What a difference a year makes.
I doubt that on March 15, 2014, Florida State teammates John Nogowski and Jose Brizuela had the slightest inkling that one year later, the two 2014 draft picks would be participating in their first full squad workout of their first spring training as members of the Oakland Athletics.
But today [Sunday], in almost-90 degree heat, that’s exactly what they, and most of the minor league players in Oakland’s farm system, did. From the start of the February Minor League Mini Camp to the arrival of the last group reporting for Extended Spring training, Fitch Park will officially become home to everyone wearing Green and Gold.
The first workout was an easy entry; about two-and-a-half hours, which was led by camp coordinator – and 2015 manager of the Vermont Lake Monsters - Aaron Nieckula. The 2014 Texas League Championship manager runs a tight ship, with a lot of energy. Great fun to witness, too. If you followed the Texas League Championship like I did, you felt Nuke’s high energy through the radio waves (or Internet or however you followed the exciting dominance over the Tulsa Drillers.) That’s the same energy that permeates the minor league camp, even on Day 1.
Each of the four fields was set for various drills to work on base-running, fielding, pitching, and, of course, taking batting practice.
WHO WAS AT FITCH?
Essentially, every minor league pitcher, catcher, position player (AND most field staff members) in the A’s system were at the camp on Sunday. The exception were those already participating in the Mini Camp or re-assigned from Major League Camp, and those who will arrive for Extended Spring in a few weeks. (Full reporting roster here.)
As usual, there are several jerseys with the same number. Catchers are assigned double numbers (11, 22, 33, 44, 55), and it’s nice to easily differentiate the members of this group. Most jerseys are green, some are yellow. The significance being that those in yellow are ‘rehabbing’ or are on limited participation for health reasons, such as Derek DeYoung, Dakota Freese, Nick Rickles, Josh Miller, Ryan Ortiz, Josh Whitaker and Trace Loehr.
Affiliate field staff management is accounted for, as well, except for those coaches on the Triple-A staff, as they are still with the big league club. Greg Sparks, Garvin Alston, and Craig Lefferts all seem to be settling into their new roles as Hitting Coordinator, Pitching Coordinator, and Rehab Pitching Coordinator, respectively.
And then there are two of the best in the game; two natural teachers: Keith Lieppman, Director of Player Development, and Grady Fuson, current Special Assistant to the GM.
Lieppman began his 40 year plus career with Oakland in 1971 as the A’s second-round draft pick and then played for nine seasons before starting his career in player development. Keith is one of the nicest, most approachable people you’ll ever meet. He treats everyone with the same kindness and respect. If you don’t like Keith… well… then…I don’t like you.
Grady Fuson, whose name is familiar to many casual fans because of his role in the book and movie Moneyball, played professionally for two seasons before becoming one of the most elite scouts and scouting directors in the game. Fuson is actively engaged in the development of each young man in camp. Grady is on the field, in the observation tower, and behind the dugout using his booming voice to direct specific words of encouragement for each farmhand.
When these two pillars of player development are on site; GAME ON!
Speaking of games…according to Lieppman, minor league games will be played on Fields 2 and 3 (the two fields closest to Center Street.) A look at this week’s schedule is at the end of this article.
As usual, I took quite a few pictures and will be posting them very soon. My first impression upon seeing the boys for the first time since most left after Instructs, was how much they matured – physically. Many left here looking like boys and returned as men. All look wonderful and I’m so happy they’re here!
Thanks to Ryan Gorton who ALWAYS goes out of his way to say hello to me, whether it’s in Arizona or during my Cal League trip last summer. Ryan was the first to greet me, and it’s greatly appreciated!
JOEY Bennie (not Joe, that’s his dad and last I heard, he hasn’t signed a contract to play for Oakland) looks great; healthy and in great shape. Always good to see Dakota Freese, who loves when the fan mail and care boxes from the amazing fans arrive. Lana Akau cut all his hair…all his beautiful hair…gone. But, of course, he looks very handsome regardless. Seong-min Kim and Shawn Duinkerk must have had Miracle Grow Smoothies for breakfast every morning; Sandber Pimentel is still as big as I remembered. Brett Vertigan is back and healthy after his collision during a game in Vermont last season.
As someone who is 5’ 3”, I’m always happy to see fellow vertically challenged players, like Rodolfo Peñalo. Oh… and a shout out to Keith Lieppman for correcting me on the pronunciation of Peñalo’s last name. (Correctly pronounced: “PEN’- ya – low”) Saw Chico, a.k.a. Jesus Zambrano, Branden Kelliher, Cody Stull, Blake Forsythe, Justin Higley, Vicmal DeLaCruz, John Nogowski, Jose Brizuela, Ryan Huck, Jesus Lopez and Aaron Shipman.
There were, of course, many more on the fields. It’s only Day 1.
Looking forward to a wonderful 2015!
This week’s Schedule
Workouts and drills in the morning, then games at 1:00pm
MONDAY: AA / AAA at Rangers (Surprise)
TUESDAY: First home game at Fitch - AA / AAA vs Texas
WEDNESDAY: Intrasquad game
THURSDAY: AA / AAA at the Cubs
FRIDAY: AA / AAA at the Angels
SATURDAY: AA / AAA Home vs Giants;A / High A – First Game at Giants (Hayden & Camelback)
If you’d like to send something to the minor league facility:
PLAYER’S / COACH’S NAME
c/o Oakland Athletics
160 E. 6th Place
Mesa, AZ 85201