Yesterday, we brought you Part 1 of A’s Farm’s exclusive interview with A’s assistant general manager and director of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, where he gave us the lowdown on top prospects like Addison Russell, Daniel Robertson, Michael Ynoa, Raul Alcantara and Arnold Leon. In Part 2, we’ll cover Billy McKinney, Billy Burns, Max Muncy and more. So let’s get back to the action – we rejoin our game, already in progress…
AF: Another guy who’s spent a little time in the big league camp this spring is last year’s top draft pick, Billy McKinney. So what have your impressions been of him to this point?
FZ: I think the more times he’s come over, the more comfortable he’s been. I thought he was a little gun shy in his first couple of at-bats, which is totally understandable. But his performance last year somehow went a little under the radar, maybe because it was mostly in Arizona – he spent the last ten days in Vermont. But he did about as well as you could expect a high school position player to do. And we’ve seen some of that the more times he’s come over – the quality at-bats, the swing. You know, his bread and butter is going to be what he does offensively. And all that he‘s given us is positive in the times we’ve seen him.
AF: Now what are your thoughts about the guy who everyone seems to be most excited about this spring, Billy Burns?
FZ: The combination of elite speed and the ability to get on base isn’t as common as you would think. First of all, there aren’t that many elite speed guys. And the guys who do have elite speed don’t necessarily make enough contact or walk enough to really fully leverage that speed. I think he’s one of the best handful of guys at that in the minor leagues. And he’s got his strengths and weaknesses like every player. But he knows his strengths and he tailors his game to fully exploit those strengths. He tries to put the ball in play. He hits the ball on the ground. He has the speed to cover a lot of ground in the outfield. And I wouldn’t say he’s got Josh Reddick’s arm, but what he does is he gets to balls quickly. He’s accurate and he releases balls quickly when he does get to them. We saw him have a couple of assists in a game. And that was an area where we had some questions about whether he had the arm to play center field, and so far he’s shown every ability to play out there. So his all-around game has been great. And I think what coaches love is having a guy like that who knows what he has to do to be successful and knows what he has to do to help the team as much as possible. And obviously he’s really excited the fans, which is great. You know, he’s only spent about a month at Double-A, so he’s got a little bit of a ways to go. But we know the speed is going to play at this level for sure. It’s just letting some of those other skills catch up with that part.
AF: I don’t think people realize how inexperienced he really is. He’s only had about 30 games above Class-A. So do you anticipate him getting a little more time in at Double-A this year?
FZ: That’s the plan for right now. Things can change seeing how the rest of the depth chart plays out. But for a guy who hasn’t been switch-hitting for that long, getting more left-handed at-bats will be big for him. And in that sense, if a guy is still learning to swing from one side of the plate, you don’t want him to just be trying to stay afloat. And that’s maybe what moving a guy like that too aggressively might do. We want him to get comfortable hitting from the left side of the plate. So sending him back to the level where he finished last year and had some success makes some sense. But he’s a guy who’s made a strong enough impression that I wouldn’t be surprised to see him with us at some point this year.
AF: Now I want to ask you about a guy who, along with Addison Russell, has moved up the ladder more quickly than anyone, and that’s Max Muncy. How do you view him at this point?
FZ: Very advanced bat. He’s sort of lived up to every expectation we had when we drafted him…but the way things look right now, he’s probably going to go back and start the year in Midland. But he’s a guy who could move quickly because he has a pretty polished game, particularly offensively.
AF: Would you say that, along with Addison Russell, he’s as close to being major-league ready as anyone you’ve drafted in the last couple of years?
FZ: Yeah, I think from the position player side, that’s a fair statement.
AF: I’ve talked to him a few times and I get the impression that he’s a really smart hitter who’s got a pretty good approach to things.
FZ: Yeah, very cerebral guy – probably for us, the poster child for the kind of approach we want. We want guys to control the zone. And that means both not swinging at pitches out of the zone but also looking to do damage when you’re in hitter’s counts. And I haven’t seen the guy take a bad at-bat, so that’s very exciting. He has the kind of consistency that some of our younger guys still need to develop.
AF: Are there any somewhat under-the-radar guys in the A’s system you’d suggest people might want to keep an eye on?
FZ: You know, one guy who has a chance to move pretty quickly is Tucker Healy, who started in Beloit and finished last year in Stockton…Every time Tucker’s name comes up, whether it’s regarding the depth chart or whether a team asks about him in a trade, which has happened a couple of times, and I go back and look, I’m always taken aback by how good he really was last year. So maybe not a guy who has the pedigree draft-wise…but between Beloit and Stockton last year, he had a 1.31 ERA and in 48 innings, he had 10 walks and 74 strikeouts. I mean, it’s ridiculous. And then the year before that in Vermont, he had 45 strikeouts and 13 walks in 29 innings. I would say he’s very under the radar.
AF: What about any position players?
FZ: I would say it’s harder for position players to slide under the radar. But two guys I think could take a big step forward are the first two college position players we drafted last year – Chad Pinder and Ryon Healy. Not that those guys are under the radar, but they didn’t get a ton of reps after signing. They’re both guys who are very advanced, and I expect them to either start the year in Stockton or wind up there at some point. And advanced college hitters can put up some noticeable numbers at that level.
AF: And Pinder was hindered by injuries much of last year.
FZ: Yeah, I don’t think we’ve seen any sort of true indication of his ability level. He’s a guy who could have gone as high as the late first round. So he could sneak up on people.
AF: And he’s staying at shortstop?
FZ: Yeah, I think we’ve been happy with how he’s looked there.
AF: And what about Healy position-wise at this point? He’s primarily a first baseman but you also had him at third a little bit last year.
FZ: I know we tried him at third base. Our guys liked him there. I think we’ll continue to at least give him a chance there. He likes playing third and he wants to get better there. So when a guy is being challenged on the defensive spectrum the fact that the guy wants to do it and wants to get better is always a big factor.
AF: Now one last general question about the draft. You guys have drafted a lot more high school players in the past couple of years than you had in the past. And David Forst has said that he feels you have so much more information available on high school players now than you did even five years ago that you really feel a lot more confident going with high school guys at this point. Would you agree with that assessment?
FZ: I think so, yeah. It’s sort of having a comfort level, seeing these guys the whole previous summer before their senior years playing in these summer circuits where they face a good level of competition…Now people have a long history of these guys dating back at least to the summer before their senior years. And scouting staffs are a little bigger now, so you get more looks…and we don’t think it’s a useful strategy to just lop off half of the draft pool and say we’re just taking these guys. We’re probably going to lose out on talent if we do that…and just to be clear, that’s not something that’s happened in the last three years. I think the balancing of value between high school and college guys is something that probably started ten or fifteen years ago and has sort of very slowly and steadily worked its way into what I think is pretty close to parity at this point. And that’s because of team’s drafting tendencies but also because of the correction of what was once a pretty big information asymmetry between these players.
