Category: Interviews

Exclusive: Down On The Farm with A’s Special Assistant Grady Fuson

gfDSC01787-1[2c]Long-time baseball man Grady Fuson served as the A’s scouting director from 1995 until 2001, when the team drafted such talented players as Eric ChavezTim HudsonMark MulderBarry Zito and Rich Harden.

He left the A’s at the end of 2001 to become the assistant general manager of the Texas Rangers and, after moving on to head up the Padres scouting department, Fuson eventually returned to the A’s a little over seven years ago to serve as a special assistant to the general manager.

Of course, many know Fuson as the scout in the cinematic version of Moneyball who has a dramatic confrontation with Billy Beane and ends up getting fired – though that’s not quite how it happened (which we chronicled here).

During spring training, Fuson can frequently be found at the A’s minor league complex, now located at Fitch Park in Mesa, 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 inside scoop on some of the A’s top hitting and pitching prospects…

 

AF:  Let’s start out by talking a little bit about last year’s draft. I know you guys may not have even expected to have the chance to get the guy who turned out to be your top draft pick, left-hander A.J. Puk. But now that you’ve got him here in camp and you guys have had a chance to get a good look at him, what are your impressions of him now, and what have you got to work on with him to get him where he needs to be?

ap640462bGF:  Well ever since we signed him, we really haven’t seen any of the command issues that kind of bothered him a little bit in college. So for the most part, once he got signed and got out and got comfortable, he threw pretty good strikes in Vermont, did the same in instructs, and has done the same here. So now that we’re starting to feel comfortable about his location and his execution, [A’s minor league pitching coordinator] Gil Patterson has allowed him to bring back a curveball that apparently Florida had taken from him all those years. And it’s actually showing some signs of life. It’s a different angle than his slider, and it looks like it’s going to be a very good pitch for him. For him, it’s about a big man maintaining some consistency in his delivery so that he’s able to execute at the highest level. He had an unbelievable first major league inning in a spring training game – 97 mph, threw strike after strike, threw the baseball by all of them, it wasn’t even close!

AF:  I guess that opened a lot of people’s eyes.

GF:  Yes.

AF:  Last year, you guys took three pitchers at the top of the draft. After Puk, right-handers Daulton Jefferies and Logan Shore, a couple more experienced college pitchers, were your next two picks. So how are those two guys looking at this point?

GF:  Jefferies, as you know, experienced some shoulder issues last year at Cal and was shut down – probably not shut down long enough. They allowed him to go out and pitch at the end of the year, and he probably wasn’t 100%. So we spent most of the time rehabbing him all last summer. He hit the mound a couple of times late in the summer. He pitched effectively and pitched issue-free. So instead of pushing the envelope, we didn’t even bring him to instructional league really – he was here for a short period of time but did not throw. The rest and the recovery, for the medical guys, was more important. Now he’s showing up 100% healthy. He’s been pounding the strike zone – 93s-94s-95s with a filthy changeup. The breaking ball is the one thing that we still play with a little bit – still trying to play with a grip, play with an angle – so if there’s any pitch in there that needs some attention…but he’s a pretty good strike thrower and he’s got a knack for the bottom of the zone. He’s got a chance to be a special kid.

AF:  And what about Logan Shore?

ls624519GF:  Shore’s been very good. As a sophomore, there were some 93 and 94 mph four-seamers in there, much more than there were his last year in college. He pitched around 90 mph all year. Everything he threw had more of a sink to it. I think there was some question as to how much was left in this guy. I for one was excited to see if we could get that four-seamer back. Now being with him, everything he holds is a four-seamer! But velocity is up. There was one day he touched 95 mph, but he been pitching in the 92s and 93s. He’s got a filthy changeup. He’s another guy who could improve a little bit on the consistency of his breaking ball. He’s similar to Jefferies, maybe not as live and quick of an arm, but they both have plus to double-plus changeups and they’re both strike throwers.

AF:  How much thought have you guys given to maybe keeping all three of these guys together as a group to start the season?

GF:  We’ve had our thoughts. I think they’re all somewhat advanced college pitchers – there’s some polish there. Puk may be the lightest on overall command, but these guys have a chance to move quicker than the rest.

AF:  Is there anyone else from last year’s draft that you’ve been feeling particularly fond of lately?

GF:  Yeah, let me mention Skylar Szynski. He was a high school pick in the 4th-round – powerful kid, good arm, good breaker, makings of a changeup, around the dish. He tired easily after we signed him. He lost half the summer to fatigue. We brought him back for instructional league and didn’t have him do much because of the fatigue factor. But he’s come back to this camp and has looked very good. The ball is jumping out of his hand. He’s got decent moves in his delivery, which creates a lack of concern. There’s power in this kid’s game. It’s just about him getting on the mound now and getting to a level where he can go out and pitch a little bit. I’m unsure how we break here with him but, in my opinion, a very good draft pick.

AF:  So it sounds like it’s up in the air at this point whether he goes to a short-season or a full-season team this year.

GF: Yeah.

AF:  Okay, let’s talk a bit about some of the higher-level prospects now. Your top prospect, infielder Franklin Barreto, looked very good in big league camp this spring and he was recently sent over to the minor league camp. He’s going to start the season at Nashville, and he’s obviously very close at this point. What’s left for him to do to be major-league ready and what’s he got to work at Nashville this year?

fb620439bGF:  Not a whole lot! I mean, he’s really come on as an offensive player. There’s going to be power in his game for a little man. He’s probably got the quickest bat and quickest hands in the system. Nobody can ever have enough experience controlling the strike zone and learning how people pitch you and things like that. He’s played a little bit more aggressively in big league camp, which most young kids do. There were times that we were concerned about his effort. It showed up in the [Arizona] Fall League a little bit as well. Some of that’s fatigue – some of that could be attitude. But this guy has dominated, going down the line, making hard turns, everything in big league camp that would impress a major league coaching staff.

AF:  So should we assume this year at Nashville he’ll be spending time at shortstop and second base, splitting time between the two.

GF: Mm hmm.

AF:  Now what about third baseman Matt Chapman? He managed to keep up his power numbers at Midland which, as you know, no one ever seems to do. So obviously the power is real. He’ll be at Nashville this year. I know the question with him always has to do with how much contact he’s going to make. So what’s he got to work on at Nashville to be ready to take the next step?

GF:  That’s it – hopefully improving his strikeout rate. He looks better. It looks like there’s a little bit more separation to his move, which is going to give him a little bit more time to read and react. But everything else is solid. He’s hitting them just as far today as he did a year ago.

AF:  Well I guess we don’t have to bother worrying about his power and defense anyway.

GF:  Not at all.

AF:  A guy who made a big leap forward last year was catcher Bruce Maxwell. He really seemed to turn a corner with the bat last summer at Nashville. What clicked for him last year, and where do you feel he’s at both at the plate and behind the plate at this stage of the game?

bm622194bGF:  Yeah, it was a little bit of a breakout year for Maxie offensively. It was certainly a collection of the most competitive at-bats I’ve ever seen him have over the course of his career – and it held up in the big leagues. And the more quality at-bats he had there, the more he ended up playing, especially late in the year. The bottom line is we have Stephen Vogt and we have Josh Phegley, and when they’re both healthy, there’s kind of no place to go. So in his case, if he goes back to Nashville, it’s not that he’s being demoted. It’s just that right now he’s still waiting in the wings. I think everybody’s locked into the catch/throw – we’re okay – he’s done a great job with that the last two years. Maybe some blocking – you know, you could pick these guys apart left and right if you want but…he still gets exposed sometimes in blocking situations. But catching and throwing, he’s done a tremendous job.

AF:  At this point for him, it sounds like it’s mainly just a matter of standing in line and waiting his turn.

GF:  Yep.

AF:  Let’s talk about infielder Chad Pinder, who was recently sent back over to the minor league camp. Bob Melvin was just saying the other day that he thought that his bat was ahead of his defense and it may be just a matter of finding the proper home for him in the field. And now they want to try to make him more versatile defensively and have been talking about having him spend some time in the outfield this year at Nashville.

GF:  Well his defense last year threw us all for a loop a little bit, because of how well he played the year before at Midland. So he went through some growing pains, and I think he’s realized some of the things he’s done wrong. I think the big league staff and the front office, some people have gotten a different look at him – maybe he was a little intimidated or nervous, whatever it may be, in the big leagues last year and had a little stiffer look to him. But I think he’s put himself back on the map in this camp. I know the staff has been impressed. He’s done well offensively for the most part. But, you know, he goes back and tries to put another stage to his game, and see if he can improve on that defense. My thing with Chad has always been, he’s just been a guy who’s always had a very low walk rate. So very low walk rates usually equal guys with recognition issues. And with Chad, he’s gotten better in his two-strike situations, but for me personally, I see him get himself in trouble early in the count. He’s offering at pitches early in the count that are going to be low odds to square up. So if he can improve his recognition of what he wants to jump on early, I think that’s going to improve the whole on-base thing a little bit.

cp640461bAF:  And do you anticipate seeing him moving around a bit in the field and getting a little more versatile this year?

GF:  Yeah, without a doubt, which we’re big on in the big leagues. We platoon a ton. So the more versatility, the more options there are. The other thing that’s going to be interesting…he told me that he had his eyes done.

AF:  Lasik?

GF:  Yeah, and in the at-bats that I was seeing over there [in major league camp], he looked a little bit more patient and confident.

AF:  So maybe he literally is seeing pitches better at this point! A guy who’s in a somewhat similar situation as Pinder is first baseman/outfielder Matt Olson, who was also sent back over to the minor league camp recently. Bob Melvin was saying that they’re working on changing his swing a bit. So what’s he got to do this year to get himself to where you can see him being ready for the major leagues?

GF:  He’s got to define where the impact’s going to be. We already know what he can do defensively. He’s well above average at first, and he’s solid in the outfield. I’m sure if you wanted to put him at third, he could play it. He’s just a good defender. So it’s the same story with him going into this year as every year. There’s always been power, there’s always been on-base, but it’s about not having so many empty at-bats. So it doesn’t take a scientist to realize we need the contact rate to go up and the swing-and-miss rate to come down…and try to make him as good as he can be as far as his approach. This is the first year that he’s come back with a change – he’s a little bit more out in front of himself instead of tied up in the air – and it looks like it’s helping him. He’s been much more competitive in his big league at-bats this spring.

AF:  So it sounds like you’re trying to shorten his swing a bit.

GF:  Yeah, we’re trying to shorten it and we’re trying to get him to stay over the baseball a little bit better.

AF:  And you feel like he’s taken to that change fairly well?

GF:  Yeah.

AF:  Okay, let’s talk about Renato Nunez. It’s always sort of the same conversation about him. The power potential’s real, when he hits the ball it goes a long way, but the question has always been where he’s going to end up in the field.

rn600524dGF:  Well he’s got to learn to make himself more versatile. It’s going to be an interesting year for him, because he’s going to have to play some left, he’s going to have to DH, he’s going to have to play some first, and then he’ll get some third base time – but you’ve got Chapman there, and he’s probably going to get the majority of the time there. So it’s time for him to kind of change his game a little bit. He’s kind of an odd one, because he’s so young, and yet he’s like the most unheard of 22-year-old to hit 23 homers in the Pacific Coast League. So you’ve got to appreciate what this guy can do – this guy can change the course of a game with one swing. But he’s never come to big league camp and nailed it, you know, like Chapman did [last spring]. Sometimes those things need to happen to get that extra opportunity.

AF:  Another hitter likely to start the year back at Nashville who I wanted to ask you about is a guy I think you’ve always felt good about, and that’s outfielder Jaycob Brugman. He’s another guy who seemed to take a big step forward last year. He always seems to over achieve and exceed people’s expectations, and he had a really good season last year. So where do you feel he’s at and what’s he got to do at this point?

GF:  He’s close, I think he’s ready. But to open the year, he’s going to go back to Nashville. But there’s not a lot Bruggy needs to overcome to become our fourth, or somebody’s fourth, or fifth outfielder. And in a perfect world, if you’ve got a contending team, I kind of see him that way. He can play all three outfield spots, and he’s going to give you a good quality at-bat whether he’s getting four at-bats a night or two a week – and that’s a vital skill for a part-time player. Now in Bruggy’s case, if he does the things that he’s been doing in the minor leagues, which is a little combo of everything, then he’s going to make himself into an everyday player somewhere, here, somewhere. It was their first look at him in big league camp. They’ve heard most of the minor league coaches describe him. I thought he held his own and did fine and his at-bats were competitive.

