by Bill Moriarity / A’s Farm Editor
A’s Assistant GM Billy Owens
Now that we’re a couple of months into the minor league season, we wanted to step back and take a look at how some of the A’s top prospects have been shaping up so far this season. And there’s no one better to help us do that than A’s assistant general manager 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 then named the A’s director of player personnel in 2004. And about a year and a half ago, he was promoted to the position of assistant general manager, where the A’s have been able to put his extensive knowledge of the game and its players to use in a variety of different ways.
Owens took some time out to speak with us this week while he was busy scouting prospects for this year’s amateur draft. We asked him about ten of the most intriguing prospects in the A’s system – five hitters and five pitchers – and, as always, his knowledge of and enthusiasm for the A’s young players is apparent…
AF: Let’s start out with the team’s top prospect, shortstop Franklin Barreto. He got off to slow starts the past couple of seasons, but this year, as a 21-year-old at Triple-A, he started out hot and has continued to hit well over the first two months of the season. What kind of progress have you seen out of him this year and what does he still have left to learn at the Triple-A level?
BO: I think Franklin’s always been a gifted hitter. He’s a guy who we’ve scouted since he was 14 years old in Venezuela. He’s always been able to use the field, he’s got power that’s untapped, and he’s improving defensively. He’s very athletic, he’s got a short swing, but he still needs to tighten up his strikeout-to-walk ratio. He’s always been something of a free swinger. But kids like that who are so talented, they can touch a lot of different pitches, so they’re not apt sometimes to go deep in the count and do a lot of things in terms of plate discipline, because he can barrel the baseball. He’s talented, and for a 21-year-old kid who’s in a tough environment to hit in Nashville, one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in that league, it’s pretty impressive. He had a strong spring training this year, and I think that probably was the impetus for him to start out so strong this year in Nashville. He popped a couple of homers this year in spring training, and he really acclimated himself well to the major league staff. Everybody was able to see, the staff, the fans and the players at the upper level, what kind of talent Franklin has. And, obviously, he’ll get an opportunity at some point because he’s very talented.
AF: It seems like he’s been playing with a lot more energy this year. I know the plan originally was for him to split time between shortstop and second base this year at Nashville, but I think he’s only played about half a dozen games so far this year at second base.
BO: I think he’s playing a solid shortstop, and he’s such a good athlete that he could play all over the diamond. Obviously, short is probably the toughest place to play defensively, and he’s shown, at 21 in Triple-A, that he can handle the position fairly well. He’s got all the tools and all the components to handle the position. And just the way the roster’s constructed, we have a lot of guys there who have versatility and we have 40-man-roster players who are playing various positions there. So, from a positional standpoint, it just makes the most sense for him to be doing what he’s doing at shortstop and really kind of assert himself. Everybody has a different opinion about what his final destination’s going to be, but at some point, he’ll be a very productive major league player, and it’s nice to see him getting the bulk of his games so far at Triple-A at shortstop.
AF: Another top prospect who’s started the season in Nashville is third baseman Matt Chapman. He missed some time in the first month with a wrist injury, but he’s certainly been making up for it since he’s been back, and he hit 11 home runs in the month of May. So what have you been seeing out of him and what’s he still got to work on at Triple-A?
BO: I think, with Matt, his defensive talent is off the charts. He’s probably one of the most talented third basemen at any level. You hear the names of Machado and Arenado when you’re discussing his defense – that’s not hyperbole, that’s just the fact. This guy’s defense is superlative and, offensively, his power is undeniable. He had 36 homers last year. Our fans have been able to see it first-hand the last two spring trainings. He had a 3-homer game last year in his brief time in Triple-A. And for him, it’s just all about really defining that strike zone, you know, learning it. With the injury, he started out fairly slow in April. But in May, with the 11 homers, his strikeout rate is actually a little bit lower this month than it was for his whole Texas League season last year when he was the Texas League MVP, so that’s encouraging. I think Matt’s capable of making adjustments, he’s smart, and he’s not afraid at all, as we’ve seen so far in his two big league camps. With him, it’s just all about tightening that strike zone and eliminating some swings-and-misses. But the bottom line is that he’s a really gifted defender, and every time he steps up to the plate, he’s dangerous. And coming at a premium position, that’s a pretty solid package.
