Photo by Kimberly Contreras

The season that was: Oakland A's Extended Spring Training

The Oakland A's Extended Spring Training program wrapped up on Wednesday. Kimberly Contreras fills us in on what went on in Arizona for the past 10 weeks.

Saturday, April 2 was listed as a Camp Day for Oakland’s minor league teams. In reality, it was two intrasquad games played at Fitch Park with many of the team’s decision-makers taking one more look at the majority of their players in one place at one time. The next day, those headed for full-season teams in Beloit, Stockton, Midland and Nashville were gone; the remaining players would stay in Arizona, at least for the time being, and participate in organized, unofficial scrimmages against other Cactus League teams, otherwise known as Extended Spring Training. 

The eight-week session is more of a buffer between the start of full-season minor league baseball and the MLB Draft. Rosters usually include newly signed free agents as well as promising prospects from the Dominican Summer League who will spend the summer playing in the Arizona Summer League; rehabbing players from all levels who need the at-bats or the innings before returning to their assigned team; and those who aren’t injured but who need to play, need to see more pitches or improve their deliveries, whatever. To those players, Extended Spring is more like playing on Team Purgatory; waiting for a call to take a roster spot, usually, unfortunately due to an injury. This season, the names on Oakland’s Team Purgatory (or Team P) roster could have formed a stand-alone full-season team. For the organization, it’s nice to have such depth to call upon when needed; for the members of Team P, sure, it can be challenging and a little frustrating at times but that’s only natural; each person was hired to do a job that they love to do; they want to produce and to help a team win, but they can’t do that just yet. Anyone would be a little frustrated at times.

The overwhelming majority of the time, every person on campus understands how fortunate they are and makes the most of the opportunity to have coaches, trainers, coordinators, training tools and videos, along with reportedly delicious, nutritious meals prepared for them, all at the new state of the art facilities and at their disposal. Everything with the focus to work and improve in a protected environment before returning to where every at-bat, every batter faced is added to the back of their baseball card.

Remember, whatever happens at Extended Spring doesn’t count; it’s not official. If someone has never hit a home run in his career, but blasts one over the centerfield fence with the bases loaded while facing a rehabbing former Cy Young award winner, guess what: he still has zero home runs. And the rehabbing pitcher’s ERA is unaffected by the four runs that scored. This is a time for teams to help their players improve in a controlled environment, out of the public eye. Not because there is anything to hide, but because where else can these things be taught and worked on? There is always so much more that goes into these games than anyone not directly connected with a team will ever know. The rehabbing Cy Young winner? His team wanted to see his delivery on a preset sequence of pitches for the inning, regardless of production by the batter(s). The slam was on a backdoor slider, the 15th pitch of an inning where no fastballs were thrown, and it was executed perfectly without pain. The competitor innately hated the result, but the pitcher - the professional – and his team knew it meant he was cleared to return to action and help the big league club compete for a title.

Aside from those select few, no one will never know the design of that inning. The results of a game on the backfields in Arizona were not the concern of anyone…except maybe for the kid at the plate. Though it won’t ever be officially noted, he’ll have a very cool memory to share for the rest of his life. But, in today’s world, there will be someone in attendance who will share on social media how “bad the former Cy Young award winner” looked and how many runs he allowed; there will be blogs written about it, and talk-shows dissecting it until months later when the pitcher traces his steps back to that appearance.  Bottom line: we don’t know what’s happening, let’s err on the side of privacy and let the experts do their job.

That being said…

Let’s catch up, in general terms, on what took place in the past eight weeks on Athletics Way. It’s all in the past tense because the final game was played today, June 7, at the Giants minor league facility. Although games have a first pitch time of 10:30am during the week and 10am on Saturdays, toward the end of camp, it is common to start games earlier to avoid as much of the heat as possible. Many on the initial roster have moved on to full season teams, including: 2015 number one draft pick, Richie Martin, who is now with the Stockton Ports. Below is the list of players who “graduated” to full-season squads during Extended:

BELOIT:

  • Marc Berube
  • Jordan Devencenzi
  • Mike Martin
  • Michael Murray
  • Jean Carlo Rodríguez
  • Michael Soto

STOCKTON:

  • Richie Martin
  • Lana Akau
  • Matt Stalcup
  • Cody Stull
  • Victor Veliz

MIDLAND:

  • Yairo Muñoz 

Some from that original roster have moved on from the organization:

Mike Fagan, Rodolfo Fernandez, Ryan Gorton, Alex Glenn and Tanner Peters were released and we wish them all the best. Most recently, I heard from catcher Tom Gavitt, who has retired. Gavitt was drafted out of Bryant University in 2014, and after working his way back from Tommy John surgery, made his professional debut on June 20, 2015.  As I told him, the photo of shaking hands with the home plate umpire on his debut will always be one of my favorite photos, ever.