AF:  Okay, let’s touch on a few pitchers before we wrap up. A pitcher who made a lot of progress last year was Daniel Gossett. He wasn’t particularly eye-opening at Beloit in 2015, but then he suddenly blows through Stockton, Midland and Nashville last year and looks good at every stop. So what clicked for him?

dg605254cGF:  Last year was his breakout year…he really turned it around. And I think it’s just about starting to execute in the finer spots of the strike zone. He’s always been a strike thrower, but it’s been control over command. But now I think his command is starting to tighten up. And when he wants to go down and away, he’s hitting it, and when he wants to come underneath the hands in, he’s hitting it. Before, a lot of his stuff was kind of center cut, and so there was a lot more contact off him and the strikeouts were down. And last year, that all flipped. And he did a very good job in big league camp. He pitched very well.

AF:  And I guess adding the cutter helped him a bit too.

GF:  Yeah, but he’s got a solid repertoire of pitches, and his fastball velocity’s up. He was 91-95 mph pretty much every outing last year.

AF:  Well that always helps! Another pitcher I wanted to talk to you about is Raul Alcantara, who’s out of options. He’s been pitching in the big league camp all spring and competing for a spot on the major league roster. Where do you feel he’s at and do you see his future more as a starter or a reliever at this point?

GF:  Well Raul’s ability to start, especially at the major league level, is going to be determined by his efficiency and command of a breaking ball. There’s no doubt that he’s got a good arm. He’s got a great changeup. So with Sonny Gray being down, it kind of eases the decision as to what we do. I’m not sure yet, we still have a couple meetings to have about…is he in the mix for the fifth starter role or does he kick it off as the long guy? But I think there’s enough opportunity now for him to possibly stay when we break. So we’ll see how that goes.

AF:  And finally, I wanted to ask you about Frankie Montas, who was one of the guys you got last summer from the Dodgers. He was hurt most of last season, but he pitched for you guys a bit in the Arizona Fall League and now he’s been pitching here in the big league camp this spring. So what’s he look like to you now that you’ve had the chance to get a look at him up close here in camp?

fm593423cGF:  I got to see him a little bit in instructs before we sent him over to the Fall League. I saw him in two outings in the Fall League, and I’ve seen him two or three times here. Easy 100 mph – probably one of the easiest big velo guys you want to see. The breaker comes and goes, but it can be filthy at times. Personally, I would like to see him utilize his changeup more, which I just haven’t seen – I don’t know if I’m running to the bathroom when he throws it! Especially if we’re going to think down the road as a starter, he’s going to need that changeup. But currently, he’s just not really using it that much. I think he went into this big league camp knowing that he was going to be used probably an inning or so at a time, because we’re going to have to watch his pitch counts this year and his innings, so he just attacked them with fastballs and sliders. But he’s done well.

AF:  I know there’s been a lot of talk about whether he’ll be a starter or a reliever, and the fact that he was injured and only threw so many innings last year, so realistically he can only be expected to throw so much this year. So is he going to start out the season as a reliever or is he going to have a chance to start at all?

GF:  He’s got to start out as a reliever at this point because he’s only been a one or two inning guy so far. And plus, we’re going to have to watch the innings. So he can go out and get a good half a year in the bullpen and, if he’s still feeling good and healthy and we’ve still got 50-60 innings to play with, then if we decide to go the starter route, he could attack that later. Or there’s a chance he’s on the club.

AF:  You mean, the major league club, right?

GF:  Yeah…in the bullpen.

AF:  Well that’d certainly be good news for fans who like to see guys who can bring the heat! Thanks as always for the insight.

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Talking with a Trio of Top A’s Prospects: Chapman, Gossett & Maxwell

IMG_3715bLast week at the A’s major league spring training camp in Mesa, we took the opportunity to chat with a trio of top A’s prospects, all of whom made our pre-season Top 10 Prospects List.

We caught up with catcher Bruce Maxwell and third baseman Matt Chapman, both of whom we’d spoken with a number of times before. And we also got the chance to speak with pitching prospect Daniel Gossett for the first time.

Maxwell and Chapman both spent plenty of time in the major league camp last spring, but it was the first time in big league camp for Gossett, who was clearly excited and enthusiastic about the opportunity.

After getting the chance to appear in three spring games, Gossett was reassigned to the A’s minor league camp the day after we spoke, but both Maxwell and Chapman are likely to remain with the major league squad till just prior to opening day.

 

MATT CHAPMAN

mc656305c#2 on our Top 10 Prospects List, third baseman Matt Chapman led all A’s minor leaguers with 36 home runs last season, slugging 29 at Double-A Midland to lead the Texas League and then adding another 7 in just a few weeks with Triple-A Nashville. 2014’s top draft pick for the A’s is also known as a top-tier defender at the hot corner with an elite throwing arm. The 23-year-old will start the year at Nashville, where he’ll try to prove to the A’s that he’s ready for the show sooner rather than later.

AF:  Well, it was a very solid season for you last year. You managed to hit 29 home runs while playing at Midland, which is considered to be a bit of a pitchers’ park. So how did you manage to keep your power numbers up going from Stockton to Midland when so few other guys have been able to do that?

MC:  Just really working with the coaches, swinging at the right pitches, getting good pitches to hit, and just letting your good swing take care of the rest. For me, working hard in the weight room and getting my strength up, and just trying to put good swings on the ball. I’m just going to keep trying to take good swings and letting the results happen.

AF:  You obviously kept your power swing going when you got a late-season promotion to Triple-A Nashville and hit seven more home runs in just a few weeks there. So how did you feel about your experience there?

MC:  It was fun. Every level you go up, there’s different challenges and different adjustments you need to make, so it was fun to kind of get a taste of that. And I’m assuming that’s where I’ll be this season. So it’ll be nice to have a little bit of experience and kind of know what to expect a little more this time around.

AF:  Making the move from High-A to Double-A and Triple-A last year, were there any particular adjustments you had to make against more advanced pitching?

MC:  Definitely, you’re always making adjustments. That’s something in baseball that I don’t think will ever stop. So for me, it might be just making those adjustments a little faster, because the pitchers have a plan of how they want to attack you. So for me, it’s just sticking with that professional approach and being able to not give in to those good pitches those pitchers are making.

AF:  Was having the chance to spend plenty of time in big league camp last year a helpful experience for

you? And did it boost your confidence a bit heading into the season?

MC:  Definitely. Being around these guys and trying to learn as much as I could was definitely a great experience – and also having some success and then being able to have that confidence that you are good enough to play at a higher level.

AF:  So how’s it been being back here in big league camp for your second year? Do you feel a little more comfortable this time around?

MC:  Definitely. It’s always nice to get some of that experience under your belt, so that when you come back again, you know what to expect, you kind of develop more of a routine, you know the guys a little bit better, put some more names to faces, and feel more comfortable just being yourself. It’s been fun.

AF:  Is there anything that the coaching staff has you working on in particular this spring?

MC:  From an offensive standpoint, my rhythm and timing – just really working on dialing in that good rhythm and good timing. And pitch selection – just being disciplined and really committing to getting the pitch that I’m looking for – and kind of just developing that professional hitting approach.

AF:  Now you’re known for your solid defense and your strong arm. So how confident do you feel out there in the field at third base?

MC:  I’m definitely confident. You should always be confident in your abilities, because when you’re confident, you play your best. And at this level, you should always want to play your best. So you should always be confident and believe in yourself. I’m definitely very confident in my ability on defense and err on the side of attacking every baseball.

AF:  So what are you focused on and what’s your mindset heading into this coming season?

MC:  My mindset coming into this season is to take everything that I’ve been working on this season in big league camp, everything that I learned from last season, successes and failures, and hopefully combine all those together and formulate the best version of me that I can be, then take that into the beginning of this season and go out there every day and try to get better and show them I’m ready to make the next step.

 

DANIEL GOSSETT

dg605254c#7 on our Top 10 Prospects List, right-handed starting pitcher Daniel Gossett blew through three levels of the A’s system last season, making as much progress as any pitcher in the organization, and his 151 strikeouts led all A’s minor leaguers last year. Oakland’s 2nd-round draft pick in 2014 (selected by the A’s right after Matt Chapman), the 24-year-old is set to begin the year as a member of the starting rotation at Triple-A Nashville but, depending on how things go, he could end up getting a shot to show what he can do in Oakland before the season’s through.

AF:  You made a big leap forward last season, pitching well at Stockton, Midland and then Nashville. So what accounted for your progress last year, what clicked for you?

DG:  I really focused on just staying with the process, trusting my stuff, and not trying to do too much. And now I get to be around all these guys [in the A’s major league camp], so I get to learn a ton every day. So this is an awesome experience for me. If I can just grab on to everything I learn here and just apply it, it’s going to be the best thing for me.

AF:  I was just about to ask what it’s been like for you to be in big league camp for the first time this spring.

DG:  It’s everything you dream of. This is the dream for everyone. Obviously I haven’t made it to the big leagues yet, but this is obviously a step up in spring training. And I’m honored and excited to be a part of all this and to be around all these guys and to learn as much as I can.

AF:  Has anyone here taken you under their wing a bit or been particularly helpful to you this spring?

DG:  I try and pick as many brains as I can and talk to everyone I can. But Sean Manaea’s been a rock for me, so that helps out a ton. I get to sit by him every day and ask him anything. I feel like he’s a good friend that I can lean on.

AF:  That’s funny because he was the new kid here just last year!

DG:  I guess he understands what I’m going through, so he can kind of look out for me a little bit as well.

AF:  So what was it like when you got out there on the mound in your first spring training game facing big league hitters for the first time?

DG:  Well the first one was actually a start – it was the home opener! It was the first time I’d ever pitched in a big league scenario and I’m starting the game. So there was a little anxiety, but it was awesome. It was great to be on the mound in a big league uniform. It’s still not the real deal, but it’s definitely a cool experience.

AF:  Let’s talk a little bit about your repertoire. What were you throwing last year and what was really working for you?

DG:  I was really able to work off my fastball, which was really good. My fastball control was pretty good. But then I was able to work on my changeup, which has been a staple for me. And then I added a cutter last year, which actually helped out a ton – another option to go to. So adding that pitch really helped out a lot. And [A’s minor league pitching coordinator] Gil Patterson and a guy who was in Stockton with me last year, Brett Graves, helped me out a ton with the cutter. I’ve just got to keep refining and keep working to see if I can make it a little bit better every day.

AF:  Well, in addition to Gil Patterson, you also had three different pitching coaches throughout the system to work with over the course of last season.

DG:  So I had Steve Connelly my first couple years. I had him in Vermont, then I had him in Beloit, then I had him in Stockton. And so that was great to have a building block there, a good firm relationship I could always lean on. Then I go up to Double-A at Midland and then Triple-A with Rick Rodriguez. And just getting different perspectives on pitching is awesome. These guys, that’s their job – they understand, they’ve been there. So I can learn from them and take different aspects from them and put it all together.

AF:  So how were those different parks for you to have to pitch in? Stockton’s known as a hitters’ park, while Midland and Nashville are known a little more as pitchers’ parks.

DG:  Oh yeah, Stockton and the whole Cal League is definitely a hitters’ league. But you’ve just got to trust in the process – just keep pitching and everything else is outside your control, so just control what you can. And I just try to see if I can wheel out the best I’ve got every day.

AF:  As you moved through three different levels last year, were there any significant adjustments that you needed to make moving from one level to another?

DG:  In Triple-A, definitely. You’ve got a bunch of guys up there with a ton of big league time, and they all have great approaches. And you’re not going to get many swings and misses out of the zone – you have to be good in the zone. Coming from Double-A and High-A, and I’m not trying to talk down about anyone, but I was getting more swings and misses out of the zone. Then you go up to Triple-A and you’ve got to be nasty in the zone, and that’s a bit of an adjustment.

AF:  You’ve got to work in the danger zone all the time!

DG:  Yeah, you’re always living right there on the edge, that’s for sure!

AF:  Even though you weren’t there for very long at the end of last year, how did you enjoy your time in Nashville?

DG:  Unbelievable! Everything there is great. Everything gets better the more you move up, that’s just the way it is. But Nashville’s got a brand new stadium, awesome fans, great city – there’s no down side. It’s really close to home for me too, five hours away, which is fantastic, so I got to spend some more time with my family.

AF:  I guess you didn’t miss all those bus rides across Texas when you were down at Midland.

DG:  That’s true. That’s not a bad deal. Going from the Texas League where I’ve got 12-hour bus rides, then [at Nashville] you’re jumping on a plane to head down to Louisiana. That’s fine with me. I’m not going to complain about that, that’s for sure.

AF:  So if you should end up starting the year back at Nashville, I guess that wouldn’t be such a bad thing then.

