The 2015 minor league regular season is in the books. Oakland A's Director of Player Personnel Billy Owens sat down with me for a lengthy interview. We discussed in-depth all of the A's US affiliates. In the first part of this interview, we talk about the 83-win Midland RockHounds, who are currently playing in the Texas League playoffs.
OaklandClubhouse: Let’s start with the Midland RockHounds. The RockHounds set a franchise record for wins in a regular season. Manager Ryan Christenson and pitching coach John Wasdin have been with pretty much the same group since 2013 and have been to the playoffs all three years. What it is about Christensen and that coaching staff that brings out the best in those players?
Billy Owens: Ryan and John definitely have done an outstanding job the past three years with really that same nucleus of players. They have provided outstanding leadership with the way that they manage the roster and their enthusiasm and their ability to teach have been exemplary. They have been outstanding for us. Also, the new addition to their staff, Eric Martins, had been an area scout for us for several years and he played in our system. They formed a tremendous troika for that staff. They performed on the field, but they also had a good time doing it every day.
OC: You have always had a lot of good things to say about Chad Pinder. He really seemed to come into his own this year both as a hitter and in handling the transition back to shortstop. What do you think the key was for him in putting together such a consistently excellent season in the Texas League this year?
BO: Chad, he definitely took a major step forward from a statistical standpoint. As you said, it’s a journey. These kids progress from when they are drafted to when they go to short-season ball and then they come to Instructional League and then they start their first full season, which for Chad was in the California League, to this year in his second full year, which was in Double-A for Chad and he was the Texas League Player of the Year.
We have always had – from a comparison standpoint – J.J. Hardy aspirations [for Pinder] given that he is a long, lean right-handed hitter who is able to play good defense on the left side of the infield. This year, Chad took a major step forward with his defense, showing off his plus arm strength and his good hands, which are going to make him able to play shortstop or third base at the top level. From a hitting standpoint, he is continuing to tighten that strike-zone. He flourished with a large number of extra-base hits. I believe he finished at right at .317 [BA]. He hit for damage and he hit the baseball to all fields. He also showed a strong approach for the whole season, from April until right now.
It was just an outstanding year for him. Things that we saw from him in college so far have played out in the Double-A level. Hopefully it continues into the Texas League playoffs and I am looking forward to seeing him play out here to the Arizona Fall League and going from there, as far as his journey, eventually to the major leagues.
OC: Pinder’s double-play combination for most of the year, Colin Walsh, had a breakout season in his second year in the A’s organization. Was he a player that you guys had tracked for a while before acquiring him from St. Louis, given that he went to Stanford?
BO: For sure. Colin being a Stanford product, we had seen him during the draft process. He has always been an attractive player and we were able to acquire his services. Last year, in his first year in the organization, he had a solid year going back and forth on the shuttle between a few levels. This year, he worked on a few things and was really able to assert himself. He attacked within the strike-zone and he really tried to capitalize on his pitch and he was also really able to lay off of the tough pitches and he accumulated so many walks. He led all of minor league baseball in walks with 124 and he was at or near the Texas League record.
His emphasis was to pull the ball a little bit more and be aggressive with the balls he could handle and be tough enough in the strike-zone to lay off of the pitches that weren’t in the strike-zone. He had a tremendous year offensively, as a switch-hitter, both left-handed and right-handed.
Defensively, he took a step forward, as well. He played mostly second base this year, but his niche going forward will probably be more of a multi-position player. He definitely made positive strides in terms of his ability to play second base and he dabbled in the corner outfield positions. I believe he also had a few games at third base. His versatility will help him in the future.
Having such a sound approach at the plate and having so many extra-base hits this year, it bodes well for his future.
OC: You can’t really talk about walks and not talk about Matt Olson. It feels like we spent a lot of the year talking about how he was having a down season, and yet his numbers ended up very solid by the end of the year (826 OPS, more than 100 walks). What do you think he is going to take away from his experience in the Texas League and battling the elements and everything else that goes into playing there?