Among those who have stayed in Mesa, I break them into three groups: New Additions, Team Purgatory, and Yellow Jerseys.

NEW ADDITIONS

Those who were signed as free agents (such as 2015 signee, James Harris, who is producing as a member of the Stockton Ports), as well as the prospects from the Dominican Summer League who will be on the Arizona League roster in June. Extended Spring Training gives them a taste of how much faster the game plays in the States. Prospects include RHPs Wandisson Charles and Oscar Tovar; position players Javier Godard, Jorge Gordon, Jesus Lage, and Christopher Quintin. 

I met the two pitchers during the Fall Instructional League; though neither took the mound, the importance of just being in the environment was beneficial for the two young prospects. Charles is the definition of “raw power”. The 19-year-old is listed at 6’6”, 220lbs. I would project him to weigh closer to 240 at least. I saw the first few of his outings; he was raw. In his one season in the DSL, he appeared in 39.1 innings, in 12 games; hit three batters, walked 37 and struck out 38. He gave up 31 hits, 23 runs, 18 earned. Ruben Escalera, who knows Charles well, is happy to have the power righty in Arizona for the summer. The plan is obviously to work on his control. He is a happy, gentle giant, with a wonderful attitude.

Tovar turned 18 in March. The 6’1” lanky righty from Venezuela was signed in 2014 was recently suspended 25 games, Under the minor league program, a 25-game suspension is the penalty for a first violation for use or possession of a syringe at a team facility, in team-provided housing or while traveling with a club. He will serve out his suspension in Arizona. Such a shame; he’s a good, talented young right-hander who logged 55.1 innings in 13 games in the DSL last year and gave up 35 hits, 25 runs (15 earned), walked 22 and struck out 26.

Lage (pronounced: “LAH-hay”) – a speedy lanky 18-year-old infielder who bats from both sides and throws with his right. Signed in 2014 and is from Valencia, Venezuela – same hometown as Jesus Zambrano.

Godard – a Venezuelan born infielder, played three seasons in the DSL after signing in 2012 - is similar in size to Lage (6’0”, 160), but Godard is sort of a right handed version of Luis Barrera; what he lacks in power he makes for in speed. Javier turned 20 in December, and maybe the head-down, work-hard-and-smile work ethic is due in part to his maturity, or is just his general nature. Either way, the only reason you aren’t rooting for Javier to succeed is because you’ve never seen him play.

Gordón – is the newest addition to the roster. The 18-year-old catcher from Panama, signed in July 2014 for “six figures”.  Honestly, it’s been difficult to evaluate his performance because in the 110-degree sunshine and heat, I’m fixated on the fact that he wears long sleeves under his jersey. I’ll see him quite a bit in the AZL and will report back with my findings. 

Quintin is primarily a middle infielder, signed in 2015 and will make his professional debut as a member of the AZL Athletics. The native of Dani, in the Dominican Republic turned 17 on June 7 -- born in 1999. Feel old yet? Listed at roughly the same size as Lage and Godard, but Quintin isn’t wiry like they are; a little more solid, with a lot of growing left to do. Quiet, confident demeanor for his age.

One last addition is not in his teens. As a matter of fact, when Brandon Mann was the same age as those listed above, he was playing travel ball in Washington state with fellow lefty teammate, Jon Lester. The 32-year-old lefthander was drafted by Tampa in 2002 and has played for several MLB and Independent League teams, as well as having played in Japan for 2 seasons. His drive to make it to the big leauges hasn’t slowed after more than a decade.

In 2015, Mann struck out 157 batters in 143.2 innings, as a member of the Fargo Moorhead Redhawks. Turns out 157 was the magic number to become the newest owner of Most Strike Outs in a season record, averaging almost 1.2 strikeouts per innings pitched.  Along with his two release points and pitches delivered from both, and his off-season “home” at the well-respected and cutting-edge facility, Driveline Bases in Seattle, Mann’s arsenal is more than double what most hurlers possess. Mann was in the Dodgers system in 2010; I was also there at that time; really liked what he showed. Brandon is so appreciative of this opportunity with Oakland

TEAM PURGATORY

The players who are healthy, but working on improving a few things and basically waiting for a roster spot to open somewhere. These guys are in purgatory, playing for Team P, and there were more this year than others. Generally speaking, games are nine innings, unless one of the teams needed more pitcher-innings. There were agreed-upon 11 inning games, concurrently played double headers, and four-out innings. Then there are the two words that every manager wishes existed in all levels when an inning is taking longer than it should: “Roll It!” and the inning comes to an end.

