As part of A’s FanFest this past weekend, a few representatives of the A’s took some time out to attend a bloggers-only press conference at the Coliseum. The day’s sessions wrapped up with an appearance by the dynamic duo of young starter Sonny Gray and veteran closer Jim Johnson.
Gray, of course, distinguished himself last year by winning five games down the stretch for the A’s and besting Justin Verlander in Game #2 of the A.L. Division Series. And A’s Farm was curious to ask the young hurler about the adjustments he had to make coming up to the major leagues midseason…
On the differences of pitching in the major leagues…
I think, for me, the preparation was a lot more advanced up here than it was even in Sacramento. And it was just trying to learn the hitters, and meet with [pitching coach] Curt Young, meet with the catchers and stuff. That was a little bit of an adjustment, which was a good adjustment for me. I think just the information that you have up here is amazing – it’s crazy. We were able to really establish a plan, a way to attack a game, but at the same time, kind of continue to do what got me here and continue to pitch with the strengths that I have – and it worked well for us.
On the importance of his college experience…
I think it had a huge impact. If I would have signed out of high school, I don’t even know if I’d still be playing baseball. I was just a lot smaller, I was just so young. I’m a huge fan of the college route. You know, it doesn’t work for everyone. But for me, it made all the difference in the world, especially going to Vanderbilt – it was probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
On getting ready for the season…
I’m just really excited to get to spring. I went to Phoenix like eight days ago and started throwing bullpens there with Curt, and a lot of guys were there…I’m just really ready to get there and start practicing and start getting this thing on the road.
On the learning curve for a young pitcher…
I still have a lot of learning to do. I’m just tweaking things here and there. Obviously, there’s something you can pick up from every player, and every single year. I learned a lot last year, and I was here for I think 14 starts [actually 10 regular season and 2 postseason starts]. I mean, I learned so much, and I’m just going to continue to pick up little things here and there. And I think that’s what makes baseball so fun for me – there’s so many things that you can pick up…Last year, Bartolo Colon – I mean, just the subtle way he does it that a lot of people don’t see. You know, he doesn’t talk much. But just the little things he would say here and there in the locker room. You know, his actions had a huge impact on me. To see somebody do it for that long, and the way he’s kind of changed his game completely, he had so much information.
The A’s new closer, Jim Johnson, led the league in saves in each of the last two seasons. The 6’6” right-hander will be counted on by the team to continue the success of departed closer Grant Balfour, and he seems eager to meet the challenge…
On joining his new team…
I’m really excited to be here. I got to meet a lot of the guys for the first time officially [at FanFest]. I’ve played against quite a few of them for a couple years. You see how much fun they have on the field, and how that carries over, and the tight-knit group that they have. This is the time of year we’re all excited to just get out there and just start playing. I can tell it’s going to be a fun year.
On his past impressions of the A’s…
Every time we played Oakland…we knew it was always going to be a battle here, it’s always going to be a dogfight. It’s not an easy place to play…They’re a scrappy team, but they have fun, and that’s a good combination to have. You play so many games…so you better have fun and enjoy it. But when you’ve got those guys that are scrappy, that are grinding out at-bats and doing what they need to do to help the other guy down the chain, that leads to good things down the road. So it’s good to be on that side, absolutely.
* * *
A’s Manager Bob Melvin on Jaso’s Return, How New Additions Gentry & Punto Fit into the Picture and Why He Loves Managing the A’s
As part of A’s FanFest this past weekend, a few representatives of the A’s took some time out to attend a bloggers-only press conference at the Coliseum. And A’s manager Bob Melvin followed assistant GM David Forst on the hot seat.
In a question-and-answer session earlier in the day at the Oracle Arena, the normally mild-mannered manager roused the crowd of A’s fans in attendance when, talking about the A’s postseason prospects in 2014, he declared, “We’ve knocked on that door a couple times – it’s time to kick it in!”
He also sounded enthusiastic about recently-acquired minor league outfielder Billy Burns, saying, “I’m excited about Billy Burns…this is supposed to be the fastest guy that maybe we have in camp. So look quick – if he’s on the bases, you might not see him.”
In his session with us a little later in the day, Melvin was his usual relaxed and affable self. And A’s Farm was particularly eager to get the skipper’s take on the A’s current situation behind the plate…
You know, in the role that he [Vogt] had last year, he started every game in the playoffs based on the matchups, and got one of the game-winning hits. He’s a guy that fit in very quickly, so we have a lot of confidence in him. The plan with Jaso from the beginning will be to catch. So we’ll see how that goes for him. We do like to rotate the DH spot, whether it’s a day off for Coco Crisp, whether it’s a day off for Yoenis Cespedes, certainly Jaso’s an option, everybody’s an option there. So we don’t like to get locked into just saying this is our DH. But I think…with the workload that a catcher gets, you know there’d be a day that potentially he [Jaso] DHs too. But I think more than anything, we have to see how he comes through spring training. He’s been cleared to catch in spring training, and we’ll see if he’s over all those issues, and obviously we’ll monitor him very closely in spring.
On the possible need to carry three catchers…
It feels that way. There were times last year though where I did have our DH catching. And we were in a position at times, which is hard, where I had my second catcher in the game – and you’re always on pins and needles that hopefully something doesn’t happen. We do have the luxury of having Josh Donaldson who’s caught before. I don’t want him behind the plate – but that’s one of the reasons that we would be able to do it potentially.
On outfielder Craig Gentry’s role in 2014…
Gentry’s a guy that we’ve had our eye on for a while. Number one, just getting him in our uniform means he’s not beating us – he’s been a guy that’s been tough on us. He can play all three of the outfield spots, he’s got a great track record against left-handed pitching…I’m not sure as far as how many starts he’ll get, but my rhetoric to him will be, “just because you don’t start a game doesn’t mean you won’t be the biggest impact player of the game.” He has the ability to change a game whether you’re ahead, defensively, whether it’s pinch-running, whether it’s pinch-hitting. He’s one of the premiere guys in the league at being able to handle a role like that, so he’s going to get his share of at-bats, that’s for sure.
On free agent infielder Nick Punto’s role with the team…
It’s to be determined. He’s another guy that actually his versatility probably plays against him…but we have some in-game guys that can really impact the game – whether it’s defensively, base-running or offensively – as the game goes along. He is certainly one of those guys that we’ve identified to do that. So he will get his share of starts because you have to keep a guy current and getting X amount of at-bats to stay ready for the opportunities. But I don’t think at this point in time there’s any specific amount of at-bats that I’m looking at for him.
On the team’s depth heading into 2014…
Well, I think we increased the depth. We added a couple more switch hitters. Alberto Callaspo was here for a portion of the season…obviously Nick Punto’s the other guy I was talking about. So we’ll look at maybe Callaspo some at first base against left-handed pitching potentially. But the versatility and the depth gets more so each and every year. And I think it’s better than it was in was in 2012, better than it was in 2013…but the division has gotten better as well. So you always feel like you have to get better and address the deficiencies that you think your team had the year before.
On what he and the team have taken from the last two years’ playoff experience…
You always try to take the confidence that you had and what you’ve accomplished in years past, and we’ve accomplished some good things the last couple years. You also find some motivation in getting beaten in a certain fashion a couple years in a row. So we wouldn’t be scared of that situation again. We would relish it if we got it again. But more than anything, you try to find what’s best for your team that motivates you the best. And I think for us, it’s bringing our confidence with us and getting past what was a sour taste for us the last couple years.
On what’s different for him about managing the A’s…
Well, I like managing the A’s a little better. I grew up here in the Bay Area, so there’s some…pride factor growing up in the area. We’ve had as good a group of guys come through here over the last three years, and we continue to bring in great people that accentuate our team. And just getting along with the front office, the ownership and the fans are a big, big key for me here for that added pride of being an Oakland A.
* * *
A’s Assistant GM David Forst on Top Prospects Russell & McKinney, Coco’s New Contract and What the A’s Expect from Reddick in 2014
As part of A’s FanFest this past weekend, a few representatives of the A’s took some time out to attend a bloggers-only press conference at the Coliseum. First up was A’s assistant general manager David Forst who volunteered a generous bit of time to talk about some top major and minor league players for the A’s. We had the chance to ask him about two of the A’s most promising young players – shortstop Addison Russell and outfielder Billy McKinney. Forst clearly couldn’t be more excited about the prospects for Russell, and he’s definitely not the only one in the A’s front office who feels that way.
Earlier in the day, in a question-and-answer session at the Oracle Arena, A’s general manager Billy Beane lit up like a Christmas tree when the subject of Russell came up. He characterized the young shortstop as a special kind of player who doesn’t come along very often and said he was “knocking on the door.” The A’s GM went on to enthuse, “We’ve had some great young players come through the system, and we’re as excited about Addison as we have been about a lot of the guys…that went on to be stars. So he’s got a chance to be a really, really good player.”
In his session, Forst also talked about some of the team’s top young pitching prospects and shared some interesting insights on the A’s draft philosophy that has seen the team increasingly shift its focus to high school players in recent years. On the major league front, the assistant GM discussed the challenge of having to fill a number of holes in the offseason, Coco Crisp’s recent contract extension, what the team expects from Josh Reddick and John Jaso in 2014, and how the A’s expect to contend in a strengthened American League West and push themselves past the competition in the postseason. But A’s Farm started things off by asking Forst to share his take on the A’s most promising young player in the pipeline…
On A’s top prospect Addison Russell…
I expect he’ll start the year at Midland. The thing that impressed me most about Addison last year, and there were obviously a lot…to see the way he kind of turned his season around…that tells me as much about Addison as a player as anything he did. You can go and watch him and see the power, see the swing, see the arm from the hole…with a guy like that, it’s really easy to see. But I remember having conversations in April with Todd Steverson, who at the time was our minor league hitting coordinator, and saying, “Hey, is this kid okay? Look, let him know we understand, he’s going to struggle.” And when I saw him myself in May, I said, “Hey, you’re not going to hit .200 forever – it’s just not going to happen.” I think he’s a confident kid, but anyone who spends a whole month doing that, there’s going to be a little bit of doubt. And within a couple weeks, he started to turn around. He’s going to hit, he’s going to have enough power for the middle of the diamond, he can throw from anywhere. There’s a reason he’s a top ten prospect in baseball. And to see him turn the season around, put everything together, and continue on into the [Arizona] Fall League, that’s a long year for anyone, particularly for a kid in his first full season…Everyone says we haven’t had a kid put it all together since Eric Chavez was there…and we’re going to see a lot of him in spring training. I know one of Bob Melvin’s main objectives is to get Addison a lot of reps because there’s no telling how soon he’s going to be here…You can see the tools and the ability, but when you spend time with him and you understand how much fun he has and how mentally strong he is, you really feel good about his chances going forward.
On last year’s top draft pick Billy McKinney…
I actually didn’t get to Arizona to see those guys. I saw Billy in March last year – I went to see him play in high school. There wasn’t a lot of consensus on the board last year in the draft room. It was just one of those years where we were picking so low that guys had different opinions. But by the time that we got down there, the nice thing was we did have a strong voice in Billy’s favor – and you always feel good about a pick when that happens. And he came out and hit the way we expected, sort of above what you’d expect for his years. He got a chance to go to Vermont and get his feet wet a little bit. And I know in Instructional League, he talked to [A’s farm director] Keith Lieppman and said, “Just so you know, I expect to follow Addison’s path and start in Stockton next year.” It’s nice to hear. You don’t put expectations on a kid like that, because we know how special Addison is, but we know he will go be with a full-season club. We know he can hit, he did a great job in center field, and we’re excited about Billy.
On the A’s recent shift to drafting top high school players like Russell and McKinney…
We didn’t like taking kids out of high school when the information was so limited. Things have evolved over the last ten years. These kids play in so many showcases – they play against the best competition in the country. We know so much more performance-wise about a high school kid than we did even five years ago, but particularly when the book (Moneyball) was written…Sure, you’re dealing with an extra three years of personal development, and any kid from the ages of 18 to 21 changes a lot…but I think we’ve gotten to the point where we are a lot more comfortable with what these kids show us on the field. Addison is from Pensacola, Florida. If he was only playing against kids in a 50-mile radius, then you’re not sure how he stacks up. But he went to California and played, he went to Texas and played, he went to Miami and played against all these kids. Billy did the same thing – he’s on that showcase circuit where you know how he stacks up against everybody in the country…When we didn’t take Mike Trout, it was because we thought, “this is a cold-weather kid from the northeast, we’re not sure how he stacks up against the rest of the country.” Well, if we’d stepped back to see that Mike did the same things and played those circuits and performed really well, we might have lined up our board differently. So really, it’s a different time with the high school kids. And if our scouts have seen a lot of them and they sort of check enough boxes, we feel really good about those guys – and Billy fell into that group.
Both Covey and Wahl were interesting conversations. Covey was a 1st-round pick in high school. Bobby was expected to potentially be a 1st-round guy, at least a top two guy. Both guys fell to an area where we paid over-slot for them because we wanted to, and we felt like both guys had some sort of marks against them that hurt their draft status. With Dylan, he never sort of performed the way people expected him to out of high school, but the stuff was always there and there was an upward trend in his college performance. And Bobby we knew had an injury history, but if we could get him healthy and keep him healthy, this was a 1st-round talent. So as far as the diversity of our draft portfolio, those guys fit really nicely after taking a guy like Billy [McKinney] in the 1st-round because they’re a little more advanced. And if they did stay healthy and kind of live up to what their pre-draft status was, you potentially have some top guys. And both guys went out and pitched great. Dylan obviously was able to make the jump to the Midwest League for a couple starts. But both those guys have a chance to start the year in Stockton, depending on how things shake out, and potentially move quickly because of their status as college players.
The goal of a 1st-round pick is always to get them here. You never draft someone hoping just to create an asset to move. With Grant and with Michael, it sort of worked out that way. But it’s a lot more rewarding certainly when Sonny Gray pitches here or ultimately when Addison Russell does get here. That’s what you want out of your 1st-round pick. I won’t say that we’re sort of focused on any position ever in the 1st-round – we’re looking for the best player…I know there’s been a lot made of trading those guys. Throughout the farm system, we’ve moved a lot of players and, as such, we’re sort of in a position where we need to rebuild. But there’s never a specific goal with a 1st-round pick.
