The Sacramento River Cats boast three Pacific Coast League All-Stars this season – outfielder Michael Choice, second baseman Grant Green and pitcher Sonny Gray. All are former 1st-round draft picks and all could soon be seeing time in Oakland, so you forward-looking A’s fans ought to get acquainted with them while you can. We took the opportunity to talk with all three of them, along with River Cats pitching coach Rick Rodriguez, while in Sacramento last week to see how things are shaping up for some of the A’s top prospects…
The A’s top pick in 2010, Choice struggled a bit last year with Midland. But he had a great spring and seems to have turned the corner this year in Sacramento. With Chris Young not likely to be retained by the A’s next season, Choice could be in line to see time in the A’s outfield next year…
AF: You’ve been having a good year here in Sacramento, and you had a really good spring too. Did you have a little extra confidence, because it seems like you just came out the chute raring to go this year?
MC: Just going back to the off-season, I spent a lot of time working in the off-season and getting myself ready for spring training. And all the hard work just paid off.
AF: Was there anything you did different this off-season as opposed to the past?
MC: Not too different. I had a little more time to get things going. The off-season before I went to the [Arizona] Fall League, the season before that there was instructs (instructional league). So there was a lot more time to kind of rest and get yourself into more of a routine that you’d like to get into. So basically I had a lot of time to get in the cage, especially in the winter when it’s cold.
AF: So how did everyone treat you when you were in the big league camp this spring?
MC: Yeah, everybody’s cool up there. For the most part, the A’s clubhouse is pretty young. There’s not too many older guys up there, so everybody’s real receptive to each other.
AF: Was there anyone in particular who took you under their wing or took the time to show you the ropes a bit?
MC: Not anybody in particular. But I spent a lot more time with most of the outfielders in camp. Coco, C.Y., Reddick, Seth Smith – those guys are the ones I talked to the most up there.
AF: Well, after the spring you had, you must have had a lot of confidence and been pretty eager to get things going.
MC: Yeah, definitely. You’re always ready to get the season started because spring training gets long, especially once you go down to minor league camp. It’s the same thing everyday, and you’re just ready for some real games where it matters.
AF: So what would you say has been the key to the success you’ve been having this year?
MC: Just the experience of the game. The more games you play in, the more experience you get, the more you see guys, you just get into a routine of how to get better.
AF: It seems like you’ve been taking a lot of walks and getting on base a lot this year. Is there anything different in your approach at the plate, or is there anything different in what you’re looking for or what you’re trying to do at the plate?
MC: Not so much, just kind of basically picking up where I left off at the end of last year at Midland – just really trying to swing at good pitches, pitches I can handle that are more up in the zone and trying to leave the ones down alone.
AF: And what about your basic swing and your mechanics, how much are you still tweaking that, or are things pretty much settled in now?
MC: I mean, with hitting, you’re always tweaking something, but most of the time, it’s more mental than physical. At this point, I work on the physical stuff before the game, but once the game starts, it’s all mental and you’re more worried about what the pitcher has and how you’re going to be successful against him.
AF: Now they’ve been having you spend a little time in left field and right field this year. So how is it different for you playing the corner positions rather than center field?
MC: Corners are a little bit faster. You’ve got to read angles. Knowing the hitter’s important – which guys like to pull, which guys like to hit the ball opposite field. But it’s been going good so far, just getting my reps in during BP and making sure I can get good reads in the game.
AF: So is there anything in particular that you’re currently focused on working on either in the field or at the plate, or is it now just a matter of going out everyday and trying to follow through on the approach that you’ve developed at this point?
MC: You pretty much just hit the nail on the head right there. You know, everything I’ve done in preparation before the game, I just want that to play in the game.
AF: When you left the big league camp in spring training, did Bob Melvin or anybody pat you on the back or let you know they appreciated what they saw from you in camp this year?
MC: Yeah, you have those sit-down meetings before you get sent out, and they basically just said, “Keep working hard and knock the door down.”
