The Arizona Fall League just wrapped up its 31-game schedule this past week. As some of you probably already know, there are six teams in the AFL with each team comprised of prospects from five different organizations. Organizations typically use the AFL as an opportunity to get their top prospects a little more live game action to hopefully help advance their development.
The A’s prospects logged one extra game this year as their team, the Mesa Solar Sox, lost the AFL championship game on Saturday after having clinched the AFL East title on Thursday.
A’s Farm had the chance to visit the team earlier in the final week of the AFL season and talked with most of the A’s prospects there. The language barrier prevented us from talking to LHP Omar Duran, and catcher David Freitas’s early departure from the desert due to his impending nuptials kept us from catching up with him. But fortunately, the rest were all game for our enquiries…
At age 19, shortstop Russell started the year as the youngest player in the California League, and the former 1st-round draft pick turned in a solid season both at the plate in the field for Stockton. The A’s top prospect is expected to start 2014 at Midland.
AF: The AFL is a unique kind of league with all these mixed teams. So how has the experience of playing out here with all these different guys been for you?
AR: Pretty good. It’s a mix of a lot of people from different organizations. We’re all just kind of meshing together and we’re all getting along. And we’re all just here to play baseball and get better.
AF: Well, you’ve got a few guys here you played with in Stockton, guys like Max Muncy, Seth Frankoff, Ryan Dull. So it must be nice to have a few familiar faces around anyway.
AR: Oh yeah, for sure. When you first get here, it breaks that kind of tension. You can talk to them and see what they’ve been up to and see how they’ve been doing. It’s a good thing to see those familiar faces.
AF: What’s your impression of the talent level here in the AFL?
AR: You know, it’s the best young talent. They’re all top prospects from their teams. They’re first-round guys, and I expect them to play the way that they’ve been playing to get to this point. So they’ve been doing something right, and I’m fortunate enough to be among them.
AF: Well, you’re still just 19. So do you feel it steps up your game to be playing with guys who might be a little older or a little more advanced?
AR: Oh yeah, for sure. The young guys always want to prove themselves and show what they can do on the baseball field. And that’s how I feel. The guys kind of get a sense of how I go about my business, and hopefully I think I’m liked in the clubhouse. And everyone’s been cool.
AF: You’ve been coming on strong at the end of the AFL season, kind of like you did at Stockton this year. Are there any particular adjustments you’ve made?
AR: Just staying patient and looking for my pitch.
AF: And what’s your pitch?
AR: Nine times out of ten everyone wants to hit a fastball. I’m just trying to see the fastball early and just know where’s it’s going to be pitched, and then just adjust to the off-speed stuff. So I’m just looking out for the fastball.
AF: Is there any particular part of the plate where you usually prefer to be looking for a pitch?
AR: No, not really. I kind of stay over the center of the plate. I work three-quarters of the way in and three-quarters of the way out. So if he throws me an inside pitch, I’m ready for it, and if he throws me an outside pitch, I’m ready for it.
AF: So what about your play out in the field? I think you only made a handful of errors in the second half this year. Is there anything you’ve been working on out there?
AR: I’m just trying to go about my business the right way. It’s just staying in the game. You just have to stay in the game and be on your toes and just be ready.
AF: Was there anything you learned or were there any adjustments you made in the field as the season went on?
AR: I just try to play pitch by pitch. You know, if the catcher’s setting up outside to a right-handed hitter, I might shade up the middle just a little bit. Just trying to see what kind of pitch the pitcher’s going to throw so I can kind of get a good idea where he might hit it. If he throws a right-hander a curveball, I’m trying to shade into the six hole a little bit. So just trying to stay ready and stay in the game.
AF: When the season’s over, what are you going to do when you finally get a little time off?
AR: I’m probably just going to sleep, see some family and get back to training.
AF: So where are you planning on spending the off-season?
AR: Back in my hometown in Florida.
AF: Well, I’m sure they’ll be glad to see you!
2013: 17 HR / 61 BB / 125 K / .269 AVG / .369 OBP / .495 SLG / .865 OPS
AFL: 1 HR / 10 BB / 15 K / .282 AVG / .361 OBP / .435 SLG / .796 OPS
First baseman Muncy led all A’s minor leaguers in home runs with 25 in 2013, 21 of them coming when he got off to a blazing start in the California League before being promoted to Midland in July.
AF: Well, you got off to a great start in Stockton this year. Then you went up to Midland and it was a little more of a challenge there. So what were the biggest differences for you when it came to facing those pitchers and hitting in those parks?
MM: The difference for me was pitchers were a lot more confident in their stuff. They weren’t afraid to throw whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. And I can honestly say the back-foot slider was the biggest difference to me. In the Cal League, there were a lot of high-powered arms that we saw. They had sharp curveballs, but none of them would try and back-foot it. I get to the Texas League, and I’m automatically seeing two back-foot pitches each at-bat. I’ve never really seen that, so it took quite a while to get used to that. My strikeout numbers went up quite a bit at first and then I started making the adjustments towards the end. And I really enjoyed the challenge because that was really the first time I’ve ever really failed. And I’m glad I went through it then, so now I know how to deal with it going into this next year. Well, hopefully I won’t be dealing with it – but playing the sport of baseball, it’s impossible not to.
AF: Well, even the best hitters fail two out of three times! So what were the specific adjustments you actually had to make to deal with that?
MM: Just setting my sights differently. You know, seeing that pitch down and in and trying to lay off that. When I was hitting all those home runs in the Cal League, if I saw a pitch down and in, I got ready to turn on it and try and lift it in the air. I started trying to do that in the Texas League, but instead of being a fastball, it was a curveball or a slider and it disappeared off the table. So just laying off certain pitches and having a better approach at the plate and attacking the better pitches over the plate. Also one of the bigger adjustments was trying to pick up on patterns that the pitchers were doing, certain things they would do – trying to speed you up and then slow you down with a different pitch, just little things like that.
AF: So assuming you start next season back at Midland, do you feel you’ve learned the lessons you needed to in order to get off to a good start next year?
MM: Yeah, I really feel and believe that I can go back in there and have a strong start just like I did this year. Obviously, the home run numbers probably aren’t going to be there. That entire league is a tough league to hit in. Everywhere you go, the wind blows in 30-40 mph. And on top of it blowing in, the field in Midland and a lot of the fields, they’re big dimensions, so it’s tough to get the ball out. But hopefully at the beginning of the season, the wind’s not quite blowing in yet, so hopefully I can take advantage of that. But that was also one of the big adjustments for me was getting back to my line drive swing and not hitting the ball in the air as much. And once I started doing that, I actually ended up hitting a couple of home runs and my average started climbing up and I was going back to what I was used to doing.
AF: It’s often such a big adjustment for hitters going from the California League to the Texas League because the parks and the conditions are just so different.
MM: Everyone had always told me it was different hitting in the Texas League because the wind blows in. But I went there and I was kind of in shock at how different it really was. One of my first couple of games there, I hit a ball to right field that probably would have been about 100 feet out of Stockton and the right fielder was almost coming in on it. The ball got up in the wind and just died.
AF: We’re not in Stockton anymore!
AF: And the park in Midland often has some of the lowest home run totals in the whole league. Michael Choice had a hard time there. Grant Green had a hard time there. All these guys have big years at Stockton then go there and have a tough time hitting it out.
MM: Yeah, it was really tough. I think I even got a couple of triples there. You hit the ball in the gap and it goes for days out there. You can just run all around the bases.
AF: I notice they’ve had you playing a little third base out here. So what’s that all about? Was that part of the plan or was it just out of circumstance?
MM: I don’t know what the plan is to be honest. Our first couple of days out here, we were having practice and (manager) Bill Richardson was having a meeting with us and he comes to me and goes, “You play first and third, right?” But after I got over the actual shock of that, I was like, “Yeah, I used to play third all the time before I got to college, so I’m used to it.” I’ve gotten a couple of games there and it’s been a lot of fun for me. It’s always fun to play a different position. I haven’t been told if that’s a plan for me in the long run, but it’s good to keep my versatility up. It makes it easier to move up.
2013: 25 HR / 88 BB / 102 K / .273 AVG / .381 OBP / .476 SLG / .857 OPS
AFL: 0 HR / 10 BB / 10 K / .224 AVG / .350 OBP / .265 SLG / .615 OPS
RHP Dull pitched well enough to sail through three levels of the A’s system in 2013, starting the season in the Midwest League before moving up to the California League and finally finishing the season in the Texas League.
AF: Well, you started the season in the Midwest League and now you find yourself out here in the Arizona Fall League. Looking at the guys you were facing to start the year compared to the guys you’re facing here in the AFL, what kind of differences do you see?
RD: You definitely see a lot more polished approaches in the hitters here. They hit the pitch that they want. You don’t really see them swing at many pitches out of the zone, as compared to earlier in the year – there were a lot more free swingers.
AF: You were dominant in the Midwest League early in the year and you did really well in the California League where a lot of pitchers often have trouble. And then came the jump to Double-A – was that the biggest leap you felt in the course of the season?
RD: I did, I definitely felt that. We changed some sequences on how to attack hitters and be a little more conscious of actually pitching inside a lot more than I did. Working on changing sequences from hitter to hitter so everybody doesn’t see the same sequence every time. And we tried to work on bringing that approach out here as well.
AF: So are there any particular pitches you’re working on at all or do you pretty much feel you’ve got your repertoire down at this point?
RD: I think I have it down now. It’s just making sure it’s all consistent and I can be able to put it where I want to instead of just relying on one pitch to get all the outs.
AF: Do you still have certain pitches that you feel most comfortable going to in a tough spot?
RD: I feel like recently I could use any three that I want to at any time, which makes it a little easier to pitch because whatever the catcher throws down, you have the confidence to throw that.
AF: So you feel pretty confident in all your pitches at this point.
RD: I do.
AF: Well that is a help! So when you got to the Texas League late in the year, what were you finding different about the hitters there from the hitters you’d faced at the lower levels?
RD: They can hit your good pitches well. Even if you think it’s a good pitch, they still might hit it hard. And they definitely know how to hit the mistakes a lot better. And I really had to learn how to mix it up even more. They can swing at really good pitches or pitches out of the zone and they’ll still find a way to get a hit. They know how to hit the bad pitches and still get hits out of it somehow.
AF: How would you compare the general level of play out here in the AFL to what you experienced in the Texas League?
RD: I would say it’s a step up, because you’re playing with the best in the minor leagues right now. And it’s guys you’re going to be playing against for years to come.
AF: So what’s the key thing that you’ve been focused on during your time here in the AFL?
RD: Just trying to keep my game plan the same. I feel like at the beginning of this fall league, I just wasn’t the same. I wasn’t sticking to the game plan that I used all season. But then, as of late, we’ve been going back to my game plan of just continuing to stay aggressive and using hitters’ aggressiveness to my advantage so I can try to get them out as quick as possible.
2013: 60 IP / 44 H / 16 ER / 9 BB / 78 K / 2.40 ERA / 0.88 WHIP
AFL: 11 IP / 11 H / 6 ER / 4 BB / 9 K / 4.91 ERA / 1.36 WHIP
RHP Frankoff was the most reliable arm out of Stockton’s bullpen in 2013 and finished the year with the best ERA and WHIP of any pitcher on the team who threw more than 70 innings.
AF: So when you found out you were going to be given the chance to play in the AFL this year, how did you feel about it?
SF: It was a goal that I’d had. So it was nice to get a little bit of recognition. It’s a great honor to be invited here. It means that the organization sees something in you. So obviously this was something that made me feel good about the kind of year I had.
AF: You spent all year in the California League. So how does the talent level out here in the AFL compare?
SF: Well, it’s kind of a who’s who of prospects. So you’ve heard a lot of the names before. There are some very talented individuals in this league – and some guys who’ve gotten paid a lot of money.
AF: Some guys who’ve got some pretty nice cars, right?
SF: Absolutely, the parking lot’s always interesting to see!
AF: So what about pitching here? You’ve been doing well out here, but are there any particular adjustments you’ve had to make?
SF: Just trying to buy into the philosophy that the A’s have preached to us. You hear it so many times, but really it’s true – just getting ahead, strike one, strike two, putting guys away in less than three pitches, and really working the fastball command is paramount. Stay out of the middle of the plate, stay down in the zone, and just try to continue what I was working on this season and continue to improve every time I get out there.
AF: So when you came out here, did the A’s tell you they wanted you to work on anything in particular?
