Sean Manaea was acquired from Kansas City last summer in the Ben Zobrist trade and immediately became the A’s top pitching prospect. He posted a 1.90 ERA in 7 starts for Double-A Midland last season and is expected to start the year atop Triple-A Nashville’s starting rotation. The big lefty has looked impressive in the major league camp this spring and it may not be long before Manaea ends up making his debut in the green and gold.
AF: This is your first time pitching in big league camp with the A’s. So how’s the experience been for you so far?
SM: It’s awesome. It’s really, really cool seeing all these guys on TV and then being here with them – that blows my mind everyday. It really is awesome, expecially when you have great pitchers like Sean Doolittle, Sonny Gray and Jesse Hahn – it’s unreal. I’m just trying to figure out as much as I can and pick their brains as much as I can while I’m here, so I can take it into the season and hopefully make it to the big leagues. That’s the ultimate goal is just to make it to the big leagues. But right now, it’s really awesome. I’m just trying to have a good time and have fun.
AF: Well, it sounds like you’re definitely not taking it for granted anyway!
SM: Yeah, I’ve learned not to take anything for granted. You don’t know how long you’re going to be here or what could happen. So I enjoy soaking up all I can every single day.
AF: Is there anything in particular you’ve picked up here this spring that you know you’ll be able to carry forward with you into the coming season?
SM: Yeah, just like the mentality stuff. Like [John] Axford, I was talking to him about his curveball, because a couple bullpens ago, I was having a hard time trying to throw it for strikes. So I was talking to him about it and just about tweaking pitches. And he told me that he was tweaking one of his pitches in the bullpen before he went in the game. And wow, that’s pretty crazy – just doing something a couple pitches before you get in the game. So that’s something that I’ve definitely thought about a lot and I could definitely be using that throughout the season.
AF: So just learning how to make those constant adjustments.
SM: Yeah, constant adjustments – that’s what the game’s all about.
AF: How much time have you spent with A’s pitching coach Curt Young this spring and what has he had to impart to you?
SM: I’ve been out here since January, and he’s pretty much been out here the whole time too. So pretty much every bullpen I’ve had and every time I’ve played catch, he’s been out there. He’s just been helping me a lot – talking about changeups, talking about pitching and stuff like that. It’s just been really, really cool what he’s had to say to me. So I’ve just been soaking up all I can about what he’s said.
AF: Now you’re known to have a pretty good fastball and to throw pretty hard. But do you pay much attention to the actual velocity of your fastball or how hard you’re actually throwing it at any given time?
SM: I don’t really worry about that stuff…The main focus for me is trying to minimize walks. That’s something I’ve kind of had problems with throughout my career. So just trying to minimize walks and be more consistent with my pitches, that’s what I’m really focused on. I know the velo will most likely be there.
AF: Where do you feel you’re at with your secondary stuff at this stage in the spring?
SM: Right now, my changeup feels really good coming out of my hand. I feel like I really have a good grip on it – a good feeling in my head and in my hand – and it’s doing what I want it to. So that’s where I want it to be, especially since I never really had a changeup before. And then the slider, it’s coming. There’ll be times when it’s good but then I feel like most of time it’s been kind of bad. So I’ve just got to worry about getting that right grip and being able to get that good feeling back in my hand. So that’s something that I have to be working on these next couple weeks before the season starts.
AF: Is there anyone here who throws a slider who’s been able to offer any helpful advice?
SM: Yeah, I’ve been talking to everybody and just trying to see what they have to say. With like [John] Axford and Ryan Madson, I was talking about tweaking pitches and what they would do if something’s not feeling right. And they told me maybe I’ve just got to do a completely different grip just to start things fresh. So, maybe I have to! It’s something I’ve been working on these past couple days.
AF: You’ve gotten plenty of time in the big league camp and gotten into plenty of games. So how do you feel about getting to spend as much time on the mound here in the big league camp as you have?
SM: I feel really great! Just being up here as long as I can, just trying to pick people’s brains and talk to them about how they go about their business – that’s something I’m really, really happy about. Just to be able to be up here and be with the big leaguers, that’s what I’m really most excited about.
AF: Now assuming you start the season in Nashville, that’s not really all that far from where you’re from in Indiana. So are you looking forward to having some of your family being able to come see you this season?
SM: Yeah, I think it’s only about three and a half or four hours from where my girlfriend lives. And then for my family, it’s only like a six or seven hour trip. So that’s not bad at all, especially since I’ve been playing in like Texas and Delaware and places like that. So I’m really looking forward to that and just having them be able to come and watch me play. That’s something I’m really excited about.
