Oakland A's Instructs Q&A: Rich Sparks

The Oakland A's Fall Instructional League comes to a conclusion next week. Over the past three weeks, A's prospects have worked closely with A's coaches, player development and scouting staff at "Instructs". Rich Sparks, the A's Midwest Region Area Scout, has spent the past few weeks working with players in camp. He spoke with us about the progress of several A's prospects.

Oakland A's Midwest Region Area Scout Rich Sparks has been with the organization since 1993 and has been a scout for the organization since 1995. During that time, he has signed several prospects for the A's, including future big leaguers Nick Swisher, Mark Mulder and Joe Blanton. Sparks has also served as a hitting instructor within the organization. This fall, Sparks served as an instructor at the A's Fall Instructional League, working mostly with infielders and position players. He lends us his insight on several prospects in camp.

OaklandClubhouse: Yairo Munoz had an excellent year with short-season Vermont. I had heard a lot about his defensive abilities coming into the season, but hadn’t heard much about his bat. What kind of hitter do you think he is/can be?

Rich Sparks: He’s got some sock in his bat. He’s had hard contact over the past few weeks while he has been here, at least while I have been here. He’s been on and off in terms of playing, but he’s made huge strides – from what I understand – from where he was in Arizona to when he was in Vermont and then came down here. His bat, if you look at him, you could say he could be like a Hanley Ramirez-type, or something like that. It wouldn’t shock me. I think he’s playing at 185 right now, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he wound-up playing at 200, 210. He’s a strong kid and his bat is coming along.

OC: Defensively, I know his arm has been talked about a lot. Do you think he has the range for shortstop, as well?

RS: Yeah, I do. The arm, it’s probably between him and Matt Chapman as the best arms in our organization. He still has a little ways to go as far as his footwork is concerned, and they are really working hard on that this fall, but I do think he has the aptitude to stay there.

OC: You mentioned Matt Chapman. He had a big Texas League playoffs after a so-so stint in the Midwest League. Beloit manager Rick Magnante mentioned to Bill Seals that he thought Chapman could have a big playoffs for Midland because they didn’t have a book on him. Does Chapman have a hole in his swing that he is working on?

RS: I’ll tell you, the one thing that Chap has, he comes out of college and goes to the Midwest League and the one thing he and I talked about – because I was with him in the Midwest League and he went to the Texas League – I said, ‘tell me the difference’ and he said, ‘the difference is the strike-zone. These pitchers can throw it in the strike-zone.’ You don’t know where it is going sometimes in the Midwest League. The pitchers are better and more polished [in the Texas League] and he actually did well there. He expanded his ‘zone a little bit in Beloit, probably just because of that, but once he got to the Texas League, he worked on staying on the ball and driving the ball where it was pitched.

Up-and-away was his downfall. He’s got power to that other side, but the timing aspect of it and not knowing where the pitches were going was a challenge. These pitchers in the Midwest League there are a lot of throwers. That’s what he said. There are a lot of hard-throwers in the Midwest League, but they don’t always know where it is going. He improved his approach in the Texas League and maybe nobody had a book on him and they would try to sneak things by him and it just didn’t work.

OC: Do you see him as one of those advanced players who could start up in High-A next year, much like Chad Pinder and Ryon Healy did this year?

RS: Yeah, I would imagine he would probably start out in Stockton next year and make his way back to Midland. He’ll probably get some confidence playing in Stockton in that yard and in the Cal League and then probably move over [to Midland]. I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t.

OC: Kimberly Contreras mentioned a few times that Sandber Pimentel has had a great Instructs. He’s had some good seasons in the Dominican Summer League, but he had never made it over to the US until this fall. What kind of hitter is he now that you have seen him in person?

RS: While I was here, he had probably the top two or three camps of anybody in camp. Showed a lot of power, squared the ball up several times. He can pull the ball and he can go the other way. He hit a two iron out there the other day, over that fence. It got 12 feet off the ground and it went over the fence like it was nothing. He hit the ball solid today a couple of times. He’s a guy who could be a big homerun guy. He’s 20 years old and he’ll need to get acclimated. I don’t know where he will be playing next year, but he’s got some upside to him.

OC: Max Kuhn is a man looking for a position. How has he fared at catcher so far in Instructs?