AF: Great, thanks a lot – that was even more informative than I’d hoped!
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It’s been a little over nine years since Farhan Zaidi first joined the A’s front office as a baseball operations analyst back in January of 2005. And while he now embarks on his sixth season as the A’s director of baseball operations, the team has also seen fit to elevate him to the position of assistant general manager, joining long-time A’s assistant GM David Forst. But rather than represent any particularly new or expanded duties, the title really just reflects a recognition of Zaidi’s overall importance to the organization. Zaidi, Forst and general manager Billy Beane form a powerful troika of top thinkers at the head of the A’s organization, and if there’s an important decision to be made, you better believe that these three are all in on it.
As far as Farhan goes, his responsibilities can span a wide range of issues on any given day from dealing with contract negotiations to developing advance scouting reports. But most of his time and energy is really centered around player evaluation, whether that involves setting up the team’s analytic infrastructure for evaluating player performance or just keeping a personal eye on the team’s player personnel. Zaidi usually travels on at least half the team’s road trips and personally scouts about thirty top amateur prospects each year in preparation for the draft. So, from soup to nuts, if it falls under the heading of player evaluation, it’s bound to be on Farhan’s plate.
Zaidi was good enough to take a little time to talk with us in his office at Phoenix Municipal Stadium just a few days after Addison Russell went down with a hamstring strain and just a few days before news of A.J. Griffin’s and Jarrod Parker’s injuries first broke. Of course, we wanted to know about some of the team’s top prospects and, as you can see, Farhan was happy to oblige with plenty of interesting information…
AF: I want to start out by asking you about a few of the A’s top pitching prospects. First off, is Michael Ynoa going to continue as a starter or are you considering having him pitch out of the bullpen?
FZ: We’re considering both. He’s pitched in some short stints in big league camp and looked terrific. I think that’s a role that he could thrive in right away. As a starter, I think he may have some ups and downs. It’s an ongoing evaluation for us, whether we have the time and whether he has the time to go through that development curve as a starter, or whether we need him as a bullpen guy to move rather quickly. Even if he does go to the bullpen, I think we would like to still see him go through the lineup one time – throw two to three innings. That might be a nice intermediate option. He only threw under 100 innings last year so, if we did use him as a starter, he would probably run out of innings at some point late in the season. So maybe if you keep him to shorter stints, it allows him to pitch through the year – we might as well spread it out over the course of the season. And that also gives you a little insight into how he’d do as a reliever, so maybe it just gives you more data both ways.
AF: What about Raul Alcantara? Obviously, he looked great last year and in camp this spring. He’s probably your best all-around pitching prospect and, at 21, he’s also one of your youngest pitching prospects. Is there any thought of taking it slow with him since he’s so young or, if he’s ready, will you just let him rise as fast and as far as his talent takes him?
FZ: Yeah, the plan right now is for him to start the season in Midland. He was arguably Stockton’s best starting pitcher down the stretch last year – and he’s very advanced. He’s a guy who throws a lot of strikes and has a good changeup, which is obviously important for a starting pitcher. But the major league coaching staff was very impressed with him from the standpoint of being able to understand and execute signs and little things like that. Sometimes a guy who hasn’t pitched above A-Ball can be overwhelmed at this level, but he was completely unfazed by those aspects of the game. And I think our guys were really happy with him…Our perspective has always been with these guys that their performance and maturity will dictate how fast they move. We don’t like to necessarily impose strict timetables on guys. If you’re good enough to work your way up and get to the big leagues, no one in this organization is going to stop you.
AF: So you’re not going to worry about starting their clock at too early an age.
FZ: Whether it’s age or whether it’s service time, those factors are dwarfed by ability to perform.
AF: By being a good player!
FZ: Exactly, we like those guys.
AF: Well, I guess that’s the main priority! Now Arnold Leon, who was once a highly-touted prospect and then had some injury issues, has been looking really good again this spring. So are you guys excited about what you’ve been seeing out of him so far?
FZ: Very excited…he’s looked terrific. He’s a guy who’s been in both roles, but I think we’ve always felt in the long run he was a starting pitcher because he has four pitches and he throws strikes. And the thing that we’ve really liked is he’s gone right after guys in camp, he’s been very efficient, he’s had short innings. And this has kind of been an area of development for Arnold. Coming from Mexico, there’s a very particular pitching style there which tends to be to nibble a little bit and go deep in counts, a little bit more of a finesse approach. It’s just a different style of pitching, not just from what you see here in general but what we try to teach, which is to go right at guys. If you get ahead in the count, we don’t necessarily want you wasting three pitches and winding up with a twelve pitch at-bat. And he’s done that really well here, so we’re very excited. He’s a guy who finished the year strong in Sacramento and most likely will start the year in the rotation there. And with Alcantara, probably our best two starting pitching prospects.
AF: So he’s really in a good position to be moving up at some point.
FZ: Absolutely, he has really good stuff. For a guy who walked as few guys as he did last year, to be throwing up to 95 mph with four pitches and those kinds of walk rates, that’s a really exciting combination.
AF: What are your impressions of Matt Buschmann, whom you signed as a minor league free agent this offseason?
FZ: He was terrific in Double-A and Triple-A last year. I think he had an ERA under 3.00 and more than a strikeout per inning at both levels. He pitched really well the other day. He was up to 93 mph, which is the velocity we’d seen from him in the past. So he’s going to be in the Sacramento rotation. And based on what he did last year, he has the chance to be a factor for us…When we were looking at the minor league free agents and his name came up, I remembered him being a guy we really liked when he was in the San Diego system…and he was a high priority for us in the free agent market.
AF: Now you’re looking at having Philip Humber pitching out of the bullpen in Sacramento this year, right?
FZ: For sure, yeah.
AF: And you’re looking at having Andrew Werner pitching out of the bullpen in Sacramento too, right?
FZ: Yeah, he was actually pretty good as a starter in 2012 in the Padres system. He worked his way up from Double-A up to the big leagues. He took a step back last year, but he’s a guy who has some funk and deception. And we think it’s a good opportunity to try him in that role. Teams are always looking for lefty relievers, so we’ll see how that goes…Even last year when he struggled, he was still pretty good against left-handed hitters.
AF: Now I want to ask you about a few of your top hitting prospects. You’ve probably had the chance to see more of Addison Russell up close with your own eyes this spring than you ever have before. So what are your thoughts about him at this point?
