An hour or so before the first workout – the first meeting of his first-ever rookie-level team, Webster Garrison reflected on his experiences of his past few assignments compared to now (2013 Manager – High-A Stockton; 2014 Hitting Coach – Double-A Midland; 2015 Hitting Coach – Triple-A Nashville)
"At this level [rookie]," he said. "you see these guys at their most …vulnerable; they’re like sponges. [It is/ we have a] big responsibility to show them, teach them the right way to play the game." Exactly.
“The right way”, under Webby’s leadership, includes respect, kindness, and the secret weapon of this year’s team: HUSTLE.
Hustle on the bases with the bust-your-behind-out-of-the-box, run-THROUGH-first-base, stay-on-high-alert-on-the-bases-and-locked-in-to-every-pitch and ready-to-advance-on-any-opportunity. Hustle on the field, with a “Let’s Go!”, the-next-play-will-decide-the-game-and-it’s-up-to-me mentality.
On this roster of extremes; young, inexperienced international free agents and college draft picks, with only a handful of returning teammates mixed in, “hustle” was the common denominator, and the great equalizer. It worked so well, in fact, that the Athletics ended the season with the best record (29-24) in the very tough East Division. Garrison, along with veteran hitting coach Ruben Escalera, pitching coach Gabriel Ozuna, and coach Gabe Ortiz were an outstanding field staff unit. It’s unfortunate that because of the new playoff structure they did not qualify for the post-season, but the way they fought to the very end of the season, even after being eliminated, and did so the right way, was everything you want to see in your team. They may not have won the championship, but the 2016 AZL A’s were a winning team, who won because they were a team – not centered around a couple of players, and were led by a staff who understood the importance of the rookie level. Hard to top that.
Let’s take a look at who spent the season in the Fire League at Fitch:
More often than not, the infield consisted of first-baseman and AZL RBI Leader (38) Charley Gould (26th round, College of William & Mary); second-baseman and AZL Batting Champion Josh Vidales (28th round, University of Houston); “Mr. Hustle” Casey Thomas (24th round, Texas A&M Corpus Christi) at short; and Javier Godard (20-year-old International free agent signed from Venezuela) at third.
For two games in July, the right side of the AZL Athletics infield was “Cougar strong” with Vidales at second base and rehabbing Chris “The Babe” Iriart at first. Iriart, in six at-bats, had three hits – all doubles – an RBI and scored twice. Ho Hum.
Rarely were both Vidales and Thomas out of the line-up at the same time; as the anchors to the team’s infield, whose style of defense complemented one another, they were also used as the mentor to Jesus Lage (19-year-old free agent from Venezuela) and Carlos Hiciano (19-year-old free agent from Dominican Republic). Brett Bittiger (40th round pick, Pace University) was initially drafted as a shortstop and played in three games before taking a pitch to his ribs and having his season come to a quick end. During his rehab, the former two-way player in college decided to make the change and will be added to the pitching staff when he reports in the spring.
Starting in left with a solid defender (zero errors in 44 games played) Kyle Nowlin (21st round, Eastern Kentucky). His first two hits as a professional were loud, hard-hit doubles on Opening Night; he then ended the season as the AZL leader in walks (36). Centerfield was split between the eventual AZL stolen base leader (28) Cole Gruber (27th round, Nebraska-Omaha) and 18-year-old Jeramiah McCray (25th round, King High School) who, on the bases, is so smooth and fast he looks like a competitive ice skater, and is also a legitimate defender in center. The final two weeks of the season saw the return of a third member to the centerfield brigade from Vermont, James Terrell. He is also an excellent base-runner and defender.
For the first half of the season, right field was anchored by Robert Bennie (24th round, East Stroudsburg State). Bennie’s five triples in 110 ABs was still the second most in the league. Jhonny Rodriguez saw a few games, but for the most part, 19-year-old Anthony Churlin (16th-round, Island Coast High School) took over as the starter in right once Bennie joined Vermont’s roster. Churlin, a highly touted prep prospect from Florida, flashed signs of the speed and hit tools that warranted his selection in the 16th round. There’s much to be excited about for him with more playing time next season.
Four college catchers from the draft spent significant time on the roster; each a strong defender with efficient footwork and a quick zip to second. After that, their additional strengths are individualized. Skyler Weber (18th-round, University of Georgia) gets on base and runs as if he doesn’t realize he’s a catcher. He stole five bases as a runner and stopped 11 from trying to steal. Roger Gonzalez (22nd-round, Winthrop University) is a switch-hitter who called his own games in college. Collin Theroux (32nd round, Oklahoma State) uses his height (6’2”) and agility to stop runners from crossing home plate. Jarrett Costa (33rd-round, Westmont College) is simply indestructible, and a real leader on the field.
In addition to the four rookies, Garrison mixed and matched returning catchers Miguel Guzman (21-year-old from the Dominican Republic) who owns the team’s only grand slam of the season, and Robert Mullen (20-year-old from Panama) who also saw time at first base.
