Exclusive: A’s Director of Player Personnel Billy Owens Talks Top Prospects with A’s Farm

bo1151079bWell, we’re now about a month and a half into the baseball season. And just as we’re at a point where the A’s front office typically takes a step back and evaluates where the major league roster is at, it’s also a great time to take a step back and see where some of the A’s top prospects are at. And it’d be hard to find anyone better-suited to help us do that than the A’s director of player personnel, Billy Owens.

Owens originally joined the A’s organization back in 1999, working as an area scout and coaching short-season baseball over the next five years. He was promoted to his current position in 2004, where he’s been able to put his knowledge of the game and its players to much more thorough use. Owens spoke with us earlier this week while he was in southern California scouting prospects for next month’s amateur draft. And as we talked with him about some of the team’s top young players, his genuine enthusiasm for the prospects currently stocking the A’s system was apparent…


AF:  Well, let’s start off with shortstop Addison Russell who’s missed the past month and a half with a hamstring injury. Do you have any sort of updates to offer on him? It must be a little disappointing for you to have him off the field for so long this season. Has it tempered your expectations for his progress over the course of this season?

BO:  We’re so excited about Addison as a person and as a player that we just want to make sure he’s totally healthy so that when he’s ready to go, he can go out there and perform. But the way he acclimated himself to spring training, being around the big league players, he was definitely in a comfort zone compared to his first spring training and he was performing very well. He was hitting the ball with authority. He was making the plays in the field. I’ve been with the Oakland A’s since November of ‘98, and I’m as excited about Addison Russell as anybody we’ve had during that time frame.

AF:  Another guy at Midland who everyone’s always interested in is outfielder Billy Burns. He hasn’t really been tearing things up down there like he was in the spring. What’s your take on what’s up with him at Midland?

bbu1275322cBO:  We’re still very excited about Billy Burns. His walk-to-strikeout ratio is very good. His stolen base percentage has been exceptional throughout his career. The speed is still an elite tool. He’s definitely putting the ball in play. So the odds are, over the course of the season, Billy Burns will definitely have his numbers. And he’s somebody to be excited about. The talent he showed in spring training was not an aberration.

AF:  Is there anything in particular that you guys have him working on or need him to be working on down there this year?

BO:  The kid only switch-hit a little bit in high school and didn’t really do it in college, then he went back to batting both ways as a professional, so he’s still getting acclimated to that. Similar to Billy Hamilton, he’s a different style hitter from the left side and the right side, but he’s always in control of the zone – more walks than strikeouts historically for his career from both sides of the plate. His makeup is off the charts, he’s a hard worker, he loves the game and he gets the utmost out of his ability – so we’re as excited about Billy Burns right now as we were the day we acquired him.

AF:  Okay, let’s talk about some of the guys at Stockton since that seems to be where so many of the top prospects are this year. Michael Ynoa was out for a bit with a bicep strain, but he’s come back and looked pretty dominant in his last few appearances. So can you tell me what you’re seeing out of him and what you’re expectations are for him at this point?

BO:  He’s just a kid who’s still 22 years old. He’s got a lot of talent, he’s up to 97 [mph], he’s got a great body and he’s got a fluid delivery. The breaking ball’s still crisp and the changeup’s improving. It’s just a matter of him being able to go out there and have a season where he’s able to accumulate innings and compete every day. And I think if he’s able to sustain time on the field, the talent will manifest itself. It’s just a fact that over his career he hasn’t been able to be on the field because of various ailments. But if he’s out there, the talent’s definitely there. Hopefully he can just be on the field here the rest of the season, and then we’ll see exactly what he can do with that 95 mph fastball and a good breaking ball and a changeup.

AF:  I guess it just boils down to him staying healthy. And if he can stay on the field, then it sounds like you have plenty of confidence in his ability to succeed as long as he stays healthy.

Michael YnoaBO:  Yeah, he’s got to stay healthy. It’s been one of those freak things over the years. Last year, for the first half of the season in Beloit, he was able to make about 15 successful starts in a row, and the results were very positive. Then he came to the California League last year, and then he was shut down for the season. This year early, he was a little bit rocky. But he’s come back and he’s been topping out at 97 [mph] and the breaking ball’s been good. So the talent’s there, but from an experience standpoint, he’s had less than 200 innings in his whole professional career. So he’s just got to be on the mound and get the experience and from there the talent will manifest.

