Stockton skipper Rick Magnante originally began his professional baseball career as a 13th-round draft pick of the Cleveland Indians out of the University of Santa Barbara back in 1969. He first joined the A’s organization in 1995 as an area scout covering southern California. He also began managing short-season teams for the A’s in 2006 after his duties prepping for each year’s draft were through.
After spending five seasons in Vancouver and three seasons in Vermont, Magnante gave up his scouting duties and began managing full-time. He spent the 2014 season in Beloit and is now in his second season with Stockton. We took the opportunity to talk with the skipper earlier this week to get his first-hand take on a few of the Ports’ top prospects…
AF: It seems like the guy who’s really been one of the most consistent hitters for you here in Stockton this season has been Joe Bennie.
RM: That would be correct.
AF: He’s been doing a good job of getting on base, and he’s been showing some pop too. So what’s been working for him this year?
RM: Well, I think Joe has the innate ability to hit a baseball and hit it hard. He’s a guy who has a good sense of timing and readiness that allows him to recognize pitches and give quality at-bats regardless of the count. He’s not opposed to getting himself into a two-strike count and battling through that and maybe getting to a full count and working a walk or getting a hit. So I think his recognition skills and his timing, along with a strong powerful swing with leverage, has allowed him to drive baseballs the way he’s done this year. And as you mentioned, his consistency has been very good from day one, but it’s gotten better. His average has picked up as of late, so he’s starting see the results of the hard work that he truly puts in every day. He’s extremely diligent, very passionate, very committed. You know, the attitude is everything. There’s some things you can’t teach. There’s some things you can help players with in terms of all their skill sets. But Joe has a natural feel to hit. And he’s just getting to become what we expect here in Oakland. He’s becoming a professional hitter.
AF: I know he’s moved around a bit in the field – second base, third base, the outfield. So where do you feel he’s really best-suited to be in the field?
RM: I think that right now our biggest concern with Joe is finding a place he’ll be serviceable as a defender. So the process is still ongoing. He’s played some third, not this year but previously. He began the year at second base here, and he still continues to play second base. We’re still experimenting a little bit with him in the outfield. So, in terms of what he’s going to be ultimately, I don’t think anybody has the answer to that right now. We haven’t solved that dilemma yet. But the reality is if you hit, you play. So I think Joe’s going to figure that out. And I think wherever we ask him to play, he’s very willing to do that. He’s very open-minded. He’s not reluctant, saying “This is difficult,” or “I don’t feel comfortable here.” He’s looking to say, “How can I be better? What do I need to do?”
AF: Another guy who’s been pretty consistent for you and has certainly done a great job of getting on base all season is outfielder James Harris. What’s he meant to your team this year and what kind of development have you seen out of him?
RM: He truly has been our most consistent player, because he’s hit from day one for average and hasn’t stopped. He too is getting better as the season progresses. The more repetitions you get, the more at-bats you get, if you’re getting better, you’re going to see results. Everybody goes through some ups and downs, and so has James to some degree, but from day one he’s been selective and aggressive enough in his at-bats to get the pitches he wants to hit. So he’s developed as a hitter very dramatically since his first years in pro ball with Tampa Bay. This is my first real exposure to James. I saw him in spring training and he had a terrific spring. Along with his ability to hit, there is some power there, and I think it will develop more than what you’re seeing here in the California League this year. He’s also athletic, he can run. The area he really needs to improve upon is his defense. He needs to become a better outfielder and a better thrower. But if the bat is a big part of the equation, he’s shown this year that he’s made huge strides at the plate, and I’m pleased to say that he’s having a great year.
AF: Since he’s been in pro ball for a while, I think people tend to forget that he’s actually still fairly young. He’s still just 22.
RM: Yeah, he was a high school signing, not unlike B.J. Boyd. They’re both from the same area. He’s gotten a second chance here, and he’s made the most of it. And that speaks to his character and his drive and his focus on what he wants to do and where he wants to go. So it’s been a good year for James.
AF: Now another guy who’s been a big bat for you here this year is first baseman Sandber Pimentel. He’s obviously got some power, and he’s done a good job of getting on base too. So what have you seen out of him this year in Stockton?
RM: Well, he’s young as well. He’s 21 years old. The first thing you see is his physical presence – he looks the part. This is what they’re supposed to look like. I’m sure David Ortiz looked something like this at his age as well. So the comparison is fair from a physical profile. But what I’ve seen from Sandber is the ability to work harder at what he’s doing, to take all facets of the game – his hitting, his fielding, his throwing, his base running – to another level, to get better at being a complete, all-around player. I think what you deal with sometimes with the Latin player is the fact there is no baseball infrastructure in the Dominican. There is no Little League, PONY League, high school, junior college, college baseball. Most everything they do is on a showcase basis – they go, they hit, they throw, they field, they run. The tools are evaluated, but the baseball IQ is not developed. So when you bring a kid like him and you put him in the Cal League where you’re playing with older guys, more advanced guys, more skilled guys, guys with better baseball acumen for lack of a better term, his learning curve is going to be slower. So patience and perseverance are the key words for him. You just have to continue to teach and mentor him. And this year he’s been receptive and we’re starting to see some of the fruits of our labor in the way he’s playing the game on both sides of the line. So we’re pleased with the development from Sandber.
