Photo by Kimberly Contreras

Oakland A's 2016 AFL season in review

Kimberly Contreras reviews the 2016 Arizona Fall League season with the focus on the Oakland A's contingent.

THE GUYS

The inaugural Arizona Fall League Championship Game took place in 1992 and the Sun Cities Solar Sox emerged the victors. In 2016, with the league celebrating its 25th year, it was only appropriate that the Mesa Solar Sox would defeat the Surprise Saguaros 6-1 to become the Arizona Fall League champions. Under the leadership of Oakland A’s minor league manager Ryan Christenson and behind Oakland’s ace-tandem starters Dylan Covey and Frankie Montas, the power bats of Cubs’ elite prospect Ian Happ and Marlins 3B masher Brian Anderson, it was “beautiful baseball” on the big stage. 

The 2016 version of the Solar Sox included prospects and staff from five organizations: the Blue Jays, Cubs, Indians, Marlins and, of course, the Athletics. Oakland’s rock star manager Christenson was tapped to lead a field staff as impressive as the roster. That staff included A’s trainer-extraordinaire Terrence Brannic and pitching coach Vince Horsman, who is currently with the Toronto Blue Jays, but was a lefty reliever for Oakland from 1992-94 – so, he gets partial A’s credit. Right-handers Sam Bragg, Trey Cochran-Gill, Covey and Montas and infielders Franklin Barreto, Yairo Munoz and Max Schrock represented the A’s organization on the field and shined bright when it mattered the most. And it all starts at the top: 

THE MANAGER 

Before the team’s first workout, Christenson said that all he really wanted to see for the 32-game season was “beautiful baseball.” Yes, there were task lists from each organization for their players, which the reigning Texas League Manager of the Year prioritized, but aside from those, he had no other expectation other than seeing “beautiful baseball.” This vision wasn’t always actualized, but Christenson’s humble but positive approach kept the team moving in the right direction all season.

All Ryan Christenson’s teams do is win. In only four full seasons at the helm of A’s minor league affiliates, Christenson’s teams have always made the post-season. The 2013 Beloit Snappers, his first team, made it to the semifinal round, after Covey shut down Clinton’s offense to send the Snappers to the next round. The Snappers would eventually fall to the Astros’ Quad Cities team, who eventually won the Midwest League title. The 2014 Stockton Ports had an outstanding regular season, but lost a heart-breaking, best-of-three games first-round series in the California League playoffs. The past two seasons have seen no such heart-break, as Christenson’s Midland RockHounds have taken home the 2015 and 2016 Texas League crowns.

Ryan, a centerfielder, was drafted out of Pepperdine by Oakland in the 10th round in 1995 and signed by Ron Vaughn – currently the A’s New York area scout. He made his big-league debut in 1998, where he batted seventh behind 39-year-old Rickey Henderson (6th), Jason Giambi (2nd ), Miguel Tejada (4th) and leadoff hitter and current Astros manager, A.J. Hinch.  Christenson roamed the Coliseum outfield until being traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001. Former Oakland teammate Gil Heredia was the pitching coach for Salt River; current or past A’s coaches Steve Connelly, Ed Sprague, Ariel Prieto and Eric Chavez were also teammates of Christenson on the A’s.

Christenson’s managerial resume is hard to top. In his first four years, he has a 323 – 236 regular season record and a 15-7 record in the post season, with two league titles. He also has one Texas League Manager of the Year title to his name. When you add in the Solar Sox stats, his record jumps to 339 – 251 – 1 (yes, 1 tie) = .558 winning percentage. 

THE PITCHERS

Six of Oakland’s seven AFL prospects were members of the 2016 RockHounds. Whether for full or part of the season, Sam Bragg, Trey Cochran-Gill, Dylan Covey, Franklin Barreto, Yairo Munoz and Max Schrock all played for Christenson this year. Frankie Montas did not, having come over in a mid-season trade while on the disabled list. He did face Midland once earlier in the season, however.

