James Naile opened a lot of eyes during his pro debut season in 2015. The right-hander joined the Oakland A’s as a 20th-round pick out of the University of Alabama-Birmingham. He zipped through 20 appearances – 18 with the short-season Vermont Lake Monsters – and he posted a 1.78 ERA in 25.1 innings. He led the Lake Monsters with six saves and posted a 18:6 K:BB and a 2.00 GO/AO.
Naile followed up that performance with an outstanding fall Instructional League. Garvin Alston – the A’s minor league pitching coordinator at the time – told OaklandClubhouse that Naile was “the star of Instructs.” He landed on our A’s top-50 prospects list at number 49.
Now at his first spring training, Naile is making the move from late-inning reliever to starting pitcher. We spoke with Naile about how his first spring training is going, his thoughts on being a starting pitcher, his expectations for the season and more…
OaklandClubhouse: How has the first spring training gone thus far?
James Naile: So far, so good. I have been having a lot of fun getting to meet and now getting to know a lot of new people. Playing with players from all over the world and all different levels now. It’s going really well.
OC: Did you start games today, or was it just intrasquad?
JN: We’ve had a few games with the Padres here and there. I think Double-A and Triple-A started today versus the Cubs. But we have been just doing some intrasquads and I think the Padres are in the same boat, so we’ve had some thrown together games with them. Other than that, it’s just a lot of intrasquading.
OC: Are there particular things that you have been focusing on this spring, or has the focus mostly been on getting your pitches back to where they were when last season ended?
JN: Sure, there are things that you focus on. First of all, you are getting your body back in good shape and conditioned. You are also wanting to continue to develop and pick up where you might have left off. This year, I did end up moving to a starter’s role so I kind of have a lot of stuff to catch-up on. But that’s what spring training is for, getting your work in. Right now, I’m just focusing on trying to stretch my arm out a little bit. I did this [starting] in college. Building up a pitch count is something that you focus on and developing pitches.
OC: Are you excited about the opportunity to get back to starting?
JN: Absolutely. It’s another new challenge. This time it will be on a five-day schedule as opposed to an entire week like it was in college, but I am definitely looking forward to it. There is nothing like having a whole five days to prepare. You go on the mound basically once a week and do your thing. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a little different than relieving, but it has a lot of perks. I’m looking forward to it.
OC: Last year you had a lot of success in Vermont. Was the first experience what you expected from professional baseball or was there anything that surprised you?
JN: I would say, for the most part, I was pretty well prepared for it. That’s a credit to my college coaches. They pretty much had me prepared. There was not a lot I really changed. I basically took the same mentality that I had throughout college and tried to use it last year in Vermont.
As far as off-the-field and stuff, you get used to the bus rides and the hotels and living out of a suitcase. At the same time, it’s great. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It’s a lot of fun.
OC: I spoke with [former A’s minor league coordinator] Garvin Alston at the end of Instructs last year and he mentioned that you had added a four-seam fastball. How is that pitch working for you? Do you expect you’ll be using it a lot this year?
JN: Yes, absolutely. That was kind of funny whenever G asked me about [whether he threw a four-seam fastball]. I had always thrown a four-seamer. Every pitcher does. So it really wasn’t as difficult as people may think to bring it back. I had always thought if I could sink the ball or put movement on the ball, that was going to be better. G was kind of telling me, ‘that is great, but that four-seam – a ball that doesn’t move – that’s another pitch in itself. It will make your sinker or your one-seam fastball effective. It will give it another look.’
That’s definitely been a smooth transition and it’s something I’ll be using a lot this year, I think.
OC: Garvin also mentioned your slider and how effective a weapon that was for you. Was that something that you have always had or did that come on later on during your college career?
JN: That’s been a strength for probably my entire career. As my velocity started to pick up throughout college and after Tommy John surgery, it kind of got better. I continued to work with my college pitching coach [Josh Hopper] on it. He really taught me how to throw it. I basically took the same thing and tried to use it up in Vermont. I guess it worked out. I will definitely try to continue to develop it and make it more consistent in the coming years.
James Naile pitching at A's 2015 Instructional League (video by Kimberly Contreras)
OC: There were a couple of you who had had Tommy John surgery during college. Was that something that came up last year when you were playing together? Did you talk about whether you had similar or different recovery paths?
JN: We did talk about it. For the most part, it’s kind of getting to be so common, people don’t really treat it like it is a big deal. We all had similar recovery paths and basically everybody says stuff along the lines of ‘there were good days and bad days. You just had to keep moving and keep progressing through it.’ Once you are a year or maybe two years out, for the most part, I still take good care of it – and so do the other guys – but you just sort of forget about it, to be honest. Or you try to anyway. [laughs]
OC: You guys have a new pitching coordinator in camp in Gil Patterson. Has there been a big difference between when you were working with Garvin and working with Gil this spring? [NOTE: Alston took a position as the big league bullpen coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks last winter.]
JN: I love G. I was sad to see him go. That was probably the first real business side of baseball that I got to witness. Gil stepped right in and Gil has been fantastic. The guys get along with him great. He is so knowledgeable and down-to-earth. He’s just fantastic. Getting to work with him has been great. Right now, he’s going to be the guy I go to as I learn how to be a professional starter. He’s huge. He’s pivotal. But he couldn’t have been any smoother in this transition. He’s fantastic.
OC: What kind of goals do you have for yourself going into your first full season as a pro?
JN: I would just like to be consistent. I don’t know what level I am going to be at. Obviously, you always want to be at as high a level as you can, but wherever it is, I just want to be consistent throughout the year. That’s really the goal. I want to make the best pitches that I can. I’m not going to try to set any statistical goals; just try to go out and compete every day and try to be a good teammate. As a starter now, you pitch once a week, so the other four days, you are in the dugout and are trying to cheer everyone on. I’m just looking to be the best teammate and starter I can be this season.
OC: What was your off-season like? Was the conditioning program different from what you were used to, or was it pretty similar?
JN: Once again, my college was so fantastic in getting us prepared that conditioning and stuff like that has been somewhat of a breeze. It was almost harder in college, believe it or not. My off-season was really good. I had some strength gains. I gained closed to 10 pounds and hopefully we’ll see that translate onto the field. The throwing program starts out slow and it’s kind of long and it eases you into it, so that was good to do. I stuck to that religiously. I just tried to come into spring training in the best shape that I could.
Off-season this year was really, really good. It involved throwing back home into a net some and then being back down in Birmingham, training with UAB and getting ready. It was a great off-season.
OC: Since you went to UAB, I have to ask: how happy are you that the football program is coming back?
JN: Oh man, that’s huge. That was a very sad day when they dropped that program. I had a lot of really good friends on that team and that was a tough time. It was great to see Birmingham step up and rally behind the guys. We have a great coach [Bill Clark] in there and he’s bringing it back and bringing it back the right way. I’m very happy for them.