With non-roster invitations to spring training being common for prospects nearing the big leagues, it is rare for an organization to promote a player to the major leagues mid-season that the big league manager has never met. It's even rarer for that player to then become an integral part of their big league team's ride to a division crown. But in the case of the 2012 Oakland A's, there were two such players who fit that rarest of profiles: right-handers A.J. Griffin and Dan Straily.
While both pitchers were well regarded amongst the A's minor league coaching staff, neither Griffin nor Straily entered the 2012 season with the ‘elite prospect' label. Both players were coming off of strong 2011 seasons spent mostly at the High-A level and both were expected to spend the majority of the 2012 season with Double-A Midland. Instead, Griffin found himself in the big leagues by June and Straily made his major league debut in August. Both would start pivotal games down-the-stretch as the A's made their run into the post-season.
Life is a lot different for Griffin and Straily as they prepare for spring training this year. When the two make their first appearance for the A's this spring, it will be each of their big league spring training debuts. Although both pitchers were part of the A's minor league mini-camp that took place before the 2012 regular minor league spring camp, neither Griffin nor Straily got even a one-day call-over to the A's big league camp.
"[A's manager] Bob [Melvin] said last year he had no idea who we were and he truly meant that. We had never met the guy before we came up," Straily said at the A's 2013 FanFest on Sunday.
Straily never imagined during spring training last year that he would meet Melvin at any point during the 2012 season. He didn't spend much time thinking about big league camp as he prepared for the season, instead spending all of his energy on preparing for what he anticipated to be a full season in the minor leagues.
"I remember I was talking with Gil [Patterson, former A's minor league pitching coordinator] one time [last spring], and I said that I didn't even want to go across the street [to big league camp]," Straily said.
"It's not that I didn't want to go and check it out, it's that I wanted to go when I was really ready to be there. I want to get my work done here in minor league camp. We were preparing for Double-A and I didn't want to waste a day of spring training just to be able to go sit in the bullpen. I'll go across the street when I have earned the right to be there."
Both Straily and Griffin more than earned the right to be "across the street" at the A's big league complex at Phoenix Municipal Stadium with 2012 seasons to remember.
Straily, the A's 24th-round pick out of Marshall in 2009, had been a one-level-per-year player during his first two-and-a-half professional seasons. In 2012, he jumped three levels – moving from Double-A to the big leagues – and along the way led all minor leaguers in strike-outs with 190 in 152 innings. Straily made seven starts for the A's and went 2-1 with a 3.89 ERA and 32 strike-outs in 39.1 major league innings.
Griffin, the A's 13th-round pick in 2010 out of San Diego, actually pitched at four different levels for the A's in 2011, although he logged the most innings for High-A Stockton. In 2011, Griffin logged 160.2 innings for Low-A Burlington, High-A Stockton, Double-A Midland and Triple-A Sacramento, and he posted a 3.47 ERA with a 156:32 K:BB ratio.
With the Ports, Griffin and Straily teamed to help lead Stockton to the California League Championship Series and they forged a close friendship. Griffin was a groomsman in Straily's wedding in Eugene, Ore., this off-season.
Griffin's propensity for mid-season promotions continued into 2012. He began the year in Double-A, but after seven dominating starts, he was bumped to Triple-A. Griffin pitched so well for the River Cats that when the A's starting rotation was hit by injuries mid-summer, the A's front office turned to Griffin even though he was only two years removed from the draft. He would spend the majority of the remaining four months as a fixture in the A's rotation, and he posted a 3.06 ERA in 82.1 big league innings.
The Southern California native would end up starting two of the most important games of the A's season. The first – Game 162 against the Rangers – wasn't a typical Griffin start (he allowed five runs – four earned – in 2.2 innings), but the second outing was more in-line with his regular season performance, as he held the Tigers to two runs in five innings in Game Four of the ALDS.
Griffin says that getting the opportunity to pitch in the post-season after struggling during the final game of the year was huge for his mental outlook going into the 2013 season.
"Game 162 didn't go how I wanted it to go. The result was good for the team," Griffin said at FanFest. "I was just really happy that they gave me another chance in the playoffs to go out there. They kept their confidence in me even after the showing on the last day of the season.
"It was really good to know that they had that confidence in you, that they want you to be out there, especially in a game like that, an elimination game. It's a really big confidence booster. It makes you feel like you belong up there."
