Photo by Kimberly Contreras

AZL Athletics Notebook: Team taking shape

Catch up on the latest action with the Oakland A's Arizona Rookie League affiliate.

Mesa, AZ - The first two weeks of the Arizona League are the busiest: debuts and promotions; roster changes made on a regular basis with new signees arriving daily.  Once the organization’s decision-makers have observed and evaluated the newest additions, some are promoted to the next level while others settle in for a good part of the summer in Arizona. This is general practice among all the teams in the league.  

Early July is when rosters – and nerves – settle down a bit. There will be more debuts to come, draft picks and occasional free agent signings, as well, but the majority of players are now active, and this A’s team is developing its own personality, and a winning record. As of July 12th, the league -wide off-day for the MLB All Star Game, the Athletics sit atop the AZL East Division with a record of 10-7. 

July 2nd signals the beginning of the year’s International Free Agent signing period. The Oakland A’s surprised everyone and signed high-profile prospect, 17-year-old Cuban outfielder Lazaro Armenteros – more commonly referred to as “Lazarito” for a reported $3 million. Four more players, all 16 years old and from the Dominican Republic, were signed on the first day, including three shortstops (George BellMarcos Brito and Yerdel Vargas) and an outfielder (Kevin Richards). The latter four were flown to the States for a quick trip to introduce them to their new home.

The first set of AZL A’s games in July began at the Cubs, facing former Orioles big leaguer, LHP Brian Matusz, whom the Cubs signed to a minor league contract in June. Matusz held the A’s to one hit in his two innings of work, but Oakland’s 6th round pick, RHP Brandon Bailey, in what would turn out to be his final outing in Arizona before being promoted to short-season Vermont, was just as good in his three innings on the mound. 

One week later, against the Reds in Goodyear, Webster Garrison’s team faced a Reds lineup with rehabbing power hitting prospects batting in the three and four slots. Orlando-area native, Mitchell Jordan, was the starter. Jordan gave up three runs, including a home run to the number three batter – fellow Orlando-area native and Reds power hitting prospect – Jesse Winker. Winker is good. But so is Mitchell Jordan. 

After the 1st inning, Jordan allowed 1 hit throughout three innings of work. Winker may have tapped Jordan for his second blast (in four games) on his first at bat, but that was it. Jordan went on to have three shut down innings. Watching him work his way back to dominance was a treat for everyone in attendance…well, for those rooting for Oakland, at least. It was great! 

There was another great pitching performance that night against the Reds; this time by the “Gentle Giant” Wandisson Charles. Listed at (and I use that term lightly) at 6’ 6”, 220 lbs, the 19-year-old, hard-throwing righty from Bani, Dominican Republic possesses raw power – very raw.  In only his second year of professional baseball, he appeared in 12 games (39.1 innings) in the DSL in 2015 before joining the Extended Spring Training group at Fitch Park in April. Extended Spring Training is basically organized workouts and practice games where no official stats are recorded.

Charles made his Stateside debut at the AZL Giants on June 23rd. In 3.2 relief innings, he allowed three earned runs, on seven hits; also walked two, struck out six and threw two wild pitches. Game 2 – June 29th, at home against the Brewers, was one for the ages. Charles entered the game in relief in the first inning, walked the five batters he faced, and gave up five earned runs without recording an out, as part of the 15 run first-inning by the Brewers. Outing number three at the Angels on July 4th was better: one run on three hits in 3.2 innings. While he again walked 5, he also struck out 3 and was the winning pitcher. Encouraging progress was made, but nothing predicted an outing like the game at the Reds on July 9th

http://www.scout.com/mlb/athletics/story/1683116-arizona-a-s-notebook-pr... Wandy relieved Jordan against the Reds, and I positioned myself to be in-line to record an accurate perspective.  His first pitch was a perfectly placed 95 MPH fastball for strike one. I thought, “Hmmm, this looks different.” When pitch number two was even better for strike number two, I knew I would be asking questions as soon as the inning was over.

With a consistent, cleaned-up delivery, Charles gave up two hits, one run that was earned, walked a batter and struck out two over two innings of work. He threw a wild pitch in the 6th, then gave up a hit that drove in a run. This is when things got interesting. I focused on how the right-hander would follow-up. The changes made to simplify and tighten up his delivery were new – obviously. And, whether you’re an athlete or an accountant, when you first implement new skills, your inner battery drains like a smart phone searching for Wi-Fi in the middle of the Arizona desert on a summer afternoon.

