June 5, 2014, Seacaucus, NJ: Commissioner Bud Selig announces, “With the 25th pick in the first round of the 2014 MLB Draft, the Oakland Athletics select … third baseman, Matthew Chapman, a junior from California State University, Fullerton.”
Annnnnd, we’re off! For the next two days, as each name is announced, the rosters for Oakland’s two rookie-level teams, the Arizona Summer League (AZL) A’s and the New York Penn League (NYPL) Vermont Lake Monsters, start to take shape. In the first few rounds: College kid? Vermont. High schooler? AZL.
Unlike the previous two draft classes, Oakland’s 2014 picks were heavy in the college ranks. Case in point, of the first 30 selections, all but two were from a two- or four-year college. Pacific Northwest natives Trace Loehr, a shortstop, and Branden Kelliher, a right-handed pitcher -- drafted in the sixth- and eighth-rounds, respectively -- were also the only high school picks to sign with the A’s from this year’s draft.
Even if for only one game, 22 of the 25 A’s signed picks made their professional debuts in the Arizona League. The exceptions: second-round pick Daniel Gossett debuted with Vermont and seventh-round pick Branden Cogswell debuted with the Low-A Beloit Snappers. The third: Michael Nolan, an 18th round pick from Yonkers, NY. Nolan signed a contract, joined the AZL squad, but retired on June 30th without making his professional debut.
Today, the minor league baseball season is in the books. Oakland’s Double-A affiliate, the Midland Rockhounds defeated the Rockies’ Tulsa Drillers in an exciting Game 5 to become the Texas League Champs. Midland’s beloved, long-time broadcaster, Bob Hards often referred to the great stories behind each young man on the team. This included a late-season addition to the team, Matt Chapman, who was added to Midland’s roster for the last regular season game. He proved in the post-season that he was equal to the task of contending for the league championship. And to think; four months earlier, when Chapman was helping his Titans contend for post-season play, he had no idea where he would be a champion at the professional level.
The season passed too quickly, as it always seems to do. Mid-September is here and many of the minor leaguer players who returned home for a post-season break are en route back to Arizona for the Fall Instructional League, a.k.a., “Instructs” or “FIL.” Generally speaking, games against other teams are not scheduled for each day, “work days”/ inter-squad games are mixed in, as well. But, when scheduled, games begin at 12:30pm during the week, and at 10:00am on Saturdays. No games on Sundays. (For the A’s full Instructional League roster and schedule, click here.)
Instructional League games, like those during minor league Spring Training and extended Spring Training are exhibition/ training; not official games. This means that stats are not recorded; game schedules are not posted or tracked by MiLB and can change at-will, without notice, and line-ups may include a rehabbing major leaguer on a contending team who will bat second each inning. Sadly, it also means that fun and exciting things like home runs, do not count. If a player has zero home runs on his MiLB page, but hits four over the batters’ eye at Papago in September, his page will still show he has yet to go yard. However, if a pitcher gives up four home runs in one inning, no ERA damage is done. So that’s one upside of being unofficial.
This is also the time when former MLB players and “legends” work with the young farmhands in a relaxed but focused setting. It is not uncommon to find Rickey Henderson, in uniform and in the dugout during a game. What an experience to learn from some of the best, from Hall of Fame members to Cy Young Award winners and all with the same goal: to help these young men become the best they can be. Many of whom, like Chapman, are just 100 days removed from mid-terms and meal plans. This is just the beginning of their professional careers.
BEFORE WE REVIEW, WE REMEMBER THE “RADIANT COACH”
There is no way to start a season review without addressing the loss of three-time World Series Champ, two-time All Star, and 1990 Cy Young Award winner Bob Welch on June 9, 2014, at the age of 53. The profound impact this man had on the lives of every ball player, coach, front office staff member, and one Arizona-based staff writer for OaklandClubhouse, is immeasurable. Because of the timing of his passing, several members of the Spring Training/ Extended Spring Training team were in Phoenix awaiting the start of the AZL season. These young men (including Dustin Driver, Chris Kohler, A.J. Kubala, Josh Miller, Travis Pitcher, Nick Rickles…) were able to attend the Celebration of Life, on behalf of every one of their peers who could not attend. They represented the hundreds, or more like thousands, of young men who regarded Bob Welch not only as a coach and mentor, but in many cases, a “Father Figure” or “Second Dad”. Every ballplayer who was fortunate to know Bob Welch was with us, in spirit, that Saturday before Fathers’ Day.
