Exclusive: Down on the Farm with A’s Special Assistant Grady Fuson

gfDSC01787-1[2c]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 ChavezTim HudsonMark MulderBarry 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 Oakland 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).

Prior to the draft in early-June, Fuson’s duties primarily consist of scouting amateur players in preparation for draft day. But once the draft is complete, he typically begins a tour around the A’s system while also checking out some of the team’s potential targets prior to the trade deadline.

We were fortunate enough to catch up with Fuson in Stockton a few days after the end of the major league All-Star break and a few days before the A’s added catcher Bruce Maxwell, whom we discussed, to the major league roster. And, as always, we were happy to have 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 from throughout the system…

 

AF:  I know that once the draft is done, you usually hit the road for a bit. So where have you been since the draft?

GF:  I’ve been to Nashville. I’ve been to Midland. I’ve been to Arizona. I’ve been to Stockton – I had to leave, and now I’m back in Stockton.

AF:  I really wanted to start out primarily focusing on some of the guys who’ve been at Nashville this season. First of all, let’s start out with a guy who started the year at Double-A and passed everyone by and is now up with the A’s in the big leagues – Ryon Healy. He was probably the best overall hitter in the A’s minor league system this season. So what clicked for him this year?

rh592387cGF:  Well, first of all, I think, if you go back, it clicked last year. He really put together a good second half and played well coming down the stretch there last year as well. This year, you know, he came in with a chip on his shoulder. I think he knew during the spring that he was the only guy of that Double-A group who didn’t get a big league invite [to the A’s spring training camp]. So I think he put it in his head that he wasn’t going to Triple-A. And you could tell, even joking around, that he was somewhat pissed. So the first week and a half in [minor league] camp, all he’s doing is trying to jerk balls out of the ballpark. And so it took us about a week and a half to kind of calm him down and let him know that all he was going to do was wreak for himself. But, with that said, his mentality about attacking pitches and driving the baseball continues to improve. And that’s what he’s been doing all year. His strike zone’s getting better, so he’s hitting better pitches, and he’s attacking them. His power numbers have come up, his on-base percentage is up, and he’s hitting the ball to all fields. He’s done everything you’d hope for in a hitter.

AF:  Well, it sounds like he’s definitely been a good kind of aggressive. Another guy who was in a similar spot this season is outfielder Jaycob Brugman. He also started the year kind of being left behind in Double-A. He hit really well there, got called up to Nashville and, next to Healy, he’s probably been one of the best hitters in the A’s system this season.

jb595144bGF:  Bruggy’s a very solid player. It’s hard to put all the upside together as far as him being like a star guy in the big leagues, but there’s no way you can count Jaycob out. This guy runs it, he throws it, he can swing it, he ambushes for a homer here and there, he can steal a base. And he’s also, offensively and defensively, probably one of the most fundamentally sound players we have on both sides of the baseball. He does things the way you’d teach it. Footwork in the outfield, reads routes, approach at the plate, swings at strikes, takes balls – you know, he’s got that skill set.

AF:  I know he’s always been talked about primarily as a corner outfielder, but he’s been playing a lot of center field this year at Nashville. So how do you feel about his abilities in center field?

GF:  Well, they’re good, they’re solid. They’re not off the charts. I don’t know that a lot of people are going to look at him and think he’s going to be our center fielder of the future. Can he play center field? Yes. Would be he a little bit exposed speed-wise if he was sitting in a big league outfield? Probably. There’s always going to be a burner who comes along and gets the same kind of reads with better speed. But I wouldn’t be afraid to put this guy in a big league center field anyway.

AF:  Another guy who’s really come on strong lately is catcher Bruce Maxwell. His average is up over .300 and he’s got nine or ten home runs now. So what’s been clicking for him?

bm622194cGF:  I think he’s starting to really have more competitive at-bats. I mean, he’s seeing it better. He’s more aggressive on balls in his zone. He’s not carving as many balls up in the big sky out in left-center as he did. He’s starting to feel the pull side of the ballpark with some backspin. There’s still a ways to go. But the bottom line is, as long as he can just be competitive with his at-bats and give you good at-bats, this guy’s going to find himself a job.

AF:  That’s the other thing I wanted to ask you about – how do you feel about his development as a catcher? I know a lot of time and effort has gone into that over the years for him.