On meeting the team’s key offseason needs…
When you look at our checklist at the end of October, replace Bartolo Colon, replace Grant Balfour, so you’ve got a starting pitcher and a closer. Craig Gentry was a guy we had been focused on for a long time who we just felt fit so well…with his ability to play all three outfield spots, running, hitting from the right side, so we sort of checked that one off…We added more pieces to the bullpen. We got some depth in the starting rotation with Josh Lindblom and Drew Pomeranz. These were all things that we sort of laid out in October. You just hope you can hit as many as possible.
On how the A’s expect to best the rest of the west in 2014…
We still feel like the make-up of the complete 25-man roster gives us a chance to repeat, and as great a job as Bob Melvin has done the last two years of managing that group – putting guys in the right spots, platooning, using the bullpen. We feel like from 1 to 25, we’re just as strong as we were, if not stronger than, the last two years. And certainly the bullpen – with adding Jim Johnson and Luke Gregerson to what was already an outstanding group, maybe potentially a full season of Dan Otero, and Jesse Chavez showed last year what he can do – that has to be a strength that we’re going to lean on a lot.
On the effect of increased national TV revenue on the team’s spending…
There’s no doubt our payroll is going to be higher this year probably than ever, certainly in the time I’ve been here. You just have to do the math and see we’re significantly above where we were last year. And that’s what allowed us to go get Jim Johnson, knowing there’s going to be a $10 million price tag on him, and to sign Scott Kazmir, even a move like signing Eric O’Flaherty, where you’re only adding a little bit for this year. But we had already sort of bumped up against our number, and [managing partner] Lew Wolff and [team president] Mike Crowley were very open to what we were trying to do with Eric for half a season and then backload the money. So there’s no doubt that, whether it’s the TV money, the success of the team, all these things have gone into ownership being very open to increasing the bar and letting us do some things this offseason that we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.
On avoiding long-term contracts and Coco Crisp’s extension…
I think we’ve benefited a lot from the flexibility over the last few years. Obviously having added Coco in the last 24 hours, but other than Yoenis Cespedes and Scott Kazmir, there was nobody signed for 2015. We don’t necessarily want to recreate the team every year, because obviously the fans like the players that are here and we like the certainty of the guys that we know, but that we’ve given ourselves the ability to do it is a huge factor in our success. So to commit to a guy like Coco, obviously we know the guy, we know the player, he’s so important to what we do, and it was just an opportunity where we felt like this was the right dollar amount to commit to him beyond the next couple of years.
On expectations for Josh Reddick in 2014…
We certainly expect Josh to bounce back. I don’t think anybody knows fully how much his wrist affected him last year, and Josh will never ever admit it privately or publicly. But the fact is that he had that injury in Houston early in the year. And when you look at the difference in his numbers between 2012 and 2013, a player with his talent, you have to assume there’s something else going on. So we fully expect Josh to bounce back – and I fully expect to have him under contract hopefully sometime in the next couple weeks. But Josh adds so much with his defense alone that it’s hard to calculate his value to the team. And if he does get back to being the offensive player that we saw in 2012, he has the chance to carry this team at times.
On expectations for John Jaso’s return in 2014…
He’s coming to camp as a catcher. He’s cleared all exams. He’s had no setbacks with his physical activity. Look, you can’t predict how he reacts when he gets hit by a foul tip – that’s a medical issue. We did everything we could in terms of giving him the rest he needed and getting him to see the right people. But he comes into camp as a catcher – same situation with him and Derek Norris. The nice thing is Stephen Vogt sort of emerged last year in John’s absence, and that’s a great problem to have. If you end up having a roster with all three of those guys, they’re great options for the DH spot and the catching spot.
Each of those guys we felt addressed, not necessarily a weakness, but somewhere we could get better. It’s hard to say how they specifically help us in the postseason, but anytime your pitching depth is strong – whether it’s with Kaz or Jim Johnson or Gregerson – you expect that to come into play in a tight postseason game. Nick has played in the postseason quite a bit, he’s been on winning teams, he knows a lot of the guys around the league. There’s no way that his experience isn’t going to help us when it comes down the stretch – it’s sort of subjective to say exactly what that is, but we’ve seen it before with players that we’ve brought in. So hopefully these guys fit as well as the group has the last two years. Ultimately, that’s what we’re trying to do is put that puzzle together to compete in September, and I think we have every reason to believe that these guys will fit.
* * *
The Arizona Fall League just wrapped up its 31-game schedule this past week. As some of you probably already know, there are six teams in the AFL with each team comprised of prospects from five different organizations. Organizations typically use the AFL as an opportunity to get their top prospects a little more live game action to hopefully help advance their development.
The A’s prospects logged one extra game this year as their team, the Mesa Solar Sox, lost the AFL championship game on Saturday after having clinched the AFL East title on Thursday.
A’s Farm had the chance to visit the team earlier in the final week of the AFL season and talked with most of the A’s prospects there. The language barrier prevented us from talking to LHP Omar Duran, and catcher David Freitas’s early departure from the desert due to his impending nuptials kept us from catching up with him. But fortunately, the rest were all game for our enquiries…
At age 19, shortstop Russell started the year as the youngest player in the California League, and the former 1st-round draft pick turned in a solid season both at the plate in the field for Stockton. The A’s top prospect is expected to start 2014 at Midland.
AF: The AFL is a unique kind of league with all these mixed teams. So how has the experience of playing out here with all these different guys been for you?
AR: Pretty good. It’s a mix of a lot of people from different organizations. We’re all just kind of meshing together and we’re all getting along. And we’re all just here to play baseball and get better.
AF: Well, you’ve got a few guys here you played with in Stockton, guys like Max Muncy, Seth Frankoff, Ryan Dull. So it must be nice to have a few familiar faces around anyway.
AR: Oh yeah, for sure. When you first get here, it breaks that kind of tension. You can talk to them and see what they’ve been up to and see how they’ve been doing. It’s a good thing to see those familiar faces.
AF: What’s your impression of the talent level here in the AFL?
AR: You know, it’s the best young talent. They’re all top prospects from their teams. They’re first-round guys, and I expect them to play the way that they’ve been playing to get to this point. So they’ve been doing something right, and I’m fortunate enough to be among them.
AF: Well, you’re still just 19. So do you feel it steps up your game to be playing with guys who might be a little older or a little more advanced?
AR: Oh yeah, for sure. The young guys always want to prove themselves and show what they can do on the baseball field. And that’s how I feel. The guys kind of get a sense of how I go about my business, and hopefully I think I’m liked in the clubhouse. And everyone’s been cool.
AF: You’ve been coming on strong at the end of the AFL season, kind of like you did at Stockton this year. Are there any particular adjustments you’ve made?
AR: Just staying patient and looking for my pitch.
AF: And what’s your pitch?
AR: Nine times out of ten everyone wants to hit a fastball. I’m just trying to see the fastball early and just know where’s it’s going to be pitched, and then just adjust to the off-speed stuff. So I’m just looking out for the fastball.
AF: Is there any particular part of the plate where you usually prefer to be looking for a pitch?
AR: No, not really. I kind of stay over the center of the plate. I work three-quarters of the way in and three-quarters of the way out. So if he throws me an inside pitch, I’m ready for it, and if he throws me an outside pitch, I’m ready for it.
AF: So what about your play out in the field? I think you only made a handful of errors in the second half this year. Is there anything you’ve been working on out there?
AR: I’m just trying to go about my business the right way. It’s just staying in the game. You just have to stay in the game and be on your toes and just be ready.
AF: Was there anything you learned or were there any adjustments you made in the field as the season went on?
AR: I just try to play pitch by pitch. You know, if the catcher’s setting up outside to a right-handed hitter, I might shade up the middle just a little bit. Just trying to see what kind of pitch the pitcher’s going to throw so I can kind of get a good idea where he might hit it. If he throws a right-hander a curveball, I’m trying to shade into the six hole a little bit. So just trying to stay ready and stay in the game.
AF: When the season’s over, what are you going to do when you finally get a little time off?
AR: I’m probably just going to sleep, see some family and get back to training.
AF: So where are you planning on spending the off-season?
AR: Back in my hometown in Florida.
AF: Well, I’m sure they’ll be glad to see you!
2013: 17 HR / 61 BB / 125 K / .269 AVG / .369 OBP / .495 SLG / .865 OPS
AFL: 1 HR / 10 BB / 15 K / .282 AVG / .361 OBP / .435 SLG / .796 OPS
First baseman Muncy led all A’s minor leaguers in home runs with 25 in 2013, 21 of them coming when he got off to a blazing start in the California League before being promoted to Midland in July.
AF: Well, you got off to a great start in Stockton this year. Then you went up to Midland and it was a little more of a challenge there. So what were the biggest differences for you when it came to facing those pitchers and hitting in those parks?
MM: The difference for me was pitchers were a lot more confident in their stuff. They weren’t afraid to throw whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. And I can honestly say the back-foot slider was the biggest difference to me. In the Cal League, there were a lot of high-powered arms that we saw. They had sharp curveballs, but none of them would try and back-foot it. I get to the Texas League, and I’m automatically seeing two back-foot pitches each at-bat. I’ve never really seen that, so it took quite a while to get used to that. My strikeout numbers went up quite a bit at first and then I started making the adjustments towards the end. And I really enjoyed the challenge because that was really the first time I’ve ever really failed. And I’m glad I went through it then, so now I know how to deal with it going into this next year. Well, hopefully I won’t be dealing with it – but playing the sport of baseball, it’s impossible not to.
AF: Well, even the best hitters fail two out of three times! So what were the specific adjustments you actually had to make to deal with that?
MM: Just setting my sights differently. You know, seeing that pitch down and in and trying to lay off that. When I was hitting all those home runs in the Cal League, if I saw a pitch down and in, I got ready to turn on it and try and lift it in the air. I started trying to do that in the Texas League, but instead of being a fastball, it was a curveball or a slider and it disappeared off the table. So just laying off certain pitches and having a better approach at the plate and attacking the better pitches over the plate. Also one of the bigger adjustments was trying to pick up on patterns that the pitchers were doing, certain things they would do – trying to speed you up and then slow you down with a different pitch, just little things like that.
AF: So assuming you start next season back at Midland, do you feel you’ve learned the lessons you needed to in order to get off to a good start next year?
MM: Yeah, I really feel and believe that I can go back in there and have a strong start just like I did this year. Obviously, the home run numbers probably aren’t going to be there. That entire league is a tough league to hit in. Everywhere you go, the wind blows in 30-40 mph. And on top of it blowing in, the field in Midland and a lot of the fields, they’re big dimensions, so it’s tough to get the ball out. But hopefully at the beginning of the season, the wind’s not quite blowing in yet, so hopefully I can take advantage of that. But that was also one of the big adjustments for me was getting back to my line drive swing and not hitting the ball in the air as much. And once I started doing that, I actually ended up hitting a couple of home runs and my average started climbing up and I was going back to what I was used to doing.
AF: It’s often such a big adjustment for hitters going from the California League to the Texas League because the parks and the conditions are just so different.
MM: Everyone had always told me it was different hitting in the Texas League because the wind blows in. But I went there and I was kind of in shock at how different it really was. One of my first couple of games there, I hit a ball to right field that probably would have been about 100 feet out of Stockton and the right fielder was almost coming in on it. The ball got up in the wind and just died.
AF: We’re not in Stockton anymore!
AF: And the park in Midland often has some of the lowest home run totals in the whole league. Michael Choice had a hard time there. Grant Green had a hard time there. All these guys have big years at Stockton then go there and have a tough time hitting it out.
MM: Yeah, it was really tough. I think I even got a couple of triples there. You hit the ball in the gap and it goes for days out there. You can just run all around the bases.
AF: I notice they’ve had you playing a little third base out here. So what’s that all about? Was that part of the plan or was it just out of circumstance?
MM: I don’t know what the plan is to be honest. Our first couple of days out here, we were having practice and (manager) Bill Richardson was having a meeting with us and he comes to me and goes, “You play first and third, right?” But after I got over the actual shock of that, I was like, “Yeah, I used to play third all the time before I got to college, so I’m used to it.” I’ve gotten a couple of games there and it’s been a lot of fun for me. It’s always fun to play a different position. I haven’t been told if that’s a plan for me in the long run, but it’s good to keep my versatility up. It makes it easier to move up.
2013: 25 HR / 88 BB / 102 K / .273 AVG / .381 OBP / .476 SLG / .857 OPS
AFL: 0 HR / 10 BB / 10 K / .224 AVG / .350 OBP / .265 SLG / .615 OPS
RHP Dull pitched well enough to sail through three levels of the A’s system in 2013, starting the season in the Midwest League before moving up to the California League and finally finishing the season in the Texas League.
AF: Well, you started the season in the Midwest League and now you find yourself out here in the Arizona Fall League. Looking at the guys you were facing to start the year compared to the guys you’re facing here in the AFL, what kind of differences do you see?
RD: You definitely see a lot more polished approaches in the hitters here. They hit the pitch that they want. You don’t really see them swing at many pitches out of the zone, as compared to earlier in the year – there were a lot more free swingers.
AF: You were dominant in the Midwest League early in the year and you did really well in the California League where a lot of pitchers often have trouble. And then came the jump to Double-A – was that the biggest leap you felt in the course of the season?
RD: I did, I definitely felt that. We changed some sequences on how to attack hitters and be a little more conscious of actually pitching inside a lot more than I did. Working on changing sequences from hitter to hitter so everybody doesn’t see the same sequence every time. And we tried to work on bringing that approach out here as well.
AF: So are there any particular pitches you’re working on at all or do you pretty much feel you’ve got your repertoire down at this point?
RD: I think I have it down now. It’s just making sure it’s all consistent and I can be able to put it where I want to instead of just relying on one pitch to get all the outs.
