Long-time baseball man Grady Fuson served as the A’s scouting director from 1995 until 2001, when the team drafted such talented players as Eric Chavez, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Rich Harden. He left the A’s at the end of 2001 to become the assistant general manager of the Texas Rangers and, after moving on to head up the Padres scouting department, Fuson eventually returned to the A’s a little over six years ago to serve as a special assistant to the front office.
Of course, many know Fuson as the scout in the cinematic version of Moneyball who has a dramatic confrontation with Billy Beane and ends up getting fired – though that’s not quite how it happened (which we chronicled here).
During spring training, Fuson can most frequently be found patrolling the A’s minor league fields, now located at Fitch Park in Mesa, while keeping a close eye on the team’s most prized prospects. And it was there that we took the opportunity to pick the brain of one of baseball’s top talent evaluators to get the scoop on some of the A’s top hitting and pitching prospects…
AF: The A’s have had a big crop of talented young players passing through the major league camp this year. So is it exciting to have a bunch of young guys like that around who are right on the cusp of breaking through?
GF: Well the good thing is, after the trades last year, there’s a different look to the system now that there’s been some trades and we’ve brought some talent back. And last year’s draft looks looks like it’s panning out. So, within one year, you’ve seen the talent base come back pretty strong…That whole crew that was in Double-A last year – Nunez and Pinder and Olson – it’s a good group. And now there’s more depth coming in from behind.
AF: Well, let me ask you about some of those guys in particular. Chad Pinder, whom I know you’ve always been high on, had a big year in the Texas League last year, which isn’t easy for anyone to do. And he’s had the chance to spend a lot of time in the big league camp. So what have you been seeing out of him this spring?
GF: He’s had a great camp. And the most impressive thing is all the early work and side work that [A’s infield coach] Ron Washington does in the backfields. Wash really didn’t know him, and Wash has been really, really impressed. And he agrees with me – there’s no reason why this guy can’t play a major league shortstop. He’s had a good camp. His at-bats have been good – they’ve been quality. I think he’s made a very positive impression on everybody.
AF: It looks like he’ll be the primary shortstop at Nashville this year. But do you think he’ll be seeing a little time at other spots as well just to continue developing his versatility?
GF: Yeah, it’s important to keep his versatility, for when he’s ready to make the next jump. So he’s going to play some second base, maybe he goes and plays third a little bit, but he’ll be a primary shortstop – he’s earned it.
AF: Now what about Renato Nunez? He was able to keep his power numbers up at Midland last year, which is no small feat. But what does he still need to be working on at this point?
GF: He’s working much better as far as his practice time, his B.P. time, his drill work. He’s trying to stay centered, trying to hit the ball to the middle of the field and to the opposite field. His natural move is to the pull side of the field, so there’s that deep count, breaking ball thing that kind of gets him in trouble. And his footwork with his throwing, his hands and his actions – his reactions have really improved over the years. He’s getting better with his feet, but there’s still some things with his throwing, getting his legs underneath him and his stride and tempo and pace, to improve his accuracy.
AF: So do you think we’re still primarily going to be seeing him at third base this year? Or do you think he’s going end up getting much time at first base?
GF: Probably mostly third. But everybody has to be versatile to some degree, so he’s probably going to have to go over there from time to time. If [Max] Muncy’s in Triple-A, we’ll see how that whole thing works itself out.
AF: Matt Olson has gotten a good amount of time in the big league camp this spring, and he’s set to start out the year at Nashville. I’d like to know what you’ve been seeing out him lately and what you think he’s got to do to take things to the next level?
GF: Nothing’s really different – you know, defending, doing all the things he does well. And he’s showed some power. At the same time, the swing-and-miss, sometimes that catches up to him a little bit. But the bottom line is, he goes over there and some of those things get exposed and it just reminds us all what needs to happen to make this guy complete. He’s still young, he’s still learning, and he’s at a higher level of baseball now. But he comes to play, he does all the right things, and he never takes his offense to his defense. So he just needs to get his at-bats and get things going.
AF: He played a lot of right field, particularly in the second half, at Midland last season. Do you think we’re going to end up seeing as much of him in the outfield as first base at Nashville this year?
GF: Yeah, I think that’ll take place as the season goes on. He’s an above average first baseman. He can play the outfield, but his defense lies at first. So it’s all going to depend on the depth of that club in the outfield and what’s needed out there. It’s certainly not a bad idea that he continues to go out there from time to time. But nobody’s trying to make him a full-time outfielder.
AF: Now second baseman Joey Wendle was at Nashville all last season, but he never got a September call-up. So what does he need to do this year to try to move up the ladder?
