Grady Fuson is one of the baseball world’s most respected talent evaluators. He’s spent the past 30 years in pro ball, scouting talent at every level. As the A’s scouting director from 1995-2001, Fuson was responsible for drafting the A’s big three of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito over three consecutive years (1997-1999), and then drafted Rich Harden the following year (2000). Prior to that, as the A’s national cross-checker, he was involved in the drafting of Jason Giambi and Ben Grieve, as well as the signing of Miguel Tejada. Many of these players formed the core of some very successful A’s teams, and some went on to contribute to other winning teams as well.
In his final draft as the A’s scouting director, Fuson drafted high school pitcher Jeremy Bonderman in the first round, causing a certain degree of controversy which was touched upon in the best-selling book, Moneyball. While well known and well respected within the baseball fraternity, Grady Fuson probably became best known to the general public when he was portrayed in the film version of Moneyball as the obstinate scout fired by general manager Billy Beane (as played by Brad Pitt) after a dramatic and heated confrontation.
What your average filmgoer doesn’t know is that there was no such firing. Fuson actually left the organization for another opportunity with the Texas Rangers. And he has been back working with the A’s as a special assistant to general manager Billy Beane for the past two years now. It turns out that, sometimes, real-life really is more interesting than fiction. And wanting to get a real-life look at a life in baseball, we took the opportunity to talk with Fuson about his journey in baseball as well as to get his take on some of the A’s most intriguing prospects.
After coaching baseball at the University of Puget Sound and the University of Washington in the late-‘70s and early-‘80s, Grady Fuson got his first opportunity to join the scouting fraternity in 1982 when an old friend (and likely drinking buddy) of Billy Martin’s who had been scouting the northwest area for the A’s retired, and the team asked Fuson if he’d like to take over the territory. He thought the opportunity sounded intriguing and signed on, agreeing to work as an area scout in the northwest. During the spring, he’d keep tabs on all the promising young amateur prospects throughout the region. And during the summer, he’d coach short-season rookie clubs for the organization in such exotic locales as Medford and Idaho Falls.
By 1985, he was given responsibility for the northern California area as well and relocated to the Bay Area for the first time. In 1991, after nearly ten years of beating the bushes for prospects, the team made him their national cross-checker, basically the right-hand man to the scouting director. The position involved personally checking on all the top prospects recommended by the team’s area scouts and getting some perspective on all of them so that the organization could accurately gauge how they all stacked up.
After a few years in that position, a period which included the drafting of future MVP Jason Giambi and future Rookie of the Year Ben Grieve as well as the signing of future MVP Miguel Tejada, Fuson was promoted to the position of scouting director by A’s general manager Sandy Alderson. And thus began what he calls “one of the proudest times of my life” – a time during which the A’s drafted future Cy Young winner Barry Zito as well as future All-Stars Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Rich Harden and Eric Chavez.
But his first draft as the A’s new scouting director involved a very difficult decision – the decision whether or not to draft the promising Cuban exile pitcher, Ariel Prieto (who’s now back with the A’s acting as the interpreter for new Cuban prospect Yoenis Cespedes).
“Todd Helton was my guy the whole time. This guy Ariel Prieto comes out of nowhere in the last month. So I fly in to see him and, boy, he’s really good. So I say, ‘Sandy, there’s a guy here who’s much different than the rest of these amateurs. He’s older, he’s more polished. This guy might be big league ready real fast.’ So we had many pow-wows about which way to go – Helton, Prieto, Helton, Prieto, Helton, Prieto. And when it all came down to it, he wanted to go that way, and that’s the way we went.”
Needless to say, Ariel Prieto didn’t exactly set the world on fire, and Todd Helton is still playing today. The previous year had seen the A’s draft a sweet-swinging slugger out of Texas in the first round – a strapping young lad by the name of Ben Grieve. The outfielder would go on to win the Rookie of the Year award in 1998, also winning the hearts of A’s fans in the process. But somewhere along the line, his progress seemed to hit a wall, he was traded away by the A’s and, by the time he was 29, he was out of the game altogether. And ever since, A’s fans have been left asking, “What went wrong with Ben Grieve?”