The A’s top pick in 2009, Green has been a man without a home in the field. He started out as a shortstop, then switched to the outfield, and even saw a little time at third base. But he finally seems to be settling in at second base this season. And with the middle infield the murkiest part of the A’s major league roster, many A’s fans are already clamoring for Green to get his shot…
AF: You’ve been having a good year here, and things have been going well for you at the plate. So are there any particular adjustments you’ve made this season?
GG: Nothing different really, just the same stuff we were working on last year.
AF: And what was the key stuff you were working on last year?
GG: Just better plate discipline, better balance – that’s something we worked really hard on last year. I kind of had a good season and wanted to keep it going this year.
AF: So are you waiting more for your pitch now?
GG: Yeah, definitely not trying to get that pitcher’s pitch early and just waiting on mine.
AF: It seems like you’ve been hitting an awful lot of doubles this year. Is that just due to waiting for the right pitch a little more?
GG: Yeah, I’ve had a little bit more success hitting balls in the gap this year. I’ve always been the type of guy who’s had quite a few doubles. I think last year was the lowest amount of doubles I’ve had in a season. But it’s definitely just been a matter of getting my pitch and doing something with it.
AF: Were you feeling pretty confident to start the year?
GG: Yeah, then I hit a little valley here and there. I went on a couple of stretches that weren’t the best.
AF: Well, it seems like you’re in one of your best stretches of the year right now. Are you just seeing the ball really well right now?
GG: Yeah, I’m definitely just seeing the ball well. I’ve had a couple of at-bats where the ball’s fallen for me, and that kind of happens when you’re going well. So it’s been a combination of both.
AF: Well, you’ve also been hitting them over the wall and in the gaps lately too, so that’s not just luck. (He would hit two home runs in the game later that night). But what about in the field? You’ve been playing second base for most of the season, and it’s a rarity for you to be at one spot most of the season. How do you feel about second base and how are things developing for you over there?
GG: I’m feeling good. I’m definitely feeling a lot more comfortable than I was at the beginning of the year. It’s almost becoming second nature now. So that’s definitely a good feeling – being able to worry about one position only. I’m still just doing the usual, just working on little stuff here and there – whether it’s turning two around the bag, because it’s just a different look from what I’m used to, or different feeds to second base. Those are really the main two things that we work on.
AF: You’ve obviously spent plenty of time playing shortstop, so how does second base compare to shortstop for you? What’s different for you over there?
GG: Definitely, the view off the bat is much different. But other than that, the only other thing I really see that’s different is the turns. Coming from short, you’re able to kind of read the play because everything’s in front of you – you see the ball, see the runner. When you’re at second base, it’s more of a reaction thing, more of a feel, that you know on certain balls you’ve got to get rid of it quick and on other balls you’ve got a little bit more time and you can stay in there.
AF: And are you feeling more confident every day you’re out there at second?
GG: Oh yeah, much more confident. Like you said, it’s a rarity that I’ve been able to stay at one position most of the year. So it’s definitely nice to be able to know when you come to the yard that not only are you going to be playing but the odds are you’re going to be at one position and you’re going to be able to work on that one position during BP.
AF: So do you pay much attention to what’s going on with the big league club in Oakland and how they’re doing and how guys up there are playing?
GG: Not really, other than the guys I’ve come to know through the system who’ve gotten called up. Other than that, it’s not the thing on my mind. I’m a River Cat right now, and that’s what I am. So until that call-up comes, I’m going to be here in Sacramento being a River Cat.
AF: So do you live with any teammates here in Sacramento during the season?
GG: I’ve got an apartment just for the season with a couple of guys here – Ryan Ortiz and Paul Smyth have lived with me throughout the year.
AF: And finally, after long avoiding Twitter, there now seems to be a Twitter account for you (@GreenieLocks8). Now was that created by Sonny Gray and Bruce Billings, or does that actually belong to you?
GG: (Laughs) No, it is not mine. It’s something they have fun with. They definitely asked me if they could do it, and I said yes. It’s all fun. I’m not on the Twitter game, but more than likely, I’ll probably take it over at some point.