GF: If you’re asking me personally, I think he’s a very gifted instinctual hitter. This guy can square up a baseball anywhere in the strike zone. He’s jumpy, he’s aggressive. If there’s anything I would like to see him do is kind of back down and become a hair more patient. I know he loves to swing it, and he can hit it. There’s a lot of things he can hit, but he can’t hit it all with quality. There’s still some polish on some pivots that I think he can take another move with. But this guy’s a gamer, and he plays hard – he plays with his hair on fire. He had a very solid year when it was all said and done in Triple-A. So he’s waiting in the wings and trying to make some improvements on some things that he needs to work on.
AF: So far, he’s only played exclusively at second base here. Is there any thought to trying to increase his versatility at all?
GF: No, he’s not the kind of guy that you would see moving to short or third.
AF: Well, I guess second base it is then! I wanted to ask you about Max Muncy, whom you mentioned earlier. Are you expecting him to basically be splitting time between first base and third base again this year at Nashville?
GF: Yeah, we haven’t had that discussion yet, but Bob [Melvin] has used him at both in big league camp. And when you think about the personnel that’s going to Nashville, if he goes back, it’s going to have to be creative – some time at first, some time at third, some time at DH.
AF: Last year, Tyler Ladendorf broke camp with the A’s. Then he got hurt and was sidelined for much of the season. He’s been playing a lot of center field in camp this spring…
GF: Yeah, and he’s shined!
AF: Do you expect we’re going to be seeing a lot more of him in center field this year at Nashville?
GF: Yeah, ever since a year and a half ago, that’s what we’re trying to create out of him is maybe that super utility type guy. But he’s done an absolutely fabulous job in center. They hit these balls deep in gaps, and you’ve really seen him run down some balls and be instinctual. So it’s been a positive, positive thing for him.
AF: So, with his ability to play second base and shortstop as well, it looks like he could really be a legitimate option up the middle for you across the board.
GF: Sure, yeah.
AF: You don’t really have that many true center fielders at the top of the system right now, so I guess that’s a good spot to have him in. Speaking of which, do you see Jaycob Brugman spending more time in center field than in the corners this season? Where do you see him spending most of his time this year?
GF: Probably more center this year – he plays it well. He’s one of the best we’ve got, so he’ll probably spend a lot of time there. He’ll move from time to time but right now, the way it looks, mostly center.
AF: Okay, let’s touch on some of the younger guys. I know you always talked about Matt Chapman’s power potential, and he’s really been showing it. He had a good season at Stockton last year. And he’s spent a lot of time in the big league camp this year and he’s really been having a great spring here.
GF: Yeah, he’s probably been the talk of this camp. You know, every year there’s a new kid who’s fortunate enough to have a very high-performance camp, and Chapman’s been the guy. And it’s putting pressure on some of the other infielders – they’re all wanting to change positions! But he’s done well. His B.P.’s have been electric, he’s driving the ball to right-center like nobody else, and he’s just had a very, very impressive camp all around.
AF: What kind of challenges to do you see him facing in Double-A at Midland this year?
GF: First of all, health. Let’s just find a way to stay on the field. He’s been with us a year and a half now. The year we signed him, he kind of broke down in Beloit. Then he broke down coming in last year and missed a lot of time early and got a late start, and then broke down with the wrist. So he needs to get 500 at-bats and 140 games. But he’s doing great things. He’s starting to get a little more rhythmic with his swing – not being so rigid – and you’re starting to see the results of that. I mean, who knows what the competition’s like? With his limited amount of experience, he could have some struggles early. But hopefully he’s the kind of guy who starts to figure some things out. So, a learning first-half and a performance second-half.
AF: Well, we’ve certainly seen that happen before.
GF: He’s been having a performance big league camp!
AF: Another top prospect who’ll be at Midland this season is shortstop Franklin Barreto. I remember when you were first seeing him here last spring after you guys acquired him and he ended up getting into camp late and got off to a bit of a slow start. What kind of progress have you seen out of him since then over this past year?
GF: Amazing. Either I was completely blind or…this guy’s not anything like it looked when he first got here a year ago. He’s got an instinct for the baseball defensively – he’s not polished yet, but that’s the least of our worries. I mean, footwork, technique – we can do a great job cleaning that stuff up. But there’s a lot of life in his bat – the ball jumps. And he’s actually throwing it a little bit better in my opinion this spring. I mean, the whole package – it’s there.
AF: So does he maybe remind you a little bit of Miguel Tejada at this point?
GF: Yeah, that’s a good call.
AF: Are we going to be seeing him at any positions other than shortstop this year? Is he going to get looks at second base or in center field at all?
GF: Yeah, depending on the health of Yairo Munoz. Munoz has kind of been tender [dealing with a lingering quad injury]. He hasn’t done much early in camp. But if they both go to Midland, then they’re both going to have some time at second at short – if that’s the way it ends up.