“The passion for the game just left him completely. Something was just missing. But this guy was just born to hit. But what happened? It’s a mind-boggler. He just lost his passion, his energy, his work ethic – to get bigger, to get stronger, to get better. He just took it all for granted. And his body started to slow up at a young age, and things just stopped firing. It’s a very unique story. Still, to this day, his was one of the best swings I’ve ever scouted.”
But after that, the A’s used their top picks wisely, having perhaps as much success in the draft as any team in the game and, in the process, forming the foundation of the winning A’s teams to come.
“One of the things I’ll always be proudest of is, in my years as scouting director, we nailed it on number ones – Chavez in ‘96, Mulder in ‘98, Zito in ‘99, even my last year in ’01 with Bonderman and Crosby. Collectively speaking, we drafted well.”
During that time, current A’s GM Billy Beane moved up from his position as assistant general manager to take over for long-time general manager Sandy Alderson in a transition that Fuson called “seamless.” The two worked together as general manager and scouting director for four years, acquiring players like Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Rich Harden during that time. There were clearly some differences of opinion on the drafting of a high school pitcher – Jeremy Bonderman – in the first round of the draft in 2001 (more on that later). But it wasn’t philosophical differences – or any sort of dramatic confrontation – that caused Fuson to part ways with the A’s. It was simply an offer too good to refuse from the rival Texas Rangers following the 2001 season.
“The Rangers called Billy and asked for permission to interview me for GM after Doug Melvin was let go. They invited three guys to come back for a second interview – Dave Dombrowski, John Hart and myself. Tom Hicks ended up choosing John Hart, but he wanted me to come in too. They throw in this assistant GM thing. And they want John Hart as the GM for three years. They want me to come in and overhaul and redo scouting and player development and oversee all that.”
But the A’s front office wasn’t too thrilled with the fact that they had allowed the Rangers to interview Fuson for one position but now he was being offered another.
“Billy made it very, very hard for me to say ‘yes.’ We talked a lot that night before I decided, and he offered me a great deal to stay. His loyalty and belief in me really came out at a different level. But after being with Oakland for twenty years, the opportunity to go somewhere new, oversee player development and scouting and take that next step, was an opportunity in my life that I thought I had to take.”
It wasn’t that easy though. Always looking for an opportunity to improve themselves, the A’s insisted on being compensated for the loss of Fuson. They hoped to wrangle a player like Hank Blalock out of the Rangers but, in the end, settled for a financial compensation package determined by the commissioner. Fuson was reluctant to disclose the level of compensation the A’s received in return for losing his services but did admit, “You could sign a real good player with it.”
Implicit in Fuson’s deal with the Rangers was the understanding that he would be viewed as a sort of GM-in-waiting when the time came for John Hart to step aside. And that time seemed to come in the summer of 2004 when, despite upping the payroll by $40 million to a whopping $110 million, the Rangers were still struggling to win and the pressure on the team to do something was mounting. It was at this time, shortly before the All-Star break, that Fuson claims Rangers owner Tom Hicks came to him and said it was time to make a change.
“He said, ‘I’ve talked to John. At the end of the year, he’s going to step aside. You’re stepping in.’ We agreed on a contract. We agreed on a lot of things. We weren’t going to announce it till after the All-Star break. But during the All-Star break, whether it was John, whether it was Buck Showalter, whether it was some other people, they got Tom to change his mind. And the way they did it really bothered me from a moral and ethical standpoint. And so I said, ‘Well, if John’s going to continue to go forward, then I want to step out.’ So I resigned.”
Fuson says A’s GM Billy Beane was one of the first people to call and offered the opportunity to talk about returning to the A’s. But Fuson ultimately accepted an offer from Padres general manager Kevin Towers to return to his hometown of San Diego. Before long, Fuson’s former boss Sandy Alderson joined the Padres front office, followed shortly thereafter by former A’s assistant GM Paul DePodesta – forming something of an A’s brain trust reunion in San Diego.
But after a few years with the Padres, Jeff Moorad took control of the team and hired new general manager Jed Hoyer. The new GM wanted to bring in his own people and decided to let Fuson go. But after being asked to take his leave, it didn’t take long for another job offer to come. He got a call from Billy Beane that night. And before long, he was back on board as a special assistant to the general manager of the Oakland A’s.
