Since making the postseason back in 2013 under then-manager Ryan Christenson, it has been a long three seasons for the Oakland A’s Midwest League affiliate in Beloit. The Snappers have finished well out of the playoff hunt and near the cellar of the Western Division in each of those three seasons.
But good news is on the way in the form of new manager Scott Steinmann, who enters the A’s organization with an impressive resume from his days with Seattle. The skipper is coming off perhaps his best season yet managing in the minor leagues, leading Beloit’s division rival Clinton to the Midwest League championship series in 2016.
Clinton’s postseason run was fueled largely by a veteran group of players, and Steinmann inherits a Beloit squad with a good mix of returners and promising prospects ascending through the organization. Also returning to the mix is hitting coach Juan Dilone, who worked in the same role on Fran Riordan’s staff last season. Carlos Chavez will move to a full-season affiliate for the first time as the pitching coach.
The Snappers open the 2017 season on Thursday night with the first of four games against Western Division rival Cedar Rapids. The first of those two contests will be in Beloit, and final pair in Cedar Rapids.
As is the theme throughout the roster, the infield features a mix of returning players and first-year prospects.
Infielders Edwin Diaz and Trace Loehr are back in the mix for a second season. A 15th-round selection in the 2013 draft out of Puerto Rico, Diaz is in his fourth full season in the organization. The shortstop played in 92 games last season and slashed .236/.311/.331. Diaz had a good first half in 2016, including a May slashline of .303/.380/.438, but seemed to wear down during the stretch run. One of the top defensive middle infielders in the A’s organization, Diaz is faced with the challenge of being more consistent on the offensive side.
Although this will be his third full season in the A’s system after being drafted in the sixth round of the 2014 draft, Loehr is still just 21-years-old and could be the first one in the group to move when an opening at High-A Stockton presents itself. The Oregon native played in 103 games last season for Beloit and put together a slash line of .249/.292/.350. Loehr’s batting average didn’t get above the Mendoza line until more than two months into the season, but he did finish the year well by hitting .333 or better during the months of August and September.
While it may be difficult for Diaz and Loehr to deal with the return to Low-A ball, Steinmann says they can’t let it affect their production on the field.
“There is some depth at the upper levels in the middle of the field and even on the corner with [Matt] Chapman being at Triple-A and being a big prospect within the organization,” Steinmann said. “But at any point in time, those things can change. A guy going to the big leagues opens up room. A guy getting traded opens up room. A guy getting hurt opens up room for advancement. Those things happen quick. We want to stay with a smaller picture of where you’re at right now, doing the best you can and moving forward.”
Eric Marinez and Nate Mondou will join Diaz and Loehr to form a four-man rotation for three infield positions. Marinez spent all of 2016 at short-season Vermont, where he slashed .251/.261/.332 in 60 games. The 2013 international signing out of the Dominican Republic seemed to find his stride during the month of August, where he posted a .264 batting average. Marinez can move around the infield.
Mondou also competed in 60 games with the Lake Monsters last season, but found much more success at the plate. The 2016 13th-round selection out of Wake Forest slashed .298/.375/.364. The Washington native had a huge month of July in which he put up a .386/.449/.443 line. He will likely see the bulk of his playing time at second base.
A pair of Snappers figure to get most of the time at first base: Miguel Mercedes and Kyle Nowlin. Dominican Republic native Mercedes moves up after a successful campaign at short-season Vermont in which he bashed 12 home runs and drove in 43 runs. During his 67 games with the Lake Monsters, Mercedes posted a slash line of .258/.334/.448. The 2016 season was a huge breakout for Mercedes, who didn’t hit higher than .221 in any of his previous three seasons in the organization.
Nowlin, a 2016 21st-round selection out of Eastern Kentucky, will be skipping Vermont to join Beloit and open the 2017 season. The 23-year-old spent last summer with the AZL A’s and compiled a slash line of .260/.389/.383. He was previously an outfielder but is making the move to first base.
“Mercedes and Nowlin will both have some power potential,” Steinmann said. “Nowlin was an outfielder, so moving into the infield is a new challenge for him and we’ll take that a little slow. He’ll get in there. Mercedes was in Vermont last year, put up some decent numbers and did a good job developing himself as a hitter. When one of those guys isn’t playing first base, they’re going to DH.”
Barrera forced his way into the Beloit lineup last summer after slashing .321/.379/.421 in 41 games at Vermont. Getting his first taste of full-season ball during a 19-game stint, Barrera held his own with a .286/.320/.443 slash line. The 21-year-old native of the Dominican Republic spent much of the spring with the A’s High-A team in Arizona, but changes up and down the organization in the final days pushed him back to Beloit for another season.
Before suffering a season-ending injury in mid-July, Martin was having a solid first season with a full-season affiliate. In 34 games with the Snappers, the 2015 33rd-round selection out of Harvard posted a slash line of .298/.372/.347. Martin had arrived in Beloit from Extended Spring Training and carved out a role as the team’s lead-off hitter prior to the setback.