DG:  Absolutely. If I start the year playing baseball, that’s a good year!

AF:  So what are you focused on here the rest of the spring?

DG:  I just need to work on some consistency stuff. I need to be consistent in the zone. Just trust myself, that’s the biggest thing. Knowing that I’m facing big league hitters, sometimes I feel like I need to do more, but that’s not the case. You’ve got to do what you do and do it the best you can.

 

BRUCE MAXWELL

bm622194b#8 on our Top 10 Prospects List, Maxwell had a breakthrough 2016 season at Nashville and made his major league debut last July with Oakland, where he made a positive impression on manager Bob Melvin and the A’s coaching staff. The 26-year-old backstop is expected to start the season back at Triple-A Nashville, but if another catcher is needed on the major league squad at any point during the season, then Maxwell will likely be the first man to get the call.

AF:  You made a big leap forward offensively at Nashville last season. So what accounted for the improvements that you were able to make at the plate last year?

BM:  I feel like it was just trusting in the process, and learning from the guys who helped me, whether it be my coaches or my teammates, and just trusting in the hitter that I am, and finally getting enough at-bats to really put into play what I do best and stick to that. So once I had the confidence and the repetitions and the trust in the process, I was able to just kind of let my talent take over.

AF:  And what is it that you feel you do best as a hitter and what is the approach that works for you?

BM:  For the most part, I’m a big strong guy and I have power to all fields, keeping in mind that I use the opposite field very well, and to really try to perfect that craft of mine, so I can always rely on that at the end of the day. So being able to stay confident with that and not switch up my game depending on the pitcher or the situation in the game was my biggest thing. Sticking with that on a daily basis has really made me the consistent hitter that I know I can be and I know they know I can be.

AF:  Last spring, you had the chance to spend a lot of time in the big league camp. I’m sure that was a great experience fo you, but how important was it in terms of developing even more confidence in your own abilities and your own game?

BM:  It was huge…last year I got to show them what I’ve been working on and show them that I do belong and how I’ve come a long way catching-wise. So it was good to get that exposure…and put a good run in in spring. And it really helped me going into the season.

AF:  When you left the big league squad last spring, did Bob Melvin or the coaching staff have anything to say to you or any advice they left you with?

BM:  Yeah, they told me to keep doing what I was doing…and they just told me to make sure that I keep progressing behind the dish and the hitting will take care of itself. They just told me to keep with a good routine, keep my head on straight and just keep plugging away.

AF:  Well, we know there’s always work to do on the catching side, and you’ve obviously done a lot of that already. But where do you feel you’re at with your catching game at this point?

BM:  Honestly, I feel like I’m the best I’ve been. I feel comfortable back there…and I know my pitchers feel confident in me, especially a lot of the guys in Triple-A. I’ve got a good rep with a lot of the big league guys as well because I caught a lot of them in camp last year. And so it’s just about staying on top of it every day.

AF:  So are there any particular aspects that you’re really focused on or trying to work on behind the plate at this point?

BM:  Just making sure that I stay mobile, making sure my pitchers have a nice big target, and making sure that I just stay sharp with the little things back there. Me being as big as I am, the little things are what matter the most. So just trying to make sure those are on point every day, and trying to make sure that my pitchers have the best opportunity to throw strikes and have a big target and can be as confident and comfortable as they can be with me.

AF:  Coming out of college, you really hadn’t done a whole lot of catching at that point. And the main focus when you came into the A’s system was really getting you up to speed with your catching. So how does it feel to now be the #3 catcher on the depth chart for the A’s right there near the top of the food chain?

BM:  It feels good. When I started catching, it seemed like a long way off. I feel that I’ve learned and I’ve applied stuff and put it to use every day. And now my confidence is up there, so it feels good.

AF:  Let me get your quick take, as a catcher, on a few of the pitchers who’ve been here in camp with you this spring. I don’t know if you’ve gotten the chance to catch Jharel Cotton much. I know you didn’t get a chance to catch him at Nashville last year because you were already up in the big leagues when he came over.

BM:  Well I’ve played against Cotton for years. So I’ve known Cotton going on four years now. But he’s a competitor. On any given day, he’s going to go out there and give you his best effort. His pitches are very good, especially when he’s dialed in. And it’s fun to play behind him – he’s got a good pace. It’s his job to make hitters struggle, and that’s what he does. He has a good repertoire of pitches, and he’s a bulldog, so he’s going to go after you with everything he’s got and give you the best chance to win.

AF:  And what about that changeup of his?

BM:  It’s great! It’s not great to hit against him, but catching it’s not so bad.

AF:  And what are your impressions of Frankie Montas?

BM:  He’s kind of the same except he throws 100 mph. He’s got a really good breaking ball, and his changeup’s really good, but his fastball’s dominant. He goes out there cool, calm and collected, and he gives it everything he’s got. He attacks you – he forces you to make an adjustment and then, as soon as you make that adjustment, he makes the adjustment. So he’s strong mentally and even stronger physically.

AF:  And have you had the chance to work with Daniel Gossett yet?

BM:  I’ve caught him one time. But from what I know about him and what I’ve seen, he’s an aggressive pitcher. He’s got confidence in all his pitches. He’s just going to go right after you. He works around the corners and he works down in the zone very well.

AF:  So after having had the chance to be here before, do you feel a little more comfortable and a little more confident at this point?

BM:  It feels good. I feel like I have a good relationship with a lot of these guys. A lot of the guys in this room, I’ve played at Triple-A and Double-A with. But Yonder Alonso and Marcus Semien and a lot of guys I’ve developed good relationships with, so it feels like I belong here.

AF:  Last year, you were with the big league club pretty much till the very end, and you’ll probably be with them till the very end again this year. So whatever happens, wherever you end up, what’s your mindset heading into this season?

BM:  To keep aggressive…everybody wants to get better and better every year. So this year, it’s about repeating what I did last year, and just getting a little more refined in certain aspects, and just being the catcher I know I can be and my pitching staff knows I can be, and just winning a championship whether it be at Triple-A or in the big leagues.

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Be sure to like A’s Farm’s page on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @AthleticsFarm. You can also get our exclusive A’s minor league newsletter e-mailed to you free by signing up here.

Talking Top Prospects with A’s Assistant GM Dan Feinstein

A's Asst GM Dan Feinstein (photo: J.Meric/Getty)

A’s assistant GM Dan Feinstein (photo:J.Meric/Getty)

While still in college at UC Davis in 1994, Dan Feinstein got his foot in the door of the baseball world by landing an internship in the Oakland A’s media relations department. He then ended up spending nearly a decade as the team’s video coordinator before eventually getting the chance to serve as an amateur scouting assistant for the A’s in 2004.

Feinstein took the opportunity to join the Dodgers front office in 2005 when former A’s assistant general manager Paul DePodesta became that team’s general manager, but he wound up moving on to Tampa Bay, where he spent six seasons as the director of baseball operations under former Rays general manager Andrew Friedman.

The northern California native eventually returned to the A’s just prior to the 2012 season, and he was promoted to assistant general manager, professional scouting and player personnel in late 2015.

His duties currently include assisting executive vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane and general manager David Forst with all aspects of baseball operations, including contracts, trades, the construction of major and minor league rosters and arbitration, and he also oversees the team’s international scouting department. But we wanted to take the opportunity to get Feinstein’s inside perspective on some of the A’s top prospects, specifically the top five A’s prospects from A’s Farm’s recent top prospects list

 

AF:  Well, at the top of just about everyone’s A’s prospects list this year is infielder Franklin Barreto. He had a great spring in the big league camp before gettng sent over to the minor league complex, and he’s obviously getting very close to being in the major leagues. What excites you most about him, and what does he still need to work on to get his game where it needs to be?

DF:  Well, one thing we’ll talk about with a few of these guys…is that, even though he’s been with us for a little while now, he’s still just barely 21 years old – he turned 21 during this spring training. So it’s something we have to be mindful of, just how young he is, and how above his age he’s played at virtually every level he’s been at. He’s a fairly quiet kid but extremely confident. He’s a very advanced hitter for his age, excellent hand-eye coordination and bat speed. He has the ability to drive the ball to all fields. He’s a really talented young bat.

AF:  Should we expect to be seeing him getting time at both shortstop and second base this year at Nashville?

DF:  Yeah, we certainly think he has enough arm and range to stay at shortstop but, for the immediate future, he’ll probably be able to make the biggest impact at second base. He has very good hands. He’s still learning the nuances of playing the middle of the diamond. I know he’s spent a good deal of time this spring training just making sure that he has the proper footwork and that he’s getting in a strong position to throw. We certainly see him as a shortstop in the future, but he may have his biggest impact at second base this season.

AF:  So would you say that the primary focus for him in terms of improvement this season is more on his defense than on his offense then?

DF:  Yeah, I think that’s probably the case.

AF:  Okay, let’s move on to #2 on our list, and that’s third baseman Matt Chapman. First of all, we know his power is real since he managed to keep his power numbers up at Midland last year, which very few guys seem to be able to do. But he maybe needs to make a little more consistent contact. So what do you like about what you’ve been seeing out of Chapman at this point and what do you need to see out of him at Nashville this season to feel that he’s really major-league ready?

DF:  Matt is a really underrated athlete. He plays a really stellar third base. He’s kind of emerged as one of the best defensive third baseman in all of the minor leagues. He could probably play anywhere on the field if you let him.

AF:  Well, he did used to pitch in college too, right?

DF:  Yeah, and he threw really hard! I mentioned his athleticism, but also his bat speed, the strength in his hands and wrists, and his natural ability to defend. He’s got above-average range at third base. He’s got an extremely strong and accurate arm. There are just so many things to like about him. He did go to Triple-A [late last season], and all his stats might not have been exactly what he would have liked, but he still managed to hit 36 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A, and his power numbers didn’t drop off at all in his short stint in Triple-A.

AF:  Are there any adjustments that are being made to his swing or his approach at this point?

DF:  This spring, I know he’s made it a point to try to be a little more selective and really identify the pitches that he can attack.

AF:  So it sounds like pitch selection is really the main thing that he needs to focus on at this point then.

DF:  Probably, yeah.

AF:  #3 on our list is your 1st-round pick from last year, LHP A.J. Puk. I know you might not have even expected to have the chance to take him in the draft. But now that you’ve gotten him into system and you guys have gotten the chance to really get a good look at him, what are your impressions of him now? And I know when Sonny Gray was drafted, he needed to work on the changeup and maybe clean up some of his mechanics, so what do you have to work on with Puk to get him where he needs to be?

DF:  Well, first, A.J. has a rare combination of size and stuff from the left side. You just don’t see a whole lot of 6’7” left-handed pitchers with his kind of stuff. He has the ability to leverage the fastball downhill. He does have an out-pitch breaking ball. He certainly has the ingredients of a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher. In college, he was primarily fastball/slider. That’s mostly what we saw last spring. It’s really all he needed in college – he would throw an occasional changeup. This spring, he has gone back to a pitch that he threw early on in his college career. He’s got a curveball that we hadn’t really seen much of before. It’s a more true downward break, and that has the chance to be an out-pitch as well. Some of the things he’s working on here: certainly advancing his changeup and making it a more usable third or fourth pitch, being more efficient with his pitches and, like every young player, he’s just adjusting to the daily rigors of his first full professional season – setting his schedule, getting into the weight room, managing his nutrition and that kind of thing.

AF:  Okay, #4 on our list is RHP Jharel Cotton. The A’s got him last summer from the Dodgers. I know you guys have had the chance to get a much better look at him here this spring, and I’m sure you’ve liked a lot of what you’ve seen out of him so far. He certainly seems to be abe to fool a lot of hitters, especially with that changeup of his. So how are you feeling about him at this point and his possible role as a member of the A’s starting rotation going forward in the coming years?

DF:  We were excited to acquire him in the trade, and he continued to perform exceptionally well in Nashville when we got him. And then he came up and made five outstanding starts in the major leagues in September. He’s as confident a young man as you’ll see on the mound, and he does have a pretty exceptional changeup. It’s safe to say it’s one of, if not the best, changeups in our entire organization.

AF:  And finally, #5 on our list is RHP Frankie Montas. He also came over from the Dodgers last summer, but he’d been injured, and I know you didn’t really get to see a lot of him until the Arizona Fall League. So now that you’ve gotten a good look at him, what’s your evaluation of him? And since he really didn’t pitch many innings last year, what’s the plan for him going forward into this season?

DF: His fastball and slider both come as advertised. It’s an easy 97-98 mph pretty consistently this spring, and then the slider’s a real wipeout pitch for him. The onus is going to be on the coaching staff and us in the front office to manage his innings this year after coming off a real shortened season last year, and making sure that we can get the most out of him and get him through a full season healthy.

