It’s often the case in baseball that injuries can end up opening the door for young players to show what they can do. With injuries to outfielders Coco Crisp and Josh Reddick, it’s fortunate that the A’s have had some young players impressing in camp this spring.
And during the final week of spring training in Arizona, we took the opportunity to talk with three of the A’s up and coming hitting prospects who could be end up playing key roles with the team both this season and in the future.
Acquired from Minnesota in the Orlando Cabrera trade back in 2009, Ladendorf has spent most of his time in the A’s system at the Class-A and Double-A levels but finally got some serious time at Triple-A last season. Primarily known for his glove in the past, Ladendorf’s bat came alive at Sacramento last year. But just as he was enjoying his best season at the plate, he found himself sidelined by a suspension when he tested positive for a drug of abuse. Ladendorf has come back strong this spring though. A’s manager Bob Melvin has repeatedly praised his versatility. And it appears that his ability to play second, short and third as well as all three outfield positions is likely to land him a roster spot with the A’s on opening day.
AF: Well, you’ve gotten plenty of at-bats here in the big league camp this year. What’s the experience been like for you?
TL: It’s been fun. This is my first big league camp. I’m just trying to get my feet wet and get to know everybody. I mean, it’s been awesome with this group right here. You could tell early, it was a bit quieter. But now the last couple of days, it’s just been fun to be around with this group.
AF: So how is this experience different from being over in the minor league camp?
TL: There’s just more going on. More attention’s paid to all the little details. You’ve just got to be on top of your stuff a little bit more over here. They’re not going to hold your hand over here, that’s for sure.
AF: Is there anyone here in camp who’s taken you under their wing a bit?
TL: Some of the pitchers like [Ryan] Cook and [Sean] Doolittle. But I feel like some of these guys, even though they’ve got big league time, I feel like I’ve been here [in the organization] longer than just about anybody in here, in all seriousness.
AF: You’re definitely an organizational veteran – you’ve been here since 2009!
TL: I’m just excited for what this year brings. I’m just happy to be back out there playing more than anything.
AF: Last year, you finally made it up to Triple-A and you were hitting better than ever and having a great season, and then the suspension came along. Was it disappointing for you to have to come off the field at that point after things had been going so well for you?
TL: It was. It was real disappointing, embarrassing, humbling – a lot of words you could use. But I learned from it. I feel like I’m a better person because of it. Unfortunately, it shouldn’t have taken an event like that for that to happen. So it was a good feeling coming back here and just trying to pick up where I left off from last year.
AF: Well, you’ve certainly been playing well this spring. So have the coaches here given you much guidance or had you working on anything, or have they just let you go out there and do your thing?
TL: No, I feel like they’re just kind of trying to see what I’m about. And I feel like I’m old enough now where I have my own routine and I understand what I need to do to get ready every day.
AF: So have there been any new challenges for you facing this level of pitching in the major league camp?
TL: Yeah, they’re a little bit better up here, that’s for sure. You’re just not going to see that pitch over the plate – they’re few and far between. So I feel like you’ve just kind of got to pick your spots. I’ve just tried to stay patient, because I feel like my patience is what led to a lot of success last year. So I don’t want to change what got me here. These guys are good. It’s fun though, because I’m as competitive as it gets. So if they get me out 3 or 4 times, I’m trying to get back in there that last at-bat and get a knock. So the challenge is exciting every day. It’s just a matter of making adjustments.
AF: Now last year, you had better success hitting at Triple-A than you’d had at the lower levels. So what was the difference between hitting at Midland and hitting at Sacramento?
TL: Obviously, if anybody’s been to Midland, the conditions there – the wind – there’s a lot of physical elements that are out of your control that aren’t in hitters’ favor. But I feel like my patience at the higher levels helped me, because they’re not going to necessarily just come up there and throw everything right down the middle. So I feel like I have a good enough eye to work the counts and handle the bat and do things like that.
AF: Going forward this year, is there anything in particular that you want to try to focus on or work on a bit?
TL: Not really. Honestly, I feel like I turned a corner last year. So I just really want to pick up where I left off…and just build on it.
AF: Now you’re able to play a lot of different positions in the field. But are you more comfortable playing anywhere in particular, or do you care? Have they told you there are any spots they want you to focus on more?
TL: No, right now it’s everywhere. I take a lot of pride in my defense, so I want to be able to do it all. Whatever I can do to help the team, I just want to win more than anything. It doesn’t matter if it’s ping pong, I just want to win the game.
Primarily known for his speed, Burns was acquired from Washington after the 2013 season. He got off to a bit of a slow start at Double-A Midland last season and then struggled after a promotion to Sacramento during the final month of the season. But this spring has been an entirely different story. Burns has been one of the best hitters in the A’s big league camp. And with outfielders Coco Crisp and Josh Reddick set to open the season on the sidelines, it looks like Burns is likely to get the chance to start the season with Oakland.