SF: One thing that (minor league pitching coach) John Wasdin who’s here with us has conveyed to me that they want to see is really working the fastball down and away to right-handers and then throwing my curveball for more strikes. I think I’ve shown that I can throw my cutter and my changeup in most every count, but they really want me to get the strike percentages up with my fastball and curveball. So that’s a couple of things I’ve been working on.
AF: The cut fastball’s what you’ve always relied on, right?
SF: It’s been my bread and butter a little bit. But you have to be able to adapt. Scouting reports get out, so you have to be able to show guys other things to be successful.
AF: Well, that’s what happens. As you move up, there’s always something new they need you to work on to get to that next level. And even if you might not be comfortable with it, you’ve got to get comfortable with it if you want to move on.
SF: Absolutely. This is a game you always have to try to improve at. The day you think you have it all figured out is the day the game will pass you by. So that’s kind of what I try to live by.
AF: Things obviously went well for you this year in the California League. Was there anything you felt you really learned there?
SF: I think that I threw a lot more strikes. I’m not a big statistical guy, but I want to keep my walks down obviously. So I think that getting ahead in the count and not giving guys free passes helped me out tremendously. I think that just pitching with confidence is a big thing. You have to have conviction in every pitch you throw and know that you have the ability to be successful in what you’re doing out there.
AF: Well, obviously your command this year at Stockton was very good just looking at the numbers. Was that just the result of confidence or a commitment to throwing more strikes or what?
SF: Well, I’m very fortunate to live in the same basic area as our (minor league) pitching coordinator Scott Emerson. So I was able to work with him a couple of times in the off-season and he kind of cleaned up a couple of things with my delivery, really working direction-wise, getting on a straight line to the plate. And that really helped me out going into spring training.
AF: The California League is such a tough league for so many pitchers, but you did very well there. I’m sure you saw plenty of balls sailing out of those parks…
SF: It’s not very forgiving!
AF: So is there anything you felt you were doing differently that allowed you to succeed there?
SF: I put a premium on groundball outs. My goal every time I go out there is to not let a ball get out of the infield. So if you’re staying down in the zone, you’re going to get those groundball outs. So that’s what I try to do is work down in the zone, try to get downward plane on the baseball and make guys, if they are going to put it in play, hit it weakly and hit in on the ground, because you aren’t going to get hurt very often when they put it on the ground.
AF: Yeah, your odds are definitely much better if no one’s having to look up! So I guess you’re finally about to get to enjoy a little off-season time. Are you looking forward to getting back to North Carolina for a while?
SF: Absolutely, it’s been a joy to be out here. But it’ll certainly be nice to get back home and see my family and get to do a little fishing and some golfing and stuff like that. I plan on taking a couple of weeks off as soon as I get home and eat quite a bit for Thanksgiving. But then when December 1st comes around, I’ll start getting back after it in the weight room.
2013: 74 1/3 IP / 57 H / 23 ER / 23 BB / 93 K / 2.78 ERA / 1.08 WHIP
AFL: 12 1/3 IP / 8 H / 2 ER / 3 BB / 15 K / 1.46 ERA / 0.89 WHIP
LHP Urlaub spent all of the 2013 season as a key lefty out of the bullpen for Midland.
AF: So how’s this whole AFL experience been for you?
JU: It’s been a blast. This has been the best experience ever. The guys, when we came together in early October, we meshed so well. And 90% of these guys are the future of major league baseball, so it’s been a blast to get to know a lot of guys from different organizations. They’re so good that it makes it so much more fun to play.
AF: You’re from out here in Phoenix, right?
JU: Yeah, born and raised out here. Growing up out here, I’ve seen so many Fall League games. I was a bat boy for a team when I was in high school. So the transition for me was a lot easier, because I get to go see my family every night. I get to see my friends, everybody gets to come out and see me play and it makes it a lot easier for me.
AF: You spent all year in the Texas League this season. So how would you compare the level of competition out here?
JU: The competition is better. Don’t get me wrong, no matter what, when you get to Double-A, it’s a different game. And I learned a lot my first year in Double-A this year, which I felt helped me transition into the Fall League as far as preparation and caliber of play. It’s tough. This league is everything that everybody says it is.
AF: I’ve always thought of the AFL as sort of comparable to a Double-A All-Star league.
JU: Absolutely. I’d say Double-A, Triple-A all-star guys – and that might even be an understatement. I can say a lot of the guys on our team could play in the big leagues for somebody right now.
AF: You got off to a really good start out here, so you were obviously up to the challenge and must have been feeling pretty confident.
JU: I was. I came in confident. But I didn’t want to come in over-confident, because the game of baseball’s very humbling. But I got off to a great start. I pitched well the entire month of October. I’ve hit a little speed bump now towards the end. But I don’t think I’ve done anything different as far as the Midland season to now.
AF: What were the key lessons you learned in Double-A this year at Midland?
JU: Mainly, it was believing in myself and believing that I belonged there. Only spending half a year in High-A last year and being able to be successful there, I went into spring training with the goal to make it to Double-A at least at some point this year. A lot of it was mental. You’ve got to study hitters a lot more. You’ve got to look at more scouting reports. It was tough, but you learn a lot as you go through. You hit a bunch of little speed bumps here and there. And it’s how you get past those and get back on track.
AF: What was the difference in the hitters you were facing in Double-A as opposed to the hitters you were facing in High-A?
JU: They’re a lot smarter. They make a lot more adjustments quicker. You can have success pitching a guy how you want to pitch him with your strengths one time. But then if you face him a day or two later, everybody’s got the scouting report on you. You don’t want to over-think the situation, you still have to pitch to your strengths, but then sometimes you might have to alter it a little bit. Guys at the Double-A level make a lot better adjustments a lot faster. Some even make adjustments mid-at-bat. But all these guys can hit – that’s why they’re there.
2013: 46 2/3 IP / 49 H / 20 ER / 13 BB / 40 K / 3.86 ERA / 1.33 WHIP
AFL: 13 IP / 14 H / 4 ER / 3 BB / 16 K / 2.77 ERA / 1.31 WHIP
Maxwell started the year as the backstop for Beloit before being promoted to Stockton. He was the new kid on the block in the AFL, taking the place of catcher David Freitas who took an early exit to get married. Maxwell made it into just one game before the end of the AFL season.
AF: You spent the first part of the season in the Midwest League and then you made it up to the California League. What was the difference in those leagues from your perspective?
BM: The difference is, in the Cal League, pitchers had a better understanding of what they were trying to do. When we were in the Midwest League, we still had a lot guys who were ironing some things out. And when I got up to the Cal League, a lot of pitchers already had an idea of what they wanted to do. They had pretty good control for the most part. There were more plans, there was more execution, there were more goals, instead of just going out there and just trying to get people out with whatever. The scouting report’s more in-depth, and our guys actually worked with us catchers very well.
AF: I know you haven’t actually been catching for all that long. So how do you feel your catching game’s been coming along?
BM: I think I’ve made big strides thanks to our coordinators and all the catching coaches I’ve had here in the A’s organization. But it’s just going to continue to get better. When I first got here, just the speed of the game overwhelmed me. And now it’s just ironing out the little things, because my receiving, my blocking, my game-calling’s gotten a lot better.
AF: How do you feel about working with the pitchers, getting the scouting reports, working on a game plan? Do you enjoy that aspect of the game?
BM: Oh yeah, I love it. When stuff doesn’t get executed, of course, the fingers get pointed at us first, but at the same time, I love the responsibility. When it does work, you and the pitcher have a camaraderie that can’t be matched in any other sport.
AF: Are there any particular pitchers you worked with this season who really impressed you with their approach?
BM: On the whole, Tanner Peters. He was real calm. He never really got worked up over anything. And he just really focused on executing his pitches and his game plan. Every time we’d go over a scouting report, it’d be like, “I got this guy with this, this guy with that. Let’s keep it up till they make an adjustment.” He was on his game all the time, and it showed in his productivity. So it was good to work with him.
AF: Now what about hitting in the California League? Were there any particular adjustments for you this year?
BM: Not even just in the Cal League, I’ve been making adjustments this year hitting-wise in general. Basically, I was just trying to go out there and just stick to my game plan. Middle-of-the-field is my strong suit. I’m not a very pull-oriented hitter. I’m working on some things. But for the most part, I’m just trying to barrel as many baseballs as possible.
AF: So going forward, what are you primarily going to be focused on in terms of your hitting?
BM: Having an approach and executing that approach. I mean, you’re not always going to get a hit – we do play a game of failure. Just kind of accepting the fact that just because I might be on time or I know what’s coming doesn’t mean it’s always going to work out the way I want. And at the same time, just consistency. Just like behind the plate, my consistent game-calling and attentiveness, I need the same thing at the plate. My biggest goal this year was to make sure I had the biggest progress with my catching in my first full season. I wasn’t really worried about my hitting, and I hit well. So now it’s kind of like I need to put a little more focus into the little things in my hitting and catching just to make things that much better.
2013: 7 HR / 43 BB / 63 K / .275 AVG / .348 OBP / .390 SLG / .739 OPS
AFL: 4 AB / 0 HR / 0 BB / 1 K / .000 AVG / .000 OBP / .000 SLG / .000 OPS
* * *
One of the most popular pieces we’ve featured here on A’s Farm over the past year or so was our profile of A’s super scout (and Moneyball bad guy) Grady Fuson. He was the A’s scouting director from 1995 until 2001, when he left the A’s to become the assistant general manager of the Texas Rangers. Fuson returned to the A’s about three and a half years ago and currently serves as a special assistant to general manager Billy Beane.
Prior to the amateur draft in early-June, Fuson’s duties primarily consist of scouting amateur prospects in preparation for the draft. But once the draft is complete, he begins a tour around the A’s minor league system, checking in on teams from Sacramento and Stockton to Midland and Beloit.
We were fortunate enough to catch up with Fuson in Stockton during the last week of June, before second baseman Grant Green’s recent promotion to the A’s. We took the opportunity to pick the brain of one of baseball’s top talent evaluators and get the lowdown on some of the A’s top hitting and pitching prospects, as well as some of the fresh new talent that’s just entered the system via this year’s draft. But we started out by taking a look at some of the prospects at the top of the system at Sacramento…
AF: Let’s start off with Sonny Gray, who’s obviously been having a great year at Sacramento. I know there were a few things that you guys were working on with him, but it really seems like he’s gotten over the hump at this point.
GF: Well you know, the credit goes to him. He’s not doing everything the way we wanted it done – there’s been variations to it. But that’s the deal with players – there’s give and take – and we don’t want to put players in positions where they’re doing things that are completely uncomfortable. So it’s trial and error. But he has been much more efficient. He’s using his changeup better – he’s still got a ways to go. But the consistency of his starts has been tremendous. With the exception of maybe one early in the year, he hasn’t had a bad start. I’m proud of him. He’s put himself on the map. When you look at our depth, there’s not too many years that go by that you don’t have to dip down there to grab a starter or two, and he’s put himself in a position to at some point be considered, or at least get his first taste of it.
AF: Well at this point, he certainly appears to be first in line based on what he’s done this year. Is there any one single thing that you’d pinpoint as the key to his success this season?
GF: Yeah, effort. I think he is starting to understand pace and rhythm and tempo, to control the effort level of his delivery. And he’s understanding this thing about how to disrupt timing, instead of being hard with everything.
AF: So it’s really about varying his effort.
GF: Yeah. If you go back to all the good things about him when we drafted him, besides his stuff, this guy’s always been a bulldog, he’s always been a competitor. Do not count this guy out – you know, he’ll come back and find a way to kick your ass if you count him out. And all those things are such a big part of it, his character and mentality on the mound.
AF: Another guy at Sacramento who seems to be on a similar trajectory is outfielder Michael Choice. He also seems to have turned a corner this year. So how do you see his development at this point?
GF: I don’t know what clicked over the winter, but something really clicked and he came into camp a little bit of a changed man in his whole approach. He’s slowed some things down like we’ve been asking him to do and has bought into a couple of other things. I think he’s developing a whole awareness of how guys pitch him and what they try to do. This is his third full year now, and I think it’s just maturity. But I’m proud of him. He hasn’t made people walk him off of center field yet. And the only reason we’re playing him in left more right now is if there is a time that he has to go up, with Crisp, with Young, with Cespedes, he probably wouldn’t play center over those guys. So he needs to learn a little bit about some corners, because the ball comes off differently.
AF: Is there any one thing that’s been the key for him?
GF: Maturity. He’s growing up. He’s maturing into that major league mentality you’re waiting to see. You know, most of these guys are kids. And sometimes, as frustrated as we get, you’ve got to remind yourself, “God, he’s just a kid!” But you can tell when they start to speak smart – you can tell by the things they’re saying back to you. That’s when the maturity thing kicks in and they start to give you the right answers – and bingo! But everything else with Michael is the same. He’s healthy, he’s playing every day, he’s having good at-bats, he’s staying consistent.