The four pitchers are as different in their personality types as they are in background and pitching styles. The common denominator: they’re all very good at their jobs. 

SAM BRAGG: Rule 5 eligible

Right-handed reliever from Marietta, Georgia. Drafted by Oakland in 2013 – 18th round out of Georgia Perimeter Junior College. Signed by area scout, and former Cubs farmhand, Jemel Spearman. The 23-year old’s three-pitch repertoire includes: fastball, change-up and his out-pitch, the curve. 

Final numbers for Mesa:

13.2 IP: 8 games, 11 hits, 3 runs (earned), 1 home run, BB, 12Ks

ERA 1.98 / WHIP 0.88 / WP  2 / BAA .220 / GOAO .80   51BF

His 0.88 WHIP tied teammate Montas for third lowest in the league. Allowed runs in only two of his eight outings.

Named to the Rising Stars Game and pitched one inning out of the bullpen. Sam is who Ryan Christenson and Vince Horsman would go to when they had a close lead to maintain – especially with runners on base and the lead was looking to be in jeopardy. He came in twice with bases loaded and did not allow an inherited run to score. One of many “bragg-worthy” examples this fall. 

Mention Sam’s name to anyone on the field or in the organization(s) this fall and the immediate response is the same: an involuntary almost-sweet smile accompanied by a confident, “yeah, he’s good.” The comment is supported by his production, but the response speaks volumes to his low-key, happy demeanor. Bragg is the one who would stand just outside of the bullpen with his hat loosely atop his head warming up the left fielder. Smiling. Only those in the batter’s box against him would argue that he was anything but pleasant to be around.

Spent the season in Midland, appearing in 65 innings in 36 games. Finished with a 4.74ERA. Bragg’s irst outing of the season was against Northwest Arkansas – the Royals affiliate. Part of a tandem starting rotation early in the year, he gave up eight runs, all earned in 4.1 innings in his season debut. Seven runs came off of 5 home runs including a solo shot by Raul Mondesi Jr, two solo blasts by Hunter Dozier, then Miguel Ramos and Bubba Starling each had a runner on base for when they hit theirs – Starling’s was his second of the game. Northwest Arkansas was a good team. The Royals were represented this fall on the Surprise squad and Surprise and Mesa were destined to weave through the fall league together. It started in the Texas League; where the two teams battled for the championship, and where Midland emerged the victor. Sam faced them two more times in the regular season, then once in the championship round; they’ve got his number.

Other than that first outing – and a subsequent meeting against the same team – Bragg had a very solid season. His season really turned around starting in mid-May after a DL stint and a return to his familiar role as a reliever. Despite the rough April, it may have been the best thing to happen to Sam’s career. In times of struggle, we are tested and Sam passed with an A+.,

Fast forward to his first outing of the Arizona Fall League against the Glendale Desert Dogs. The first batter he faces pulls a two-strike curveball for a hard-hit, line-drive ground-rule double to left; but ultimately doesn’t score. If the double had had any lift to it, that ball would have been long gone. Whew. In his second inning of work, Bragg allowed White Sox prospect Danny Hayes to hit a first pitch fastball for an opposite field home run. Bragg followed it up by striking out the next two batters to end the inning. 

Bragg’s demeanor on the mound was as calm and controlled after the ground rule double and the home run as it was when he struck out his fifth batter in two innings. As if he hadn’t already won the hearts of all in the press box when he took a recommendation made to all of Mesa’s relievers to immediately turn their back to the press box so that his name and number were easily identified (which he, alone, did in each outing) but for those who well-remembered his first outing in April, there was one common thought: Sam Bragg is a winner. 

Oh, and that home run to Danny Hayes? Turned out to be the only home run allowed this fall by the Oakland staff  - combined for 69 innings.

Gil Patterson, the A’s minor league pitching coordinator, sums up the reliever in seven simple words: “He just keeps getting better and better…” Yep.

Though in April, you never would have guessed it would turn out this way, but 2016 was a breakout season for Spearman’s first-ever signing. 