BO: Olson, he had a solid season. Defensively, I have said it a number of times, but this guy plays first base as well as anyone in professional baseball. I will hold to that. We saw a glimpse of that in major league spring training this year when he was absolutely spectacular at first base. He dabbled in major league spring training playing in the outfield; he got into a couple of games there. This year, in Midland, we have a number of players who have gone from Low-A to High-A to Double-A and they play similar positions, so we figured it was a good thing to add to Olson’s versatility this year. We thought he could handle the outfield and that held true.
I believe Matt was at or close to the top of assists from the outfield in the Texas League and he played the outfield like an outfielder. It’s not like you have a first baseman who sometimes goes out to the outfield and looks awkward. He looked very natural out there catching flyballs. Maybe he is not a sprinter, per se, down the line, but his range factor was solid all year and his throwing arm was average to above-average with plus accuracy. Now, to add another tool to his bag, he can play that outstanding first base, but he can also play the outfield well. So to add to his versatility this year, that was huge.
Offensively, the Texas League is tough. It’s tough to hit in and, especially Midland, it has been tough on lefties for us over the years. I believe Andre Ethier and Dan Johnson are the only two lefties who have gone there and totally conquered that ballpark. Olson put up an outstanding year: over 100 walks, right at 17 homeruns, which is a solid year in that league, especially with the wind blowing in from right field.
I believe his approach got better and he was able to tighten his swing some to where his swing-miss that used to be a problem in the past improved. I definitely think he has taken a major step forward in tightening that aspect of his game.
OC: Renato Nunez didn’t have a chance to play a completely full season because of the two leg injuries, but in the games he did play, I was really impressed with how much he cut down on his strike-outs. Was there a concerted effort on Nunez’s part to focus more on swinging at strikes and laying off the pitches he wasn’t going to do anything with?
BO: Renato had an outstanding year. First and foremost, Renato is a hitter. At 21 years old to go to the Texas League – along with Matt Olson – is an advanced assignment. For Renato go there and to really significantly cut down on his strike-outs and still achieve a significantly good slugging percentage – he slugged .480 in that Texas League, which is a tough environment – was impressive. His contact rate definitely ticked up a lot higher. He focused on hitting pitches more inside the strike-zone.
For Renato, the talent has always been there to be a complete hitter, but while advancing through the system pretty quickly and always being young for the levels, he reached the Texas League this year and was able to make significant adjustments. To really shave that strike-out number down, to gradually bring up that walk rate and to still be a force at the plate with 18 homeruns [in 93 games] and a ton of doubles in an abbreviated number of at-bats, it bodes well for his future.
But Renato can hit. He is only going to get better as a hitter. He is probably, in our system today, the player that has the best chance of hitting for high average while doing major damage at the plate. Honestly, this year, similar with Olson, Ryon Healy, Chad Pinder and several other players, the corner infield is a common denominator with a lot of our players. So, Ryan Christenson does a masterful job of mixing and matching to get players ample time at their positions, but it is definitely a challenge to make sure that everybody get their reps defensively.
Renato made positive strides at third base. He was able to improve his range and he was more sure-handed in the field. That is still going to be a work-in-progress. His hitting is still ahead of his defense, but he made positive strides in that area, as well.
OC: I think Nunez got a little bit of time at first base this year, as well. Do you see him continuing to get more time at that position moving forward?
BO: Yeah, like I said, you are still hoping that as he advances – and being at an advanced level, the biggest thing was that his bat was ready for that level – but you are going step-by-step. This group has been together for so long, but a lot of them play similar positions. When you are playing a game, you can’t have four third basemen out there playing. With that, Ryon Healy was able to play some third base. Renato was able to play some third base. But, also, with Olson going to right field, they were both able to play some first base, as well. They were all able to increase their versatility and give us more options going forward for where they are going to play.
We have done that in the past, especially with Brandon Moss, a high school shortstop who didn’t really play the infield at all for a lot of his minor league career. When he dusted off that first baseman’s glove in Sacramento a few years back, that created a lot more options for us at the major-league level, but I think it has helped Moss’ career, as well.
OC: Ryon Healy hit something like .340 (actually .335) for the entire second half of the season. He seems like a line-drive machine. Is there a hitter that you would comp him to as he gets closer to the major leagues?