RS: When I first came to camp, they actually said that [his catching] was rough, but that’s to be expected. He’s caught two games in his life and I think he was 13 when he did that. Obviously, the hardest position out there to learn is to catch. It’s baby steps for Max. He’s a little rigid, but when I first got here, they said he wouldn’t see any time out there during a game. That he’d be catching bullpens and going out there in-between innings and things like that. I think he’s done a little better than they expected. Certainly not ready to go out there and be a starting catcher.

He caught one inning [in a game] the other day and they threw him in the fire with Dustin Driver pitching the other day. Which is a little unfair. He’s doing okay. A few miscues, but he’ll do anything he can to get out there. That’s why I think they like him so much. If they ask, ‘can we try you here?’ he won’t say ‘no’. It’s coming along. It’s certainly slow, but they are seeing what they can do with it.

OC: You have followed his career for a long time, right? Wasn’t he in your region as a high school player?

RS: Yeah, he is from Zionsville, Indiana. I actually drafted him out of high school, as well. I have known him since he was in ninth grade and he has always been a hard worker. He’s just one of those guys who you like to put your name on because you know he’s not going to embarrass you. The player development guys like him in the organization from top to bottom. He’s out there working. He’s out there in the cage all of the time. He’s one of those guys we love to sign. We call those guys ‘baseball rats.’ He’s one of them.

OC: What kind of hitter do you think he can be as he rises up the ranks?

RS: I think Max can be an average hitter with plus power. He’s got that ability. He’s stronger than an ox. If he puts things together and learns a certain approach, I think he can be a homerun guy.

OC: When you scout a player in high school and he goes to college rather than turning pro, do you keep a close eye on the changes he makes during his college years?

RS: Yes, definitely. Obviously, if we would have signed him out of high school, he would have been making progress that we would have been able to see [up close], but the natural progression of what you thought [Max] would be when you saw him in high school, he made good strides when he went to college. His approach was a little better than when he left high school because in high school you don’t have a hitting coach and you are the man all of the time and you sometimes get into bad habits. He’s done a nice job with his maturity over the past three years.

OC: Another college pick from this draft was Branden Cogswell. Rick Magnante mentioned in his interview with Bill Seals that Cogswell could be a little bit too patient at times at the plate. Was he working on being more aggressive during his time in camp?

RS: He has. He’s actually swung the bat pretty well. When I was with him in Beloit, he was at the point when couldn’t buy a hit, pulling off balls. He’s worked a lot on keeping a direct path to the ball and keeping his front side in and getting to the backside of it. He’s done a pretty good job of it in this camp. He’s squaring the ball up. He’s had some good at-bats and some solid hit balls. His first two weeks were better than his last two weeks, but he’s getting there.

OC: How did Trace Loehr, the high school shortstop selected this year, look in camp?

RS: Trace is a player development’s dream. Just a guy who flat-out goes out there and plays the game the right way. He works his tail off and is always listening. Listening more than he talks. He’s really out there digesting everything. He wants to get better. If you had 25 of those guys on your roster, you’d be doing a good thing.

He’s a gamer. Him and Kuhn are actually two peas in a pod. They are always together. Jim Coffman [A’s Northwest Region Area Scout] was the one who signed Trace and we were talking about that the other day. We are so glad to see that both of those guys have taken a liking to each other and that they are together.

OC: Have you worked much with Jose Brizuela, the Florida State third baseman selected in the draft this year? Do you think he can stick at third?

RS: Yeah, he has been in camp the whole time and we have been throwing BP to him and playing a lot. I don’t know that he is going to be a power guy, but he’s one of those guys who has a good swing. He just needs to get a better approach.

In terms of staying at third, he’s in a tough position because he’s behind Chapman. If his bat is what we hope and think it will be, he’ll find a spot on the field whether it is third or second or as a utility guy.

OC: His college teammate John Nogowski showed a lot of plate patience in Vermont. Is he a guy who you think will put up big on-base numbers?

RS: I think he is going to. First of all, if you want to talk about defense, he has a chance to be really good. We have some excellent defensive first basemen in the organization and he falls right into place in that group. He is really good with his hands. He has smooth hands. He has a very good glove. I could see him being a lot like Anthony Aliotti, picking everything. He’s a big guy. He’s not one of those foot-speed guys. He has some instincts and can really play defense.

At the plate, he’s going to be one of those guys with a patient approach and he’s going to go at it that way.

