by Bill Moriarity / A’s Farm Editor
Eric Martins was the A’s 17th-round draft pick in 1994 and spent parts of seven seasons as an infielder in the A’s minor league system. After his playing career came to an end, the southern California native signed on as a scout for the A’s. He eventually made the move to coaching, first serving as the hitting coach for the A’s Double-A affiliate in Midland, and he’s now spending his second season handling some of the team’s top young hitters at Nashville.
Rick Rodriguez served as the long-time pitching coach for the Sacramento River Cats, where he had a hand in developing a number of the A’s most talented pitchers over the past many years. When the A’s Triple-A affiliate first moved to Nashville, the northern California native remained on the west coast to spend a season with the Single-A Stockton Ports. But he’s now serving his second season with the Sounds, helping to develop another crop of talented arms for the A’s.
We took the opportunity to talk with both of them about some of the A’s most promising prospects last weekend in Nashville…
AF: Yairo Munoz is a guy who got off to a bit of a slow start when he first came up to Triple-A, but it seems like something’s been starting to click for him lately. So, where do you feel he’s at at this point?
EM: Well, Yairo came in and he’s notoriously known as being a free swinger. He’s got one of the highest first-pitch-swing-percentage rates in the organization. It’s one thing that I kind of talked to him about a little bit. You don’t ever want to take away a hitter’s aggressiveness, but it’s being able to recognize the pitches that he wants to swing at early. He’ll still have his lapses every once in a while, but I think that’s one thing that’s calmed him down a little bit. He’s been a little bit more selective. He’s worked a little bit more here. We’ve worked on his pitch selection and his approach, because he has the ability to hit the ball all over the yard. He’s so aggressive, he’s got electric hands. He’s one of those guys that’s kind of special, he’s a little bit free-spirited, he’s a little bit of a loose cannon, but the tools are evident. Like the other day, he kind of looked bad on a couple sliders and the guy hung him a two-strike breaking ball and he hit it over the left-field wall. And he’s been having really good at-bats the last couple weeks. I think the other thing is just being comfortable being here. These pitchers here pitch a little bit differently. And you get an aggressive guy like Yairo and they can feast on him for a little bit until he makes the adjustment, and he’s done that. He’s done a pretty good job of that.
AF: Well, whatever you said to him seemed to get through anyway! Have you been working with him in the field as well?
EM: Yeah, he’s been playing all over the field. When he’s out in center field, he reminds me of Carlos Gomez a little bit. He’s a little bit, like I said, of a loose cannon, but he has all the tools. His arm is tremendous. He’s done a great job in center field. He can run some balls down. His versatility has been huge for us, and it’s going to be huge for him. He’s played third base, he’s played shortstop, he’s played left field, and he’s looked really good in the outfield. He’s always been a pretty good infielder.
AF: So, it sounds like you think he could work in center field.
EM: I think he’s only going to get better out there. He’s made some tremendous catches out there. It’s just about knowing where to throw the ball. He’s got such a good arm that he just wants to show it off each time. He just needs to come up and find the cut-off man and know where he’s throwing the ball. But other than that, his angles and his routes have been pretty good. He’s covered some ground out there, and he’s looking more and more comfortable out there.
AF: Well, he kind of likes to show off wherever he’s at in the field, right?
EM: Yeah, he’s got the loud tools, so why not?
AF: Franklin Barreto got a little taste of the big leagues this year and now he’s back here with you in Nashville. So, what did he learn from that experience and what are you working on with him at this point?
EM: Well, I think it was good for him to go up and kind of see what those pitchers are going to do and how good they are. And he came down with instructions on some stuff that he needed to work on. And his at-bats have been really good since that point. He’s made consistent contact with two strikes, so his strikeout rates have gone down a little bit, and I think that’s one thing that they wanted to see. His mechanics have gotten a little bit better. He’s getting a little bit more comfortable staying inside the ball – he’s not worried about the pitches in anymore. He’s doing a good job with his approach and his work, and you can see his at-bats starting to trend back to where they were at the beginning of the year. But the consistency in the at-bats has been a little bit better.
AF: It sounds like getting a look at major league pitching might have been a good, eye-opening experience for him.
EM: Absolutely. I think he saw how the guys who don’t have the premium stuff can pitch and how good the guys who have the premium stuff are, so you’ve just got to find a way to battle.