RULE 5 tidbit: Bragg was a solid, switch-hitting position player throughout his prep career at Wheeler High School in Marietta, Georgia. Scouting reports have him listed as a natural lefty at the plate. His junior and senior totals were as follows:  31 games, 101ABs,  31R, 41H, 32 RBI, 20 doubles, 2 triples, 6 home runs, 8BBs, 18Ks, OBP  .464, OPS .821.

TREY COCHRAN-GILL: NRI this spring

The 24-year-old (as of December 10th,) right-handed reliever from Montgomery, Alabama was drafted by Seattle in 2014 – 17th round out of Auburn. He was signed by area scout Dustin Evans and joined the A’s last December when he was traded for RHP Evan Scribner. Cochran-Gill (spelled with 2 “L” s) was highly regarded as a sinker / slider strike-thrower. He added a cut fastball to his arsenal in 2016, thanks to another Gil (hold the extra “L”, please), as in Patterson, of course.

Groundballs aplenty for the 5’10” righty who, as he did with Midland, got three groundball outs to every air out with Mesa. With the thin, dry Arizona air, keeping the ball on the ground is quite helpful. His 1.84 ERA reflected that.  

Final numbers for Mesa:

14.2IP 10 G/ 14H 5R 3E 0HR 2BB 14K   GO/AO  2.22 – TOP 10 IN AFL.  ERA 1.84  WHIP 1.09  BAA .246  60BF

As a reliever with the RockHounds, in the rain-soaked (and delayed) final game of the Texas League championship against Northwest Arkansas, Cochran-Gill entered the game in the 7th inning with bases-loaded, no outs. He induced a groundball giving up a run for the double play, and got the next batter to fly out to centerfield to bring the inning to a close. He returned for the 8th where he quickly struck out the first two batters and got the third out on a first pitch groundout, delivering the ninth to closer Jake Sanchez, who finished the game and the RockHounds were three-peat Texas League Champions.

In his second appearance for Mesa, at home against Surprise, Cochran-Gill entered the game with a 10-2 lead in the 9th inning and promptly hit the first batter with his first pitch, who went to third on a double and scored on a single, and another run scored with one out. Pitching coach Vince Horsman made a visit to the mound before the next batter grounded into a game-ending 6-4-3 double play. Mesa won the game, 10-4. But it was not Trey’s best outing of the fall. Horsman and assistant pitching coach former big league starter with the Padres and Mets, Brian Lawrence, discussed additional ways that Trey could get himself back on track when he sees he is heading elsewhere.

 “Trey is so good,” Horsman said. “He understands the game, and more importantly he understands *his* game.”

A few weeks later, the young righty had the chance to put his new skill to the test. He entered the game in the 8th with Mesa trailing 14-2 against Salt River, who had the bases loaded. After three runs scored – only one credited to Trey – he returned for the 9th and took the mound with confidence and retired the side on 11 pitches – including two strike outs.  This is the type of “fight” you want to see from your pitcher; and it’s just what was expected by those who drafted him in 2014 and who were high on him after seeing him the Cape Cod League the year before as part of the Brewster White Caps. If the Mariners needed additional incentive to draft him, Trey, along with his father, Eric, flew to Seattle on their own initiative and dime – to participate in a pre-draft workout. Clearly, it worked; Seattle saw a young man who would take whatever steps necessary not be afraid to make the extra effort to be a member of their organization. Now it’s Oakland that will benefit from it. Intangibles matter.

DYLAN COVEY: (COH’-vee) Rule 5 eligible

Right handed pitcher from Southern California. Drafted by Oakland in 2013 – 4th round pick, from the University of San Diego. Signed by his former club ball coach, Eric Martins. First drafted by Milwaukee in 2010 in the first round, but did not sign. The 25-year-old throws five pitches: four seam, sinker, cutter, curve and the split change – his out pitch.