The A’s had the fewest combined errors (66) with 29 different players. The Dodgers (75) had second fewest and the White Sox had the most with 134. Add that to the AZL A's standing with the second fewest strike outs as a team (446), fewest home runs given up by the staff (10) and tied for the fewest number of hit batters (25), you can see why this team had so much success in the win-loss column.
On a roster of extremes, there is no greater example than on the pitching staff. Returning teammates, newly drafted college seniors, young and green international signees, a rookie free agent strike thrower, a journeyman lefty free agent, a couple of rehabbers, and one top high school draft pick were all on Ozuna’s staff. The “tandem” or “piggy back” rotation was utilized each game. Two main pitchers are assigned a predetermined chunk of the game (pitch count or innings, whichever comes first) then relievers are called from the bullpen as needed.
Oakland is perennially known for its development of young pitchers, and the return of the brilliant, intuitive, pitching savant Gil Patterson ensures that reputation continues. Gil and the pitching coaches throughout the system communicate with the young pitchers, as if with one voice, using the same verbiage -- whether in English or Spanish -- and are impacting lives on a daily basis. The young pitchers on the AZL roster were fortunate to have rehab pitching coordinator, and former big league pitcher, Craig Lefferts at their disposal on a daily basis, in addition to Ozuna.
The starters were led by returning RHP Argenis Blanco, whose 60.2 innings pitched were the third-most in the league and his 2.52 ERA was 7th-best. Blanco’s start was a little rocky, but with perseverance and guidance, he eally finished the second half strong, allowing 10 earned runs in 52.2 innings pitched. He struck out 41 batters and walked 12.
The other starters include righty Oscar Tovar (18-year-old from Venezuela), Wandisson Charles (19-year-old from the Dominican Republic), Mitchell Jordan (10th-round pick, Stetson University), Skylar Szynski (4th-round pick, Penn High School), Daulton Jefferies (Comp A, Cal), Brandon Bailey (12th-round, Gonzaga University), Brandon Mann (signed as a free agent), Ivan Andueza (21-year-old from Venezuela), Miguel Sanchez (20-year-old from the Dominican Republic), Emerson Nelo (21-year -ld from Venezuela), Yeudy Minaya (20-year-old from the Dominican Republic), rehabbing lefty Kevin Duchene, and returnees Kevin Ferreras and Phillip Ortiz, who had a few rounds of discomfort which limited his season to only three games (3.2IP)
The relievers include: Seth Martinez (17th-round, Arizona State University), Matt Milburn (29th -ound, Wofford College), Nick Highberger (34th-round, Creighton) and Sam Sheehan (31st-round, Westmont College). Joseph Camacho (free agent, Alabama State) appeared in most games (19) and finished the most (14).
In addition to Webby and his coaching staff, there are those who work tirelessly throughout the year – and don’t get to leave Arizona when it gets hot…REALLY hot. A big round of applause to:
Athletic Trainer: Chris Lessner
Clubhouse: James Gibson, Chad Yaconetti, Thomas Miller, Matt Polakowski
Grounds Crew: Led by Chad Huss, Zack Ricketts
Video: Mark Smith, Max Kraust
Director of Minor League Operations: Ted Polakowski
Administrative Assistant: Nancy Moriuchi
June 29th: 16 runs allowed to the Brewers in the top of the 1st. Skylar Szynski’s debut was already scheduled to be fewer than 30 pitches, but a combination snowball / perfect storm led to a lot of runs allowed. Then the storms arrived and Mother Nature shortened the game to 7 innings. Watching Szynski that night and at each subsequent start, he is so good. The story of his professional debut will serve as inspiration to others as he shares it on the acceptance of, say, his third Cy Young award.
July 15th: at Fitch against the Rangers. Despite being on the same roster for the season, it wasn’t until this date when the Westmont College batterymates, who were drafted two rounds apart, finally got to work together. And though Westmont is a small private college near Santa Barbara, California, there were two alumnae with no connections or contact with that this AZL game to watch Sam Sheehan throw to Jarrett Costa. Each time they met in a game, it was like home.
August 29th: Season finale at the Cubs. A’s were eliminated; Cubs were 1st half champs, but our guys never gave up! Played as if it were the most important game of the year and won in 12 innings.
MOST MEMORABLE EVENT
The professional debut of every young player. No matter what else happens, nothing is more important or more memorable.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Yes, offensive numbers were great. He won the AZL Batting Title, and he should have also won the league MVP, especially when combining his offense with his defense. His defense is stellar and when paired with Casey Thomas at shortstop, there wasn’t a better double-play combo in the league.
My MVP of the 2016 season is, once again, the area scouts and supervisors who spend more time on the road than they do at home for nine-plus months a year. I’m fortunate to be one of the first to see the results of their efforts - right after the draft.