Yesterday, we brought you Part 1 of A’s Farm’s exclusive interview with A’s director of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, where he gave us the lowdown on top prospects Addison Russell, Dan Straily, Michael Choice, Sonny Gray and Grant Green. In Part 2, we’ll cover Miles Head, Daniel Robertson, Renato Nunez, Michael Ynoa and more of the A’s top prospects. So let’s get back to the action – we rejoin our game, already in progress…
AF: Next on our list is a guy who got off to a phenomenal start last year, hitting probably as well as anyone in pro ball in the first half at Stockton, and who you guys very shrewdly targeted in last year’s trade with Boston – and that’s third baseman Miles Head. He came back down to earth a bit at Midland in the second half but still held his own there. Tell me what you think about Miles Head at his point and where you see him playing in the field this year now that you’ve got another third baseman like Jefry Marte in the system who’s basically at the same level as him.
FZ: He was a guy that we did sort of tack on to that deal a little late. And one of the things about him, similar to the Brandon Moss story, when we went and looked at him in the 2011 season, he was a guy who got better every month – first in the South Atlantic League and then even in the Carolina League in 2011, where his overall numbers weren’t great. He was getting better there every month. We’re very optimistic about him. He’s one of the best pure hitters in the system. He’s a very aggressive hitter. He wants to put the ball in play, and he makes consistently loud contact. Defensively, we moved him over to third base last year, the position he played as an amateur. Everybody has more value at third base than at first base. But in the long run, he’s going to be a guy who plays both positions. And with Marte in the system, and both of those guys potentially starting the year in Double-A, I think both guys will see time at both spots. That still enables both guys to get plenty of reps at third, but it’s a case where having that flexibility and experience at a couple of different spots doesn’t hurt.
AF: The seventh guy on our list was your second overall draft pick last year, shortstop Daniel Robertson. He got off to a great start in the Arizona League. He had a little tougher time of it in his brief time at Vermont, but obviously everybody still seems to feel very positive about his abilities and what he’s capable of doing in the long run. So tell me what you think about Daniel Robertson at this stage of the game.
FZ: We feel very good about him. You’re right. He played very well in Arizona. He didn’t really have the results to show for it in Vermont, but nobody who was there thought that he was over-matched. And if he had another 10 or 20 games in the season at Vermont, I think he would have brought up his numbers. So we’re not concerned about that small sample that he had there. He’s one of the brightest and most motivated players I think we’ve ever brought into the system, so the intangibles that he brings in make you all the more excited about him. And our guys who really study swings, from (minor league hitting coordinator) Todd Steverson on down, all think he has one of the best and one of the most compact swings of the young guys out there. So that’s exciting when you hear about those kinds of skills that you know translate as you move up the ladder.
AF: Where do you see him playing in the field this year? Do you see him still starting at shortstop, or do you plan on moving him around the infield a bit?
FZ: It really sort of depends on how things shake out on the depth chart. His ability to play probably the most premium position on the field isn’t something you want to give up easily. So I think he’ll probably wind up getting time at both spots on the left side of the infield. But as well as he played short when he got the chance last year, we think it’s worth keeping him there and having him get some reps there.
AF: Eighth on our list is another infielder who hit really well in Arizona last year, and that’s third baseman Renato Nunez. He obviously doesn’t seem to have any problem swinging the bat, but he’s been a little shaky in the field thus far. So tell me what you think of Nunez both offensively and defensively at this point.
FZ: Yeah, you’re right. It was great to see him come over last year and put up the numbers that he did. And it was actually just a little unfortunate that we ran out of time and didn’t get the chance to move him up to Vermont because he was as deserving as Robertson and Olson of getting that late-season promotion. Defensively, it’s a work in progress. He has all the tools. I think it’s just a matter of him getting a few reps. Our defensive coaches, Juan Navarrete and the rest of the group, feel good about his chances to improve at third. You know, people have said this for a long time, you don’t want to read too much into error totals at the low minor league level. I think Derek Jeter’s first full season error total (56 in 126 games) is one of the most constantly thrown around statistics. We’re not concerned about that. He has plenty of time to work on refining his skills.
AF: Ninth on our list is the top pitcher you took in the draft last year, right-hander Nolan Sanburn. He only got in about 18 or 19 innings last year, but a lot of people are very high on him. So with the limited opportunity you’ve had to see him, what do you think about him so far?
FZ: It’s interesting. He doesn’t really fit the profile of the typical college pitcher we’ve drafted. He didn’t throw a ton of innings at Arkansas. He was only there for a year. He was really more of a middle reliever at Arkansas and didn’t get much of an opportunity to become a mainstay on that pitching staff for whatever reason. So what we got was a guy who you felt there was some track record, because he’s a guy who did pitch with a reasonable amount of success, but you also had the upside of a junior college or high school player almost. What we’ve seen so far has been really encouraging. He’s obviously got out stuff. He’s got a plus curveball. For him, he’s going to just have to work on his fastball command and refining a third pitch. But he has the physical build and endurance to be a starter. He’s got two pitches that are a really good foundation. And if he can refine the rest of his arsenal, he could be an impact-type guy.
