Now that we’re almost a third of the way into the minor league season, it seems like a good time to take a step back and take a look at how some of the A’s top prospects have been doing so far this season. And there’s no one better to help us do that than the A’s director of player personnel, Billy Owens.
Owens originally joined the A’s organization back in 1999, working as an area scout and coaching short-season baseball over the next five years. He was promoted to his current position in 2004, where he’s been able to put his knowledge of the game and its players to much more thorough use. Owens spoke with us earlier this week while he was out on the road scouting prospects for next month’s amateur draft. And as always, his enthusiasm for the A’s top young prospects is obvious…
AF: Well, let’s start out in Nashville. You guys obviously have an awful lot of veteran players there this year. But the one guy down there who genuinely qualifies as a legitimate prospect is the guy you got from the Indians for Brandon Moss, and that’s second baseman Joey Wendle. He’s been showing some pop with the bat, getting lots of doubles and extra-base hits, and he’s looked pretty good in the field too. He might still need to refine his plate discipline and pitch selection a bit, but what have you been seeing out of him?
BO: I think he’s off to a good start. Joey’s a guy we saw extensively in the Arizona Fall League two years ago, and then he had an injury in 2014 with the Indians. Then we followed him after he came back from his injury in August, and we were definitely intrigued by the player. Then we were able to acquire him in the offseason in a good deal for both sides with Brandon Moss. And he definitely had a strong spring training. He’s got a very short, consistent stroke. He’s got some power in there, the production’s been solid the first two months, and he’s got strong intangibles. The glove’s steady. He didn’t have that much Double-A tutelage, so it’s not surprising that his numbers aren’t tremendous from a plate discipline standpoint now. But with his character, good eye and power potential, we think that’s going to get better as time goes by this season. And talking to his college coaches over the years, the Indians personnel and our guys in Triple-A this year and in major league spring training, everyone extols his character and his work ethic. His intangibles are off the charts, and we like his bat too.
AF: Okay, let’s move down to Midland, where most of the team’s top young hitting prospects are this year. Of course, your top prospect there is first baseman Matt Olson, who’s also been getting some time in the outfield this year. As usual, he’s been taking his walks and getting on base. He’s hit 6 home runs there so far in what is typically a very tough place for guys to hit. But what do you think about what you’ve seen out of Matt Olson so far at the Double-A level?
BO: Matt’s an exciting player. He’s 21 years old. He has 6 homers in a notoriously tough park, especially for a left-handed batter. The walk numbers are like 37 walks and 44 strikeouts. He’s been playing a really good outfield. He can play corner outfield fine – his arm’s strong. At first base, his talent level’s elite from a defensive perspective. I don’t think there’s a better defensive first baseman in all of professional baseball. With his strong throwing arm, it translates well to the outfield – and it increases his versatility. Seeing Matt over the years since Parkview High School in Lilburn, Georgia outside of Atlanta, he can get streaky with the home runs. His raw power is off the charts – he hit 37 homers last year at Stockton. But I can definitely see him, once he’s totally acclimated and has his swing plane down, going on one of those notorious hot streaks, and he can pop you 10 or 15 homers in a 30-game stretch. And I like the fact that he’s increased his defensive versatility. The walk and power numbers are good and I think he’s due for an explosion at the plate.
AF: Another guy who moved up to Midland along with Olson this year is Chad Pinder, whom you guys have moved back over to shortstop. He’s now got as many home runs as Olson does and has been hitting well at Midland which, again, is a tough place to hit. So tell me what you think of Pinder’s offensive performance as well as how he’s looked at shortstop so far this year.
BO: He actually played a lot of shortstop and third base in college. And at the time we drafted Chad, we had two prominent players who are no longer with us at the shortstop position [Addison Russell and Daniel Robertson], so Chad was able to increase his versatility and play second base, play some third base and play some games at shortstop. He’s definitely got solid hands, the footwork is improving and he’s got enough range for the position. His arm’s strong enough to play either shortstop or third base. He’s progressing very well. The biggest thing with him was I think he only had about 22 walks last year…and pitchers at the upper levels can exploit the fact that you’re going to be that impatient. So he’s improved his walk numbers dramatically. I think he already has almost as many walks this year as he had all of last season. He’s got the 6 homers, and the ball comes off his bat well. For the left side of the infield, he’s got a lot of potential. In a dream world, the guy I’d to compare him to would be J.J. Hardy. What he’s doing is exciting and he’s definitely a legitimate prospect.
AF: Well, speaking of the left side of the infield at Midland, another top prospect over there who just came back recently is third baseman Renato Nunez. He got a late start to the season due to some nagging injuries, but he’s been heating up and has hit a few homers there recently. So what do you think of his progress at this point?
BO: Renato is an exciting player. He’s probably got as good a chance to hit for average and power as anybody in our organization. He’s a kid I personally scouted since he was 14 years old, and he’s really maturing as a hitter. If you look at the numbers right now, he’s really holding his own. He’s got like 13 walks and about 17 strikeouts and he’s got a few home runs already. So from where he was as a 19-year-old player in the Midwest League who had some power…to how he developed last year to hit the 29 homers in Stockton…to see where he is now really tightening that zone at 21 years old in Double-A is very encouraging, because the swing’s as pure as you’ll see from the right side of the plate and the power is real. So if he can just tone it down to where he’s just swinging at strikes and taking the balls, he can be an explosive hitter.