AF:  Now I know originally there was a lot of talk about having him working as a starter at Nashville this year, but Billy Beane has recently been quoted talking about him working out of the bullpen. Has that all been worked out yet? Is he likely to start the year working as a reliever or is he going to have a chance to start?

DF:  We’re not sure yet. It’s something that we’re going to discuss with the coaches over these last two weeks and figure out not only what’s best for his development but what the best makeup of our 25-man roster is. Something that he’s working on, the biggest thing, is the continued development of his third pitch – because we still believe he’s a starting pitcher – and to continue to develop that changeup and make it a real usable complement to his fastball and slider.

AF:  Okay, great. Thanks a lot for all that input!

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Be sure to like A’s Farm’s page on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @AthleticsFarm. You can also get our exclusive A’s minor league newsletter e-mailed to you free by signing up here.

No Stalling for Cody Stull

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Cody Stull

by Mark Nikolov / @realmccoyminors

(special to A’s Farm)

Left-hander Cody Stull was drafted out of Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina in the 29th round by the A’s in 2014.  This past season, he was able to get a taste of three different levels of minor league ball – at High-A Stockton, Double-A Midland and Triple-A Nashville.  I recently had a chance to speak with Cody and talked to him about his recent success…

MN:  This past season, you moved up three levels in the A’s farm system.  To what do you attribute that achievement?

CS:  I attribute it to hard work.  The A’s have also done a great job surrounding me with some really good pitching coaches.  All of my coaches have helped me improve my performance in Single-A, Double-A and Triple-A.  I’m very grateful to them for that.  Being able to get lefties out is always a good way to move up in the system too.

MN:  Last season, you put up great numbers in the California League – a league that is known for being a hitters’ league – 63 strikeouts in 55 2/3 innings with only 11 walks and a 1.46 ERA.  Do you think you can repeat those numbers or put up even better numbers this coming season?

CS:  I think so.  I think that there’s always more opportunities to get better.  Now that I’ve added a curveball into my pitching arsenal, that should only help me get better.

MN:  In an article on 27 Outs Baseball last season, Eddie Pannone mentioned that you have a low 90s fastball and a good changeup.  He also said that you were working on your breaking ball.  Can you tell me about the success you had with that pitch last year?

CS:  Sure, my breaking ball helped me open up the zone a little more.  It eventually turned into a cutter and I’ve had success with that pitch as well.

MN:  I found an article on the Coastal Plain League website from January of 2013 that described you as a fan favorite when you were playing for the Gastonia Grizzlies.  Here is a direct quote from that article: “Cody has tremendous character and is the kind of person that you always want on your club.”  Do you agree with that statement?

CS:  Yeah.  I always want to be known as the guy that people want to be around.  I try to keep a good positive atmosphere when I’m around other teammates.

MN:  I noticed that you and Max Schrock follow each other on Twitter.  What can you tell me about him?

CS:  I got to know him for a short period of time when he was in Midland.  He is a true competitor.  He hits everything when he’s at the plate.  It seems like the guy never gets out.  Having him behind you on defense is great because there’s a good chance he is going to make a play on every ball that comes his way.

MN:  What was it like growing up in Matthews, North Carolina?

CS:  It was nice.  Matthews is a small town surrounded by some other small towns and there’s a lot of baseball in our area.  Richie Shaffer and a few other major league guys are from there.

MN:  Last question, what are your goals for this upcoming season?

CS:  I want to stay on the same path that I’m on right now as far as numbers go.  That should help me advance to the MLB, and hopefully I can make an impact there as well.

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Be sure to like A’s Farm’s page on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @AthleticsFarm. You can also get our exclusive A’s minor league newsletter e-mailed to you free by signing up here.

A’s President Dave Kaval Offers the Inside Scoop on Team’s New Stadium & Player Payroll Plans

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New A’s President Dave Kaval

Since assuming the job just a little over two months ago, it’s safe to say that new A’s president Dave Kaval has provided a breath of fresh air in the sometimes dank passages of the Oakland Coliseum. In a relatively short period of time, he’s already earned plenty of brownie points with A’s fans for his honesty, enthusiasm and willingness to engage with almost anyone and everyone who wants to engage with him. And after talking with some A’s employees who were on hand at FanFest, it’s clear that the energetic executive has brought a renewed sense of energy and purpose to the entire A’s staff. 

The 41-year-old likes to make things happen and he’s not afraid to try new things. His decision to return FanFest to Jack London Square for the first time since 1999 turned out to be a good call, with an estimated 15,000 A’s fans, most of whom seemed to be in a hopeful mood about the team, enjoying a fresh take on the event while out under the sun with the water in view.

Kaval kicked off the day with an inspiring message to A’s fans gathered on the main lawn for the team introductions. In his state-of-the-team address, he promised to announce the site of the team’s new stadium as well as a timeline for the new home of the A’s this year. And just a little later, he addressed those topics in greater detail, as well as others, during an interview session with a group of A’s bloggers.

The Stanford graduate had kind words for the work of bloggers and for alternative media in general: “I think media’s changing…I think the voices that are in this room are important…and I think some of our hardcore fans are more connected to the content you guys generate…I’ve always been a big believer in new media.”

In this session, as expected, Kaval was engaging and enthusiastic and seemed more than happy to address any questions that came his way. A’s Farm kicked off the questioning by asking the team’s top executive whether or not the A’s planned to increase their player personnel budget prior to moving into a new stadium, and he seemed to be a man with a plan…

We want to kind of duplicate what the Indians did in the early 1990s, which is to create a nucleus of really good young players who are hitting their prime when you open the ballpark. Then, if you guys remember, the Indians sold out 455 consecutive games which, in a smaller market, is a pretty incredible accomplishment. So to do that, the first thing you need to do is you need to know the timeline of when you’re going to open the new stadium – and we’re going to know that this year. Then I can go to Billy [Beane] and David [Forst] and say, “Hey, this is kind of the runway you have. Let’s put the pieces in place and make the necessary investments in order to get to that opening day where we have a nucleus of great young players who can compete for a world championship that season.” And Billy and David have done an amazing job of cultivating the young talent – I mean, you saw it in the playoffs this year. That’s not the issue – the issue is having the revenue to sign those players and keep them as part of your nucleus. So that’s the plan – I think it’s one that can work out very well. I think the exact dollar investment level is hard to know, but I think fans should hopefully be more in the know about what the plan is.

Asked to confirm that the club is indeed willing to make increased investments in player personnel prior to having a new stadium ready to go, Kaval made it clear that the team is…

Absolutely, 100%! I think seeing us actively go after [Edwin] Encarnacion, who’s a player who was going to get paid $20-25 million per year, that’s a huge move for the A’s. That’s not something that you’ve seen in the past. I think knowledgeable fans like you guys know that that’s a big statement – and it was a serious bid…but getting a player of that caliber to really anchor your offense, really support your young pitchers, because you’re going to have more run production, and really kind of put the fear into the opposing pitching, is a really important part of building a winning team.

When asked about his vision and priorites for the new stadium and when he will announce the team’s plans, he was fairly definitive…

Avaya Stadium

San Jose’s Avaya Stadium

This year we will announce the location and the timeline, and the timeline will include when we’re going to break ground. I was hopeful we could even make the announcement today, but we just haven’t done all the work necessary to make sure that we make the right decision, and to make sure that we get all the feedback from the community…In terms of design, I think the over-arching theme is intimacy. We want a ballpark that’s intimate, where you’re close to the action – think more like Wrigley or Fenway than Yankee Stadium or some of the bigger stadiums…The thing is we want somewhere where, even if you’re in the upper deck, you’re close to the action and every seat is a good seat. And if you come to Avaya Stadium, which we built for the Earthquakes, we have that, and it’s been so well received…It also creates an amazing fan experience – it’s loud, it’s raucous, it’s somewhere that we could take the Oakland fans and energize them and actually create a home-field advantage for our club…The other thing that I think is really important when you do a ballpark is you want to celebrate the history of the organization. So we want to go back all the way to Philadelphia. We’re looking at the possibility of putting in a museum that celebrates the actual history of the Athletics, all the way back to 1901 with the Philadelphia A’s, as well as our Kansas City period, then obviously here in Oakland – that’s a really important piece of the puzzle…And then I think you need to create neighborhoods – places in the ballpark where fans can gather and congregate and have a shared experience around the sport. And that could include things like we did at Avaya with the scoreboard bar. It could include an amazing bleacher section, with old-school bleachers. They might be wood – maybe we get reclaimed redwood and have a totally new thing, something that people actually appreciate and take pride in, because we want to have the people with the bed sheets and the signs. We don’t want to lose any of that with the new ballpark, because that’s how you give a building a soul, and that’s something that’s really important to us.

On the subject of the Raiders and how their actions might affect the A’s plans, Kaval didn’t seem too concerned with what the A’s Coliseum co-tenants were up to…  

It’s completely independent. We have our own path that we’re on. Now we were kind of surprised that they would actually leave – we’ve just been working under the assumption that they were going to be here. But we are charting our own course. We’re making our own decisions. I think, in the past, we were trying to tether our decisions too closely to theirs, and that got us in trouble. So we want to just say, “This is our plan to build our ballpark in the right location.” And then whatever happens with the Raiders happens.

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Howard Terminal

Asked what sites, besides the Coliseum and Howard Terminal, are currently being considered and what some of the major considerations are, Kaval provided more details about the team’s thinking and also revealed that some new technology had been deployed at FanFest…

The other two sites are in and around the Lake Merritt area…We’re trying to evaluate each one of those opportunities independently so we make a good decision…I think one thing about that location is that we kind of look at it as areas in and around the Lake Merritt BART station, because that’s a really important transit hub for the community. I think here, on this site at Howard [Terminal], some of the challenges are just around transit and making sure you can get people here. That’s the nice thing about having this event today…so we can understand how this site would even work. And actually, we’re flying a drone above us right now – it’s looking at where people go and patterns and all that stuff.

When asked what A’s fans can expect on the stadium front in the coming months, Kaval seemed eager to get the show on the road…

This year, as soon as possible, we’re going to announce where we’re going to build the ballpark. And this is as important – it’s one thing to just pick a site, but we’re actually going to announce the roadmap to opening day…There’s different pros and cons or challenges and opportunities with every site. And I think, at the end of the day, we want to shoot for something that can really be transformative. We want to make sure that we have a vibrant ballpark experience around the actual location and people are living there and there are bars and restaurants and it can be a place to be. That’s what these ballparks can do, and that’s our mission.

Discussing his efforts to draw fans back into the fold while the A’s are still playing at the Coliseum, Kaval promised to improve the fan experience at the A’s current home…

I think, for the first time, instead of just kind of punting on the Coliseum, we have a commitment to make sure that the fan experience can be enhanced. And I think you’re seeing that with the Shibe Park Tavern, where we’re investing millions of dollars in the Coliseum to create a truly east coast kind of throwback environment where fans can gather and have a great time, not even just for a game – it could be an away game and you have a viewing party. We have pool tables and artifacts from Shibe Park celebrating the history with the Philadelphia Athletics. The other thing is looking at the whole food truck pavilion that we’re going to build between the actual Coliseum and the arena – that’s going to be a great area. We’ll have up to 16 food trucks. You know, familes, millennials, everyone gathering. We’re going to have Adirondack chairs and games and kids’ zones and beer gardens. Whether you want a gluten-free gourmet food truck or you want to have chicken and waffles, all that stuff together is going to create a fun area. We’ll have video boards so you can watch the game. Those are important neighborhoods and areas to build for people to gather. So in the third inning of the game, instead of just going and getting a hot dog – and I will say, we’re not going to have any frozen buns – you can go outside – you get in and out privileges – and you can get a Vietnamese vegetarian wrap or whatever you want. So those are the types of things we’re doing, and we’re going to do more. You can’t change everything overnight, but we’re taking one step at a time to make sure the experience is better for the fans.

And finally, Kaval talked about his overall vision for the franchise and how he plans to win back the loyalty of some disappointed A’s fans…

The vision is to build a world-class stadium in Oakland and to win more world championships. And then I think the third piece, and this is something where we need to work with the community, is to really revitalize the community with the ballpark. So that’s where we need to take this organization. We’re working 24/7 to do that…And all I can do in my role is to take one step at a time and make progress in different areas – have FanFest free at Jack London Square, have opening day and see the food truck experience, see the Shibe Park Tavern, sign a player to a long-term contract – and then hopefully over time people will see that it’s not just rhetoric, there are actions that are supporting this that actually make me believe that this is a path that they want to be on but…they can decide whether to be an A’s fan or not – I think it’s way better than being a Giants fan – but it’s their decision. And we think we will attract that support. And I can already kind of feel it. It’s a little like a snowball, and it’ll happen!