AF: Two other hitters I wanted to ask you about are last year’s top two draft picks for the A’s – infelders Richie Martin and Mikey White. Both have had some struggles at the plate this season. So what kind of challenges have you seen those guys having to face this year in High-A?
RM: White first because he’s been here all year – his strengths for me are his baseball skills. His ablity to know how to play the game, to be in the right position, to make the throw to the proper base, to advance along the bases correctly – all those things are in place for him. But now it’s a matter of how can we develop the tools? And so the first thing, of course, that we want to do is we want him to become a better hitter. He got off to a slow start this year, and we’ve been working diligently with him on his approach. By that, I mean his ability to get ready to hit in a physical manner so that he’s in a position to recognize pitches, be balanced, be centered, be leveraged, and be strong at contact. And we’re starting to see that now as the season has progressed into the second half. His at-bats are better. If you notice his swings, you’ll see he’s over the baseball, his hands are in a better position, his timing is improved, he’s recognizing better. So we’re very pleased with that, because it’s been a little bit of a tough road for him this first half. But he has not allowed it to affect his attitude, how he approaches the game, his work ethic. He comes out here every day very open-minded and willing to do what we ask him to do. And sometimes you’ve got to take two steps backward before you can take one step forward. We’ve gone through the backward steps, so now we’re looking for the forward steps.
AF: And what about Richie Martin?
RM: He got kind of sidetracked with the meniscus tear in spring training, and that set him back a little bit, so he didn’t get the full benefit of spring training. And when you go to extended [spring training] after all the teams break down there, it’s not quite the same as spring training – you’re not facing different clubs, you’re not facing better arms. So it took him a little bit of time to get going. What you see with Richie I think is what everybody sees. You see a very athletic, agile, strong, toolsy kind of player in terms of his ability to catch the ball, his ability to run, his ability to throw with an above-average arm – all those things stand out. He too is in a position right now where he’s facing much better competition, and he too is one that we need to try to help get in sync at the plate. And by that, I mean to get his timing in a position where he can recognize pitches, be on time and be in a position to drive baseballs with greater regularity. So the things we’re working on with him are basically his timing, his readiness and his overall approach to hit. So we’re making some strides with him, but it’s an ongoing process. And you believe, as talented and athletic as he is – and, of course, he’s a very dedicated kid, a very competitive kid, and a self-starter – that he’ll figure it out.
AF: Okay, I wanted to ask you about one pitcher on your staff who came here from Beloit at the end of May – and that’s Kyle Friedrichs. He had a disastrous first start, giving up nine runs in his debut. But ever since then, he’s been about as solid as could be, and he hardly ever walks anyone. So tell me what you’ve been seeing out of Kyle Friedrichs and what’s been working so well for him this season?
RM: Well, he’s a smart pitcher. He knows how to attack hitters. It’s not about ego with him. He’s not trying to strike them out, he’s trying to get them out. He’s trying to pitch to contact within the first three pitches and have the hitters put the ball in play and allow his defense to play behind him. What has been surprising has been the humber of strikeouts he’s had. He has a mix of pitches – he he’s got a four-pitch arsenal. He knows how to use his pitches, he can locate, he upsets hitters’ timing and he pitches ahead in the count – all of which is a recipe for success. So, he’s more pitcher than he is power, but it’s working right now for him and he’s really been a welcome addition to our club.
AF: Which of his pitches are really working for him at this point?
RM: Well, he locates a fastball and he stays down in the zone. So even when they do touch him, it’s on the ground. That’s important for him. And there’s a little movement. He’s got a slider, he’s got a curveball and he’s got a change. And I would call them all serviceable pitches. He’s got a mix. So he’s the type of guy who might go through the lineup the first time using one or two pitches to get outs. Then in those second or third at-bats, other pitches are introduced and now the hitters have to cover more than one or two pitches, and that’s to his advantage.
AF: It sounds like being able to locate that fastball down in the zone is the key for him.
RM: Most everything that he throws is down and it’s got downward plane to it, so it’s groundball, groundball, groundball. It’s not overpowering, so the key is command of the pitches.
AF: Now I know you were a scout before you got into coaching. So did Grady Fuson hire you to be a scout for the A’s when he was the team’s scouting director back in the ‘90s?
RM: Grady hired me in 1995 to be an area scout in southern California. And I spent five, almost six, years before I even explored the chance to get on the field. And when I went to Italy in 2005 to be part of the MLB international academy there, I met some people on that side and they offered me the opportunity to manage South Africa in the first World Baseball Classic. And we were an organization that welcomed scouts, after the draft, to be a part of the short-season staffs. So I’d mentioned to [farm director] Keith Lieppman on a couple of occasions that would be something I’d like to do if the opportunity presented itself. And after the baseball classic, he asked me if I’d like to manage Vancouver in 2006 and I said, “You don’t have to ask twice.” So I’ve been able to do a few things here with Oakland, and I’m grateful to Grady for bringing me over and I’m grateful to Keith for giving me the opportunity to manage. 2013 was my last year as a scout and now I’m full-time on the field.
AF: And I guess it sounds like you’re enjoying the chance to be back out on the field.
RM: At this point in my life, I’m truly blessed. I’ve got a full-time job in baseball, I have a five-month offseason, and I’m enjoying the fruits of my labor at this point in my life. I’m just very grateful for how things have happened here in Oakland.
* * *