Final regular-season numbers for Mesa –

24.2IP 6 games 28 H, 13R(E) 0HR 8BB 17K  2WP GO/AO 1.19  BAA .280  ERA: 4.74  WHIP 1.19 = faced 111 batters

Championship game: If you didn’t see it, it’s your loss. Maaaan, he was good!!  5IP 1H 1R (1ER) BB 3K on 59 pitches with 6 groundball outs/2 in the air. And really, if Franklin Barreto had been at short instead of second base, he makes the play that saves Dylan’s portion of a repeat no-hitter against Surprise. If you did see the game, you know what I’m saying.

Dylan broke camp in April as a starter for the Midland RockHounds and was pitching well through five starts. Then, on May 8th,  after striking out then-Rangers slugger Lewis Brinson in the 1st to set down the side in order, Covey left the game with an oblique issue. Although he didn’t know it at the time, his season had come to an end. Much to the immediate frustration of its young players, Oakland always sides on being uber-cautious where the health of their boys is concerned. So, packed with disappointment and frustration of what should have been his breakout season, Dylan returned to Arizona to rehab, rest and get focused on returning in the fall.

The typically even-keeled Covey is no stranger to adversity. And his fortitude was never more prevalent than it was in June 2010. As a senior at Pasadena’s Maranatha High School, Covey was widely regarded as an elite pitching prospect, whose control of both plus pitches – fastball and a power curve – as well as solid execution of his changeup, led him to be projected to go in the first round of the 2010 draft. The Milwaukee Brewers called his name with the 14th pick overall. One pick ahead of him, the White Sox chose some lefty from Florida Gulf Coast named Chris Sale.

Throughout his senior year at Maranatha, Covey lost some weight and found himself more tired than usual, and try as he might, his “stuff” wasn’t as solid as it had been even the year before. Everything was easily attributed to senior year activities, etc.

Martins, who is currently the A’s Triple-A hitting coach but had served many years as a scout, has known Covey for many years and coached his club ball team.

“Dylan was always one of the most athletic kids I’ve ever coached,” Martins said. “Quarterback on his high school football team, also played a solid 3B and was always asking to be in the game if he wasn’t on the mound. Healthy, strong – mentally and physically.”

With that in mind, imagine the surprise when Dylan was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes via a blood test administered as part of draft workout. At the time, Covey reached out to then-Blue Jays pitcher Brandon Morrow, who had also been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes after his senior year of high school. Covey made the decision to forego professional baseball and uphold his verbal commitment to attend the University of San Diego. Rumors about the decision coming down to money differences with Milwaukee were squashed once he shared the reason behind what is now the best decision of his life.

Endocrinologists insist that if an early Type 1 diagnosis is met with a firm commitment to incorporating some behavior modifications, there is no limit to what a person can do. Proper nutrition and exercise, self-testing for insulin levels several times throughout the day, every single day for the rest of your life – and partnering with a trusted medical provider, is part of Covey’s daily life and has been for more than six years. The steps are simple, though not easy to make initially, and It’s his standard of “normal”. He says that the only time he thinks about his condition is when he’s asked about it.

Three years - and three rounds - later, Covey’s name was called in the draft again. This time by the Oakland A’s.

Of Covey’s six AFL outings, he faced the Surprise Saguaros 50% of the time – add in the championship game and Surprise saw Covey in four of his seven outings. They could never figure him out. However, it will be Covey’s outing in Surprise on November 1 that will be the most acclaimed of the fall. That was when he threw the first half of the third-ever combined no-hitter in AFL history. For his part, Covey threw 44 pitches in five innings, with a walk and a strike out mixed in. Dylan didn’t feel like he had his best stuff, but what he did throw to the plate was enough for Surprise batters to register 11 groundball outs and only two in the air.

When it aligned for Mesa and Surprise to battle for the title, Dylan was ready to lead his team to victory, especially after learning the day before that he was not added to the A’s 40-man roster, making him eligible to be selected on December 8th in the Rule 5 draft. Covey was on his way to no-hitting Surprise again until one out in the 5th inning a groundball made its way past the shortstop and into left field for a single. I stand by the fact that if Franklin Barreto had been playing shortstop, that play is made and Covey goes five hitless again.