AF: Do you still have certain pitches that you feel most comfortable going to in a tough spot?
RD: I feel like recently I could use any three that I want to at any time, which makes it a little easier to pitch because whatever the catcher throws down, you have the confidence to throw that.
AF: So you feel pretty confident in all your pitches at this point.
RD: I do.
AF: Well that is a help! So when you got to the Texas League late in the year, what were you finding different about the hitters there from the hitters you’d faced at the lower levels?
RD: They can hit your good pitches well. Even if you think it’s a good pitch, they still might hit it hard. And they definitely know how to hit the mistakes a lot better. And I really had to learn how to mix it up even more. They can swing at really good pitches or pitches out of the zone and they’ll still find a way to get a hit. They know how to hit the bad pitches and still get hits out of it somehow.
AF: How would you compare the general level of play out here in the AFL to what you experienced in the Texas League?
RD: I would say it’s a step up, because you’re playing with the best in the minor leagues right now. And it’s guys you’re going to be playing against for years to come.
AF: So what’s the key thing that you’ve been focused on during your time here in the AFL?
RD: Just trying to keep my game plan the same. I feel like at the beginning of this fall league, I just wasn’t the same. I wasn’t sticking to the game plan that I used all season. But then, as of late, we’ve been going back to my game plan of just continuing to stay aggressive and using hitters’ aggressiveness to my advantage so I can try to get them out as quick as possible.
2013: 60 IP / 44 H / 16 ER / 9 BB / 78 K / 2.40 ERA / 0.88 WHIP
AFL: 11 IP / 11 H / 6 ER / 4 BB / 9 K / 4.91 ERA / 1.36 WHIP
RHP Frankoff was the most reliable arm out of Stockton’s bullpen in 2013 and finished the year with the best ERA and WHIP of any pitcher on the team who threw more than 70 innings.
AF: So when you found out you were going to be given the chance to play in the AFL this year, how did you feel about it?
SF: It was a goal that I’d had. So it was nice to get a little bit of recognition. It’s a great honor to be invited here. It means that the organization sees something in you. So obviously this was something that made me feel good about the kind of year I had.
AF: You spent all year in the California League. So how does the talent level out here in the AFL compare?
SF: Well, it’s kind of a who’s who of prospects. So you’ve heard a lot of the names before. There are some very talented individuals in this league – and some guys who’ve gotten paid a lot of money.
AF: Some guys who’ve got some pretty nice cars, right?
SF: Absolutely, the parking lot’s always interesting to see!
AF: So what about pitching here? You’ve been doing well out here, but are there any particular adjustments you’ve had to make?
SF: Just trying to buy into the philosophy that the A’s have preached to us. You hear it so many times, but really it’s true – just getting ahead, strike one, strike two, putting guys away in less than three pitches, and really working the fastball command is paramount. Stay out of the middle of the plate, stay down in the zone, and just try to continue what I was working on this season and continue to improve every time I get out there.
AF: So when you came out here, did the A’s tell you they wanted you to work on anything in particular?
SF: One thing that (minor league pitching coach) John Wasdin who’s here with us has conveyed to me that they want to see is really working the fastball down and away to right-handers and then throwing my curveball for more strikes. I think I’ve shown that I can throw my cutter and my changeup in most every count, but they really want me to get the strike percentages up with my fastball and curveball. So that’s a couple of things I’ve been working on.
AF: The cut fastball’s what you’ve always relied on, right?
SF: It’s been my bread and butter a little bit. But you have to be able to adapt. Scouting reports get out, so you have to be able to show guys other things to be successful.
AF: Well, that’s what happens. As you move up, there’s always something new they need you to work on to get to that next level. And even if you might not be comfortable with it, you’ve got to get comfortable with it if you want to move on.
SF: Absolutely. This is a game you always have to try to improve at. The day you think you have it all figured out is the day the game will pass you by. So that’s kind of what I try to live by.
AF: Things obviously went well for you this year in the California League. Was there anything you felt you really learned there?
SF: I think that I threw a lot more strikes. I’m not a big statistical guy, but I want to keep my walks down obviously. So I think that getting ahead in the count and not giving guys free passes helped me out tremendously. I think that just pitching with confidence is a big thing. You have to have conviction in every pitch you throw and know that you have the ability to be successful in what you’re doing out there.
AF: Well, obviously your command this year at Stockton was very good just looking at the numbers. Was that just the result of confidence or a commitment to throwing more strikes or what?
SF: Well, I’m very fortunate to live in the same basic area as our (minor league) pitching coordinator Scott Emerson. So I was able to work with him a couple of times in the off-season and he kind of cleaned up a couple of things with my delivery, really working direction-wise, getting on a straight line to the plate. And that really helped me out going into spring training.
AF: The California League is such a tough league for so many pitchers, but you did very well there. I’m sure you saw plenty of balls sailing out of those parks…
SF: It’s not very forgiving!
AF: So is there anything you felt you were doing differently that allowed you to succeed there?
SF: I put a premium on groundball outs. My goal every time I go out there is to not let a ball get out of the infield. So if you’re staying down in the zone, you’re going to get those groundball outs. So that’s what I try to do is work down in the zone, try to get downward plane on the baseball and make guys, if they are going to put it in play, hit it weakly and hit in on the ground, because you aren’t going to get hurt very often when they put it on the ground.
AF: Yeah, your odds are definitely much better if no one’s having to look up! So I guess you’re finally about to get to enjoy a little off-season time. Are you looking forward to getting back to North Carolina for a while?
SF: Absolutely, it’s been a joy to be out here. But it’ll certainly be nice to get back home and see my family and get to do a little fishing and some golfing and stuff like that. I plan on taking a couple of weeks off as soon as I get home and eat quite a bit for Thanksgiving. But then when December 1st comes around, I’ll start getting back after it in the weight room.
2013: 74 1/3 IP / 57 H / 23 ER / 23 BB / 93 K / 2.78 ERA / 1.08 WHIP
AFL: 12 1/3 IP / 8 H / 2 ER / 3 BB / 15 K / 1.46 ERA / 0.89 WHIP
LHP Urlaub spent all of the 2013 season as a key lefty out of the bullpen for Midland.
AF: So how’s this whole AFL experience been for you?
JU: It’s been a blast. This has been the best experience ever. The guys, when we came together in early October, we meshed so well. And 90% of these guys are the future of major league baseball, so it’s been a blast to get to know a lot of guys from different organizations. They’re so good that it makes it so much more fun to play.
AF: You’re from out here in Phoenix, right?
JU: Yeah, born and raised out here. Growing up out here, I’ve seen so many Fall League games. I was a bat boy for a team when I was in high school. So the transition for me was a lot easier, because I get to go see my family every night. I get to see my friends, everybody gets to come out and see me play and it makes it a lot easier for me.
AF: You spent all year in the Texas League this season. So how would you compare the level of competition out here?
JU: The competition is better. Don’t get me wrong, no matter what, when you get to Double-A, it’s a different game. And I learned a lot my first year in Double-A this year, which I felt helped me transition into the Fall League as far as preparation and caliber of play. It’s tough. This league is everything that everybody says it is.
AF: I’ve always thought of the AFL as sort of comparable to a Double-A All-Star league.
JU: Absolutely. I’d say Double-A, Triple-A all-star guys – and that might even be an understatement. I can say a lot of the guys on our team could play in the big leagues for somebody right now.
AF: You got off to a really good start out here, so you were obviously up to the challenge and must have been feeling pretty confident.
JU: I was. I came in confident. But I didn’t want to come in over-confident, because the game of baseball’s very humbling. But I got off to a great start. I pitched well the entire month of October. I’ve hit a little speed bump now towards the end. But I don’t think I’ve done anything different as far as the Midland season to now.
AF: What were the key lessons you learned in Double-A this year at Midland?
JU: Mainly, it was believing in myself and believing that I belonged there. Only spending half a year in High-A last year and being able to be successful there, I went into spring training with the goal to make it to Double-A at least at some point this year. A lot of it was mental. You’ve got to study hitters a lot more. You’ve got to look at more scouting reports. It was tough, but you learn a lot as you go through. You hit a bunch of little speed bumps here and there. And it’s how you get past those and get back on track.
AF: What was the difference in the hitters you were facing in Double-A as opposed to the hitters you were facing in High-A?
JU: They’re a lot smarter. They make a lot more adjustments quicker. You can have success pitching a guy how you want to pitch him with your strengths one time. But then if you face him a day or two later, everybody’s got the scouting report on you. You don’t want to over-think the situation, you still have to pitch to your strengths, but then sometimes you might have to alter it a little bit. Guys at the Double-A level make a lot better adjustments a lot faster. Some even make adjustments mid-at-bat. But all these guys can hit – that’s why they’re there.
2013: 46 2/3 IP / 49 H / 20 ER / 13 BB / 40 K / 3.86 ERA / 1.33 WHIP
AFL: 13 IP / 14 H / 4 ER / 3 BB / 16 K / 2.77 ERA / 1.31 WHIP
Maxwell started the year as the backstop for Beloit before being promoted to Stockton. He was the new kid on the block in the AFL, taking the place of catcher David Freitas who took an early exit to get married. Maxwell made it into just one game before the end of the AFL season.
AF: You spent the first part of the season in the Midwest League and then you made it up to the California League. What was the difference in those leagues from your perspective?
BM: The difference is, in the Cal League, pitchers had a better understanding of what they were trying to do. When we were in the Midwest League, we still had a lot guys who were ironing some things out. And when I got up to the Cal League, a lot of pitchers already had an idea of what they wanted to do. They had pretty good control for the most part. There were more plans, there was more execution, there were more goals, instead of just going out there and just trying to get people out with whatever. The scouting report’s more in-depth, and our guys actually worked with us catchers very well.
AF: I know you haven’t actually been catching for all that long. So how do you feel your catching game’s been coming along?
BM: I think I’ve made big strides thanks to our coordinators and all the catching coaches I’ve had here in the A’s organization. But it’s just going to continue to get better. When I first got here, just the speed of the game overwhelmed me. And now it’s just ironing out the little things, because my receiving, my blocking, my game-calling’s gotten a lot better.
AF: How do you feel about working with the pitchers, getting the scouting reports, working on a game plan? Do you enjoy that aspect of the game?
BM: Oh yeah, I love it. When stuff doesn’t get executed, of course, the fingers get pointed at us first, but at the same time, I love the responsibility. When it does work, you and the pitcher have a camaraderie that can’t be matched in any other sport.
AF: Are there any particular pitchers you worked with this season who really impressed you with their approach?
BM: On the whole, Tanner Peters. He was real calm. He never really got worked up over anything. And he just really focused on executing his pitches and his game plan. Every time we’d go over a scouting report, it’d be like, “I got this guy with this, this guy with that. Let’s keep it up till they make an adjustment.” He was on his game all the time, and it showed in his productivity. So it was good to work with him.
AF: Now what about hitting in the California League? Were there any particular adjustments for you this year?
BM: Not even just in the Cal League, I’ve been making adjustments this year hitting-wise in general. Basically, I was just trying to go out there and just stick to my game plan. Middle-of-the-field is my strong suit. I’m not a very pull-oriented hitter. I’m working on some things. But for the most part, I’m just trying to barrel as many baseballs as possible.
AF: So going forward, what are you primarily going to be focused on in terms of your hitting?
BM: Having an approach and executing that approach. I mean, you’re not always going to get a hit – we do play a game of failure. Just kind of accepting the fact that just because I might be on time or I know what’s coming doesn’t mean it’s always going to work out the way I want. And at the same time, just consistency. Just like behind the plate, my consistent game-calling and attentiveness, I need the same thing at the plate. My biggest goal this year was to make sure I had the biggest progress with my catching in my first full season. I wasn’t really worried about my hitting, and I hit well. So now it’s kind of like I need to put a little more focus into the little things in my hitting and catching just to make things that much better.
2013: 7 HR / 43 BB / 63 K / .275 AVG / .348 OBP / .390 SLG / .739 OPS
AFL: 4 AB / 0 HR / 0 BB / 1 K / .000 AVG / .000 OBP / .000 SLG / .000 OPS
* * *
One of the most popular pieces we’ve featured here on A’s Farm over the past year or so was our profile of A’s super scout (and Moneyball bad guy) Grady Fuson. He was the A’s scouting director from 1995 until 2001, when he left the A’s to become the assistant general manager of the Texas Rangers. Fuson returned to the A’s about three and a half years ago and currently serves as a special assistant to general manager Billy Beane.
Prior to the amateur draft in early-June, Fuson’s duties primarily consist of scouting amateur prospects in preparation for the draft. But once the draft is complete, he begins a tour around the A’s minor league system, checking in on teams from Sacramento and Stockton to Midland and Beloit.
We were fortunate enough to catch up with Fuson in Stockton during the last week of June, before second baseman Grant Green’s recent promotion to the A’s. We took the opportunity to pick the brain of one of baseball’s top talent evaluators and get the lowdown on some of the A’s top hitting and pitching prospects, as well as some of the fresh new talent that’s just entered the system via this year’s draft. But we started out by taking a look at some of the prospects at the top of the system at Sacramento…
AF: Let’s start off with Sonny Gray, who’s obviously been having a great year at Sacramento. I know there were a few things that you guys were working on with him, but it really seems like he’s gotten over the hump at this point.
GF: Well you know, the credit goes to him. He’s not doing everything the way we wanted it done – there’s been variations to it. But that’s the deal with players – there’s give and take – and we don’t want to put players in positions where they’re doing things that are completely uncomfortable. So it’s trial and error. But he has been much more efficient. He’s using his changeup better – he’s still got a ways to go. But the consistency of his starts has been tremendous. With the exception of maybe one early in the year, he hasn’t had a bad start. I’m proud of him. He’s put himself on the map. When you look at our depth, there’s not too many years that go by that you don’t have to dip down there to grab a starter or two, and he’s put himself in a position to at some point be considered, or at least get his first taste of it.
AF: Well at this point, he certainly appears to be first in line based on what he’s done this year. Is there any one single thing that you’d pinpoint as the key to his success this season?
