Last week at the A’s major league spring training camp in Mesa, we took the opportunity to chat with a trio of top A’s prospects, all of whom made our pre-season Top 10 Prospects List.
We caught up with catcher Bruce Maxwell and third baseman Matt Chapman, both of whom we’d spoken with a number of times before. And we also got the chance to speak with pitching prospect Daniel Gossett for the first time.
Maxwell and Chapman both spent plenty of time in the major league camp last spring, but it was the first time in big league camp for Gossett, who was clearly excited and enthusiastic about the opportunity.
After getting the chance to appear in three spring games, Gossett was reassigned to the A’s minor league camp the day after we spoke, but both Maxwell and Chapman are likely to remain with the major league squad till just prior to opening day.
#2 on our Top 10 Prospects List, third baseman Matt Chapman led all A’s minor leaguers with 36 home runs last season, slugging 29 at Double-A Midland to lead the Texas League and then adding another 7 in just a few weeks with Triple-A Nashville. 2014’s top draft pick for the A’s is also known as a top-tier defender at the hot corner with an elite throwing arm. The 23-year-old will start the year at Nashville, where he’ll try to prove to the A’s that he’s ready for the show sooner rather than later.
AF: Well, it was a very solid season for you last year. You managed to hit 29 home runs while playing at Midland, which is considered to be a bit of a pitchers’ park. So how did you manage to keep your power numbers up going from Stockton to Midland when so few other guys have been able to do that?
MC: Just really working with the coaches, swinging at the right pitches, getting good pitches to hit, and just letting your good swing take care of the rest. For me, working hard in the weight room and getting my strength up, and just trying to put good swings on the ball. I’m just going to keep trying to take good swings and letting the results happen.
AF: You obviously kept your power swing going when you got a late-season promotion to Triple-A Nashville and hit seven more home runs in just a few weeks there. So how did you feel about your experience there?
MC: It was fun. Every level you go up, there’s different challenges and different adjustments you need to make, so it was fun to kind of get a taste of that. And I’m assuming that’s where I’ll be this season. So it’ll be nice to have a little bit of experience and kind of know what to expect a little more this time around.
AF: Making the move from High-A to Double-A and Triple-A last year, were there any particular adjustments you had to make against more advanced pitching?
MC: Definitely, you’re always making adjustments. That’s something in baseball that I don’t think will ever stop. So for me, it might be just making those adjustments a little faster, because the pitchers have a plan of how they want to attack you. So for me, it’s just sticking with that professional approach and being able to not give in to those good pitches those pitchers are making.
AF: Was having the chance to spend plenty of time in big league camp last year a helpful experience for
you? And did it boost your confidence a bit heading into the season?
MC: Definitely. Being around these guys and trying to learn as much as I could was definitely a great experience – and also having some success and then being able to have that confidence that you are good enough to play at a higher level.
AF: So how’s it been being back here in big league camp for your second year? Do you feel a little more comfortable this time around?
MC: Definitely. It’s always nice to get some of that experience under your belt, so that when you come back again, you know what to expect, you kind of develop more of a routine, you know the guys a little bit better, put some more names to faces, and feel more comfortable just being yourself. It’s been fun.
AF: Is there anything that the coaching staff has you working on in particular this spring?
MC: From an offensive standpoint, my rhythm and timing – just really working on dialing in that good rhythm and good timing. And pitch selection – just being disciplined and really committing to getting the pitch that I’m looking for – and kind of just developing that professional hitting approach.
AF: Now you’re known for your solid defense and your strong arm. So how confident do you feel out there in the field at third base?
MC: I’m definitely confident. You should always be confident in your abilities, because when you’re confident, you play your best. And at this level, you should always want to play your best. So you should always be confident and believe in yourself. I’m definitely very confident in my ability on defense and err on the side of attacking every baseball.
AF: So what are you focused on and what’s your mindset heading into this coming season?
MC: My mindset coming into this season is to take everything that I’ve been working on this season in big league camp, everything that I learned from last season, successes and failures, and hopefully combine all those together and formulate the best version of me that I can be, then take that into the beginning of this season and go out there every day and try to get better and show them I’m ready to make the next step.
#7 on our Top 10 Prospects List, right-handed starting pitcher Daniel Gossett blew through three levels of the A’s system last season, making as much progress as any pitcher in the organization, and his 151 strikeouts led all A’s minor leaguers last year. Oakland’s 2nd-round draft pick in 2014 (selected by the A’s right after Matt Chapman), the 24-year-old is set to begin the year as a member of the starting rotation at Triple-A Nashville but, depending on how things go, he could end up getting a shot to show what he can do in Oakland before the season’s through.
AF: You made a big leap forward last season, pitching well at Stockton, Midland and then Nashville. So what accounted for your progress last year, what clicked for you?
DG: I really focused on just staying with the process, trusting my stuff, and not trying to do too much. And now I get to be around all these guys [in the A’s major league camp], so I get to learn a ton every day. So this is an awesome experience for me. If I can just grab on to everything I learn here and just apply it, it’s going to be the best thing for me.