One challenge for every team’s Team Purgatory when they transition to a full season team is the adjustment from playing games during the day that don’t count and with no real level of competition, to quickly adjusting to a full-season team, where all games are important and most are played at night, under the lights. Adjustment time is tough, to say the least, and if it’s a starting pitcher thrown in to that environment … good luck.  It was good to see the Mariners and Padres, and the Royals and Rangers add games against their facility-mate and play under the lights; helps the eyes adjust. Very simple, very smart. Single facility teams can also do this next spring. Ahem.

Oakland’s Team P pitching staff include the following; all of whom simply need more innings; many, if not most, will move on to Vermont:

Kevin Ferreras, Ivan Andueza, Yordys Alejo, Argenis Blanco, Jorge Martinez, Emerson Nelo, and Philip Ortiz; all of whom were on the AZL roster last season. 

Branden Kelliher, 8th round pick in 2014 from Lake Stevens High School in Washington, who spent the better part of the past two seasons on the AZL roster or on the DL for various reasons. This is a smart young man; mature beyond his years, with a stellar work ethic, who never let his outings or emotions interfere with his behavior.

Heath Bowers and Tyler Willman who spent last season in Vermont; Brendan Butler, who joined Stockton on his birthday for a brief stint, but who spent all of 2015 in the AZL; and AZLers Dakota Chalmers and Tyler Painton.

Charles and Tovar – addressed above.

A great story is Mike Murray. Drafted in 2015 in the 32nd round but because of an injury, did not play at all last year. After spending most of his time on Team P, Murray was rewarded and sent to Beloit to help the Snappers at the end of May. The former FGCU star righty, made his professional debut on May 28th and earned his first win of his career on his second start, after twirling a gem on June 2. 

Jordan Schwartz rounded out the regular rotation and could very well be the best story of the season, to me. Schwartz was drafted in the 4th round in 2014 out of Niagara, struggled much of the past two seasons after spending time at different levels. He’s a hard-throwing righty who is fiercely competitive; the stuff is good. I talked with Jordan at the end of Instructs last October. His mindset and commitment to success were evident, and, the biggest piece, was that he had a plan in place for the off-season. Four months later, when I caught up with him in spring training, it was evident that he worked his off-season plan. Each time I saw him, he showed signs of being the top-tier pitcher the organization believed he would be when they signed him, just as he’d done before. This spring, the emphasis was on consistency and repeatability both in his mindset and execution. I’ve talked with Jordan and watched his innings throughout the camp. Nothing but solid growth and promise from Schwartz. Each player, each person, for that matter, develops according to his/her own timeline.

Team Purgatory’s line up would be adjusted daily as needed, but Oakland’s dynamic field coordinator and Vermont field manager, Aaron Nieckula, would ensure each hitter would have ample playing time to reinforce new skills. I could go on ad nauseum about Nieckula’s strengths and valuable contributions to the development of every young man in the green and gold system. But let’s just say, using an educational comparison, “Nuke” prepares his players for college rather than for high school. He does so, in such a relatable, applicable and patient manner that even I think (and, momentarily believe) “Oh sure, I could do that…” until reality reminds me otherwise. If you’re around Aaron and you don’t soak up everything he shares, you are doing yourself a great disservice. 

Team P’s Position Players:

  • 1B Miguel Guzman / Jhonny Rodriguez
  • INF  Erick Mariñez
  • INF  Christopher Quintin
  • INF  Miguel Mercedes
  • INF  Jean Carlo Rodriguez / Jesus Lage
  • INF Carlos Hiciano
  • OF  Javier Godard
  • OF Luis Barrera
  • OF  Jhonny Rodriguez
  • OF Mike Martin / Robert Martinez / James Terrell
  • C Brett Sunde /Miguel Guzman/ Robert Mullen / Carson Blair + Jorge Gordon

Sunde, Martin, and Terrell were drafted in 2015 and spent the season in the AZL. Sunde spent the spring working on with Ruben Escalera on his hitting approach and has done a great job; results are obvious; Martin is currently on Beloit’s roster; and Terrell is finally back in action after his hamate surgery. He spent the end of last season and the start of this on the DL. I’m envious of those who’ll watch James roam the outfield now that he is healthy. So fun to watch! His uniform is clean when he puts it on; once he takes the field, all bets are off. That’s the way he plays the game.