FZ: He got off to a little bit of a slow start, but his last few games before he got hurt, just a lot of loud contact – just really exciting. If you think about how he started last year in Stockton, he was struggling early on. Now he’s moving up to Midland. I think people should have realistic expectations. That’s the single biggest jump in the minor leagues in our organization, going from the Cal League to the Texas League. We’ve had many college guys – Sean Doolittle, Nick Swisher back in the day – who really struggled in Midland. They hit in Stockton, they hit in Sacramento, but…it’s a tough place to play. So Addison is going to have his work cut out for him. And I think people are going to have to be patient with what he does on a daily basis. That said, knowing he’s going to have to make that big jump, seeing how he’s handled big league pitching in these games has been pretty exciting – good at-bats and obviously good performance.
AF: He certainly seems to have the ability to learn and make adjustments fairly quickly.
FZ: Yeah, guys with natural ability who have aptitude, you see that. You saw it with Yoenis when he first came over here in 2012 – he got better every month. And I think you’re absolutely right. That’s what we saw from Addison last year in Stockton. That’s what we’ve seen in a shorter time frame in big league camp here. And hopefully he continues it in Midland, because once you get to Double-A, there’s no soft spots in the pitching rotations like you see in A-Ball. So it’s going to be a challenge. But certainly, if he continues that sort of development curve, he should get on track there at some point.
AF: Is there anything in particular that you want him to work on there or are there any aspects of his game that you feel need to be fine-tuned a bit?
FZ: I think the biggest thing for him is going to be making sure his contact rate doesn’t slip too far. His strikeouts were a little high last year. Like I said, he’s going to be facing tougher pitching. And that’s going to be the thing to monitor with him. Especially for a guy with speed, you want those guys putting the ball in play and letting their legs do some work for them. So I think that’s probably going to be the single biggest stat that I’m going to be monitoring.
AF: Another guy who’s been making some appearances in big league camp for you this spring is Daniel Robertson. Now he’s expected to start the year at Stockton, and he’s been playing pretty much exclusively at shortstop up to this point. The closer that Addison Russell gets to the majors, do you start to think more about possibly giving him a little time at another position?
FZ: You know, when we drafted him, he was a guy who we saw starting at short but maybe moving to third eventually. But he’s been so good at short that we want to give him every opportunity to stay there. There are just so many things that can happen between now and the day that they’re both in the big leagues and we have to decide who’s playing what position. So from a development standpoint, we want both guys playing as much shortstop as possible for as long as possible.
AF: So you don’t feel that you’ve reached that fork in the road quite yet.
FZ: Yeah, we’re not at a point where we have to make a decision one way or another.
AF: Well, hopefully you will be soon.
FZ: Yeah, that would be a good problem to have!
Be sure to check back tomorrow for Part 2 of A’s Farm’s exclusive interview with A’s assistant general manager and director of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, in which he gives us the lowdown on some of the A’s most promising young position players like Billy McKinney, Billy Burns and Max Muncy and how the A’s have come to love high school players!
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Long-time baseball man Grady Fuson served as the A’s scouting director from 1995 until 2001, when the team drafted such talented players as Eric Chavez, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Rich Harden. He left the A’s at the end of 2001 to become the assistant general manager of the Texas Rangers and, after moving on to head up the Padres scouting department, Fuson eventually returned to the A’s a little over four years ago to serve as a special assistant to general manager Billy Beane.
Of course, many know Fuson as the scout in the cinematic version of Moneyball who has a dramatic confrontation with the A’s general manager – though that’s not quite how it happened (which we chronicled here), and he and Beane are both back on the same team and rowing in the same direction.
During spring training, Fuson can most frequently be found patrolling the A’s minor league fields at Papago Park, keeping a close eye on the team’s most prized prospects. And it was there that we took the opportunity to pick the brain of one of baseball’s top talent evaluators to get the lowdown on some of the A’s top hitting and pitching prospects…
AF: So what are your impressions of Addison Russell after his first full year of pro ball now that he’s been out here in big league camp?
GF: I think the impression he’s made is the same. He hasn’t missed a beat. He’s played well on both sides of the ball. He’s made some very good plays at short. He’s gotten a lot of playing time. The first ten games or so until he had the hamstring strain, he almost played the last half of every game. So I think he’s had 25 at-bats over there and held his own in every category.
AF: Is there anything that he needs to focus on this season just to get him a little bit closer to being major-league ready?
GF: Well, you know, when he did come to camp, it looked like he toyed with his stance and his hand-set a little bit. So that was a little confusing at the beginning. But he figured a few things out with his hands and changed that. And you know, this kid looks like he’s really close – no matter where he goes, he looks like he’s close.
AF: So it’s just a matter of letting nature take its course at this point.
GF: Yep, nature will take its course.
AF: What about Daniel Robertson? Where’s he at in his development at this stage of the game?
GF: Robbie’s had a nice camp. He was here early for the mini-camp. He’s actually been over there [in the big league camp] quite a bit. He’s had some opportunities. He’s another guy who’s held his own. I think he’s impressed them with his at-bats. And he’s made some good plays on some tough hops over there. He’s got a very polished look for a 20-year-old.
AF: In the future, with Addison Russell moving along as quickly as he has and looking like the A’s shortstop of the near future, looking at Robertson down the line, are there other positions you could see him being a good fit at?
GF: Yeah, I don’t think any of us think there’s going to ever be an issue if he has to go over to second or if he has to go to third. But there’s not a guy you would talk to in this camp who doesn’t look at him as a shortstop, so we’ll just keep that going.
AF: Another guy who’s seen a little time in the big league camp this spring is last year’s top draft pick, Billy McKinney.
GF: Yep, Billy’s been over there a little bit. He actually had some quality at-bats. I was there for his first one. He battled a couple tough ones off and then they threw him an ultra-big-league slider and I think it froze him up a little bit. But yesterday, I think he went 0-2 in that count and battled back a little bit and hit a nice line drive to right. He’s done well…Those kids who get to go across the street [to big league camp], there’s nothing like it for them. I was talking to Renato Nunez this morning, and he came back from there, and he’s on fire. He was talking to all the guys over there, and it’s a thrill and a great experience for those kids to go over there for a day or two.
AF: Since you just mentioned him, I’m guessing Renato Nunez is probably going to get the chance to hit a lot of home runs at Stockton in the California League this year. What’s the outlook on him, especially defensively at third base?
GF: We’re still grinding away defensively. It comes and goes. Sometimes his feet get in the way a little bit. But a couple of balls the other day, he reacted really well on. And then a couple of balls he kind of kicked around. It’s a work in progress. You know, I think his body is still evolving. He was such a young guy when we signed him…now he’s bulked up a little bit and he’s a little stronger, so he’s still going into those years where his body’s still growing and he’s starting to learn what’s going to feel good in the future as far as what weight he plays at and everything. You know, that’s what the minor leagues are for is to figure all that stuff out before you get there.