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Exclusive: Get an Inside Look at Nashville’s Top Prospects from Sounds Pitching Coach Rick Rodriguez & Hitting Coach Eric Martins

nstumblr_nn6zzrPnCN1qedy4lo1_500bRick Rodriguez served as the long-time pitching coach for the Sacramento River Cats, where he had a hand in developing a number of the A’s most talented pitchers over the past many years. When the A’s Triple-A affiliate moved to Nashville last season, the northern California native remained on the west coast with the Single-A Stockton Ports. But this year, he’s back in Triple-A with the Sounds helping to develop another crop of talented young arms for the A’s.

Eric Martins was the A’s 17th-round draft pick in 1994 and spent parts of seven seasons as an infielder in the A’s minor league system. After his playing career came to an end, the southern California native signed on as a scout for the A’s. He made the move to coaching last year, when he served as the hitting coach for the A’s Double-A affiliate in Midland, and he’s now handling some of the team’s top young hitters this year at Nashville.

We took the opportunity to talk with both of them about some of the A’s most promising prospects last week in Nashville…

 

RICK RODRIGUEZ

rrRodriguez, Rick2AF:  Well, we’ve checked in with you each of the past four seasons, but this is the first time you haven’t been in California. You’ve been a coach with Oakland, Stockton and the Sacramento River Cats, and you pitched for both the A’s and Giants, so when’s the last time in your career that you actually spent a full season outside of California?

RR:  It might have been back twenty-something years when I was with the Cleveland Indians back in 1988. That might have been the last time. But yeah, it’s been a long time since I’ve been out of the state.

AF:  Okay, let’s talk about a few of the arms you’ve got here at Nashville this year, some of whom you actually had for part of the year with Stockton last year too. Let’s start with Dillon Overton, who came back from Tommy John surgery. He’s had a great year here at Nashville and he’s been up and down a bit with Oakland. So what have you seen out of him here at Nashville this year and what does he need to do to get over the hump to become a long-term major league pitcher?

do592614dRR:  When he first started here, I think he was trying to feel himself out in the league. Now that he’s had some innings in, he feels comfortable here. He knows he can pitch at this level and at the next. Basically, the same as last year – he has good command of his fastball and a great changeup. He’s still working on his curveball, and he’s added a cut fastball – and I think that’s kind of helped him. And once he gets that cut fastball and maybe a little bit more consistency on his curveball, then he’ll be ready to handle all the big league hitters up there.

AF:  Is his velocity about where it was last year when you had him at Stcokton or has it changed it all?

RR:  It’s probably about the same. On any given start, sometimes it’s a little higher or maybe a little lower, but it’s roughly about the same. But his location has been very consistent.

AF:  Well, his command is obviously the thing for him. Another guy you had for a bit at Stockton last year is Daniel Mengden. He obviously got off to a great start this year, both at Midland and here at Nashville. And his first four starts for Oakland were really solid as well. So what really enabled him to make that leap this year and what does he need to do to get back to that level again?

dm596043bRR:  One thing that he was doing here was he was very consistent at getting ahead of hitters and, when he was ahead of hitters, he was able to put them away. I think that’s what he needs to get back to, and I think that’s what he needs to do to get over that hump in Oakland. He was doing that really, really well for the first few starts. Then it kind of got away from him and he was getting deeper into counts. So getting him back to where he was here – like I said, he was being able to put hitters away early in the count with his pitches. He’s another guy who has tremendous stuff and tremendous command. You know, sometimes you might get a little off-kilter, so we’re just trying to get him back on line.

AF:  It seemed like he had a lot more first-pitch strikes down here and in his first few starts with Oakland than in his last few starts there anyway.

RR:  Yeah, that’s what he was telling me when he came in and I talked to him for a little bit. I just told him, “Hey, we’re going to get you back right where you were and you’re going to be back up there.”

AF:  So I guess he knows what he needs to work on then – no one needs to tell him.

RR:  He knows what he needs to work on. He’s well aware of it and he’s ready to do it.

ra593417cAF:  Now a guy who’s had a couple of great starts since coming up here is Raul Alcantara. He was a little hot and cold this year at Midland, but he comes up here and he doesn’t seem to want to walk anyone or give up a run or anything. So what do you think of what you’ve seen out of him here at Nashville so far?

RR:  Well, he’s another guy I had in Stockton last year! He’s shown very good command of his fastball. Last year the velocity was there, the command was okay. His command of his fastball is a lot better. His changeup is kind of what I remember. It’s almost like a split-action type – it’s late, it’s hard, it goes down, hitters swing at it. He’s still working on his curveball to get that a little more consistent break – and I’ve seen more consistency in the action on the curveball. It still needs to be a little bit more improved but, other than that, he’s dominating so far. I hope it keeps going, especially the no walks!

AF:  Yeah, I’m sure that makes a pitching coach’s life a whole lot easier! Now Jesse Hahn has been up and down this season, but his last start in Oakland was really on point. But why do you feel he’s had the struggles he’s had this year, where do you think he’s at right now and what’s he got to do to get back to where he was?

jh534910bRR:  I think he’s right where he wants to be. Right when he was called up, he was working all his mechanical issues out and he was in a rhythm and it showed up there in Oakland. And we’re just going to continue the work that we’ve been doing here with his rhythm and tempo and mechanics. The one thing that I think he needs to do is just be consistent in his outings, pitch by pitch, just be consistent – that’s a big thing for him.

AF:  One guy out of the bullpen it seems has been overlooked a bit this year is Tucker Healy. He’s certainly been racking up the strikeouts at a good pace. What have you seen out of him here this year?

RR:  I had Tucker a couple years ago his first time in Sacramento, and now here. And the big difference is he’s matured in that he knows how to handle the hitters. He’s very aggressive, he goes right after them. He’s got command of his fastball to both sides of the plate, and he’s got that nasty slider that he throws. He just comes right at you – and that’s the biggest thing. I told him, “You look more confident in that you know what you want to do up here.”

AF:  Is there anyone else on the staff who you feel has really made significant progress over the course of the year here?

RR:  Oh man, everybody! Patrick Schuster is a guy who got off to a tremendous start. He’s a left-handed guy who’s more than a left-handed specialist. He did very well here and got a promotion up to Oakland. He’s back down here now, but I look forward to him going back up. Ryan Brasier has been throwing the ball very well. He’s got a power fastball and a good hard slider, and I’m looking for good things out of him.

 

ERIC MARTINS

emMartins, Eric2AF:  Let’s start out by talking about a couple of guys you had here this year who are now in Oakland. Catcher Bruce Maxwell really went on quite a tear here in Nashville before he went up and something really seemed to click for him here lately.

EM:  Well, that’s one of my special ones. They’re all special to me, but Bruce and I had a really good relationship. We tried to change him in the past to make him more of a pull power guy. And I came in last year and said, “Hey, let’s make you the hitter that you are and we’ll work on our pull side home runs.” And he’s really grinded it out and really gotten after it and set up a good routine and got back to being the hitter that he was comfortable being in college. Now everything’s kind of clicking on all cyclinders. Starting in spring training, he made some adjustments to his stance and his swing, and he really took off with it. Things just started to come together for him and he went on an impressive run. He’s one of the hardest-working guys around. He’s usually here before everybody – he’s here at 11 o’clock, he’s out stretching, he’s doing his routine – and we’ll just talk hitting. He’s one of those guys who’s real receptive and real into what he’s trying to do and takes instruction and suggestions well and runs with it. And it’s good to see him doing what he did finally.

AF:  Another guy you had here for a brief period of time before he went up to Oakland is infielder Ryon Healy, who was hot from day one this season. So what was working for Ryon Healy and what was he doing right this season?

rh592387bEM:  Well, we all know Healy can hit. I had him last year too and he had a great season in Double-A. The power numbers weren’t there and I just kept preaching to him, “Be a hitter first, your power’s going to come.” And I got to see him this offseason out in southern California. I got to work with him and Matt Chapman and couple other guys a lot during the offseason. And, of course, he was disappointed with spring training, not coming into big league camp, and having to go back to Midland. And he used that as fuel for his fire to prove people wrong. We’d have some conversations and I said, “Hey, just use that against them, force their hand.” And he did it. He came here and he was with his buddies, and there was a comfort level with his teammates and with myself, and we just kept him on track. He’s special hitter, and he understands his swing. And he’s another that I’m proud of. Just seeing him going up and having success and doing well up there, we all know what he can do.

AF:  A guy who was on kind of a similar path as Healy this year is outfielder Jaycob Brugman. He started out the year back at Midland, hit well there and came up here to Nashville and has continued to hit well here. So what kind of improvements have you seen out of Brugman this year?

jb595144bEM:  Brugman is just a great baseball player. He can go out and play all three outfield positions and play them well. He made some tweaks with his hands in the Arizona Fall League. When I saw him in spring training, that obviously was noticeable. And he really liked it – it got him into a better position to be able to drive balls a little bit more. He’s just a smart hitter, he really studies the pitchers. He has a real solid approach, he doesn’t stray away from his approach, and he’s going to give you a quality at-bat every time he’s up there. He’s done a great job. He went on a tear when he first got here where he was carrying the team, and it was unbelievable. I had Bruggy last year, and seeing him carry us through the playoffs was outstanding – and the year before, when he hit like ten home runs in ten games at Stockton. So he’s got that capability in him. Like I said, he’s going to give you a quality at-bat, he’s not going to back down lefty or righty, he studies the pitchers and he stays true to his approach.

AF:  Now Matt Olson started out the season kind of slow, but it seems like maybe things are starting to click a bit for him lately. Can you tell me about some of the challenges he faced early on and where you feel he’s at now?

mo621566EM:  You know, people seem to forget how young this team is. He’s only 22 years old playing in Triple-A, facing guys who have been up and down in the big leagues probably for the last five or six years, even when he was still in high school. I think the biggest adjustment for him was just understanding how pitchers were going to pitch him. They started playing him in the shift a little bit early in the year, which took away a lot of hits. Once again, he’s in another non-hitter-friendly ballpark. So all that taken into consideration, he’s handled it well and he’s stayed true to form. And we’ve made some adjustments with his approach. There’s a couple of little mechanical things with him. He was kind of coming off balls, and teams were trying to pound him in, and he was probably going out of the zone inside. So we kind of changed him staying over the ball a little bit and working on driving the ball to left-center field, and he’s kind of run with it. He’s finally taken it and stuck with it for a while and not given in to what the pitcher’s trying to do to him, but getting a good pitch for him to hit. And the last three weeks or whatever, he’s stayed true to form. He’s staying in there and having really good at-bats, and now he’s starting to show what he can do.

AF:  A guy who was on a bit of a similar track as Olson is shortstop Chad Pinder. He started out the season a little slow as well but wound up being a Triple-A All-Star. So tell me about some of the challenges he faced early on and where you feel he’s at at this point.

EM:  Like I said with Olson, just being young in this league and understanding how pitchers are going to pitch him. He’s coming off a Texas League MVP, so pitchers and other teams know about Pinder. So he’s just going to have to go out and really understand what they’re going to try to do to him. Probably about a month or a month and a half into the season, we did a little mechanical change where we spread him out a little bit to get him to a strong part of the field, which is right-center field. And he really took off then, had a real good June, carried the team, and started hitting some home runs and started driving the ball the other way. And now we’ve kind of stood him back up to where he normally is because now he’s sound on those balls out over the plate. You know, Pinder’s another one of those guys who’s just a hard-nosed player – he wants to win, he doesn’t care too much about his stats, he’s a baseball player, he’s a gamer, he’s a guy who’s going to go out and give you 110% each day. And it’s fun to see him develop into the hitter that he is. He’s a smart guy, he understands what he wants to do. He’ll go through his little spurts every once in a while, but he easily corrects himself. And if I see something, I can tell him, and he’s quick to make an adjustment. And he’s another guy, this core that we have, that’s special.

cp640461cAF:  As a former infielder yourself, I don’t know how much time you’ve spent with him in the field. But he had a lot of throwing errors, especially early in the season. So is there anything you noticed that was casuing him to be off with his throwing this year?