GF:  That’s the one thing that’s been pretty good the last few years. He’s really developed himself into an above-average receiver. He’s got very good exchange, and timing and rhythm throwing. He’s become very accurate – he’s worked on it. He still gets exposed with his flexibility as far as sometimes blocking if balls take him way out to the sides. But Brucie’s done a good job – I’m proud of him.

AF:  Now a guy who started out the season slow but ended up being a Triple-A all-star is Nashville shortstop Chad Pinder. He got off to a rough start but seems to have turned things around a bit now. So where do you feel he’s at in the development curve?

cp640461cGF:  I still think there’s some room to go with Chad. He’s had some defensive lapses in Triple-A that he did not show last year in Double-A. I think a lot of it’s throwing. I personally mentioned it to him when I was in there that he’s dropping down. He’s really such a beautiful thrower from a high ¾ spot – that’s gotten away from him a little bit. He’s still driving the baseball, he’s still using the whole field. He still needs to take another step up as far as his pitch recognition – not that he’s a chaser or that he swings really out of the zone – just early in counts, what pitch he’s being aggressive on. To me, he’s still trying to go for too many pitches early in a count that aren’t the kind of pitches he can drive. And I think, over a period of time, that puts him behind in counts and changes the whole sequence that he’s going to get pitched. But he’s another 23-year-old in Triple-A getting his feet wet against experienced guys and hitting around .260 with a dozen homers and playing a solid everyday shortstop. So, as far as the path to the big leagues, he’s on time.

AF:  Yeah, it looked to me like most of his errors this year have been throwing errors. I wasn’t sure if he was just rushing things or if it was something more mechanical.

GF:  Yeah, more throwing errors. He’s dropping down…and that’s just not him. He is a guy who sets his feet. He’s usually very fundamental. Last year, he was so accurate with his throwing, and that carried him last year. He’s got to get back to that.

AF:  Now another guy who’s been on a bit of a similar path as Pinder this year is Matt Olson. He started the season off really rough, then things started picking up for him, but things have been a bit hot and cold with him this year. So where do you feel Matt Olson’s at with the whole Triple-A experience at this point?

mo621566GF:  Well, I think he’s seeing that his holes are becoming more and more exposed the higher up he goes. It’s not like they’re not being addressed. We’ve worked on numerous things trying to uplift his ability to make contact. It’s just going to be a work in progress. The talent has not changed – there’s still big strength in there, he’s still patient and he’s still disciplined. There’s just times where, with the way he delivers the bat, there just happens to be holes in that zone, and we’re just trying to shrink those holes. He definitely needs work staying over the baseball longer and driving baseballs in that shortstop area of the field. He’s losing too many balls in the air though – and he knows it. It’s been addressed, it’s being worked on and, actually, I would say in the last two or three weeks, the quality of his at-bats are getting better.

AF:  He’s spent most of the season playing right field. I know everyone’s always raved about his work at first base. So how do you feel about his work in right field?

GF:  He’s solid. He’s just not as good there as he is at first. So that tends to be a topic in the organization – is the outfield play hindering him offensively? I don’t think so. He likes playing the outfield. I think he knows he’s a very good first baseman but, right now, it’s increasing his versatility. It’s increasing the options, if he does get up there, of where Bob Melvin can use him. Everybody knows he’s probably the best defensive first baseman in the system, so he can always go back there. So when the time arises, when he’s needed, we’ll see where he goes.

AF:  Turning to pitching for a moment, let’s talk about Dillon Overton. He’s been solid at Nashville all year and he’s been up and down with the A’s a couple of times now. So what does he need to do to get over the hump at get to that next level where he can be a solid major leaguer?

do592614dGF:  I think just get some experience up there. He’s shown that he can dominate Triple-A. He’s had numerous games where he’s been dominating. He’s an excellent strike-thrower, he’s got pace to his game, and he’s got location. You know, you still wish there was a little bit more heat coming out of the fastball. And the less his fastball grows, the more perfect he’s going to have to be with his fastball location. He’s very good to the arm side. I think he’s going to have to be able to get into righties better if he’s going to pitch at 88-90 mph – he’s going to have to get in there with a purpose and then go back out. I think he’s still learning that part of it. But I think it’s experience. It’s like all of them, they need some time to see the big leagues – that second and third deck and brighter lights and tougher hitters.

