Tony LaCava has a new job, although his title is still VP Baseball Operations he is now responsible for the farm system, replacing Dick Scott. I caught up with Tony last week and he graciously gave us some of his time to answer some questions about the farm system. Tony was a little cautious in our discussion, he was reluctant to get too excited about any player but he did let us know that JP Arencibia just had Lasik surgery.
BB: How much of a change is this new role for you, were you not responsible for the farm system in the past. Did Dick Scott report to you?
TL: No not directly. I worked closely with him but he reported directly to JP. In many ways I worked closely with him, I also scouted the affiliates and I too reported to JP on that but he didn't report directly to me.
BB: So now that you are four months in to your new role are there many changes we will see in minor league operations?
TL: I am not sure how many of the changes will be visible to you, I don't think many of the changes will be visible to you. We made some changes to the staff and assignments. We are excited about the guys we added, we wish the guys well who were here in the past and they were good people too but we are excited about the new direction. Doug Davis and Charlie Wilson are going to split up the day to day duties that Dick had and they will report to me. I will be in Toronto quite a bit working closely with Alex on the major league team and Doug and Charlie will handle day to day.
BB: Will they be doing the same things? Up to now Charlie has been more administrative and Doug more on the field.
TL: Well Doug has never been field coordinator and that's what he is listed as but he will take on many of Dick's baseball responsibilities and the instruction part. He and Charlie worked together on putting the staff together, I was involved too, but quite a bit of it was done by those guys. So we really like the staff we put together but the biggest change you will see is we will slow down the promotions of the high school players. We're going to be a little more careful with those guys in how we bring them along, maybe be not so aggressive. I think the way the college guys have progressed is fine. But the high school player, and the international player, I think we need to be more careful in how we move them, not be so aggressive, let them get their legs underneath them and have some success.
BB: If we can go back to the organization for a minute you have done a great job at developing pitchers and you have left most of your pitching coaches in the same positions. The turnover has been at the hitting coach position, is that because you needed to do a better job of developing your hitters?
TL: I can see where people would look into it and see that but those coaches did a great job and worked hard with our hitters. We were hoping for better results but some of the slow results was due to the aggressive promotion of some of the kids and I wouldn't point any fingers at the guys who were here who worked hard and truly cared. I can see where people look and say that you changed all the hitting guys and that was to do with the performance but it was more coincidence.
BB: Many experts have not given the system a very high ranking this winter, what is your assessment of the system?
TL: The system is certainly improved after the trades. The Halladay trade and the even the Rolen trade with Stewart and Roenicke improved the system and and we also put a lot of talent in the big leagues last year. A lot of the pitchers who got to the big leagues last year such as Cecil and Zep, as well as Travis, don't count for the rankings this winter. Of course we would prefer to have them in the major leagues rather than in the minor leagues but when you do graduate that kind of talent obviously your system does not look as good as it would have if those players were back down there. We are also excited about having nine picks in their first three rounds of the draft if Barajas signs somewhere, that should be another chance to add talent.
BB: With regard to the high school hitters, especially Jackson, Ahrens and Tolisano, they have had a couple of full years now, and some people believe a hitter is a hitter, and the fact that none of them have hit over .280 yet suggests that it will be a big climb for those guys to reach the big leagues.
TL: We certainly think they have talent and ability, but we will try to slow them down a little bit. They are only 21 years old and they have played at the high A level. They are still young enough. They will be playing this year at the age where college kids gets drafted. And they already have several years under their belt. This will be a big year for them and I expect them to prove, and hopefully show everyone, what we believed in them when we drafted them.
BB: Is there a chance that some of those guys will have to go back to Lansing?
TL: We are going to be open-minded to whatever it takes. We will see them in spring training, put the pegs in the holes, and put guys at the appropriate levels and not worry about rushing them, and make good decisions about where they need to be and take a lot of things into consideration.
BB: You have a potential logjam at shortstop in Dunedin. Justin Jackson will be back from injury and Tyler Pastornicky had a very good full season in 2009 including a few strong weeks in Dunedin. Have you thought about what to do or have you considered a position change?