AF: One guy at Nashville who really seemed to turn it up a notch in May is first baseman Matt Olson. I know there was some talk this spring about him altering his swing a bit. Has that played much into this recent uptick and where do you feel things are at with him at this point?
BO: Matt Olson, he’s definitely a student of the game. And I always go back to Stockton with him. You know, out of the draft, he was more of an all-fields hitter, and then he had a pretty solid season there in Beloit his first year out as a teenager. But Stockton is a fairly hitter-friendly environment and it’s very inviting to right field, so Matt was able to pop 37 home runs that year. But I think with that, he also became a lot more pull-oriented by hitting those home runs that year at Stockton. And it carried over to Midland, where it became a pull-heavy approach, and the park wasn’t quite as friendly and the defensive shift was more in vogue. So, as he climbed the ladder and they started doing the defensive shifts and he still was pull-happy, he realized that he had to make adjustments to go back to that hitter who uses the whole field. And I think, for some guys, it’s always good just to get a taste of the big leagues to realize it is a little bit different, the pitchers can make adjustments and they can exploit your weaknesses. And Matt’s a smart kid, so he went to the big leagues, saw what it had to offer and realized he had to make some swing adjustments. So now his swing’s shorter, he’s using the field a lot more, and he’s more conscious of trying to barrel the ball to all fields. It’s definitely carried over so far in this Triple-A season and, quite frankly, I think at some point it’ll translate to the upper levels. He’s another one who’s a gifted defender, at first base. I’ve said it, all our instructors have said it – his defense has been spectacular at first base throughout his minor league career. And once he added some versatility by playing right field – I believe he actually led the Texas League in assists a couple of years ago in his first full-time duty in the outfield – he’s proven that he can play above-average major league first base defensively and also actually play an average right field. So, with the natural power that he possesses and an improved contact rate, he’ll have a chance to make his presence known at some point in the next year or two.
AF: Another guy who had a pretty good month of May at Nashville is Renato Nunez. He’s been doing his usual thing and hitting lots of home runs. He’s got as many homers as anyone in your system right now. We know the power is real for Renato, but how far away do you feel he is from being where he really needs to be?
BO: Renato is 23 years old…and he’s always been a kid who’s capable of barreling the ball to all fields. He got a majestic, pretty stroke. I believe, in Double-A, he hit around .280. Last year, he started out hot but then, for some reason in the second half, he got a lot more pull-conscious. And though he still had a high homer total, his average plummeted. This year, he had a strong spring training, and he’s got 13 or 14 homers to start the year. But I still believe that he’s got another click left in him, where at 23 years old, he’s got time to mature as a hitter and start bringing that average up. He’s got a swing that’s capable of touching the baseball at multiple spots in the strike zone, so he shouldn’t have to sell out for power to hit the homers. He should be able to use the whole field. He’s in that .240ish range right now in Triple-A. But I believe, within the next two or three years, that he’ll still have the opportunity to go ahead and become more of a line-to-line hitter and become more of a complete hitter. And with Chapman and Barreto manning the left side of the infield, Renato’s been able to go out to left field and do a solid job out there and sprinkle some games in at third base and improve his defense. But make no mistake, Renato’s a hitter and, at some point within the next two or three years, hopefully he’ll start using the field more and become the hitter he’s capable of becoming.
AF: As you mentioned, he’s been playing a lot of field so far this season. Do you think that’s the most likely defensive landing spot for him at this point?
BO: Well, I just think with Chapman being such a special defender at third base, you have Barreto playing short, and when Semien comes back, he can play short, so with all the different players we have the same age playing similar positions, it’s been nice to give Renato a chance to improve his versatility by getting comfortable in left field.
AF: A guy at Nashville who isn’t always included in the top prospect talk but who’s an interesting player is outfielder Jaycob Brugman. He’s always seemed to out-perform expectations at every level. He was sidelined with a leg injury to start the season, but since he’s been back, he’s done nothing but hit over the past month. So what do you think his ceiling is?