AF: So he’s basically still a growing kid getting coordinated.
AF: So what about his bat? Are you just letting him go or are you working on anything in particular with him?
GF: It’s nothing major with him. It’s just time and repetition and doing the right thing more often. It’s taking a little bit more focus and intent in his batting practice as far as what he’s trying to do. And it’s all coming. I was down here where he hit today, and he hit about twenty out.
AF: What about Max Muncy?
GF: Muncy’s been all-world on both sides. He’s had quality at-bats every single time out. He’s stronger and the ball’s getting off the bat even a little bit farther. You could see his power really starting to come…One of the issues was always how much power this guy was going to have. He only hit 7 [home runs] at Baylor, but a few of us thought there was going to be some juice in there.
AF: I’ve talked to him a couple of times and he seems to be a pretty smart hitter who really thinks about hitting and has a good approach and knows what he’s doing up there.
GF: He is, yeah. Up and down the whole system, he might be one of our most complete hitters. He’s got the swing to match the eyes, and his plan, his patience, his pitch selection – he’s got a clue, he’s advanced.
AF: So now let me ask you about a couple of pitchers. Where’s Michael Ynoa at at this stage of the game?
GF: He’s ahead of where he’s ever been. He had a couple of the best innings I’ve ever seen him throw over on the big league side. In his first outing, he was 93-96 mph. He was around the plate with his fastball and threw some of the best breaking balls I’ve seen him throw. The arm strength is fully recovered and the shape to the breaking ball is intact, so now it’s just about turning him loose and letting him pitch.
AF: My understanding is that you guys are looking at starting him out in the bullpen this year.
GF: Yeah, we’re probably going to keep him in the bullpen for a while and just let that arm play…
AF: …and not have to worry about trying to fine-tune too many pitches.
GF: The changeup’s still a work in progress with him.
AF: Now what about Raul Alcantara? He looked really good in the big league camp and everyone seems to be saying nothing but good things about him.
GF: Yeah, I think they were really impressed by him. He’s a strike thrower. He changes speeds. He’s got the fastball and the changeup. The breaking ball has always been on the bubble a little bit. It’s not a big, buckling pitch, but it’s a strike. His poise and everything else that goes into it, he was impressive over there in the big league games.
AF: He’s potentially got to be your top pitching prospect right now.
GF: Yeah, one of them. We got a nice little group out of last year’s draft who are going to be fun to watch.
AF: What about Arnold Leon? He’s looked awfully good in the big league camp this year.
GF: The odds are he’s going to go back to Triple-A and be in that rotation, but he’s pitched very well. He’s got a four pitch mix, he’s throwing strikes, he’s a lot more aggressive and he’s using his fastball better. He’s got a very good curveball, he’s got a tremendous changeup, and he’s up to 94 mph – he’s got some weapons. You know, he’s everything you’re looking for.
AF: He really looks like somebody who could be ready to step in if they need someone at some point this year.
GF: Yeah, he’s close. He’s close.
AF: What about the new guy in camp, Billy Burns? Are you as excited about him as everyone else is?
GF: Yeah, no doubt…I never saw him as an amateur, or even with Washington. So I was expecting a little bit more raw of a player, and he’s not. He gets good jumps in the outfield. I think he’s got an idea of what he’s doing at the plate. The worst thing we could do is try to get him to hit it harder and farther. But everything you’ve heard about the legs is dead on – when this guy puts it in play, there’s action.
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–GRADY’S GUYS TO WATCH–
We asked Grady to tip us off to a few guys in the A’s system to keep an eye on and here’s what we got…
He’s very aggressive. He’s got a good fastball. He’s really taken to the changeup. He had a better breaking ball last year than he’s throwing in this camp. He’s kind of struggling with his breaker. But I really like the way he goes about it and the things he does.
We’re still building his innings, but he’s pitched 90 mph here. He’s got a good curveball. He’s really come a long way with the changeup. He’s around the plate. He’s got some strength in his body. And for 19, he’s doing great!
We took him fairly high last year. One of the issues with him was, for a college guy, he was very physically immature – nice frame, but no muscle – but he’s put on twenty pounds. And it’s good weight, and it is showing in the BPs and in the game work – so we’ll see!
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In spring training, A’s manager Bob Melvin mainly has his mind on trying to get his big league lineup ready to roll for the regular season. But with fifty-five players in camp everyday to start the spring, there are plenty of prospects who are bound to pique the skipper’s interest as well. And while we were in A’s camp for a few days, we took the opportunity to ask the affable Mr. Melvin about his impressions of some of the A’s most promising prospects.
On shortstop Addison Russell…
What we told him this year was just go out and play. We don’t want him to worry about too much here at big league camp. We just want to see what he has to offer athletically, and he’s shown that he has a lot to offer – whether it’s defensively or swinging the bat. He’s got a great awareness of what he needs to do in a particular plate appearance. He’s in the right position all the time. You never hear anything from him – he doesn’t even talk I don’t think. We didn’t want to cloud him up with too much instruction in this camp. We just wanted to see how the skills play out and then maybe at the end of camp talk to him about what we think he needs to work on.
On shortstop Daniel Robertson…
He’s a talented guy, and one of those baseball rats – he just loves to play. From what I understand, he’s always there early and just loves being in the clubhouse…I like him. For a guy who’s all of a sudden playing a little bit here in big league camp for the first time and hasn’t been in pro ball too long, my impressions are that he’s a tough kid and a good talent and a guy who would have to be ranked very high as far as the prospects go in our organization. So it’s nice to be able to get him some games here…I think experience-wise, it’s good. And whether it’s Billy McKinney or whether it’s Robertson, we like to get our prospects in some games here to get a taste of it…Those are two guys who, if you’re forecasting down the road, they’re going to be right in the middle of things. Sometimes it’s tough for us to keep guys who get to free agency. So you’re always mindful of two or three or four years down the road. And Billy [Beane] does a great job recognizing that and targeting certain guys for so many years out to try to keep this thing going in an upward direction.
On RHP Michael Ynoa…
Ynoa’s a big arm. He’s just had injury problems and has had trouble staying healthy for an entire season. We would love to see that this year, so he can progress. The fastball’s electric. He needs to work on his breaking stuff a little bit and be able to throw secondary pitches for strikes. We feel a lot better at this point in time than we ever have with him going into a season health-wise.
On RHP Raul Alcantara…
We heard from the development people that this is one of the guys in our system who has a chance to pitch in the big leagues as a starter, and we’ve seen exactly that. He’s handled everything we’ve thrown at him – he gets all the signs, he’s a clear thinker and he’s got good stuff on top of it. So we have very high hopes for him.
