In the final part of our in-depth, season-in-review interview with Oakland A's Director of Player Personnel Billy Owens, we talk about several players who played for the 2015 Nashville Sounds, as well as the expectations for the young players on the current A's roster.
OaklandClubhouse: Joey Wendle made the All-PCL team, set a franchise record in Nashville for doubles and finished the season hitting extremely well. Do you think he is starting to find himself in terms of the type of hitter he will be at the next level?
Billy Owens: Yeah, Joey had a tremendous year. That Nashville park is a beautiful park in a terrific city, but that park probably ended up being a pitcher’s park in a hitter’s league. For Joey to put up .290, to have that many doubles, hit 10 homers – and, really, he only had a couple hundred at-bats last year; he missed a big chunk of 2014 – he had an outstanding year.
He’s actually probably a better athlete than the perception of him is out there. You can just see that with his extra-base hits – he had eight or 10 triples to go along with the 40+ doubles and the 10 homers. He played a solid second base, good range.
Now his next challenge will be, like most players, he will need to tighten that strike-zone some. From an on-base percentage standpoint, he needs to tighten that ‘zone, but I think he is very capable. Seeing him play this year, he hit well a lot of times against the better pitchers. His ‘zone was even tighter and more focused against the better guys in that league. I think he is capable of improving that walk-to-strike-out rate along with his tools. He will definitely play in the major leagues at some point. How he tightens that strike-zone will dictate what kind of player he can be.
OC: Rangel Ravelo didn’t have a chance to play a full season because of that wrist injury this spring. How did you feel his second-half went and his first taste of Triple-A?
BO: Rangel is definitely a good hitter. He is a good prospect who is off-the-radar a little bit. For his career, he’s a better than .300 hitter. From an old school A’s perspective, his skillset is along the lines of Olmedo Saenz. Olmedo played a lot of third base in the minor leagues and ended up playing a little bit of first base in the big leagues. Rangel has a very efficient swing. He uses the whole field. He is strong enough to eventually have power. He’s definitely a hitter, first and foremost.
It was positive. He only came back for the last month-and-a-half, two months, so the at-bats were limited, but he still did his thing. He still swung the bat well and played a solid first base. That is likely to be his home in the future [as opposed to third base] and he reminded me of Olmedo Saenz.
OC: Carson Blair recently made his major-league debut. It was quite a find to pick up a player like him as a minor league free agent, considering how young he was. Keith Lieppman said he thought Blair was one of the most athletic catchers he had seen in the A’s system in awhile. What did you think of Blair’s first year with the A’s?
BO: He has an impressive physique. He’s right around 6’3’’, 225-pounds. He had a very impressive year in the Texas League. He comes from impressive stock. I believe he is the son-in-law of [former big leaguer] Fred Stanley, who played his last few years with the A’s and was a longtime Giant who played in the World Series for the Yankees. Blair has a strong baseball background in his family. He has a strong catch-and-throw. He has one of the quickest releases that you will see in the minor leagues.
When he went to Triple-A, the results weren’t quite as good as they were in Double-A, but realistically, he only had about 30 or 40 games above A-ball going into the 2015 season, so for him to slug and get on-base like he did in the Texas League, to show that really good glove, to have the quick release, to get a taste of what Triple-A is all about in the last two months of the season and then to get a call to the big leagues, it was a very exciting year for Carson Blair.
Going forward, he has a chance to be that guy that surprises behind the plate with his work ethic and with his physicality. Doing his report, I was looking at the history of guys like Todd Pratt and Erik Kratz, guys who really persevered through their minor league apprenticeship, got better with the bat later on and had decent careers as all-around good back-up catchers. Carson Blair has a chance to do that and, you never know, with perseverance, he could surprise and do even more.
OC: A lot has been talked about Barry Zito and whether he will be called up or not called up, but what kind of influence did Zito have this year on that Nashville squad?
BO: Barry Zito, from the moment he was drafted as the ninth pick in 1999 to whenever his last game is, he is going to have a really successful life after baseball. This guy is a great person. He was a tremendous leader all year. He never complained. He was a mentor. Going back over the years, I remember when he was a free agent after he played his six years and won a Cy Young for us, we’ve had guys become free agents or leave via trades, and probably the saddest one I’ve seen go was Barry Zito. I remember seeing the ticker when he signed with the Giants and you just think back on what kind of person he really is. He never big leagued anybody. He was great in the community.
From the top guy on the roster to the last guy to the coaching staff to the kid in Rookie ball to the major leagues, he treated everybody within the organization the same and with tremendous respect. I can sit here and talk for hours on just what kind of person, leader and tremendous people skills that Barry Zito has. His parents did a great job raising him. Forget about the Cy Young and the success and the big contract and all of the huge accomplishments over the course of his career, Barry Zito the person is better than all of that.
To see how a guy can be so humble who has had so much success on the field was really refreshing. He’s shown that from the day he got drafted to his last outing that he had for us in Omaha. There is no better person that I have met in baseball than Barry Zito. I’m proud that he was a member of the Oakland Athletics.
OC: The season at the big league level hasn’t gone how you would have hoped it would, but a lot of young players have had a chance to debut and emerge as possible long-term solutions for the A’s that you might not have anticipated going into the year. Is it fun to have a young team again?
BO: It’s always exciting to have that youth infusion going in. But the big leagues, like I tell scouts, staff and everyone else, the big leagues is the ultimate competition. It’s the ultimate test. You always have to improve. You always have to evolve. You always have to get better. And things change. If you look at a couple of our guys going forward this year, when we first got certain acquisitions, you might have gotten excited over getting them and then last year, say for instance, Billy Burns.
Billy Burns was a .300 hitter with Washington. He had the high on-base percentage. Then he went to Double-A last year and part of his journey, he learned who he was, and then he went to the big leagues and saw how good they would defense him if he would continue his same style of play. Then he went down to Triple-A, worked with Greg Sparks and got a big, heavier bat from the left-side, got more aggressive and went from a guy who never swung at the first pitch to a guy who is a lot more assertive, swinging early in the count. He had a similar spring training as he did the year before, but it was a little bit more realistic because he was driving the ball and now, compared to a year ago today, we are a lot more excited about him moving forward.
But, guess what? The challenge in the big leagues is 2016. Even though you got your foot in the door, you still have to evolve. You still have to get better. The opposing scouts and the advanced way they look at you, it changes again. It’s very exciting to see our younger players do well, but they still have to go into the off-season and work hard. They can’t rest on their laurels. They have to get better because every year in the big leagues is a big adjustment. You see it every year. There are certain guys that go up to the big leagues and get humbled and then come back. Other guys get to the big leagues and hit the ground running, come back the next year and struggle with the sophomore slump or the jinx or whatever. Who is really able to preserver through the checks and balances and peaks and valleys and come out through the malaise, those are the guys who are going to be longtime big leaguers.
It is easy to say it is great that certain guys asserted themselves, but there are also certain guys that the league adjusted to this year, but moving forward, they are going to be really good. You don’t like talking about guys in other organizations, but the narrative on Jackie Bradley, Jr. right now is totally different than the narrative on him from 2014. Last year, he went from probably one of the worst OPSs in the major leagues to having the highest OPS in the second half this year in the big leagues. He was able to make his adjustments and go from being the sexy prospect to back to Triple-A, be humbled, almost get counted out to being the guy this year who is leading the big leagues in OPS the second half of this year for outfielders. It’s a long journey. And the journey never ends.