AF: A guy who’s been up and down between Nashville and Oakland a number of times this year is Matt Olson. What do you think he’s learned from all his trips to the big leagues this year?
EM: I think with Olson, he’s so laid back and he understands, so it doesn’t really bother him, which is good. You know, it can bother a lot of people who are going up and down. He gets it, so it’s been easy on him. He just comes down and he does what he does, and he’s continuing to work on everything. He’s had such a good year, and he knows his time’s coming to get up there and be playing consistently. So, we just continue to work on the adjustments that he made in the offseason with his swing and his mechanics. So, he’s fine and he’s ready to go. When he gets that call and he’s going to be the everyday guy and get some consistent at-bats, you’re going to see who Matt Olson really is.
AF: Yeah, he seems like a pretty low-key guy. It doesn’t seem like a lot would bother him.
EM: No, real low maintenance. And that’s the thing, for him being so young, he gets it and he understands. The important thing for him is to get at-bats. And if there’s no at-bats for him up there, then he’s going to come down here and continue to get his at-bats and continue on with the good year that he’s had. It’s been a breakthrough for him as far as the consistency of his season – hitting close to .270 all year. It’s been a good year for him, where the last couple years have been kind of down. I think the mechanical tweaks that he made this offseason and early in spring training really helped.
AF: Chad Pinder was back here in Nashville rehabbing for a while before heading back to the big leagues. So, what kind of things were you working on with a guy like that who’s rehabbing here?
EM: Pinder was just getting his at-bats and getting his timing back. Having a lot of history with him, it was just a matter of getting his hands in the right position and his timing and all that stuff. He’s so strong and he can drive the ball all over the park. So, it was just a matter of him just seeing some pitches, working his at-bats and making sure his timing was there. He did have some strikeouts here, but he got in some counts and worked some at-bats. That was it for him. You don’t really want to change too much, because he’s been doing so good up there. It’s just those little fine-tuning things. And with me having the history with him, it was easy.
AF: Well, you must be pretty familiar with a lot of these guys at this point.
EM: Absolutely, it’s fun. I’ll still get some calls from the guys up there – Bruce and Chapman – checking in. And I’ll send them a text when they have a good game up in the big leagues – Brugman and I texted a couple days ago. So, it’s fun to see those guys having some success up there. They’re going to be a big part of things from now on.
AF: A guy who spent some significant time in the big leagues and then found himself back down here was Mark Canha. It seems like he was on a bit of a tear here. So, what were you working on with him here?
EM: Well, I think Mark just kind of simplified things here a little bit. He stopped worrying about his leg kick and the timing of his leg kick and just started concentrating on his hands. And it was one thing that he never really thought about so much. He was so worried about the timing of his leg kick that it kind of threw off his hands a little bit. So, now he’s kind of switched the roles a little bit, and he’s a lot simpler – the moves are a lot simpler. They’re not as unique and different. He still has a little bit of funk to his swing, but that’s who he is. And Mark can really hit. It’s just he gets in his own way sometimes when he over-thinks his mechanics. But he’s really simplified some stuff, and his at-bats have been outstanding. The power’s obviously there. He’s a really good hitter. He just needed to come down here and simplify some stuff, and I think he’s found his niche now.
AF: Now that we’re heading into the final month or so of the minor league season, is there any particular message that you’re trying to convey to your hitters here at this stage of the game?
EM: I just tell them to finish strong. I know some guys are getting tired. Some guys can be thinking elsewhere. They can be thinking, “Why am I not up in the big leagues?” Or they can be chasing their numbers. But they’ve got to realize that whatever numbers that they have now, there’s always something that you can get out of your at-bats. Don’t give any at-bats away. We had a couple of games in New Orleans that were back-to-back day games at the end of a 12-day road trip, and you could tell guys were tired, and we gave some at-bats away and didn’t really compete. You’ve got to kind of give them that a little bit, but you’ve got to rein them back in after a day or two, because they all count. At the end of the day, you give some at-bats away and you’re 0 for 4, that counts against you. So, don’t take any at-bats off – just keep competing and have quality at-bats.
AF: It’s kind of like you’ve been the supplemental A’s pitching coach this year with all the A’s starters who’ve been down here at one point or another this season – Graveman, Cotton, Hahn, etc. So, I wanted to ask you about working with some of those guys, starting with Jesse Hahn, who was pitching really well for Oakland earlier this year then ended up coming back down here. So, what have you been working on with him and what are you trying to do with him?