AF: Tenth on our list is a guy who certainly wasn’t a high draft pick but who a lot of people have been saying good things about – Chris Bostick, who’s been playing both second and short. I think he was drafted in the 44th round and the numbers don’t necessarily jump off the page at you, but there are a lot of folks who seem to have a good feeling about him.
FZ: Chris was one of those guys at the tail end of the draft who we just wanted to see how he progressed over the summer. And he went to the NYCBL, which is probably one of the top ten summer college leagues around. And I’m not sure if he won the batting title, but he was either first or second in the league in hitting. I think he hit like .450. He had more walks than strikeouts. It was really one of the most impressive performances I’ve seen in a summer league for a kid who has just graduated from high school and was playing against college sophomores and juniors. So that’s what really got us excited about him. And you’re right, the numbers don’t necessarily pop off the page, but he has that performance history and all the ingredients and tools are there. So he’s definitely a little bit under the radar, but someone we are excited about.
AF: Your third overall draft pick last year, first baseman Matt Olson, is another guy who hit really well in the Arizona League and showed a lot of power there and looked good in a very brief stint with Vermont as well. So how to do you see Matt Olson at this point?
FZ: You know, it isn’t our common practice to take a high school first baseman that high in the draft. If you do that, it’s because you feel really good and excited about the bat. And he was a guy who matched that description. He’s a guy who we think has future plus, or even double-plus, power. He hit some long home runs in Arizona and carried that over into Vermont. So he’s a guy who profiles as an above-average offensive first baseman, which is saying a lot, because that’s a position that demands a lot offensively. But the whole key is that he continues to progress and starts moving towards achieving that power projection.
AF: And the final guy that everyone is always curious to know about is pitcher Michael Ynoa. After lots of time off due to injuries, he’s on the mend and getting back into the swing of things. So where are things at with Michael Ynoa?
FZ: I really think that the way he finished last season has given us a lot of reason for optimism. He went out and pitched outside the Arizona League for the first time. He had a couple of rough outings, but also had a couple of positive outings. And the reports on his stuff were really very encouraging. He was up to 95-96 mph, showing a full arsenal of pitches. And that was something that he carried into the Instructional League – he was one of the best pitchers for us both in terms of stuff and performance. He unfortunately got a late start this spring. He was a little sick in the Dominican and didn’t get over until a week into camp. He threw his first live bullpen session today against hitters over at Phoenix Muni. If everything went well with that, then he should be able to get into a game sometime soon. I think that would be a huge achievement and benchmark for him. He’s a guy who I think we’ve always felt that once he can get over his injuries, with the kind of stuff he has, he can make up for some of the lost time he’s had over the last few years.
AF: One last thing I’m curious to ask you about. When you’re analyzing minor league guys and their numbers, what is the first thing you’re looking at for both hitters and pitchers to try to get a handle on who the guys are who are most likely to be successful at the major league level?
FZ: Well, for a hitter, to be honest, for me, one of the biggest and most important metrics is walks and strikeouts. Guys that have a good ratio – just because those are an indicator of good plate discipline – the guys who, for the most part, swing at strikes and don’t swing at balls. And with the kind of stuff that you face in the big leagues, if you can’t do that, your chances for success drop dramatically. Hey, I’m not going to complain about the guy who hits .300 or has a .600 slugging percentage, but really, that’s the first thing that I look at because having good plate discipline is what really enables a lot of the actual hitting production to translate at a higher level. As far as pitching goes, strikeouts are a big factor. The other thing that really goes along with that is strike percentage. And I say that because sometimes we forget that not all strikeouts are created equal. There’s a big difference between throwing three strikes and just overpowering a guy, and having a 7-8-9 pitch at-bat where you have a full count and the guy fouls off a few pitches and then finally you strike him out. That first type of strikeout is a lot better indicator of skill and performance than the second type – so that’s why looking at strikeouts in conjunction with strike percentage is so important to me. Like I mentioned, once you get to the big leagues, you have to be able to pitch in the strike zone. If you’re striking out players in the minors by getting them to chase, it’s going to be a lot harder to replicate that success at the highest level. So those are the first things that I look at for hitters and pitchers at the minor league level.
AF: I was just reading something that said something pretty similar about walks and strikeouts for hitters. It was basically saying that whatever your hitting profile, once you get to the major leagues, you’re going to be striking out a lot more than you were in the minors. So you better start out with a decent ratio, because it’s going to be going down once you start having to face major league pitchers.
FZ: You know, I think there’s this common perception that that’s not something that you can get better at. I look at Grant Green, who went from Double-A to Triple-A and actually cut his strikeout rates dramatically, and I think that was maybe the single most encouraging thing about Grant’s season last year. And you look at Yoenis Cespedes, and there have been many articles written about his plate discipline through the course of the season from April to September and how he started swinging at more strikes and fewer balls and how, as he continued to do that, his production continued on an upward trajectory. Guys can get better, so I would never want to totally doom somebody to failure. And frankly, on the flip side, just because you have a good walk/strikeout ratio doesn’t guarantee success. But I think it is one of the best statistical predictors of hitters’ success at the big league level.
AF: Right, absolutely. That’s a lot of great information. I really appreciate it.
FZ: No problem. Just imagine how much more informative it would have been if I wasn’t out driving around and was at my computer.
AF: Well, the next time I talk to you, we’ll just have to make sure you’re staring at a computer!
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