AF: I was just about to ask what it’s been like for you to be in big league camp for the first time this spring.
DG: It’s everything you dream of. This is the dream for everyone. Obviously I haven’t made it to the big leagues yet, but this is obviously a step up in spring training. And I’m honored and excited to be a part of all this and to be around all these guys and to learn as much as I can.
AF: Has anyone here taken you under their wing a bit or been particularly helpful to you this spring?
DG: I try and pick as many brains as I can and talk to everyone I can. But Sean Manaea’s been a rock for me, so that helps out a ton. I get to sit by him every day and ask him anything. I feel like he’s a good friend that I can lean on.
AF: That’s funny because he was the new kid here just last year!
DG: I guess he understands what I’m going through, so he can kind of look out for me a little bit as well.
AF: So what was it like when you got out there on the mound in your first spring training game facing big league hitters for the first time?
DG: Well the first one was actually a start – it was the home opener! It was the first time I’d ever pitched in a big league scenario and I’m starting the game. So there was a little anxiety, but it was awesome. It was great to be on the mound in a big league uniform. It’s still not the real deal, but it’s definitely a cool experience.
AF: Let’s talk a little bit about your repertoire. What were you throwing last year and what was really working for you?
DG: I was really able to work off my fastball, which was really good. My fastball control was pretty good. But then I was able to work on my changeup, which has been a staple for me. And then I added a cutter last year, which actually helped out a ton – another option to go to. So adding that pitch really helped out a lot. And [A’s minor league pitching coordinator] Gil Patterson and a guy who was in Stockton with me last year, Brett Graves, helped me out a ton with the cutter. I’ve just got to keep refining and keep working to see if I can make it a little bit better every day.
AF: Well, in addition to Gil Patterson, you also had three different pitching coaches throughout the system to work with over the course of last season.
DG: So I had Steve Connelly my first couple years. I had him in Vermont, then I had him in Beloit, then I had him in Stockton. And so that was great to have a building block there, a good firm relationship I could always lean on. Then I go up to Double-A at Midland and then Triple-A with Rick Rodriguez. And just getting different perspectives on pitching is awesome. These guys, that’s their job – they understand, they’ve been there. So I can learn from them and take different aspects from them and put it all together.
AF: So how were those different parks for you to have to pitch in? Stockton’s known as a hitters’ park, while Midland and Nashville are known a little more as pitchers’ parks.
DG: Oh yeah, Stockton and the whole Cal League is definitely a hitters’ league. But you’ve just got to trust in the process – just keep pitching and everything else is outside your control, so just control what you can. And I just try to see if I can wheel out the best I’ve got every day.
AF: As you moved through three different levels last year, were there any significant adjustments that you needed to make moving from one level to another?
DG: In Triple-A, definitely. You’ve got a bunch of guys up there with a ton of big league time, and they all have great approaches. And you’re not going to get many swings and misses out of the zone – you have to be good in the zone. Coming from Double-A and High-A, and I’m not trying to talk down about anyone, but I was getting more swings and misses out of the zone. Then you go up to Triple-A and you’ve got to be nasty in the zone, and that’s a bit of an adjustment.
AF: You’ve got to work in the danger zone all the time!
DG: Yeah, you’re always living right there on the edge, that’s for sure!
AF: Even though you weren’t there for very long at the end of last year, how did you enjoy your time in Nashville?
DG: Unbelievable! Everything there is great. Everything gets better the more you move up, that’s just the way it is. But Nashville’s got a brand new stadium, awesome fans, great city – there’s no down side. It’s really close to home for me too, five hours away, which is fantastic, so I got to spend some more time with my family.
AF: I guess you didn’t miss all those bus rides across Texas when you were down at Midland.
DG: That’s true. That’s not a bad deal. Going from the Texas League where I’ve got 12-hour bus rides, then [at Nashville] you’re jumping on a plane to head down to Louisiana. That’s fine with me. I’m not going to complain about that, that’s for sure.
AF: So if you should end up starting the year back at Nashville, I guess that wouldn’t be such a bad thing then.
DG: Absolutely. If I start the year playing baseball, that’s a good year!
AF: So what are you focused on here the rest of the spring?
DG: I just need to work on some consistency stuff. I need to be consistent in the zone. Just trust myself, that’s the biggest thing. Knowing that I’m facing big league hitters, sometimes I feel like I need to do more, but that’s not the case. You’ve got to do what you do and do it the best you can.
#8 on our Top 10 Prospects List, Maxwell had a breakthrough 2016 season at Nashville and made his major league debut last July with Oakland, where he made a positive impression on manager Bob Melvin and the A’s coaching staff. The 26-year-old backstop is expected to start the season back at Triple-A Nashville, but if another catcher is needed on the major league squad at any point during the season, then Maxwell will likely be the first man to get the call.
AF: You made a big leap forward offensively at Nashville last season. So what accounted for the improvements that you were able to make at the plate last year?
