Last season, first baseman Matt Olson and third baseman Renato Nunez combined for 42 homeruns and 178 RBI for the Low-A Beloit Snappers. In 2014, Olson and Nunez will once again be the cornerstones of their team's infield while also providing a powerful left-right punch in the middle of the line-up.
Both just 20 years old, Olson and Nunez rank as the top power-hitting prospects in the Oakland A's system. Olson was the third of three high school position players selected by the A's in the first round of the 2012 draft. The native of Georgia hit nine homers and drove-in 45 in just 50 games during his pro debut season and then followed that up with a solid first full professional season in 2013 with Beloit.
Nunez, a native of Venezuela, signed with the A's to a seven-figure bonus in July 2010 when he was just 16. He played in the Dominican Summer League in 2011 and then teamed up with Olson in 2012 on the Arizona Rookie League A's. Nunez hit .325 with a 953 OPS for the AZL A's that year. Both infielders were instrumental in the success of that AZL A's squad, which reached the league championship game.
Many of the players from that 2012 AZL team moved to Low-A Beloit in 2013, and their winning ways continued. The Snappers reached the post-season, falling one game short of reaching the Midwest League championship series. The Snappers were the only A's minor league affiliate to reach the post-season last year.
The current Stockton Ports' roster features several players who suited up for Beloit last season, as well as manager Ryan Christenson and pitching coach John Wasdin, both of whom moved up to Stockton this season. In addition to Olson and Nunez, current Ports Kris Hall, Tucker Healy, Austin House, Nolan Sanburn, Seth Streich, Michael Ynoa, Bruce Maxwell, Daniel Robertson and Aaron Shipman were all key contributors to the 2013 Beloit team.
Nunez is looking to extend his post-season streak to three years.
"First goal is to win. For the team, winning a ring," Nunez said. "Last year, we almost did it. We went to the playoffs and we have a lot of the same team this year. A lot of the same players. That's what I want is to win, whatever I can do to help the team, whether it is defense, running, hitting, whatever I can do. "
Olson believes the talent-level on the Ports' roster is championship-caliber.
"We've got great team chemistry, even with the guys who weren't in Beloit," Olson said. "We have a bunch of great guys. It's nice to have played with guys like Nunez, Daniel, House, just to know how they play. It's definitely a more comfortable transition.
"We have a great group of guys here ready to get after it. We have a great team."
Both Olson and Nunez participated in the A's minor league spring mini-camp, which began at roughly the same time as major league camp. Olson spent the spring working on his approach and set-up at the plate with A's minor league hitting coordinator Marcus Jensen. Olson has shown excellent power during his brief pro career and he did walk 72 times in 2013, but he has also struggled to make consistent contact. He struck-out 148 times and his batting average (.225) was significantly lower than one would expect for a hitter of his talent.
Olson is listed at 6'4'' and may be even taller than that. Hitters with long arms can often struggle to find a comfortable set-up in the batter's box. Olson worked last season with former A's minor league hitting coordinator Todd Steverson on his hitting mechanics to try to find a spot that worked for him. This spring, Olson's focus with Jensen was more mental than physical.
"I worked with Marcus [Jensen] a lot on approach and the mental aspect to hitting as opposed to physical adjustments," Olson said. "Obviously, here and there we worked on physical stuff. I liked working with him. He knows a lot about the game. I'm trying to apply a lot of that stuff this year.
‘Trick [Todd Steverson] and Marcus both are big guys and they kind of get it a little bit. Marcus even said something about that during spring training. He gave me a few things to think about as far as the fact that I am a bigger guy and I might have a few holes because of my length. I'm just working on how to approach that."
Nunez also struck-out a lot (136 times), but the biggest hole in his game in 2013 was his defense at third. He committed 39 errors in 114 games at third with Beloit. Nunez put a lot of work into his defense over the off-season and during spring training, and he said that he feels more comfortable at the hot corner coming into this year. He will share time at third with fellow prospect Ryon Healy this season.
Both players got the opportunity to suit up and play in a few major league spring training games this spring, and they both came away from the experience with a better understanding of what it takes to reach the major leagues.
