Exclusive: Get the Inside Scoop on the A’s Top Prospects from Sacramento River Cats Skipper Steve Scarsone
After spending the past two seasons mentoring A’s minor leaguers as the manager at Midland, Steve Scarsone is now midway through his first season as the skipper in Sacramento. And he’s currently charged with overseeing the development of a number of the A’s former 1st-round draft picks – players like Sonny Gray, Michael Choice and Grant Green. We had the chance to talk with Scarsone last week and got his take on some of the team’s top prospects who could soon be seeing time in Oakland…
AF: Well, I wanted to start out by asking you about your ace, Sonny Gray. He’s been pretty consistent all year. So what’s your take on where he’s at at this stage of his development?
SS: Well, I think you hit it on the head – he’s been consistent all year. Last year he and I were both in Midland, and we saw him struggle – not on the field – but struggling trying to get a hold of some of the mechanics stuff that the pitching coaches were working with him on and getting away from some of his natural stuff that he had so much success with in college. And you know, it’s kind of tough as a young player because you fall back on your success in your amateur days…
AF: This worked for me before…
SS: Exactly, so there was some resistance to it all. And then eventually over time, there was just a little give and a little take, and he’s found himself a nice little compromising type of mechanics. And it’s a very clean delivery and windup and everything. He’s taken a lot of extra movement out. And it’s keeping him much more in line, which I think is a lot of the reason why he’s had so much more control and command of his fastball. And that’s his pitch – he’s got an A+ fastball. And anytime that he can spot that up, all of his other pitches are going to be all that much more effective. So he’s kind of built off of all those things and he’s had a tremendous season so far, and I think it all stems from that fastball command.
AF: So if the fastball’s going where it ought to go, then everything else falls into place after that.
SS: Certainly. As a hitter, if you’re facing a pitcher who’s putting his fastball where he wants it – in, out, up, down – it makes things tough. I mean, you’ve really got to get yourself geared up for a fastball, and then all of a sudden he comes back with a changeup of his breaking ball, which is a plus breaking ball as well. So he’s really given himself the opportunity to have three quality pitches and really keep hitters from having any kind of comfort in the box.
AF: It certainly seems like his games are a lot more efficient. He’s throwing far fewer pitches and walking far fewer guys and just getting through games a lot more quickly and efficiently.
SS: Exactly right. And that builds confidence, and then that confidence allows him to feel like he’s in control of this game. It’s been really fun to watch him progress from last year to this year, and we’re so excited to see what happens for him in the future.
AF: Well, I guess you’ve seen as much of him in the last couple of years as anyone. So what about his third pitch – the changeup – is that rounding into shape or is that still a work in progress?
SS: Still a work a progress – he still mixes that in with a little cutter, slider. You talk to some catchers, they’ll think it looks like a slider. Some catchers will say it’s a cutter. He says it’s a cutter. So those are things he’s still kind of working on. But just having that variety and dominating with the fastball and making that curveball something the hitter has to be concerned about makes for an effective pitcher.
AF: Another guy you had last year in Midland who also seems to have turned a corner is Michael Choice. So where do you see he’s at at this point?
SS: Well, I think Michael is becoming a much smarter player. He’s always been a smart player since I first got to see him last year. He really dissects his at-bats. He has an understanding of what pitchers are trying to do with him and how they’re trying to get him out, and he tries to get himself in the best position to avoid that. But he’s being more intelligent about how he approaches his game. He used to have a lot of movement in his swing and his set up. It’s a little bit more refined now, a little cleaner. He’s able to adjust himself during the course of a game. To me, that’s an intelligent ballplayer, when you can make adjustments on the fly and you can stay away from doing the same thing that’s not getting you results. He’s able to kind of pull himself away a little bit and redirect his energies. He has a lot of natural ability. His bat speed’s there – there’s a lot of good things there. So for him to make the next step, it’s going to be from those adjustments. And we’re seeing those adjustments, so we think that’s going to be a great advantage for him.
AF: It sounds like the bottom line is obviously he’s a very talented player, and he’s now learned that baseball is a game of constant adjustments – you’ve contantly got to make adjustments – and he’s now doing that.
SS: Exactly right. And I think it’s a good sign that he’s willing to do that. And we also moved him to the corner outfield spots to get him some experience on those. He’s made that adjustment and adapted to that and he’s done a good job there too. So you can see how his natural abilities allow him to adjust to other things as well, not just hitting.
AF: Well, it’s one thing to be talented, but it’s another thing to have some capacity for learning and developing.
SS: Right, yeah. That’s a good point – exactly right.
AF: Now what about Grant Green? He’s been hitting well lately and has been picking it up as the season’s gone on. He’s been out there at second base most of the time, just one position now. Where do you see him at this stage of the game both at the plate and in the field?