AF: So is there anything in particular that you really want to work on or try to accomplish in the coming season?
SM: I would say just keeping down the walks. I’ve had problems with that. I feel like that starts with my mechanics – maybe I have to smooth things out or maybe do something different with my arm. That’s something I’m really harping on, especially at the beginning, because if you start off well it’ll carry on through the rest of the season. So that’s the biggest focus for me is keeping down the walks and being more consistent with my off-speed stuff. So that’s what I’ve really been focused on since the beginning of the year.
AF: Well, if you can do that, then I guess everything else probably ought to fall right into place!
Max Muncy was the first member of Oakland’s 2012 draft class to reach the major leagues with the A’s when he made his big league debut last April. Muncy’s stock in trade has always been his keen eye at the plate. Originally drafted as a first baseman, the 25-year-old Texan has been learning to play third base over the past couple of seasons. And now this spring, the A’s are also trying to break him in at second base.
AF: Now you were up and down between Nashville and the major leagues a few times last season. Was there anything in particular that you learned from that experience?
MM: There’s always something that you can learn. For the most part, I was still relatively young in my career at the major league level, so there’s little things I can learn all the time. Last year, I was really trying to learn how to kind of prepare myself for games and how to get ready to come off the bench and how to be a guy who’s not going to be in the lineup everyday. That was something I’d never done before, so I had to learn how to do it. And I think every time I went up, I had to learn more and more about how to take care of that problem. And there’s always stuff that you can learn from those big guys up there, even if it’s not from your own teammates, guys you’re playing against on the road. One of the times I was up last year, we were in Arizona and I got to see [Paul] Goldschmidt go about his business, and he’s one of the best out there. So there’s always things you can take from guys, whether it’s your own team or the other team.
AF: You spent a lot of time learning to play third base last season. Are you still learning things there and are you starting to feel a little more comfortable over there now?
MM: I’m still learning things there but, now that I’ve had some time to actually really work at it, I feel probably about a hundred times more comfortable than I did last year. And I think it’s showing a little bit this spring. It feels more like a natural position now. It doesn’t feel like it’s still something I’m learning – now it feels likes it’s there. It’s just one of those things that takes time and takes reps, and it takes game reps sometimes for that.
AF: Well, they’ve been starting to stick you out there at second base now. So how’s that been going?
MM: Well, you know, we’re still learning that one. But I think hopefully I’ve proven that, if you give me enough time to work on something, I can get good at it. So, second base is just one of those things that I’m going to need some time to work at it – I’m going to need some reps – but I feel it’s something that I can really pick up. It’s not a completely foreign position to me, having played it in high school, I know somewhat what I’m doing there. It’s just getting reps back at that position, having someone slide into you when you’re turning a double play – those kind of things.
AF: Have you been spending much time working with Ron Washington in the field this spring?
MM: Yeah, every morning. We actually split it up – we do one morning at second, one morning at third. We go back and forth every single morning. And it’s been a lot of fun working with him. He really knows what he’s talking about.
AF: Is there anything in particular that he’s been focusing on with you?
MM: Really just focus on the basic fundamentals – that’s something that he teaches evey single morning. A lot of coaches like to go out there and try to teach the advanced stuff, how to do certain plays. He really reiterates doing the basic fundamentals every single morning – just fielding a ground ball right at you, using your hands, just getting your feet involved. He tries to really ingrain that in your head. And that’s the kind of the thing I take away from him is to really focus on the fundamentals. And if you can do that, then the more advanced stuff just kind of comes on its own.
AF: So what have you been focused on trying to do at the plate this spring?
MM: Staying short and quick. The last couple years, I feel like I’ve kind of gotten away from my swing being real short and quick, with quick hands. I feel like I’ve gotten a little too big, and so I’m trying to get back to that this spring. And I feel like I’ve been doing a really good job of it. I’ve had a lot of hard contact…balls aren’t falling for me, but I’m just saving that for the season.
AF: Well, just give it time. It all evens out, right?
AF: Is there anything in particular the coaching staff has been working on with you or trying to get you to do this spring?
MM: We’re always working on that outside pitch – that’s something I’ve always struggled with. We started working on it last year – me and [A’s hitting coach Darren] Bush. And this year we’re still working on it – just being able to drive that low and outside pitch and not pull off of it and get a little more power to the opposite field.
AF: Going forward, is there anything in particular that you’re really looking to focus on this season?