AF: Is there anything else that you’d like to see him working on at this point that he needs to do to make himself a complete player?
GF: Long term, to stay in center so that we don’t need a center fielder better than him for a long time, I think he’s going to have to be a guy who diligently works on his reads and his routes because he’s going to have to do it with a lot of instinctual things. He’s always had a weakness closing in on the wall. He’s gotten better – he’s working at it. So I think he’s the kind of guy who’s eventually going to have to do certain drills that are going to keep all that really sharp.
AF: What about another outfielder in Sacramento who everyone was so excited about in spring training, Shane Peterson? He started out well but it looks like he’s been struggling a bit lately.
GF: I don’t know that he’s struggling. He’s just not putting up crazy numbers. He’s doing what he does. He had such a tremendous spring, and almost made the damn club. I just think he’s in that mode where it’s not coming out big every night. But the way he goes about playing the game, there’s no issues there.
AF: So you think the impression he made in the spring still lingers with the A’s front office.
GF: Oh, without a doubt.
AF: Now what about Grant Green? Where do you see him with his hitting and with his development at second base at this point?
GF: At second base, he’s still learning the nuances. This is actually his first full year of playing one spot, and there are a lot of little nuances, so he’s still learning that. His errors have been a combination of a lot of different things, maybe some throws on pivots and things. But as far as what he’s doing at the plate, it’s what he does. He hits .300, he’s starting come up a little bit now with the homers, and as he’s seeing it better his walks are going up. He’s right where he needs to be.
AF: Do you see his future more likely as a second baseman or as more of a multi-purpose type of guy?
GF: It just depends on when he goes up and what the need is. But the great thing about him is he can go up and, if Bob Melvin had to use him in three or four different spots, he can do that. But I do think that second base is the one spot that, since the time we started it, he’s gotten a lot better. Center wasn’t that good a look, we questioned whether he was going to be a true everyday shortstop – the growth there just kind of fizzled. But second base, he’s gotten better at it every step of the way.
AF: So you really feel that you’ve seen more discernible progress at second base than any other spot you’ve had him at so far.
AF: Another infielder at Sacramento is Hiro Nakajima. He’s been bouncing all over the place lately – short, second, third…
GF: Well, they had to make him more versatile. He had the rough spring. He got hurt. We open up the year and Donaldson’s killing it and Lowrie’s playing great. You know, he’s in a tough spot right now. So if he’s going to come up, he’s got to learn all three spots. And he has not spent a lot of time at second or third in his whole career. The good thing is he’s obviously playing better and doing things better than what we saw in spring training.
AF: Well, the other piece of the infield puzzle in Sacramento is Jemile Weeks, who’s been playing a little shortstop this year…
GF: He’s played a great shortstop – he’s played very well.
AF: So if he remains in the A’s system in the future, would you see him having to take on more of a utility role, perhaps?
GF: Yeah, possibly, unless he gets a chance to go in there and do something in a spot and play every day and regain something. You know, this is what having depth is all about. I mean, Billy’s sitting back there right now with a ton of chips. We’ve got guys to bring up if somebody goes down who we feel pretty good about, and he’s got some players he can discuss with people if the need arises.
AF: Now in Stockton, the A’s top draft pick last year, 19-year-old Addison Russell, got off a rough start, but he’s been picking it up over the past month or so. So where do you see his development’s at at this point?
GF: He’s way on target. What he went through was everything we somewhat predicted coming out of camp. You’ve got to remember, there’s not too many 19-year-olds in the California League. You know, you go to a level where there’s more guys who throw breaking balls for strikes, there’s more guys who have little cutters, little two-seamers – things he’s never really seen. It’s different. But you’re hoping that he grows and he learns and, by the second half, things start to turn and he has a quality second half. And his attitude’s great, he’s working at it, he’s not getting fatigued. He’s smart enough to start to understand where he’s getting exposed and how we’re going to fix it. So to me, his development is right on target.
AF: So you think it’s pretty much been the natural progression of events – it took him a little while to get used to things, and now he’s gotten used to it…
GF: You know, we could have done it the other way. We could have kicked him off at Beloit and let him somewhat dominate again. But he wouldn’t have gotten as much out of it as he’s getting out of this learning experience.
AF: The bigger challenge. Well, he is still the youngest guy in the league. How has he looked to you in the field?
GF: Super. Look, he’s got 9-10 errors for a high school kid playing on these fields in the Cal League. You know, I’ve been around a lot of shortstops we developed who came through here who’d have 30 at this time. Tejada, Batista, those guys made 40-50 errors in this league. And he’s got 9-10 tops. I think he’s doing pretty good.
AF: Another guy who’s had a really good year in Stockton is first baseman Max Muncy. I remember talking to you about him in the spring and you said you guys were working on developing his power a bit more. So, with 20 home runs under his belt now, it looks like that’s worked out pretty well.
GF: When we took him, a lot of people questioned how much power’s in there. He only hit 6-7 home runs at Baylor. But you watch him in BP in college prior to the draft and you can tell there’s power in there – he just didn’t know how to get to it yet. Last summer, we just kind of let him go play. But then in instructional league, we got started with getting him to feel what it’s like to get some pitches middle-in and how that works to get the head out. We had the same story when we talked about Grant Green a year or so ago, and look what he’s doing now. But the great thing is he’s got great balance, he’s got good rhythm in his swing, and he’s got a tremendous eye, so he sees the baseball well. He swings at strikes and he takes balls – and that makes hitting so much easier. But from a power standpoint, I think he’s growing on everybody.
AF: Yeah, I would imagine you couldn’t be happier with the progress he’s made at this point. A guy who’s had a rougher time of it this year at Stockton though is 2011’s 3rd-round draft pick, third baseman B.A. Vollmuth. So what’s the source of the problem with him?
GF: It’s funny you bring him up, I was just talking to him the other day. He’s just not adjusting well in the strike zone. And I think he’s trying to be too big of a master. He’s trying to hit outer-half pitches the other way and pitches in the middle up the middle – he’s just trying to do too much that he’s not really capable of doing yet. So we talked about staying with his strength. Just look middle/middle-in and if they throw you away, just spit on it and let it go. But look middle/middle-in, and when you get them, hammer them. And just avoid the outer half of the strike zone right now until you get two strikes. But quit trying to be a master all over the strike zone right now. So we’ll see – he’s had a rough go of it.
AF: Now in terms of pitchers, what about right-hander Raul Alcantara? He recently came up to Stockton and I know you had a chance to see his first start.
GF: Yeah, good first one. He didn’t try to do anything different. He commanded his fastball well, both sides of the plate. He’s got a good changeup, and his breaking ball’s starting to show some promise. The breaking ball was always the iffy pitch. His slurve is now turning into somewhat of a legit curveball, and he’s getting some depth to it so he’s getting some swings and misses. And he’s got tempo, he’s got clean moves in his delivery. He’s still young, he’s only 20. He’s doing really good. A good second half here and you never know where it puts him for next year.
AF: Yeah, he could be a fast riser. Another guy who’s been doing a pretty good job at Stockton is Tanner Peters. What’s your take on him at this point?
GF: He’s doing good. We’ve been playing with the breaking ball for a couple of years. He’s always had a good changeup. His velocity is starting to hold. He’s a guy who maybe touches 91-92 mph but pitches at 87-88 mph, but now he’s pitching at 90 mph. We’ve talked about him using his sinker more instead of the four-seamer. He’s got a tendency with his delivery style to have a lot of misses, and misses in bad places, with his four-seamer. So we’ve been talking to him a lot about throwing his sinkers more, which will make him be more efficient, because he can get up with his pitch counts too real easy. But he’s had a very good first half, and we expect it to keep going.
AF: Well, it seems like, as a young pitcher, if you can just keep it together and make it through the Cal League without too much damage, you ought to be all right!
GF: Every ballpark here is a unique experience. You know, you go to High Desert and Lancaster and it’s like a pinball game.
AF: Well the guy who really started out great in Stockton this year and moved up to Midland is Drew Granier. He was dominant last season in the Midwest League and had a great first half in the Cal League this year. Now I know he wasn’t a high draft pick or a top prospect to start out, but what do you think about what he’s doing right now?
GF: Well, he’s been great. It’s hard to pick out negatives when your numbers look the way his do. But there are still some things we’re trying to get from him that he’s fighting a little bit. He’s not as efficient as he needs to be – he gets a little scattered. He’s not using his changeup to the level we need him to use it. But when you win a bunch of games last year and then you come in and win another half a dozen here, it’s kind of hard for him to go, “Okay, let me do it your way.” But the good thing was in his first start in Double-A, if I remember right, he threw 99 pitches and 66 strikes. That’s as efficient a game chart as I’ve seen this year from him, and he also threw 12% changeups, and it’s usually about 6%. But let me tell you, this guy grinds, this guy competes. His breaking ball is getting sharper – guys do not see it, they don’t get good swings. That’s why his strikeouts are so high. When you look at guys in this league who have high strikeout rates, it’s usually a college guy like him who’s getting it done with his breaking ball. But the next level is when all the other stuff starts to come into play. So I’m glad we’ve challenged him. He deserved being moved up. And hopefully he runs with everything we’ve been trying to pound into him.
AF: So he could be a guy who, with the right approach, could really come from the back of the pack to the top of the pack.
GF: Without a doubt. You get this guy between the white lines and he’s something. He fights you out there.
AF: Does anybody else on Midland’s pitching staff jump out at you right now?
GF: You know, Murphy Smith made a nice adjustment. (Minor league pitching coordinator) Scott Emerson picked up on something in spring training and got him closing up a little bit more on his load and it has helped him keep that fastball in the strike zone more, and that’s really what’s helped him a ton. And Sean Murphy continues to compete. We talked about him last year, and I thought he was one of the most improved pitchers in the system a year ago, and he continues to do what he’s doing.
AF: A guy who’s been having a great season at Midland is first baseman Anthony Aliotti. He’s been leading all A’s minor leaguers in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage all year. I know he hasn’t been considered a top prospect, but is there anything more that he can do to put himself on the map?
GF: No, he’s just waiting for an opportunity to get to the next level – in fact, a couple of guys are. It just depends on what’s going on at Sacramento to get these guys moving.
AF: So people do see and appreciate what he’s been doing at Midland this year?
GF: Without a doubt.
AF: Now I wanted to ask you about a guy who was blowing everybody’s mind with his hitting in the first half of last year but who’s really struggled this season. Do you have any insight into what’s been going on with Miles Head this year?
GF: Well, he’s just had a bad 2013. He showed up to camp extremely heavy. And we got him started doing something about it. And then, for whatever reason, he was swinging at air down there in Midland for a while before he got hurt. He’s just been hurt – his shoulder’s barking again, and we had to sit him again. So he’s just had a bad 2013.
AF: So I guess the first thing that needs to happen is that he needs to get healthy…
GF: He needs to get healthy, and in shape. And then we can get his mind right and get this thing going.
AF: Now what about all the young guys at Beloit? That team’s really been having a great season this year.
GF: Yeah, it’s great. They’re having a blast. Ryan Christenson is a hall-of-fame first-year manager. He’s doing a great job. He’s picked up on so many important things. He’s been a great leader for those kids. Just go around the lineup – Maxwell, Olson, Bostick, Robertson, Nunez – they’re all on target. They’re all playing super.
AF: I was going to ask you about the decision to hire Ryan Christenson as the manager at Beloit with all those top prospects there. He’s a former A’s outfielder, but he really didn’t have any previous managing experience.
GF: We were going to hire him just to be the hitting coach, but we had some things happen that kind of forced our hand a little bit. But as we sit here now, there’s not a person in the organization who isn’t just pleased as hell that he’s stepped up and done the job he’s done.
AF: Now what about the job that former top prospect Michael Ynoa has done in Beloit this year?
GF: He’s going 5 innings now routinely, throwing 75-85 pitches, and throwing hard. And the breaking ball’s really getting good. The breaking ball’s now getting a little bit closer to the projection breaking ball that they all thought he might have. I don’t know what his velocity is every night, but I know he’s been up to 97 mph numerous times and pitching 92-95 mph – so you can’t throw it a whole lot harder than that. And he’s healthy – he hasn’t missed a start.
AF: Taking a look at the draft for a minute, what about the A’s top draft pick this year, center fielder Billy McKinney? What did you see when you were scouting him?