AF:  Before we turn to a few guys at Double-A, are there any updates on Henderson Alvarez and his sore shoulder? Is he just totally shut down at this point?

GF:  Yeah, I don’t know for how long, but I don’t think it’s going to be anytime soon.

AF:  Okay, let’s touch on a few guys at Midland. Another guy who was in kind of a similar position as Ryon Healy this year is outfielder Tyler Marincov. He kind of got left behind at Stockton, hit very well there and earned a promotion to Midland, and now he’s been doing well there too. So what do you think of what we’ve seen out of Tyler Marincov this year?

tm595309cGF:  Well, obviously, from a performance standpoint, you look at his numbers, and everything’s much better. The one thing you see is that he’s driving the ball to the right side of the field better. There’s still some things mechanically I think he needs to get better at, especially if he’s going to take that game with some power to the higher levels. Basically, the same issues that we’re working with Chapman on are the same things with Tyler – a little bit better load and a little bit better separation so that he’s giving himself some time and space to recognize and get in position. But as far as how he’s performing, he’s performed admirably.

AF:  Well, that brings us to Matt Chapman. Obviously, hitting 22 home runs in the Texas League at this point in the season is not an easy thing to do…

GF:  He’s got more homers than hits!

AF: [Laughter] Almost! And he’s also striking out about once every three at-bats. So where is he at in the learning curve at this point?

mc656305dGF:  Obviously, stuck right in the middle! Yeah, the strikeouts are alarming, no doubt. But here’s what I can tell you, I can tell you the kid’s working at it. It hasn’t changed the way he goes about playing the game. His power is immense. It’s all about timing and positioning and how he’s seeing it. It’s the same thing I mentioned with Marincov, there’s a separation move that he’s not had since the day we signed him, and he’s been able to kind of get away with it. You know, one of the biggest things about Chapman that a lot of people are forgetting is that he’s missed two falls of our big instructional period. The first year he signed, when he was going into instructional league, he got hurt and couldn’t play. Then he got hurt coming into spring training. Then he got hurt when we were going to send him to the Arizona Fall League. And then this spring, he was in big league camp till the end. So there’s been two springs and two falls where really – and instruction is what it’s all about – he’s missed. So he’s learning on the fly. Skill-set-wise, he’s everything everybody thinks he is. He’s an above-average third baseman with a cannon arm. He’s an instinctual gamer as far as his presence. He’s got big damaging power that’s got a chance to be a game-changer. It’s just working on all these little things about hitting.

AF:  That’s an interesting point. It seems he really has missed a lot of instruction time. Of course, the other top prospect at Midland is shortstop Franklin Barreto. He’s kind of been doing the same thing he did last year in Stockton. He started out slow and then midway through the season started turning it on a bit and coming around. I know he’s missed a few games recently with a leg issue – I’m not sure how serious that is. But where do you feel he’s at at this point?

fb620439GF:  Well, for a 20-year-old, he’s probably playing about two levels up. He’s doing well. He’s kind of starting to come out of his shell from a personality standpoint. You know, last year, he was very quiet and unassuming – new organization, new people. This year, you can tell, he’s gravitating towards some coaching. He’s really wanting to put a plan together now. You’ve got to remember, this kid’s at Double-A when most kids at 20 are either being signed or in rookie ball. And putting an offensive plan together, situational hitting, those are things that you’re talking about as guys are getting closer to the big leagues. These things are coming fast for him. So I think we all need to realize how young he really is and understand that we have so much time to still work with this guy. Like any young player, there’s some moves here and there that we’re trying to put together so that they work a little more efficiently in his swing. But the plus run, the explosive hands, the ability to ambush a heater from time to time, that’s all there.

AF:  He’s also been doing a lot of running this year – he’s already stolen over 20 bases so far – which is obviously good to see. Do you think this current leg injury is much of a big deal though?

GF:  No.