On RHP Arnold Leon…
Leon’s impressed. Last year was his first big league camp, and we were looking at a little shorter stints with him. But we’re lengthening him out a little bit. He looks way more comfortable here now, just his demeanor on the mound – and you’re seeing the results too. This is a guy who, as far as our pitching prospects go, ranks way up there…We’ve always, going in to this season, felt like he would potentially be an option for us. And with two guys [Parker and Griffin] going down, he moves up in the pecking order definitely. But he was a guy who we had our eye on regardless and who we were going to stretch out.
* * *
At age 20, the A’s top prospect, shortstop Addison Russell, was invited to spend spring training in the A’s big league camp playing with and against major leaguers this spring. Most people expect Russell to be the A’s opening day shortstop in 2015, after Jed Lowrie’s expected departure via free agency, and many are even clamoring for him to make the team this year.
For now though, the talented 20-year-old is just trying to take things one step at a time. We took the opportunity to speak with him late last week in Arizona, just a few days after he strained his hamstring and just a few days before he was reassigned to the A’s minor league camp for the remainder of the spring.
AF: So how’s your hamstring feeling?
AR: It’s coming back. Just taking it easy, one step at a time. I’m not trying to do too much for now, just trying to make sure the thing’s 100% before I try to go back out there…We’re just kind of playing it by ear, just doing treatment every day and doing rehab. One day I could be doing rehab and the next day I might be ready to play. So we’re just playing it by ear right now.
AF: How do you feel overall about your time in the big league camp this spring?
AR: So far, it’s good. I’m settled down. I’m a lot more relaxed than I was last year. You know, it was my first year here, and this is my second year. So I’m starting to get a good grasp of everything and what’s going on here at camp. And I’m just having fun. You know, even though I’m down right now, I’m just having fun.
AF: Has anyone been helping you out or taken you under their wing this spring?
AR: I just try to look around and see what the guys are doing. Of course, I talk to all the guys – I talk to Coco [Crisp], I talk to [John] Jaso, I talk to all of them. I have a locker right by [Josh] Reddick and I pick his brain about certain things. I just talk to everyone.
AF: Was there anything particularly important that you learned last year in your first full season of pro ball?
AR: It’s just a long season. You know, you can’t try to do too many things all at once. You have a long period to accomplish the things that you want to accomplish. You always need to try to keep it on a bit of a pace. But I’m just trying to relax this year, and I think it’s going to work out for me.
AF: Is there anything that you want to work on or try to improve during this upcoming season?
AR: Just trying to learn more knowledge about the game. I want to gain more knowledge about the guys I play against every day, just so down the line if I play against them again I have that knowledge on them. And that’s kind of what I want to get out of this year.
AF: Was that little bit of time you spent at Sacramento for a few days at the end of last season eye-opening for you in any way?
AR: Oh yeah, for sure. You know, a lot of older guys, pitchers, know how to command their stuff. And it’s just a whole different atmosphere. I’m glad that the A’s put me in that position for me to see what it’s going to be like. And now that I have that knowledge, I know that I could go in there and be relaxed and just trust the type of player that I am.
AF: What’s it been like having your buddy Daniel Robertson over here with you in the big league camp on occasion this year?
AR: Oh, it’s fun. It kind of keeps him more at ease. Of course, this is his first year up here, and I try to relax him a little bit, and I think I do a good job. And whenever it’s just us two, we’re just goofballs together and we kind of take the stress off each other. And we kind of feed off each other and try to make each other better.
AF: I know you and Robertson and Matt Olson have all been living together out here this spring. So how’s that been going?
AR: It’s been fun. We were taken in the same class, same year, all high school guys. So we can relate to each other. We like playing with each other, and we love watching each other play. And we just kind of like to compete with each other and try to outdo one another, but it’s just a friendly competition.
AF: So if you’re all sitting around the house on a Friday night with nothing to do, what are you most likely to do be doing?
AR: We like to play card games. We like to play dominoes. We just like to talk to each other. They’re into video games, and I kind of just sit back and watch and make smart comments. I like those guys a lot, they’re positive people – and it’s just fun.
AF: So has your family been out to Arizona to see you yet?
AR: Yeah, they came a week and a half ago. It was really good to see my mom and dad. It was kind of a shock to them – I’m playing with guys they kind of grew up watching. It’s a good feeling.
AF: Everyone expects you to be starting the season at Midland. Have the A’s actually said anything to you about that yet?
AR: I have no verification on where I’m supposed to start. But wherever I do start, I just want to go out there and have fun and just play and not try to get to the big leagues so fast. I just want to relax and just have a good year. In time, I think I’ll be ready. And in time, they’ll know that I’m ready. And whenever that time is, I’ll be ready. I’m going to prepare myself every day as if maybe I do get the call up. But I’m not looking to get to the big leagues right away. There are still some things I need to work on in developing my part of the game to where I feel like I’d be ready for anything.
AF: Well, thanks a lot and best of luck with everything this season.
* * *
Catcher Stephen Vogt turned out to be something of a secret weapon for the A’s last year. Acquired from Tampa Bay during the first week of the season, he started the year at Sacramento. But when catcher John Jaso went down with a concussion, Vogt got the call. And not only did he help propel the team during its pennant drive, but he also started every game behind the plate in the A.L. Divisional Series and ended up driving in the game-winning run in the A’s dramatic Game #2 victory.
So far this spring, Vogt’s been one of the team’s most productive hitters. With Jaso’s return though, Vogt finds himself battling for an opening day roster spot. But whatever happens, we figured that anyone who’s spent the time that Vogt has behind the plate for the A’s this spring ought to have a pretty good perspective on some of the A’s top pitching prospects, so we took the opportunity to get his take on some of the A’s most talented young pitchers.
On RHP Michael Ynoa…
I caught him in the bullpen and I caught him in live BP. And his fastball is there – it’s electric – it’s a good fastball. His curveball’s really good, and his changeup’s coming along. The biggest thing with him is just his command. He has a hard time staying in the strike zone at times. But when his stuff is in the zone, he’s pretty nasty. He’s definitely got good stuff and he’s got a lot of potential – just some of the issues he runs into are with his control and his command.
On RHP Raul Alcantara…
I actually hit against him in live BP. Same thing there, you know, good stuff, just a little raw. I think both those guys have a really good chance of being something special. His changeup was outstanding – it’s a really good secondary pitch – he’s got a good feel for it and it’s a good pitch. He throws hard and he’s got a lot of life on his ball.
On RHP Arnold Leon…
He’s outstanding. He’s got four quality pitches. He’s smart and he throws hard, and he’s able to command and control all four pitches. He’s got a lot of upside and he’s ready to go. I caught him probably three times at Sacramento. He’s very good and he’s got a good idea. His ball’s got a lot of life on it right now – his curveball’s good, his changeup’s good, and his slider’s a lot better than it was last year. So he’s going to be something special.