RR: We have good communication between myself and [A’s pitching coach] Scott Emerson. He always has a plan of what these guys should do. So, he either sends me something or he calls me and says, “We need to work on this, this and this.” And with Jesse, it’s more his fastball command – just trying to command that fastball and working ahead in the count. He was working on a new grip on his changeup, so we’re trying to work that in. So, his command and his changeup.
AF: Now when you have a guy like Kendall Graveman, who was working his way back from an injury and has been out for a while, what kind of things are you focused in that situation?
RR: The biggest thing when coming back from an injury is trying not to let the injury itself affect you, just trying to keep with what you’ve done in the past. I think we were in New Orleans, and at some point, he felt confident enough to really just kind of let it go. And at that point, I think he realized he was over his injury and now it’s a question of commanding that sinker, commanding that cutter, and getting back to where he was before he got hurt.
AF: So, I guess the first step is just gaining that confidence back that you’re actually healthy enough to be able to do what you need to do.
RR: Yeah, it’s always in the back of your mind when you come back from an injury. It’s like, “Am I going to hurt anything again?” And then you realize, “Hey, I’m great – I’m healthy.” And then you can get back to your routine and what made you successful.
AF: Now what about Jharel Cotton, who’s back up with the A’s now? He spent some time with you here. Where do you feel he’s at now? Did you feel you were able to help get him back to where he needs to be to be successful?
RR: Yeah, I know his first outing coming back from the blister, he was a little rusty – he was out of sync, his fastball command wasn’t there, his changeup was up and down. His last outing, he seemed to command his fastball to both sides of the plate and he started to get his changeup with that late sink that I saw last year. His cutter’s always been there – just trying to get him to use his curveball a little bit more. But it was just more getting back into the swing of things – getting a routine and then trying to take that routine into the game.
AF: Another guy you’ve had rehabbing here is Chris Bassitt, who’s been coming back from Tommy John surgery. After a bit of a setback, he’s been pitching out of the bullpen now. So, how’s he looking to you at this point?
RR: This is his second go-around with the rehab. He looks more confident now. I think his elbow’s feeling better. He’s bouncing back a lot quicker. So, he’s just going to be coming out of the ‘pen. And if he pitches a day, we’ll give him a day off. And if he has two ups, we’ll probably give him a couple days off just to kind of rest that elbow. But he’s come along really good. His fastball command is there. He’s got his cutter back. I like his slow curveball – that kind of throws everybody off. But he’s doing well.
AF: One guy who’s not actually rehabbing here who I wanted to ask you about is Corey Walter. He wasn’t a high draft pick, but he’s always pitched well and has had a great track record through the system. He got off to a good start here in Nashville, then he had a couple of crazy outings where he just got totally lit up and gave up something like 20 runs over two starts, and now it looks like maybe he’s starting to get back on track a bit again. So, what happened to him when he seemed to go off the rails there for a bit and where’s he at now?
RR: I think he’s still learning how to start. And as a starter, sometimes you go through a little phase where, for a couple outings or whatever, it’s not working and you’re trying everything. And I think that’s what he was going through. I know through the All-Star break, he had a couple of extra days – I think that helped him. Then with the rehabbers and some guys coming down from Oakland, we had to shuffle around, so he pitched out of the ‘pen a couple times. And it was a good chance to work on his sinker command on the side. He really needed to get that back down in the zone. And he did the other night. His slider was good and his split was better – it was a little sharper.
AF: Do you see him staying as a starter in the near future or will he maybe be making a move back to the ‘pen?
RR: I’m not sure what the plan is. I know he’s been starting, and I’m sure he’s going to be starting once all this rotation stuff gets cleared up. So, we’ll see how that goes, but I’m looking forward to him starting.
AF: And as we enter the final month of the minor league season here, what messages are you trying to convey to your pitching staff at this point?
RR: We just had a big e-mail from our pitching coordinator [Gil Patterson]. And the big thing I talk about is the fact that we have 4-6 weeks, so let’s make a good push and finish really, really strong. It’s important to finish strong, so that you go into that offseason really confident. You just want to be consistent and finish well, and then see what happens.
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