BO: You know, he wasn’t a high-round draft pick, but since he’s been in our system, he’s always hit, whether it’s been in Beloit, or when he went to the California League and he wrecked it and hit 10 home runs in a month during his brief time in the Cal League. He went to Double-A and he was the igniter at the top of the lineup and played good defense in center field. And in Triple-A last year, they had one of the best records with one of the youngest teams in Triple-A – and at the top of the lineup, Jaycob makes things happen. He’s off to a great start. He missed some time with the injury in April, but since he’s been playing, he’s above .300. He uses the whole diamond, he’s got some power in there – he’s had double-digit home run seasons in the minor leagues. He’s got a very good throwing arm defensively, and he’s always been one the higher guys in assists. He takes really good routes in the outfield. So, I think he’ll eventually be a major league player. And it’s safe to say that he’ll be a fourth outfielder, but I think that if he’s assertive, he has a chance to surprise some people and do what he’s always done at the top level at some point when he gets the opportunity.
AF: For the majority of his minor league career, he’s played center field, but most people seem to talk about him ending up as a corner outfielder. How do you feel about his ability to play center field at the major league level?
BO: Well, I think he’s definitely capable of playing all three outfield positions and being a fourth outfielder. There’s no question in my mind that he can do that. And I think that Jaycob’s going to assert himself. He’s not a flyer, he’s not going to go up there and give you a blazing time down the line and do cartwheels and what not, but he’s efficient – he takes great routes and gets good angles. So, he can fill in at all three and be a fourth outfielder. But if he keeps on asserting himself, I think he’s going to surprise people at the top level, even defensively. He’s a technician and he’s efficient in center field with enough speed.
AF: Okay, let’s talk about a few pitching prospects at Triple-A. Daniel Gossett was a 2nd-round pick of yours a few years ago. He took a big step forward last year, then he seemed to really impress people during his brief time in the big league camp this spring. He had a few bumpy starts early on this year, but he’s been on a nice little run at Nashville lately. So what have you been seeing out of Daniel Gossett this year and how close is he to being major-league ready?
BO: Yeah, last year was a breakout year for Daniel. He was good at three levels last year. And being dominant in 2016 gave him a chance to go to big league camp in 2017 and get a taste of it. And honestly, I don’t think he was totally sharp. He showed some good stuff, but he wasn’t totally sharp at the end of minor league camp, and I believe it carried over to his first three or four outings at Triple-A, but he’s been able to right the ship. In May, he had an outstanding month. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is getting even better. I think in about 54 innings, he’s got 50 strikeouts and the walks are like 19, and he’s really pounding that strike zone. He’s up to 96 mph. He’s got a nice four-pitch mix. He’s being aggressive within the strike zone. So, if you wash away those first three or four outings of the year, he’s really on that good trajectory now to show what he’s capable of doing. He’s got a cutter that he throws 90 mph, he’s got a good slider, a solid curveball and an outstanding changeup. So, he’s got the pitches – he really proved that last year. And with that strikeout rate being so strong at Triple-A, the next step is just to continue to get more consistency and then, when an opportunity strikes, he’ll be ready.
AF: Another slightly younger guy in that Nashville rotation who’s been performing well this year is 23-year-old Paul Blackburn. He’s a former 1st-round supplemental pick for the Cubs whom you guys got from Seattle in the Danny Valencia deal. So what do think about him now that you’ve had a chance to get a good look at him in your system here this year?
BO: Paul, he’s a control arm. He’s in that low-90s range. His fastball’s between 89-92 mph. It’s got pretty good sink to it. He’s got a solid breaking ball. He’s a northern California kid. He was in our range in the draft a couple of years back and the Cubs took him, so we made a good trade with the Mariners, and he’s been solid. He was okay in big league camp. I think he was excited to play for the hometown team here. And then he impressed all our minor league instructors. And at Nashville, he’s been tough. He’s thrown strikes as advertised. He’s able to manipulate the ball within the strike zone. He changes speeds. He’s definitely poised at a young age to be doing as well as he’s done at Triple-A. He’s not a stuff guy, but he’s a strike thrower, and he commands the baseball within the zone with an assortment of pitches, and he changes speeds well, so we’re excited to have Paul.