SS: Well, offensively as a hitter, we know what he can do. He’s done it at every level. He did it here last year. He’ll continue to hit as long as he wants to play this game. Going from shortstop to the outfield and now to second base has kind of frustrated him. But I also think he’s such a hard worker that he’s taken each position change and he’s run with it. But the move back to second base feels a little more natural to him. It might be the better position for him as opposed to shortstop – having a little bit more time for throws. And there are times when maybe he’s not making the right decision or his reactions were a little bit slow, but he’ll then come to us and ask what he could have done differently or we’ll go to him and tell him what he could have done differently. And that’s why he’s playing predominantly second base here, so that he can experience all those things. I think he should have a nice, easy transition up to the big leagues and he could be an everyday guy up there.
AF: So you think you’re seeing enough continual development from him the more he’s out there everyday at second base that you can pretty easily envision him as a major league second baseman at this point?
SS: Yeah, I think he’s there, especially since his bat plays up. We all know that if you hit, we’ll leave a little defense on the table. So that’s something that I think will make him a little bit more attractive to the major league club down the line. The defense will come. And you never know, he could end up being that guy that will be a full defensive and offensive player. But he’s still learning through some of those experiences.
AF: Well, another infielder who’s been playing a new position is Jemile Weeks, who’s been playing a lot of shortstop this year. So I’m curious to know how you think he’s been doing over there.
SS: Well, we had Green and him both here sharing some time at second base, so he was doing a lot of DH’ing and still is. And when Parrino went up earlier in the season, we had a little hole there at shortstop, so we put our heads together and Jemile said he’d played there in college. So we started working at it, and he did well over there. It took a little while for him to get his feet underneath him a little bit. At second base, you can wait for the ball a little bit more and play a little deeper. At shortstop, you’ve got to be more aggressive and come get balls. He doesn’t have a cannon of an arm, but he’s got a quick release. So he worked on it and he showed some good movement over there. So that’s an option. Obviously he’s done well at second base the days he’s played there. There’s talk of maybe moving him to the outfield (which has since happened). And I think where Jemile’s at in his head, he wants to do whatever he needs to do to make himself more attractive to a big league club. So he’s working hard everyday so he can get back to the big leagues.
AF: So do you think he has the right attitude to do what he needs to do at this point?
SS: I do. I really think his attitude’s been outstanding all season so far. Since day one, he showed up saying, “You know what, I don’t like this. I’d rather be there.” And I said, “No kidding. What are you going to do about it?” And he said, “I’m going to work my ass off and I’m going to be ready for when that chance comes.” And I said, “That’s all you can do, and I’ll help you.” So he’s been right on. I’ve been proud of the way he’s handled it.
AF: Now another piece of the infield puzzle is Hiro Nakajima. He’s been moving around getting looks at different positions – short, second, third. So can you tell me what you think of him at these different spots?
SS: Well, obviously he came over as a shortstop. Right now we’re trying to get him to gain some first-step movement. I think the years of playing in Japan, so many years on turf, he became a little bit of a sit-back-and-make-the-plays type of guy. So he’s got to train himself to be a little more of a grass-type player. But he’s really started to play with a lot more personality. He got the injury in spring training, and he worked his way through that. And I think he was a little hesitant when he first got here to Sacramento. But now that he’s feeling that the injury’s healed, we’re seeing much more energy, much more aggressiveness both on defense and offense, and it’s been fun to watch. We’ve decided to give him some experience at third and second just to give Oakland an opportunity if a utility-type role presents itself, since Lowrie’s having such a good season at shortstop. But his bat has come along, and you never know what could happen. He’s working hard and showing good progress and starting to look like a young kid.
AF: So, as of today, who would you say would be the best defensive second baseman on your roster?
SS: Green’s had the most reps over there. Parrino’s probably our best defensive player, but he hasn’t done much on that side there because of Weeks and Green predominantly taking all the playing time over there. But I really like what Green’s accomplished so far. He’s shown much more range. He’s much more consistent with the routine play. His turns and feeds are becoming more and more consistent. And that’s all we can ask for is to see the continual improvement.
AF: Is there anyone on your roster who I haven’t mentioned who’s particularly impressed you this season?
SS: In terms of position players, we picked up Stephen Vogt from the Rays right at the end of spring training – obviously he just went up, so it’s easy for me to say. But he’s been very impressive both offensively and defensively. And for a guy who didn’t really catch a whole lot the last couple of years, he’s been thrown into an everyday catching role and he’s stepped up and really been outstanding behind the plate in both working with the pitchers as well as blocking and throwing and all that other stuff. He’s been very impressive as well off the field, the leadership role he’s brought over too. So I had no problem at all letting the folks in Oakland know that he was a quality guy. We’re going to miss him while he’s gone.
Find out more about the A’s top prospects straight from their own mouths. Check out our recent interviews with Sonny Gray, Michael Choice and Grant Green here.
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