But it was his November 14th outing against Glendale that was hands-down, the most impressive. From his first warm-up pitch from the mound, it was clear this wouldn’t be his best outing. Thanks to great plays made by his teammates, Glendale only had one run on the board through two innings. The first batter faced in the third hit a hard liner to centerfield for a triple and promptly scored on the relay throw. With couple of more hits allowed with no one out, Covey was starting to wobble to the point where someone was getting loose in the bullpen. Then, as Willie Calhoun’s name was announced, Dylan visibly gathered himself, took the mound and with one I dare you to hit this pitch, got Calhoun to line out to right field. His posture and demeanor had noticeably changed. He went on to strike out the next two batters on a total of seven pitches.

It was awesome. And the best part was that Covey brought himself back into mental and physical alignment. No visit from his pitching coach or from his battery mate – Toronto’s outstanding catcher, Danny Jansen. Just Dylan.

When Covey returned for the 4th, he gave up a double (which should have been caught) to the leadoff batter. The next pitch allowed the batter to take 3rd and was ruled as a Wild Pitch. The runner later scored. Covey’s strong body language and inner-confidence remained intact, and when the third out was made and Covey’s day was done, it took everything I had to not give him a standing ovation. The way Covey responded to his outing was exactly how you would want your ace to behave. Every out stronger – in some way – than the one before, give me THAT fight, that fortitude every game – which he does – and I’m all in.

Horsman agreed. 

“Every pitcher goes through things. He grinded and competed, grinded, competed,” Horsman said. “Not everything falls into place, nice and tidy. Sometimes you’ve got to fight and that’s what I like about Dylan, he’s got some fight in him.” 

I will remember this game, and specifically the 3rd and 4th innings for a very long time. 

FRANKIE MONTAS, 40-man roster member

Right handed pitcher from Sainagua, Dominican Republic. Signed by the Boston Red Sox in 2010. Traded to White Sox in 2013 – with J.B. Wendelken – for Jake Peavy, Traded to Dodgers in December 2015 as part of the three-team trade sending Todd Frazier to Chicago. Traded again, this time to the A’s, at this year’s deadline along with Jharel Cotton and Grant Holmes for Rich Hill and Josh Reddick.

The 23-year-old Montas is listed at 6’2”, 255lbs and has a true arsenal of weapons, five of them including: a four-seam fastball, two-seam, slider, change-up and (surprise surprise!) a recently added cutter (the Gil Effect). While the reputation of his triple-digit fireball preceded him, make no mistake; Montas is not one-dimensional. He uses all his pitches; his strategy isn’t just blow it past them every chance he gets, although that approach has worked from time to time. If you ask Frankie, he’ll tell you his fastball is usually 97-98. He’s erring on the conservative side. I had him at 102 on his second pitch in an A’s uniform. The legend lives on. 

His WHIP, tied for 3rd with teammate Sam Bragg.

17IP ERA 0.53  WHIP 0.88  7H 2R 1E 8BB 9Ks  GO/AO 1.24  BAA .132  62 BF 

Championship game:

3IP, H, BB, 5Ks

In February 2016, shortly after being traded to the Dodgers, Frankie had his top right rib removed (rib resection procedure) to prevent an increase in severity from a stress reaction to a stress fracture, caused by the muscle, tendon applying consistent stress to the bone (rib). This is the same procedure that then-Dodger Josh Beckett had in 2013 (by the same surgeon, as well).

Frankie started his abbreviated seven-outing season three months later, on May 22nd with the Dodgers’ Double-A affiliate for three starts, and then he moved up to Triple-A for four starts before heading back to the disabled list and ending his 2016 season for precautionary measures in late June. Interesting to note: two of his seven outings were against Oakland affiliates; one at each level. And it’s no wonder the A’s wanted him included in the trade: in a combined 5.2IP, his future teammates tapped him for only two hits and one run, while he struck out 10.