AF: The A’s other big third base prospect, last year’s #1 pick Matt Chapman, also got off to a late start this year due to a knee injury. But now he seems to be heating up a bit too at Stockton. So what are your impressions of Matt Chapman at this point?
BO: Matt Chapman is exciting. He’s probably got as strong a throwing arm as anybody playing baseball. On a scouting scale of 2 to 8, he’s got a legitimate 8 throwing arm. And defensively at third base, he’s got a chance to probably be a 7 defensively. He went to the Double-A playoffs last year and hit a couple home runs in the Texas League championship series. He’s got real power. The ball goes off his bat well. Plate discipline is always a thing we really encourage. It was impressive for him to do what he did last year in the Texas League playoffs, but we definitely want to improve that plate discipline from the numbers at Beloit last year. We worked on that down in the instructional league and in the time that he was healthy in spring training, and now we’re starting to see the fruits of that labor and he’s starting to heat up in the California League.
AF: Another top prospect at Stockton is the kid you got in the offseason from Toronto in the Josh Donaldson deal, shortstop Franklin Barreto. Just like Addison Russell was when he was there, he’s either the youngest or at least one of the youngest players in the California League at just 19. So what are you seeing out of Franklin Barreto and what are you expecting to see out of him?
BO: Franklin’s starting to percolate now. What Franklin did last year at Vancouver, which is a notorious pitcher’s park, to go there and hit .311 and hit 6 home runs and put up almost 30 steals, it was exciting. We did an extensive scouting job on him, not only in the Northwest League last year, but he’s another kid, like Renato Nunez, who I go back to when he was 14 years old. So we’ve seen him a lot over the years. And just like Addison Russell and Billy McKinney, he’s skipping Low-A as a teenager and going straight to the California League. And actually, between those three players, at this point of the season, he probably has the highest batting average out of all three of those guys during that period. They’re all three talented, and they were able to survey the California League in April and May and make adjustments. And hopefully, like those other two guys, he’ll really flourish in High-A ball the rest of the season.
AF: Another guy at Stockton who’s been putting himself on the map with his performance there lately is outfielder Brett Vertigan. He got off to a great start at Beloit and got moved up to Stockton and has been getting the job done there as well. People might not have been watching him quite as closely earlier on, but he’s certainly been opening some eyes this year. So tell me a little bit about what you’ve seen out of Brett Vertigan.
BO: He’s been swinging the bat really well. It’s good to see he’s having success. He’s an outstanding kid, a hard worker. He’s probably similar to Sam Fuld. The guy’s a ball hawk in the outfield and he can be a slap hitter at the plate, has pretty good plate discipline and does things aggressively with his legs. So for a player to take a step forward, grind away and take advantage of an opportunity, we’re definitely excited to see what Brett’s doing this year.
AF: He seems to be doing a pretty good impression of Boog Powell from last year.
BO: Yeah, definitely. Maybe they didn’t start with all the accolades, but they were good players and our outstanding player development people were able to get the most out of their ability.
AF: One pitcher of particular interest at Stockton is Dillon Overton, who was the A’s 2nd-round pick in 2013 and is still working his way back from Tommy John surgery after coming back in the second half of last season. They’re obviously still being a little cautious with his pitch count, but what’s your impression of his progress this year?
BO: His strikeout-to-walk ratio has been amazing. But we’re still taking baby steps with him coming back from the Tommy John surgery. And honestly, before the surgery, he was a guy who could probably pitch comfortably in that 90-91 mph range and get up to 92-93 mph, where he could be a lights-out pitcher and a quick mover. So far, after the surgery, he’s been pretty much around 87-89 mph and will touch 90 mph. He’s still very effective and has a solid chance to be a good major league pitcher. But if he can continue to make progress and get a little bit more velocity over the course of the next couple years, along with that pinpoint control, he’s got a chance to be a rotation piece.
AF: We were speaking about Franklin Barreto, but the A’s have another promising young shortstop at Beloit, Yairo Munoz, who’s just 20. He’s had some big games lately and has been heating up a bit. Tell me what you’ve seen out of Munoz so far.
BO: Yeah, last year at 19 years old in the New York-Penn League, he popped 5 home runs, hit .298 and made the All-Star team. Franklin Barreto and Yairo Munoz both have the potential to be five-tool players at their position. Along with Matt Chapman, they have the two best infield throwing arms in the organization. Yairo’s got legitimate power to all fields – he’s got a chance to be a 15-20 home run guy. I could definitely see a similarity to Tony Batista when he played for the A’s in the mid-‘90s as a middle infielder and a third baseman who could pop 15-20 home runs and play solid defense. And just the energy and the enthusiasm he brings everyday is exciting. He’s definitely an underrated talent.
AF: A guy who’s been a bit of a surprise this year at Beloit is first baseman Sandber Pimentel, who’s just been hitting great and showing a lot of pop this year. He wasn’t really on a lot of people’s radar before this season, so tell me a little bit about him.