AF: So you were somewhat complicit in this thing anyway.
GG: Yeah, I told them as long as they didn’t get me in trouble, it was okay.
The A’s top pick in 2011, Gray had a lot to learn last year in his first full season at Midland. But he seems to have gotten over the hump this year at Sacramento and is clearly the A’s top pitching prospect, poised to pounce as soon as an opportunity pops up on the big league pitching staff. We had the chance to see his last start in Sacramento, where he allowed 4 runs in the 2nd inning but righted the ship and otherwise pitched flawlessly over 7 innings of work and walked away with a no-decision in a game the River Cats won. We talked to him in the Cats’ clubhouse after the game, along with Oakland Clubhouse’s Chris Biderman. Below are some selections from that post-game question-and-answer session…
Q: I know you’ve been working on your changeup for quite a while. So where do you feel you’re at with the changeup right now?
SG: I think it’s good. I think I threw 7 pitches in the 5th or 6th inning tonight, and I think I threw 5 changeups and got some early contact. So I’m very confident – I’ll throw it whenever, to righties or lefties. Tonight it got me out of the 2nd inning with the double play, and I got a lot of swings and groundballs and soft contact with it.
Q: Do you feel a lot more confident throwing it this year than you would have at any point last year?
SG: Oh, at any point in my whole career, in my whole life. It’s just something that finally got in my mind that it helps me and it makes me that much better of a pitcher.
Q: How do you feel about your overall command?
SG: I think it’s better than it’s been. It’s obviously something that you’re always going to work on. You’re always going to try to get better at that. But even tonight – I missed up in the zone a little bit in the 2nd inning and got hit – but other than that, it was a walk on a close pitch here, a walk on a close pitch there.
Q: If you had that kind of 2nd inning in a start last year, you might not have been able to recover. How much different of a pitcher are you now than you were at this time last year?
SG: I’ve felt really comfortable on the mound this whole year. I had a little bump in the road in the 2nd inning, and last year I might not have been able to make the adjustment and tone it down a little bit and start throwing changeups and curveballs for strikes and making my fastball look a little better. You know, it’s kind of frustrating to give up 4 runs in the 2nd inning feeling as good as I felt tonight, but it’s also kind of rewarding to be able to still get 7 innings after throwing almost 40 pitches in 1 inning.
Q: You took over the PCL lead in strikeouts tonight. Is that something you’re able to take some pride in?
SG: I think strikeouts are never a bad thing because you can kind of shut down an inning. But I think I am striking more guys out this year than last year.
Q: Is that because of the refinement of your secondary pitches?
SG: I think so. I think I’m getting a lot of swings on my breaking ball, and that’s probably because my fastball’s a little bit better this year and I’m throwing my breaking ball noticeably better this year than I did last year. I don’t know if it’s the weather here that allows you to do that. In Midland, it’s a little bit tough, but I have noticed that my breaking pitches have been better.
Q: Was it kind of cool to face a guy like Eric Chavez who’s been in the big leagues for as long as he has, or was that even on your mind at all?
SG: No, it wasn’t on my mind really. I didn’t really know.
Q: Is there anything in particular you’re focused on working on right now now that you’re feeling confident in the changeup a little more?
SG: The only thing I’m doing every time out is just trying to make pitches and get as many outs as possible. There’s not one thing that I would say I’m getting lectured on. It’s just trying to get outs every time you get out there.
Q: So at this point, it’s just a matter of executing the game plan and doing everything you know you need to do.
SG: Yeah, right.
Rick Rodriguez is the long-time River Cats pitching coach, though he also served a brief stint as the A’s bullpen coach last season. He’s had a hand in developing many of the A’s most talented young pitchers, and is now entrusted with guiding Sonny Gray’s glide path to the majors…
AF: So I wanted to talk to you primarily about Sonny Gray. Obviously he’s had a really good season and he kind of looks like he’s gotten over the hump. So, as his pitching coach here this year, can you define from your perspective what he’s been doing right this season?