Fully rested and healed and dispelling any concerns about his health / durability, Montas was better and stronger in each outing, throwing his last pitch of the outing harder than he did with his first. He teamed with tandem partner Covey to be the brick wall for Mesa every six or so days. One opposing batter joked that it felt as if there were two strikes on you just hearing your name announced when facing the dynamic duo.

He was the pitcher of record on the Nov. 1 no-hitter against Surprise, and it was his second no-hitter in 14 months. The first, however, he threw seven no-hit innings in the first game of a double-header on 77 pitches as a member of the White Sox Double-A team. Maybe the most impressive part is the opponent he stifled: the Cubs Double-A affiliate, and the lineup included some familiar names such as Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras, Albert Almora, Dan Vogelbach, etc. Shortly after he got the call to the big leagues and he made his MLB debut vs Twins on 9/2/15: 1IP, all zeros. 

Horsman and Lawrence would discuss the plan for each outing with the pitchers, and always included the catcher of the day. “We challenged him to throw more change ups; gave goals to shoot for,” Horsman said. “Execute pitches, live with the results. He has a three-pitch mix – fastball, slider, and a change-up that needs to get on par with the slider. He can work throwing his change-up in situations where he wouldn’t do so normally, but he’s learning and improving so that he can throw it when it counts and at the right time to be effective.”

THE POSITION PLAYERS  

FRANKLIN BARRETO: 40-man roster member

Right-handed hitting, middle infielder from Caracas, Venezuela. Signed by Toronto 2012 at the age of 16 and, at age 17, reported directly to the Gulf Coast League and dominated. Then in December 2014, after taking the Northwest League by storm as an 18-year-old, he was the main piece – even more so than big leaguer Brett Lawrie – in the trade that sent Josh Donaldson to Toronto. The 5’10”, 200 pound 20-year-old has solid power potential and astute base-running skills. On the field, he’s fun to watch, and even being so muscular, is quite light on his feet. Although he has been a career shortstop, and played there for most of the games this fall, he looks to be more comfortable and is more productive at second base, where he played for five of his 21 games.

21 GAMES (16SS/ 4SECOND, DH)  88AB  15R  23 H   6 2B 8 RBI  2 BB 21 K 3 SB 2 CS   OBP .290  SLG .330  OPS .620 2 HBP  7E.  While the numbers themselves aren’t stellar, he did lead the team in base hits and had a .357 average when he put the ball in play (BABIP).

Christenson, who was Barreto’s skipper for nearly all of 2016, taps into core of each player to learn what makes him tick. Barreto is no exception. Post-Midland / pre-Mesa, the skipper was clear about the fact that Franklin’s struggles for the first half of the Double-A season were because he was trying to do too much.  

“He was swinging at everything,” Chrisenson said.

Once Barreto relaxed and allowed himself to just “be”, his production exploded. 

“It’s just a matter of discipline. Once he learned to wait for his pitch – and then not miss it – he came into his own,” Christenson said.

Barreto did so well during the second half of the season that the 20-year-old joined the Triple-A Nashville Sounds in September and immediately contributed to their success in the playoffs. A month later, reporting to Mesa in October was the equivalent to starting a new level in Barreto’s world. Despite having the comfort and trust of Christenson at the helm, Barreto tried to do a little too much at first. Just as he had at each level of promotion, and – importantly – as he did in the 2015 off-season when he played in 35 games – all at the number field 8 position and lineup - with the Aguilas de Zulia. His sub .200 average in the Venezuelan Winter League last year did not determine his success in 2016, and neither will his Fall League production predict his 2017 season.

