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Oakland A's 2016 year-end front office Q&A: Billy Owens, part 2

With the minor league season coming to a close, we caught-up with Oakland A's Assistant General Manager Billy Owens to review the year that was in the Oakland A's system. In part 2, we talk about several players who have made contributions to the playoff-bound Nashville Sounds, including Matt Olson, Renato Nunez, Jaycob Brugman, Raul Alcantara, Jharel Cotton and Bobby Wahl. Moving onto the Nashville roster, what Raul Alcantara has done since his promotion to Triple-A [1.18 ERA and 32:3 K:BB in 45.2 IP] has been truly remarkable. Has his success with Nashville been just a matter of him getting all of his bullets back now 18 months removed from Tommy John surgery, or was there a specific improvement/addition to his arsenal that has fueled his success?

Billy Owens: I think Raul Alcantara, the further he got away from surgery, the more comfortable he got on the mound with his true command. When he was in Midland at the start of this year, he probably wasnt quite far enough from the surgery. But, first and foremost, Raul is a student of the game. Hes always pounded the strike-zone. 

Gil Patterson, him being such an outstanding pitching coordinator, it seems like Rauls slider has gotten better. Its a slider/cutter. It has definitely gotten about one-grade higher in his transition from Double-A to Triple-A. I believe his strike-out rate has gone up this year [7 K/9 this year; 5.4 last year]. He has peppered the zone. I think adding that one more weapon – that slider/cutter – has made a big difference. The change-up has always been a good pitch and he can dial that fastball up to 96 and hes always thrown strikes. Whether they have been good big league strikes or strikes over the middle of the plate, hes always found that strike-zone.

Him getting that extra weapon and pounding that zone and using that change-up and topping out at 96, its been a nice transition to Triple-A. Hes got himself in a lot of upper-level conversations.

OC: Jharel Cotton made a strong introduction to the As organization when he fell one out short of a perfect game in his second start. His change-up is obviously a stand-out pitch. How long had the organization been scouting him before acquiring him from the Dodgers and was there something in addition to the change-up that really drew the organizations attention?

BO: Jharel Cotton, for one, is leading the Pacific Coast League in strike-outs and WHIP, so that tells you that he has significant stuff. We definitely scouted him for a long time. The kid is from the Virgin Islands and then he went to JUCO in south Florida and then to college at East Carolina. He was drafted twice [once by the Mets in 2011 and then by the Dodgers in 2012]. He lit up the minor leagues and always had pretty good stuff. The change-up is phenomenal.

We saw him last year in the Arizona Fall League, as well. This year in Triple-A, he has really taken off. As I said, he leads the PCL in strike-outs and WHIP. He definitely attacks that strike-zone. The change-up is his out pitch. The breaking ball is solid and hell still touch 95, 96.

You can never enough pitching, as we have seen this year. I remember back when the Phillies had five or six guys who had, at one point, been one or two starters in the major leagues. Then two weeks or so into the season, they needed to go outside of the organization for pitching [because of injuries], so you can never have enough pitching. Jharel – with his pedigree and his success in the upper levels and our scouting history with him – we were excited to get him.

OC: It has been great to see Bobby Wahl have a healthy season. He seems to be developing into the pitcher the organization projected him to be when he was drafted. Do you think he is getting close to big league-ready at this point?

BO: You can never put a timetable on things, but yeah. Kelcey Mucker, our scout in that region, he has been scouting with us for a long time and he sung Bobbys praises before the draft. From an injury and durability standpoint, Bobby has just teased with the possibilities before in his minor league career. This year, he has been assertive and aggressive with his pitches. Hes been up to 97-100 miles per hour pretty much every outing and his breaking stuff has gotten better over the course of the season. Hes definitely put himself in upper-level conversations.

His fastball, I call it a macho fastball where he is able to challenge with that 97-100. The fact that the breaking stuff has gotten better, hes still getting strike-outs. I believe his strike-out percentage has actually gotten better in Triple-A.

Wahls success is a testament to John Wasdin in Double-A and Rick Rodriguez in Triple-A, two outstanding upper-level pitching coaches, along with Gil Patterson, our pitching coordinator. They have done a really solid job with our people.

OC: Matt Olson has had a nice second half with Nashville after a rough first half. It seems like hes been a little more aggressive on pitches earlier in the count lately. Do you think he is refining his approach?

BO: I think Matt, for one, is 22-years-old. Twenty-two years old in Triple-A is a pretty good starting point. Hes still evolving as a hitter. All of the success that he had in Stockton and the fact that right field is inviting in Stockton, with his stroke, it may have regressed him a little bit. He had gotten a little pull happy. You saw the gigantic homer totals – he had 37 that year – but it made him a little pull-happy.

The higher you go, the pitchers are able to locate better and the shifts are more prominent. If you start to get too pull happy, all of a sudden, you are hitting right into the shift and your average starts to suffer.