BM: I feel like it was just trusting in the process, and learning from the guys who helped me, whether it be my coaches or my teammates, and just trusting in the hitter that I am, and finally getting enough at-bats to really put into play what I do best and stick to that. So once I had the confidence and the repetitions and the trust in the process, I was able to just kind of let my talent take over.
AF: And what is it that you feel you do best as a hitter and what is the approach that works for you?
BM: For the most part, I’m a big strong guy and I have power to all fields, keeping in mind that I use the opposite field very well, and to really try to perfect that craft of mine, so I can always rely on that at the end of the day. So being able to stay confident with that and not switch up my game depending on the pitcher or the situation in the game was my biggest thing. Sticking with that on a daily basis has really made me the consistent hitter that I know I can be and I know they know I can be.
AF: Last spring, you had the chance to spend a lot of time in the big league camp. I’m sure that was a great experience fo you, but how important was it in terms of developing even more confidence in your own abilities and your own game?
BM: It was huge…last year I got to show them what I’ve been working on and show them that I do belong and how I’ve come a long way catching-wise. So it was good to get that exposure…and put a good run in in spring. And it really helped me going into the season.
AF: When you left the big league squad last spring, did Bob Melvin or the coaching staff have anything to say to you or any advice they left you with?
BM: Yeah, they told me to keep doing what I was doing…and they just told me to make sure that I keep progressing behind the dish and the hitting will take care of itself. They just told me to keep with a good routine, keep my head on straight and just keep plugging away.
AF: Well, we know there’s always work to do on the catching side, and you’ve obviously done a lot of that already. But where do you feel you’re at with your catching game at this point?
BM: Honestly, I feel like I’m the best I’ve been. I feel comfortable back there…and I know my pitchers feel confident in me, especially a lot of the guys in Triple-A. I’ve got a good rep with a lot of the big league guys as well because I caught a lot of them in camp last year. And so it’s just about staying on top of it every day.
AF: So are there any particular aspects that you’re really focused on or trying to work on behind the plate at this point?
BM: Just making sure that I stay mobile, making sure my pitchers have a nice big target, and making sure that I just stay sharp with the little things back there. Me being as big as I am, the little things are what matter the most. So just trying to make sure those are on point every day, and trying to make sure that my pitchers have the best opportunity to throw strikes and have a big target and can be as confident and comfortable as they can be with me.
AF: Coming out of college, you really hadn’t done a whole lot of catching at that point. And the main focus when you came into the A’s system was really getting you up to speed with your catching. So how does it feel to now be the #3 catcher on the depth chart for the A’s right there near the top of the food chain?
BM: It feels good. When I started catching, it seemed like a long way off. I feel that I’ve learned and I’ve applied stuff and put it to use every day. And now my confidence is up there, so it feels good.
AF: Let me get your quick take, as a catcher, on a few of the pitchers who’ve been here in camp with you this spring. I don’t know if you’ve gotten the chance to catch Jharel Cotton much. I know you didn’t get a chance to catch him at Nashville last year because you were already up in the big leagues when he came over.
BM: Well I’ve played against Cotton for years. So I’ve known Cotton going on four years now. But he’s a competitor. On any given day, he’s going to go out there and give you his best effort. His pitches are very good, especially when he’s dialed in. And it’s fun to play behind him – he’s got a good pace. It’s his job to make hitters struggle, and that’s what he does. He has a good repertoire of pitches, and he’s a bulldog, so he’s going to go after you with everything he’s got and give you the best chance to win.
AF: And what about that changeup of his?
BM: It’s great! It’s not great to hit against him, but catching it’s not so bad.
AF: And what are your impressions of Frankie Montas?
BM: He’s kind of the same except he throws 100 mph. He’s got a really good breaking ball, and his changeup’s really good, but his fastball’s dominant. He goes out there cool, calm and collected, and he gives it everything he’s got. He attacks you – he forces you to make an adjustment and then, as soon as you make that adjustment, he makes the adjustment. So he’s strong mentally and even stronger physically.
AF: And have you had the chance to work with Daniel Gossett yet?
BM: I’ve caught him one time. But from what I know about him and what I’ve seen, he’s an aggressive pitcher. He’s got confidence in all his pitches. He’s just going to go right after you. He works around the corners and he works down in the zone very well.
AF: So after having had the chance to be here before, do you feel a little more comfortable and a little more confident at this point?
BM: It feels good. I feel like I have a good relationship with a lot of these guys. A lot of the guys in this room, I’ve played at Triple-A and Double-A with. But Yonder Alonso and Marcus Semien and a lot of guys I’ve developed good relationships with, so it feels like I belong here.
AF: Last year, you were with the big league club pretty much till the very end, and you’ll probably be with them till the very end again this year. So whatever happens, wherever you end up, what’s your mindset heading into this season?
BM: To keep aggressive…everybody wants to get better and better every year. So this year, it’s about repeating what I did last year, and just getting a little more refined in certain aspects, and just being the catcher I know I can be and my pitching staff knows I can be, and just winning a championship whether it be at Triple-A or in the big leagues.
* * *