There is no metric, no formula to quantify what he embodied: the softest of hearts filled with love and compassion; the selfless acts of generosity that were as natural to him as breathing; and the intense, competitive drive that declared him the winner of every minute, every day.
“Welchie,” as he was known to those blessed to know him, was a fixture, a staple on the fields and in the clubhouse at Papago. The young men who were on this year’s extended Spring Training roster were the last to be greeted every day, before dawn, by the man Keith Lieppman called the, “Radiant Coach.” Memories of a lifetime. Throughout Oakland’s farm system, there are stories and sentiments that will be shared for years to come; honoring the life of Bob Welch.
It was only fitting that on June 20th, opening day of the 2014 AZL season (less than rwo weeks after his passing), the A’s and Angels gathered on the field for a brief pre-game tribute honoring the man who would forever be with us in spirit. Rehabbing catcher Luke Montz shared a few words, beautiful sentiment and led in a moment of silence. Earlier in the day, the stellar grounds crew added “35” just below the “Athletics” behind home plate. It was beautiful.
Opening night starter Jesus Zambrano did what every starting pitcher after him would do prior to every game of the season, whether home or away: carried the matching “35” jersey from the clubhouse to the dugout where it would hang for all to see. Pitching coach Carlos Chavez, who worked closely with Welchie since joining the AZL staff in 2013, knew this would not only honor Welchie’s memory, but spark discussion and spread the wisdom of Welchie to the young men who were not fortunate enough to know him.
Though the fields at Papago have long been hallowed ground in Oakland A’s history, the 2015 season will open a new chapter for the green and gold. Mesa’s Hohokam Stadium and Fitch Park (located just down Center Street from the stadium) will replace Phoenix Municipal Stadium and Papago Sports Complex as the A’s Arizona homes. Both properties have had extensive upgrades and improvements in the year since the Cubs moved to their facility in the Riverview area of Mesa. This last set of Instructional League games will be played at Papago, and then… Hello Hohokam & Fitch!
LET’S TAKE A LOOK AT SOME NUMBERS FROM THE AZL A’s
Manager Ruben Escalera led his team to a record of 27 – 28 – 1. Yes, there was a tie. Overall, they finished fourth in the East Division. Of the 13 teams in the AZL, the A’s finished exactly in the middle. There were six teams with better records, and six teams with worse. There was marked improvement in the second half of the season when they finished second in the East Division after finishing at the bottom at the end of the first half.
The AZL Indians, who led their division and much of the league in each half of the season, defeated the AZL Giants to earn the title of AZL champions. The Indians are one of the newest additions to the league (2009 was their first year in Goodyear) and their team, led by league MVP Bobby Bradley, was so excited, so loud and supportive of one another, from the bullpen to the dugout and on the field; the game was essentially theirs even before a pitch was thrown.
TEAM STAT LEADERS - BATTING:
Runs Scored: 25 – Vicmal De La Cruz; 24 – Robert Martinez; 22 – Trace Loehr
Hits: 39 – Trace Loehr; 35 – (Tie) Vicmal De La Cruz and Edwin Diaz; 33 – Robert Martinez
2B: 13 – Vicmal De La Cruz; 12 – (Tie) Edwin Diaz and Robert Martinez; 8 – Michael Soto
RBI: 29 – Robert Martinez; 17 – (Tie) Michael Soto and Vicmal De La Cruz; 14 – Trace Loehr
Total Bases: 62 – Robert Martinez; 52 – Edwin Diaz; 50 – Vicmal De La Cruz
BB: 26 – Robert Martinez; 20 – Vicmal De La Cruz; 19 – Jesus Lopez
SO: 60 – Robert Martinez; 43 – (Tie) Vicmal De La Cruz and Miguel Mercedes; 39 – Edwin Diaz
Robert Martinez also played in the most games: 48
Runs: 274 (6th fewest)
Hits: 451 (5th fewest)
2B: 105 (#1 Most)
3B: 20 (3rd fewest)
HR: 22 (6th)
RBI: 222 (6th fewest)
Total Bases: 662 (7th - middle)
BB: 219 (Tied for most with White Sox)
SO: 473 (4th fewest)
SB: 44 (2nd fewest)
OBP: .328 (4th lowest)
SLG: .354 (6th)
AVG: .241 (4th lowest)
OPS: .682 (6TH fewest)
TEAM STAT LEADERS - PITCHING:
ERA (6 or more games): 0.90 Ben Bracewell – 7 games/10 IP; 1.47 Cody Stull - 14 games/18.1 IP; 1.64 Dillon Overton – 7 games/ 22 IP [Starter]; 2.14 Jesus Rivas - 18 games/ 21 IP; 2.43 Victor Veliz - 10 games; 33.1 IP [Starter]
Most IP: 71.0 - Carlos Navas (3.30 ERA); 70.2 - Jesus Zambrano (4.33 ERA); 33.1 - Victor Veliz (2.43 ERA)
Ks: 63 – Jesus Zambrano (14 games; 70.2 IP; 4.33 ERA); 61 – Carlos Navas (13 games; 71 IP; 3.30 ERA); 37 – Branden Kelliher (11 games; 28 IP; 4.82 ERA)
WHIP: 0.80 – Ben Bracewell (7 games; 10 IP/0.90 ERA); 1.00 – Dillon Overton (7 games; 22 IP/1.64 ERA); 1.03 - Heath Fillmyer (6 games; 9.2 IP/2.79 ERA)
IP: 487.2 (6th fewest)
H: 484 (7th – exactly in the middle of 13 teams)
R: 306 (3rd most)
ER: 252 (2nd most)
HR: 18 (6th fewest)
BB: 232 (2nd most)
Ks: 486 (6th most)
ERA: 4.65 (2nd highest)
WHIP: 1.47 (Tied for highest)
AND NOW WE REVIEW
Ruben Escalera, the Pride of Puerto Rico, returned to manage the A’s Rookie League club as he celebrated his 20th season with A’s organization. Ruben, who first managed the AZL team from 2002 – 2008, and won the league title in 2004, is one of the most positive, up-beat people you’ll ever meet. The coaching staff included Carlos Chavez, who returned for his second season as pitching coach, Gabe Ortiz, catching coach, and Juan Dilone (pronounced “Dee’-loh-nay”) served as the hitting and first base coach.
As always, there were frequent visits by Farm Director Keith Lieppman, Hitting Coordinator Marcus Jensen, and Pitching Coordinator Scott Emerson (a.k.a. “Emo.”) Special Assistant to the GM Grady Fuson also spent some time evaluating the AZL team. Of course, with the absurd number of pitching injuries, Garvin Alston, former big league pitcher/ current rehab pitching coordinator, was a fixture at Papago.
For the record, though they were on the DL and did not play in a game this season, you would find 2013 draft picks RHP Dustin Driver, RHP Dakota Freese, LHP Chris Kohler, RHP Kevin Johnson, and C Josh Miller attending each home game. Often in camping chairs along the top row of the concrete seating. You know…where the cool kids sit.
The 56-game season began on June 20th, as it does every year. The AZL is also known as the “Fire League”, for a very good reason; it’s baseball played outside in Phoenix, during the summer. It’s HOT. Especially in June, when the saying “It’s a DRY HEAT” is true. Though first pitch is at 7:00pm, there is at least another hour of sunlight for most of the season. I send out a “First Pitch Temp” tweet, before each game I attend. I don’t know that the temperature has ever been double digits in June. Most often, anywhere from 103 – 110, and even when the games end, 10-ish, the thermometer is still ready triple digits.
Manager Ruben Escalera knows how difficult it can be to adjust to that kind of heat, which is why he got the team acclimated to the weather by instituting the game day schedule and routine immediately. Medical and training staff abound, and water, drinks, etc. are limitless to keep the hydration level where it needs to be. This isn’t football “hell week”, but it’s better to struggle during the limited practice time available instead of when the games start. The games are official. The stats count, the games count, it’s serious.
Games are scheduled in sets of four, then one day off. There is a nice back-to-back pattern applied whenever possible: one game home, next game there – same opponent.
For the nine games played in the month of June, the team won four and lost five. Home and away splits: 3-2 at home; 1-3 on the road.
If there was one defining moment of the season, it was on June 23rd. Dillon Overton, the A’s 2013 second overall pick from the University of Oklahoma, made his professional debut. Shortly before the 2013 draft, Overton learned he would have to undergo Tommy John surgery, and he would not be able to start his career for at least a year. Dillon was understandably upset at the time, but after his procedure, he was present at every home game at Papago throughout the 2013 AZL season. His hard work and patience paid off when he was finally able to take the mound for the first time as a professional. The day before his debut, his energy, fueled by gratitude, could have powered a small town.