GF: Yeah, effort. I think he is starting to understand pace and rhythm and tempo, to control the effort level of his delivery. And he’s understanding this thing about how to disrupt timing, instead of being hard with everything.
AF: So it’s really about varying his effort.
GF: Yeah. If you go back to all the good things about him when we drafted him, besides his stuff, this guy’s always been a bulldog, he’s always been a competitor. Do not count this guy out – you know, he’ll come back and find a way to kick your ass if you count him out. And all those things are such a big part of it, his character and mentality on the mound.
AF: Another guy at Sacramento who seems to be on a similar trajectory is outfielder Michael Choice. He also seems to have turned a corner this year. So how do you see his development at this point?
GF: I don’t know what clicked over the winter, but something really clicked and he came into camp a little bit of a changed man in his whole approach. He’s slowed some things down like we’ve been asking him to do and has bought into a couple of other things. I think he’s developing a whole awareness of how guys pitch him and what they try to do. This is his third full year now, and I think it’s just maturity. But I’m proud of him. He hasn’t made people walk him off of center field yet. And the only reason we’re playing him in left more right now is if there is a time that he has to go up, with Crisp, with Young, with Cespedes, he probably wouldn’t play center over those guys. So he needs to learn a little bit about some corners, because the ball comes off differently.
AF: Is there any one thing that’s been the key for him?
GF: Maturity. He’s growing up. He’s maturing into that major league mentality you’re waiting to see. You know, most of these guys are kids. And sometimes, as frustrated as we get, you’ve got to remind yourself, “God, he’s just a kid!” But you can tell when they start to speak smart – you can tell by the things they’re saying back to you. That’s when the maturity thing kicks in and they start to give you the right answers – and bingo! But everything else with Michael is the same. He’s healthy, he’s playing every day, he’s having good at-bats, he’s staying consistent.
AF: Is there anything else that you’d like to see him working on at this point that he needs to do to make himself a complete player?
GF: Long term, to stay in center so that we don’t need a center fielder better than him for a long time, I think he’s going to have to be a guy who diligently works on his reads and his routes because he’s going to have to do it with a lot of instinctual things. He’s always had a weakness closing in on the wall. He’s gotten better – he’s working at it. So I think he’s the kind of guy who’s eventually going to have to do certain drills that are going to keep all that really sharp.
AF: What about another outfielder in Sacramento who everyone was so excited about in spring training, Shane Peterson? He started out well but it looks like he’s been struggling a bit lately.
GF: I don’t know that he’s struggling. He’s just not putting up crazy numbers. He’s doing what he does. He had such a tremendous spring, and almost made the damn club. I just think he’s in that mode where it’s not coming out big every night. But the way he goes about playing the game, there’s no issues there.
AF: So you think the impression he made in the spring still lingers with the A’s front office.
GF: Oh, without a doubt.
AF: Now what about Grant Green? Where do you see him with his hitting and with his development at second base at this point?
GF: At second base, he’s still learning the nuances. This is actually his first full year of playing one spot, and there are a lot of little nuances, so he’s still learning that. His errors have been a combination of a lot of different things, maybe some throws on pivots and things. But as far as what he’s doing at the plate, it’s what he does. He hits .300, he’s starting come up a little bit now with the homers, and as he’s seeing it better his walks are going up. He’s right where he needs to be.
AF: Do you see his future more likely as a second baseman or as more of a multi-purpose type of guy?
GF: It just depends on when he goes up and what the need is. But the great thing about him is he can go up and, if Bob Melvin had to use him in three or four different spots, he can do that. But I do think that second base is the one spot that, since the time we started it, he’s gotten a lot better. Center wasn’t that good a look, we questioned whether he was going to be a true everyday shortstop – the growth there just kind of fizzled. But second base, he’s gotten better at it every step of the way.
AF: So you really feel that you’ve seen more discernible progress at second base than any other spot you’ve had him at so far.
AF: Another infielder at Sacramento is Hiro Nakajima. He’s been bouncing all over the place lately – short, second, third…
GF: Well, they had to make him more versatile. He had the rough spring. He got hurt. We open up the year and Donaldson’s killing it and Lowrie’s playing great. You know, he’s in a tough spot right now. So if he’s going to come up, he’s got to learn all three spots. And he has not spent a lot of time at second or third in his whole career. The good thing is he’s obviously playing better and doing things better than what we saw in spring training.
AF: Well, the other piece of the infield puzzle in Sacramento is Jemile Weeks, who’s been playing a little shortstop this year…
GF: He’s played a great shortstop – he’s played very well.
AF: So if he remains in the A’s system in the future, would you see him having to take on more of a utility role, perhaps?
GF: Yeah, possibly, unless he gets a chance to go in there and do something in a spot and play every day and regain something. You know, this is what having depth is all about. I mean, Billy’s sitting back there right now with a ton of chips. We’ve got guys to bring up if somebody goes down who we feel pretty good about, and he’s got some players he can discuss with people if the need arises.
AF: Now in Stockton, the A’s top draft pick last year, 19-year-old Addison Russell, got off a rough start, but he’s been picking it up over the past month or so. So where do you see his development’s at at this point?
GF: He’s way on target. What he went through was everything we somewhat predicted coming out of camp. You’ve got to remember, there’s not too many 19-year-olds in the California League. You know, you go to a level where there’s more guys who throw breaking balls for strikes, there’s more guys who have little cutters, little two-seamers – things he’s never really seen. It’s different. But you’re hoping that he grows and he learns and, by the second half, things start to turn and he has a quality second half. And his attitude’s great, he’s working at it, he’s not getting fatigued. He’s smart enough to start to understand where he’s getting exposed and how we’re going to fix it. So to me, his development is right on target.
AF: So you think it’s pretty much been the natural progression of events – it took him a little while to get used to things, and now he’s gotten used to it…
GF: You know, we could have done it the other way. We could have kicked him off at Beloit and let him somewhat dominate again. But he wouldn’t have gotten as much out of it as he’s getting out of this learning experience.
AF: The bigger challenge. Well, he is still the youngest guy in the league. How has he looked to you in the field?
GF: Super. Look, he’s got 9-10 errors for a high school kid playing on these fields in the Cal League. You know, I’ve been around a lot of shortstops we developed who came through here who’d have 30 at this time. Tejada, Batista, those guys made 40-50 errors in this league. And he’s got 9-10 tops. I think he’s doing pretty good.
AF: Another guy who’s had a really good year in Stockton is first baseman Max Muncy. I remember talking to you about him in the spring and you said you guys were working on developing his power a bit more. So, with 20 home runs under his belt now, it looks like that’s worked out pretty well.
GF: When we took him, a lot of people questioned how much power’s in there. He only hit 6-7 home runs at Baylor. But you watch him in BP in college prior to the draft and you can tell there’s power in there – he just didn’t know how to get to it yet. Last summer, we just kind of let him go play. But then in instructional league, we got started with getting him to feel what it’s like to get some pitches middle-in and how that works to get the head out. We had the same story when we talked about Grant Green a year or so ago, and look what he’s doing now. But the great thing is he’s got great balance, he’s got good rhythm in his swing, and he’s got a tremendous eye, so he sees the baseball well. He swings at strikes and he takes balls – and that makes hitting so much easier. But from a power standpoint, I think he’s growing on everybody.
AF: Yeah, I would imagine you couldn’t be happier with the progress he’s made at this point. A guy who’s had a rougher time of it this year at Stockton though is 2011’s 3rd-round draft pick, third baseman B.A. Vollmuth. So what’s the source of the problem with him?
GF: It’s funny you bring him up, I was just talking to him the other day. He’s just not adjusting well in the strike zone. And I think he’s trying to be too big of a master. He’s trying to hit outer-half pitches the other way and pitches in the middle up the middle – he’s just trying to do too much that he’s not really capable of doing yet. So we talked about staying with his strength. Just look middle/middle-in and if they throw you away, just spit on it and let it go. But look middle/middle-in, and when you get them, hammer them. And just avoid the outer half of the strike zone right now until you get two strikes. But quit trying to be a master all over the strike zone right now. So we’ll see – he’s had a rough go of it.
AF: Now in terms of pitchers, what about right-hander Raul Alcantara? He recently came up to Stockton and I know you had a chance to see his first start.
GF: Yeah, good first one. He didn’t try to do anything different. He commanded his fastball well, both sides of the plate. He’s got a good changeup, and his breaking ball’s starting to show some promise. The breaking ball was always the iffy pitch. His slurve is now turning into somewhat of a legit curveball, and he’s getting some depth to it so he’s getting some swings and misses. And he’s got tempo, he’s got clean moves in his delivery. He’s still young, he’s only 20. He’s doing really good. A good second half here and you never know where it puts him for next year.
AF: Yeah, he could be a fast riser. Another guy who’s been doing a pretty good job at Stockton is Tanner Peters. What’s your take on him at this point?
GF: He’s doing good. We’ve been playing with the breaking ball for a couple of years. He’s always had a good changeup. His velocity is starting to hold. He’s a guy who maybe touches 91-92 mph but pitches at 87-88 mph, but now he’s pitching at 90 mph. We’ve talked about him using his sinker more instead of the four-seamer. He’s got a tendency with his delivery style to have a lot of misses, and misses in bad places, with his four-seamer. So we’ve been talking to him a lot about throwing his sinkers more, which will make him be more efficient, because he can get up with his pitch counts too real easy. But he’s had a very good first half, and we expect it to keep going.
AF: Well, it seems like, as a young pitcher, if you can just keep it together and make it through the Cal League without too much damage, you ought to be all right!
GF: Every ballpark here is a unique experience. You know, you go to High Desert and Lancaster and it’s like a pinball game.
AF: Well the guy who really started out great in Stockton this year and moved up to Midland is Drew Granier. He was dominant last season in the Midwest League and had a great first half in the Cal League this year. Now I know he wasn’t a high draft pick or a top prospect to start out, but what do you think about what he’s doing right now?
GF: Well, he’s been great. It’s hard to pick out negatives when your numbers look the way his do. But there are still some things we’re trying to get from him that he’s fighting a little bit. He’s not as efficient as he needs to be – he gets a little scattered. He’s not using his changeup to the level we need him to use it. But when you win a bunch of games last year and then you come in and win another half a dozen here, it’s kind of hard for him to go, “Okay, let me do it your way.” But the good thing was in his first start in Double-A, if I remember right, he threw 99 pitches and 66 strikes. That’s as efficient a game chart as I’ve seen this year from him, and he also threw 12% changeups, and it’s usually about 6%. But let me tell you, this guy grinds, this guy competes. His breaking ball is getting sharper – guys do not see it, they don’t get good swings. That’s why his strikeouts are so high. When you look at guys in this league who have high strikeout rates, it’s usually a college guy like him who’s getting it done with his breaking ball. But the next level is when all the other stuff starts to come into play. So I’m glad we’ve challenged him. He deserved being moved up. And hopefully he runs with everything we’ve been trying to pound into him.
AF: So he could be a guy who, with the right approach, could really come from the back of the pack to the top of the pack.
GF: Without a doubt. You get this guy between the white lines and he’s something. He fights you out there.
AF: Does anybody else on Midland’s pitching staff jump out at you right now?
GF: You know, Murphy Smith made a nice adjustment. (Minor league pitching coordinator) Scott Emerson picked up on something in spring training and got him closing up a little bit more on his load and it has helped him keep that fastball in the strike zone more, and that’s really what’s helped him a ton. And Sean Murphy continues to compete. We talked about him last year, and I thought he was one of the most improved pitchers in the system a year ago, and he continues to do what he’s doing.
AF: A guy who’s been having a great season at Midland is first baseman Anthony Aliotti. He’s been leading all A’s minor leaguers in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage all year. I know he hasn’t been considered a top prospect, but is there anything more that he can do to put himself on the map?
GF: No, he’s just waiting for an opportunity to get to the next level – in fact, a couple of guys are. It just depends on what’s going on at Sacramento to get these guys moving.
AF: So people do see and appreciate what he’s been doing at Midland this year?
GF: Without a doubt.
AF: Now I wanted to ask you about a guy who was blowing everybody’s mind with his hitting in the first half of last year but who’s really struggled this season. Do you have any insight into what’s been going on with Miles Head this year?
GF: Well, he’s just had a bad 2013. He showed up to camp extremely heavy. And we got him started doing something about it. And then, for whatever reason, he was swinging at air down there in Midland for a while before he got hurt. He’s just been hurt – his shoulder’s barking again, and we had to sit him again. So he’s just had a bad 2013.
AF: So I guess the first thing that needs to happen is that he needs to get healthy…
GF: He needs to get healthy, and in shape. And then we can get his mind right and get this thing going.
AF: Now what about all the young guys at Beloit? That team’s really been having a great season this year.
GF: Yeah, it’s great. They’re having a blast. Ryan Christenson is a hall-of-fame first-year manager. He’s doing a great job. He’s picked up on so many important things. He’s been a great leader for those kids. Just go around the lineup – Maxwell, Olson, Bostick, Robertson, Nunez – they’re all on target. They’re all playing super.
AF: I was going to ask you about the decision to hire Ryan Christenson as the manager at Beloit with all those top prospects there. He’s a former A’s outfielder, but he really didn’t have any previous managing experience.
GF: We were going to hire him just to be the hitting coach, but we had some things happen that kind of forced our hand a little bit. But as we sit here now, there’s not a person in the organization who isn’t just pleased as hell that he’s stepped up and done the job he’s done.
AF: Now what about the job that former top prospect Michael Ynoa has done in Beloit this year?
GF: He’s going 5 innings now routinely, throwing 75-85 pitches, and throwing hard. And the breaking ball’s really getting good. The breaking ball’s now getting a little bit closer to the projection breaking ball that they all thought he might have. I don’t know what his velocity is every night, but I know he’s been up to 97 mph numerous times and pitching 92-95 mph – so you can’t throw it a whole lot harder than that. And he’s healthy – he hasn’t missed a start.