On LHP Drew Pomeranz…
That’s a left-handed power arm right there. The thing with him is his command at times. And I think as he gets deeper into the season, it’s going to get better. He’s pretty special. His changeup and curveball are good pitches. He’s got good stuff. Fastball command is his biggest thing.
On RHP Josh Lindblom…
It’s early in camp right now and he’s still getting a feel for his breaking pitches. But for the most part, his slider and his curveball are really good, and his fastball’s good and his changeup’s good. I mean, we’ve got a lot of good arms here and Josh is another one of those – it’s exciting to have him.
On the success he’s been having at the plate this spring…
I made some minor adjustments in the winter, but nothing crazy. Just trying to allow myself to stay back a little bit more and see the ball a little bit longer. It’s been working so far and I’ve just got to keep it going.
On having the chance to play in his native northern California…
Last year, being in Sacramento and Oakland was huge – just being back in my home state, close to where I grew up. I’ve had a lot of fun so far.
On the clubhouse environment in Oakland…
It’s pretty special. I’ve been blessed to be in two pretty special places – Tampa and here. They’re pretty similar atmospheres in the clubhouse. There’s a lot of personalities, but we all mesh well and have a lot of fun.
* * *
As part of A’s FanFest this past weekend, a few representatives of the A’s took some time out to attend a bloggers-only press conference at the Coliseum. The day’s sessions wrapped up with an appearance by the dynamic duo of young starter Sonny Gray and veteran closer Jim Johnson.
Gray, of course, distinguished himself last year by winning five games down the stretch for the A’s and besting Justin Verlander in Game #2 of the A.L. Division Series. And A’s Farm was curious to ask the young hurler about the adjustments he had to make coming up to the major leagues midseason…
On the differences of pitching in the major leagues…
I think, for me, the preparation was a lot more advanced up here than it was even in Sacramento. And it was just trying to learn the hitters, and meet with [pitching coach] Curt Young, meet with the catchers and stuff. That was a little bit of an adjustment, which was a good adjustment for me. I think just the information that you have up here is amazing – it’s crazy. We were able to really establish a plan, a way to attack a game, but at the same time, kind of continue to do what got me here and continue to pitch with the strengths that I have – and it worked well for us.
On the importance of his college experience…
I think it had a huge impact. If I would have signed out of high school, I don’t even know if I’d still be playing baseball. I was just a lot smaller, I was just so young. I’m a huge fan of the college route. You know, it doesn’t work for everyone. But for me, it made all the difference in the world, especially going to Vanderbilt – it was probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
On getting ready for the season…
I’m just really excited to get to spring. I went to Phoenix like eight days ago and started throwing bullpens there with Curt, and a lot of guys were there…I’m just really ready to get there and start practicing and start getting this thing on the road.
On the learning curve for a young pitcher…
I still have a lot of learning to do. I’m just tweaking things here and there. Obviously, there’s something you can pick up from every player, and every single year. I learned a lot last year, and I was here for I think 14 starts [actually 10 regular season and 2 postseason starts]. I mean, I learned so much, and I’m just going to continue to pick up little things here and there. And I think that’s what makes baseball so fun for me – there’s so many things that you can pick up…Last year, Bartolo Colon – I mean, just the subtle way he does it that a lot of people don’t see. You know, he doesn’t talk much. But just the little things he would say here and there in the locker room. You know, his actions had a huge impact on me. To see somebody do it for that long, and the way he’s kind of changed his game completely, he had so much information.
The A’s new closer, Jim Johnson, led the league in saves in each of the last two seasons. The 6’6” right-hander will be counted on by the team to continue the success of departed closer Grant Balfour, and he seems eager to meet the challenge…
On joining his new team…
I’m really excited to be here. I got to meet a lot of the guys for the first time officially [at FanFest]. I’ve played against quite a few of them for a couple years. You see how much fun they have on the field, and how that carries over, and the tight-knit group that they have. This is the time of year we’re all excited to just get out there and just start playing. I can tell it’s going to be a fun year.
On his past impressions of the A’s…
Every time we played Oakland…we knew it was always going to be a battle here, it’s always going to be a dogfight. It’s not an easy place to play…They’re a scrappy team, but they have fun, and that’s a good combination to have. You play so many games…so you better have fun and enjoy it. But when you’ve got those guys that are scrappy, that are grinding out at-bats and doing what they need to do to help the other guy down the chain, that leads to good things down the road. So it’s good to be on that side, absolutely.
* * *
A’s Manager Bob Melvin on Jaso’s Return, How New Additions Gentry & Punto Fit into the Picture and Why He Loves Managing the A’s
As part of A’s FanFest this past weekend, a few representatives of the A’s took some time out to attend a bloggers-only press conference at the Coliseum. And A’s manager Bob Melvin followed assistant GM David Forst on the hot seat.
In a question-and-answer session earlier in the day at the Oracle Arena, the normally mild-mannered manager roused the crowd of A’s fans in attendance when, talking about the A’s postseason prospects in 2014, he declared, “We’ve knocked on that door a couple times – it’s time to kick it in!”
He also sounded enthusiastic about recently-acquired minor league outfielder Billy Burns, saying, “I’m excited about Billy Burns…this is supposed to be the fastest guy that maybe we have in camp. So look quick – if he’s on the bases, you might not see him.”
In his session with us a little later in the day, Melvin was his usual relaxed and affable self. And A’s Farm was particularly eager to get the skipper’s take on the A’s current situation behind the plate…
You know, in the role that he [Vogt] had last year, he started every game in the playoffs based on the matchups, and got one of the game-winning hits. He’s a guy that fit in very quickly, so we have a lot of confidence in him. The plan with Jaso from the beginning will be to catch. So we’ll see how that goes for him. We do like to rotate the DH spot, whether it’s a day off for Coco Crisp, whether it’s a day off for Yoenis Cespedes, certainly Jaso’s an option, everybody’s an option there. So we don’t like to get locked into just saying this is our DH. But I think…with the workload that a catcher gets, you know there’d be a day that potentially he [Jaso] DHs too. But I think more than anything, we have to see how he comes through spring training. He’s been cleared to catch in spring training, and we’ll see if he’s over all those issues, and obviously we’ll monitor him very closely in spring.
On the possible need to carry three catchers…
It feels that way. There were times last year though where I did have our DH catching. And we were in a position at times, which is hard, where I had my second catcher in the game – and you’re always on pins and needles that hopefully something doesn’t happen. We do have the luxury of having Josh Donaldson who’s caught before. I don’t want him behind the plate – but that’s one of the reasons that we would be able to do it potentially.