As anxious and excited as Dillon was to get back to the game that he loves, there were many, MANY family members, friends, scouts, executives, etc. who were just as excited to watch him. He was phenomenal! Better than advertised; an artist with a wicked curveball! This was one of those times when I still get chills thinking about it. I was honored to witness Dillon Overton’s debut.
Spelled out below are the season and professional debuts of everyone who played in an AZL game; dates are important to mark. Whether they are recent draft picks, promoted to the AZL from the Dominican Summer League (DSL) (*), rehabbing before returning to higher level team (**), or returning AZL players (**), the first game played is recorded below. First home runs hit and promotions to Vermont or Beloit are also recorded.
20TH: 2014 MLB Draft picks: 1st round Matt Chapman; 6th round Trace Loehr; 9th round Michael Fagan; 13th round Max Kuhn; 16th round Jose Brizuela; 26th round Rob Huber; 27th round J.P Sportman; 29th round Cody Stull; 34th round John Nogowski
*Jesus Zambrano, Jesus Lopez, Miguel Mercedes, Robert Martinez
**Travis Pitcher, Lana Akau, Luke Montz, Edwin Diaz, Vicmal De La Cruz, Jonesy Zarraga, D’Arby Myers
23RD: 10th round Corey Miller, 2013 2nd round Dillon Overton
25TH: *Jesus Rivas
27th: 11th round Branden Kelliher
28TH: 4th round Jordan Schwartz, 24th round Dawson Brown
30th: **Shawn Duinkerk
22ND: Edwin Diaz, Robert Martinez, Dusty Brown (released in mid-July after having Tommy John in 2012 and arthroscopic surgery in the spring; currently with Indians, Columbus Clippers (Triple-A))
25th: Max Kuhn, Jose Brizuela
26th: Seongmin Kim
23rd: Matt Chapman – Beloit; Joel Seddon – Beloit
27TH : Jose Brizuela – Vermont; Brendan McCurry – Beloit; Michael Fagan – Vermont; Corey Miller – Vermont
30th: 18th round Michael Nolan
July is the start of the Monsoon season in Arizona; when the dry, oven-like heat is replaced with lower temps, as well as humidity and an-almost-nightly chance of wind, dust and thunderstorms. Mother Nature wasted no time starting the crazy weather. On July 3rd at Goodyear against the Indians, infielder Argenis Raga debuted as a catcher, the position he was originally signed to play. During that game, gale-force winds brought dust, rain, thunder and lightning. It set the tone for the rest of the season. Many games were suspended, only to be resumed at a later date. More than I can ever remember in years past.
The team finished the month with a record of 10 -14. Home and road splits: 5 – 6 and 5 – 8, respectively. Season totals at the end of July: Overall 14 - 19; Home 8 - 8; Away 6 - 11.
1ST: 15th-round Trent Gilbert
3RD: Raga (as a catcher)
6TH: 12th round Ty Willman
*Kevin Ferreras, Victor Veliz
8TH: UDFA signing Tyler Painton
13th: 3rd round Brett Graves
16TH: **AJ Kubala
21ST: 5th round Heath Fillmyer
28th: ** FA signing Ben Bracewell (RHP from the Frontier League’s River City Rascals. Had Tommy John surgery in 2010, then pitched at Mississippi State before signing with River City in June)
2nd: Max Kuhn – Vermont; John Nogowski – Vermont
4th: Koby Gauna – Vermont; Corey Walter – Vermont
7th: Jordan Schwartz – Vermont
16th: Trent Gilbert – Vermont; Brett Graves – Vermont; Seongmin Kim – Vermont
21st: J P Sportman – Vermont
The team finished the month of August with a winning record, and even progressed to the point of possible playoff contention, but not quite. They finished with a record of 13 - 9 for the month; 7-4 at home; 6-5 on the road. The weather was still a factor; double-headers were scheduled throughout the league. There was even a tie game between the A’s and Angels on August 21st. The rain gave way to what the umpire believed to be lightning that was too close to continue; game called at a tie, and was not resumed. Neither team’s playoff position was impacted, so the official record of the AZL A’s is: 27 – 28 – 1.
August 28, 2014 will go down as the last official game played at Papago Sports Complex by the Oakland A’s. The fact that Ruben Escalera’s team beat the Cubs by a score of 6-3 is a great way to end a chapter in history. Luke Montz, who, by the way, can pop a few out of the park, hit three home runs in the last game.