BO: Yeah, he’s an exciting kid. He’s like a miniature “Big Papi.” There’s only one, but being from the Dominican Republic and kind of the way he carries himself, you can tell he models himself after David Ortiz. But he’s a kid who controls the zone, the swing is real and the ball comes off his bat. He’s got legitimate power potential and he’s got a nice glove at first base. He’s taken to the United States – the kid’s improved his English immensely in the last year and a half. The coaches rave about his day-to-day work ethic and his personality. And he’s definitely emerging as a legitimate prospect for us.
AF: So is he another one of those guys you’ve been watching since he was a kid?
BO: Yeah, for sure. I’ve seen Sandber since he was 14 or 15 years old out there scouting Latin America. Our guys are so good. Raymond Abreu in the Dominican Republic has been with us for twenty years. He’s a guy who goes back to the Miguel Tejada days and all the way back to Luis Polonia. He runs a tremendous camp down there in La Victoria in the Dominican Republic. Julio Franco is out there in Venezuela, and he’s been able to mine for talent over there for years. Those guys are in the trenches and working every day. And it’s kind of nice to see guys like Nunez and Barreto, Sandber Pimentel and Yairo Munoz really emerge this year. It’s definitely a credit to Raymond and Julio.
BO: Yeah, Daniel Gossett was a winner at Clemson. In the New York-Penn League last year, he had a tremendous strikeout-to-walk ratio. And now in the Midwest League, we’re seeing his numbers gradually improving. He’s around 90-92 mph with a solid breaking ball and we’re working on incorporating the changeup into his arsenal. He’s a strike thrower and he’s definitely aggressive in the zone. Brett Graves kind of has a tick more velocity – he’s up to 94-95 mph. He sinks the ball really well. We’re just trying to tighten those off-speed pitches so we can increase those strikeouts, but the groundball rate’s been pretty good.
AF: And finally, there are a couple of guys who’ve been in the A’s minor league system who are now making contributions at the major league level and doing well this year. I’m talking about Max Muncy and Billy Burns. I’m just curious to know how satisfying it is for you to see those guys making contributions on the major league roster and what you think about what they’ve been doing so far?
BO: Yeah, so far it’s been exciting to watch. Max Muncy was a player who went to Baylor and played all over the infield initially and eventually settled in at first base in college. Armann Brown, our outstanding scout in Texas, was always pushing and letting us know that Max could play multiple positions. And Max was outstanding at first base. We’ve been blessed with tremendous defensive first basemen, from Matt Olson to Max Muncy to Anthony Aliotti. And Max Muncy was just so good defensively, his feet worked well and he showed the arm strength, so we allowed him to play about 25 games last year defensively at third base in Double-A. And he really worked at third base in the offseason and came to major league camp and made a favorable impression. And when he was able to get the opportunity, he showed a tremendous batting eye. He led the Texas League last year in on-base percentage and walks, and he’s got sneaky power – he hit 25 home runs between Stockton and Midland a couple years ago. And when we needed another third and first baseman who could give you quality at-bats at the big league level, Max Muncy definitely answered the call and he’s playing well. That advanced eye and those innate baseball skills that he has will translate to the top level and he’ll give you a quality, professional at-bat every day. And Billy Burns, he was able to make adjustments. Billy was a right-handed hitter exclusively at Mercer University out there in Macon, Georgia. The Nationals made him a switch-hitter right away in his professional career. So by the time we got Billy, he was able to really sting the ball as a right-handed hitter, but as a left-handed hitter at the upper levels, he was more of a guy who controlled the zone and kind of poked at the baseball. Last year, Billy got a taste of the major leagues and he saw where the fielders were playing him as a left-handed hitter and he realized he needed to make an adjustment. So when he went down to Triple-A, he got a bigger bat and he worked with Greg Sparks, our hitting coordinator for the organization who was at Triple-A last year. And when he came to spring training this season, we were able to see the adjustments he made and we realized that it was going to translate to the top level much more realistically. It’s a long season and hopefully the tide turns for us but, with Max Muncy and Billy Burns, their contributions so far the first two months of the season have been great.
AF: Well, I know you’re out scouting for the draft right now. So are you able to disclose your current location or is that top secret?
BO: No, I never can do that. I just finished with a conference tournament and getting ready for the regionals before we go hunker down in Oakland for the week prior to the draft. It’ll be fun. We pick #20. I think our second pick is around #63. And it’s a deep draft – maybe you don’t have the guy who’s the guaranteed superstar at the top, but at 20-100, there are a lot of really good players.
AF: Well, I’m sure you’ll have you’ll have your finger on the pulse of all of them!
BO: Well, you know, it’s fun, but the thing is, not only do you want to draft really good players, but over the years, guys we’ve discussed at the draft, Billy Beane and David Forst will turn around and try to trade for guys we liked during the draft process down the road. So it’s not only the guys you get, but it’s also other guys you’ve evaluated you might have a chance to get in the future. It’s always a puzzle. You never really finish the puzzle, but you’re always trying to add another piece to it!
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