EM:  Yeah, he worked a lot with Ron Washington during spring training, which was outstanding – Wash is the best that there is. Pinder’s more of a rhythmic infielder, and a lot of the stuff that he did with Wash was hand work and stuff like that. But he kind of forgot how to be in rhythm with his feet, so that’s why his hands and his feet weren’t working and he was losing his arm slot a little bit. And you know, it was really bothering him. And me having him last year and getting to work with him in the infield, I kind of started noticing some stuff and we kind of got him back into being a little bit more rhythmic and doing the stuff that Wash has and incorporating his footwork on top of that with his throws. And I think he made like thirteen errors in the first month of the season, and in the last two months it’s only been like eight or nine. So he’s on top of it. We seem to forget that last year was his first full year playing shortstop too, so he’s still kind of learning some things. He’s picked up a lot from Wash, which has been outstanding. His hands are…I can’t say enough about Wash and what he does with the infielders!

AF:  So I guess you can definitely see the difference between pre-Wash Pinder and post-Wash Pinder!

EM:  Absolutely! So now he’s started incorporating his feet and his arm slot has gotten in a better throwing position, and now he’s right where he needs to be.

AF:  And one last guy to ask you about, third baseman Renato Nunez. He started out the season as probably this team’s best hitter. He still leads the team in home runs, but he’s had some struggles of late. So what’s been going on with him and what kind of challenges is he facing at this stage of the game?

EM:  I think Renato’s the same way – he’s 22 years old. Early in the year, he was just one of those guys who was locked in, and then the league figured him out a little bit. And he started having some at-bats where he was kind of chasing some balls and started looking for some pitches they wanted to get him out with instead of looking for pitches that he wanted to hit. So it was an ongoing struggle with an approach with him – nothing too mechanical – I think with him it was just trying to do a little bit too much. He started on fire, and I think he felt that if he just kept it going he could be there instead of Healy.

rn600524eAF:  Hey, this is going to be easy!

EM:  But you know what, this game humbled him real quick. But he’s a hard worker. I don’t really worry about him because he can hit – he’s a hitter, he has power, he’s got a chance to be a special guy in the middle of the lineup, hopefully for us. But he’s getting back now. His last week’s at-bats have been outstanding. Yesterday he had four quality at-bats and barreled up four baseballs and had one hit to show for it, but he had a sac fly. So it’s just him getting used to looking for his pitch and not trying to hit the pitch that he thinks the pitcher’s going to try to get him out with.

AF:  Now I know you started out as a scout for the A’s. So what made you want to switch over to coaching?

EM:  Well, I love scouting, I can’t thank [A’s scouting director] Erick Kubota enough for giving me an opportunity when I was done playing. I’d always done instructional league, which I love – I love being on the field, I love being around the players. And [A’s director of player development] Keith Lieppman called me a couple offseasons ago. I had drafted Daniel Robertson, and he was going to be in Midland last year – I’m not saying he was the reason why I took the coaching job but it was a good opportunity for me to be around him and that core group of guys that he came up with and see him flourish and help those guys. It was a situation where I thought I was ready to get back on the field. And I love the fact that I did it. Like I said, I love scouting and I love the scouting department. But now, having done both, it’s just opened up my eyes a lot. The scouting has helped me help these hitters on top of it, and I just really enjoy being around these guys.

AF:  So have you found it more fulfilling to have the opportunity to work a little more hands-on with these guys?

EM:  You know, both work. But now that I have an opportunity to work with these kids in Double-A and Triple-A and see them get to the big leagues and see that you have a little bit of a part in it…but with these guys, it’s all their ability. We just kind of keep guiding them in the right direction and give them some suggestions to help them out and that’s fulfilling. You see Bruce Maxwell and Ryon Healy up there, having had them the last couple years, it really is fulfilling seeing those guys up there performing.

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Dillon Overton & Daniel Mengden on the Ups and Downs of Pitching

A wave of pitching injuries for the A’s this season has opened the door for a number of the team’s top pitching prospects to make their debuts in the major leagues a little sooner than expected. Sean Manaea was one of the first to get the call but many others soon followed, including right-hander Daniel Mengden and left-hander Dillon Overton. Both were dominating at Triple-A when they got the call. And both have been up and down a bit between Oakland and Nashville since, with neither laying claim to a permanent spot in the A’s rotation quite yet.

We had the opportunity to interview Mengden in the Oakland clubhouse just a couple of weeks ago. And we then had the chance to catch up with him and Overton for this piece just a couple of days after Mengden had arrived back in Nashville and just a couple of days before Overton was recalled to make his most recent start for the A’s.

 

DILLON OVERTON

do592614dThe A’s 2nd-round draft pick in 2013, Overton underwent Tommy John surgery just shortly after being selected by the A’s in the amateur draft. And roughly three years after being drafted and undergoing surgery, the 24-year-old made his major league debut with the A’s this June. The Oklahoma native has had an outstanding season at Triple-A for Nashville, and his 3.21 ERA still ranks as the third best in the Pacific Coast League. Overton has made four starts over three separate stints with Oakland so far this season, and he’s hoping to have a chance to stick around for more…

AF:  Well, this has been a big year for you. After having the Tommy John surgery and working your way back from that, you made it up to the majors this year. So how do you feel about the journey that you’ve been through?

DO:  You know, the process after you have Tommy John surgery is always an extremely long one. It’s not only a grind on your body, but it’s also a grind on your mind. And to be able to have the season that I’ve had this year, to start in Triple-A and make it to the big leagues, it’s awesome. I’m extremely blessed, and I’m happy with the way the season’s been going so far.

AF:  Now you’ve had a very good season here at Nashville. Are there any particular adjustments you’ve made to have the success that you’ve had here at this level this year?

DO:  Just staying on top of my pitches and keeping the ball down in the zone. The higher you move up in the system, the better the hitters get. A lot of the guys who are in Triple-A right now have been in the big leagues too. So you’re facing the same caliber of hitters as you would in the big leagues. I mean, some of them might be a little better in the big leagues. But it’s really no different – it’s just a different type of stage and a little more pressure. But I’ve been extremely blessed with the way the season’s been going and I’m happy with how I’ve done here at Triple-A, and hopefully I can get to the big leagues to stay there.

AF:  You’ve seemed to have very good command since coming back from the surgery. Did you always have excellent command throughout your college career as well?

DO:  Yeah, I’ve always prided myself on not walking many people every time I set foot on the mound, and I’ve been that way ever since I was a kid. I don’t like throwing balls – I hate it actually. But my command’s always been there, usually with every single pitch that I throw, so hopefully I can keep that going.

AF:  You’ve been back and forth a bit between here and Oakland of late, and you’re about to be going back there again. So what’s it like doing all that bouncing back and forth. Is it a little stressful or disorienting at all?

DO:  I mean, yeah, it’s not so much stressful, it’s more just tiring. But, then again, you really don’t care as long as you’re getting in big league games. To me, it doesn’t really matter as long as I keep getting those calls. And hopefully the plan is to one day get that call and stay up there.

AF:  Well, I’m sure you’re more than happy to overlook any minor inconveniences along the way!

DO:  Yes, exactly!

AF:  So was there anything different you noticed about the way that big leagues hitters approached you?

DO:  Really, the difference is up there, if you miss your spot, they will make you pay for it usually just about every time. Here you can get away with missing your spot some and they won’t hit it or they don’t put very good contact on it. But up there, if you miss your spot and you put it somewhere over the plate where they like it, they make you pay for it every time. So the few outings I’ve had up there, I think I’ve gotten better each outing I’ve gone up there. And I usually get up there a day before, so I’m able to watch the team that I’m gong to face. So just watching them before I throw, knowing their tendencies and what they do, that helps out a lot.

AF:  Is there anything in particular that the coaches really want you to be working on or focusing on at this stage of the game?

DO:  Really, just being more consistent with my curveball. Before I had surgery, I could throw my curveball at any point in time in any count. It really didn’t matter, I could throw it in there for a strike at all times. And when I had surgery, that kind of slipped away a little bit. I’ve been pretty inconsistent with my curveball. I’ll throw five or six really good ones, and then it’ll leave me for a little bit. So really, I’ve just been working on that and seeing if I can get that more on a consistent basis.

AF:  And how do you feel your velocity’s been this year? Has it been about the same as last year or has it been different at all?

DO:  I actually started out this year at a little bit higher speed than what I started with last year. I started this year about where I finished last year, which is a good sign. They always tell people about two and a half years after Tommy John surgery it starts coming back. But it’s been a really slow process for me velocity-wise with it coming back to where it was before I got hurt. But when you don’t have your velocity that you used to have, it makes you rely on everything else that you’ve got – command, using other pitches – when you used to be able to throw 95 and throw it by people. But I try not to think about it and just try to go with the flow.

AF:  But it does force you to have to be a lot better at everything else you do.

DO:  Yes! I tell myself and I tell a lot of other people, when I do, if I do, finally get that velocity back, it’s just going to make me that much better.

 

DANIEL MENGDEN

dm596043bAcquired from the Astros last summer in the Scott Kazmir trade, Mengden got off to a blazing start at Midland this season and quickly earned a promotion to Nashville, where he continued to impress. And his performance there earned him a promotion to Oakland, where the 23-year-old allowed just eight earned runs in his first four major league starts in June but then gave up twenty-three earned runs over his next five outings in July before returning to Triple-A. While with Oakland, Mengden had the opportunity to live with A’s outfielder Josh Reddick, who helped give him a good introduction to big league life before being dealt to the Dodgers at the trade deadline…  

AF:  Well, a little over a week ago we were talking in Oakland and now we’re here in Nashville, so let’s catch up! Let’s start out by talking about your time in Oakland. Your first four starts were great, and then the last five were a little rocky. So what do you think was the difference between those first starts up there and then those last starts up there?

DM:  Just execution. I was really good – my strike percentage was really good, my first-pitch strikes were really good – the first couple outings. The last four it wasn’t so good. I was falling behind, not throwing as many strikes, my breaking ball might not have been as crisp. And when I was getting to two strikes, I was stretching counts – you know, 2-2, 3-2. I think I could barely make it to the fifth inning three straight games – I was struggling to get to the fifth. And you know, I was not very good at excuting early. I was just trying to battle through. But besides that, it’s one of those things where you kind of get in a groove and are going really well and sometimes you kind of bounce out of it. You know, your body’s a little banged up all the way around. But we’ll be back on top of it and we’ll be good.

AF:  Do you feel the reason you weren’t executing was more mechanical, more mental, or more from your body just being physically tired?

DM:  I’m not really one for excuses. I’m not trying to blame one or the other. You know, it’s probably a little mix of all three. This is my first full year of throwing on a five-day rotation – I did it a little bit last year towards the end of the year. But I think I only threw 130 innings last year and I’m already at 120 right now. So I think maybe if I had to pinpoint one, my body might be a little banged up all the way around, just fatigued from having to throw every fifth day and not really being used to it. But I’m just trying to get my feet back under me. They told me to come down here and get healthy and I’ll be back soon. So I’m not too worried about it. I’m just trying to get healthy – I’m getting a couple extra days off. I’m really trying to get back into the groove.

AF:  I remember when we last talked a little over a week ago, you’d said, “Some of these major league innings can take a lot out of you.” And it made me wonder if maybe you were physically tiring a little bit at this point in the season.

DM:  Yeah, in the big leagues, winning and losing matters. It’s not that it doesn’t in Triple-A or Double-A, but we’re working on things. Everyone down here’s working on something – actually, probably three or four things – but everyone’s working to get better. So I guess it’s probably a little less stressful in the minors. In the big leagues, with guys on first and second and one out, with these next two hitters you’ve got to really try and get a ground ball, or with a guy on third and one out, you’ve got to try and pop a guy up or strike him out and then get the next guy out. So it is a little more stressful and I think it just fatigues you quicker – those ten pitches are way more intense.

AF:  So how did they tell you that you were going back down?

DM:  Curt Young and Bob Melvin sat me down and they just told me, “Hey, we’re going to send you down.” I had a feeling it was coming anyway. I’d had four or five so-so starts in a row. They just told me to get my feet back under me, don’t worry about it, you know, I’ll be back soon. Don’t know when that will be – could be a week, could be three or four weeks, could be September, could be never. You know, I’m 23 years old and having the chance to throw in the big leagues – which was a life-long dream – so I’m already living the dream at 23! So I’m not too worried about it at all. I’m just trying to get healthy, get feeling good again and hopefully get a shot.

AF:  I know that was a lot more than you expected when you started the year at Midland.

DM:  Yeah, sure. I think I told you, my goal was to make it to the big leagues by September. So I made it there early, but it takes a lot out of you.

AF:  How was facing major league hitters different for you than facing hitters down here in Triple-A?

