Photo of George Bell by Kimberly Contreras

Oakland A's Instructional League Report: Settling in

MESA, AZ -- Kimberly Contreras checks in with her first report from the Oakland A's 2016 fall Instructional League camp.

Ask anyone who participates and they’ll tell you Instructs is the best time of year. Players and development staff alike value the four-plus weeks of evaluation, competition and comradery all in a low-stakes environment. It’s a wonderful way to wrap up the season and set sights on spring training. Players invited to participate in Instructs (also referred to as the Fall Instructional League) typically come from three areas: rookies or minor leaguers who’ve just completed their first full season of professional baseball, farmhands who spent ample time on the disabled list during the season and need to make up innings or at-bats, and international free agent signees.

The development staff is led by Field Coordinator extraordinaire Aaron Nieckula. Former big leaguer and current roving instructor Ed Sprague, Jr. skippers the on-field team. Coordinators Gil Patterson (pitching), Craig Lefferts (rehab pitching), Jim Eppard (hitting) and Juan Navarette (defense), as well as coaches from the various affiliates continue their tireless commitment to excellence into this post-season camp. They are joined by additional Instructors from the scouting department, and by the A’s own Dynamic Duo of Development – Keith Lieppman and Grady Fuson.

From the first day of camp, each staff member assumes an active, hands-on role; whether it’s throwing batting practice, hitting fungos, coaching first base or assisting in the outfield, every staff member contributes. When it’s game time, the hard-working coaches turn into reinforcement vocal supporters (cheerleaders) led by the man who often says his job title is “Special Assistant to Keith Lieppman”, Grady Fuson. The no-nonsense guru is a natural teacher who knows each players’ challenges and is the first to reinforce growth and improvement. Nowhere else do you see men of his stature with other teams as engaged and personalized in their encouragement of players regardless of the round they were drafted. The same is true with pitching coordinator, Gil Patterson. Before I met him, years ago, I thought Gil was a father of one of the pitchers – just wasn’t sure which one. He was nurturing, supportive, and invested in their progress. It’s the same thing I see today. Advantage: Baby A’s.

The Rules of Instructs Number 1: the Fall Instructional League is not an official league; it’s a camp. Stats are not recorded, nothing counts. Hit a home run? Great! Give up that home run? Great! Just like (minor league) Spring Training and Extended Spring it won’t be on the back of their baseball card – or on their online profile page.

Rule Number 1A: this is still a working environment and the access limitations – facility or personnel related- are the same as any other season. The boys, the staff, the grounds crew and administrators are working. Their demeanor is more relaxed but that’s irrelevant to the public.

Rule Number 2: If a player, on an Instructional League roster, was not officially added to a roster during the season, he will not yet officially exist. He will also not make his “debut” during instructs. That only happens when added to a roster during an official season. 

The Games

All home games take place at the facilities on Athletics Way in Mesa – also known as Fitch Park. In most* cases, games are played at 12:30pm during the week and 10:00am on Saturday; Sundays are a league-wide OFF day. A team’s final game of camp, whether home or away, is played at 9:00am.  

Players and staff arrived late September and opened camp with workouts until the first game on Tuesday, September 27th against the Angels at Fitch; camp wraps up on Friday, October 21st at home against the Giants. About a week before breaking camp, the boys will have the opportunity to play at Chase Field. The Diamondbacks play one game in the big league stadium and while usually against rotating opponents, this will be the 2nd time in 3 years the A’s were that opposing team. It’s a wonderful experience but, per the Diamondbacks, it is closed to the public.  

The weekly format starts with Camp Days on Monday, games Tuesday through Friday, ending the week with a Camp Day on Saturday before the OFF day on Sunday. Camp Days are work days and closed to outsiders.

Generally speaking, most players appear in most games. The starting lineup will play for the first half, then a full roster-swap takes over for the second. Those who may have missed more playing time during the season will play longer; sometimes the full game.