GF: I just thought he was one of those special hitters – very instinctual, great swing, balance, aggressiveness, knows the strike zone for an 18-year-old kid. He’s not raw, he runs, he throws, he’s got all the equipment. There’s going to be some power. And where we were in the draft, if this kind of guy got to us in this draft, I’m in!
AF: So did you fall in love with him the first time you scouted him in high school?
GF: Yeah, but he walked five times. They walked him five times, all intentional. I had to come back four days later.
AF: Well at least you knew they were giving him plenty of respect anyway! So did you get a chance to see much of the second hitter the A’s took this year, infielder Chad Pinder?
GF: Yeah, Pinder’s a slender 6’2” who’s got room to grow. He’s got good feet, he throws, he’s a good defender. He ended up playing a lot of shortstop in college this year, but I think down the road he’s probably a third baseman. There’s a chance for some power in there. There’s some things that have to get cleaned up in his approach a bit, but I think he’s a solid pick for where he got him.
AF: Was there anybody else in this year’s draft class who really jumped out at you?
GF: Yeah, Chris Kohler, the high school lefty we got in the compensation round. I liked him a lot and thought he was a great pick where we got him. He’s a 90 mph guy with a good curveball. He’s got fair location now for an 18-year-old. He’s a real baseball guy.
AF: Well, going back to the big league club, with people talking about all the guys down at Sacramento – Grant Green, Jemile Weeks, Hiro Nakajima – do you feel that the A’s have the best defensive middle infielders in the organization up in Oakland on the A’s roster right now?
GF: The most consistent, yes. You know, Sogie’s dynamite. Rosie’s a very good shortstop. Lowrie is playing solid, but the difference is what he’s bringing to us offensively, which we haven’t had out of that position in a while. And that’s the reason we’re winning – we’re winning because we’re a much more offensive club than we have been. We’re on base more, we walk more, and we homer – and our defense is still really, really good. You know, people forget, we’ve got a nice club right now. It’s hard to pick a hole on that club.
AF: Well, that’s always good to hear. Thanks a lot!
* * *
Exclusive: Get the Inside Scoop on the A’s Top Prospects from Sacramento River Cats Skipper Steve Scarsone
After spending the past two seasons mentoring A’s minor leaguers as the manager at Midland, Steve Scarsone is now midway through his first season as the skipper in Sacramento. And he’s currently charged with overseeing the development of a number of the A’s former 1st-round draft picks – players like Sonny Gray, Michael Choice and Grant Green. We had the chance to talk with Scarsone last week and got his take on some of the team’s top prospects who could soon be seeing time in Oakland…
AF: Well, I wanted to start out by asking you about your ace, Sonny Gray. He’s been pretty consistent all year. So what’s your take on where he’s at at this stage of his development?
SS: Well, I think you hit it on the head – he’s been consistent all year. Last year he and I were both in Midland, and we saw him struggle – not on the field – but struggling trying to get a hold of some of the mechanics stuff that the pitching coaches were working with him on and getting away from some of his natural stuff that he had so much success with in college. And you know, it’s kind of tough as a young player because you fall back on your success in your amateur days…
AF: This worked for me before…
SS: Exactly, so there was some resistance to it all. And then eventually over time, there was just a little give and a little take, and he’s found himself a nice little compromising type of mechanics. And it’s a very clean delivery and windup and everything. He’s taken a lot of extra movement out. And it’s keeping him much more in line, which I think is a lot of the reason why he’s had so much more control and command of his fastball. And that’s his pitch – he’s got an A+ fastball. And anytime that he can spot that up, all of his other pitches are going to be all that much more effective. So he’s kind of built off of all those things and he’s had a tremendous season so far, and I think it all stems from that fastball command.
AF: So if the fastball’s going where it ought to go, then everything else falls into place after that.
SS: Certainly. As a hitter, if you’re facing a pitcher who’s putting his fastball where he wants it – in, out, up, down – it makes things tough. I mean, you’ve really got to get yourself geared up for a fastball, and then all of a sudden he comes back with a changeup of his breaking ball, which is a plus breaking ball as well. So he’s really given himself the opportunity to have three quality pitches and really keep hitters from having any kind of comfort in the box.
AF: It certainly seems like his games are a lot more efficient. He’s throwing far fewer pitches and walking far fewer guys and just getting through games a lot more quickly and efficiently.
SS: Exactly right. And that builds confidence, and then that confidence allows him to feel like he’s in control of this game. It’s been really fun to watch him progress from last year to this year, and we’re so excited to see what happens for him in the future.
AF: Well, I guess you’ve seen as much of him in the last couple of years as anyone. So what about his third pitch – the changeup – is that rounding into shape or is that still a work in progress?
SS: Still a work a progress – he still mixes that in with a little cutter, slider. You talk to some catchers, they’ll think it looks like a slider. Some catchers will say it’s a cutter. He says it’s a cutter. So those are things he’s still kind of working on. But just having that variety and dominating with the fastball and making that curveball something the hitter has to be concerned about makes for an effective pitcher.
AF: Another guy you had last year in Midland who also seems to have turned a corner is Michael Choice. So where do you see he’s at at this point?
SS: Well, I think Michael is becoming a much smarter player. He’s always been a smart player since I first got to see him last year. He really dissects his at-bats. He has an understanding of what pitchers are trying to do with him and how they’re trying to get him out, and he tries to get himself in the best position to avoid that. But he’s being more intelligent about how he approaches his game. He used to have a lot of movement in his swing and his set up. It’s a little bit more refined now, a little cleaner. He’s able to adjust himself during the course of a game. To me, that’s an intelligent ballplayer, when you can make adjustments on the fly and you can stay away from doing the same thing that’s not getting you results. He’s able to kind of pull himself away a little bit and redirect his energies. He has a lot of natural ability. His bat speed’s there – there’s a lot of good things there. So for him to make the next step, it’s going to be from those adjustments. And we’re seeing those adjustments, so we think that’s going to be a great advantage for him.
AF: It sounds like the bottom line is obviously he’s a very talented player, and he’s now learned that baseball is a game of constant adjustments – you’ve contantly got to make adjustments – and he’s now doing that.
SS: Exactly right. And I think it’s a good sign that he’s willing to do that. And we also moved him to the corner outfield spots to get him some experience on those. He’s made that adjustment and adapted to that and he’s done a good job there too. So you can see how his natural abilities allow him to adjust to other things as well, not just hitting.
AF: Well, it’s one thing to be talented, but it’s another thing to have some capacity for learning and developing.
SS: Right, yeah. That’s a good point – exactly right.
AF: Now what about Grant Green? He’s been hitting well lately and has been picking it up as the season’s gone on. He’s been out there at second base most of the time, just one position now. Where do you see him at this stage of the game both at the plate and in the field?
SS: Well, offensively as a hitter, we know what he can do. He’s done it at every level. He did it here last year. He’ll continue to hit as long as he wants to play this game. Going from shortstop to the outfield and now to second base has kind of frustrated him. But I also think he’s such a hard worker that he’s taken each position change and he’s run with it. But the move back to second base feels a little more natural to him. It might be the better position for him as opposed to shortstop – having a little bit more time for throws. And there are times when maybe he’s not making the right decision or his reactions were a little bit slow, but he’ll then come to us and ask what he could have done differently or we’ll go to him and tell him what he could have done differently. And that’s why he’s playing predominantly second base here, so that he can experience all those things. I think he should have a nice, easy transition up to the big leagues and he could be an everyday guy up there.
AF: So you think you’re seeing enough continual development from him the more he’s out there everyday at second base that you can pretty easily envision him as a major league second baseman at this point?
SS: Yeah, I think he’s there, especially since his bat plays up. We all know that if you hit, we’ll leave a little defense on the table. So that’s something that I think will make him a little bit more attractive to the major league club down the line. The defense will come. And you never know, he could end up being that guy that will be a full defensive and offensive player. But he’s still learning through some of those experiences.
AF: Well, another infielder who’s been playing a new position is Jemile Weeks, who’s been playing a lot of shortstop this year. So I’m curious to know how you think he’s been doing over there.
SS: Well, we had Green and him both here sharing some time at second base, so he was doing a lot of DH’ing and still is. And when Parrino went up earlier in the season, we had a little hole there at shortstop, so we put our heads together and Jemile said he’d played there in college. So we started working at it, and he did well over there. It took a little while for him to get his feet underneath him a little bit. At second base, you can wait for the ball a little bit more and play a little deeper. At shortstop, you’ve got to be more aggressive and come get balls. He doesn’t have a cannon of an arm, but he’s got a quick release. So he worked on it and he showed some good movement over there. So that’s an option. Obviously he’s done well at second base the days he’s played there. There’s talk of maybe moving him to the outfield (which has since happened). And I think where Jemile’s at in his head, he wants to do whatever he needs to do to make himself more attractive to a big league club. So he’s working hard everyday so he can get back to the big leagues.
AF: So do you think he has the right attitude to do what he needs to do at this point?
SS: I do. I really think his attitude’s been outstanding all season so far. Since day one, he showed up saying, “You know what, I don’t like this. I’d rather be there.” And I said, “No kidding. What are you going to do about it?” And he said, “I’m going to work my ass off and I’m going to be ready for when that chance comes.” And I said, “That’s all you can do, and I’ll help you.” So he’s been right on. I’ve been proud of the way he’s handled it.
AF: Now another piece of the infield puzzle is Hiro Nakajima. He’s been moving around getting looks at different positions – short, second, third. So can you tell me what you think of him at these different spots?
SS: Well, obviously he came over as a shortstop. Right now we’re trying to get him to gain some first-step movement. I think the years of playing in Japan, so many years on turf, he became a little bit of a sit-back-and-make-the-plays type of guy. So he’s got to train himself to be a little more of a grass-type player. But he’s really started to play with a lot more personality. He got the injury in spring training, and he worked his way through that. And I think he was a little hesitant when he first got here to Sacramento. But now that he’s feeling that the injury’s healed, we’re seeing much more energy, much more aggressiveness both on defense and offense, and it’s been fun to watch. We’ve decided to give him some experience at third and second just to give Oakland an opportunity if a utility-type role presents itself, since Lowrie’s having such a good season at shortstop. But his bat has come along, and you never know what could happen. He’s working hard and showing good progress and starting to look like a young kid.
AF: So, as of today, who would you say would be the best defensive second baseman on your roster?
SS: Green’s had the most reps over there. Parrino’s probably our best defensive player, but he hasn’t done much on that side there because of Weeks and Green predominantly taking all the playing time over there. But I really like what Green’s accomplished so far. He’s shown much more range. He’s much more consistent with the routine play. His turns and feeds are becoming more and more consistent. And that’s all we can ask for is to see the continual improvement.
AF: Is there anyone on your roster who I haven’t mentioned who’s particularly impressed you this season?
SS: In terms of position players, we picked up Stephen Vogt from the Rays right at the end of spring training – obviously he just went up, so it’s easy for me to say. But he’s been very impressive both offensively and defensively. And for a guy who didn’t really catch a whole lot the last couple of years, he’s been thrown into an everyday catching role and he’s stepped up and really been outstanding behind the plate in both working with the pitchers as well as blocking and throwing and all that other stuff. He’s been very impressive as well off the field, the leadership role he’s brought over too. So I had no problem at all letting the folks in Oakland know that he was a quality guy. We’re going to miss him while he’s gone.
Find out more about the A’s top prospects straight from their own mouths. Check out our recent interviews with Sonny Gray, Michael Choice and Grant Green here.
* * *
Originally drafted by Tampa Bay back in 2007, veteran minor league catcher Stephen Vogt didn’t get his first cup of coffee in the big leagues until last year when, at the age of 27, he got into 18 games for the Rays. The A’s acquired him just after the 2013 season started and sent him to Sacramento, where he’s been one of the River Cats’ most productive hitters this season, batting .325 with 9 home runs in 231 at-bats.
With starting catcher John Jaso’s hand still bothering him, Oakland decided to call on Vogt this week. So now, at 28, the left-handed-hitting backstop is getting his second shot in the majors with the A’s. In his first at-bat against Cincinnati on Tuesday night, Vogt drove in a run with a sacrifice fly. Two night’s later, he homered against St. Louis for his first major league hit. And, fortunately, A’s Farm was there to catch up with Vogt on his first day in Oakland as the team prepared to play Cincinnati later that night…
AF: So when did you find out you were coming up to Oakland?
SV: Last night, right after our game. You know, we had the rain delay, so it was a little later – it was about 11:15. (River Cats manager) Steve Scarsone took me in the office and just said, “What’s the best thing you could hear right now?” I said, “I’m going up.” And he said, “There you are.” So here we are – I’m here tonight!
AF: Did you come down to Oakland last night?