I said it last year – and maybe I was just ahead of things – but Mariñez and his bat are about to have a break-out season. Such quick hands, good power, and he’s quick, too. He’s got all the tools. It’s easy to forget he’s only 20-years-old. Defense continues to improve, too. Luis Barrera is in the same category. There are times I watch Luis play (in centerfield, during a plate appearance, on the base paths) and I wonder why he’s still here; then I’m reminded about the need for consistency. It improves, with both of them, great fun to witness. 

Mercedes (no relation to Melvin) (age 20) and Rodriguez (19) are both power hitters who have outgrown the AZL. JhRod, especially. When I first heard one of his at-bats, I stopped whatever I was doing. He had my attention. He’s young, his plate discipline is improving, but when he connects – you pity the ball.

YELLOW JERSEY REPORT 

A yellow jersey is often used to discern a fully healthy player from one who’s on the DL or is participating with limitations.

Some started Extended Spring Training on the DL – including Richie Martin and Terrell, who have returned to action. There are also those who started and are still on the DL: Branden Cogswell, Kevin Duchene – slowly improving after reporting to camp de-conditioned – from being ill in the off-season; John Gorman – shoulder issues, and Chris Kohler  shoulder clean-up but with extra screws; out for the season.

And then there are those who were part of Team Purgatory until something happened and were added to the DL, including: Derek Beasley – a mass needed to be removed from his right knee; currently healing and will see live batters after the brea;, Shane Conlon – had surgery on his ligament near his hamate bone; Max Kuhn – labrum surgery after jamming his shoulder during a game for Team P; out for the season; Robert Martinez – sprained ankle in a game, getting close to resuming baseball activities; Tim Proudfoot – fouled a ball off his foot during an AB. Proudfoot no longer needs a boot, has started taking BP, and will start seeing game action after the break

And, lastly, those who are currently rehabbing from full season: Carson Blair – rehabbing from Double-A Midland; Nick Collins – another “freaky” injury on his left hand/UCL while in Beloit; is wearing a wrist/forearm guard; Dustin Driver  looks like he’s avoided the worst case scenario after an abnormally uncharacteristic start of the season in Beloit. Finally sent back to Mesa and on Monday threw a pre-determined number, selection, and sequence of pitches – regardless of the outcome, regardless of the effects, no attention paid to baserunners or runs scored.

OTHER ITEMS OF NOTE

This is the Road to Omaha time of year; when Division 1 baseball programs work their way to the NCAA post season. This time last year, Steven Pallares was contending with his San Diego State teammates, including Bubba Derby in the Lake Elsinore regional. It was Pallares’ unbelievably exciting steal of home while now-White Sox catcher Seby Zavala was batting with two outs in the 8th inning, to score the eventual winning run defeating UCSB en route to their first SuperRegional. I was listening to the game; had no idea Pallares would be drafted by Oakland a week later.

Pallares has been at Fitch for more than a week working on his hitting. He’s very thankful for the opportunity to come down to Extended Spring to work on things without worrying about his batting average or how it impacts his teammate. Thanks to all the video work, and assistance by any and everyone on staff, he’s been on fire since the first few days (and not because of the weather.) Pallares’ had more walks (28) than strike outs (20) or hits (14) in 36 games with Beloit. He’s having great production. I asked the 10th round pick about his memories of this time last year. His smile said it all; great fun and memories to treasure. But then he added: “It was all about Coach [Tony] Gwynn; about doing the right things the right way.” Pallares was in that elite group to call Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, “Coach” before losing his battle with cancer in the summer of 2014. The man who recruited Steven, who believed in the outfielder and his abilities, left his mark on the heart and the career of each member of that Aztec team. 

After a short break, those who are heading to the short season Vermont Lake Monsters will practice for a few days, then head East to begin their season with manager Aaron Nieckula, pitching coach Carlos Chavez, hitting coach Lloyd Turner, athletic trainer Toshi Nagahara and strength and conditioning coach Omar Aguilar. Their cool summer season begins June 17th. 

Those who remain in Arizona will begin the season with the Arizona League (AZL) A’s on June 20th. Manager (and fan favorite) Webster Garrison, pitching coach Gabriel Ozuna, coach Gabe Ortiz, hitting coach Ruben Escalera, athletic trainer Chris Lessner, and strength and conditioning coach Terence Brannic.


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