“It’s been great. I’m doing exactly what I want to do. I’m in big league camp. I’m watching all the games, helping evaluate, giving them my opinions on everything. Once the big league club gets set, then my focus is in the minor league camp. Once we break camp, then it’s all amateur draft – all of April, May and part of June – I’m cross-checking. And then in the summer, I hit all of our clubs once or twice, and Oakland. I’ll go in there and sit there for four or five days and get my eyes on the big league club and see what’s going on there. And at the deadline, if he’s got some trades and wants me out seeing some guys prior to some trades before the deadline, then I’ll do that.”
But what about all that Moneyball drama? All those debates over scouts vs. stats? The dinosaurs vs. the young turks? All those heated confrontations? Fuson claims there were no great philosophical debates, only differences of opinions over players. He says he certainly wasn’t anti-statistics and that those fault lines were over-dramatized by the book and the film.
“When I was a national cross-checker, I raised my hand numerous times and said, ‘Have you looked at these numbers?’ I had always used numbers. Granted, as the years go on, we’ve got so many more ways of getting numbers. It’s called ‘metrics’ now. And metrics lead to saber-math. Now we have formulas. We have it all now. But historically, I always used numbers. If there’s anything that people perceived right or wrong, it’s that me and Billy are very passionate about what we do. And so when we do speak, the conversation is filled with passion. He even told me when he brought me back, ‘Despite what some people think, I always thought we had healthy, energetic baseball conversations.’”
Fuson admits that he was initially caught off guard by some of the characterizations in the book.
“After the book came out, I’d already left, and I was a little stunned by some of the things said in there. And I had my time where me and Billy aired it out a little bit. And he was a very gracious listener when I aired it out. Guys were sticking microphones in my face left and right and I was kind of taking the fifth. But I told Billy, ‘It’s time for me to fire a shot across the bough, man.’ The good thing is most people know none of that really ever happened.”
As for the reported draft room tensions, Fuson says that’s par for the course.
“Was there tension at times in the draft room? Of course, that’s what a draft room is. The draft is so important to so many of us that there is tension. But in baseball, there’s always tension, anxiety and questions asked. Your boss asks you a question and you give your opinion and he disagrees, and how do you get to this common ground? Me, I’ve always respected who my boss is. If you tell me I can’t take that player, that player isn’t going to get taken.”
But surely it can’t feel great to find yourself portrayed as a bad guy on the big screen.
“The great thing about me and Billy is, back then, we used to have a lot of baseball discussions. In some of them we disagreed, and some of them we agreed. But the bottom line is they were always good baseball discussions. How that got twisted into me being a bad guy I think just got overblown in one scenario with the Jeremy Bonderman pick. There was some anxiety over the ownership, with them being caught off guard that we took a high school pitcher – that we hadn’t taken one in ten years. And that thing got kind of ugly. Billy certainly put up a big fight the night before the draft as to why we shouldn’t take him. But I was never told not to take the guy, and that’s who we as a group at the time wanted to take. And that got a little overblown, so all of a sudden I became the resistor – I was never a resistor.”
Fuson concludes by saying, “I’m glad I’m back – especially with where the state of the club is!” Fuson’s passion for player development is obvious as he offers his take on the A’s current crop of promising young prospects. And when it comes to the A’s newest acquisition, Cuban sensation Yoenis Cespedes, Fuson is clearly impressed.
“He’s physical. He’s explosive. There’s no doubt this guy can crush a fastball. So now we’ve got to watch, when guys start changing speeds on him, is he going to be able to hold up? But so far, this is a good sign. I joked with Billy and said, ‘You might have underpaid!’”
Fans of Double-A Midland will be glad to know that they can look forward to seeing the A’s last two first-round draft picks, power-hitting outfielder Michael Choice and hard-throwing right-hander Sonny Gray, donning Rockhounds uniforms this year. Besides Cespedes, Fuson thinks Choice may be the best pure power hitter in the organization.