SV: No, it was way too late last night. So we drove down this morning.
AF: Do you know if you’re playing today?
SV: I’m catching.
AF: So you’re thrown in with a bunch of pitchers you never even had a chance to be around in spring training. What’s that like?
SV: You know, it’s a learning curve. You have to rely on them. I’m going to help them out the best I can. I’ve talked with D-No (Derek Norris) and Jaso a little bit about them already, and they’ve been great in helping me out. So it’s just a matter of going out there and seeing what I can do.
AF: Well, it’s three hours till game time. So have you had a chance to talk to tonight’s starting pitcher Tommy Milone yet?
SV: Not yet. I haven’t even met him.
AF: So I guess you’re just hoping to meet him before you get out on the field.
AF: Do you have any family or friends here for your debut with the A’s tonight?
SV: Yeah, my wife and daughter, and my parents and my grandparents and my aunt are going to be here tonight. I’m from Visalia, so everybody’s local.
AF: You’ve been hitting well in Sacramento all year. So what accounts for your success at the plate this season?
SV: A lot of it is just getting off to a good start. You come out in your first game of the year and get three hits, and it’s like, “All right, here we go.” And that lineup down there is a pretty good lineup, and hitting around a lot of good guys is going to get you a lot of good pitches to hit, and I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of success so far.
AF: Well, down in Sacramento you’ve been catching Sonny Gray, who seems to have gotten over the hump this year. From your perspective as a catcher, what have you seen from him this season?
SV: Electric stuff – three great pitches. He really is learning how to pitch. He’s learning how to get people out. He’s competing really well. Honestly, I just can’t say enough about how he’s coming along. He’s going to be something pretty special.
AF: Is there any one thing that’s been the key to his success this year?
SV: Just his command. When he’s on, he’s on. He struggles a little bit sometimes with his command. But for the most part, this year, he’s been outstanding. And he’s not far away. He’s got really good stuff.
AF: So when you’ve got a game plan, he’s throwing it right where it’s supposed to be – which makes things a lot easier for you.
SV: Absolutely. He’s a lot of fun to work with.
AF: Well, best of luck to you tonight.
SV: Thank you very much.
* * *
Exclusive: Get the Inside Scoop on the A’s Top 12 Draft Picks of 2013 from A’s Scouting Director Eric Kubota
For the second year in a row, the A’s surprised the baseball world by selecting a high school hitter with their first pick in the amateur draft. Last year’s top pick, Addison Russell, has generated an awful lot of enthusiasm from both inside and outside the organization, and now this year’s top pick, outfielder Billy McKinney, will be getting his chance to make his mark.
The man responsible for overseeing the A’s efforts in the amateur draft is scouting director Eric Kubota. Kubota started out his career in the baseball world by interning for the A’s in the mid-‘80s and eventually served as the assistant director of scouting and the supervisor of international scouting before succeeding Grady Fuson as scouting director following his departure after the 2001 season.
We talked to Kubota a week after the draft, and just hours after top pick Billy McKinney’s signing was officially announced. At the time we spoke, the A’s had signed 7 of their top 12 picks, but Kubota expressed confidence that the remaining 5 would all be in the fold before long. Since it’s a busy time for Kubota, we were happy that he took the time to give A’s Farm his take on the A’s main man, McKinney, along with all the team’s other top 12 draft picks from the first 10 rounds of the 2013 draft.
* * *
AF: I wanted to start out by asking you about last year’s draft class. Of course, the golden child, Addison Russell, has gotten most of the attention out of that group of guys. But I was wondering if there’s anyone else from last year’s draft who stands out for you and kind of warms your heart?
EK: Well, there are a few candidates for that. I think I would start with Daniel Robertson, who we obviously took high in the draft, but he’s performed very well with the bat and he’s played shortstop at a very high level, which has been a surprise for us. So that’s certainly something that was kind of unexpected for us – that he would be able to play that position as well as he has. Beyond that, obviously we’re happy with where Matt Olson is in his development. And John Wooten, who was a very late pick, has performed very well in Beloit and he’s kind of validated our signing him. He was a guy we saw in the Cape Cod League a couple of summers ago, and he played really well up there. He had a rough spring last spring, but he’s gone out and played very well. On the pitchers’ side, there were a few senior pitchers we took later in the draft – Ryan Dull and Tucker Healy – both of whom have performed very well in the Beloit bullpen. So, all in all, we’re really excited about last year’s draft class.
AF: Well, it seems like it’s been panning out pretty well so far. So was there anything unique about this year’s draft for you? How would you characterize it in general?
EK: Well, I think it shook out where we took a lot of pitching in the first 10 rounds – and you can never have too much of that. And just the way the draft fell presented us with a lot of opportunities as far as pitchers. So, if anything, I would say that probably characterized our draft class as much as anything.
AF: So I wanted to get your take on your top 12 picks from the first 10 rounds. Your top pick, Billy McKinney, signed earlier today, and was actually out at the Coliseum taking batting practice today. So tell me what made you really fall in love with this guy?
EK: Well, the first thing you fall in love with with Billy is his bat. We really, really love the way this kid swings the bat. It’s rare when, across the whole scouting staff, everybody agrees about the quality of the kid’s bat. So that’s the first thing that jumps out at you. You know, I’ve said it before, I think there are some similarities to Mark Kotsay – and if that’s how he ends up, I think we’d all be happy.
AF: Were you there to see his batting practice session earlier today?
EK: Yes, I was, and he did very well. He swung the bat really well and carried himself really well. He hit in the same group as Yoenis Cespedes, so that’s not an easy thing for any young kid to do, but he handled himself well.
AF: So he wasn’t intimidated at all, huh?
EK: No, no, he swung the bat well.
AF: Your second pick was Dillon Overton, the big left-hander out of Oklahoma. He hasn’t signed yet, but what put him so high on your target list?
EK: Well, Dillon Overton can really pitch. He’s got a history of high strikeout numbers and low walks. He’s just a left-hander with good stuff who knows how to pitch, and we were very happy that he was there in that spot. Coming into the year, there were a lot of people who probably rated him higher than Jonathan Gray, who went third in the country, and deservedly so.
AF: What pitches is he working with right now?
EK: A fastball, a slider and a changeup – all of which have a chance to be above average when everything’s right.
AF: And he’s not signed at this point, right?
EK: He’s not, but we feel comfortable that something should be coming down the pike fairly quickly.
AF: Your third overall pick was Chad Pinder, the infielder out of Virginia Tech, who’s signed. What did you like most about him, were you surprised that he was still available to you at that point – because I kow he was pretty highly-ranked – and what do you foresee for him position-wise?
EK: Yeah, we were pleasantly surprised that he was still there when we picked him. And what we liked about him is he really can swing the bat – that’s the first thing with him that we really liked. We think he can hit. He’s played third base predominantly in his career but moved over to shortstop this year and did a good job there. And I think we’re going to let him go out at shortstop and see if he can establish himself at that position. We think he has the physical tools to do it.
AF: With him, Robertson and Russell, you’re certainly going to have some depth at shortstop in the low minors anyway!
AF: Well, that’s never a bad thing! Your fourth pick was Ryon Healy, who hasn’t signed yet. He’s a big college kid out of Oregon who’s played both first base and third base, but I’m assuming what you really liked about him was his bat.
EK: Yeah, we really liked the bat. He’s always performed with the bat. He’s always had the strength for power, and this year it finally translated into home run numbers. We do think he has the physical ability to play third base, and we’ll probably give him an opportunity to try and do that. But first and foremost, he’s a big right-handed power bat who profiles at the corner positions.
AF: Is there anyone you would compare him to?
EK: I would say Billy Butler possibly.
AF: Your fifth overall pick was left-hander Chris Kohler out of southern California, who’s signed. There aren’t normally a lot of high school pitchers too high on your list. So what was it about him that made you want to take a high school pitcher that high up this time around?
EK: He’s a classic projection high-school left-hander who flashes above-average stuff now. And in our opinion, it’s just a matter of physical maturation and development where it’s going to be consistently plus stuff. He’s been up to 93 mph. He can really spin a breaking ball. We really think there’s a high ceiling with Chris.
AF: Your sixth pick was right-hander Dylan Covey out of San Diego, who’s signed. He was a 1st-round draft pick coming out of high school a few years ago, but he found out he had diabetes and decided to go to college rather than sign with the Brewers, and now you were able to pick him up a little lower in the draft. So given his whole history, how do you view him at this point?
EK: We scouted him a lot when he was in high school, when he was a 1st-round pick. We liked him a lot back then. In the time since then, he’s had to learn how to deal with his diabetes, which was really a new situation for him. He didn’t have any clue about that before that physical. But we’ve seen him, and his stuff is starting to get back to what we saw in high school. I think it’s a combination of him learning how to manage his diabetes and just gaining some additional confidence. But we think it’s a situation where we got potentially a 1st-round talent in the 4th round, and we’re really happy about that.
AF: Your seventh pick was right-hander Bobby Wahl out of Ole Miss. He’s not signed at this point, but tell me what you liked about him.
EK: He’s just a big physical kid with a good arm – up to 95-96 mph. He’s been a starter in arguably the best college league in the country – the SEC – and he’s been a Friday night starter in that league. He’s got a big arm with a good breaking ball. We’ll send him out as a starter and see what happens. But if he ends up in the back of the bullpen, that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world either.
AF: What’s the likelihood of him signing?
EK: We feel confident that all these guys will be signed hopefully within the next few weeks.
AF: Your eighth pick was another college right-hander, Kyle Finnegan, out of Texas, who hasn’t signed yet either.
EK: Same situation – we’re really close on getting that done. He’s an athletic right-hander. He’s been a starter and a reliever in college. We’ve seen him up to 97 mph with a good slider. And he’s just a big arm in the system. I was just thinking today that he kind of reminds me a little bit of Grant Balfour.
AF: Really, is he crazy?
EK: No comment (laughs).
AF: Your ninth pick was another right-hander, Dustin Driver, a high school pitcher who hasn’t actually signed yet but has expressed a strong desire to forego UCLA and sign.
EK: Same situation – we feel comfortable about him and hope to have that done relatively shortly. He’s a physical high school right-hander – we’ve seen him up to 95 mph with a good slider. There was kind of a common theme amongst a lot of these pitchers. We took physical kids with big arms. And we’re going to turn them all over to (minor league pitching coordinator) Scott Emerson and the rest of our pitching coaches and our player development system and see what happens.
AF: Your tenth pick was a hitter, surprisingly enough, Tyler Marincov out of Florida, who’s signed. So what made you want to break that string of pitchers and go with an outfielder?
EK: Well, we need some guys to play the outfield behind those pitchers. But he’s an athletic kid. He performed both from a power standpoint and a speed standpoint at North Florida. He’s just a good athlete with upside and performance.
AF: Is there anyone you’d compare him to?
EK: I’m blanking now – the guy from Arkansas back in the late ’80s and early ‘90s…
AF: Kevin McReynolds?
EK: Exactly, Kevin McReynolds!
AF: Okay, your last couple of picks on Day 2 of the draft were both college left-handers. Matt Stalcup was your eleventh overall pick. He’s signed, but he didn’t come out of a big school in Kansas, so what got him on the radar for you?
EK: He’s just a left-hander with a fastball in the ‘90s and a good breaking ball with a very good history of missing bats and striking guys out. He’s from a smaller school, but a couple of our scouts got to see him and were very impressed with his stuff, and we were happy to get him.
AF: Your twelfth and final pick on Day 2 was Jerad Grundy, a left-hander out of Kentucky, who’s signed. What made you want to get him before Day 2 was through?
EK: He’s just a polished performer who knows how to use his stuff and has a history of getting guys out.
AF: Is there anyone you’d compare him to?
EK: Yeah, on Grundy, I’m going to go with Curt Young.
AF: Well, that’s a good one! Okay, just a couple of quick questions on this top 12 group of picks. So do you feel confident that, at the end of the day, you’re going to end up with all these guys in the fold?
EK: We do.
AF: And are all these pitchers we’ve talked about likely to start out as starters?
EK: I would think all those guys will begin their careers as starting pitchers.
AF: And all the hitters we’ve discussed, except McKinney, are college guys. So would you assume all those college hitters will most likely be starting out in Vermont?
EK: Probably, yeah. I would say that it’s most likely that’s where they will start.
AF: And what about the pitchers?
EK: I would say the two high school kids (Chris Kohler and Dustin Driver) will probably be in Arizona, and the college guys will likely be in Vermont.
AF: So we’re expecting all these college guys are headed to Vermont and all these high school guys are going to end up in Arizona.
EK: Yeah, I would say that’s safe to assume.