On outfielder Craig Gentry’s role in 2014…
Gentry’s a guy that we’ve had our eye on for a while. Number one, just getting him in our uniform means he’s not beating us – he’s been a guy that’s been tough on us. He can play all three of the outfield spots, he’s got a great track record against left-handed pitching…I’m not sure as far as how many starts he’ll get, but my rhetoric to him will be, “just because you don’t start a game doesn’t mean you won’t be the biggest impact player of the game.” He has the ability to change a game whether you’re ahead, defensively, whether it’s pinch-running, whether it’s pinch-hitting. He’s one of the premiere guys in the league at being able to handle a role like that, so he’s going to get his share of at-bats, that’s for sure.
On free agent infielder Nick Punto’s role with the team…
It’s to be determined. He’s another guy that actually his versatility probably plays against him…but we have some in-game guys that can really impact the game – whether it’s defensively, base-running or offensively – as the game goes along. He is certainly one of those guys that we’ve identified to do that. So he will get his share of starts because you have to keep a guy current and getting X amount of at-bats to stay ready for the opportunities. But I don’t think at this point in time there’s any specific amount of at-bats that I’m looking at for him.
On the team’s depth heading into 2014…
Well, I think we increased the depth. We added a couple more switch hitters. Alberto Callaspo was here for a portion of the season…obviously Nick Punto’s the other guy I was talking about. So we’ll look at maybe Callaspo some at first base against left-handed pitching potentially. But the versatility and the depth gets more so each and every year. And I think it’s better than it was in was in 2012, better than it was in 2013…but the division has gotten better as well. So you always feel like you have to get better and address the deficiencies that you think your team had the year before.
On what he and the team have taken from the last two years’ playoff experience…
You always try to take the confidence that you had and what you’ve accomplished in years past, and we’ve accomplished some good things the last couple years. You also find some motivation in getting beaten in a certain fashion a couple years in a row. So we wouldn’t be scared of that situation again. We would relish it if we got it again. But more than anything, you try to find what’s best for your team that motivates you the best. And I think for us, it’s bringing our confidence with us and getting past what was a sour taste for us the last couple years.
On what’s different for him about managing the A’s…
Well, I like managing the A’s a little better. I grew up here in the Bay Area, so there’s some…pride factor growing up in the area. We’ve had as good a group of guys come through here over the last three years, and we continue to bring in great people that accentuate our team. And just getting along with the front office, the ownership and the fans are a big, big key for me here for that added pride of being an Oakland A.
* * *
A’s Assistant GM David Forst on Top Prospects Russell & McKinney, Coco’s New Contract and What the A’s Expect from Reddick in 2014
As part of A’s FanFest this past weekend, a few representatives of the A’s took some time out to attend a bloggers-only press conference at the Coliseum. First up was A’s assistant general manager David Forst who volunteered a generous bit of time to talk about some top major and minor league players for the A’s. We had the chance to ask him about two of the A’s most promising young players – shortstop Addison Russell and outfielder Billy McKinney. Forst clearly couldn’t be more excited about the prospects for Russell, and he’s definitely not the only one in the A’s front office who feels that way.
Earlier in the day, in a question-and-answer session at the Oracle Arena, A’s general manager Billy Beane lit up like a Christmas tree when the subject of Russell came up. He characterized the young shortstop as a special kind of player who doesn’t come along very often and said he was “knocking on the door.” The A’s GM went on to enthuse, “We’ve had some great young players come through the system, and we’re as excited about Addison as we have been about a lot of the guys…that went on to be stars. So he’s got a chance to be a really, really good player.”
In his session, Forst also talked about some of the team’s top young pitching prospects and shared some interesting insights on the A’s draft philosophy that has seen the team increasingly shift its focus to high school players in recent years. On the major league front, the assistant GM discussed the challenge of having to fill a number of holes in the offseason, Coco Crisp’s recent contract extension, what the team expects from Josh Reddick and John Jaso in 2014, and how the A’s expect to contend in a strengthened American League West and push themselves past the competition in the postseason. But A’s Farm started things off by asking Forst to share his take on the A’s most promising young player in the pipeline…
On A’s top prospect Addison Russell…
I expect he’ll start the year at Midland. The thing that impressed me most about Addison last year, and there were obviously a lot…to see the way he kind of turned his season around…that tells me as much about Addison as a player as anything he did. You can go and watch him and see the power, see the swing, see the arm from the hole…with a guy like that, it’s really easy to see. But I remember having conversations in April with Todd Steverson, who at the time was our minor league hitting coordinator, and saying, “Hey, is this kid okay? Look, let him know we understand, he’s going to struggle.” And when I saw him myself in May, I said, “Hey, you’re not going to hit .200 forever – it’s just not going to happen.” I think he’s a confident kid, but anyone who spends a whole month doing that, there’s going to be a little bit of doubt. And within a couple weeks, he started to turn around. He’s going to hit, he’s going to have enough power for the middle of the diamond, he can throw from anywhere. There’s a reason he’s a top ten prospect in baseball. And to see him turn the season around, put everything together, and continue on into the [Arizona] Fall League, that’s a long year for anyone, particularly for a kid in his first full season…Everyone says we haven’t had a kid put it all together since Eric Chavez was there…and we’re going to see a lot of him in spring training. I know one of Bob Melvin’s main objectives is to get Addison a lot of reps because there’s no telling how soon he’s going to be here…You can see the tools and the ability, but when you spend time with him and you understand how much fun he has and how mentally strong he is, you really feel good about his chances going forward.
On last year’s top draft pick Billy McKinney…
I actually didn’t get to Arizona to see those guys. I saw Billy in March last year – I went to see him play in high school. There wasn’t a lot of consensus on the board last year in the draft room. It was just one of those years where we were picking so low that guys had different opinions. But by the time that we got down there, the nice thing was we did have a strong voice in Billy’s favor – and you always feel good about a pick when that happens. And he came out and hit the way we expected, sort of above what you’d expect for his years. He got a chance to go to Vermont and get his feet wet a little bit. And I know in Instructional League, he talked to [A’s farm director] Keith Lieppman and said, “Just so you know, I expect to follow Addison’s path and start in Stockton next year.” It’s nice to hear. You don’t put expectations on a kid like that, because we know how special Addison is, but we know he will go be with a full-season club. We know he can hit, he did a great job in center field, and we’re excited about Billy.