DM:  Well, one thing is you can’t make a mistake. The moment you make a mistake by two or three inches, it’s a double. You make a mistake by a foot, it’s a home run. Even sometimes you’ll make good pitches and they’ll still get hits out of it. For example, I threw a curveball that was basically in the dirt and Wilson golfs it out for a single and two runs score. So I make a great pitch but, because the guy’s a big league hitter, he finds a way to hit it. That’s why it’s the highest level – you don’t get higher than that – those hitters know what they’re doing. And it’s all about executing…every single pitch matters. And, like I said, I feel like lately my execution has been so-so, and some walks and some two-strike hits have really killed me in certain situations. Not making a good enough pitch just led to problems. And once you make a couple mistakes, major league hitters are going to make you pay. And then it starts snowballing and long innings happen and suck pitches out of you and there you go, you’re at 100 pitches by the fifth inning already.

AF:  Now that you’re back here in Triple-A, what are you primarily trying to focus on doing while you’re down here?

DM:  You know, just the same things that I would up there – trying to get strike one, trying to execute all my pitches, getting early outs. I want to try to emphasize limiting the walks, trying to put the ball in play a little bit. And then, when I get to two strikes, putting them away with four pitches per hitter. You know, get them to 0-2, 1-2, maybe throw a ball and set something up and then get the guy out. It’s not my job to strike them out, it’s my job to get them out. A lot of pitchers really want the strikeouts, and I don’t care. The strikeouts will come when they come. I’m just trying to get early outs to try to lengthen the outings. You know, pitching five innings in the big leagues isn’t going to cut it. You’ve got to at least throw six or seven…you’ve got to be able to go deep in the games. So I’m just trying to keep my pitch count a little lower. Walks are, of course, the top priority – limit those to zero hopefully!

AF:  Now I know you were living with Josh Reddick when you were up in Oakland, along with Ryon Healy as well. So where are you living down here in Nashville now?

DM:  Well, I’m in my apartment that I had before I left. I’m living with Chris Jensen now. I originally lived with Eric Surkamp, but we designated him and then he got picked up by Korea, so now he’s playing over there. Chris Jensen got promoted from Double-A, so he’s been living in the apartment without me, and now we’re back together in the apartment. But it was kind of weird with all the speculation and talk about Reddick going around. So I kind of told him, “I appreciate everything you did for me…and how nice you’ve been to me and Ryon.” I was like, “I hope I see you again. If not, I’ll see you on the other side.” So it was kind of a weird goodbye in a way. You know, he’s a great guy and a great mentor. Even though he’s an outfielder and not a pitcher, it doesn’t matter. Taking me and Healy into his house, treating us like he said he was treated when he was brought up – it’s really nice knowing a guy’s taking us under his wing and really being there for us, helping us out with living and transportation. Anything we needed, he was there for us. And I think Ryon would say the exact same thing – we really appreciate everything he did for us. He’s a great overall player, he hustles 24/7, and I love watching him in a game. If he grounds out to short, he runs 100% down to first base. He plays the game the right way and he’s just a great mentor.

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Exclusive: Get the Inside Scoop on Nashville’s Top Prospects from Sounds Skipper Steve Scarsone

ssscarsone_steveAfter spending parts of seven seasons as a big league infielder, Steve Scarsone has now spent eight seasons managing in the A’s minor league system. He’s currently midway through his fourth season managing at Triple-A and his second season in Nashville, where his team currently holds a nine-game lead in its division.

Whereas last year’s Sounds squad was full of seasoned veterans, Scarsone is handling a team filled with promising young prospects this season. We took the opportunity to talk with the skipper in Nashville last week to get his take on some of the team’s top players…

 

AF:  You’re in your second year here in Nashville now, and it’s kind of a different team than you had last year. You’ve got a lot of younger prospects here this year, and I wanted to start out by asking you about a couple of guys you’ve had here this year who are already up in the big leagues. First of all, catcher Bruce Maxwell was on a real tear here this year when he got called up, and he really seemed to make a big leap forward this year. So what did you see happen for him over the course of this season to get where he’s at now?

bm622194cSS:  I think, more than anything, he found a sense of confidence and he started feeling like he belonged at this level, and probably the next. I think it had a lot to do with just getting a chance to play through some things. The bat wasn’t showing up early but the defense was okay. He really thrived off of working with this pitching staff – they’re all young guys he’s had before. They enjoyed throwing to him, he knew that, and he had a good rapport with them. And so he was building confidence with his teammates. [Hitting coach] Eric Martins did a phenomenal job keeping him focused on what he needed to do at the plate. I know that he worked very well and closely with Rick Rodriguez, our pitching coach, when it comes to the game plan with the pitchers and how to get hitters out, and I think that started generating a little bit of confidence. And then he and I got along very well. So I think he was just in a great environment here, the team was good, he felt confident with them, and he had already played with half of them. And then he started to feel a little something happening on the field, and I think it all kind of snowballed from there. You can see his openness and his increased focus within the game. He kind of got away from beating himself up after at-bats – he moved on much easier. Actually, it was a great transformation to get a chance to be a part of. We were so happy to let him know that he was going to go up – that was a joy for all of us.

AF: Well, it sounds like he gained a lot of confidence and just really came into his own this season. Now Ryon Healy is a guy who started out the year hot at Midland, then he came here in May and continued hitting up a storm, and now he’s up starting in the big leagues. So what did you see out of him over the time that he was here?

rh592387bSS:  I think that if you go back to spring when he did not get invited to [major league] camp, from what I heard though the grapevine in minor league camp, he had a bit of a chip on his shoulder – he was out to prove something. He started the year at Midland and did prove something and got himself here. His stay here was short. He made his mark. He continued to play with a little bit of an edge. I know we had conversations where I said, “Listen, I’m not going to treat you like I’m excited to have you here. I’m going to treat you like you still have to prove something – to me, to them. I think that’s the edge that you need.” And I think he kind of agreed with me. He’s obviously very talented, he’s got a great head on his shoulders, he’s smart, he knows what he needs to do, and I’d like to see him continue to have success up there.

AF:  As a former infielder yourself, how did you feel about his abilities at third base when he was here?

SS:  Well, we have Renato Nunez here, so he really didn’t play that many games at third base. He mostly played first base and DH’d. But there really wasn’t anything that stood out that had to be fixed. The glove was good, the arm was good, the footwork was what it is. He’s a big boy, so he’s not going to be as agile as some guys, but he’s going to make the plays and he’s going to be smart about what he’s going to do. And that’s what I thought was definitely going to be a plus for him – I knew that he was going to be able to think the game out and put himself maybe a step or two ahead of the play because he’s got an understanding of the situation.

AF:  Now I wanted to ask you about a guy you just mentioned, Renato Nunez. The first couple months of the season, he was one of your best hitters here, and he still leads the team in home runs, but things started to tail off for him in June and July. So what challenges is he facing at this stage of the game?

rn600524eSS:  I think he’s still trying to figure out how he wants to hit in the big scheme of things. The power numbers have obviously given him an opportunity to get to this level and put him on the map. He’s still a young guy, and some nights he’s smart about his at-bats and he takes what the pitcher gives him and he’s willing to go the other way. But other nights it seems like he’s going all or nothing and finds himself swinging at balls out of the zone and getting himself behind in the count or going down on strikes on pitches he probably should have no reason to swing at. But that’s the struggle as well as the benefit of youth. We know he’s going through some of these changes. He’s starting to kind of get a better idea of what’s happening and what the pitchers are trying to do to him, and this is all just part of the process. You’ll see it in the big leagues, guys will go up and have a great month or two and then the league figures them out the second time through. And then the hitter either falls to the wayside and we go to the next guy or he makes his adjustments and starts to become something that we hope he would be. And I think that’s where Renato is right now. It’s his second time through the league now and he’s starting to sense what’s happening. And I think if you look over the last five to ten games, they’re becoming much better quality at-bats. And this is just part of the process. We’re talking about a 22-year-old kid – I mean, he shouldn’t even be here yet anyway. He does have the power – that’s not going to go away. If this level here can help him develop himself into a better all-around hitter with power, well he’s just going to be better as a big league player down the road.

AF:  Another young guy who’s had to make some adjustments this year is Matt Olson. He got off to a rough start early on, but it seems like maybe he’s starting to get into a little bit of a groove lately. What challenges do you think he’s faced this year in Triple-A and where do feel he’s at at this stage in the season?

mo621566SS:  I like where he’s at right now. I think he’ll agree that he’s made some transitions, he’s made adjustments, along the same lines that Nunez has done. The only difference between the two is Olson did not get off to a good start and found himself battling with numbers that kind of were hard for him to swallow early on, hitting around .200. Those things were rough, but yet he was still having some quality at-bats. Then recently, over the last three weeks to a month, things are starting to drop for him and the hits are coming, which turns into a little bit more confidence. Now he’s getting himself in a better situation evey at-bat, and he’s having much more success. Had he gotten off to a start that was at least .250, I don’t think we would have looked at him like he’s struggling. But we’re seeing Olson with a positive climb now, and I think that too can be very beneficial for young players. Again, a young guy 22 years old, he definitely now can go back and say, “Okay, I had to make this adjustment, and now it’s paying off.” That’s as valuable as coming out and hitting .300 from the get-go and thinking things are all sweet and happy, and the next thing you know, he gets to the big leagues, and all of a sudden – bam, right in the face, reality hits him! I would rather these guys struggle a little bit here, make some adjustments, so that they can then have something to draw from as they make the next step, because they just might struggle up there with no safety net. At least down here, we’re building a little bit of a safety net so they have something to draw back on to hopefully keep that struggle time shorter when it really matters.

AF:  So they know what it’s all about as opposed to thinking that everything’s going to be a piece of cake…

SS:  It’s not an easy game! And the quicker they get to find that out without all the media and all the eyes on them…then when they are in that situation, they have a little bit more groundedness to them, and hopefully that’ll give them a better foundation to build on.

AF:  And then another guy in that group is shortstop Chad Pinder. He started out kind of slow like Olson but ended up being a Triple-A All-Star. He’s been kind of hot and cold this season, but what do you think of Pinder’s season and where he’s at at this point?

cp640461cSS:  I think Chad’s done a really good job of trying to continue to be a contributor on the team. You know, he probably doesn’t have all the upside of some of the guys we talked about earlier, but he might end up being the guy who stays up there longer because he has some consistency in his game and there’s really some substance there that has shown itself day in and day out. There’s a competitiveness, there’s a kind of intelligence about the game and obviously some ability. Whether he’s going to be a shortstop in the big leagues, that’s yet to be seen. But in his time here and his experience here at shortstop, we’ve seen some improvement, we’ve seen some changes that have been implemented through all the work he’s been doing. He’s just kind of one of those guys who could become like a foundation of an infield or an outfield where you look up in a couple years and say, “Oh yeah, he’s supposed to be here.” So I like what he’s done, he’s a great teammate and everybody really enjoys him. He plays hard, works hard and has fun doing it. And those are the guys you hope get a chance to have a little success at the major league level.

AF:  A lot of his errors this season seem to be throwing errors. Again, as a former infielder yourself, do you have a sense of what the problem may be that he’s been having with his throws?

SS:  It’s a number of things. Some of it’s mechanics. We’ve worked on different things, from footwork all the way up. We’ve implemented some of the drills that Ron Washington presented to him and to myself during spring training, so we’ve continued on with those. Sometimes he just doesn’t quite get in the right position to throw because of the way the play presents itself. Other times it’s kind of maybe trying to do too much, trying to be too quick and trying to catch up to the speed of the league a little bit. For all these guys, there has been a considerable amount of improvement over the past couple of months. You know, as much as I would love to say that each one of these guys is perfect, they’re not. But I can say that each one of them is improving and they’re getting to be more and more of a solid ballplayer, both offensively and defensively, which basically is what our objective is here at this level – to get them one step closer to where they’re going to be helpful for the big club.

AF:  Well, I guess that’s your job basically – just get them a little closer to where they need to be.

SS:  Yeah, yeah. It’s a slower process for some. But it is a process, and we understand that we have to go through that process.

AF:  And finally, you had a pretty veteran team here last year. So what’s it been like for you to have this much younger team here this year?

SS:  For me, it’s much more enjoyable in the sense that, as a teacher, there’s a lot more teaching going on. With an older group, you’re just trying to herd the cats and keep things from going astray. So this is more focused on continuing to build these guys up and get them better and better, whether it be physically, out on the field, or mentally or emotionally, just little opportunities to talk through the game and give them a little insight or give them a little different perspective on where their world’s at. They can have tunnel vision a little bit, and sometimes age provides some better vision, so we try to drop little nuggets on them every once in a while. But it’s been a great bunch of guys. They’ve played together for years now, so they have a good rapport, a good camaraderie, and it’s kind of blended out to the other guys who might be new to the organization. We’re just on a good little mission right now, and everybody’s just enjoying everybody’s contributions and friendship more than anything. It’s a happy bunch.