With two outs, a runner on first and now a one-run lead, Charles gathered himself and took the mound with the same renewed confidence he exuded when he began the outing. And it was exactly what I hoped to see. Moments later, catcher Jarrett Costa brought the inning to a close by throwing out a would-be base-stealer at second and no further damage was done.

I turned to Oakland’s rehab pitching coordinator – and former big league closer - Craig Lefferts who was as happy and humble as you would expect after the performance we just witnessed, and asked how, what, when did this transformation take place. Lefty’s modest response began, “Credit Ozzie [AZL pitching coach, Gabriel Ozuna] and Charles for the changes…” Of course, Lefty. Of course.

NOTABLE PERFORMANCES

Cole Gruber, Oakland’s 2016 27th round pick: has stolen a league-leading 14 bases in 12 games, and has only been stopped once. The 6’0” sub-200 lefty from Nebraska-Omaha has scored nine runs, and has more stolen bases than hits (11), walks (10) or strike-outs (9). In the field, and by that I mean all three outfield positions, he’s only made one error, and if I recall correctly, it was more of an issue of the Arizona sun than anything else. 

Robert Bennie, 2016 24th round pick: In 14 games, he has scored 12 runs (tied for first with Kyle Nowlin), 15 hits (second behind Charley Gould), four doubles (tied for second with Robert Martinez behind Nowlin), three triples (tied for first with Jeramiah McCray) and team-leading 25 total bases.

Robert Martinez, 19th round pick in 2012: rehabbing after a badly sprained ankle during Extended Spring Training, hit a double, and his first home run of the season in his second game. He leads the team in OPS (1149)  SLG (.714) and is tied with Bennie for second with his four doubles, after playing in only six games.  Welcome back, Robert!

Kyle Nowlin, 2016 21st round pick: His first two hits were loud, hard hit doubles on Opening Night, and he’s proven that wasn’t a fluke. In 16 games, he’s one of three who’ve hit home runs (Martinez and Robert Mullen are the other two). He’s tied with Bennie for most runs scored (12), has the third-most hits (13 behind Gould and Bennie), second-most RBIs (11, behind Gould); second-most total bases (21, behind Bennie); leads the team in walks (12) and also has a stolen base to his credit.

Jeramiah McCray, 2016 25th round pick: Started his professional career going 0-for-13, before getting on base, and scoring the first run of his career; then went 2-for-18, 3-for-21 and then hit two triples to left field in as many games, and his presence was announced.  Quick and smooth on the basepaths, he already has four stolen bases.

Charley Gould, 26th round pick: high socks wearing first baseman who in 15 games, has more hits (16) than walks (7) and strike outs (7) combined. Leads the team in hits (16) and RBIs (12).

Casey Thomas, 34th round pick: if there’s a prototype for hustle, it’s Casey Thomas. Takes nothing for granted, and leaves nothing to chance. Outstanding defense, good on the bases, and the kid H U S T L E S!!

Josh Vidales, 28th round pick: Vidales is an agile, defense-minded second baseman and great double-play combo with Casey Thomas. He has 11 hits, including three doubles, 10 walks, and five strike outs. Plus, of the many photos I have of him on the field, a good percentage show him not touching the ground. At all. Try and tell me that’s not fun to watch!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t even mention the catching core: Jarrett Costa, Skyler Weber and Robert Mullen. I will elaborate on their activity in the next update; suffice to say there this is a good, strong group with more to be added in the near future.

YELLOW JERSEY (rehab) UPDATE

RHP John Gorman, catcher Nick Collins, 1B Chris Iriart are progressing nicely.

Unfortunately for Brett Bittiger, 40th round pick in June, he was hit by a pitch at the Dbacks and injured his ribs. He’ll be out about six weeks.

Up Next

On Wednesday, the AZL Diamondbacks visit Fitch to start the next block of four games; followed by a trip to the Giants, home against the Rangers, and then a trip to the Dodgers before an off day on Sunday. For the complete schedule, follow here:

http://www.milb.com/schedule/results.jsp?cid=405


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