AF: Well, hopefully Billy McKinney does well in Arizona and pulls an Addison Russell for you this year!
EK: Yeah, that’d be nice!
AF: Well, good luck and thanks a lot!
* * *
by James Ham / A’s Farm Correspondent
Rumors broke last week that the Oakland A’s 2011 1st-round draft pick Sonny Gray might be in line to make his major league debut if Jarrod Parker couldn’t make his scheduled start. It turned out to be a false alarm, but Parker, Tommy Milone, A.J. Griffin and Dan Straily better bring their A-game, because Gray is coming.
The 23-year old right-hander out of Vanderbilt is now 4-1 with a 2.19 ERA in his 6 starts at Triple-A Sacramento this season. More importantly, in his last 3 starts, he’s been lighting the Pacific Coast League on fire, allowing just 2 runs in 21 innings while striking out 19 over that stretch.
“Being in my second year and understanding professional baseball a little bit better and being able to get in a little bit better routine, it’s something that I’m feeling a lot more comfortable and a lot more confident this year than I did early last year,” Gray told Athletics Farm last week.
In just his third season in professional baseball, Gray is turning heads with his array of pitches. He throws both a two-seam and four-seam fastball, as well as a curveball and a changeup.
“(My) fast ball command has gotten a lot better, and that’s something we’ve been working on,” Gray said. “Not only fastball command, (but) throwing it. You know, starting the two-seam where I want it for a strike and a ball. That’s just something that’s come with a little more experience and a little more routine. The changeup is getting better, I’m really confident in that right now. It’s gotten me out of big jams already this year. And the curveball is still there.”
After posting a complete game victory last week and facing just two batters in a game that was called due to rain earlier this week, Gray pitched a gem on Saturday night. In 6 innings of action, he struck out 8 and gave up only 3 hits. While it’s still early, he seems to be getting better every time out.
The A’s farm system has become a factory for major league starting pitching and Gray looks to be the next big prospect ready to make the jump.
“As soon as I got drafted by Oakland, I knew the accomplishments in pitching that this organization has been a part of in the history of baseball,” Gray said. “(It’s) a great pitching organization (with) a lot of good people around us that we can learn from.”
Like Michael Choice, the Athletics will give Gray as much time as he needs in Sacramento, but don’t be shocked if he is the first one to get the call this year if one of the A’s starters begins to stumble.
* * *
by James Ham / A’s Farm Correspondent
Sacramento River Cats hitting coach Greg Sparks has had his paws on the A’s future center fielder Michael Choice ever since Oakland selected him with the 10th pick in the 2010 MLB Amateur Draft.
Before becoming the hitting coach in Sacramento last season, Sparks spent eight seasons as the organization’s minor league roving hitting instructor. If there is anyone who knows Choice’s game, it’s Sparks.
“He’s an electric kid,” Sparks told Athletics Farm before Sunday’s game. “As a hitting coordinator, I had him out of the draft. I’ve been around him quite a bit. It’s nice to see the adjustments he’s made since the day he signed. He had a lot of movement; a unique approach to baseball when he first signed and to see that calm down and for him to become the hitter he is now is very good. Nice adjustments.”
The road hasn’t been all smooth sailing for the A’s outfield prospect. After a tremendous 2011 season at Class A Stockton, where he put up a stat line of .285/.376/.542 with 30 home runs and 82 RBI, Choice struggled.
At the Double-A level last season, Choice posted a line of .287/.356/.423, while hitting just 10 home runs and driving in 58. The batting average stayed steady, but the move to Midland of the Texas League seemed to overwhelm the highly touted prospect.
“For me, the biggest jump and the toughest thing for hitters to do is to go from A-ball to Double-A,” Sparks added. “He made some nice adjustments (in the Texas League).”
Midland all seems like a distant memory now. Choice took the rough season in stride and is now flourishing in Sacramento through the early part of this season.
“Every level brings a different challenge, you know, having to adjust,” Choice said before Sunday’s loss to the Las Vegas 51s. “Basically along the way, I’ve done a lot of adjusting with mechanics and that type of thing, but starting out this year, it’s the first year that I’ve been able to just focus on the mental part of hitting and not focus so much on what I’m doing physically in the box.”
Choice is locked in right now in Sacramento. The 23-year-old out of the University of Texas at Arlington has improved his plate discipline, striking out 25 times and drawing 19 walks in his first 135 at bats at the Triple-A level. He has a career-best .422 on base percentage and after Sunday’s loss, he is batting .309 with a .949 OPS.
Plate discipline isn’t the only thing that is improving for Choice, his power numbers are returning as well. After hitting 10 home runs in 402 plate appearances last season, Choice has six in just 110 official at bats this year. While others were concerned with the power drop off, Choice was confident that he would get his stroke back.
“Basically, I just try not to worry about hitting for power and just (focus on) being a good hitter and the power will come later,” Choice said.
The power will come and so will the accolades. At 6-foot, 215-pounds, Choice looks more like an NFL running back than a 5-tool baseball player. And with the A’s sitting on a $7.5 million team option for 33-year-old starting center fielder, Coco Crisp, for next season, there may be a changing of the guard coming.
Choice has nothing but respect for Crisp, who has manned the cavernous Coliseum outfield for the last three seasons. In fact, he spent a lot of time watching the 12-year veteran during spring training, trying to glean even the smallest morsel of information.
“Coco is one of the best out there,” Choice said of the A’s starting center fielder. “I watched him in spring training, watched his routine. You don’t see that many veteran guys like him that still shag hard in BP and continue to get reads and he does that. That’s why he’s one of the best out there.”
While there aren’t any plans to shuttle Choice to the big leagues right now, his time is coming. The A’s will most likely wait as long as possible before calling up one of their best minor league hitting prospects. But when the call comes, expect Choice to be ready to take his spot between Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick in the Oakland outfield.
* * *
Believe it or not, baseball’s amateur draft is only five weeks away, and hard-core A’s fans will soon have a fresh batch of hot prospects to ponder. With this in mind, it seems like a good time to take a look back at last year’s draft class and see where things stand. And it’d be hard to find anyone better-suited to help us do that than the A’s director of player personnel Billy Owens.
Owens originally joined the A’s organization in 1999, working as an area scout and coaching short-season baseball over the next five years. He was promoted to his current position in 2004, where he’s been able to put his knowledge of the game and its players to much more thorough use. Owens spoke with us earlier this week from an undisclosed location, where he was secretly scouting prospects for the draft. We talked about the A’s draft picks from last year’s first five rounds as well as a couple of top international prospects who are currently making their mark in the A’s system…
#1 (1st Round)
Shortstop / Age: 19
The A’s top draft pick in 2012, Russell got off to a blazing start last season. Just 19, the A’s invited him to big league camp this spring and aggressively started him off this year at Stockton in the High-A California League. He got off to a slow start and then had a brief stint on the DL, but he seems to have started heating up a bit over the past week or so.
BILLY OWENS: He had a sensational debut (last season), and we couldn’t be more excited. And seeing him in major league spring training – how he handled himself, the professionalism that he showed, just the constant energy that he plays with everyday – he has a maturity beyond his years. It’s obvious that he’s had tremendous parenting, and he’s got a lot of talent. It’s a pretty advanced assignment going to High-A ball, but we feel he’s going to be up for the challenge. We feel pretty confident that he can go there and handle himself. It’s a long year. We’re going to see how the season goes all the way through the end of the minor league championship season. And we’re pretty confident that he’s going to be able to catch up to the league, stay mature, show his tools, and be an exciting part of our system going forward.
#2 (1st Round)
Shortstop / Age: 19
Robertson got off to a great start in the Arizona League last year but then struggled a bit with short-season Vermont in the NY-Penn League. He injured his knee in the instructional league. The ensuing surgery kept him out of competitive action this spring and delayed the start of his season. But he arrived in Beloit last week with a hot bat, blasting a home run in his first game.
BILLY OWENS: His make-up is outstanding. He’s a very coachable kid – talented, mature. He got dinged up a little bit, but he’s gone straight to Low-A (this season). I think his first night, he was a triple short of a cycle, and he got another hit yesterday, and he’s playing a solid shortstop. This kid definitely likes to play baseball and has been well-coached. His skill level is outstanding. He’s a solid shortstop prospect. He can definitely play the position. His hands are solid. He’s got a strong arm. He’s fundamentally sound.
#3 (1st Round)
First Baseman / Age: 19
Another one of the A’s top draft picks who got off to a great start in Arizona last year, Olson began the season with Beloit in the Midwest League. His bat remained cold through most of a very cold April in Wisconsin, but he’s begun heating up over the past week, homering in two consecutive games over the past few days.
BILLY OWENS: Matt Olson comes from a baseball family. His father played college ball. His brother plays at Harvard currently. And he’s a baseball rat. He can play first base, and he could even dabble in the outfield if need be. He’s got a short, efficient swing. I think initially he had such a strong debut – he hit a home run in his first at bat last year in Arizona rookie ball – he might have gotten a little too pull-confident and tried to force the issue with power. But we think that Matt Olson’s going to be a very good all-around hitter, be able to use the field line-to-line, and the power will just develop over time. He’s just a natural hitter. We like his hands – his hands are fluid, they’re strong, they’re direct. He had a couple of doubles the other night and hit his first home run. He’s using all the field again and squaring up multiple pitches. He’s got a very good eye – he walked 3 times the other night. I’m seeing the trends, and I’m more excited seeing the all-fields approach and the walks start to pick up versus the power. The power’s going to be there ‘cause this kid’s 6’4”, 230 pounds and just naturally strong. So it should be exciting.
#4 (2nd Round)
Catcher / Age: 22
Maxwell appeared to be a dependable hitter in his debut last year and has continued to look like a solid hitter this year at Beloit. He specializes in getting on base, but some have wondered about his ability to stick behind the plate.
BILLY OWENS: His numbers at Birmingham Southern were just ridiculous. They were pretty amazing when you look at the extra-base hits versus the little amount of strikeouts. This kid’s got a tremendous eye, discerning at the plate. His swing path is fluid – it’s very compact, direct to the baseball. He’s strong, he’s going to have power, he’s going to be a high-walk guy. His catching is improving. Just at first glance, he reminds me of ex-Athletic Mickey Tettleton. He can catch, he’s probably going to mix in some first base down the road and get involved every now and then as a designated hitter. But first and foremost, he’s a slugger who’ll be an essential part of the Oakland Athletics organization.
#5 (2nd Round)
RHP / Age: 21
The first pitcher the A’s selected in last year’s draft, Sanburn appears to be a talented young hurler with an arsenal of pitches, but he spent a lot of his college career pitching out of the bullpen. So without a lot of innings under his belt, he still needs to build his stamina as a starter.
BILLY OWENS: We were excited to get Nolan when we got him. With his arm and his variety of pitches, it was a coup where we got him in the draft last year. When he went to rookie ball in short-season (Class-A), he was 96 mph+. His curveball broke off the table, and he’s got a solid changeup. He’s a very athletic kid. Just being predominantly a reliever in college last year, we’re starting to get him prepared him for X amount of innings. We’re kind of taking baby steps initially, but he’s raring to go and ready to unleash that arsenal out there.
#6 (4th Round)
Outfielder / Age: 19
Boyd was best known as a big Bay Area high school football prospect when the A’s drafted him last year. He’s loaded with talent and got off to a great start last year, but he’s young and his baseball skills will need a little refinement.
BILLY OWENS: He’s got a dynamic skill set. Last year, he was by far the fastest player in our draft class. And then he went straight out to rookie ball and showed that speed. He’s just explosive. He was an accomplished football player, had multiple Division I offers, but we were able to draft him. And all that carried over to rookie ball last year. That was a fun team that lost the final to the Rangers’ rookie ball squad, but B.J. was a catalyst for that team. He hit a few home runs, he walked, he hit for a high average, he stole bases, he played a good center field. The Midwest League is a great league, we’re proud to be there, but it’s a little bit cold initially, so we held a couple guys back. We’ve got him back there in extended (spring training), but at some point, I think he’ll be ready for the Midwest League this year. And I honestly believe that he’ll make a positive impression once he gets there. Right now he’s chomping at the bit, working hard in extended, shedding a few pounds, and getting ready to hopefully take the Midwest League by storm later on.
#7 (5th Round)
First Baseman / Age: 22
Drafted out Baylor, Muncy was the only member of the A’s draft class to start last season in the Class-A Midwest League, and he held his own there. This year, the A’s decided to start him out at High-A Stockton along with Addison Russell, and Muncy has flourished. He already has twice as many home runs in April, 8, as he did all of last year at Burlington, and he currently leads all A’s minor leaguers in round-trippers.