MM: Well, my defense obviously. That’s something that’s been a work in progress over the last year or so, so obviously I’m going to be working on that. But I think one thing I really want to get back to is cutting down my strikeouts and getting back to a high walk rate, which I feel like last year, just getting out of rhythm, might have gotten away from me a little bit. And I want to get back to that this year – not chasing bad pitches. I got into a problem last year chasing some off-speed pitches down in the dirt, and hopefully I can get away from that this year.
Bruce Maxwell was a 2nd-round pick for the A’s in the 2012 draft. In his first few years in the A’s system, the focus was primarily on developing his catching skills. But this spring, Maxwell has impressed both at the plate and behind the plate while in major league camp with the A’s.
AF: So how’s it been for you getting some time in big league camp this year?
BM: It’s been going great, man. It’s the best year I’ve had, health-wise, performance-wise. I just feel very confident rolling into this season.
AF: You’ve obviously made some big strides defensively behind the plate, and you’ve impressed the coaching staff here this spring. Bob Melvin has had lots of nice things to say about you lately. So how are you feeling about your work behind the plate these days?
BM: I feel amazing. I feel better than ever. It’s a big confidence booster. And now I can try to channel a little more of my focus on my hitting, since my catching is more natural, more comfortable.
AF: So you don’t have to spend as much time thinking about it now – you can just do it.
AF: So have you learned a lot from being around the big league veterans in camp and have you spent a lot of time with catching coach Marcus Jensen this spring?
BM: Marcus is always with me. I tell people that Marcus is my creator. Ever since day one, I’ve been with Marcus. He always makes sure that I’m really sharp behind the plate and makes sure that everything’s refined. And honestly, just being around these guys and just kind of learning how to be a big leaguer – the consistency, the work ethic, the routines every morning. And over time, the more and more time I get behind the plate, the better I’ve gotten.
AF: Have you spent much time talking with the big league catchers here, Stephen Vogt and Josh Phegley? Have they had much to offer you?
BM: Yeah, they’re very open individuals. If they see something, they give us a suggestion. If you ever have a question, they’re always open to answer it. Whether we’re at the field or not, their phones are always on and they’re always willing to help us younger guys.
AF: What’s the difference between the kind of pitching you’re used to seeing in the minor leagues and the kind of pitching you’ve been facing here in the major league camp?
BM: Besides the name on the back of the jersey, not much. Yes, they execute a little more and their stuff is a little sharper, a little tighter, a little more accurate. But, at the same time, it’s still the same game. I faced a few really good guys with the Cubs, and they get paid a lot of money to be that good…that time they got me, next time I’ll get them.
AF: You spent the season at Midland last year, which isn’t exactly known as a hitter’s paradise. What kind of challenges does a hitter face playing there at Midland?
BM: Every one you can possibly find! Between the wind blowing in, the ball not flying anywhere, it teaches you how to become a very good hitter, very accurate hitter, very efficient hitter. When it comes to fly balls, a lot of them don’t get out. It just teaches you a different way of hitting. It almost trains you to be a complete hitter, in all aspects, because that’s about the only way you’re going to put up the numbers there.
AF: I guess if you can hit there, you can hit anywhere!
AF: I know you caught Sean Manaea in Midland last year. I’m not sure if you’ve caught him or had the chance to see much of him here in camp this spring. But I’m curious to know, as a catcher, what you feel his greatest strengths are and what impresses you most about him.
BM: His confidence…he goes on the mound knowing he’s better than whoever he faces. And he lets his ball work. He’s got life on his fastball. He’s just very efficient. The ball jumps out of his hand – it really does. He’s got a wipeout slider and a very good changeup. He just has confidence, and he just goes out on the mound and does his job. And he’s the first person to pick you up. He doesn’t really take it too serious but, at the same time, it is his job and he’s very, very good at it.
AF: And it seems like he has fun along the way too!
BM: Oh yeah, he’s a live character – that’s for sure, that’s for sure!
AF: Well, it’s always good to have a few of those around – it’s a long season.
BM: Exactly. And he’s been like that since college.
AF: Now going forward into the season, what are you thinking about heading into the year ahead?
BM: Progressing – being that guy. I want to continue what I’m doing here in spring and carry that over into the season, and keep progressing behind the plate and keep progressing at the plate. My bat’s going to play a little better this year. That’s the goal – that’s what I’ve worked on. And I know my catching’s always going to play if I keep it as consistent as it has been.
* * *