For just a moment, put yourself in Barreto’s shoes: just after being able to buy a ticket to an “R” rated move, you’re involved in a big trade…and though you’re the youngest and least experienced, you are the true centerpiece. Oh… and the guy you’re traded for is BELOVED by an educated, opinionated and passionate fan base who are distraught for losing one of their favorite – most productive players – of all time, and essentially forgoing relevance in the upcoming season. Not enough pressure? Ok. How about the guy you’re traded for has an incredible first year with his new team – puts up incredible numbers – with his bat and on the field – and is named the league’s Most Valuable Player. How’s your breathing? Maybe you’d feel a little pressure too? Remember, though kids like Barreto and his peers are incredible ball players, they are no different from anyone else. If you don’t respect the challenges Franklin and his childhood best friend, Gleyber Torres, face, just imagine yourself in their shoes. And don’t even mention the money. That’s irrelevant at this point. Would there be less pressure if he had been traded for a lesser player? We won’t ever know. But if at the start of each season, at each new level, he tries just a little too hard or tries to do a little too much at first, it’s understandable.

Defensively, the errors especially from the shortstop position, have decreased each season at a significant rate. And that improvement can be traced, in large part, to Oakland’s minor league defensive coordinator: a wise, distinguished gentleman in every sense of the word, Juan Navarrette.

I had never talked with “Frankie” until this fall. Watching him interact with his “new” teammates – on the field in warm-ups, as well as in the dugout – it was easy to like him. Our initial conversations (in Spanish) were brief but insightful. The more I watched him, the more we interacted and the more respect I had for this young man. When I went to talk with him and Yairo Munoz amidst all the excitement of winning the East Division, my brain froze – couldn’t think of one word in Spanish that I wanted to use, and my English command wasn’t much better. The sweet kid saved me. He took the initiative – in English, to verbally jump start things, and never lost focus – didn’t look around. That simple gesture will stay with me.

YAIRO MUÑOZ: (pronounced with a hard J – “JAI-roh” and please don’t forget the “ñ“) 40-man roster member

Right-handed hitting infielder from Nagua in the Dominican Republic. Signed by Oakland in 2012, just after his 17th birthday. Spent his first professional season in the DSL; 2013 brought him stateside playing in the Arizona League; 2014 in Vermont; 2015 split between Beloit and Stockton; 2016 with Midland.

“Mooney” as Bob Hards, the legendary voice of Midland RockHounds calls him, missed the first month of the season with a leg injury sustained during spring training. Once healthy, he played half of his games at shortstop, and the other half were split between third base and second . His manager was happy with his defense output.

“He was great for us at all three positions,” Christenson said.

Christenson went on to say that the focus for Munoz with the Solar Sox was to, “clean up his approach at the plate and increase his pitch recognition.”  

In the 21 games, Yairo did, in fact, improve. His results:

(18 games at 3rd, 1 at SS, 2 DH)

74 AB 8R  20H  3 2B  2 3B  7 RBI 5 BB  17 K  3 SB 0 CS OBP .313  SLG .365  OPS  .677 4E;  BABIP .367

On Saturday, October 22nd, there was a buzz throughout Sloan Park for Mesa’s night game against Salt River. Most people will tell you it was because Schwarber was in the lineup for the home Solar Sox. But insiders know it was for the arrival of Navarrette. The defensive wizard was in uniform for the first of a series of games; observing, working with the three Oakland position players. Like his pitching counterpart, Patterson, when Navarrette speaks, you stop what you’re doing and absorb every morsel of wisdom shared – no matter what it’s about. 

Muñoz knows the words of Navarrette’s wisdom quite well from spring training, early work, running the same drills that Ron Washington put the big leaguers through every morning, and taking the initiative to improve with extra work on a regular basis. The difference between Muñoz in spring training and in the Fall League was completely obvious. His overall maturity and improvement on defense were noticeable from the first day of workouts. I’ve seen Mooney an awful lot through the years, and I couldn’t be more impressed by how he’s developed. When I mentioned this to him in a casual conversation, he promptly deflected the praise and gave credit to his manager for his patience and trust.

As if that weren’t enough, if there were a “Mr. Congeniality” award in the Fall League, it would be renamed the Yairo Muñoz Award. The smile that never fades, the handshakes and hugs to seemingly every visiting player, and the near-jubilant – and appropriate – cheering of his teammates, combined with the all-out effort on the field makes the almost 22-year-old worthy of recognition.

