LOCKED AND LOADED!
With a nod of respect to the few big leaguers I SAW in action before camp officially starts, here’s a quick update – a teaser, if you will – of the all the good stuff happening on Athletics Way!
Locked and loaded should be the theme for the A’s system in 2016. Each and every hitter I saw in my three days at early camp was exactly that. Maximum effort on fielding drills; extra grounders, extra plays with a specific improvement and requested by the fielder.
Fielding drills were fun to watch with the third base trio involved: Matt Chapman, Max Muncy and Renato Nunez. Chapman looks great, but you don’t need to ask him how he feels, just watch his defensive skills on display. Muncy is taking his experiences in 2015 and putting them to good use already. Locked and loaded. Nunez, whose off-season was shorter than that of the others, is coming off a successful Arizona Fall League performance.
At first base, receiving the throws from Chapman – and his pin point cannon – is Matt Olson. The resident “Walk King”, who has a better sense of the strike zone than most who call balls and strikes, is ready to put into practice the lessons last season. Matt traveled to Europe this offseason before serving as a groomsman, along with Daniel Robertson and Billy McKinney, in the January wedding of their dear friend Addison Russell.
Joey Wendle, who spent 2015 with the Triple-A Nashville Sounds, was the lone man at second base for these drills. Just as shortstop Marcus Semien was the lone man at the six position until Chad Pinder arrived. Pinder, the reigning Texas League Player of the Year, had a shorter off-season, as well, playing in the Arizona Fall League.
During live batting practice, the players in camp early absorbed the wisdom and insight of big league assistant hitting coach Marcus Jensen. Whether he was talking shop behind the shell while bullpen catcher Phil Pohl was throwing his first rounds of the season, or if Marcus was on the mound himself, the early bird hitters hung on his every word. Watching, as Marcus gave immediate feedback, you could see the body language change when his message “clicked”, was processed, and then put into action.
Beau Taylor, who split the 2015 season between High-A Stockton and Double-A Midland, B.J. Boyd, the real Pride of Palo Alto, who had a really good season in High-A Stockton, and Chapman are in the right place, mentally and physically, everything to come together in 2016.
In the batting cages, just like on the field, it was extra-this and extra-that. Swings, buckets, time, and live pitches and feedback from 2015 Beloit and 2016 Vermont hitting coach Lloyd Turner; they wanted more of everything and executed accordingly. No one looking to impress or out-perform his abilities, just focused on being the best he can be.
I passed or peeked my head in the cages several times each day. They were always busy, lots of hitting off the tee – highly underrated exercise. I believe Bruce Maxwell was in there every time I looked. Bruce will leave Mesa and report to Team Germany on March 14th and work out with the team prior to the WBC Qualifiers in Mexicali on March 17—20.
I watched their body language and how they’d react when they didn’t feel they executed as they should have – not the result, the execution. To a man, they are locked and loaded. And camp hasn’t even officially opened for pitchers and catchers yet, let alone for the position players.
In addition to those mentioned above, the hitters and fielders I saw this week include Josh Phegley, Billy Butler, Jake Smolinski, and Andrew Lambo. I know other players reported early, I just didn’t see them.
Day 3 of my visit to early camp was focused more on seeing pitchers for the first time. To my delight, in addition to the non-roster-invitees throwing bullpens, I saw several pitchers who have reported even earlier; some will participate in the minor league mini-camp, which begins one week from today - February 25th - and others aren’t due until March 5th. I usually stay quiet to observe and not distract from work being done, especially at times like this, but when I saw these boys, I wasn’t quiet. Dustin Driver, Heath Fillmyer, Dakota Chalmers, Heath Bowers, and Jordan Schwartz are present and accounted for.
Dillon Overton, Sean Manaea, Ryan Dull, Sonny Gray, Sean Doolittle, Dylan Covey, Seth Frankoff, Daniel Coulombre, and Chalmers all threw bullpens. I saw some of each, but a group who saw all included manager Bob Melvin, bullpen coach Scott Emerson, and rehab pitching coordinator, Craig Lefferts, to name a few.
Manaea was nice enough to talk with me a bit after his bullpen session. The 6'5'' lefty has an equally big and illuminating smile. When I first met him prior to the start of the Arizona Fall League, before I ever saw him throw a pitch, his kind, genuine personality, and warm welcoming smile endeared him to me. I wondered what his disposition would be like on the mound. I knew he threw fire but he just seemed too nice. Ha! As I quickly learned, “Game Day Sean” is all business, and I don’t believe batters would ever use the term “kind” to describe him. Ever.
Thankfully, today was not a game day. The Indiana State University product, who came to Oakland in the mid-season trade with Kansas City for Ben Zobrist, put on a show in front of the big league skipper. I asked if he felt any pressure throwing in front of Melvin et.al, given the speculation and projection that he could very well pitch his way on to the opening day roster.
His response: “No, it’s great. Fun, exciting. This whole experience is just…awesome!”
Sean attended the MLB Rookie Development Program in Washington, D.C. earlier this year, and has been working out at the facility in Mesa since early January. He, too, is locked and loaded.
On Saturday, pitchers and catchers will officially report to camp and they’ll take physicals and such. Then, on Sunday, the first public workout of pitchers and catchers will open camp with morning workouts (9:30-ish til 12 or so) at Fitch Park – 160 E. Athletics Way, Mesa, Arizona 85201.