AF: Taking a look at the draft for a minute, what about the A’s top draft pick this year, center fielder Billy McKinney? What did you see when you were scouting him?
GF: I just thought he was one of those special hitters – very instinctual, great swing, balance, aggressiveness, knows the strike zone for an 18-year-old kid. He’s not raw, he runs, he throws, he’s got all the equipment. There’s going to be some power. And where we were in the draft, if this kind of guy got to us in this draft, I’m in!
AF: So did you fall in love with him the first time you scouted him in high school?
GF: Yeah, but he walked five times. They walked him five times, all intentional. I had to come back four days later.
AF: Well at least you knew they were giving him plenty of respect anyway! So did you get a chance to see much of the second hitter the A’s took this year, infielder Chad Pinder?
GF: Yeah, Pinder’s a slender 6’2” who’s got room to grow. He’s got good feet, he throws, he’s a good defender. He ended up playing a lot of shortstop in college this year, but I think down the road he’s probably a third baseman. There’s a chance for some power in there. There’s some things that have to get cleaned up in his approach a bit, but I think he’s a solid pick for where he got him.
AF: Was there anybody else in this year’s draft class who really jumped out at you?
GF: Yeah, Chris Kohler, the high school lefty we got in the compensation round. I liked him a lot and thought he was a great pick where we got him. He’s a 90 mph guy with a good curveball. He’s got fair location now for an 18-year-old. He’s a real baseball guy.
AF: Well, going back to the big league club, with people talking about all the guys down at Sacramento – Grant Green, Jemile Weeks, Hiro Nakajima – do you feel that the A’s have the best defensive middle infielders in the organization up in Oakland on the A’s roster right now?
GF: The most consistent, yes. You know, Sogie’s dynamite. Rosie’s a very good shortstop. Lowrie is playing solid, but the difference is what he’s bringing to us offensively, which we haven’t had out of that position in a while. And that’s the reason we’re winning – we’re winning because we’re a much more offensive club than we have been. We’re on base more, we walk more, and we homer – and our defense is still really, really good. You know, people forget, we’ve got a nice club right now. It’s hard to pick a hole on that club.
AF: Well, that’s always good to hear. Thanks a lot!
* * *
Exclusive: Get the Inside Scoop on the A’s Top Prospects from Sacramento River Cats Skipper Steve Scarsone
After spending the past two seasons mentoring A’s minor leaguers as the manager at Midland, Steve Scarsone is now midway through his first season as the skipper in Sacramento. And he’s currently charged with overseeing the development of a number of the A’s former 1st-round draft picks – players like Sonny Gray, Michael Choice and Grant Green. We had the chance to talk with Scarsone last week and got his take on some of the team’s top prospects who could soon be seeing time in Oakland…
AF: Well, I wanted to start out by asking you about your ace, Sonny Gray. He’s been pretty consistent all year. So what’s your take on where he’s at at this stage of his development?
SS: Well, I think you hit it on the head – he’s been consistent all year. Last year he and I were both in Midland, and we saw him struggle – not on the field – but struggling trying to get a hold of some of the mechanics stuff that the pitching coaches were working with him on and getting away from some of his natural stuff that he had so much success with in college. And you know, it’s kind of tough as a young player because you fall back on your success in your amateur days…
AF: This worked for me before…
SS: Exactly, so there was some resistance to it all. And then eventually over time, there was just a little give and a little take, and he’s found himself a nice little compromising type of mechanics. And it’s a very clean delivery and windup and everything. He’s taken a lot of extra movement out. And it’s keeping him much more in line, which I think is a lot of the reason why he’s had so much more control and command of his fastball. And that’s his pitch – he’s got an A+ fastball. And anytime that he can spot that up, all of his other pitches are going to be all that much more effective. So he’s kind of built off of all those things and he’s had a tremendous season so far, and I think it all stems from that fastball command.
AF: So if the fastball’s going where it ought to go, then everything else falls into place after that.
SS: Certainly. As a hitter, if you’re facing a pitcher who’s putting his fastball where he wants it – in, out, up, down – it makes things tough. I mean, you’ve really got to get yourself geared up for a fastball, and then all of a sudden he comes back with a changeup of his breaking ball, which is a plus breaking ball as well. So he’s really given himself the opportunity to have three quality pitches and really keep hitters from having any kind of comfort in the box.
AF: It certainly seems like his games are a lot more efficient. He’s throwing far fewer pitches and walking far fewer guys and just getting through games a lot more quickly and efficiently.
SS: Exactly right. And that builds confidence, and then that confidence allows him to feel like he’s in control of this game. It’s been really fun to watch him progress from last year to this year, and we’re so excited to see what happens for him in the future.
AF: Well, I guess you’ve seen as much of him in the last couple of years as anyone. So what about his third pitch – the changeup – is that rounding into shape or is that still a work in progress?
SS: Still a work a progress – he still mixes that in with a little cutter, slider. You talk to some catchers, they’ll think it looks like a slider. Some catchers will say it’s a cutter. He says it’s a cutter. So those are things he’s still kind of working on. But just having that variety and dominating with the fastball and making that curveball something the hitter has to be concerned about makes for an effective pitcher.
AF: Another guy you had last year in Midland who also seems to have turned a corner is Michael Choice. So where do you see he’s at at this point?
SS: Well, I think Michael is becoming a much smarter player. He’s always been a smart player since I first got to see him last year. He really dissects his at-bats. He has an understanding of what pitchers are trying to do with him and how they’re trying to get him out, and he tries to get himself in the best position to avoid that. But he’s being more intelligent about how he approaches his game. He used to have a lot of movement in his swing and his set up. It’s a little bit more refined now, a little cleaner. He’s able to adjust himself during the course of a game. To me, that’s an intelligent ballplayer, when you can make adjustments on the fly and you can stay away from doing the same thing that’s not getting you results. He’s able to kind of pull himself away a little bit and redirect his energies. He has a lot of natural ability. His bat speed’s there – there’s a lot of good things there. So for him to make the next step, it’s going to be from those adjustments. And we’re seeing those adjustments, so we think that’s going to be a great advantage for him.
AF: It sounds like the bottom line is obviously he’s a very talented player, and he’s now learned that baseball is a game of constant adjustments – you’ve contantly got to make adjustments – and he’s now doing that.
SS: Exactly right. And I think it’s a good sign that he’s willing to do that. And we also moved him to the corner outfield spots to get him some experience on those. He’s made that adjustment and adapted to that and he’s done a good job there too. So you can see how his natural abilities allow him to adjust to other things as well, not just hitting.
AF: Well, it’s one thing to be talented, but it’s another thing to have some capacity for learning and developing.
SS: Right, yeah. That’s a good point – exactly right.
AF: Now what about Grant Green? He’s been hitting well lately and has been picking it up as the season’s gone on. He’s been out there at second base most of the time, just one position now. Where do you see him at this stage of the game both at the plate and in the field?
SS: Well, offensively as a hitter, we know what he can do. He’s done it at every level. He did it here last year. He’ll continue to hit as long as he wants to play this game. Going from shortstop to the outfield and now to second base has kind of frustrated him. But I also think he’s such a hard worker that he’s taken each position change and he’s run with it. But the move back to second base feels a little more natural to him. It might be the better position for him as opposed to shortstop – having a little bit more time for throws. And there are times when maybe he’s not making the right decision or his reactions were a little bit slow, but he’ll then come to us and ask what he could have done differently or we’ll go to him and tell him what he could have done differently. And that’s why he’s playing predominantly second base here, so that he can experience all those things. I think he should have a nice, easy transition up to the big leagues and he could be an everyday guy up there.
AF: So you think you’re seeing enough continual development from him the more he’s out there everyday at second base that you can pretty easily envision him as a major league second baseman at this point?
SS: Yeah, I think he’s there, especially since his bat plays up. We all know that if you hit, we’ll leave a little defense on the table. So that’s something that I think will make him a little bit more attractive to the major league club down the line. The defense will come. And you never know, he could end up being that guy that will be a full defensive and offensive player. But he’s still learning through some of those experiences.
AF: Well, another infielder who’s been playing a new position is Jemile Weeks, who’s been playing a lot of shortstop this year. So I’m curious to know how you think he’s been doing over there.
SS: Well, we had Green and him both here sharing some time at second base, so he was doing a lot of DH’ing and still is. And when Parrino went up earlier in the season, we had a little hole there at shortstop, so we put our heads together and Jemile said he’d played there in college. So we started working at it, and he did well over there. It took a little while for him to get his feet underneath him a little bit. At second base, you can wait for the ball a little bit more and play a little deeper. At shortstop, you’ve got to be more aggressive and come get balls. He doesn’t have a cannon of an arm, but he’s got a quick release. So he worked on it and he showed some good movement over there. So that’s an option. Obviously he’s done well at second base the days he’s played there. There’s talk of maybe moving him to the outfield (which has since happened). And I think where Jemile’s at in his head, he wants to do whatever he needs to do to make himself more attractive to a big league club. So he’s working hard everyday so he can get back to the big leagues.
AF: So do you think he has the right attitude to do what he needs to do at this point?
SS: I do. I really think his attitude’s been outstanding all season so far. Since day one, he showed up saying, “You know what, I don’t like this. I’d rather be there.” And I said, “No kidding. What are you going to do about it?” And he said, “I’m going to work my ass off and I’m going to be ready for when that chance comes.” And I said, “That’s all you can do, and I’ll help you.” So he’s been right on. I’ve been proud of the way he’s handled it.
AF: Now another piece of the infield puzzle is Hiro Nakajima. He’s been moving around getting looks at different positions – short, second, third. So can you tell me what you think of him at these different spots?
SS: Well, obviously he came over as a shortstop. Right now we’re trying to get him to gain some first-step movement. I think the years of playing in Japan, so many years on turf, he became a little bit of a sit-back-and-make-the-plays type of guy. So he’s got to train himself to be a little more of a grass-type player. But he’s really started to play with a lot more personality. He got the injury in spring training, and he worked his way through that. And I think he was a little hesitant when he first got here to Sacramento. But now that he’s feeling that the injury’s healed, we’re seeing much more energy, much more aggressiveness both on defense and offense, and it’s been fun to watch. We’ve decided to give him some experience at third and second just to give Oakland an opportunity if a utility-type role presents itself, since Lowrie’s having such a good season at shortstop. But his bat has come along, and you never know what could happen. He’s working hard and showing good progress and starting to look like a young kid.
AF: So, as of today, who would you say would be the best defensive second baseman on your roster?
SS: Green’s had the most reps over there. Parrino’s probably our best defensive player, but he hasn’t done much on that side there because of Weeks and Green predominantly taking all the playing time over there. But I really like what Green’s accomplished so far. He’s shown much more range. He’s much more consistent with the routine play. His turns and feeds are becoming more and more consistent. And that’s all we can ask for is to see the continual improvement.
AF: Is there anyone on your roster who I haven’t mentioned who’s particularly impressed you this season?
SS: In terms of position players, we picked up Stephen Vogt from the Rays right at the end of spring training – obviously he just went up, so it’s easy for me to say. But he’s been very impressive both offensively and defensively. And for a guy who didn’t really catch a whole lot the last couple of years, he’s been thrown into an everyday catching role and he’s stepped up and really been outstanding behind the plate in both working with the pitchers as well as blocking and throwing and all that other stuff. He’s been very impressive as well off the field, the leadership role he’s brought over too. So I had no problem at all letting the folks in Oakland know that he was a quality guy. We’re going to miss him while he’s gone.
Find out more about the A’s top prospects straight from their own mouths. Check out our recent interviews with Sonny Gray, Michael Choice and Grant Green here.
* * *
The Sacramento River Cats boast three Pacific Coast League All-Stars this season – outfielder Michael Choice, second baseman Grant Green and pitcher Sonny Gray. All are former 1st-round draft picks and all could soon be seeing time in Oakland, so you forward-looking A’s fans ought to get acquainted with them while you can. We took the opportunity to talk with all three of them, along with River Cats pitching coach Rick Rodriguez, while in Sacramento last week to see how things are shaping up for some of the A’s top prospects…
The A’s top pick in 2010, Choice struggled a bit last year with Midland. But he had a great spring and seems to have turned the corner this year in Sacramento. With Chris Young not likely to be retained by the A’s next season, Choice could be in line to see time in the A’s outfield next year…
AF: You’ve been having a good year here in Sacramento, and you had a really good spring too. Did you have a little extra confidence, because it seems like you just came out the chute raring to go this year?
MC: Just going back to the off-season, I spent a lot of time working in the off-season and getting myself ready for spring training. And all the hard work just paid off.
AF: Was there anything you did different this off-season as opposed to the past?
MC: Not too different. I had a little more time to get things going. The off-season before I went to the [Arizona] Fall League, the season before that there was instructs (instructional league). So there was a lot more time to kind of rest and get yourself into more of a routine that you’d like to get into. So basically I had a lot of time to get in the cage, especially in the winter when it’s cold.
AF: So how did everyone treat you when you were in the big league camp this spring?
MC: Yeah, everybody’s cool up there. For the most part, the A’s clubhouse is pretty young. There’s not too many older guys up there, so everybody’s real receptive to each other.
AF: Was there anyone in particular who took you under their wing or took the time to show you the ropes a bit?
MC: Not anybody in particular. But I spent a lot more time with most of the outfielders in camp. Coco, C.Y., Reddick, Seth Smith – those guys are the ones I talked to the most up there.
AF: Well, after the spring you had, you must have had a lot of confidence and been pretty eager to get things going.
MC: Yeah, definitely. You’re always ready to get the season started because spring training gets long, especially once you go down to minor league camp. It’s the same thing everyday, and you’re just ready for some real games where it matters.
AF: So what would you say has been the key to the success you’ve been having this year?
MC: Just the experience of the game. The more games you play in, the more experience you get, the more you see guys, you just get into a routine of how to get better.
AF: It seems like you’ve been taking a lot of walks and getting on base a lot this year. Is there anything different in your approach at the plate, or is there anything different in what you’re looking for or what you’re trying to do at the plate?