OC: How has B.J. Boyd looked in camp?

RS: Starting with his defense, he made a couple of really good jumps and good reads in [Wednesday’s] game. If that’s something to hang his hat on, I think he should. He’s down here working on another facet of his game that I think he should – bunting. Hopefully for his sake, he buys into that and it will give him another aspect to his game and open up the field a little bit. [Thursday] he hit the ball really well. He hit the ball on the screws a few different times. Improvement, yes. Long way away still? Yes.

In terms of base-running, trying to get better leads, trying to get better jumps, trying to get better reads, Rickey [Henderson] is working on that with him. Can we say we’ve seen progress? Yes, a little bit, but there is a long way to go there.

OC: Did anyone else jump out at you from the position-player side of things?

RS: I would say probably the best player in camp has been has been Justin Higley, as far as swinging the bat. He has really improved. When I was in Beloit this year, he swung and missed a lot. He came into camp and has really done a nice job. He has hit the ball solid for the whole two weeks. Solid approach. He’s struck out a few times, but he’s really been good. He’s had the best camp as far as swinging the bat, in my opinion.

OC: One of your signees from this year’s draft – Joel Seddon – is in camp. How did he look in Beloit and how is he looking in camp now?

RS: He has thrown three times. He threw [Thursday]. Clean inning, 1-2-3. Strike-out, flyout, flyout. Left a couple of balls up. He has been doing well. The fastball is good. The breaking ball is coming. The slider was good today. I have seen Joel pitch for several years. I didn’t get to see him as much in college because he went to South Carolina, but that guy is going to find a way. He’s a smart kid. He wants to learn. He’s a quiet guy. He analyzes a lot of stuff and nothing really rattles him. I saw him a couple of times in Beloit this year and one was not very good and one was really good.

They are talking about maybe making him a starter when he comes back to camp next spring. His stuff isn’t closer’s stuff, but he’s got four pitches that he can throw for strikes. They are going to try to do that for him next spring. He’s going to be okay.

OC: Dustin Driver has had a chance to pitch in camp after missing a lot of the year with an injury. How has he looked? Is he becoming more of a pitcher than a thrower?

RS: Driver, I like that kid. If you were to put a gun to my head and ask ‘which guy on that roster is going to make the big leagues?’ it would be him. I would have no issues with that. Aside from the fastball velocity – that’s an 8 fastball – but he has the ability to get outs and swings and misses with his off-speed pitches too. I really like him. Obviously, we all hope he can stay healthy. With that kind of stuff, he has a chance to be an upper-rotation guy.

OC: Anybody else on the pitcher side who surprised you?

RS: I wasn’t surprised by Bobby Wahl, but his velocity is very good, his breaking ball is exceptional at times. He’s another one. Another big leaguer. He’s going to come faster than Driver because of his age and his ability to pitch out of the bullpen. Driver is pretty much all the way a starter; Wahl pretty much all the way a bullpen guy. They tried that starting with Wahl this year and that didn’t work out. He can be dominant out of the bullpen.

OC: How has the experience been as an instructor at Instructs?

RS: Awesome. If they’ll have me back, I’ll do it every year. It’s great to be on this side of it because you get to know these guys. You get to see what goes on in these camps and you get to know these players. It’s priceless for us. Jim [Coffman] and I feel the same way. He enjoys it and I enjoy it to see that other side.

OC: What kind of work was Bret Boone doing in camp?

RS: He and I and Erik Martins, we did most of the infield stuff. With Boonie sitting there, you sit back and listen. His insight into the mental part of the game has been unbelievable for these guys. The talent, yes, but just the way that he taught how to go about your business was tremendous. If the guys didn’t suck that all in, then they are idiots, all of them. Those guys were sponges to him. He was a wealth of knowledge. It was great. He was awesome for everybody.

OC: A lot of Instructs is about learning and those early morning meetings. Did it seem like the players were getting a lot out of those meetings?

RS: Yes. I wasn’t here for the first little bit, but when they first came in, they just come in. Then the next few days, they come in with a pen and paper. Then all of them came in with notebooks. Whether it was eyewash or not, they were all asking questions. Liepp [A’s farm director Keith Lieppman] would always say ‘pose questions for these guys.’ I think it was really beneficial. I think it was as important, if not more, than any of the other stuff.

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