Straily did not make the A's post-season roster, as Brett Anderson returned from the disabled list in time to take Straily's spot in the rotation. However, Straily gained valuable experience of his own during that time in October. The A's sent Straily to their fall Instructional League camp to watch video of potential American League Championship Series opponents in case they would need Straily to make a start in the next round of the playoffs. Straily also got a chance to throw in an Instructional League game, which allowed him to add five more innings to his 2012 workload. He believes that will put him in a good position to pitch an entire 162-game regular season and a possibly a post-season in 2013.
"I hadn't pushed the limits on innings and that sort of thing [in previous seasons]. Now I have," Straily said. "I had a little better idea how to prepare and train for this season. I'm a lot more prepared this year. I have a lot better idea what is going on."
Last off-season, both Straily and Griffin had to manage their conditioning programs around their work schedules. Since neither player was a top-round draft pick, there was no six- or seven-figure signing bonus for them to live off of during the off-season. To make ends meet, the pair played the role of Al Bundy, selling shoes. Straily sold shoes at a Dick's Sporting Goods in Eugene, while Griffin could be found hawking Jordans and other fancy sneakers at the Nike Running Store at the Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto.
With big league service time and paychecks in hand, Straily and Griffin were able to eschew the 9-to-5 gig this off-season and focus solely on preparing for the 2013 campaign (with a little wedding planning thrown into the mix).
"It has been really nice just to focus on our job of baseball instead of having to spend 30-40 hours a week focusing on something else. It's just nice to be able to focus on working out and getting ready for the season," Straily said.
Griffin spent the off-season working out with A's non-roster invitee Bruce Billings. Griffin says his training program has been similar to the program he used last off-season, but he was able to devote even more time to it.
"I feel good. I feel strong and I feel like I am in good shape, conditioning-wise. I feel like I am ready to go. I'm pumped and ready to get this season going," Griffin said.
"Minor league camp last year they had the mini-camp, so it kind of helps for this year because it is about the same time that we were reporting last year. It's been a pretty easy transition [to prepare for big league camp]. Just not having to go to our jobs in the off-season, that was probably the biggest part. Other than that, you just take it day-by-day and just go about doing your workouts and prepare yourself as best as you can for spring training and be ready to go."
Straily has modified his off-season regimen every year as he has learned more and more about what he needs to do physically to get through a full season healthy and pitching at his best.
"It's learning over the past few years the best combination of lifting, stretching, running and rest. What your body needs, when you should start throwing, all of those sorts of things. All of those things lead into it," Straily said of his off-season program. "We are given guidelines but every guy is going to be different.
"I remember last year that A.J. and I talked about yoga for a while. This year, I tried it out. Does it work? I don't know, but I sure feel like I'm not as tight all of the time. It's just little things. We have a lot more time to do that this year instead of selling shoes. You just kind of find the way your body works."
Although the A's have the banner as the defending AL West champions, they won't enter the season as the prohibitive favorites to repeat with big money teams like the Angels and the Rangers in the division. As later-round draft picks, Straily and Griffin are used to the underdog tag and don't mind it one bit.
"I have been reading about how [the AL West] is the best division in baseball, that the power has shifted. For us being young guys and being able to be a part of that is great," Straily said. "I feel like we are in a great spot. I saw something the other day where someone called us the underdogs. It's kind of like ‘what else did you expect?' but it was interesting to see. I'm excited about it and every game is going to have a lot behind it.
"I feel like if people perceive us as an underdog, I don't think anyone in the clubhouse is going to see ourselves as the underdog. We are a pretty confident group. A laid-back group, but a talented group. Just because it's not a bunch of long, big contracts in the clubhouse, doesn't mean that guys won't be able to get the job done."
Griffin used the underdog label as motivation during his rise to the big leagues. At San Diego, he was considered a top draft prospect during his first two seasons. However, he fell down the draft board as a junior in 2009 and didn't hear his name called until the 34th round (Philadelphia). Griffin didn't sign with the Phillies and returned to USD for his senior season. Once he began his pro career in 2010, he set out to prove that teams erred in over-looking him in the draft.
"Someone was asking about chips on their shoulder and I'd say that that was a pretty big chip on my shoulder," Griffin said. "I wanted to just prove to all of the scouts and all of the organizations that passed on me that they might have made a little mistake. But, it's where I needed to be. I'm happy as can be and I'm really fortunate how things have worked out and I'm very happy to be a member of the Oakland A's."
When Straily and Griffin officially report for their first big league spring training on February 11th, they will be armed with the knowledge that they have been to the big leagues and found success. Now they are looking to prove that they can stay there for years to come.
"I got a little taste [last year] and I am ready to get back and have a lot more of it this year," Straily said.