Another example of the camp setting is the flexibility of outs and innings played. Pitchers innings and pitch counts are conservatively measured and assigned. An outing is often one or two innings, depending on the pitch count. At times, there will often be an extra inning or half-inning if there are pitchers still in need of work at the end of the game.

Just like Extended Spring Training, two magic words are used to move things along better than any pitch clock could hope to do. When the words “Roll it!” are proclaimed by one of the teams, the inning comes to an immediate end. Like magic.

The Campers


  • Nolan Blackwood - 2016 draft / Vermont / Beloit
  • Argenis Blanco - AZL
  • Brendan Butler - Stockton/ Vermont / Beloit
  • Dakota Chalmers - Vermont
  • Ty Damron - 2016 draft/ Vermont
  • Dustin Driver - Beloit / Vermont / DL
  • Angel Duno - Beloit
  • Will Gilbert - 2016 draft / Vermont
  • Nick Highberger - 2016 draft / AZL / Stockton
  • Grant Holmes - Trade with LAD / Stockton
  • Dustin Hurlbutt - Beloit
  • Daulton Jefferies - 2016 draft / AZL – will not pitch
  • Casey Meisner - Stockton
  • Abdiel Mendoza - DSL
  • A.J. Puk - 2016 draft / Vermont
  • Miguel Sanchez - DSL / AZL
  • Dalton Sawyer - 2016 draft / Vermont
  • Logan Shore - 2016 draft / Vermont
  • Skylar Szynski - 2016 draft (high school) / AZL
  • Andrew Tomasovich - Beloit
  • Oscar Tovar - DSL / AZL
  • Tyler Willman - Beloit

Last week was the first slate of games, and with only an inning or so per pitcher, anything more than a general observation is impossible. I had the pleasure to finally watch 2016 draft picks who skipped the AZL and spent the season in Vermont or Beloit. This includes: Nolan Blackwood, Ty Damron, Will Gilbert, A.J. Puk, Dalton Sawyer and Logan Shore: all of whom were impressive!

Brendan Butler and Tyler Willman, who I know well, looked great in the spring, and looked even better now.  I listen to or watch as many of the different games as I can throughout the season. If it’s guys that I know, I can picture when the broadcasters describe what they’re doing. Seeing how much they’ve matured when they return is wonderful.

Nick Highberger one of AZL’s closers who was added to the roster of High-A Stockton for the final week of the season. He appeared in two games and was credited with his first Cal League win!  

Both Grant Holmes and Skylar Szynski had some time on the mound in the first week. The two right-handers could rival Sean Manaea for the title of “Best Hair” in the system. Holmes’ talent is well known; I remember seeing him his rookie year (2014) with the AZL Dodgers and again that fall during Instructs. Even at age 20, he lives up to the hype.

Szynski may have had bumpy debut in the AZL this year, but it was more as a result of a perfect storm setting and less of his actual performance. But the next start, and each subsequent outing after that, he did nothing but prove why he was selected in the fourth round in June. Szynski will make anyone stop and take notice…and he just turned 19. Look out!


  • Jarrett Costa - 2016 draft / AZL/ Vermont
  • Roger Gonzalez - 2016 draft / AZL / Beloit
  • Sean Murphy - 2016 draft / AZL / Vermont
  • Collin Theroux - 2016 draft / AZL / Beloit
  • Skyler Weber - 2016 draft / AZL

Of the five backstops, four spent a majority of the season in the AZL. Third-round pick Sean Murphy was the exception and he played in the AZL opener before heading to Vermont. Jarrett Costa is the embodiment of the term “indestructible.” Switch-hitting Roger Gonzalez broke his hamate bone just after reporting to Mesa this summer. His start was delayed but he didn’t skip a beat when he debuted. Skyler Weber, often in the line up as DH, is more athletic and quicker on the basepaths than a typical catcher. The Georgia Bulldog went 5-for-5 in stolen base attempts during the regular season. 