“Mooney is a young 21,” Christenson said. “He’s come a long way this year; it’s time for him to continue to grow.”

There aren’t enough heart-emojis in the world for relationships like this.

MAX SCHROCK NRI to spring training

Left-handed hitter – right handed thrower. Drafted by the Washington Nationals, 13th round in 2015 out of South Carolina, signed by Paul Faulk. Traded to Oakland on August 25th for Marc Rzepczynski, assigned to the Stockton Ports for two games before heading to Midland for their championship run. Transitioned nicely onto the Mesa RockHounds … I mean Solar Sox. The lifetime second baseman was added to the Mesa roster a few weeks after the initial rosters were released, replacing Matt Chapman who was removed from the fall roster to spend a normal off-season recuperating after playing a career-high number of games. Schrock was a priority player at second base in the fall, but his hamstring had other plans. He ultimately only saw time in only 13 games, but anyone who saw him on the field or at the plate knew that a special player had been added to the green and gold family. 

11 games at 2nd base, 54 AB 4 R  15 H  5 2B 1 3B 10 RBI 1 BB  2K 1SB  OBP .304 SLG .407 OPS .711 2E  1 HBP

Schrock is still new to the organization, and to the A’s fan base, and while my introduction to him only goes back to this past summer, it left an impression. I was locked in on the June 29th game between the Potomac Nationals and Winston-Salem Dash. As a die-hard supporter of Dash’s starter Jordan Stephens, Schrock caused me some serious angst, starting with his first at-bat and in the sixth inning when he hit his first Carolina League home run. From that game forward, any time I saw Schrock come to the plate my involuntary response was, “Ugh.” Because I knew he was going to do something to one of “my” pitchers, and I was right.

You remember the guys who elicit such a response – and a record to validate it. So, when I saw the A’s had traded FOR him, I was elated! Now someone else can bemoan his presence at the plate knowing he won’t go away quietly, if at all.

In his first game as a member of the Oakland A’s, Max and his teammates on the Stockton Ports, became part of history: playing in the final regular season game ever at Sam Lynn Ballpark, in Bakersfield, California on August 28th. In addition to making history, Schrock made his hitter-savvy presence known before joining the Midland RockHounds for their championship run. Max said the only thing better than walking into the clubhouse and seeing his good friend and former college teammate, Joel Seddon, was being able to play behind him again and win a championship together.

 “He made a wonderful first impression,” Christenson said. “It’s hard to not be impressed with a guy who finished the season with almost 200 hits on the season, especially when you see how great he swings the bat. He’s an aggressive hitter, working on his discipline – will become more of a doubles hitter.” 

My first exchange with 5’8”, 180 pound second baseman was on the first day of workouts. His birthdate listed in AFL materials differed from what showed elsewhere. When I asked if he would turn 22 on Wednesday (October 12), he stopped in his tracks and sat down next to me. He had to think about it. This young man was in a whirlwind for six weeks that he did something only people twice his age start to do: forget about their birthday.

Since I had him there, I decided to confirm other details on his player information page. Most of it was correct, except for the fact that he was born in Bremerton, WA (not Tacoma) before moving to Chapel Hill at age three, giving his Southern accent time to develop. I really like this young man. He is very bright, personable and well-spoken. His dad is an engineer with the Environmental Protection Agency and his mom, who holds a Ph.D. in educational psychology, is a professor at Meredith College in Raleigh. With that kind of DNA, odds are good that he will finish his degree in Business Management.

In today’s baseball world, where striking out 200 times in a season isn’t anything big, Schrock is on the other side of things. In 534 at-bats in 2016, he struck out only 42 times and racked up 177 hits. Outstanding numbers, made even better when you watch him at the plate. But his manager knows how much better he will be once he learned a little more discipline and does strike out a little more.

“When he understands, his pitch is coming; and to wait for it; even with two strikes and maybe it means a few more strike outs, he’s going to hit with more power, and hit more doubles, because of it,” Christenson said.


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