MC: Not so much, just kind of basically picking up where I left off at the end of last year at Midland – just really trying to swing at good pitches, pitches I can handle that are more up in the zone and trying to leave the ones down alone.
AF: And what about your basic swing and your mechanics, how much are you still tweaking that, or are things pretty much settled in now?
MC: I mean, with hitting, you’re always tweaking something, but most of the time, it’s more mental than physical. At this point, I work on the physical stuff before the game, but once the game starts, it’s all mental and you’re more worried about what the pitcher has and how you’re going to be successful against him.
AF: Now they’ve been having you spend a little time in left field and right field this year. So how is it different for you playing the corner positions rather than center field?
MC: Corners are a little bit faster. You’ve got to read angles. Knowing the hitter’s important – which guys like to pull, which guys like to hit the ball opposite field. But it’s been going good so far, just getting my reps in during BP and making sure I can get good reads in the game.
AF: So is there anything in particular that you’re currently focused on working on either in the field or at the plate, or is it now just a matter of going out everyday and trying to follow through on the approach that you’ve developed at this point?
MC: You pretty much just hit the nail on the head right there. You know, everything I’ve done in preparation before the game, I just want that to play in the game.
AF: When you left the big league camp in spring training, did Bob Melvin or anybody pat you on the back or let you know they appreciated what they saw from you in camp this year?
MC: Yeah, you have those sit-down meetings before you get sent out, and they basically just said, “Keep working hard and knock the door down.”
The A’s top pick in 2009, Green has been a man without a home in the field. He started out as a shortstop, then switched to the outfield, and even saw a little time at third base. But he finally seems to be settling in at second base this season. And with the middle infield the murkiest part of the A’s major league roster, many A’s fans are already clamoring for Green to get his shot…
AF: You’ve been having a good year here, and things have been going well for you at the plate. So are there any particular adjustments you’ve made this season?
GG: Nothing different really, just the same stuff we were working on last year.
AF: And what was the key stuff you were working on last year?
GG: Just better plate discipline, better balance – that’s something we worked really hard on last year. I kind of had a good season and wanted to keep it going this year.
AF: So are you waiting more for your pitch now?
GG: Yeah, definitely not trying to get that pitcher’s pitch early and just waiting on mine.
AF: It seems like you’ve been hitting an awful lot of doubles this year. Is that just due to waiting for the right pitch a little more?
GG: Yeah, I’ve had a little bit more success hitting balls in the gap this year. I’ve always been the type of guy who’s had quite a few doubles. I think last year was the lowest amount of doubles I’ve had in a season. But it’s definitely just been a matter of getting my pitch and doing something with it.
AF: Were you feeling pretty confident to start the year?
GG: Yeah, then I hit a little valley here and there. I went on a couple of stretches that weren’t the best.
AF: Well, it seems like you’re in one of your best stretches of the year right now. Are you just seeing the ball really well right now?
GG: Yeah, I’m definitely just seeing the ball well. I’ve had a couple of at-bats where the ball’s fallen for me, and that kind of happens when you’re going well. So it’s been a combination of both.
AF: Well, you’ve also been hitting them over the wall and in the gaps lately too, so that’s not just luck. (He would hit two home runs in the game later that night). But what about in the field? You’ve been playing second base for most of the season, and it’s a rarity for you to be at one spot most of the season. How do you feel about second base and how are things developing for you over there?
GG: I’m feeling good. I’m definitely feeling a lot more comfortable than I was at the beginning of the year. It’s almost becoming second nature now. So that’s definitely a good feeling – being able to worry about one position only. I’m still just doing the usual, just working on little stuff here and there – whether it’s turning two around the bag, because it’s just a different look from what I’m used to, or different feeds to second base. Those are really the main two things that we work on.
AF: You’ve obviously spent plenty of time playing shortstop, so how does second base compare to shortstop for you? What’s different for you over there?
GG: Definitely, the view off the bat is much different. But other than that, the only other thing I really see that’s different is the turns. Coming from short, you’re able to kind of read the play because everything’s in front of you – you see the ball, see the runner. When you’re at second base, it’s more of a reaction thing, more of a feel, that you know on certain balls you’ve got to get rid of it quick and on other balls you’ve got a little bit more time and you can stay in there.
AF: And are you feeling more confident every day you’re out there at second?
GG: Oh yeah, much more confident. Like you said, it’s a rarity that I’ve been able to stay at one position most of the year. So it’s definitely nice to be able to know when you come to the yard that not only are you going to be playing but the odds are you’re going to be at one position and you’re going to be able to work on that one position during BP.
AF: So do you pay much attention to what’s going on with the big league club in Oakland and how they’re doing and how guys up there are playing?
GG: Not really, other than the guys I’ve come to know through the system who’ve gotten called up. Other than that, it’s not the thing on my mind. I’m a River Cat right now, and that’s what I am. So until that call-up comes, I’m going to be here in Sacramento being a River Cat.
AF: So do you live with any teammates here in Sacramento during the season?
GG: I’ve got an apartment just for the season with a couple of guys here – Ryan Ortiz and Paul Smyth have lived with me throughout the year.
AF: And finally, after long avoiding Twitter, there now seems to be a Twitter account for you (@GreenieLocks8). Now was that created by Sonny Gray and Bruce Billings, or does that actually belong to you?
GG: (Laughs) No, it is not mine. It’s something they have fun with. They definitely asked me if they could do it, and I said yes. It’s all fun. I’m not on the Twitter game, but more than likely, I’ll probably take it over at some point.
AF: So you were somewhat complicit in this thing anyway.
GG: Yeah, I told them as long as they didn’t get me in trouble, it was okay.
The A’s top pick in 2011, Gray had a lot to learn last year in his first full season at Midland. But he seems to have gotten over the hump this year at Sacramento and is clearly the A’s top pitching prospect, poised to pounce as soon as an opportunity pops up on the big league pitching staff. We had the chance to see his last start in Sacramento, where he allowed 4 runs in the 2nd inning but righted the ship and otherwise pitched flawlessly over 7 innings of work and walked away with a no-decision in a game the River Cats won. We talked to him in the Cats’ clubhouse after the game, along with Oakland Clubhouse’s Chris Biderman. Below are some selections from that post-game question-and-answer session…
Q: I know you’ve been working on your changeup for quite a while. So where do you feel you’re at with the changeup right now?
SG: I think it’s good. I think I threw 7 pitches in the 5th or 6th inning tonight, and I think I threw 5 changeups and got some early contact. So I’m very confident – I’ll throw it whenever, to righties or lefties. Tonight it got me out of the 2nd inning with the double play, and I got a lot of swings and groundballs and soft contact with it.
Q: Do you feel a lot more confident throwing it this year than you would have at any point last year?
SG: Oh, at any point in my whole career, in my whole life. It’s just something that finally got in my mind that it helps me and it makes me that much better of a pitcher.
Q: How do you feel about your overall command?
SG: I think it’s better than it’s been. It’s obviously something that you’re always going to work on. You’re always going to try to get better at that. But even tonight – I missed up in the zone a little bit in the 2nd inning and got hit – but other than that, it was a walk on a close pitch here, a walk on a close pitch there.
Q: If you had that kind of 2nd inning in a start last year, you might not have been able to recover. How much different of a pitcher are you now than you were at this time last year?
SG: I’ve felt really comfortable on the mound this whole year. I had a little bump in the road in the 2nd inning, and last year I might not have been able to make the adjustment and tone it down a little bit and start throwing changeups and curveballs for strikes and making my fastball look a little better. You know, it’s kind of frustrating to give up 4 runs in the 2nd inning feeling as good as I felt tonight, but it’s also kind of rewarding to be able to still get 7 innings after throwing almost 40 pitches in 1 inning.
Q: You took over the PCL lead in strikeouts tonight. Is that something you’re able to take some pride in?
SG: I think strikeouts are never a bad thing because you can kind of shut down an inning. But I think I am striking more guys out this year than last year.
Q: Is that because of the refinement of your secondary pitches?
SG: I think so. I think I’m getting a lot of swings on my breaking ball, and that’s probably because my fastball’s a little bit better this year and I’m throwing my breaking ball noticeably better this year than I did last year. I don’t know if it’s the weather here that allows you to do that. In Midland, it’s a little bit tough, but I have noticed that my breaking pitches have been better.
Q: Was it kind of cool to face a guy like Eric Chavez who’s been in the big leagues for as long as he has, or was that even on your mind at all?
SG: No, it wasn’t on my mind really. I didn’t really know.
Q: Is there anything in particular you’re focused on working on right now now that you’re feeling confident in the changeup a little more?
SG: The only thing I’m doing every time out is just trying to make pitches and get as many outs as possible. There’s not one thing that I would say I’m getting lectured on. It’s just trying to get outs every time you get out there.
Q: So at this point, it’s just a matter of executing the game plan and doing everything you know you need to do.
SG: Yeah, right.
Rick Rodriguez is the long-time River Cats pitching coach, though he also served a brief stint as the A’s bullpen coach last season. He’s had a hand in developing many of the A’s most talented young pitchers, and is now entrusted with guiding Sonny Gray’s glide path to the majors…
AF: So I wanted to talk to you primarily about Sonny Gray. Obviously he’s had a really good season and he kind of looks like he’s gotten over the hump. So, as his pitching coach here this year, can you define from your perspective what he’s been doing right this season?
RR: Yeah, this is really the first year I’ve ever worked with him. I remember him from spring training last year. And just going by the little bit I saw last year compared to this year, it’s like night and day. His command of his fastball has gotten a lot better. His changeup has gotten a lot better. He’s getting more confidence in it – he can throw it pretty much anytime now. His curveball has always been nasty. And he’s learning how to pitch. He’s learning that you just can’t pump fastballs in there all the time. So he’s using that changeup. He’s learning to pitch back and forth and learning how to use that changeup when he’s behind in the count.
AF: It certainly seems like his outings have been a lot more efficient. He’s throwing far fewer pitches, he’s not walking a lot of guys. So what’s the source of that newfound efficiency?
RR: I think it’s just more confidence. Coming into this level, he’s seeing that he can compete and dominate this league. And hopefully for however long he’s here, he can continue to do that and then when he goes to the big leagues he’ll have all the confidence in the world.
AF: Now what about his third pitch – the changeup? I know that’s something the organization’s been working on with him for a while now. So how’s that been developing?
RR: Yeah, I give him credit. He’s working hard in the bullpen on it. That’s part of his routine – he works it in. He knows you do X amount of fastballs here, okay now we’re going to do the changeup. He’s limiting the use of his breaking ball in his side work – he’s working primarily fastball/changeup. And I think that’s translated into the success he’s having right now.
AF: And I’m assuming that his command has improved as well, that he’s putting pitches where he wants to more frequently.
RR: Yeah, more frequently – there’s always room for improvement. And every once in a while, just like anybody else, all of a sudden the fastball command gets off track and then gets back on track. But his command has gotten a lot better.
AF: Is there any one particular thing that you’re trying to work on with him right now?
RR: You know, I keep talking to him – we preach first-pitch strikes. So we’re always working on first-pitch strikes. But in addition to that, once you get 0-1, hey let’s get 0-2. Instead of throwing a ball, let’s go 0-2 and start really putting those guys in a defensive mode. And I think he’s starting to understand that – he’s trying. It’s a learning process, and he’s still very young, so he’s still learning how to do all that.
AF: So you’d really like to make him even more aggressive right off the bat.
RR: Yeah, he’s got all the talent in the world. And like I said, he’s very young and he’s still working on some things, but he’s going to be a good one.
AF: Well, at this point, he’s the next prospect in line if anything should happen. So what do you think he still needs to do to be in a position to be a successful major league pitcher?
RR: His mound presence is very good. His emotional presence is very good in the dugout. I think that’s a big plus for him – I think he’s learned that. The one thing I think he probably needs to do is the execution of his pitches probably needs to be a little bit more consistent – meaning if the catcher’s going fastball down and away to a right-handed hitter, I want him to hit that fastball down and away or miss down and away, not for it to come back over the plate. And just like with anybody else, you get in little ruts and sometimes the ball does come back over. And with Sonny, he’s learning, if that ball does come back over, what to do to get it where he wants it. And I think if he can improve on that, he’s going to be tough.
AF: Is there anyone else on your staff here you’ve seen show a lot of improvement this year?
RR: Well, I had Scribner when I was the bullpen coach in Oakland last year. But down here, his control has gotten so much better. His curveball has gotten to the point where he can throw it pretty much at any time wherever he wants. And he’s doing very well both against left-handed hitters and right-handed hitters. Brian Gordon has come on very, very strong. He’s learned to command the strike zone with all his pitches. He tightened up his slider, which I think helped. Pedro Figueroa worked on some mechanical things and now his fastball command has gotten much better. His slider’s gotten a little bit sharper. So guys are still working, trying to get better, trying to iron out some stuff. But those three guys have come in and improved tremendously.
AF: So you think Scribner is a dramatically improved pitcher from what you saw of him in Oakland last year?
RR: Yeah, from what I saw of him in Oakland and from what I see now. Again, it’s about executing. But if he can just keep executing in Oakland the way he is here, he’s going to be fine.
Find out more about the A’s top prospects. Get the inside scoop on Choice, Green and Gray from their manager, Sacramento River Cats skipper Steve Scarsone, here.
* * *
There’s no question that two of the A’s top hitting prospects can currently be found in the clubhouse of the California League Stockton Ports. The A’s 8th overall draft pick in last year’s draft, first baseman Max Muncy, currently leads all A’s minor leaguers in home runs and RBIs. And the A’s top pick last year, 19-year-old Addison Russell, is second on his team in runs, walks, doubles, total bases and stolen bases and currently leads the team in triples. We took the opportunity to talk with both of them while in Stockton last week, along with their manager, Webster Garrison, to get some perspective on how things have been shaping up for some of the A’s top prospects this season in Stockton…
From day one, the A’s have been aggressive in promoting their top draft pick from last year, shortstop Addison Russell. And this year, the team chose to start him at Stockton in the High-A California League, where he had the distinction of being the youngest player in the league. The 19-year-old struggled early on, but he’s turned things around and has really been coming on strong of late…
AF: At 19, you’re the youngest player in the California League this year. So does anybody give you a hard time about being so young?