AF:  Another arm at Stockton who’s probably been the most impressive pitching prospect in the system this year is Seth Streich. So can you tell me what you’ve been seeing out of him and what’s accounted for him being able to kick it up a notch, particularly pitching in the California League?

BO:  Last year, his stuff was really good. He was up around 94-95 mph, but the results weren’t totally there the first half of the season. But Scott Emerson, our pitching coordinator, was able to work with him and, all of a sudden, the results started to change halfway through last year. The stuff’s definitely there – good movement on the fastball, he’s got a solid slider and he’s got a good changeup. And the reports from Rich Sparks, the area scout who signed him initially, are coming to fruition. Seth’s a very good competitor, the stuff’s there and really since last year, probably the middle of July, he’s pitched very well.

AF:  A young guy at Stockton whom you guys moved there as a 19-year-old this year, just like you did with Addison Russell last year, is your top draft pick from last year, outfielder Billy McKinney. He’s been showing some power and taking his walks even if his batting average has been a little low. But tell me what you think of Billy McKinney as a 19-year-old in the California League so far this season?

Billy McKinneyBO:  I’ve been very impressed, to be honest. I mean, the kid has 6 home runs, he’s got an abundant amount of walks already, he’s having really good at-bats and the game reports are pretty positive every night. I mean, that’s definitely an aggressive assignment. And we know, through the course of the season, he’s going to be able to excel. And for me, for May 14th, he’s doing very well. To have 6 home runs at 19 years old and have the walk numbers he’s been able to accumulate, it’s been a very positive assessment of his abilities so far.

AF:  I know it’s the California League, but have you been a little surprised by the early power numbers he put up?

BO:  Billy had an outstanding spring training. He had about 25 at-bats in major league camp. He definitely had a handful of extra-base hits in big league camp. Armann Brown, our scout out there in Texas, identified Billy early. He’s somebody who Eric Kubota, our scouting director, identified early. And he can hit, he’s a natural hitter, he’s hit all through the pros and he’s going to have power. I would say with Billy, Mark Kotsay, who played here for a long time, that would probably be the ceiling and David Murphy, who plays for the Indians now, that would kind of be the floor of what I would project Billy McKinney to be as a major league baseball player. But all signs are positive, the kid’s a great makeup kid, he’s having tremendous at-bats, and the average will heighten during the course of the season.

AF:  One guy at Stockton who maybe has a little more experience than some of the guys there is Bruce Maxwell. Can you tell me where you see him at in his development both at the plate and behind the plate as a catcher?

bmDSC02921bxBO:  Yeah, Bruce (Wayne) Maxwell has definitely made tremendous strides since he signed. We signed him out of Birmingham-Southern. He was definitely an offensive-first player. His numbers were tremendous in college – the strikeout-to-walk ratio, the homers, the base hits. And I think when Bruce joined the organization, he worked so hard on improving his catching abilities that his offense took a back seat. And he went from being a guy who was kind of a catcher initially, now he’s a strong defensive catcher. He’s got a tremendous throwing arm and his numbers are solid as far as throwing runners out. He’s always been a good hitter, and now that he’s a tremendous backstop as well, that bodes well for him being a positive prospect going forward. And like so many of our guys in that Stockton crew, those guys are such hard workers. Those players, they love the game and have a tremendous zest and energy for baseball. The Matt Olsons, the Daniel Robertsons, the Billy McKinneys, Addison Russell – I mean, that crew has a love of the game 24/7, so that’s a fun group.

AF:  I guess you don’t have to teach them how to be motivated anyway!

BO:  Yeah, and that’s half the battle to be honest. I mean, those guys are very motivated. You see Matt Olson, who had a big night the other night – 2 home runs and a double – 30 walks on the season, 9 homers, 20 years old, tremendous defender, great attitude. Just seeing these kids when they first signed up and how they jelled with each other right away, I think that’s helped their performance out.

AF:  I was just about to ask you to talk about Matt Olson, as well as Max Muncy, so is there anything else you had to offer?

BO:  I think that Matt Olson as well as Max Muncy have both proven that they’re really good defenders at first base. And with Muncy, we’ve been able to dabble with him playing a little bit at third base, and Matt Olson’s a tremendous defender as well.

