After spending the past nine seasons managing at Vancouver, Vermont and Beloit in the A’s system, Rick Magnante returned to his native California this season to pilot the California League’s Stockton Ports.
Meanwhile, another California native, Rick Rodriguez, who served as the long-time pitching coach for the Sacramento River Cats, remained on the west coast with the Ports when the A’s Triple-A affiliate moved to Nashville this season. We spoke with both of them about some of the team’s top prospects earlier this week in Stockton…
AF: I wanted to get your take on a couple of the top hitting prospects you’ve got here at Stockton. You’ve got last year’s 1st-round draft pick for the A’s, third baseman Matt Chapman. I remember when he first got drafted, everyone with the A’s talked to me about his power potential, and now here he is leading the A’s minor league system in home runs with 14 after getting a late start to the season. So what kind of development have you seen with him since he’s been here this year?
RM: Last year, Matt came to Beloit with me, and he started off like a firecracker offensively, and also with the leather. Then he ran into a couple of injuries and it slowed his progress down. But he showed enough that they sent him to Midland for the playoffs, and he was kind of the catalyst for them winning that first round and did very well there. This spring, he got off to a slow start because he injured himself in the offseason working out, so he got here late. So he’s trying to play a little bit of catch-up. And every day we’re seeing marked improvement with him, not only at the plate, but with his defense. And you’re right when you talk about his tools. There certainly is raw power, there’s physical strength and there’s athleticism. There’s the potential to be a well-above-average defender. And, of course, his arm, on a scale of 2 to 8, is an 8. Then you take the intangibles, the make-up, the work ethic, the commitment, the desire to be a big leaguer, and the ability, at an early age, to deal with adversity, which is very impressive as well. His ability to handle that 0 for 4 with 2 or 3 punch outs and not allow it to affect his defense or his next at-bat or the next day is really a very telling sign of his character and what’s going to allow him to be successful and be that big league frontline player that we hope he’ll be some day.
RM: Well, there are a couple of things. He’s got strength, he’s got leverage and he’s got bat speed. What he’s working on right now is a physical approach that creates some tempo and rhythm and puts him in a better position to maximize his power by getting ready early and seeing the ball longer. He’s got really above-average power to the off field, but to be able to get to that ball on the inner half and pull it to the short field where he can really maximize things. So his physical approach is something he’s working on right now. There’s some rigidity in his set-up. He’s a little bit of a still-bat hitter. We’re trying to get him to get some rhythm, some separation and a little flow to that approach so that he can really get to the ball and get through it. Right now, his physical strength is allowing him to overcome technique that needs to be improved.
AF: So rather than starting from a static position getting a little more momentum into his swing.
RM: Right, exactly.
AF: Another big prospect you’ve got here is 19-year-old shortstop Franklin Barreto, who started off the season a little slow but now really seems to be rounding into shape. So what have you seen in terms of his learning curve over the first half of the season?
RM: Well, it’s night and day from spring training to today, that’s for sure. First of all, he came into spring training, by his own admission, without doing much in the offseason. So he really wasn’t ready to really get into the flow of things. He had to kind of get in shape, which is not usually the case with most young players today. Secondly, he’s a 19-year-old Venezuelan who comes to a brand new organization knowing no one. So you can imagine that there’s going to be some adjustments, not only on the field, but getting to know the coaches, the staff, his teammates and getting comfortable. So that has taken some time as well. So with not a lot of at-bats in spring training, being in a new organization, and I’m sure in his own mind, trying to please and trying to excel, he probably put some undue pressure on himself. So all those things factored into his slow start. Now that he’s out here everyday, getting his at-bats and getting his work in, we’re starting to see the player Toronto had a year ago at 18 years old in the Northwest League that pretty much took the league by storm – driving in runs, stealing bases, scoring runs, everything. For me, he’s “Furcal-esque.” He’s got that same kind of sturdy, sub-six-foot body, good lower half, athleticism – and he’s only 19 years old. I’m not saying he is Furcal, because I saw Furcal in Lynchburg, and Furcal’s tools are a bit better. But who does he remind you of? That’s the type of player he reminds me of.