AR: Not really, I’m usually just treated as another guy here.
AF: You started the season out kind of slow, but the last month or so, you really seem to be putting it together. So what accounted for the early struggles, and what’s accounted for the turnaround?
AR: I think I’m just more relaxed now. I’m seeing more pitches. I’m seeing more time on the field. I’m just more relaxed, and I think I perform at my best whenever I feel that way.
AF: Was there a lot for you to get used to when you first came to the California League?
AR: Yeah, me being a young guy, I kind of had to soak everything in. And there was just a lot of stuff that I wasn’t used to, so I had to make a few adjustments, and I did.
AF: Besides just getting more relaxed and more comfortable at the plate, what were some of the adjustments you had to make?
AR: It’s really just recognizing the pitch. Before this league, I never really saw a cutter or a two-seam [fastball], and I’m seeing those pitches really well now. That was just a little adjustment that I had to make.
AF: What about in the field, are there any differences for you at this level?
AR: Yeah, it’s a little bit of a faster-paced level. The guys that hit are a little bit quicker to first base and second base, and I have to get rid of the ball a little bit faster, so I had to make that adjustment. But overall, I’m just working on my whole game.
AF: Do you feel you have to try to come in on the ball a little faster now?
AR: I still try to stay in that relaxed state, but just get the ball out a little bit quicker.
AF: You got to spend a little time in the big league camp this spring. So what did you take away from that experience?
AR: I really just tried to get to know the guys and see how they practice, their approaches, their work ethic, just what they do everyday to get prepared for the game. And I try to really put that into my routine and my preparation for the game.
AF: Well, I guess you got a good sense of how the major leaguers do it anyway. So was everybody cool to you there?
AR: Yeah, they were all nice and friendly. They came up and talked to me for a little bit and introduced themselves and I introduced myself to them. It was just a good experience.
AF: So have you kept in touch with your boys in Beloit – Daniel Robertson and Matt Olson?
AR: Yeah, we text and we snapchat and all that stuff every now and then. It’s always good to hear they’re doing good, and it’s always good to hear from them.
AF: Well, you’re from Florida, so how is it for you living out here in California?
AR: It’s a little different than back home. There’s a lot of one-way streets – I’m not used to that.
AF: Have you turned the wrong way yet?
AR: A few times. But other than that, it’s not too bad. We’re staying in a good part of town. There’s some good people there. I’m familiarizing myself with the area, and it’s a nice place.
AF: Do you share a place with some of your teammates?
AR: Yeah, I’m with a few teammates in an apartment – Dusty Robinson, Tanner Peters and Rashun Dixon.
AF: Has your family been out to visit you and see you play at all?
AR: My dad came out here at the beginning of last month and it was just awesome that he kind of got to experience what I’ve been living for the past few months. He enjoyed being out here and seeing his son play. And I’m hoping the other side of my family – my mom, my sisters and my brother – can come out here. I think they would enjoy it.
AF: Well you know, Sacramento’s right up the road – the Triple-A affiliate. Have you had a chance to get up there yet?
AR: Yeah, I’ve been up there to play a pre-season game with the Ports. And it was a pretty nice spot – it was really, really nice.
AF: Well, you never know, it might be home before long!
Besides Addison Russell, the only other member of last year’s draft class for the A’s to start the season as high as Stockton this year is first baseman Max Muncy. The 22-year-old came roaring out of the gate this season and currently leads all A’s minor leaguers with 20 home runs, which is a bit of a pleasant surprise, since he totaled just 4 last year…
AF: Obviously, you’ve been having a good year here in Stockton. So what’s been the key to your success this season?
MM: I feel like I’ve been swinging the same way I’ve swung my whole life. The only difference is there’s been a few more home runs…
AF: Just a few?
MM: (Laughs) Just a few…Yeah, I’ve never put up home run numbers like this. A lot of people say it’s because of the ballpark, it’s because of the league we’re in – maybe a couple of them, but for the most part, I think the big difference is I spent a lot of the off-season working on back-spinning balls. If anyone saw me play last year, they’d notice I had a ton of doubles, but all of them were top-spin balls right down the line. Even the ones I was hitting in the gaps weren’t back-spun, they were spinning sideways, top-spin – they didn’t have back-spin, so they weren’t carrying as much. To me, that’s the big difference. If you hit line drives with back-spin, they tend to carry a little bit more than everything else, so I feel like that’s been the big difference when it comes to my home run numbers.
AF: So you started working on that at home this off-season?
MM: Well, I’ve always had a big problem with top-spin. A lot of lefties have that problem. There’s not many lefties that back-spin all the time. So that’s something I’ve been working on for a while. And this off-season, I really tried to focus on that. I just worked on getting a more downward plane to the ball, staying inside of it a little bit and not coming out early on my swing. And I feel like that’s been a huge difference for me.
AF: I know I was talking with some coaches in spring training who were talking about developing your power potential more. So I don’t know if people have always thought that you had greater power potential than you’ve shown in the past.
MM: Yeah, that’s what a lot of people have thought. You know, I’ve never put up huge home run numbers. In college, I always had a couple, but I wasn’t hitting 15-16 home runs in college like some guys were. So I think they saw it, and I knew I had it. But I’ve been a line drive hitter my whole life, and I still feel like I’m a little bit of a line drive hitter. The only difference is I’m hitting line drives with back-spin that are going a little bit more up in the air because they’ve got that back-spin and they carry.
AF: What’s the most home runs you’ve ever had in a season before?
MM: Probably back in high school. I don’t know what my numbers were in high school. But as far as I can remember, I had 11-12 as a freshman in college.
AF: So when the season started out and everything started going so well for you right off the bat, you must have been thinking, “Gee, this is working out even better than I planned!”
MM: It was a pretty unreal experience for me. I was getting very good contact on a lot of the balls I was hitting. I was putting them in the air, and I wasn’t popping them up – I was hitting them really well. It’s hard to explain, because I’ve never had a start like that before. I’ve never just hit home run after home run, and to do that was pretty amazing. I had friends calling me from school back home saying, “Hey, mix in an infield single every now and then – those are pretty cool too.” It was a lot of fun, and I think I let that get to my head a little bit…
AF: I was going to ask you about that little dip you had in May…
MM: I really think I let it get to my head a little bit. I saw the home runs and I was thinking, “Hey, maybe I can hit more if I start lifting more.” And I was hitting a lot of pop-ups, I wasn’t getting very good contact. I think my strikeout numbers went up. And that’s something I hate doing too – I hate striking out. In the game yesterday, I had a home run but I struck out twice, and I think I was more upset about the strikeouts than I was happy about the home run. That’s another thing I’ve always taken a lot of pride in is walking more than I’ve struck out.
AF: Well, that’ll serve you well in this organization! So you think you started getting a little too homer-happy after the hot start and got a little out of your game?
MM: Yeah, I definitely think I got out of my game. I was trying to lift the ball too much. We went to a couple places like Lancaster, where the wind was just howling out to right field, and I saw that and automatically I’m thinking, “Oh, I’m getting a couple of home runs.” It got to my head, and I wasn’t hitting very many balls. So I had to come back down to earth a little bit and realize that’s not going to happen all the time. I’ve just got to go back to hitting my line drives, and that’s when the home runs started coming again.
AF: Well, stick with what works! Now I remember hearing good things about your defense going back to when you were first drafted. So is there anything different about playing in the field at this level?
MM: I’ve always taken pride in my defense at first base. I’ve always felt like I’m a little bit of an above average defender at first base because I was never a first baseman. When I went to college, I was recruited there as a second baseman/third baseman. So I’ve always had decent feet and good hands, and I feel like taking that to first base is a huge advantage for me. I know I can get around balls and what I need to do. I can get reads on short hops. That’s just something I’ve always taken a lot of pride in. I’ve always loved being a good defender. To me, it’s a good feeling when I’m able to make the other infielders feel comfortable throwing the ball across the field to me. I’ve been there before. Like I said, I wasn’t always a first baseman. I’ve had first baseman before where you weren’t sure if they were going to catch it or they were going to miss it. So I take a lot of pride in that.
AF: I never realized you’d played second and third before. So you’ve really got much more of that infielder’s mentality.
MM: Yeah, I’d never played first base until I got to college. And the only reason they put me there is that’s where the open spot was on the team, and they just wanted my bat in the lineup. I got there my first year, and I just ended up staying there until now. And as far as I know, the A’s have told me that’s where I’m staying. I’m always going to mess around at those other positions just in case – I think that’d be a fun opportunity.
AF: Well, I guess the way the season’s started for you has given you a lot of confidence anyway, which always helps, right?
MM: Yeah, it definitely helps. It’s been a really fun year so far, and I’m really looking forward to the second half. Hopefully I can stay a little bit more consistent, and not have a month that kind of drops off a little bit.
AF: Well, no matter what, as long as you keep taking those walks and getting on base, you’ll get through it!
The Ports are managed by Webster Garrison. The affable former infielder is in his third season as Stockton’s skipper and has plenty to say about the team’s top prospects…
AF: I wanted to start out by asking you about shortstop Addison Russell. He started out a little shaky this year. But what have you seen from him in the three months that he’s been here so far?
WG: The kid’s a hard worker. But he’s not putting as much pressure on himself as he was earlier in the season. There were a lot of expectations on him, and he was just trying so hard to get it done, then he started getting a little frustrated as well. Now he’s got it going a little bit. We moved him in the lineup from first to second just to take a little pressure off him where he’s not the first guy up every night. And he’s just settling in and having fun. He’s a good guy – the guys enjoy his company out here. And he’s just started to get comfortable out there and play extremely well as of late.
AF: So you think it’s just been a matter of him relaxing and getting comfortable with things?
WG: Yeah, taking the pressure off himself and just relaxing and playing baseball.
AF: What specific adjustments has he had to make?
WG: Well, hitting-wise, which is what he was struggling with the most, he has to be able to use the whole field. Instead of just trying to crank every ball out of the ballpark, now he’s starting to use the whole field. He’s waiting back better. He’s not as jumpy. He’s not as anxious. He’s just relaxing and letting the ball come to him and hitting it where it’s pitched compared to trying to go get it. And he’s getting to know these pitchers a lot better. Basically, he didn’t know any of these pitchers. Now that we’ve been through a couple of teams a few times, he knows what they’ve got and he knows how they’re trying to attack him and he’s made a good adjustment and he’s having fun.
AF: So do you think he’s a fast learner?
WG: Yeah, he’s definitely a fast learner for a 19-year-old kid. Most 19-year-old kids would probably still be in struggle mode right now. But he’s turning a corner and it’s good to see, and he’s a mature kid for his age.
AF: Well, having a fast learning curve sure makes your life a lot easier!
WG: It makes my life a lot easier, and I definitely feel a lot better right now!
AF: Now what about defense, how’s his learning curve been in the field?
WG: He’s got all the actions. He’s got the arm. He’s preparing himself. He’s coming in, getting the notes, getting to know the hitters. He’s positioning himself well. I don’t have to watch him as much as I used to because I know he’s got a good idea what he’s doing out there. He’s got good hands and a strong arm and has definitely got the actions. He’s got a lot of range out there.
AF: Another guy who’s been a standout this year is first baseman Max Muncy, who came in and hit from day one with surprising power. So I’m curious to get your take on what he’s been doing here this year.
WG: Yeah, since day one, he’s been swinging a real good bat, and it all started in spring training. He came into spring training swinging a good bat, so he’s just kept it going all season. He’s got a real good idea of hitting. The kid knows what he wants to do. And when he’s getting his pitch, he’s not missing it much. He was the only lefty in our lineup in the first half, so on certain occasions they really wouldn’t pitch to him, and he made the adjustment and takes his walks if he has to. And if they challenge him, he’s ready. He’s using the whole park as well, but his strong side’s his pull side. So when he gets that pitch in, he’s ready for it. And he’s laying off away until he gets two strikes, and he can definitely go that way as well. He’s a good-looking young hitter.
AF: What would you say is his single greatest strength as a hitter?
WG: I would say his swing – where he hits the ball. He goes through the ball and bottom-halfs it. He knows he’s not one of the best runners, so he’s trying to stay off the ground and he’s working hard on creating that back-spin where he’s in the air mostly. And it’s paid big dividends for him compared to pounding balls on the ground. He’s got that back-spin bottom-half where that ball’s getting up in the air, and it’s a good idea to be hitting like that here and in the California League period.
AF: I wanted to ask you about a couple of pitchers. Raul Alcantara recently joined your club. So what do you think of what you’ve seen from him so far?
WG: I saw him in spring training as well. Yesterday he was good. He went after hitters. He attacked hitters with all his pitches and got some easy outs and did a good job overall. He only had one walk, and that was late in his outing, which is a big key. If you’re throwing strikes, you’re definitely going to have some success.
AF: What about another guy who was here but was recently promoted to Midland, Drew Granier. What did you see from him?
WG: This kid’s a fierce competitor. He expects the best when he goes out there. And he’s got the pitches. He’s working on his changeup still, but his fastball’s moving, his breaking ball’s moving, and he’s got a great idea of pitching. He’s a little older kid than Alcantara – he’s a college kid – but he’s got a real good idea of pitching, and he’s aggressive – he goes after guys.
AF: One last question that you may or may not have an answer to. There’s a guy who was blowing everybody’s mind here last year – Miles Head. I’m sure you remember him. Even though I know you haven’t seen him this year in the Texas League, do you have any idea what might be the problem with him this season?
WG: He’s got a lot of injuries this year. It’s a slow start for him. He’s been on the DL twice this year. I heard he’s hit some balls well, just right at guys. I know Miles is going to turn it on sooner or later. It’s just a tough deal because I know he’s kind of injured and is off to a slow start. But as soon as he gets it together, I know the kid’s going to hit. It’s a beautiful thing watching him hit!
AF: I’m sure you enjoyed it!
