For the third consecutive year, a small group of up-and-coming Oakland A's prospects have reported to Papago Sports Complex a few weeks ahead of the official opening of minor league spring training. Monday marked the start of another minor league mini-camp for the Oakland A's – the last to be held at Papago before the move to Mesa's Fitch Park in 2015. As is standard, pitchers and catchers reported first, position players report this weekend. All will stay through the end of regular spring training.
The purpose of this mini-camp, according to Oakland's esteemed farm director Keith Lieppman is two-fold: to prepare more veteran pitchers, such as LHP Jeff Urlaub and RHP Paul Smyth, for the call to Phoenix Muni to assist the big league club during spring training games, as well as to provide more concentrated instruction to younger prospects with less professional experience. That latter group includes 2013 first-round pick Billy McKinney and 2012 1A and 1B picks Daniel Robertson and Matt Olson.
The campers are at Papago each day from 11:00am – 3:00 or 4:00pm. Their days begin with "classroom" work and watching video from the previous days' efforts. At 1:00pm, after lunch, the campers and instructors move to the fields as the big league camp has ended for the day. Pitchers rotate among three fields/ areas focusing on: 1) PFPs (Pitching Fielding Practice), 2) situational defense, and 3) pitching mechanics. The aforementioned activities take place under the watchful eyes of the strength and conditioning staff, video guru (and AZL MVP, according to my season recap) Mark Smith, and Oakland's front office brass, including Lieppman, until camp ends by 4:00pm.
Mini-camp instructors include pitching coordinator Scott "Emo" Emerson, who was drafted as an LHP by the Orioles in 1991 and spent seven years in the minor leagues before retiring; Beloit pitching coach, former MLB LHP Craig Lefferts who was drafted by the Cubs in 1980 and spent 12 years at the major league level, and played on three World Series teams, including the 1989 San Francisco Giants; and, of course, one of the many MANY former Oakland legends who return to give back to the youngest additions to the green and gold: Bob Welch.
Yes… that Bob Welch. The 1990 American League Cy Young award winner, who pitched in the post-season in eight of his 17 seasons including two World Series championships in 1981 with the Dodgers and 1989 with Oakland. Welch was drafted in the first round in 1977 by the Dodgers. Less than a year later, at age 21, Welch made his major league debut and later pitched in three games of the 1978 World Series. So, what were YOU doing when you were 21?
Instructors of this caliber, who only know how to win at the highest level, and who are compelled to give back and to help develop an organization of winners, are not available to all 30 teams – or even to three. Oakland's farm system has legends such as Welch, Chili Davis and Rickey Henderson, too, who are a staple on the back fields working with all levels of prospects, long after the crowds are gone.
Across town, in Glendale, another prestigious pitcher, Sandy Koufax, lends a hand to the Dodgers pitchers. On second thought, make that singular: pitcher. Koufax periodically works with NL Cy Young winner, Clayton Kershaw; not the toughest job anyone will ever have. Meanwhile, at Papago, Bob Welch is working with, talking to, and mentoring every pitcher in camp. This is after he participates in the morning yoga stretch with the rest of the players in camp.
Position players who will participate in the mini-camp arrive on Saturday; all minor leaguers report March 4th, and minor league games begin the week of March 10th. The lush green fields at Papago – that Lieppman called "the best fields, anywhere" – will be filled with baseball players, team personnel and fans.
The beauty of the setting of this location, which is as impressive as the organization that called it "home" for 20 seasons, should be fully appreciated and overly photographed. I will certainly do my part for this final year at Papago. You should, too.
The full mini-camp roster is listed below:
For a preview of the A's mini-camp, including short bios of each player invited, please click here.