AF: Well, you’ve been having a great spring, playing regularly and hitting well. So what’s been working for you and accounting for your success?
BB: There’s stuff you’re always trying to improve on. I’m tyring to improve on my left-handed hitting especially, and I changed a little bit of my approach. In the offseason, I worked with some of the hitting coaches on different mental approaches and just attacking the ball more and getting into a stronger position. But other than that, my game’s something I always work on. It’s not just one thing, it’s everything.
AF: Obviously the left-handed hitting seems to be coming along, you seem to be driving the ball and hitting with a little more authority and getting more hits from the left side. Was that part of the plan, to try to hit with a little more authority from the left side?
BB: Yeah, just getting into a stronger position and just trying to attack the baseball a little bit more instead of being more passive. So I’ve been working on that and just enjoying this Arizona weather – it’s fun being out here.
AF: Now what about the base-stealing aspect of the game? You’ve been at Double-A, Triple-A and here in major league camp over the past year. Do you find that it’s tougher to steal bases quite so easily as you go up the chain?
BB: Some part of it is tougher. It really just depends on my jumps and whether the pitcher is consciously trying to hold me on. But I think it’s a little bit harder here at this level…I think the catchers are just better. They have better arms, better experience, better accuracy. They’re good – they wouldn’t be here if they weren’t.
AF: Going forward into this season, is there anything in particular that you really want to try to focus on or work on?
BB: It’s going to be different to take my new left-handed hitting approach into the season. And that should be fun just to see how it plays out. But other than that, I’m just always trying to improve on everything. There’s nothing I feel like I’ve mastered.
AF: So are there any veterans here in camp who’ve been particularly helpful to you this spring?
BB: Well, I’m always with the outfielders. So some of the outfield guys have been pretty instrumental, like Sam Fuld and Craig Gentry. They’re always kind of helping me out if I do something stupid. If I have questions, I always feel like I can come to them.
AF: I know you’re from Georgia. So if you should end up spending much time in Nashville this year, would that feel fairly close to home for you?
BB: Yeah, it’s only like a three-hour drive, so that helps. And I’ve got family and friends that’ll be coming to see me if I’m there, so it’d be cool.
AF: Well, it’d definitely be a lot closer that Midland or Sacramento anyway.
BB: Yeah, that’s for sure!
Taken by the A’s in the 5th round of the 2012 draft, Muncy has shot through the A’s minor league system faster than any other position player from that draft, primarily due to his advanced plate discipline. A first baseman throughout his college and pro career, Muncy has been learning to play third base this spring. And he managed to put up an impressive .364/.463/.697 slash line in his first big league camp. Muncy’s expected to split time between first and third at Triple-A Nashville this season.
AF: You’ve spent an awful lot of time in the big league camp this year, especially for a non-roster invite. So this must be a great experience for you.
MM: Yeah, it’s been a lot of fun. I definitely didn’t expect to be up here this long. You know, they make those first couple of cuts and I was expecting to go down. But they’ve kept me here the whole time, and I’ve really enjoyed it. You get to learn from the best players out there. There are some guys I’ve really been taking a lot of stuff from this year and I feel like that’s really going to help me out a lot.
AF: Is there anyone here who’s been particularly helpful to you this spring?
MM: Stephen Vogt’s talked to me a bunch, and he’s been a guy I’ve been watching a lot – the way he takes batting practice, the way he takes his swings in the game. He’s definitely somebody you can learn from. His batting practice is so professional, it’s fun to watch. [Ben] Zobrist is another guy I’ve really been paying a lot of attention to. I like everything he does. I feel like I can learn a lot from those two guys. It’s been fun to watch how they go about their business. Everything they do is just so professional.
AF: So has the coaching staff said much to you about what they’ve seen from you or what they’d like to see from you?
MM: No, I haven’t heard too much from them. The only thing that goes on is I go out and get my early work in with Gags [Mike Gallego] and Scars [Steve Scarsone] and we go out and do a lot of ground ball work and try to make that transition to third a little easier. I’ve had a couple of bumps in the games, but those are all learning experiences. I feel like I’ve been getting a lot better this spring, and I’m ready to make a full-time transition over there. From what I know, the plan is to play first and third this year, so I’m excited about it.
AF: I was just about to ask you if they’ve specifically clarified for you what you can expect in terms of where you’ll be playing in the field this year.
MM: I don’t think it’s ever really clarified for anybody. But I think it’s pretty safe to say that I can expect to be playing some first and some third the entire year. I’m pretty excited about it. It’s always fun learning a new position. For me, it’s a little fun to get away from first. It’s nice to actually be one of the guys making the throws instead of just catching it.
