Insider look: Jimmy Coffman, Rich Sparks talk Oakland A's draft

Longtime Oakland A's scouts Jimmy Coffman and Rich Sparks discuss several players selected by the A's in the 2016 MLB Draft.

An organization is only as strong as its scouting department. Scouts pour thousands of hours into evaluating draft-eligible players to allow an organization to organize their “big board” for the draft. In the end, those thousands of hours may only translate into one or two from any scout’s list being selected by his team. It can be a thankless job, but every player in professional baseball owes much of his career to his signing scout.

Two of the A’s longtime scouts – Jimmy Coffman (Pacific Northwest) and Rich Sparks (Midwest) – had some of their players taken by Oakland in last weekend’s draft. They provide some insight into those players as they begin their careers with the A’s.

Jimmy Coffman

Coffman has been with the A’s organization since 2000. During the past 16 years, he has served as a minor league pitching coach, in addition to scouting the Northwest Territory for the A’s. Coffman pitched for four seasons in minor league baseball in the early 1980s. Some of his recent signings include Ryon Healy, Seth Brown, Dustin Driver, Branden Kelliher and Trace Loehr.

This year, Coffman is the signing scout for A’s seventh-round pick Brandon Bailey, a right-hander out of Gonzaga. Coffman says the details of the contract with Bailey are still being worked out, but he expects the 21-year-old to sign. Bailey had a 2.42 ERA for the Zags this season, striking out 125 in 100.1 innings. He had a 17-strike-out performance for Gonzaga in the WCC tournament against the BYU Cougars. That tournament was played at the Stockton Ports’ home ballpark, and several members of the A’s scouting department were on-hand to see it.

Coffman says that Bailey’s height worked against him in the draft, but that his stuff and polish make him an exciting arm to follow. 

“The first thing that stands out when you see him is his lack of size, I guess you’d say,” Coffman said “He’s put together well, but he’s just not very tall. He’s always had to overcome those stigmas, which I think has made him kind of the pitcher that he is. He’s very aggressive. He throws four pitches for strikes – and not just strikes, but with good intent and purpose. He can really put pitches together.

"He’s the kind of guy that if you give him a plan to go after a hitter’s weaknesses, he’ll definitely follow that plan because he can throw a fastball on the inner-half and outer-half. He can elevate it when he needs to set-up the next pitch and he is a very efficient pitcher. He seems like he is always ahead in counts. He’s got a plus change-up and his breaking ball is solid-average.”

Coffman says that, despite Bailey’s lack of size, he has a quick arm that allows the fastball to get on hitters faster than they are anticipating.

“You’ll see late swings with his fastball. It has more life than movement because it has that jumpy movement at the end,” Coffman said. “You’ll see a lot of college kids being just a tad late on him. When you see that over and over, it just tells you that there is deception out of the hand. This guy is really aggressive. He goes right at you. Then you talk to him off-the-field and he’s such a nice kid.

“I feel fortunate that we got him. I talked to him at length at the airport and he’s really excited.”

A’s 17th-round pick Seth Martinez wasn’t in Coffman’s region, but Coffman got a chance to see Martinez pitch for Arizona State against Oregon State this year, and Coffman came away very impressed with the right-hander.

“That’s a good line-up at Oregon State – and he pretty much did whatever he wanted to do with the baseball that day,” Coffman said. “When we got him, I was really happy. I think that guy is going to go out right away and go deep into games.”

Coffman didn’t have a chance to see A’s competitive balance round pick Daulton Jefferies during Jefferies' start for Cal at Washington State, but Coffman heard plenty of buzz about Jefferies’ performance versus the Cougars. 

“There were a bunch of scouts that watched both Jefferies match-up against Washington State and the NAIA World Series [where Coffman was scouting that weekend],” Coffman said. “They were about 45 minutes apart. The scouts came back [from the Cal-WSU game] just raving about Jefferies. I had a couple of good friends who were up there and they just said ‘holy cow, this guy is really good.’” 

Coffman says that the A’s draft class overall has significantly enhanced the organization’s minor league pitching depth.

“Kids I have never seen before, we have the ability to flip on the video real quick and watch that during the draft. You look at that and you look at the numbers and hear our guys talk about them and I think we were a little light in minor league pitching and now I think we have really filled the cupboard all of a sudden,” Coffman said. “Not just guys that have good stuff who you hope as they develop they can learn to command the baseball, but guys that already do.”