AF: A guy who’s recently joined the staff at Nashville from Double-A Midland is Corey Walter. He’s another guy who wasn’t a high draft pick – he was a 28th-rounder – but since he’s been in the system, it seems like he’s done nothing but get outs, and he just had a nice outing in his last start for Nashville. So what are your impressions of Corey Walter and what’s his ceiling look like to you?
BO: Yeah, Corey Walter, he’s kind of been the pitching version of Jaycob Brugman. He came into the system unheralded, and he’s done nothing but pitch really well. He’s been versatile. He’s at a point where his fastball is 90-92 mph, and it’s got a lot of sink to it. He’s a pitch-to-contact guy where he forces the action on the mound. He’s got a nice slider to complement the heater and the sinker, and he also sprinkles in a changeup. But he’s been efficient, he’s been a strong strike thrower. He really came into his own in Stockton, and it carried over last year in multiple roles at Double-A. With the logjam of quality starters in Triple-A and the young guys in the big leagues, we sent him back to Double-A to start the year and he did his thing in the Texas League again, which he’s done for the last year and a half. And I think his versatility and the sinker is going to really treat him well going forward. He’s proven that he can start and get a chance to be an effective starter, but that sinker will play very well out of the ‘pen as well, and he’s a strike thrower, so he’s got a chance to be versatile from a pitching standpoint. And he’s always performed well.
AF: Yeah, it’s nice to see him getting a chance in Triple-A. Let’s wrap up with a couple of your younger pitching prospects. Grant Holmes, who was a 1st-round draft pick for the Dodgers, has had some struggles at Midland this year but, at 21, he’s also one of the youngest pitchers in the Texas League. So what’s he got to do to get over the hump at Double-A?
BO: With Grant, the velocity’s always been there. He’s got a high strikeout rate at Double-A, especially for a kid who’s 21 years old. For him, it’s just a matter of tightening his breaking ball and getting a little bit more separation as far as the miles per hour between the changeup and the heater. I think they kind of blend together at times, and he’s got to get that separation to give hitters something else to really gauge and think about. And from a pitching standpoint, being assertive and being aggressive within the strike zone, but also learning the zones where your strengths are and understanding the scouting reports of the opposition. You know, being 21 years old in an advanced league, in Double-A, coming over here in a trade, getting acclimated and used to a new environment – getting traded at such a young age is not easy – so coming over here, being young, and getting an aggressive promotion to Double-A at 21…hopefully he’ll have an opportunity here the next three months to really hit the ground running, make some adjustments, use that high velocity that he’s shown the whole time, improve that separation between the heater and the changeup and keep on tightening that breaking ball, and he’ll have a chance to have a strong second half.
AF: Okay, let’s wrap things up with your top draft pick last year, A.J. Puk. He’s been throwing well at Stockton, racking up lots of strikeouts and looking dominant at times. What have you seen out of A.J. this year, where he’s at in terms of his development and what he’s got to do to get to the next level?
BO: When you look at Andrew Miller, David Price, Drew Pomeranz, those lefties who are so tall and throw hard – A.J.’s been up to 99 mph from the left side – if they can really simplify their delivery, because their stuff’s so good, that’s just the best thing going forward. So A.J.’s going to keep on refining and simplifying his delivery. But his stuff is unquestionable. His fastball has ranged anywhere from 94-99 mph, and it’s got this component to it at the end where it has a little bit of giddy-up and it misses bats. His breaking ball, especially his slider, misses bats, and his changeup misses bats – and that’s how you get the 69 strikeouts in 44 innings. And honestly, I think he’s got another click to him. He doesn’t need to try to miss bats so much, but he has an element of deception, the stuff is quality, and you don’t see 99 mph from the left side every day. So, what’s Michael Jordan say? “The ceiling’s the roof!”
AF: Well, that’s a good place to have your ceiling! Thanks for taking the time to chat. I know it’s a busy time a year for you with the draft right around the corner.
BO: All right! Go A’s! I’m looking forward to the next three months of the year and we’ll see where it goes.
AF: And best of luck with the draft coming up!
BO: Yeah, it’ll be fun. We’ll be in Oakland shortly. And it’ll be fun to have [A’s scouting director] Eric Kubota lead us and to see where all those draft magnets take us!
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