive tools. Believe it or not, when we were scouting him in high school, we actually considered him a defense-first shortstop. So the defensive tools are certainly in there. And combine that with the confidence he’s shown playing second base and I think that’s where he profiles best.
AF: That’s interesting. When I spoke with him last year, he said his preference was definitely to be playing right around the bag where the action is at either shortstop or second base. So the fact that he’s looking comfortable and showing confidence there at second base makes sense.
FZ: Right, if he hits like Michael Young, you’ll find a place to play him. If you have a bat like that that has the ability to go to a few different spots and play those spots, that’s all the more valuable. You know, I was at the Sloan Sports Conference this weekend in Boston, and one of the papers was about the value of roster flexibility. And just as an aside, just for your own edification, it’s an academic paper but it’s on their website, I think it’s worth checking out. And they talk about the value of having a roster built on players who are fairly interchangeable and can play multiple positions, because they’re able to be platoon players, maybe even across different positions, and because it insulates you against injury. And that’s the direction that our roster has been going in the last couple of years. And I think we got a lot of benefit out of that last year, and I think we’ll get a lot of benefit out of it this year. And Grant could be the kind that fits in with that roster philosophy very well.
AF: Yeah, I was going to say that theme certainly seems to fit right in with where you guys are at this point. It seemed like everything you did in the off-season was designed to add as much flexibility to the roster as you possibly could.
FZ: Yeah, absolutely. When we’re looking at individual players, and we think they have that ability to expand their flexibility, we’re probably more inclined to at least take a look at that than we have in the past.
AF: That’s funny, it’s almost becoming like building a fantasy baseball roster. Guys who can play multiple positions are always one of the things you’re looking for.
FZ: Yeah, there’s no doubt. Guys who can play across positions and save you a roster spot, obviously you have to figure out how much more valuable those guys are. And look, part of it is having a manager who can manage the personalities and keep guys happy. Every player wants to play everyday and wants to be at the same position everyday just because baseball players are creatures of habit. But Bob Melvin is just a great communicator and a guy that the players love to play for. And we have the advantage of being able to create a little bit more depth and flexibility and trust that he’ll be communicating with these guys so that the roster and all the guys are on the same page. And that’s a big part of being able to do this.
AF: Yeah, it’s great to be able to have someone who can get guys to be happy about doing things they might not normally be all that happy to do!
FZ: Right! I mean, it’s a challenge. There’s no guarantee that it’ll be smooth sailing, but there’s nobody I trust more than Bob Melvin with that task.
Be sure to check back tomorrow for Part 2 of A’s Farm’s exclusive interview with A’s director of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, in which he gives us the lowdown on Miles Head, Daniel Robertson, Renato Nunez and Michael Ynoa and what he really looks for in minor league prospects!