Montz did not expect nor, I’m sure, did he want to spend the season rehabbing in rookie ball, but his leadership and presence, not to mention his skills behind the plate and with a bat, were the type of example every rookie (and veteran, for that matter) should follow. His beautiful wife and their precious baby came out to most games, too. It’s tough enough to sit and watch a game in 110 degree heat, at night, but to have a little one along, and to never seem bothered by any of it, takes a very special person.
6TH: **Tanner Peters- rehab from Midland Rockhounds
6th: Dillon Overton – Vermont
1ST HOME RUNS:
13th: Luke Montz
15TH: Andy Paz
22nd: Miguel Mercedes
28th: A’s win 6-3 over the Cubs, due in part to Luke Montz and his 3 home runs. Carlos Navas gets the win, and Jesus Rivas gets the save and throws the last pitch at Papago Sports Complex.
SHOUT-OUTS AND THE MVP(Yes, I’m almost done.)
The 2014 AZL season was special and different, just as each one before has been. One constant was the level of dedication by the staff at Papago; in whose hands the future of the organization is exceptionally monitored and cared-for; who will err on the side of caution 100 out of 100 times; and who will do everything possible to develop each young man to his fullest potential, regardless of rankings or investments made. Is it easy? Will it ever be easy to grow and change? No. And that’s what makes this organization so great!
KEITH LIEPPMAN: I have the greatest respect for you; the difficult job he has, and the ease with which you seem to do it. You were the first person I ever spoke with when I joined the fabulous Melissa Lockard and OaklandClubhouse, and you have always gone out of your way to acknowledge me, share insights and thoughts for an article I was writing, or to provide an introduction of me, if needed. This summer, though… you outdid yourself. You introduced me to the most useful website that I didn’t know existed, and now can’t imagine how I functioned without. Thank you.
THE AMATEUR SCOUTING DEPARTMENT: Each and every member: Neil Avent, Yancy Ayres, Armann Brown, Jermaine Clark, Jim Coffman, Matt Higginson, Scott Kidd, Ron Marigny, Eric Martins, Kevin Mello, Kelcey Mucker, Sean Rooney, Trevor Ryan, Marc Sauer, Trevor Schaffer, Rich Sparks, Jemel Spearman, J.T. Stotts, Ron Vaughn, and Assistant Scouting Director Michael Holmes. You ALL have my sincere appreciation and respect. I’ve spent my summers watching the young men you’ve scouted and signed, and I applaud you and the sacrifices you and your families have made.
And, of course, a special shout-out to the leader of this diamond-in-the-rough-finding group of rock stars. The man who dominated his tee-ball league to the point of leapfrogging over years of possible potential injury playing coach pitch, Little League, high school, and college baseball, and landing at the front of the line: Director of Scouting Eric Kubota (Ok, maybe I’ve seen “Moneyball” a few too many times.) In the words of our beloved Welchie, “OUTSTAAAAAAANDING!”
Now, get back to work. T-minus 37 weeks til Draft Day 2015!
LAST BUT NOT LEAST
Who says dreams don’t come true, huh?
1) The season began and ended with Luke Montz:
He started the season offering remembrance of Bob Welch moments before receiving the first pitch of the season. Then, on the last day of the season, Luke and his big bat homered three times to give the home team its last victory. Winning by a score of 6-3; without his 3 home runs, who knows how the game would have ended? (I do. I know. That’s why he’s the MVP.)
2) The fact that his wife and baby would attend almost all the games he played says a lot about who they’re coming to watch. No concessions, no give-aways, no mid-inning entertainment. Just baseball… in sweltering heat… at night… with more bugs and flying insects than other fans in the stands. He must be awesome.
3) His leadership on the field, and off, I’m sure. The bellowed warnings of something as simple as “Fence!” or “Up!” or my personal favorite, “Be careful!” That’s just nice to see; watching out for his teammates. Modeling the kind of behavior you want everyone to adopt.
4) The last reason is from way back in March, during a spring training game at Phoenix Muni. Luke went through the dugout and was making his way down the tunnel with a slightly broken bat in his hand. He couldn’t use it, so he called to a group of season ticket holders and asked if there was a little kid somewhere close by, so that he could give them his bat. I was there when it happened. I was blown away. He didn’t stop because there was a line of people asking for a ball or his autograph or anything like that. He was on his way to the clubhouse, and HE STOPPED to find someone who might want it.
SERIOUSLY, WHO DOES THAT? Luke Montz, that’s who.
This concludes the wrap-up of the Oakland A’s Arizona Summer Rookie League. Best part about being here? No affiliate shuffle.
See you at Instructs!!