I believe the second half this year, he has made a conscious effort to start using the whole field. The batting practice definitely got to a point where he was able to go line-to-line. Using the whole field approach, you are starting to see teams not shifting him nearly as much. Its not even close to the percentage it was before. You might go in there to see him play a four- or five-game series and, out of 20 at-bats, you might see only a handful of shifts on Matt. Whereas before, it was every at-bat.

The adjustments he has made using the whole field and centering the baseball a little bit more early in the count has allowed him to still have those gaudy walk numbers and its going to make his swing a lot more viable once he gets a chance at the major league level.

OC: Renato Nunez has had sort of a similar year to Olson, with ups-and-downs. Its been interesting to see him out in left field defensively a bit lately. Do you see that as a legitimate third position for him in the future?

BO: Renato, similar to Matt being 22 in Triple-A, its definitely a learning curve. Weve talked about this before, but in Double-A, the pitchers have really good stuff. In Triple-A, the pitchers can pitch to the scouting report better. In the big leagues, they have both. As you climb that ladder, you need to be able to make certain adjustments. Renato has a beautiful swing and is very capable of using the whole field.

Sometimes he gets a little homer-happy and pull-happy. I see in his development, he had 19 homers in Beloit and his average dipped towards the end of the year trying to get that 20th homer. In Stockton, he had 29 homers and – same thing – towards the end of the year, he sort of went for the homer and his average suffered towards the end. Last year, he wasnt as close to that milestone number and he hit for a higher season average and had a tremendous playoff in Double-A [.407 BA in seven games]. 

This year, the average is down, but he is still a hitter first and foremost. He has a gorgeous swing. He will eventually be able to use the whole field. The power is obvious with the 23 homers at 22-years-old in a big ballpark in Triple-A. The defense actually got a little better at third base this year. Every year, there is a slightly higher percentage of possibly being able to play there at the highest level.

With Matt Chapman – who is as natural a third baseman as you will see anywhere – playing in Nashville now, its kind of a natural progression to see if Renato can handle the left field position. So far, so good. Getting the game reports every night, it seems like he hasnt been tentative out there. Hes caught the balls in his jurisdiction. Like anything, there will be a learning curve going forward but having another club in your golf bag will only help his chances to succeed at the next level.

OC: We talked about Joey Wendle at the end of last season and earlier this year. Keith Lieppman mentioned midway through this season that Wendle was hurt at the start of the season by his ability to make contact on so many pitches and that he was hitting a lot of pitchers pitches. Do you think Wendles pitch recognition and selectivity has improved the second half of the year as his numbers have gone up, even if the walks havent been there?

BO: Joey is one of the hardest working kids around. Great make-up. Tremendous attitude. Lunch pail demeanor. Brings it everyday. Hard 90 down the line. You cant help but root for him on a daily basis. Tremendous kid. Warrior out there on the field. His defense has gotten better at second base. He gives you a nice double-play.

Offensively, hes put up pretty good numbers. The strike-out to walk ratio will never be ideal, per se, but he makes a lot of contact and the extra-base numbers have been there. Hes got sneaky positive legs where he has high triple totals. He had eight or nine triples last year and nine this year and he had 42 doubles last year and a bunch [31] this year. He has 12 homers this year, too. So the power is there. From a strike-out to walk ratio, hes another kid that the more he sees upper-level pitching – Triple-A now and eventually, who knows when, major-league pitching – hell be able to make adjustments. 

I believe hes smart enough to make adjustments and I believe he is underrated as an athlete, as well. Hes played primarily second base in his minor league development, but hes also a kid who is a tremendous athlete. I dont know if it is now or if it is five years from now, but, at some point, I think he has the athleticism, aptitude and baseball-playing ability to venture out and play some other positions.

OC: Jaycob Brugman started with Ryon Healy in Midland and played his way up to Triple-A early in the season. I think hes been the Sounds most consistent hitter since late May. Do you think he profiles as a valuable fourth outfielder in the big leagues at some point?

BO: I dont want to put any kind of profile limitations on him. Hes hitting better than .300 and he has a pretty good on-base percentage and slugging percentage [.308/.364/.459 in 89 games for Nashville]. Last year, he went on an impressive homer binge for Midland in the playoffs [four homers and three doubles in six games]. Hes been a strong performer for us. Hes put up good numbers at every level. Hes kind of like Ryon Healy in that he announced his presence with his performance.

Jaycob is scorching the ball right now in Triple-A. Hitting above .300, using the whole field, has got some sneaky power and plays a solid outfield. Hell surprise you and play some excellent centerfield, as well as the corners. He can play all three outfield positions. His throwing arm, his fundamentals and the way he attacks the baseball have given him a high number of assists over the years. He just contributes in a lot of different ways.

I dont want to pigeonhole him in any way. Hes made an impression on our organization and on other scouts from other teams watching Jaycob. Hes definitely a very good player and hell get his opportunity at some point at the top level to show what he can do.

Stay tuned for part three of this interview, which will focus on several players who spent the majority of the season with Double-A Midland.

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