Collin Theroux = Tim Tebow… in the both-hit-a-home-run-during-Instructs sense, that is. Theroux is a plus defender who hit a home run in Friday’s game at the Brewers. It doesn’t count, but because I witnessed it and have written about it, it is sort of on the record.  


  • George Bell - July 2, 2016 signee – will play in 2017
  • Marcos Brito - July 2, signee – will play in 2017
  • Chris Iriart - Beloit / AZL (DL) / Stockton
  • Erick Mariñez - Vermont
  • Richie Martin - Stockton / Texas League Champs / DL – Hasn’t played yet
  • Miguel Mercedes - Vermont – 12 home runs most in NYPL
  • Nate Mondou - 2016 draft / Vermont
  • Christopher Quintin - DSL/ AZL
  • JaVon Shelby - 2016 draft / Vermont
  • Yerdel Vargas - July 2, 2016 signee – will play in 2017
  • Josh Vidales - 2016 draft / AZL – Batting Title Winner
  • Eli White - 2016 draft / Vermont

Chris Iriart missed almost six weeks after a ball took a bad hop to his left eye during a game. A month after rejoining Beloit, he and his power numbers joined the Stockton Ports. Eric Marinez and Miguel Mercedes both developed defensively while in their first season away from the AZL. Mariñez’ bat has been on the verge of exploding since late spring, while Mercedes bat did explode in Vermont where he led the league in home runs (12). Richie Martin started the season on the DL, joined the Stockton Ports in May and joined the Double-A Midland RockHounds in September.

Nate Mondou, JaVon Shelby and Eli White all started the AZL opener before heading to Vermont for the season. Josh Vidales, AZL batting title winner, led the league in OBP .437 and OPS 944 and was in the top-five of most other categories, but if you watched almost every game, as I did, you know he is even more valuable on the field; he and double-play partner SS Casey Thomas were stellar!

The three 16-year-olds signed for 2017, George Bell, Marcos Brito and Yerdel Vargas each played a few innings in the first week of Instructs games.  A highlight of the week was watching 17-year-old “veteran” Christopher Quintin help his young teammates learn on-field protocol.


  • Lazaro Armenteros - July 2, 2016 signee – will play in 2017
  • Robert Bennie - 2016 draft / AZL / Vermont
  • Skye Bolt - Beloit / DL
  • Anthony Churlin - 2016 draft (high school) / AZL           
  • Jeramiah McCray - 2016 draft  (high school) / AZL
  • Kyle Nowlin - 2016 draft / AZL – league leader, 36 walks
  • Luke Persico - 2016 draft / AZL / Vermont
  • Tyler Ramirez - 2016 draft / AZL / Vermont
  • Kevin Richards - July 2, 2016 signee – will play in 2017
  • James Terrell - Vermont / AZL

Skye Bolt was on the DL and missed 40 games with Beloit and James Terrell appeared in a total of 40 games between AZL and Vermont.  Luke Persico and Tyler Ramirez played in a handful of AZL games before heading to Vermont, while Robert Bennie spent half the season in AZL, other half in Vermont. Kyle Nowlin was the AZL leader with 36 walks. Jeramiah McCray and Anthony Churlin  are talented high school draft picks!

Talking to roving minor league field coordinator Juan Navarette earlier this summer, he reminded me that many of the international free agent signees had never played in games or even game situations before signing with a team. They are adept at showcase performances, but game situations will take some time and assistance and patience. This is true with all five of the newest members of the organization, including the two outfielders, 17-year-old Lazarito and 16-year-old Kevin Richards. Both played a few innings during the first week. Their talent is obvious, but it is very raw.

In addition to getting out of the “showcase” performance mode, these are very young boys who are away from home, away from their families and all that is familiar to them. In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs, the most basic of these must be met before progress in any other area is made. Give these boys time.

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