"[Spring training] was a lot easier. Last year, I was kind of feeling everything out as far as what to do and who to talk to," Olson said about his second spring training. "Do I talk to big leaguers, if they show up [to minor league camp]? It was a lot easier transition.
"It was fun [playing in the big league games]. It was nice to talk to those guys. They are just like us. They are up there, but a bunch of big kids. Nice guys."
Nunez relished his time around the A's major league team.
"I enjoyed that moment," Nunez said. "I see the way those guys play. They play hard. They play for the team. I learned a couple of things from them."
Last season was something of a trial run for both Nunez and Olson, as they both played in a career-high number of games. Nunez said he learned a lot from the experience of playing a full season.
"Now I know how it is and what I have to do so I don't get that tired at the end," Nunez said.
While Olson and Nunez both know that they are moving from a pitcher-friendly league (the Midwest League) to a hitter-friendly one, neither is taking the level of competition in the Cal League lightly. A's top prospect and 2013 Stockton Port Addison Russell is close with many of the current Ports. Russell gave Olson an idea of what to expect from Cal League pitchers.
"He just said that it is a little less straight-forward. You aren't going to see as many four-seams, more cutters, two-seams, whatever it may be," Olson said. "That was probably the biggest thing he told me. It helped being friends with someone who did it last year."
Nunez is off to a fast start in the California League. Through his first three games, he has five hits in 13 at-bats. Two of those hits have gone for extra-bases. Olson has two hits in 10 at-bats, and he has walked twice.
News and Notes
- It took until Saturday but all four of the A's affiliates are now in the win column. The Beloit Snappers had their Friday night game cancelled because of cold weather. On Saturday, they played two seven-inning games. The Snappers dropped Game One, 3-1, but they won Game Two in dramatic fashion, 4-3. Melvin Mercedes singled in Tyler Marincov to tie the game at 3 in the bottom of the seventh. Three batters later, Mercedes scored the winning run on a wild pitch with B.J. Boyd at the plate. Mercedes is 4-for-7 with three runs scored in two games played. Lead-off hitter Boog Powell has reached base six times through the first three games of the season.
- The Sacramento River Cats earned their first win of the season on Saturday with a 12-7 victory over Salt Lake. Joe Blanton started the game, his first start for Sacramento since 2004. He allowed six runs (five earned) in five innings to earn the win. Four of the five earned runs came in his final inning of work. He struck-out four and walked two. Michael Taylor hit his first homerun of the season and has three walks and two hits over his first two games. He also had an outfield assist. Alden Carrithers had three hits, while Stephen Vogt, Jake Goebbert and Tyler Ladendorf had two hits each. Ladendorf drove-in three. He also stole a base. Joe Savery had a scoreless inning of work, while Paul Smyth retired all six batters he faced and he struck-out three. Fernando Nieve allowed a homerun to Matt Long in the ninth but closed out the win.
- The Midland Rockhounds are 1-2 through three games. After allowing 20 runs during their first game, the Midland pitching staff has recovered to allow just three runs over the last two games. Tanner Peters allowed three runs in 5.1 innings in his first Double-A start, which came on Saturday in a 3-1 loss. Murphy Smith came on in relief of Peters and finished the game with 3.2 perfect innings. He struck-out six. Billy Burns has three stolen bases through three games, and Dusty Coleman has four hits in 11 at-bats. Addison Russell went 5-for-7 before leaving early in Game Two with a cramp in his hamstring. He didn't play on Saturday. Russell has a homer and a double among his five hits.
- The Stockton Ports are the only A's affiliate with a winning record through the first three games of the season. After dropping a heart-breaker on Friday night, the Ports beat Visalia, 3-2, on Saturday. Starter Manny Correa didn't allow a hit until the sixth inning in his A's organizational debut. He tossed seven scoreless innings. Daniel Robertson had three hits and Wade Kirkland drove-in all three Ports' runs. Stockton pitchers have allowed just seven runs through their first three games.
- Two members of the A's are rehabbing injuries with the Ports. OF Craig Gentry made his first rehab appearance on Saturday. He went 2-for-3 with a double and he was caught stealing. RHP Ryan Cook made his second rehab appearance on Saturday and he was touched for two runs on two hits and two walks in two-thirds of an inning. He allowed a homer and struck-out two. He threw a scoreless inning on Thursday night.