AF: And what’s been the key to his improvement at the plate from the beginning of the season to now?
RM: At the plate, it’s been timing and recognition for him. There’s a few moving parts in that swing. He’s a leg-lift guy, so that timing has to be more precise. There’s a little bit of bat waggle, there’s some movement – it’s not simple and pure. So anytime you’ve got a lot of moving parts going, it’s hard to coordinate that day to day and at-bat to at-bat. But we’re working on that, and he’s got a better understanding of how to get himself in a better position to recognize pitches and decide whether to take or to swing. In addition to that, he’s working hard on his defense. I guess if there was a knock on him it was that he made a lot of errors last year. And he continues to make errors. But the old adage in baseball is, “If a guy can hit, just give him 1,000 groundballs and the defense will get better.” And we believe it will. Whether he’s a shortstop or second baseman, I couldn’t make that call right now. He’s getting an opportunity to play shortstop, but basically he’s a center-of-the-diamond fielder.
AF: A guy who didn’t necessarily start the season as a top prospect but has been really key to your team here this year is center fielder Brett Vertigan, who’s been having a great season on the field for you. What have you seen out of him so far and what’s the key to what he’s been doing for your team here this year?
RM: Well, he’s really faced some obstacles in his short career here with Oakland. He was a 10th-round draft pick, and we considered him a smaller version of a Brett Gardner type – a guy who could patrol the outfield and stay in center field, could run, throw, had a contact bat, was able to use the field, could bunt, steal bases, etc. And he had a pretty decent first year with us. And then he went to the Midwest League and he just kind of leveled off performance-wise. And then last year we seemed to have an abundance of outfielders and he found himself in extended spring training and then had to come back and went all the way back to Vermont. This year, when we went to spring training again, the outfield spots were pretty much the same and he found himself in the unenviable position of having to start the season again at Beloit, a league he had already played in two years previously. But I think the key for Brett is he does have tools, he has a skill set. He has aptitude, he’s a good learner and he can make adjustments. And he has grown a little bit this year because of the adversity he’s had to overcome. And when he joined us here, he basically jump-started the offense. He’s really been the catalyst for us putting together a pretty decent last month of June to finish on a winning note here in the first half. He’s a kid who’s worked hard. Now he’s gotten an opportunity and he’s made the most of it. So we just hope that he can continue it and accelerate his career, because there’s no doubt that, if he keeps playing well, he should be looked at as somebody who may advance this year as well.
AF: I’m sure it’s pretty hard for you to imagine your lineup without him in it at this point – or at least I’m sure you wouldn’t want to!
RM: Well, it’s interesting because he came here because J.P. Sportman went down. And J.P. Sportman started off very well also. And had he not gotten hurt, Brett might not be here. With both of those guys on this club, we’re a better ballclub. And with only two guys on the bench, we are a little bit limited in our bench players, so it would be nice to have them both.
AF: So what is the latest on Sportman’s status?
RM: He just re-injured the hand in the same place again. And we decided it would be in his best interests to send him back to Arizona to rehab where he could get daily care and a little bit more monitoring of his condition. And I think when he gets back and healthy, then possibly he’ll be an Instructional League candidate or maybe even a Fall League candidate.
AF: So let me ask you about a few of the arms you’ve got here in Stockton. Let’s start with Dylan Covey, who’s been having a good year. He seems to have made some improvements and has been a lot more consistent this season. He might not strike out a lot of guys, but he still gets a lot of outs. What’s made it possible for him to develop a lot more consistency this year?
RR: I think towards the end of spring, he just started using his fastball and getting more aggressive with it. And he’s been working on his command and sharpening his curveball. He’s got a nice little cutter coming along right now. His changeup is good. For me, it was just getting in a good routine that worked for him. In fact, his last outing was probably his best fastball he’s had, so hopefully the rest of the way he’ll have that fastball.