AF: Yeah, David Forst had mentioned a couple months ago that maybe they both might go to Midland and end up sharing time at second and short there. But what about Munoz’s progress last year? He started out the season not so hot at Beloit, then he gets bumped up to Stockton, and suddenly he looks like a whole different guy.
GF: Well you know…he can be a live wire one minute and he can kind of be a downer the next. It’s just about waiting for him to grow into being a man – getting some maturity mentally. And I think that was the big change, once he left Beloit and went to a higher level of competition. You talk to [Stockton manager] Rick Magnante, and he was a model citizen in the time he was at Stockton. And it showed up in his performance – he played better in Stockton than he played in Beloit. He’s always a guy that there’s some maintenance to, but that’s what we do here. Their character, their work ethic, their maturity is as big in the coaching arena as taking B.P. and doing all the drill work. He’s an extremely talented kid, and he does things different than a lot of people. He’s strong, he’s physical – he and Chapman probably have the two best arms you’re going to see in this system.
AF: Well, given the challenge last year, he seemed to rise to the occasion anyway.
GF: Oh, definitely.
AF: Another top shortstop prospect who’s been in camp this spring is your #1 pick from last year, Richie Martin. He was over in the big league camp for a while. So what have you been seeing out of him in his first spring with the organization?
GF: We didn’t do a lot with him last summer offensively, which is what we do with most of them for a while. If we’re going to start to tinker, it usually starts in instructional league. And the only thing we did in instructional league was just tried to build some rhythm moves into his swing. And it’s coming, it’s looking better – it’s certainly coming off his bat better. He’s not cutting his swing off. Defensively, you know, this guy’s not far off. He’s got to learn the pace of the game, so that he doesn’t overcharge and things like that. But as far as the skill set, no issues.
AF: Okay, let’s talk about a couple of pitchers. First off, Sean Manaea – everyone’s been pretty excited about him here this spring. He’s set to start the year at Triple-A Nashville. So what does he need to do to get himself to the next level?
GF: Right now, it looks like just stay healthy. I mean, he’s been pretty dominant since we got him. Last year in the Texas League, he had 3-4-5 dominant starts. In the [Arizona] Fall League, he had a couple of dominant starts. And he’s been dominant for the most part down here in camp as well. You know, some command issues here and there – maybe a little violent move there. When he gets the adrenaline flowing, he gets a little off line and it wreaks a little havoc sometimes with his command – but that’s part of the growing curve. But the bottom line is, this guy’s been facing big leaguers up there. It’s not like he’s been pitching in the seventh inning against non-roster call-ups. He’s faced people’s big league names, and he’s had some dominant innings.
AF: So it sounds like it won’t be long before he’s ready.
GF: Yeah, I wouldn’t think so.
AF: Another left-hander who got some time in big league camp is Dillon Overton. He’s been on that post-Tommy John recovery curve for a while, but he’s looked good here in camp this spring. So where is he at now and what have you been seeing out of him?
GF: He’s healthy. He came in and you could tell he was prepared. He was a tick firmer – a lot of 88-92s. He pitched well – he put up zeroes. I think he had 6 innings with zeroes across the board – good changeups, his breaker was working.
AF: I was going to ask you if his velocity was up a bit, and it sounds like it is.
GF: Yeah, it is. It’s not what some people saw prior to him being hurt, but I don’t think he needs to get all that back to be a major league guy. And this is going to be the first year when he’s going to be opened up – there’s no restrictions.
AF: So are there any other guys you’re feeling particularly good about this year that we ought to be keeping an eye on?
GF: Yeah, two pitchers – Daniel Gossett and Brett Graves. Graves, when we drafted him, we thought he was a 90-95ish type guy. And from day one, the velocity’s been light. Last year was not a very good year. His breaking ball comes and goes. But this guy seemed really smart, he seemed like he was really into making himself a better pitcher. Late last year, we were trying to find out, “What’s missing, why do you think your velocity’s light?” “I don’t know, I haven’t changed anything.” I said, “Something’s had to change.” “I haven’t changed anything.” Well, come to find out, he stopped long-tossing. So he went back on a long-toss program for the last month or month and a half there and stayed on it all winter. And he’s been 92-96 every time out down here – good delivery, breaker’s harder and sharper, he’s throwing tremendous. And Gossett has slowed down his pace a little bit and he’s come back firmer. And he cut his hair, so he’s got better aerodynamics coming down the mound. [Laughter]
AF: I’d heard Gossett had maybe added a cutter too.
GF: Well, [minor league pitching coordinator] Gil Patterson is back, so Gil gives everybody a cutter. He’s the cutter master!
AF: So I’m assuming we’re most likely to be seeing those two guys at Stockton this year.
GF: Yeah, most likely.
AF: Okay great, well we’ll definitely be sure to keep an eye on the two of them this year then. Thanks!
* * *