BILLY OWENS: Maxwell Muncy is a guy we’re excited about. Armann Brown, our area scout out there in Texas, pointed Max out early, always liked the make-up. Max came from a good family structure and background. He’s at the field early. He’s there late. He’s watching video. He’s just ready to play everyday, so we’re excited. He’s amongst the minor league home run leaders, and we like his skill set. He can pick it at first base – we like his range there. His swing is the type of swing that’s going to be able to hit advanced level pitching. And first and foremost, this guy’s a baseball rat. I mean, he’s a cage-wrecker. You’ve got to turn the lights off otherwise he’s going to be in that cage 24/7. He’s a fun guy to watch.
(International Amateur Free Agent)
Third Baseman / Age: 19
The A’s invested heavily in Nunez when they reportedly gave the young Venezuelan $2.2 million to sign back in 2010. He made his American debut in the Arizona Rookie League last year and didn’t disappoint, flashing the bat the A’s had hoped to see. He’s started this season wielding the biggest bat at Beloit, and he even celebrated his 19th birthday on opening night by blasting his first home run.
BILLY OWENS: He’s an exciting kid to watch. Sam Geaney, our international scouting director, and Julio Franco, our chief scout in Venezuela, they identified Renato all the way back to when he was 14 years old. And we were able to track him, follow him, and we were able to secure his services. He went to the Dominican Summer League at 16 years old and was able to get his feet wet and was able to do pretty well there. Last year, in the Arizona Rookie League, I believe he led the league in doubles. He just has that short stroke – it’s a very accurate barrel. He’s pretty advanced to send him at 19 years old to the Midwest League. This kid’s got outstanding make-up, he’s not afraid of anything. I think he’s hit 4 home runs, 5 doubles. He’s having a good start up there in Beloit. And it’ll be fun to watch him this year, because this kid likes to play a lot and his background is excellent and he’s a natural-born hitter.
(International Amateur Free Agent)
RHP / Age: 21
The A’s originally signed Ynoa for over $4 million as a 16-year old. He’s now a 21-year-old. And thanks to injuries, through last season, he’d thrown less than 40 innings. But Ynoa finally appears to be healthy and is back on the mound for Beloit this season.
BILLY OWENS: It’s definitely fun to see Michael in the box scores. The talent’s always been immense, and now it’s just a matter of him continuing to increase his workload and get out there on the diamond. He’s a fabulous athlete. He’s topped out at 96-97 mph, his breaking ball is getting better everyday, and his command is improving. So seeing him every five days in that box score is an exciting thing, and hopefully he can keep on doing that, because the talent’s there. And hopefully we’re crossing our fingers that he’s passed certain hurdles and he can be out there and enjoy a healthy season.
* * *
While soaking up plenty of Arizona sun during our spring training tour, we also wanted to make sure we got a little light shed on some of the A’s top prospects by folks in the know. So we took the opportunity to talk to three guys who really ought to know the score – Grady Fuson, Farhan Zaidi and Bob Melvin.
Grady Fuson is a long-time baseball man who was formerly the A’s director of scouting. One of baseball’s most respected talent evaluators, he was also depicted as one of Moneyball‘s biggest bad guys, but he’s back with the A’s again as a special assistant to general manager Billy Beane.
In his fifth season as the A’s director of baseball operations, Farhan Zaidi is one of the game’s most forward-thinking front office executives. With a doctorate in economics from UC Berkeley, he is often known as the A’s “numbers guy” and readily admits to feeling somewhat naked without his computer.
Bob Melvin is the popular and affable manager of the A’s who, in 2012, led the team to its first division title since 2006. The former catcher spent 10 years playing in the major leagues and was named AL Manager of Year for his efforts with the A’s in 2012.
We asked this trio of talent evaluators to weigh in on some of the A’s top prospects, and what we heard left us feeling pretty good about the future!
On shortstop Addison Russell…
Bob Melvin: He left us with impressions when he came out and just took batting practice with us during the season. During spring, he certainly didn’t look like a 19-year-old kid. He has a great approach at the plate, a very good work ethic – great athlete. He’s got a chance to be a quick mover.
Grady Fuson: Big league camp didn’t phase him. He went in there and stood around like a veteran. He wasn’t nervous. He was aggressive. He played the same style of game that he’s played since the day we signed him. And I think everybody top to bottom’s been pleased…I think we all see all the tools. It’s not hard to know this guy’s really got some quickness and speed. He’s aggressive on ground balls. He’s got a knack for reading ground balls. He controlled the strike zone in big league camp, so it wasn’t like he was swinging at air or anything. He’s just got a very good awareness about the game for a young kid to go with all the tools he’s got…He’s a great kid. He comes to work every day – he’s quiet but he’s deadly…As he goes along, we’re going to keep an eye on his throwing. It has nothing to do with his arm strength. It’s more about building accuracy and pace and footwork into his game. Other than that, there’s really no holes to poke at offensively. The more he plays, the more he’s going to get comfortable with the strike zone a little bit – what he can hit, what he can’t hit – and that’ll come. But this kid really has no major flaws to really speak of. It’s nice every once in a while to have a player where you can go, “Hey, let’s just go play!”
On outfielder Michael Choice…
Grady Fuson: He’s ahead of the curve as far as when he left Midland last year. What little time we got with him in instructs (instructional league), something’s clicked. His whole approach is so much more balanced and connected. The first 5-6 at-bats I saw him, I kept waiting for him to kind of get out of sorts, but he hasn’t one time. I’m proud of him. He looked great in big league camp. He’s got another burst of energy to his game. He played center field in big league camp very well – 5 of those innings a day over there that sun’s right in your face. And the great thing is, since he’s come over to minor league camp, he’s had the same work ethic, same aggressiveness, same energy. He’s been great…It looks like he’s really figured some things out.
Bob Melvin: This is the first time we’ve been able to see him get a lot of bats and do the things that the organization expects of him. He’s a highly-touted prospect with power and speed. I think he came to this camp really wanting to show the big league staff what he’s all about – and he did that. I mean, it was a very impressive camp. He fell off a little bit – I think he took a couple of 0-fors at the end. But he and Shane Peterson have been terrific throughout the whole camp. And this is a guy who’s going to knock the door down and fight his way in at some point in time, whether it’s next year, whether it’s this year – a September call-up or an injury or something like that. He’s really close to being a big leaguer.
On outfielder Shane Peterson…
Bob Melvin: He’s the one guy here who’s played every single game (this spring). You usually ease your way into it, but he’s done anything but that. He continues to hit. He plays different positions. I haven’t even used him at first, which is probably his most comfortable position, but he’s looked like a true outfielder. You look at the numbers, and he’s had a spectacular camp.
On infielder Grant Green…
Grady Fuson: To some degree, offensively, he could be big-league ready – he’s close. He’s got great at-bats going. He’s doing what Grant Green does. He’s been through a year and a half to two year period where we’ve been working on getting him to be more aggressive on the inner half and feeling what it’s like to turn on some balls. It’s helped his power production. Once again, he’s kind of getting his feet wet at a new position, but it’s the one position that you’re really seeing him grow at defensively. He is getting better every day. So obviously he’ll go back to Sacramento and we’ll see how things go in the big leagues to start – but Grant is very, very close.
Farhan Zaidi: I think there’s a growing level of confidence that second base is his best position. And because it’s his best position, probably now and also in the long run, giving him time to develop there is a priority. But we have other guys who need to play that position, so he may not get as many reps there as we would like in a perfect world just because we have to work other guys in there. But from an organizational perspective, more and more people are feeling good about the progress he’s made over there. And he could actually be an asset over there in the long term once he gets more reps and gets more comfortable playing there.
On infielder Miles Head…
Grady Fuson: He didn’t get that much time in big league camp, so he’s kind of getting a late start playing every day here (in minor league camp). But he should be ready to go. Obviously, he can’t do what he did in Stockton – that was the most unreal half you’re ever going to see. But he’s been getting his knocks, he’s swinging aggressive, getting time at third and first – and that’s what we’ll expect when he goes out.
On pitcher Dan Straily…
Farhan Zaidi: I think he’s gotten a lot more comfortable in this camp, being in the big leagues, being around the big league team and staff. He’s had some things to work on this spring, just like most pitchers have. But you know, we sort of have this notion of building the starting pitching depth out 8 or 9 guys. And if you’re the 6th guy, it means we have a pretty high level of confidence – we know we’re going to need you at some point…He’s going to be a big factor in our season…He might not be in there for every turn of the 162 game season, but he’s going to play a big role for sure.
Bob Melvin: He just needs to be more consistent at times – and he knows it. He had a tough first inning the other day where he gave up 3 runs and then he pitched really well after that. It’s getting rid of that one inning, or getting through games a little bit more in the fashion that we think he can do it – and he’s probably not quite there yet. But he’s still a young guy, and we’ve had a lot of young guys perform well here. He was instrumental down the stretch with a few games for us last year. He has some experience pitching in a pennant race. But I know he probably looks at his performance this spring and thinks there’s a little bit more in the tank for him and wants to finish up strong.
Grady Fuson: He just seemed a hair out of sync (this spring). He wasn’t locating his fastball as well. And when he doesn’t locate his fastball well, then his sequences don’t come together. As far as his stuff, his stuff was still solid – 90-93mph, good breaker, slider got a little flat at times, good changeup – but he just wasn’t getting ahead of hitters enough as he’d done a year ago…You know, it’s his first big league camp – he knows he’s pressing to make a spot in that rotation.
On pitcher Sonny Gray…
Grady Fuson: His stuff is good. It’s all going to get down to location. If Sonny can improve on pounding the strike zone, he’s going to be a competitive kid. But he’s got to find a way to get ahead earlier in counts and work on the efficient side of being a starter versus the overpowering side of being a starter. He knows it. He’s trying to work through it. And right now, it comes and goes. So it’s a work in progress.
Farhan Zaidi: As much as we have invested in him, he’s a guy who we would want to only bring up when we really feel he’s ready, not sort of out of a sense of urgency for a guy. I think he just has to work on pitching more efficiently. If you’re in Triple-A and you’re throwing 100 pitches in a 6-inning stint, that’s not going to work at the big league level. The guys who have success moving from Double-A and Triple-A to the big leagues are the guys who pitch really efficiently at the minor league level and have short innings, don’t walk guys, all that kind of stuff. I think that’s going to be the biggest issue for him.
On pitcher Andrew Werner…
Grady Fuson: He’s kind of an under-the-radar lefty. He doesn’t throw overly hard. But he’s a locate guy. He’s got a real good changeup. He’s got a solid breaker. So he’s a lot like most lefties who throw 87-88mph who can pitch a little bit.
On pitcher Jesse Chavez…
Grady Fuson: Jesse Chavez has tremendous stuff. It’s just about him harnessing it, and he’s dominated in Triple-A. So it’s just about him getting used to playing in front of a second deck and the lights not blinding him a little bit. But we feel good about having him down there (at Sacramento).
On pitcher Michael Ynoa…
Grady Fuson: The progress continues to be nothing but ‘hang a star on it!’ He’s healthy. His velocity continues to climb. He’s been up to 95-96mph here. His breaking ball’s sharper because the velocity’s back. He’s been around the strike zone. You know, we’re still going to proceed with a little caution, but he’s been good.
Farhan Zaidi: His stuff has been really good. His fastball has been up to the mid-90s. He shows his other pitches. He’s a big presence on the mound. He just needs reps and he needs to get more consistent. If you haven’t pitched at that level, and things start unraveling – just getting out of jams, not letting innings totally get away from you. But the stuff has been fine…The stuff is where you were hoping it would progress to when we signed him – I mean, we thought he might be in the big leagues by now. So all the ingredients are there. It’s just about him getting out and pitching…I think he has the ability to make up for a lot of that lost time, so we’re looking forward to him pitching.
On infielder Daniel Robertson…
Grady Fuson: We’re still just being cautious with the knee. Little by little, he’s done more on the field, so he has not played in games. He feels great. We’re just taking it slow…In instructional league, his spike caught up on the mat hitting in BP and kind of tore a little meniscus in there. So the odds are he probably won’t break (camp). We’ll keep him down here a little bit and make sure it’s tested. But hopefully by the middle of the month, he’s good to go.
On first baseman Matt Olson…
Grady Fuson: Olson’s been great. He just picked up where he left off. He’s gotten a little bigger and stronger. He’s having a nice minor league camp. He’s ready to go.
Farhan Zaidi: The guys over there have been very excited about him. I think he’s hit a handful of homers in minor league games already. He has that kind of power…and that’s got people pretty excited.