TL: No we are not looking to switch anybody right now, it's a nice problem to have. These things usually work themselves out and I think the most important thing is placing their bats where they need to be. That's what we will do, put the bat where it needs to be. Positionally they will be able to get work at whatever position we put them at, if it's not full time at the shortstop position and if it's twice a week there or whatever we decide is best. You could look back at the Cleveland Indians and they had John McDonald as an everday shortstop and Marco Scutaro at second (BB: in the minor leagues) and you can see that didn't hurt Scutaro from being an everyday major league shortstop. The most important thing is to put the bat where it needs to be and work to stay sharp at the defensive position even if you are not playing it every day.
BB: You have a lot of 2009 draftees who haven't appeared in a game yet, Jenkins, Marisnick, Hobson, Webb and Hutchinson. You have seen them in instructional league and mini-camp. Is there any one of these players who has exceeded your expectations?
TL: Jenkins obviously was our first round pick and Marisnick is a potential five tool guy so we are excited to have those guys. Hobson has a chance with the bat as well. There is a young international signing that we made last year, a kid named Nesi who is only 16, he is a catcher from Venezuela who we like quite a bit. Webb and Hutchinson are guys we took later (in the draft) who we like quite a bit and I am probably forgetting a guy or two. We don't want to make too much of them yet, they haven't played or pitched an inning yet so we certainly need to see them and get a read on them. Instructional league is one thing but now let's get a look at them in spring training and ultimately in games.
BB: Marisnick by my count is the fourth or fifth speedy high school outfielder you have drafted in the last few years with players like Eiland, Brisker, Kenny Wilson and maybe even Michael Crouse. How does Marisnick differ from those guys?
TL: All those guys have physical talents. Kenny Wilson is not as big as those guys but he is the fastest of the group. The others are tall, athletic and tooled, they are in the same mould.
BB: In the last few years the organization pushed some of the high school guys to Lansing because the season there started earlier. Are you saying that this year you are less likely to push those guys to Lansing?
TL: That's probably a fair statement, we are going to go case by case but as a rule we need to see that those guys are ready to go to that level. It is a very big jump to go from high school to the Midwest League. It is a tough league for young hitters.
BB: Any of the 2009 draftees, who played in 2009, catch your eye?
TL: I think Goins has a chance to be a good player, we are really happy to have him. Ochinko had a great year there, he looks like he will be a good get in a round where you don't expect a guy of his talent to be there. His off the field stuff is great coming off that LSU championship, I think he has some intangibles as well. Schimpf is also off that LSU team and we are excited about him. Those guys have only played a half season and I might be forgetting someone too.
BB: Is Ochinko still a catcher?
TL: We like him as a catcher but he can also play third or first. He has some versatility but we see him as a catcher first.
BB: Is Brett Wallace now a first baseman or are you going to leave him at third?
TL: We are going to move Brett over to first.
BB: Moises Sierra had a great year last year but some rankings don't rate him highly, Baseball America didn't put him in their top ten. What does he have to do to prove the doubters wrong?
TL: I am not sure because we sure like him. We thought he had a great year for us, he was young for the league, but he got a little tired at the end.
BB: I think they question his ability to hit for enough power to be a corner outfielder.
TL: As you know power is often the last thing to come. We are most concerned about him being a good hitter first and I think he has proven that he is a good hitter and he has the typical right field tools, he has one of the best arms in the minor leagues and we are hoping he can take the next step.
BB: Your two top catchers, JP Arencibia and Brian Jeroloman, had mixed years in 2009. Arencibia had trouble being more selective and Jeroloman being more aggressive. What do you expect from them in 2010?
TL: Every year you play hopefully you learn and get more experience. For JP a full season in AAA is going to help him going forward. He improved defensively and finished strong. He had a couple of health issues, a kidney issue that was taken care of and I know he just had Lasik surgery. It will be fun to watch him and we expect big things out of him. Jeroloman is as good a defensive catcher as there is in baseball and he needs to work on his offensive game and we still believe in him and we are just going to keep running him out there and hopefully he finds his way.
BB: Is Justin Jackson ready to go?
TL: Yes he is, he is taking swings and I can't wait to see him. I think it would be a mistake to give up on a kid with that talent. I wish he hadn't been injured last season. People don't realize it's tough to hit when your left shoulder isn't right for most of the year so hopefully he'll rebound from that.
Thanks Tony from Batters Box.