RR: He’s got good command with his fastball. His curveball can be a good pitch at times, but sometimes it can be a little off. His changeup is like a split – I think that’s probably his better off-speed pitch. I think he probably needs more consistency in terms of being down in the strike zone with his fastball. But he’s a pitcher. He knows how to pitch. He can change speeds. He’s learning how take something off of his fastball, so hopefully he’ll start using it out there during the games. He’s been very good, a real pleasure to work with.
AF: A guy who’s been a bit of a surprise is Joel Seddon, who had been a reliever for much of his college career. You guys have turned him into a starter here this year, and he’s been really impressive lately. So what kind of progress have you seen out of him this year?
RR: A lot of these guys, it’s the first time I’ve ever seen them pitch. And in spring training, I always thought Joel was a starter, but they said, “No, he was a reliever.” And he came here in relief. And, it just so happened, we needed a starter. He fit the bill, and he’s taken off from there. He’s been really good with command of his fastball and all his off-speed pitches. He’s getting us deep into games. He’s a guy, I can just let him go.
AF: Well, it seems like he’s got awfully good command, which helps make everything a lot easier.
RR: Yeah, he can rely on his command. That’s his best tool. I told him, “It’s not like you’re throwing 95 mph. You have to hit your spots and change your speeds.” And he’s been doing that.
AF: I want to ask you about a guy who was here with you for most of the season but has recently moved up to Midland, and that’s Dillon Overton. He’s been coming back from Tommy John surgery. So what have you seen in his development over the first half of the season and where’s he at on his road back?
RR: From what I’ve seen, he’s another guy who’s a great command guy. He’s got great movement, he’s got an outstanding changeup and his curveball can be really good at times. But he’s starting to get into that groove now where he can rely on anything and throw any pitch at any time. Coming back from his injury, he’s kind of being limited on his innings pitched for the whole year. But everything is flawless out there. It’s really good to work with someone like that.
AF: Where was he at in terms of his velocity when he was here?
RR: I think he was anywhere from like 87-90 mph, maybe 91 mph every once in a while. He’s relying more on his command. But he’s getting there.
AF: Another guy who’s been coming back from Tommy John surgery is Raul Alcantara. I know he’s just had a few appearances so far, but what have you seen out of him since he’s been back?
RR: I see an extremely good fastball. His changeup has good late action down. His curveball is almost like a slider. He calls it a curveball, but I think it might be more of a slider – but it’s a good breaking pitch. I think he’s got all the makings of a good major league pitcher. I think it’s just a matter of getting him out there every fifth day, getting him some innings and trying to build up his arm strength.
AF: The guy out of your bullpen who’s been very consistent for you in the closer role is Brendan McCurry. What’s enabled him to be as consistent as he’s been out of the bullpen for this team?
RR: When we first started the year, I really didn’t know where he was going to pitch. I know our skipper liked him a bit as a closer. But he was a guy who was coming in in the middle innings and giving us a couple of innings here and there. And then he kind of evolved into finshing games and now he’s kind of our closer. But we had a talk. He’s got a very good fastball, but I think he was trying to trick too many guys. Now it’s like, “Hey Brendan, throw your fastball, use your fastball. You’ve got a really good fastball.” He’s got a good moving fastball. He drops down and throws that little sidearm curve or slider or whatever you want to call it. And he’s gotten it down now to where, instead of it being flat across the zone, it’s got a little bit of tilt. And now he’s able to get those hitters out a little bit more consistently. And he’s got a plus changeup. I think he’s going to be a good one.
AF: So it sounds like you’ve really simplified things with him.
RR: Yeah, I think he’s starting to understand that he doesn’t have to strike out everybody. He can get ahead with his fastball, and if they get groundouts early, that’s even better.
AF: And he’s got a good number of pitches for a reliever.
RR: Yeah, he comes at you from different angles. He’s tough. He’s got a great mentality out there. He’s out there going right after the hitters. I like it!
* * *