* * *
Knowing he’s always got an eye on the future, we took the opportunity to ask Farhan about the possible value of applying analytics to the subject of health and injuries in order to better anticipate the physical resilience of individual players, and here’s what he had to say…
Farhan Zaidi: There’s more and more of this stuff – either analyzing historic DL data or injury data, or also mechanics. I don’t know that there are a lot of great, or certain, answers at this point. But I think it’s a major next frontier for analysis. It started off with offense, then it moved to defense, measuring fielding, now I think this is the next frontier for analytics. We do a fair amount of that – it’s sort of an ongoing process…Even getting a little bit better at predicting players’ health going forward is really valuable. So that’s something that we’re working on and trying to get better at every year…Even if you improve your predictive power a little bit, that can be worth a lot in the long run.
* * *
–GRADY’S GUYS TO WATCH–
We asked Grady to tip us off to three guys in the A’s system we ought to keep an eye on, and here’s what we got…
Left-Handed Hitting First Baseman
Age: 22 / Drafted 2012 – 5th Round
He was good last year after we signed him. He went to Burlington (Class-A) right out of the draft and held his own. This guy gets it. He knows how to play the game. He’s got a good swing. He’s very hitter-ish. He’s always had a little bit more power in the bat than his numbers show. And we’re working with him to take advantage of the shorter parts of the park – and it’s coming. He’s been a jewel in camp. He’s firmed his body up a little bit more. He’s a solid defender. Keep your eye on him!
Age: 22 / Drafted 2012 – 14th Round
He closed in Vermont last year. He threw from 25 different slots. In instructional league, we tried to calm him down, gave him one slot, and he went home all winter and worked on it. And he’s gotten so much cleaner now that we’re thinking about maybe starting him and pushing him with some innings. He’s got a good arm. He’s got a nasty changeup…He wiped guys out as a closer, but the more you can get on the mound, the more you’re going to learn.
Age: 21 / Drafted 2012 – 18th Round
Junior college kid – he only pitched 1/3 of an inning for us last year, so I didn’t even know who this guy was. The other day, he comes out here, he’s throwing 94mph with a nasty breaker – good body, good delivery. Today he goes 3 shutout innings, touching 95mph – I’m in!
* * *
Exclusive: A’s Director of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi Talks Top Prospects with A’s Farm – Part 2
Yesterday, we brought you Part 1 of A’s Farm’s exclusive interview with A’s director of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, where he gave us the lowdown on top prospects Addison Russell, Dan Straily, Michael Choice, Sonny Gray and Grant Green. In Part 2, we’ll cover Miles Head, Daniel Robertson, Renato Nunez, Michael Ynoa and more of the A’s top prospects. So let’s get back to the action – we rejoin our game, already in progress…
AF: Next on our list is a guy who got off to a phenomenal start last year, hitting probably as well as anyone in pro ball in the first half at Stockton, and who you guys very shrewdly targeted in last year’s trade with Boston – and that’s third baseman Miles Head. He came back down to earth a bit at Midland in the second half but still held his own there. Tell me what you think about Miles Head at his point and where you see him playing in the field this year now that you’ve got another third baseman like Jefry Marte in the system who’s basically at the same level as him.
FZ: He was a guy that we did sort of tack on to that deal a little late. And one of the things about him, similar to the Brandon Moss story, when we went and looked at him in the 2011 season, he was a guy who got better every month – first in the South Atlantic League and then even in the Carolina League in 2011, where his overall numbers weren’t great. He was getting better there every month. We’re very optimistic about him. He’s one of the best pure hitters in the system. He’s a very aggressive hitter. He wants to put the ball in play, and he makes consistently loud contact. Defensively, we moved him over to third base last year, the position he played as an amateur. Everybody has more value at third base than at first base. But in the long run, he’s going to be a guy who plays both positions. And with Marte in the system, and both of those guys potentially starting the year in Double-A, I think both guys will see time at both spots. That still enables both guys to get plenty of reps at third, but it’s a case where having that flexibility and experience at a couple of different spots doesn’t hurt.
AF: The seventh guy on our list was your second overall draft pick last year, shortstop Daniel Robertson. He got off to a great start in the Arizona League. He had a little tougher time of it in his brief time at Vermont, but obviously everybody still seems to feel very positive about his abilities and what he’s capable of doing in the long run. So tell me what you think about Daniel Robertson at this stage of the game.
FZ: We feel very good about him. You’re right. He played very well in Arizona. He didn’t really have the results to show for it in Vermont, but nobody who was there thought that he was over-matched. And if he had another 10 or 20 games in the season at Vermont, I think he would have brought up his numbers. So we’re not concerned about that small sample that he had there. He’s one of the brightest and most motivated players I think we’ve ever brought into the system, so the intangibles that he brings in make you all the more excited about him. And our guys who really study swings, from (minor league hitting coordinator) Todd Steverson on down, all think he has one of the best and one of the most compact swings of the young guys out there. So that’s exciting when you hear about those kinds of skills that you know translate as you move up the ladder.
AF: Where do you see him playing in the field this year? Do you see him still starting at shortstop, or do you plan on moving him around the infield a bit?
FZ: It really sort of depends on how things shake out on the depth chart. His ability to play probably the most premium position on the field isn’t something you want to give up easily. So I think he’ll probably wind up getting time at both spots on the left side of the infield. But as well as he played short when he got the chance last year, we think it’s worth keeping him there and having him get some reps there.
AF: Eighth on our list is another infielder who hit really well in Arizona last year, and that’s third baseman Renato Nunez. He obviously doesn’t seem to have any problem swinging the bat, but he’s been a little shaky in the field thus far. So tell me what you think of Nunez both offensively and defensively at this point.
FZ: Yeah, you’re right. It was great to see him come over last year and put up the numbers that he did. And it was actually just a little unfortunate that we ran out of time and didn’t get the chance to move him up to Vermont because he was as deserving as Robertson and Olson of getting that late-season promotion. Defensively, it’s a work in progress. He has all the tools. I think it’s just a matter of him getting a few reps. Our defensive coaches, Juan Navarrete and the rest of the group, feel good about his chances to improve at third. You know, people have said this for a long time, you don’t want to read too much into error totals at the low minor league level. I think Derek Jeter’s first full season error total (56 in 126 games) is one of the most constantly thrown around statistics. We’re not concerned about that. He has plenty of time to work on refining his skills.
AF: Ninth on our list is the top pitcher you took in the draft last year, right-hander Nolan Sanburn. He only got in about 18 or 19 innings last year, but a lot of people are very high on him. So with the limited opportunity you’ve had to see him, what do you think about him so far?
FZ: It’s interesting. He doesn’t really fit the profile of the typical college pitcher we’ve drafted. He didn’t throw a ton of innings at Arkansas. He was only there for a year. He was really more of a middle reliever at Arkansas and didn’t get much of an opportunity to become a mainstay on that pitching staff for whatever reason. So what we got was a guy who you felt there was some track record, because he’s a guy who did pitch with a reasonable amount of success, but you also had the upside of a junior college or high school player almost. What we’ve seen so far has been really encouraging. He’s obviously got out stuff. He’s got a plus curveball. For him, he’s going to just have to work on his fastball command and refining a third pitch. But he has the physical build and endurance to be a starter. He’s got two pitches that are a really good foundation. And if he can refine the rest of his arsenal, he could be an impact-type guy.
AF: Tenth on our list is a guy who certainly wasn’t a high draft pick but who a lot of people have been saying good things about – Chris Bostick, who’s been playing both second and short. I think he was drafted in the 44th round and the numbers don’t necessarily jump off the page at you, but there are a lot of folks who seem to have a good feeling about him.
FZ: Chris was one of those guys at the tail end of the draft who we just wanted to see how he progressed over the summer. And he went to the NYCBL, which is probably one of the top ten summer college leagues around. And I’m not sure if he won the batting title, but he was either first or second in the league in hitting. I think he hit like .450. He had more walks than strikeouts. It was really one of the most impressive performances I’ve seen in a summer league for a kid who has just graduated from high school and was playing against college sophomores and juniors. So that’s what really got us excited about him. And you’re right, the numbers don’t necessarily pop off the page, but he has that performance history and all the ingredients and tools are there. So he’s definitely a little bit under the radar, but someone we are excited about.
AF: Your third overall draft pick last year, first baseman Matt Olson, is another guy who hit really well in the Arizona League and showed a lot of power there and looked good in a very brief stint with Vermont as well. So how to do you see Matt Olson at this point?
FZ: You know, it isn’t our common practice to take a high school first baseman that high in the draft. If you do that, it’s because you feel really good and excited about the bat. And he was a guy who matched that description. He’s a guy who we think has future plus, or even double-plus, power. He hit some long home runs in Arizona and carried that over into Vermont. So he’s a guy who profiles as an above-average offensive first baseman, which is saying a lot, because that’s a position that demands a lot offensively. But the whole key is that he continues to progress and starts moving towards achieving that power projection.
AF: And the final guy that everyone is always curious to know about is pitcher Michael Ynoa. After lots of time off due to injuries, he’s on the mend and getting back into the swing of things. So where are things at with Michael Ynoa?
FZ: I really think that the way he finished last season has given us a lot of reason for optimism. He went out and pitched outside the Arizona League for the first time. He had a couple of rough outings, but also had a couple of positive outings. And the reports on his stuff were really very encouraging. He was up to 95-96 mph, showing a full arsenal of pitches. And that was something that he carried into the Instructional League – he was one of the best pitchers for us both in terms of stuff and performance. He unfortunately got a late start this spring. He was a little sick in the Dominican and didn’t get over until a week into camp. He threw his first live bullpen session today against hitters over at Phoenix Muni. If everything went well with that, then he should be able to get into a game sometime soon. I think that would be a huge achievement and benchmark for him. He’s a guy who I think we’ve always felt that once he can get over his injuries, with the kind of stuff he has, he can make up for some of the lost time he’s had over the last few years.
AF: One last thing I’m curious to ask you about. When you’re analyzing minor league guys and their numbers, what is the first thing you’re looking at for both hitters and pitchers to try to get a handle on who the guys are who are most likely to be successful at the major league level?
FZ: Well, for a hitter, to be honest, for me, one of the biggest and most important metrics is walks and strikeouts. Guys that have a good ratio – just because those are an indicator of good plate discipline – the guys who, for the most part, swing at strikes and don’t swing at balls. And with the kind of stuff that you face in the big leagues, if you can’t do that, your chances for success drop dramatically. Hey, I’m not going to complain about the guy who hits .300 or has a .600 slugging percentage, but really, that’s the first thing that I look at because having good plate discipline is what really enables a lot of the actual hitting production to translate at a higher level. As far as pitching goes, strikeouts are a big factor. The other thing that really goes along with that is strike percentage. And I say that because sometimes we forget that not all strikeouts are created equal. There’s a big difference between throwing three strikes and just overpowering a guy, and having a 7-8-9 pitch at-bat where you have a full count and the guy fouls off a few pitches and then finally you strike him out. That first type of strikeout is a lot better indicator of skill and performance than the second type – so that’s why looking at strikeouts in conjunction with strike percentage is so important to me. Like I mentioned, once you get to the big leagues, you have to be able to pitch in the strike zone. If you’re striking out players in the minors by getting them to chase, it’s going to be a lot harder to replicate that success at the highest level. So those are the first things that I look at for hitters and pitchers at the minor league level.
AF: I was just reading something that said something pretty similar about walks and strikeouts for hitters. It was basically saying that whatever your hitting profile, once you get to the major leagues, you’re going to be striking out a lot more than you were in the minors. So you better start out with a decent ratio, because it’s going to be going down once you start having to face major league pitchers.
FZ: You know, I think there’s this common perception that that’s not something that you can get better at. I look at Grant Green, who went from Double-A to Triple-A and actually cut his strikeout rates dramatically, and I think that was maybe the single most encouraging thing about Grant’s season last year. And you look at Yoenis Cespedes, and there have been many articles written about his plate discipline through the course of the season from April to September and how he started swinging at more strikes and fewer balls and how, as he continued to do that, his production continued on an upward trajectory. Guys can get better, so I would never want to totally doom somebody to failure. And frankly, on the flip side, just because you have a good walk/strikeout ratio doesn’t guarantee success. But I think it is one of the best statistical predictors of hitters’ success at the big league level.
AF: Right, absolutely. That’s a lot of great information. I really appreciate it.
FZ: No problem. Just imagine how much more informative it would have been if I wasn’t out driving around and was at my computer.
AF: Well, the next time I talk to you, we’ll just have to make sure you’re staring at a computer!
* * *