Click here to read part 1 and here to read part 2 of this interview.
OaklandClubhouse: I get a lot of questions about Addison Russell and his timetable. It’s kind of crazy to think of timetables for a player who is not yet 21. How surprised or not surprised were you with how he performed in the Cal League last season, especially after he had a slow start? Does that maturity factor into how you think he will do in the higher levels?
Farhan Zaidi: If I’m being totally honest, I think not really surprised that he was able to come on as he did, particularly late in the Cal League season. He is obviously a pretty advanced kid for his age and with his kind of athleticism, it was only a matter of time before he was able to come on like he did. Part of that equation was that the Cal League is a very good hitter’s league and if you have the ability to make consistently hard contact, it is a league where you can put up big numbers. That is certainly something he is capable of.
We are thrilled with what he was able to do in that league, particularly in the second half. At the same token, I think everyone has to recognize that the jump from Stockton to Midland is the single biggest jump that position players have to make coming through our system. One, because the pitching is so much more advanced in Double-A. And two, in our particular case, just leaving the friendly confides of the Cal League and going to the Texas League, where it is sort of a mixed bag in terms of the offensive environments.
That’s a big jump. I feel strongly that we will preach patience as he makes that jump. Keep in mind the start that he got off to last year, which, on the one hand, has taught us that he has the ability to catch-up to a competition level if he struggles initially and hopefully he’ll be given that benefit of the doubt this year. But secondly, I think we should work to temper expectations a little bit, especially coming out of the gate. This is a big jump for him. He is going to be fine, but I don’t think we want to push him beyond his timetable of going one level at a time and give him some time to experience success [at each level] as he makes the climb.
OC: Looking back, of the recent top prospects in the A’s system, I can only think of two – Andre Ethier and Chris Carter – who went to Midland and had huge offensive seasons. Sometimes, though, the Texas League has a reputation for being a hitter-friendly league. Is it the Midland home ballpark that causes those struggles, do you think?
FZ: I don’t really know why that is because I agree with you that you do hear a lot about the Texas League being a hitter-friendly environment. Again, I think it gets back to three things: 1) it is clearly not as hitter-friendly as the Cal League, and 2) I do think that that step up from High-A ball to Double-A is where you start facing more consistently good pitching with less soft spots on pitching staffs. Every guy that you face [in Double-A and above] has at least some claim – if even a small one – of pitching in the big leagues at some point.
We have definitely had some guys that took a dip in Double-A and picked it right back up when they got to Sacramento. You are certainly right that it has been more of the exception than the rule for guys to continue or even improve their production from Stockton to Midland. That’s one of the reasons with a guy like Addison that we have to temper expectations. I think it is going to be more about his development and how people think he is adjusting than it is about a boxscore line on a day-in and day-out basis.
OC: Looking at the two top pitching prospects you have in big league camp – Michael Ynoa and Raul Alcantara – both are on an interesting timetable because, as international amateur free agent signees, they have already begun their option years even though both are still very young. In Alcantara’s case, that timetable doesn’t seem that unreasonable, but how difficult is it with a player like Ynoa who had some injuries early in his career and all of a sudden he has a very short period of time before he has to reach the big leagues for good or risk being exposed to waivers? Would you like to see baseball explore adding additional time to the option-years process for international players that sign at 16 or 17 years old?
FZ: It’s a fair question. I understand why the rule is in place. The reality is that most players still have plenty of time. With a guy like Michael, his career has really been an extreme case of getting set-back by injuries. I don’t know that you would take a career like Michael’s and say that it is an impetus for a rule change. You also try to understand the union’s perspective with these things in regards to the number of option years. From their standpoint, they don’t want organizations to be able to stash players and keep them from getting a big league opportunity just because they have the ability to keep them in the minors.
I think there are a lot of factors in play. There are certainly guys who are either late-bloomers or have injuries who do get set-back. Pedro Figueroa is another example of a player who we may not have released if he still had options. Unfortunately, the clock started clicking on him early and he is obviously out of options now. There are always going to be those exceptional cases where you wish you had some more time. But, by in large, I think the rules are fair and work well.
OC: How are you feeling about Michael going into spring training after what he was able to do last year?
FZ: I think you sort of hit on it a little bit with the question about options. I think there is a little bit of an urgency with Michael seeing as he is going to be in his second option year in 2014. I do think at the same time, we have to keep in mind how far he has come in the past year, pitching for a full season for the first time, getting 75 innings under his belt, pitching in the Futures Game, having a 2-ERA in the Midwest League. So he accomplished a lot in the last year.
For him to come from where he started last season to where he is now was a pretty big jump. If he is able to make another big jump like that over the course of 2014, I think we’ll be pretty happy and be in good shape.
Certainly the time urgency with his options status forces you to think of him more broadly, forces you to think of him more in a relief role, in which he could move a little bit quicker and perhaps impact the big league level relatively soon. Whereas without that time sensitivity, you would want to give him as much opportunity as possible to succeed in the starting rotation where his greatest value might lie. It does effect the decisions that we make on a player like him and it is something that we are going to have to take into account as his season gets underway.
OC: One of the guys who made a big jump after the High-A level was Dan Straily. I thought quietly last year he was one of, if not the, best starter in the A’s rotation down-the-stretch. It seems like he sometimes gets forgotten a little bit when the rotation is discussed. What do you think the biggest difference for him was between when he was inconsistent in the big leagues in 2012 and when he found more success during the final months of the 2013 season?
FZ: It’s amazing. Every once in awhile I see a stat of where Dan ranked on the rookie leaderboards for 2013, and I’m thinking ‘how was this guy still a rookie?’ because it did feel like he pitched for us a good amount in 2012. I think he was probably right at the innings or service-day limit.
I think all along with Dan it has been about trusting his stuff and believing that he could compete at the highest level and being able to pitch through adversity, which I think is the toughest thing for young starting pitchers to develop in the big leagues. As well as he pitched down-the-stretch, which I think you’re spot-on about, I think the most impressive thing for us was how badly he wanted the ball during our playoff series with Detroit. That is as high-pressure a situation as a rookie can be in, but he really wanted to be out there and believed that he could succeed for us.
He pitched a great game [in the playoffs]. He made one small mistake of a pitch that unfortunately cost him to Jhonny Peralta, but other than that, he pitched a fantastic game. I think that was a little bit overlooked in how the rest of that game unfolded. That was a huge point of development for him. For him to have that degree of success in the playoffs is something that I think he is going to carry into this season and hopefully take it up to the next level.
If you look at what he did in his last couple of stops in the minor leagues, I think he has a chance to get even better than he was at the end of last year.