AF: I remember when they stuck you over at third in the Arizona Fall League a couple of years ago, you seemed a little surprised to end up over there.
MM: I was definitely surprised, because I hadn’t even heard anything about it before. At the time, I don’t know if there was actually a plan for me to go over to third. There were just so many people on that AFL team that the opportunity for me to get at-bats was to go play third. So I don’t know if that’s what started it or if something else started but, from that day forward, it’s kind of been an ongoing thing to make a move over to third.
AF: Now you spent last year at Midland. And Midland’s a notoriously difficult place for a lot of guys to hit, especially compared to Stockton. So what are some of the challenges that one faces hitting in Midland at that park?
MM: Well, if you take everything else away, the hardest challenge is just the adjustment to the pitching. A lot of people say the jump from A-Ball to Double-A is one of the toughest in baseball. For me, so far it has been, but that’s because I haven’t made another jump yet. It’s definitely a huge difference. You go from guys who are really young in A-Ball, then you go into Double-A and you’ve still got a lot of young guys, but they’re big-time prospects and they’ve got big-time arms. And on top of that, you’ve got a lot of veteran guys down there who have seen some big league time or some Triple-A time and they know what they’re doing. So that, to me, I think is the biggest adjustment. And on top of that, Midland’s just…for a pull left-handed hitter, that wind blows in about 40 mph every single day. And the field dimensions in Midland are just gigantic, and you’ve got about a 30-foot wall all the way around the field. Just in my two years there, I’ve seen some balls hit that get knocked down pretty good. You shouldn’t let the hitting conditions affect you, but I think one the things that happens is you feel like you have to start doing a little more and you start changing your swing. I definitely let that affect me, especially last year. I came back from that injury, and I just felt like I had to start using more body and getting a bigger swing just to get the ball out. I ended up changing everything, and it cost me a lot last year. It’s definitely a mental grind in Midland, and you’ve just got to find a way to get through it.
AF: So what about your time here in major league camp? You’ve talked about facing Double-A pitchers, and you’re up here facing guys even more advanced than that now. So what are you seeing in the pitching you’ve been facing here?
MM: This is my first time up in big league camp. And it’s been a lot different facing the pitchers up here, because they’re trying to make a team and they’ve actually got a plan of attack, whereas you might face a guy in the minor leagues who has to throw a certain number of fastballs or curveballs because it’s spring training and they’re trying to get they’re work in. That’s the biggest thing I’ve noticed – if you go out and you’re facing a guy and he’s trying to make a team, you might see five sliders an at-bat. But facing some of these pitchers has been fun, because it’s the best competition out there, and it’s been really fun to go out there and try to grind against that. They’re not afraid to attack either side of the plate. They throw whatever pitch whenever they want and, on top of that, they command almost any pitch they want. So it’s just been refreshing to go up there and have to be ready for anything at any time. It’s fun.
AF: Well, you’ve been fairly successful facing these pitchers up here so far this spring. So is there anything in particular that you feel you’ve learned that you’re going to be able to take forward and carry with you this season?
MM: For whatever reason, I feel like I’ve always hit really well in spring training. I think the biggest thing for me this spring so far has just been getting myself into a good hitting position really early. A lot of times, it’s kind of been just seeing the ball and then reacting to it, and now it’s more getting into hitting position and attacking the ball instead of waiting for it. It’s not really a huge adjustment at all but, as a mindset, it’s different. I just feel like getting into that good hitting position really early is one of the biggest things for me. I’ve really been trying to do it the past couple of years, and I feel like this year it’s really starting to take shape for me.
AF: You’ve always had the sort of classic A’s approach as a hitter with your plate discipline. Has anyone in the organization talked to you about anything that they want you to do or don’t want you to do?
MM: No, they really haven’t said anything as far as hitting. The only thing they’ve really said to me is just defensively – they’re out there working with me because they know it’s something I’m new to doing – that’s really the only thing they’ve talked to me about. I just go out there and get my work in and hang out with the guys and watch what they do. I watch some of the guys take ground balls, like Brett Lawrie – he’s a cat over there at third. You can definitely learn from watching those guys go about their business. And that’s the biggest thing I’ve really been trying to do is just keep my eyes open and watch what everyone’s been doing.
AF: Now going forward this season, presumably at Nashville, is there anything in particular that you really want to try to focus on or work on this year?
MM: I think the biggest thing for me is to not let anything affect the way I’m swinging it, and not let my mind get in the way, which is what I did at Midland. In Midland, I’ve hit a ball that got knocked down, and suddenly I’m thinking I’ve got to start changing stuff. I think this year I really need to focus on just staying with who I am, and if I do that, I’ll end up being fine.
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