Rich Sparks

Sparks is the A’s Midwest Area Scouting Supervisor. His region includes Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio. He has been with the organization since the late 1990s. His signings include Mark Mulder, Joe Blanton, Nick Swisher, and, more recently, Max Kuhn and Brett Sunde. This year, Sparks had several of “his guys” selected by the A’s. When we spoke, he was on the road heading to Cincinnati to sign A’s 21st-round pick Kyle Nowlin. Then on Wednesday, he will head to Lexington, Kentucky, to sign A’s fifth-round pick JaVon Shelby, in the morning. On Wednesday evening, he will be signing A’s third-round pick Sean Murphy. Sparks doesn’t yet have an exact date, but he hopes to have fourth-round pick Skylar Szynski signed by the end of the week.

Szynski, a right-handed pitcher out of Penn HS in Indiana, was the first high school player selected by Oakland this year and could be the only one to sign. He rated as a top-100 draft prospect by several publications and is expected to sign an above-slot deal. 

Sparks has known Szynski since last year, when he was on Sparks’ East Coast team in the Area Code Games.

“You get to know these kids very well when you are in the dugout with them,” Sparks said. “He performed very well for everybody. We all had high follow numbers on him.”

Sparks says that Szynski showed three quality major league pitches this season.

“You can get fooled a little bit on these high school kids because sometimes they will throw what we call ‘high school strikes’ and guys are just swinging-and-missing those. But he commanded the bottom of the strike-zone and his breaking ball was just outstanding,” Sparks said. “He didn’t use the change-up much, but that pitch graded out to at least average, could have been plus. There was six-inches to a foot of run on it right at the end. It was a really good pitch.

“He had a three-pitch mix right out of the gate and it was really good.”

Sparks rated Szynski with the same grade he gave Nolan Watson last year. Watson was the 33rd overall pick in last year’s draft (Kansas City).

“[Szynski] was pretty much the same, except Nolan’s breaking ball wasn’t as good as Skylar’s,” Sparks said. “I had pretty much the same number on him that I did on Watson, and I said, ‘we really have to scout this kid.’”

Sparks says that Szynski was throwing his fastball 92-93 most of the season and that he had a good breaking ball and change-up. At 6’2’’, 200 pounds, Szynski is already well built, but Sparks sees some potential for him to still add strength down-the-road. 

“He may still fill out a little bit on the upper half, but he’s strong on the lower half,” Sparks said. “He’s very athletic. He’s like all of these guys. He hits third on his high school team. People wanted him to be a two-way player in college. He is a mature kid.”

Sparks thought A’s third-round pick Murphy had a chance to go in the first round heading into this season. Murphy’s stock took a hit during the year when he broke his hamate bone midway through the season. He returned to the field in six weeks, but didn’t hit with the same authority as he did before the injury. Sparks believes Murphy was playing at less than 100%. Hamate injuries often linger for several months after the surgery, although the long-term impact of the injury is minimal.

Courtesy Wright State Athletic Department

Murphy has a 7 arm on the 2-8 scouting scale, according to Sparks. He also projects Murphy to hit for power as a pro (and when fully recovered from the injury). 

“He is a big kid and he’s got some strength. He can hit the ball anywhere out of the ballpark,” Sparks said. “I have seen him hit the ball out of the ballpark to right-center more than anywhere else.”

A’s fifth-round pick Shelby is another potential power hitter in the pro ranks. The son of former major leaguer and current MLB hitting coach John Shelby, the younger Shelby had a big sophomore season for Kentucky. He came into 2016 with first-day draft buzz, but struggled throughout the season. He hit a career-best 12 homeruns, but posted a .212/.335/.470 line after hitting .312/.442/.525 the year before.

Sparks believes that Shelby put too much pressure on himself this season.

“He was the man on campus, the man in the SEC with all of the homeruns. I think you can equate a lot of those struggles with putting too much pressure on himself,” Sparks said. “His dad is a longtime big leaguer, his brother is a minor leaguer, all of that stuff. People kept telling him that he’s the guy. I think he did put a little pressure on himself, and then it snowballed.

Grady [Fuson, A’s Special Assistant to the GM] and Eric [Kubota, A’s Scouting Director] saw him early in San Diego and they both emailed and said Shelby looks good. It just went downhill after that. It was just a snowball effect that I don’t think he could stop. Then it started getting into his head. Now that it is over with and he’s there [in the pros], I think he was a little disappointed, but he was happy that he was drafted where he was. He knows that he didn’t have the season that he could have had. I think it is going to get better. He just swung-and-missed way, way too much this year. I think now that it is over with, he can go back and relax and see how it goes.”

Sparks likes his make-up and believes Shelby will be able to make adjustments better once he is in the pros.

“He’s a respectful kid. He’s going to listen. He tries to take a little bit too much in at times,” Sparks said. “I do think once he gets with who he is going to be with and it’s just one voice, he’s going to be able to make the adjustments. He’s a smart kid. He’s been around the game all of his life. He’s had success. It’s not like the kid has never had success. He’s had success in the past, so I think he’ll be able to make those adjustments.”

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