* * *
Originally drafted by Tampa Bay back in 2007, veteran minor league catcher Stephen Vogt didn’t get his first cup of coffee in the big leagues until last year when, at the age of 27, he got into 18 games for the Rays. The A’s acquired him just after the 2013 season started and sent him to Sacramento, where he’s been one of the River Cats’ most productive hitters this season, batting .325 with 9 home runs in 231 at-bats.
With starting catcher John Jaso’s hand still bothering him, Oakland decided to call on Vogt this week. So now, at 28, the left-handed-hitting backstop is getting his second shot in the majors with the A’s. In his first at-bat against Cincinnati on Tuesday night, Vogt drove in a run with a sacrifice fly. Two night’s later, he homered against St. Louis for his first major league hit. And, fortunately, A’s Farm was there to catch up with Vogt on his first day in Oakland as the team prepared to play Cincinnati later that night…
AF: So when did you find out you were coming up to Oakland?
SV: Last night, right after our game. You know, we had the rain delay, so it was a little later – it was about 11:15. (River Cats manager) Steve Scarsone took me in the office and just said, “What’s the best thing you could hear right now?” I said, “I’m going up.” And he said, “There you are.” So here we are – I’m here tonight!
AF: Did you come down to Oakland last night?
SV: No, it was way too late last night. So we drove down this morning.
AF: Do you know if you’re playing today?
SV: I’m catching.
AF: So you’re thrown in with a bunch of pitchers you never even had a chance to be around in spring training. What’s that like?
SV: You know, it’s a learning curve. You have to rely on them. I’m going to help them out the best I can. I’ve talked with D-No (Derek Norris) and Jaso a little bit about them already, and they’ve been great in helping me out. So it’s just a matter of going out there and seeing what I can do.
AF: Well, it’s three hours till game time. So have you had a chance to talk to tonight’s starting pitcher Tommy Milone yet?
SV: Not yet. I haven’t even met him.
AF: So I guess you’re just hoping to meet him before you get out on the field.
AF: Do you have any family or friends here for your debut with the A’s tonight?
SV: Yeah, my wife and daughter, and my parents and my grandparents and my aunt are going to be here tonight. I’m from Visalia, so everybody’s local.
AF: You’ve been hitting well in Sacramento all year. So what accounts for your success at the plate this season?
SV: A lot of it is just getting off to a good start. You come out in your first game of the year and get three hits, and it’s like, “All right, here we go.” And that lineup down there is a pretty good lineup, and hitting around a lot of good guys is going to get you a lot of good pitches to hit, and I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of success so far.
AF: Well, down in Sacramento you’ve been catching Sonny Gray, who seems to have gotten over the hump this year. From your perspective as a catcher, what have you seen from him this season?
SV: Electric stuff – three great pitches. He really is learning how to pitch. He’s learning how to get people out. He’s competing really well. Honestly, I just can’t say enough about how he’s coming along. He’s going to be something pretty special.
AF: Is there any one thing that’s been the key to his success this year?
SV: Just his command. When he’s on, he’s on. He struggles a little bit sometimes with his command. But for the most part, this year, he’s been outstanding. And he’s not far away. He’s got really good stuff.
AF: So when you’ve got a game plan, he’s throwing it right where it’s supposed to be – which makes things a lot easier for you.
SV: Absolutely. He’s a lot of fun to work with.
AF: Well, best of luck to you tonight.
SV: Thank you very much.
* * *
Exclusive: Get the Inside Scoop on the A’s Top 12 Draft Picks of 2013 from A’s Scouting Director Eric Kubota
For the second year in a row, the A’s surprised the baseball world by selecting a high school hitter with their first pick in the amateur draft. Last year’s top pick, Addison Russell, has generated an awful lot of enthusiasm from both inside and outside the organization, and now this year’s top pick, outfielder Billy McKinney, will be getting his chance to make his mark.
The man responsible for overseeing the A’s efforts in the amateur draft is scouting director Eric Kubota. Kubota started out his career in the baseball world by interning for the A’s in the mid-‘80s and eventually served as the assistant director of scouting and the supervisor of international scouting before succeeding Grady Fuson as scouting director following his departure after the 2001 season.
We talked to Kubota a week after the draft, and just hours after top pick Billy McKinney’s signing was officially announced. At the time we spoke, the A’s had signed 7 of their top 12 picks, but Kubota expressed confidence that the remaining 5 would all be in the fold before long. Since it’s a busy time for Kubota, we were happy that he took the time to give A’s Farm his take on the A’s main man, McKinney, along with all the team’s other top 12 draft picks from the first 10 rounds of the 2013 draft.
* * *
AF: I wanted to start out by asking you about last year’s draft class. Of course, the golden child, Addison Russell, has gotten most of the attention out of that group of guys. But I was wondering if there’s anyone else from last year’s draft who stands out for you and kind of warms your heart?
EK: Well, there are a few candidates for that. I think I would start with Daniel Robertson, who we obviously took high in the draft, but he’s performed very well with the bat and he’s played shortstop at a very high level, which has been a surprise for us. So that’s certainly something that was kind of unexpected for us – that he would be able to play that position as well as he has. Beyond that, obviously we’re happy with where Matt Olson is in his development. And John Wooten, who was a very late pick, has performed very well in Beloit and he’s kind of validated our signing him. He was a guy we saw in the Cape Cod League a couple of summers ago, and he played really well up there. He had a rough spring last spring, but he’s gone out and played very well. On the pitchers’ side, there were a few senior pitchers we took later in the draft – Ryan Dull and Tucker Healy – both of whom have performed very well in the Beloit bullpen. So, all in all, we’re really excited about last year’s draft class.
AF: Well, it seems like it’s been panning out pretty well so far. So was there anything unique about this year’s draft for you? How would you characterize it in general?
EK: Well, I think it shook out where we took a lot of pitching in the first 10 rounds – and you can never have too much of that. And just the way the draft fell presented us with a lot of opportunities as far as pitchers. So, if anything, I would say that probably characterized our draft class as much as anything.
AF: So I wanted to get your take on your top 12 picks from the first 10 rounds. Your top pick, Billy McKinney, signed earlier today, and was actually out at the Coliseum taking batting practice today. So tell me what made you really fall in love with this guy?
EK: Well, the first thing you fall in love with with Billy is his bat. We really, really love the way this kid swings the bat. It’s rare when, across the whole scouting staff, everybody agrees about the quality of the kid’s bat. So that’s the first thing that jumps out at you. You know, I’ve said it before, I think there are some similarities to Mark Kotsay – and if that’s how he ends up, I think we’d all be happy.
AF: Were you there to see his batting practice session earlier today?
EK: Yes, I was, and he did very well. He swung the bat really well and carried himself really well. He hit in the same group as Yoenis Cespedes, so that’s not an easy thing for any young kid to do, but he handled himself well.
AF: So he wasn’t intimidated at all, huh?
EK: No, no, he swung the bat well.
AF: Your second pick was Dillon Overton, the big left-hander out of Oklahoma. He hasn’t signed yet, but what put him so high on your target list?
EK: Well, Dillon Overton can really pitch. He’s got a history of high strikeout numbers and low walks. He’s just a left-hander with good stuff who knows how to pitch, and we were very happy that he was there in that spot. Coming into the year, there were a lot of people who probably rated him higher than Jonathan Gray, who went third in the country, and deservedly so.
AF: What pitches is he working with right now?
EK: A fastball, a slider and a changeup – all of which have a chance to be above average when everything’s right.
AF: And he’s not signed at this point, right?
EK: He’s not, but we feel comfortable that something should be coming down the pike fairly quickly.
AF: Your third overall pick was Chad Pinder, the infielder out of Virginia Tech, who’s signed. What did you like most about him, were you surprised that he was still available to you at that point – because I kow he was pretty highly-ranked – and what do you foresee for him position-wise?
EK: Yeah, we were pleasantly surprised that he was still there when we picked him. And what we liked about him is he really can swing the bat – that’s the first thing with him that we really liked. We think he can hit. He’s played third base predominantly in his career but moved over to shortstop this year and did a good job there. And I think we’re going to let him go out at shortstop and see if he can establish himself at that position. We think he has the physical tools to do it.
AF: With him, Robertson and Russell, you’re certainly going to have some depth at shortstop in the low minors anyway!
AF: Well, that’s never a bad thing! Your fourth pick was Ryon Healy, who hasn’t signed yet. He’s a big college kid out of Oregon who’s played both first base and third base, but I’m assuming what you really liked about him was his bat.
EK: Yeah, we really liked the bat. He’s always performed with the bat. He’s always had the strength for power, and this year it finally translated into home run numbers. We do think he has the physical ability to play third base, and we’ll probably give him an opportunity to try and do that. But first and foremost, he’s a big right-handed power bat who profiles at the corner positions.
AF: Is there anyone you would compare him to?
EK: I would say Billy Butler possibly.
AF: Your fifth overall pick was left-hander Chris Kohler out of southern California, who’s signed. There aren’t normally a lot of high school pitchers too high on your list. So what was it about him that made you want to take a high school pitcher that high up this time around?
EK: He’s a classic projection high-school left-hander who flashes above-average stuff now. And in our opinion, it’s just a matter of physical maturation and development where it’s going to be consistently plus stuff. He’s been up to 93 mph. He can really spin a breaking ball. We really think there’s a high ceiling with Chris.
AF: Your sixth pick was right-hander Dylan Covey out of San Diego, who’s signed. He was a 1st-round draft pick coming out of high school a few years ago, but he found out he had diabetes and decided to go to college rather than sign with the Brewers, and now you were able to pick him up a little lower in the draft. So given his whole history, how do you view him at this point?
EK: We scouted him a lot when he was in high school, when he was a 1st-round pick. We liked him a lot back then. In the time since then, he’s had to learn how to deal with his diabetes, which was really a new situation for him. He didn’t have any clue about that before that physical. But we’ve seen him, and his stuff is starting to get back to what we saw in high school. I think it’s a combination of him learning how to manage his diabetes and just gaining some additional confidence. But we think it’s a situation where we got potentially a 1st-round talent in the 4th round, and we’re really happy about that.
AF: Your seventh pick was right-hander Bobby Wahl out of Ole Miss. He’s not signed at this point, but tell me what you liked about him.
EK: He’s just a big physical kid with a good arm – up to 95-96 mph. He’s been a starter in arguably the best college league in the country – the SEC – and he’s been a Friday night starter in that league. He’s got a big arm with a good breaking ball. We’ll send him out as a starter and see what happens. But if he ends up in the back of the bullpen, that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world either.
AF: What’s the likelihood of him signing?
EK: We feel confident that all these guys will be signed hopefully within the next few weeks.
AF: Your eighth pick was another college right-hander, Kyle Finnegan, out of Texas, who hasn’t signed yet either.
EK: Same situation – we’re really close on getting that done. He’s an athletic right-hander. He’s been a starter and a reliever in college. We’ve seen him up to 97 mph with a good slider. And he’s just a big arm in the system. I was just thinking today that he kind of reminds me a little bit of Grant Balfour.
AF: Really, is he crazy?
EK: No comment (laughs).
AF: Your ninth pick was another right-hander, Dustin Driver, a high school pitcher who hasn’t actually signed yet but has expressed a strong desire to forego UCLA and sign.
EK: Same situation – we feel comfortable about him and hope to have that done relatively shortly. He’s a physical high school right-hander – we’ve seen him up to 95 mph with a good slider. There was kind of a common theme amongst a lot of these pitchers. We took physical kids with big arms. And we’re going to turn them all over to (minor league pitching coordinator) Scott Emerson and the rest of our pitching coaches and our player development system and see what happens.
AF: Your tenth pick was a hitter, surprisingly enough, Tyler Marincov out of Florida, who’s signed. So what made you want to break that string of pitchers and go with an outfielder?
EK: Well, we need some guys to play the outfield behind those pitchers. But he’s an athletic kid. He performed both from a power standpoint and a speed standpoint at North Florida. He’s just a good athlete with upside and performance.
AF: Is there anyone you’d compare him to?
EK: I’m blanking now – the guy from Arkansas back in the late ’80s and early ‘90s…
AF: Kevin McReynolds?
EK: Exactly, Kevin McReynolds!
AF: Okay, your last couple of picks on Day 2 of the draft were both college left-handers. Matt Stalcup was your eleventh overall pick. He’s signed, but he didn’t come out of a big school in Kansas, so what got him on the radar for you?
EK: He’s just a left-hander with a fastball in the ‘90s and a good breaking ball with a very good history of missing bats and striking guys out. He’s from a smaller school, but a couple of our scouts got to see him and were very impressed with his stuff, and we were happy to get him.
AF: Your twelfth and final pick on Day 2 was Jerad Grundy, a left-hander out of Kentucky, who’s signed. What made you want to get him before Day 2 was through?
EK: He’s just a polished performer who knows how to use his stuff and has a history of getting guys out.
AF: Is there anyone you’d compare him to?
EK: Yeah, on Grundy, I’m going to go with Curt Young.
AF: Well, that’s a good one! Okay, just a couple of quick questions on this top 12 group of picks. So do you feel confident that, at the end of the day, you’re going to end up with all these guys in the fold?
EK: We do.
AF: And are all these pitchers we’ve talked about likely to start out as starters?
EK: I would think all those guys will begin their careers as starting pitchers.
AF: And all the hitters we’ve discussed, except McKinney, are college guys. So would you assume all those college hitters will most likely be starting out in Vermont?
EK: Probably, yeah. I would say that it’s most likely that’s where they will start.
AF: And what about the pitchers?
EK: I would say the two high school kids (Chris Kohler and Dustin Driver) will probably be in Arizona, and the college guys will likely be in Vermont.
AF: So we’re expecting all these college guys are headed to Vermont and all these high school guys are going to end up in Arizona.
EK: Yeah, I would say that’s safe to assume.
AF: Well, hopefully Billy McKinney does well in Arizona and pulls an Addison Russell for you this year!
EK: Yeah, that’d be nice!
AF: Well, good luck and thanks a lot!
* * *