AF:  Can you talk a little bit more about what you saw out of Max Muncy earlier this year at Midland before he broke his finger?

mmDSC02925bxBO:  Yeah, he was controlling the zone as usual. I think last year, by the time he got to Double-A and the [Arizona] Fall League – his first full season – he’s such a hard worker, that maybe he got a little bit fatigued. But it also gave him a taste of what he had to do against higher level competition. He came back and got a little bit stronger, his eyes got cleaner and he was having tremendous at-bats. His strikeout-to-walk ratio improved considerably from last year at Double-A and the extra-base hits were coming in bunches. He played an outstanding first base and he was actually playing a pretty solid third base as well. He’s just a baseball rat. And the kids who compete every day and have that enthusiasm, when they have talent, they get the most out of their abilities. And Max Muncy is definitely going to get the most out of his abilities and we’re definitely encouraged by what he’s done so far in the Double-A season.

AF:  Speaking of third base, back at Stockton, Renato Nunez has certainly looked a whole lot better in the field so far this season after leading the organization in errors last year, but he still seems to have a little work to do in terms of his plate discipline. Can you talk a little bit about where he’s at both offensively and defensively at this point?

BO:  Renato, he’s a natural hitter. He’s 19 years old, he’s a smart kid. He’s a good enough hitter where he’s able to barrel pretty much any pitch in the strike zone. But with that, you become so fearless that you’re able to swing at more pitches. So as he matures, I think he’s going to get smarter and realize that for him to drive the ball more successfully, he’s got to just concentrate on swinging within the strike zone. But Renato’s smart enough and he’s a good enough baseball player to make those adjustments. And in the field, he’s another kid who’s a worker. We signed Renato when he was 16 years old. We scouted him since he was 14. His bat was always his forte and we signed him because of his bat, but he’s improved his defensive abilities. He gives you a lot of heart and a lot of effort and he’s making the plays more routinely this year, so that’s definitely an arrow pointing forward. But Renato’s a hitter, and he will improve his plate discipline. He’s got a gorgeous swing and the power will be there. But that’s his forte when he’s got that Louisville Slugger in his hands.

drrobertson480_szmaxxpi_ibplc2rl2AF:  Going around the Stockton infield, Daniel Robertson has been pretty solid. He’s been taking his walks, getting his doubles and has had a good average playing shortstop every day. What are your thoughts on him at this stage of the game?

BO:  He’s an outstanding prospect. He can definitely play shortstop – he’s got great instincts, tremendous hands, his arm’s accurate. His plate discipline this year has gotten better. And he’s such a sharp kid that he recognized what he needed to improve upon from the Midwest League. Plate discipline was definitely at the top of the list. And he’s definitely tackled that so far this year – taking his walks, hitting the ball in the gaps for extra bases. He’s had a nice swing. He’s probably the first guy at the field every day and the last guy to leave. I couldn’t be more excited. And it’s funny, Daniel Robertson is definitely playing good shortstop. But the fact that Daniel Robertson and Addison Russell came up together, you look at them almost like an Alan Trammell and a Lou Whitaker. But honestly, being able to play short, he could play anywhere in the infield.

AF:  So my understanding is that as long as he can play shortstop and Addison’s not in the major leagues, you guys are content to have him continue to stay at short and you feel confident that he can eventually make the move at some point without too much trouble.

BO:  Yeah, he can definitely play shortstop, and there’s value in keeping him at shortstop. But in a dream scenario, with guys staying healthy going forward and coming to fruition, I always envisioned those guys – Addison Russell and Daniel Robertson – being the Oakland version of Trammell and Whitaker.

AF:  And they might even share an apartment together too! A couple of other guys you were pretty aggressive putting at Stockton this year were two of your 2013 draftees, infielders Chad Pinder and Ryon Healy. So can you tell me a little bit about the A’s decision to start both those guys at Stockton and what you’ve seen out of both of them so far this year?

cpDSC03243dBO:  Chad Pinder’s a kid whose father played some pro ball, so he had an idea what to expect. He started three years in college at Virginia Tech. I think he had an injury last year that bothered him initially in short-season ball and was never totally able to get comfortable there, but we always liked the ability. He had a strong Instructional League and carried over to spring training, and he definitely gained some strength. So it was pretty easy to let him go to the California League. And he’s done pretty well so far – 6 homers to start, his average is high. But I’d still like to look at that strikeout-to-walk ratio and tighten that up – you know, swing at strikes and take the balls and have that good strikeout-to-walk ratio. That’s something that Chad can definitely improve on, but I’m definitely encouraged by the 6 homers, the high average and playing solid defense as well. Ryon Healy’s a kid from California who went to the University of Oregon. He always hit in college and had a tremendous last year before we drafted him. He’s another kid who unfortunately had a few injuries initially to start his career, but now he’s starting to get acclimated. He’ll hit. He’s definitely got a nice swing, he’s got power potential. It’s early in the year and he’s creeping up there towards the Mendoza Line. Once he passes that and keeps on moving forward and improving that strikeout-to-walk ratio, the talent will be there and he’ll hit this year.