“He’s just a very explosive hitter, probably one of the most explosive hitters in the minor leagues right now. This guy has learned a few things and he’s made adjustments. We shoved him right into the California League. We had some expectations and he achieved them. He cut his strikeouts down and shortened up his stride. He’s probably one of the biggest potential power hitters we’ve signed here in a long time. And he’s not just power-oriented. This guy has speed, defensive ability, arm strength – he’s got the package. And it’s just all about us grooming this guy and developing that package.”
As for Gray, he thinks the gritty right-hander’s repertoire needs a few refinements but, other than that, he seems to think he’s got what it takes.
“We’re looking at him really developing this changeup that we’ve shoved down his throat since we signed him. And he wants it as bad as we want to give it to him – because everything he throws is hard and snaps. And he’s gotten away in college without really developing this off-speed something to slow hitters down with. We made him throw it almost every other pitch in the instructional league. And he’s digging it – he wants to throw it. He’s a bright kid. And when it comes to all the other attributes, he’s just a tremendous kid – he’s a competitor. His athleticism, his competitiveness, his will to win, those things go a long way.”
Another particularly intriguing prospect is former 2007 first-round draft pick Sean Doolittle, originally drafted as a first baseman but now, due to injuries, trying to make it as a pitcher. He’s likely to start the year working on his repertoire at Single-A. But, so far, he’s been throwing well and, if he continues to do so, he could move his way up through the ranks quickly.
“His transition has been so fast. He just picked up a ball at the end of the summer. And then basically his first official training back on the mound since college was in instructional league. And now he’s got a couple scoreless innings in big league camp. But the transition’s been great. It’s been easy. He’s taken to it real quick. He’s got a couple of very instinctual knacks in his pitching. The breaking ball needs to be developed, but he’s going to be a nice addition.”
And when it comes to assessing the current state of the A’s organization, Fuson’s love of player development shows through: “We are, to some degree, in a rebuild mode. Look, I always want to put a ring on my finger, but I like building – I like getting better!”
We asked Grady Fuson to tip us off to three guys in the A’s system that we ought to keep an eye on, and here’s what we got:
-GRADY’S GUYS TO WATCH-
Right-handed Starting Pitcher
Age: 22 / Drafted: 8th Round – 2010
Expected To Start 2012 With: Stockton Ports
There’s a lot of upside to him. He’s got power in his arm. He’s got a hard breaking ball. The changeup is a developing pitch for him. He’s got good angles. He’s got good planes. It’s just about him learning the touch and feel part of being a starter. He was fairly dominant at Single-A Burlington last year. He was drafted in the 8th round in 2010. If you get a chance to see him, you’re going to like what you see.
Right-handed Hitting Shortstop
Age: 21 / Drafted: 2nd Round – 2010
Expected To Start 2012 With: Stockton Ports
He’s a big key to our system. He was an older high school guy when we took him last year in the draft. He was held back when he was younger so that he could have an extra year of learning English. He was born and raised in the Dominican and his family had moved to the States. He’s physical, he’s big, he’s strong, he runs and he throws. It’s all about learning the nuances. He didn’t have the kind of year we expected, or even he expected, last year in Burlington. But he’s going to be given an opportunity to go to the California League at the age of 21 and see what this young man can do. But there’s impact to his whole game.
Left-handed Hitting Outfielder
Age: 27 / Drafted: 5th Round – 2006
Expected To Start 2012 With: Sacramento Rivercats
I think the next step for him determines a lot of what we do in the future here in Oakland. Jermaine was a kid they’d signed years ago who was gifted and had raw tools. It’s taken a long time for these tools to apply themselves to performance. When I first came back here in 2010, Jermaine was almost on the verge of release. But you just can’t release players like this. They’re just too talented. You can’t replace them, so you might as well keep playing them. And things have really turned for this kid. He started to put it together in 2010, and everyone saw what he did last year. He’s a dynamic, gifted athlete who has a chance to do everything in the game. Those type of players are so difficult to acquire – a dynamic speed guy in center, somebody you can trust is going to do something offensively. There’s no doubt that he’s going to make some decisions possible if, in fact, he continues to back up what he’s done at the Triple-A level. He’s that dynamic of an athlete.