AF:  Okay, and then one last guy at Midland who’s always interesting to talk about is infielder Yairo Munoz. He came out kind of strong but then he started struggling a bit. So what do you think about where he’s at right now?

ym622168GF:  I would say about what I said last year – talented, but careless. He lost all of spring training [due to injuries]. He came in heavy. This kid’s added thirty pounds in the last year. He’s starting to become more fit now, but it’s been a struggle for him carrying this extra weight. He was hurt with three different things and lost all of spring training. So the reality is, May – he didn’t get out till May – was basically his spring training. But by the time you get to Double-A, the instinctual side of the game needs to start building as far as positioning yourself, making throws with your legs underneath you, not trying to do everything on the run, narrowing your strike zone, getting more focused on pitches that you can hit – and he’s behind with that still. His talent skill is where it belongs but, in a perfect world, he would be in A-ball learning how to play the game with a little bit more focus and purpose. This kid’s very talented, but there’s just a lot of careless mistakes still going on in his game – swinging at stuff he doesn’t need to be swinging at, throwing on the run when he doesn’t need to be, a lot of style before substance sometimes. But [Midland manager] Ryan Christenson’s doing a great job harping on it down there. We’re staying with it and it’s one of those things where we don’t know when the maturity level’s going to kick in – hopefully it starts to come.

AF:  One interesting development this year has been the performance of the Beloit pitching staff, with guys like Evan Manarino and Boomer Biegalski and others there. What’s your impression of what some of those young pitchers have been doing there this season?

GF:  Manarino’s a college senior strike-thrower we signed a year ago. He’s a below-average-fastball guy, but he’s a strike-thrower. He’s a got a good breaker and he’s got a feel to pitch. He’s kind of doing what we expected him to do. He was a polished college pitcher. He doesn’t have big stuff, but he knows what he’s doing. Biegalski’s gone through a little fastball stage where he got erratic, so he never got to that changeup that he’s noted for. Now five out of his last six starts, his fastball command’s starting to improve, so you’re seeing his line score improve. So, to me, it’s all about his ability to stay in command of his fastball to get to his changeup.

AF:  Now just to touch on the draft a bit, you guys took three big pitchers at the top of the draft – A.J. Puk, Daulton Jefferies and Logan Shore. So what’s your overall impression of how the A’s came out of the draft this year?

GF:  We needed starters, and we got starters! Puk is a big, big physical man who’s got a big upside heater and a fair breaking ball. The changeup and the feel to pitch will show how far things are going to take him. Daulton Jefferies is more of a Sonny Gray-looking guy – kind of a slighter, smaller frame – but he’s got a live arm. He’s got tons of movement, he’s got a sinker and he’s got a knack for the bottom of the zone. He’s got good stuff and he locates. I can’t wait to get him healthy and get him out pitching. And Shore’s probably one of the better college pitchers in the draft, period. The biggest thing with Logan is he used his sinker, his two-seamer, all year in college and his velocity kind of went backwards a little bit. So he’s kind of pitching 87-91 mph – pitched great, don’t get me wrong – but a few of us saw this guy 92-93-94 mph last year using his four-seamer a little bit. And once we get him out and get him going, we’re going to see if we can’t get some of that back. But there’s not much to do with his breaking ball and changeup. He’s durable, he’s strong, he’s a strike-thrower, he knows what he’s doing. We got three good ones there.

AF:  I know they’ve been taking it easy with Jefferies after his shoulder injury earlier this year. Are we likely to see him at some point soon?

GF:  The plan with him is to keep strengthening the shoulder area a little bit, and he should be getting some innings in August. He’s not going to be stretched out big. We’ll just get him going, then he’ll be in instructional league and we’ll go from there.

AF:  And what about Shore?

GF:  Shore’s going to be limited. He was a 100+ innings guy in college. He’s going to go to Vermont and maybe pitch occasionally out of the bullpen. They may start him, but it’s not going to be with any depth.

AF:  And finally, was there anyone else the A’s took in the draft you’re particularly high on?

GF:  Some of the early guys – the high school pitcher we took, Skylar Szynski. He’s a very good-looking kid – athletic, six-foot-one, strength in his body, has got a quick arm, got a chance to have a plus breaker and a plus change. It looks like he’s going to be a strike-thrower – got to settle down his delivery, he’s a little quick-paced. So everything right now looks pretty productive.

AF:  Speaking of high school guys, last year’s 3rd-round pick, Dakota Chalmers, has looked pretty good at Vermont so far this year.

GF:  Dakota’s done well. He’s actually pitching better there than he has in extended, in spring and everywhere else.

AF:  Well, maybe he’s one of those guys who rises to the occasion – he needs a challenge!

GF:  That’s right, put him out in a real stadium!

AF:  So now where are you headed off to next?

GF:  Well, you know, the phone could always ring at any minute on trades. That’s always live.

AF:  Well, I guess it is that time of the year…

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