AF:  As far as Pinder goes position-wise, do you envision him sticking at second base at this point, or what are your thoughts on where he ends up playing in the long-term?

BO:  I think he could play all three. You’ve got to play certain guys at certain places because we’ve got other players there. But he definitely could play second, he could play third – he’s got the arm to handle anywhere in the infield. I look at Chad Pinder in a dream scenario as a J.J. Hardy type of player who’s got some sock for a middle infielder and does a lot of different things well. So he could definitely play anywhere in the infield.

AF:  And in terms of jumping those guys to Stockton, is part of the thinking that the hitting environment in Beloit, particularly early in the year when it’s so cold up there, is not necessarily the best thing for some of your top hitting prospects?

BO:  Obviously, the California League is a little bit warmer than it is in the Midwest League, but you’ve got to hit anywhere. And that’s probably one of the best things about our organization is that we reward performance. So wherever you got drafted and whatever amount of money you signed for, if you perform, we will reward you. So that’s pretty much it in a nutshell. Pinder had a good enough spring training and a strong Instructional League. And the other guys were younger for the most part in Beloit and that’s the way it broke down this year.

tlLadendorf, Tyler2AF:  Just to skip up to Sacramento for a minute, one guy who’s impressed up there this year after being stuck at Midland for the past few years is Tyler Ladendorf. Can you tell me a little bit about what you’ve seen out of him this year and what your expectations are for him at this point?

BO:  I just think the more and more we watch baseball in 2014, guys who have versatility and can still hit for a decent average and have some extra-base hits, if they can play the infield and outfield well, they can make themselves assets to an organization. So Tyler’s always been able to play short, been able to play third, been able to play second, put him in the outfield. And he came to spring training and had a couple little cameos in big league camp and did pretty well and he started off pretty hot there at Sacramento. So you’ve got somebody you can put out at short, you can put out at third, you can put out in center field and really not miss a beat offensively or defensively. Ben Zobrist is kind of a guy that’s popular in today’s game, but I remember Tony Phillips for the A’s back in the day who could get on base, hit some homers and pretty much play anywhere on the field. So when you’ve got a player like Ladendorf who can do so many things defensively and then starts swinging the bat more positively, he’s answered the call this year.

AF:  The A’s have a lot of interesting young pitching prospects up at Beloit this year. Is there anyone up there on that staff who you’ve really got your eye on right now?

BO:  Well, I think Ronald Herrera is a kid who had a tremendous rookie league last year. He’s 19 years old, he’s up to 93 [mph] – he’ll touch 94 [mph] – tremendous delivery. His breaking ball’s solid, he can back you up a little bit with the changeup, he’s aggressive and he’s got a tremendous demeanor. In a lot of ways, he’s what Raul Alcantara was 2-3-4 years ago. So Ronald Herrera is definitely somebody to watch up there at Beloit.

AF:  And finally, is there anyone else we haven’t talked who you’ve got your eye on who’s made their way on to your radar this year?

PowellBO:  Yeah, the kid [Herschel] “Boog” Powell. I saw him last year in rookie ball and he played very well, put the bat on the ball, got on base, stole bases. He went up to the New York-Penn League last year and put the bat on the ball, got on base, stole bases and played good center field. And lo and behold, here we are again and he’s putting the ball in play, getting on base, stealing bases and playing outstanding defense again. He’s tenacious, he’s a worker, he believes in his abilities, and he’s definitely putting himself more and more on the radar. And like I said, from Billy Beane on down, we reward performance. And if you look at our big league team, if they play well, they’ll get opportunities. So a kid like “Boog” Powell, he’s definitely put himself on the radar.

AF:  Well, I’d imagine that having the best on-base perecentage in the A’s system probably doesn’t hurt.

BO:  No, it doesn’t hurt a bit. And it’s been becoming a trend with him.

AF:  Great, thanks a lot for all the info, Billy.

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