Q: Tell us a little bit about your philosophy as you took over from Jack Hiatt this offseason.
A: I’ve been with Jack Hiatt a little bit in Houston when we worked together and nine years that I’ve worked here. We’ve worked closely together and we’ve had the same philosophy, and that was that we are here to develop each and every ballplayer and spend as much time as we can and develop those skills and get them as good as they can be based on their ability. There’s a fine line between winning and player development. I think you have to teach players how to win and so did Jack. You don’t just come out of college and you’re a winner. You have to learn how to play under certain stress factors and college is stressful, but the professional ranks is even more stressful, especially at the young minor league level because they’re trying to prove that they’re worth the money we gave them and where we drafted them. And we’re also juggling the fact that these affiliates have a lot of money tied up and they want a winner because that brings in people and that’s how they make their money.
It’s not a cut-and-dried deal where you say “we’re going to develop players and that comes first and winning comes second.” I think it’s hand-in-hand and I think you have to teach all your players and get them in the same mindset that we’re out here to win every ballgame. It’s a grind at the minor league level and you have to teach them to weather the storm and don’t get too high and don’t get too low. You have to stay pretty even-keeled to get through that long season.
Q: You lost one manager to the big leagues and another to Japan as part of a pretty significant turnover in the minor league coaching staff this offseason. What were you looking for in rebuilding that staff?
A: One of the things that we were very lucky with, when Lenn Sakata took the job in Japan, we were able to fill that role with Steve Decker who’s been the most successful manager we’ve had in our organization in the last three years. We have Dave Machemer who has a tremendous amount of baseball knowledge and he’s in the scouting area, then he’s going to manage in the Arizona Summer League. So, he took over for Bert Hunter who’s going to go into a multi-task role of baserunning, outfield and he’s going to be doing some hitting. We have expanded Bert Hunter’s role so that he’s a little bit more rounded. I actually had him as a player in the Houston Astros organization, so I’ve known Bert Hunter since 1986-1987, so I’m very familiar with his skills.
You talk about landing and getting very lucky, we were able to get a guy like Tom Treblehorn, who I worked for in the Brewers organization at the big-league level, who’s got tremendous skill level with young players and teaching and his knowledge of the game. He’s from Portland, OR and he’s going to take the Salem job. I just can’t think of a more qualified and a better guy for that guy than Tom Treblehorn.
Bien Figueroa was working with Tom in Baltimore, and he recommends him. If Tom recommends him, that’s good enough for me.
Some organizations feel it’s important to have some of your strongest managers in the first entry levels of baseball and right now we’ve got Tommy Treblehorn is the guy for the college guys who are coming in. Dave Machemer is taking over for all the young kids that are going to come from the Dominican over there and Steve Decker, who’s taken the guys we just signed last year [to the Northwest League championship] and he’s going to have them in San Jose. I can’t think of an organization that’s got better-qualified guys than we do at those positions.
Q: The organization has been more apt to let guys finish their season with the lower-level clubs the last few seasons. You look at a guy like Andy D'Alessio, and a lot of clubs would have been tempted to move him up. What do you look at when you make those decisions, and does it impact how likely you are to push a guy to skip a level to open this season?
We were really fortunate in having a position last year where Salem was in first place, Augusta was in first place and San Jose was in first place, and our Arizona Summer League team was fighting for the championship. So all four teams had guys in positions where we didn’t have a lot of holes. So, to take a guy from the Arizona Summer League and take him to Augusta, we had a first baseman [Brett Pill] who was one of our top prospects – you know, I think he had 40-plus doubles. If there’s a hole, we try to fill it. But we were very fortunate to have solid players at all those positions and just to move a guy just to move him doesn’t make sense. Let them have monster years if they can and let them build on that. And now if we have to jump him one division so we jump him from Salem to San Jose, we can and let him build on the success he had last year.
You’ve got to remember, [Andrew Davis] had a solid year at 3B, but he has Ryan Rohlinger in front. D’Alessio is a solid guy, but he had Pill in front of him. One of the things that an organization really loves is competition within. And if there’s a lot of competition and they come to spring training hungry and they’re fighting for a job, you’re going to see what you really have. If [a guy] comes to spring training thinking he’s going to get in shape and try to make a club… you better come in shape and be ready to play, because there’s a lot of competition at every level.
Q: Obviously, there's a lot of excitement about the talent you've brought into the system over the last 18 months, and much of it starts with Angel Villalona. Do you expect him to open the year in Augusta?
A: We’re going to give him every opportunity to make the Augusta ballclub at both third base and first base. That [competition at first base] is something that will play out.
We try to put people in positions where they can succeed. Struggling is one thing; failing is another. If a guy is struggling a little bit and he stays composed, sometimes guys turn it around in the second half.
Q: What are your plans for the two middle infielders who you took in the first round last year, Nick Noonan and Charlie Culberson?
Nick is at second base exclusively. We feel at this stage with Culberson's development, and we've got Burris and Bocock in front, that Nick could be on a fast track with his ability to swing the bat at second base.
There's been some talk that you might jump him all the way to San Jose to open the year.
Probably not. I think what we want to do is make sure they're in a league that's comfortable, let them play really well and put up some big numbers.
Q: After he signed late, fellow first-rounder Wendell Fairley only got on the field briefly at instructs. How is he doing this spring?
He had a little bit of a shoulder problem coming out of high school. They pitched him in addition to everything else and he strained his shoulder a little bit. He's had some point tenderness, so we're going real easy with him because our goal is to get him ready for April first. So, he's got limited duty as far as throwing from the outfield. He's hitting every day. We are going to start intra-squad games on Friday, and that will give everybody a little better look at what we've got.