BO: For one, as we go forward, every now and then I read some of things that are written on the Internet. Honestly, from an evaluation standpoint, comparisons are just part of it. You want your General Manager and your front office to be able to picture what you see out on the field. Hopefully it plays out in a positive aspect, but they still have to have a general idea of what the player is going to be like as he approaches that level. Sometimes, as we have seen in the past as well, guys maybe don’t reach that perch of what they are projected to be right away, but it may come later on. Just from an age standpoint, it can happen gradually.
Anyway, with Ryon Healy, I comp him to Garrett Atkins. Garrett Atkins played first base in college at UCLA. A line-drive hitter. When I first started out, I actually coached against him in the Northwest League and he was still playing first base exclusively. The Rockies, over the years, were able to get him a little more time at third base. Ryon Healy has been on that same track where he was drafted as a first baseman but he had played some third base in the past. Through Juan Navarrette [A’s minor league infield coordinator] and our minor league infield instructors, Healy has been able to move to the left side of the infield and do a pretty good job.
Offensively, he has always been an advanced hitter. He started off slowly in Stockton in his first professional season, but if you take what he did during the second half in Stockton and move that forward to the 2015 Texas League, he is a line-drive machine. He is a big man. He has an all-field approach and he is going to have more power in the future. He is a really good hitter. He has a chance to get better. His swing is really short.
Along with Renato and Pinder, those three probably have the shortest swings to the ball and still produce power out of the whole crew.
OC: Jaycob Brugman is going to join Chad Pinder and others in the Arizona Fall League. How do you feel his season went in Double-A this year?
BO: I think Jaycob had a really good year. I think he hit a couple of stretches where he was really hot and put together a couple of four-hit games or a five-hit game. But it was overall an outstanding season. The Texas League is tough on left-handed hitters, especially Midland. For him to roll a .260 and get on-base at a .343 clip and control the ‘zone and play all three outfield positions was impressive. When Chad Oberacker went down for a little bit, Brugman filled in in centerfield and did well.
From a comparison standpoint, I’m a little bit older than sometimes the rest of the crew. I came up in the Orioles system and I remember Joe Orsulak, who played for the Orioles in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Jaycob has a similar skillset to Joe. He can play all three outfield positions. He can move the ball around at the plate. He has occasional steam where he can hurt you with an extra-base hit or a homer.
Just a really infectious, positive attitude. He runs the bases well. Not necessarily very fast, but a good base-runner. He has good all-around ability and he has a chance to keep working hard and hopefully ascend [to the big leagues]. You never know, he could surprise.
OC: Sean Manaea really turned it on after joining the organization after the Ben Zobrist deal. Obviously the organization was already really high on him to acquire him for Zobrist, but did anything about his performance after the trade jump out at you or surprise you?
BO: John Wasdin does an excellent job from the pitching [coach] side of things. Sean Manaea is a very talented kid. Putting him with Was, that combination really produced the results of what Manaea did in his last seven or eight starts in the Texas League. Sean Manaea has been on our radar for awhile. He went out to the Cape Cod League [in 2012] and set that league on fire, leading the league in strike-outs by far. He went to Indiana State – Larry Bird’s school – and he led the nation in strike-outs his last year in college, following up his Cape Cod success. He went to the Carolina League and led that league in strike-outs, as well.
He has a deceptive delivery along with that power arsenal. He is always going to pile up a ton of strike-outs. Working with John, he was able to tighten the command and improve his focus so that that swing-and-miss stuff that he incorporates into his arsenal is effective. Sean can get anywhere from 91 and he will touch 96. His slider can be a devastating pitch with a diagonal break. And his change-up definitely has swing-miss qualities. You can combine those three lethal pitches and keep on working on harnessing and improving that command, you definitely get the results that he showed in the latter third of the year in the Texas League.
OC: Dillon Overton, the other lefty who joined the Midland staff midway through the year, pitched a full season in his first full year back after Tommy John surgery. I had heard his velocity was starting to tick up again towards the end of the year. Is he getting close to returning to the pitcher he was before the elbow injury?