On the A’s recent shift to drafting top high school players like Russell and McKinney…
We didn’t like taking kids out of high school when the information was so limited. Things have evolved over the last ten years. These kids play in so many showcases – they play against the best competition in the country. We know so much more performance-wise about a high school kid than we did even five years ago, but particularly when the book (Moneyball) was written…Sure, you’re dealing with an extra three years of personal development, and any kid from the ages of 18 to 21 changes a lot…but I think we’ve gotten to the point where we are a lot more comfortable with what these kids show us on the field. Addison is from Pensacola, Florida. If he was only playing against kids in a 50-mile radius, then you’re not sure how he stacks up. But he went to California and played, he went to Texas and played, he went to Miami and played against all these kids. Billy did the same thing – he’s on that showcase circuit where you know how he stacks up against everybody in the country…When we didn’t take Mike Trout, it was because we thought, “this is a cold-weather kid from the northeast, we’re not sure how he stacks up against the rest of the country.” Well, if we’d stepped back to see that Mike did the same things and played those circuits and performed really well, we might have lined up our board differently. So really, it’s a different time with the high school kids. And if our scouts have seen a lot of them and they sort of check enough boxes, we feel really good about those guys – and Billy fell into that group.
Both Covey and Wahl were interesting conversations. Covey was a 1st-round pick in high school. Bobby was expected to potentially be a 1st-round guy, at least a top two guy. Both guys fell to an area where we paid over-slot for them because we wanted to, and we felt like both guys had some sort of marks against them that hurt their draft status. With Dylan, he never sort of performed the way people expected him to out of high school, but the stuff was always there and there was an upward trend in his college performance. And Bobby we knew had an injury history, but if we could get him healthy and keep him healthy, this was a 1st-round talent. So as far as the diversity of our draft portfolio, those guys fit really nicely after taking a guy like Billy [McKinney] in the 1st-round because they’re a little more advanced. And if they did stay healthy and kind of live up to what their pre-draft status was, you potentially have some top guys. And both guys went out and pitched great. Dylan obviously was able to make the jump to the Midwest League for a couple starts. But both those guys have a chance to start the year in Stockton, depending on how things shake out, and potentially move quickly because of their status as college players.
The goal of a 1st-round pick is always to get them here. You never draft someone hoping just to create an asset to move. With Grant and with Michael, it sort of worked out that way. But it’s a lot more rewarding certainly when Sonny Gray pitches here or ultimately when Addison Russell does get here. That’s what you want out of your 1st-round pick. I won’t say that we’re sort of focused on any position ever in the 1st-round – we’re looking for the best player…I know there’s been a lot made of trading those guys. Throughout the farm system, we’ve moved a lot of players and, as such, we’re sort of in a position where we need to rebuild. But there’s never a specific goal with a 1st-round pick.
On meeting the team’s key offseason needs…
When you look at our checklist at the end of October, replace Bartolo Colon, replace Grant Balfour, so you’ve got a starting pitcher and a closer. Craig Gentry was a guy we had been focused on for a long time who we just felt fit so well…with his ability to play all three outfield spots, running, hitting from the right side, so we sort of checked that one off…We added more pieces to the bullpen. We got some depth in the starting rotation with Josh Lindblom and Drew Pomeranz. These were all things that we sort of laid out in October. You just hope you can hit as many as possible.
On how the A’s expect to best the rest of the west in 2014…
We still feel like the make-up of the complete 25-man roster gives us a chance to repeat, and as great a job as Bob Melvin has done the last two years of managing that group – putting guys in the right spots, platooning, using the bullpen. We feel like from 1 to 25, we’re just as strong as we were, if not stronger than, the last two years. And certainly the bullpen – with adding Jim Johnson and Luke Gregerson to what was already an outstanding group, maybe potentially a full season of Dan Otero, and Jesse Chavez showed last year what he can do – that has to be a strength that we’re going to lean on a lot.
On the effect of increased national TV revenue on the team’s spending…
There’s no doubt our payroll is going to be higher this year probably than ever, certainly in the time I’ve been here. You just have to do the math and see we’re significantly above where we were last year. And that’s what allowed us to go get Jim Johnson, knowing there’s going to be a $10 million price tag on him, and to sign Scott Kazmir, even a move like signing Eric O’Flaherty, where you’re only adding a little bit for this year. But we had already sort of bumped up against our number, and [managing partner] Lew Wolff and [team president] Mike Crowley were very open to what we were trying to do with Eric for half a season and then backload the money. So there’s no doubt that, whether it’s the TV money, the success of the team, all these things have gone into ownership being very open to increasing the bar and letting us do some things this offseason that we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.
On avoiding long-term contracts and Coco Crisp’s extension…
I think we’ve benefited a lot from the flexibility over the last few years. Obviously having added Coco in the last 24 hours, but other than Yoenis Cespedes and Scott Kazmir, there was nobody signed for 2015. We don’t necessarily want to recreate the team every year, because obviously the fans like the players that are here and we like the certainty of the guys that we know, but that we’ve given ourselves the ability to do it is a huge factor in our success. So to commit to a guy like Coco, obviously we know the guy, we know the player, he’s so important to what we do, and it was just an opportunity where we felt like this was the right dollar amount to commit to him beyond the next couple of years.
On expectations for Josh Reddick in 2014…
We certainly expect Josh to bounce back. I don’t think anybody knows fully how much his wrist affected him last year, and Josh will never ever admit it privately or publicly. But the fact is that he had that injury in Houston early in the year. And when you look at the difference in his numbers between 2012 and 2013, a player with his talent, you have to assume there’s something else going on. So we fully expect Josh to bounce back – and I fully expect to have him under contract hopefully sometime in the next couple weeks. But Josh adds so much with his defense alone that it’s hard to calculate his value to the team. And if he does get back to being the offensive player that we saw in 2012, he has the chance to carry this team at times.
On expectations for John Jaso’s return in 2014…
He’s coming to camp as a catcher. He’s cleared all exams. He’s had no setbacks with his physical activity. Look, you can’t predict how he reacts when he gets hit by a foul tip – that’s a medical issue. We did everything we could in terms of giving him the rest he needed and getting him to see the right people. But he comes into camp as a catcher – same situation with him and Derek Norris. The nice thing is Stephen Vogt sort of emerged last year in John’s absence, and that’s a great problem to have. If you end up having a roster with all three of those guys, they’re great options for the DH spot and the catching spot.
Each of those guys we felt addressed, not necessarily a weakness, but somewhere we could get better. It’s hard to say how they specifically help us in the postseason, but anytime your pitching depth is strong – whether it’s with Kaz or Jim Johnson or Gregerson – you expect that to come into play in a tight postseason game. Nick has played in the postseason quite a bit, he’s been on winning teams, he knows a lot of the guys around the league. There’s no way that his experience isn’t going to help us when it comes down the stretch – it’s sort of subjective to say exactly what that is, but we’ve seen it before with players that we’ve brought in. So hopefully these guys fit as well as the group has the last two years. Ultimately, that’s what we’re trying to do is put that puzzle together to compete in September, and I think we have every reason to believe that these guys will fit.
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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
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