Fresh off a year in which he received Minor League Baseball's prestigious Sheldon "Chief" Bender Award, Oakland director of player development Keith Lieppman is currently celebrating his 40th season with the A's organization and 19th in his current role.
Lieppman essentially represents general manager Billy Beane's eyes for all happenings within the club's farm system, which consistently ranks among the best in the game. He recently took time out of his always busy schedule to chat with MLB.com from his ballpark seat in Las Vegas, where he was watching Triple-A Sacramento take on the Blue Jays' affiliate.
MLB.com: A lot of buzz was generated this offseason when the A's decided to swap Brett Wallace for Michael Taylor. Having watched both of them, can you say whether Oakland got the better end of the deal?
Lieppman: With Wallace, when we acquired him, there was such a great interest within the system of getting an amateur, and so many people were excited that we were able to get him in that trade. Having seen him last year and seeing what kind of hitter he really is, I know that he was, is and is going to be a very good player. He's obviously a very talented young player. In fact, I was able to see him the past two nights in Vegas. He's swinging the bat well and certainly doing a good job for Toronto's Triple-A team.
That being said, we were willing to trade someone whom we really cared for quite a bit, because we thought that highly of Taylor. We felt that this guy was a complete player that could be an equal or better hitter than Wallace, and he has other outstanding tools -- to play center field, to run and to have a great arm. And that's not to take anything away from Wallace, because we knew he'd be a great player. But if you look at the upside, Taylor brings a lot to this organization.
MLB.com: It seems that Taylor, since his arrival, is constantly being paired with Chris Carter in the same sentence. What kind of progress have you seen from them recently, and when do you potentially see them playing in Oakland?
Lieppman: So much of it depends on opportunity. Injuries sometimes force certain situations. Generally, when the big club is playing well and guys there are performing well, it's not necessarily a bad thing to give guys like Carter and Taylor more experience in the Minors. You never want to force anything. You want to see these guys dominating in their respective league, being able to make adjustments, having quality at-bats. And if they're doing those things, then it may be time to move them on to the big leagues. But it's not a perfect world. You have to wait for your opportunity.
Last year, when things weren't going so well in Oakland, we saw [Cliff] Pennington, [Daric] Barton and [Eric] Patterson get a chance to show what they can do earlier in the season rather than simply as a September callup. There's no easy way to get there, but both Carter and Taylor are on track. I've been watching them the last couple of days. Carter hit a home run and Taylor had two doubles in one game. They're both playing well, and I hope both continue to make adjustments. The Pacific Coast League is a good league, and I think it's challenging them. They're both holding up so far, and it's not an exact science, but they're certainly making their way toward the Majors.
MLB.com: As you said, injuries at the big league level play a rather large role in the advancement of several prospects. But who are some of the key prospects dealing with health issues right now?
Lieppman: Fautino De Los Santos has just started to get back on the mound. He took about three weeks off after encountering some elbow problems that are the result of the Tommy John surgery he had almost two years ago. He's been very slow coming back, but I saw him the other day and his velocity is coming back up. There's no perfect rehab, and so with him everything's kind of taken a little longer than expected. He's understandably frustrated about the situation, but things are looking up for him. He's in extended spring training in Arizona right now, and he should be pitching in a game very shortly. He's been throwing on the side, but it looks like he will be ready to go in games in the next couple of days.
Andrew Carignan is also in Arizona. He's been pitching in games down there and has been doing extremely well. He's slowly been making his way back from an arm injury, and his velocity appears to be back.
Another name that tends to come up is James Simmons, who is still home. He's had a very unusual shoulder injury since February. We're having a very difficult time locating exactly what is wrong. There's no actual defect that requires surgery. He's just experiencing lots of aches and pains in the shoulder, so until he is pain-free, we don't want to bring him to extended spring training. He's still in the process of undergoing physical therapy, so once he's able to throw without experiencing any kind of issues, we can start him up again.
MLB.com: How about Michael Ynoa? He was essentially the prize of the 2008 international amateur signing class, but he's been slowed by elbow and knee injuries.
Lieppman: He's been doing really well. I saw him a couple of times during Spring Training, and I was very impressed with him. He actually had a tough time with impacted wisdom teeth that recently took him probably a week to 10 days to recover from the procedure. Anyone who's experienced that knows how difficult it is to recover from something like that. So once he gets past that miserable stage of the process, he'll be back in Arizona -- probably not for another week or so. But before that, he was really looking great.
He'll probably pitch in Arizona unless he absolutely outperforms everyone and warrants being sent to Vancouver, but he really hasn't pitched consistently yet, so we haven't gotten the best indication yet of what he needs to do or how he needs to do it to keep moving forward. We're better off right now making sure he starts slow in Arizona and isn't rushed.
MLB.com: Sean Doolittle also appears to be walking along the injury-prone path. How is he doing?
Lieppman: He's probably had more setbacks than anybody. He reported to Spring Training and just continues to struggle. Right now, he's really only been working with physical therapists. He comes and tries to take batting practice, but the running and any other quick movement, he can't do with his surgically repaired knees right now. So he's basically just frustrated -- a good A's player waiting to get back on the field. It's unfortunate. He's just dealt with the worst of injuries. He hasn't even been on the field in awhile. The way things look right now, I'd be very surprised if he was able to play the outfield. He would have to be geared more toward first base.
MLB.com: Doolittle played alongside Adrian Cardenas in Triple-A Sacramento last year. Is Cardenas also on the mend?
Lieppman: He had a broken thumb, but he's actually played the last three games in Phoenix. And it looks like he'll be back in Sacramento probably within a week. He's definitely making a lot of progress. Barring any setbacks, things will definitely be fine for him.
MLB.com: We've already touched upon so many of the players who are considered the organization's top prospects, but who do you see as maybe flying under the radar a bit?
Lieppman: There's Henry Rodriguez in Sacramento, and he's been outstanding. He's been throwing 98 to 100 [mph] and simply dominating. Not that he's under the radar, but he's somebody who has maybe lost some attention recently. I've seen him pitch a couple of times already, and he's really much better around the strike zone. I think his focus and command have greatly improved, and he's been throwing strikes and tossing out a very effective slider. Tyson [Ross], between the two of them, had the better spring. But there's going to be room for Henry in the big leagues very soon.
MLB.com: Finally, on a personal level, how nice is it for you to see guys like Ross, Barton and Pennington succeed in the Majors having watched them come up through the system?
Lieppman: For me, I pretty much thought Tyson was going to start at Double-A, maybe Triple-A. I know he was one of our best young arms, but it was a tough decision for Beane and Bob [Geren]. They spent a lot of time deciding on him, maybe two or three hours. They came to the conclusion that he was ready, and I think it's a great story. The year before, no one expected [Andrew] Bailey to be there, either, but it says so much about our organization because the right calls were made on both those guys.
With Tyson, he was just here a year. But with some of the other guys, whether it's a Barton or Pennington, you watch them go through their ups and downs, and then you see them turn a corner. That's where you get the biggest enjoyment. To see them excel in a game of so many adjustments is great to watch, and that's where the reward comes in. You also see these guys come back and thank the staff and coaches who helped them along the way. I think a lot of people seem to forget how they got to where they are, but this organization has so many classy individuals. Guys like Barton and Bailey, they've all come back and thanked us.
Jane Lee is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.