BO: I think his velocity fluctuates. It’s still not the same as where it was his sophomore year in college when he was a powerful lefty along with his tremendous pitchability. Now, 18 months after the surgery, his pitching action is well above-average. He can move that fastball around. He will touch 92, but he will pitch comfortably in that 87-90 range, but his command is plus. He can pitch to all quadrants to the strike-zone. His change-up is his best off-speed pitch and it can be straight nasty at times. He’s got break-lights. He can double that pitch up with that fastball command and it is pretty effective set of two pitches by themselves. He also has a solid curveball which is behind the change-up but is still a very solid pitch that he can manipulate in the ‘zone and get the occasional swing-and-miss.
Dillon is a kid who is going to pitch in the major leagues. It has been fun to see him post-surgery just be as artistic as he is with his pitches. Where he ultimately ends up as far as from a rotation standpoint will depend on ultimately where that velocity ends up.
OC: The RockHounds had a terrific bullpen all year. Ryan Dull, we have seen what he has done since he reached the big leagues. Brendan McCurry came up to Midland after Dull was promoted to Triple-A and really slid in and almost duplicated the success that Dull had had for the RockHounds. How excited are you guys about what McCurry has been able to accomplish in his two years in the organization?
BO: McCurry definitely opened eyes with his performance, similar to Dull. Dull, what he has done really for the three years that he has been in the organization has been remarkable. I think he hit one small bump in the road when he was promoted to Double-A the first time for maybe a month, but it really wasn’t that big of a fork. Except for that, his numbers are downright amazing. What he can do with the baseball is amazing, and I think he actually improved his repertoire this year and his efficiency has always been stellar.
Brendan McCurry, from again a comparison standpoint, we had Danny Farquhar and even re-acquired him at one point. He has pitched in the big leagues and Triple-A for Seattle. Very similar as far as they can both change their arm slot. They can go from higher three-quarters to lower three-quarters. McCurry can do that and still get you up to 92 and touch 94. He has a good slider and a solid change-up. He has tremendous moxie on the mound and he moves the ball around. He’s kind of forced the issue not only with his performance but his stuff is pretty good. The different angles and deliveries create a lot of deception.
OC: Tucker Healy went something like two months this year without allowing a run. His strike-out numbers weren’t as high this year as they have been in years past, but all of his other numbers were impressive. What do you think of his second tour of the Texas League?
BO: Tucker, I think his strike-out rate wasn’t quite as high, but he improved as a pitcher this year. His fastball command is definitely up a notch. His delivery is so deceptive he was able to race through Double-A [last year], but when he got to Triple-A, he did a good job, but he was able to see that the more advanced hitters were able to eliminate some of that deception.
He worked on a few things with Was and went back to Double-A. He still has some deception in his delivery but his fastball command took a major step forward. He was able to attack both sides of the plate. His velocity was more consistently in that 92-93 range, where before he would touch it. He has a really good change-up. For him to take that next step, he still has to tighten up that breaking ball some, but he definitely – even though his strike-out rate went down – I believe he improved as a pitcher.
OC: What are you guys looking to see from Kris Hall during the Arizona Fall League?
BO: Hall is another kid who in Low-A just dipped his toes in the water and was sort of feeling his way around. Then in August that year, he was with Wasdin again and he made a few adjustments. You could see that confidence perk up again. Last year, he was pitching mainly in the 6th and 7th inning. His velocity started to show, where he was touching 95, 96. He struck-out a ton of guys, but also probably walked too many.
This year in the Texas League, the velo was more consistently in that 95 range and touched 96 and a little bit more at times. He has got talent with a swing-and-miss fastball when he is throwing well. He can throw that fastball belt-high or a tick above and get a lot of swing-and-misses. His breaking ball has a chance to be devastating, a true swing-and-miss pitch. His change-up is okay. The magnitude of his stuff has increased. The strike-outs are way up there, but now we want to tighten up those walks and get the walk numbers down.
Stay tuned as we delve into the Oakland A's other US affiliates. The Stockton Ports will be in Part Two of this interview.