RR: Yeah, this is really the first year I’ve ever worked with him. I remember him from spring training last year. And just going by the little bit I saw last year compared to this year, it’s like night and day. His command of his fastball has gotten a lot better. His changeup has gotten a lot better. He’s getting more confidence in it – he can throw it pretty much anytime now. His curveball has always been nasty. And he’s learning how to pitch. He’s learning that you just can’t pump fastballs in there all the time. So he’s using that changeup. He’s learning to pitch back and forth and learning how to use that changeup when he’s behind in the count.
AF: It certainly seems like his outings have been a lot more efficient. He’s throwing far fewer pitches, he’s not walking a lot of guys. So what’s the source of that newfound efficiency?
RR: I think it’s just more confidence. Coming into this level, he’s seeing that he can compete and dominate this league. And hopefully for however long he’s here, he can continue to do that and then when he goes to the big leagues he’ll have all the confidence in the world.
AF: Now what about his third pitch – the changeup? I know that’s something the organization’s been working on with him for a while now. So how’s that been developing?
RR: Yeah, I give him credit. He’s working hard in the bullpen on it. That’s part of his routine – he works it in. He knows you do X amount of fastballs here, okay now we’re going to do the changeup. He’s limiting the use of his breaking ball in his side work – he’s working primarily fastball/changeup. And I think that’s translated into the success he’s having right now.
AF: And I’m assuming that his command has improved as well, that he’s putting pitches where he wants to more frequently.
RR: Yeah, more frequently – there’s always room for improvement. And every once in a while, just like anybody else, all of a sudden the fastball command gets off track and then gets back on track. But his command has gotten a lot better.
AF: Is there any one particular thing that you’re trying to work on with him right now?
RR: You know, I keep talking to him – we preach first-pitch strikes. So we’re always working on first-pitch strikes. But in addition to that, once you get 0-1, hey let’s get 0-2. Instead of throwing a ball, let’s go 0-2 and start really putting those guys in a defensive mode. And I think he’s starting to understand that – he’s trying. It’s a learning process, and he’s still very young, so he’s still learning how to do all that.
AF: So you’d really like to make him even more aggressive right off the bat.
RR: Yeah, he’s got all the talent in the world. And like I said, he’s very young and he’s still working on some things, but he’s going to be a good one.
AF: Well, at this point, he’s the next prospect in line if anything should happen. So what do you think he still needs to do to be in a position to be a successful major league pitcher?
RR: His mound presence is very good. His emotional presence is very good in the dugout. I think that’s a big plus for him – I think he’s learned that. The one thing I think he probably needs to do is the execution of his pitches probably needs to be a little bit more consistent – meaning if the catcher’s going fastball down and away to a right-handed hitter, I want him to hit that fastball down and away or miss down and away, not for it to come back over the plate. And just like with anybody else, you get in little ruts and sometimes the ball does come back over. And with Sonny, he’s learning, if that ball does come back over, what to do to get it where he wants it. And I think if he can improve on that, he’s going to be tough.
AF: Is there anyone else on your staff here you’ve seen show a lot of improvement this year?
RR: Well, I had Scribner when I was the bullpen coach in Oakland last year. But down here, his control has gotten so much better. His curveball has gotten to the point where he can throw it pretty much at any time wherever he wants. And he’s doing very well both against left-handed hitters and right-handed hitters. Brian Gordon has come on very, very strong. He’s learned to command the strike zone with all his pitches. He tightened up his slider, which I think helped. Pedro Figueroa worked on some mechanical things and now his fastball command has gotten much better. His slider’s gotten a little bit sharper. So guys are still working, trying to get better, trying to iron out some stuff. But those three guys have come in and improved tremendously.
AF: So you think Scribner is a dramatically improved pitcher from what you saw of him in Oakland last year?
RR: Yeah, from what I saw of him in Oakland and from what I see now. Again, it’s about executing. But if he can just keep executing in Oakland the way he is here, he’s going to be fine.
Find out more about the A’s top prospects. Get the inside scoop on Choice, Green and Gray from their manager, Sacramento River Cats skipper Steve Scarsone, here.
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