AF:  And everybody’s always a lot happier when you’re winning too!

SS:  But you could argue that we’re winning because we’re happy. So it could be one or the other – but they usually go hand in hand!

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Be sure to like A’s Farm’s page on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @AthleticsFarm. You can also get our exclusive A’s minor league newsletter e-mailed to you free by signing up here.

A Trio of Top A’s Prospects Talks about This Season at Triple-A

nstumblr_nn6zzrPnCN1qedy4lo1_500bThe A’s Triple-A affiliate Nashville Sounds currently lead their division by 8 ½ games. And solid performances by many Sounds players, combined with a wave of injuries for the A’s, has provided plenty of opportunities for prospects like Ryon Healy, Bruce Maxwell, Daniel Mengden and Dillon Overton to make their major league debuts for Oakland this season. But there are plenty more prospects in the pipeline at Nashville. Shortstop Chad Pinder and first baseman/outfielder Matt Olson have long been considered top prospects for the A’s, while outfielder Jaycob Brugman’s impressive play of late has begun to push him into that category as well. Earlier this week in Nashville, we took the opportunity to talk with this trio of talented young players about life in Triple-A this season…

 

CHAD PINDER

cp640461cAfter last year’s MVP season at Double-A Midland, Pinder started slowly at Nashville this year but ended up being named a Pacific Coast League All-Star. And though he’s had some struggles with his throwing at shortstop this season, the 24-year-old infielder currently leads the team in total bases and his 14 home runs are second only to Renato Nunez on the Nashville squad.

AF:  You started out the season here in Nashville kind of slow but you ended up as a Triple-A All-Star. So how do you feel you’ve developed as a player this year and what kind of adjustments have you had to make?

CP:  I’ve had to make quite a few adjustments this year. Coming from Double-A where maybe the pitching’s more raw, they’ve got a little bit better stuff here in Triple-A. The pitchers are a little smarter. A lot of guys have spent time in the big leagues. They know how to pitch guys like I am who are aggressive at the plate. And it’s kind of been an adjustment for me to have to change my approach a little bit – whether it be taking more pitches early in the count or making quicker in-game adjustments. You know, last year facing the same few teams [in the eight-team Texas League], it’s a little easier to get comfortable with those guys. And here you’re facing different guys every day, so it’s a little bit more or an adjustment.

AF:  Particularly early in the season, you had a number of errors, and a lot of them seemed to be throwing errors. So what’s your take on the cause of that?

CP:  Yeah, just a little mechanical stuff with my arm – my arm angle, arm slot. I’m kind of dragging my arm a little bit instead of getting on top. Last year, it was the transition to shortstop and my arm angle was a little higher. This year, I started to get more comfortable and started to kind of try and guide things, and I think that played a part in me kind of sailing some balls. That’s something we’ve been working on the past couple months. And I’ve just been trying to be more consistent with that in my pre-game prep and carry that over into the game.

AF:  I guess the good thing is you’re playing shortstop pretty much every day here, so you’ve got some time to work on things anyway.

CP:  Yeah, absolutely.

AF:  Is there anything else in particular that the coaches here are trying to have to work on right now?

CP:  Just what we were talking about – being more consistent with my arm angle, and having that consistency in pre-game prep and even in between innings when I’m throwing the ball to first base, so it’s just drilled into my head. As for the hitting side, I feel comfortable, I feel great at the plate right now. The hits may not be coming, but I feel good, I feel confident at the plate. And right now, we’re working on kind of just staying through the ball and continuing the same approach that I have.

AF:  It sounds like there’s a lot more focus on getting the defensive stuff squared away at this point.

CP:  Yeah, absolutely.

AF:  You’ve seen some guys you’ve spent a lot of time playing with, like Ryon Healy and Bruce Maxwell, making it up to the big leagues this year. So how do you feel when you see some friends of yours going up there and does it make you realize how close you are at this level?

CP:  Oh, definitely. Number one, it makes you realize how real it is and how close you are. And second, being with those guys for the past couple years, it gave me chills to see both of them go up. They’re both great people and tireless workers and both deserve the opportunities that they’re having right now, and I could not be happier for them.

AF:  I know in the past, you were living with Matt Olson in Stockton and in Midland. So what are your living arrangements like here in Nashville?

CP:  I’m still with Olson. When Ryon Healy got called up here, he moved in with us. But now he’s out, so now it’s just me and Olson.

AF:  Just the two of you? Are you getting tired of him yet?

CP:  Nope, not yet.

AF:  Well, hopefully you guys will get a chance to live together at the next level too.

 

MATT OLSON

mo621566Long considered one of Oakland’s top power-hitting prospects, Olson hit 37 home runs in 2014 for Stockton. The 22-year-old got off to a slow start for the Sounds this season, but his 54 walks lead all A’s minor leaguers and his 27 doubles are tops on his team. Considered a talented defensive first baseman, Olson’s primarily been playing right field this season to increase his versatility in the field.  

AF:  So how have you been enjoying this year playing here in Nashville in Triple-A?

MO:  Oh, it’s great. It’s a great town. We get good turnouts here. It’s been fun.

AF:  It’s almost like playing in a major league park here.

MO:  Yeah, it really is – new stadium, good field, good fans.

AF:  You started off a little slow this season. But in the last few weeks, it seems like things are maybe starting to click a little bit for you. So tell me what kind of challenges you’ve faced here at Triple-A this season and where you feel you’re at at this stage of the game.

MO:  Yeah, just a little bit of an adjustment period, as it is going from any level to any level. I’ve been feeling better lately and I’m just kind of in the whole process of adjusting and figuring out what I need to do for myself in order to adjust to what the pitchers are trying to do.

AF:  How do you feel that pitchers have approached you differently at this level and what adjustments have you had to make?

MO:  It’s just guys know what they’re doing with their stuff better. They know how to throw the pitch that starts on the plate then works off the plate – it might look like a strike initially. And I’ve kind of had to check myself and nail my approach in my own head.

AF:  Your home runs have been down a bit this year, but you’ve got 27 doubles. So how’s First Tennessee Park to hit in for a power hitter like yourself? I’ve heard it suppresses home run numbers a bit, so I’m just wondering if that’s maybe led to fewer home runs and more doubles for you this year.

MO:  It plays pretty big in the gaps. We definitely play in some more hitter-friendly parks in this league, for sure. I wouldn’t say it’s led to more doubles but, you know, it’s what you’ve got to work with and you just kind of have to adjust.

AF:  How would you say this park compares to Midland, which isn’t exactly known as a hitters’ paradise either?

MO:  They’re different in their own ways. In Midland, you’ve just got to deal with the wind. Here there’s not really wind blowing, it just doesn’t really carry. But you’ve just kind of got to deal with what you’re working with and try to get results.

AF:  You’ve spent the vast majority of your time here in right field this season. So how are you feeling out there at this point?

MO:  Yeah, I’ve felt very comfortable out there. It just kind of took some time of getting some consistent reps out there and getting game reads off the bat for me to feel completely comfortable. I feel good out there now.

AF:  With a little over a month left in the minor league season, is there anything in particular that you’re focused on or trying to work on over the last month or so here?

MO:  You know, its always just quality at-bats, obviously play good defense, do what we can to win. That doesn’t really change. You go and you adjust based off of how you’ve been doing and how you’ve been feeling. And right now, I’ve been feeling pretty good and I’m just trying to keep it going in the second half.

AF:  And how has it been for you playing here at this level with a bunch of guys you’ve been playing with for quite a while now?

MO:  Yeah, it’s great. It makes it a lot easier when you’re comfortable with guys, when you know you’ve got a core group of guys like we do – a lot of guys from Midland last year. And we work well together. It’s nice coming to the field every day when you enjoy people’s company and you know you’ve got a good team.

 

JAYCOB BRUGMAN

jb595144bA 17th-round draft pick for the A’s in 2013, Brugman’s solid play has allowed him to advance quickly through the system. And A’s special assistant Grady Fuson recently called Brugman “one of the most fundamentally sound players we have.” The 24-year-old has also been one of the most consistently productive hitters in the A’s system this season, and he’s been spending more time in center field this season to increase his outfield versatility as well.

AF:  Now, like Ryon Healy, you started this year back at Double-A in Midland. Both of you got off to great starts there and ended up here in Nashville and continued to hit well here. So what was your attitude and approach like starting the year back at Midland?

JB:  I mean, when you repeat a level, it’s all about your mindset and the way you go about your business. You have to have a positive attitude. It’s never fun repeating a level, but it’s okay. It just gives you time to master your craft. It gives you time to really refine your tools. My approach at the plate was the same as always. I just try to have good at-bats, be patient. I like to work the counts. I would like to walk more and be more productive in situational hitting, because all those things help the team win. And I just want to put the team in a position to win.

AF:  It seems like you’ve kicked your game up a notch this year. Is there anything in particular that’s clicked for you for you this year or are there any adjustments you’ve made that have really paid off for you?

JB:  I think it’s just over time I’ve been more comfortable with my style of hitting – more comfortable with driving balls in the gap – and really staying to that. A lot of guys sometimes will have success in certain areas and then they try to expand on that, like maybe trying to hit more home runs or whatever. But really, it’s just staying to your game. So each year I’ve just consistently tried to improve in what I’m good at – and that’s hitting doubles, driving in runs, getting on base, just producing in not-a-home-run way. I don’t steal too many bases. So I just try to keep the same style of play and try not to get too greedy.

AF:  Well, I guess maybe just getting to understand what your stye of play is and what works for you – sometimes you’ve got to play a little while to figure that out.

JB:  Yeah, it all comes with time and experience – that’s exactly right.

AF:  Most of time you’ve been in the A’s system, you’ve primarily played the corner outfield positions. But this year, you’ve been spending a lot of time out in center field. So how do you feel about playing center field and how do you feel about your abilities out there?

JB:  Well, this year’s the first time in pro ball I’ve played center [regularly]. I’ve played all my life in center. But this year I’ve been able to have a lot of games in center, which helped me kind of round out the whole outfield. I’ve played a lot in left, in right, and now in center. So I’ve been able to have experience at all positions, which I think helps me to be a more rounded player. Whenever they need a guy in left, I can be that guy in left; whenever they need a guy in right, I can be the guy in right; and the same with center. So I really like that I’ve been playing there so I can kind of round out all the positions. It’s nice.

AF:  Is there anything in particular you’re focused on or working on at this point?

JB:  Yeah, just trying to get a few more bags, try to steal some bases, be a little more aggressive, put more pressure on the pitchers. Sometimes, the game is going slow and you just need something to spark it, and sometimes a stolen base can do that. So I’m just trying to be a little more aggressive on the bases.

AF:  Well, you’ve been hitting at the top of the lineup a lot this season, so I guess that makes sense.

JB:  Yeah, I should profile as a base stealer also – we’re working on that.

AF:  What about seeing guys you’ve known and played with for a few years, like Ryon Healy and Bruce Maxwell, going up to the big leagues this year? How do you feel when you see your friends going up there and does it make you realize how close you are?

JB:  Yeah, it really does make you feel close. But just playing with those guys and seeing their dreams come true, it’s a great feeling. I’m really close to Healy and to Bruce. I’m really good friends with them and, seeing their success, it just really makes me happy.

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Be sure to like A’s Farm’s page on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @AthleticsFarm. You can also get our exclusive A’s minor league newsletter e-mailed to you free by signing up here.

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

gfDSC01787-1[2c]Long-time baseball man Grady Fuson served as the A’s scouting director from 1995 until 2001, when the team drafted such talented players as Eric ChavezTim HudsonMark MulderBarry Zito and Rich Harden. He left the A’s at the end of 2001 to become the assistant general manager of the Texas Rangers and, after moving on to head up the Padres scouting department, Fuson eventually returned to Oakland a little over six years ago to serve as a special assistant to the front office.

Of course, many know Fuson as the scout in the cinematic version of Moneyball who has a dramatic confrontation with Billy Beane and ends up getting fired – though that’s not quite how it happened (which we chronicled here).

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

We were fortunate enough to catch up with Fuson in Stockton a few days after the end of the major league All-Star break and a few days before the A’s added catcher Bruce Maxwell, whom we discussed, to the major league roster. And, as always, we were happy to have the opportunity to pick the brain of one of baseball’s top talent evaluators to get the scoop on some of the A’s top hitting and pitching prospects from throughout the system…

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GF:  He’s got more homers than hits!

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

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

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

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

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

GF:  No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AF:  And what about Shore?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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