“[Barrera and Martin] know the league a little bit,” he said. “Hopefully that brings a little bit of stability with knowing the ballparks. Even off-field stuff with knowing the league as far as food, workouts, hotels and travel. Those guys coming back for that second year, whether it’s just a couple months, they get a better feel and a little more confidence. Hopefully that will spread throughout the rest of the outfield and be able to bridge the gap between the mistakes that young players do make.”
A fifth-round pick in last year’s draft out of Kentucky, Shelby brings some major-league bloodlines to the mix as his father is former 10-year veteran John Shelby. The 21-year-old struggled mightily during his first taste of professional baseball, slashing just .186/.279/.309 in 56 games at Vermont. However, Shelby did flash some power during his time in the New York-Penn League, hitting five homers and driving in 18 runs. A third baseman in college, Shelby moved to centerfield during the fall Instructional League and impressed in his new position.
The 23-year-old Gruber is being afforded the opportunity to skip Vermont after being drafted in the 27th-round of last year’s draft out of Nebraska-Omaha, where he is the school’s career stolen bases leader. Gruber slashed .214/.346/.294 in 35 games last summer with the AZL A’s.
Like Beloit’s manager Steinmann, catcher Jason Goldstein is entering the A’s organization by way of Seattle. The 2016 ninth-round selection out of Illinois was sent to Oakland as part of the Dillon Overton off-season trade. Goldstein slashed .279/.328/.311 in 19 games split between the AZL Mariners and short-season Everett last season and missed time with an injury.
After helping Oklahoma State to the College World Series last summer, catcher Collin Theroux signed with the A’s as a 32-round selection. He struggled at the plate, slashing just .094/.226/.170 in 18 games split between the AZL A’s and Beloit.
“They’re both kind of in the same boat,” Steinmann said of Goldstein and Theroux. “They’re both really good catch-and-throw guys that have some hit potential. I think they’re going to bring a lot to our club defensively, because they’re mature catchers that handle pitching staffs well. I think they’re both going to get a lot of opportunities to play, sharing playing time.”
The top Oakland prospect on Beloit’s opening-day roster is starting pitcher Dakota Chalmers. A third-round selection in the 2015 draft out of a Georgia high school, the 6'3'' right-hander has been brought along slowly by the organization. Chalmers compiled a 5-4 record and 4.70 ERA in 15 games (13 starts) for short-season Vermont last summer. The power right-hander is looking for improved command during his second full season in the minors, as his K:BB rate in 67 innings last season was 62:37.
Beloit’s staff will open the 2016 season with four two-man tandem starter pairs. Joining Chalmers in the second tandem is returning Beloit pitcher Michael Murray, who made 12 Low-A starts last season and pitched to a 4.28 ERA and 53:13 K:BB rate in 61 innings. Murray also mixed in three starts with High-A Stockton in 2016, but wasn’t as successful. He won one of those three starts and posted a 7.62 ERA, striking out nine and walking seven in 13 innings of work.
The Opening Night tandem for the Snappers will consist of Brendan Butler and Ty Damron. Like Murray, Butler is also returning to the pitching staff in Beloit. The 2015 30th-rounder out of a small college in New York, Butler made nine starts and pitched to a 3.14 ERA with a 46:15 K:BB rate in 51.2 innings. The right-hander also pitched in seven games at the short-season level and made two relief appearances at High-A Stockton.
Damron was a 15th-round selection out of Texas Tech in last season’s draft. The 6'2'' left-hander struggled in his first taste of pro ball, posting a 5.06 ERA in 10 relief appearances at Vermont. He had a 15:9 K:BB rate in 16 innings.
The third Beloit starting tandem is composed of full-season ball newcomers Brandon Bailey and Matthew Milburn. A sixth-round pick out of Gonzaga last June, Bailey made seven starts and five relief appearances across two levels after signing with Oakland. He combined to post a 2.93 ERA in 43 innings, finishing with a 46:10 K:BB rate with Vermont and the AZL A’s.
Wofford University product Milburn was drafted in the 29th-round in 2016 and worked mostly out of the bullpen with Vermont and the AZL A’s. He appeared in 14 games, starting two, pitching to a 4.66 ERA and finishing with an outstanding 44:2 K:BB rate in 36.2 innings. Although opposing hitters didn’t get many free passes against Milburn, they compiled a .379 batting average against him in short-season ball.
Rounding out the tandem rotation is the duo of Boomer Biegalski and Dalton Sawyer. A 14th-round selection in 2015 out of Florida State, Biegalski figured to get the call to High-A Stockton this spring but is instead back at the level where he was an All-Star in 2016. The tall right-hander posted a 3.70 ERA in 28 games (25 starts). He finished with a 115:38 K:BB rate in a team-high 153.1 innings. After a couple of rough months in June and July, Biegalski finished his first full professional season well with a 3.12 ERA and 34:10 K:BB rate in 34.2 August innings.
A newcomer to the organization last summer after the A’s drafted him in the ninth round out of Minnesota, Sawyer finished with a 3.38 ERA and 26:10 K:BB rate in 18.2 innings of relief at Vermont. He recorded saves in three of his 14 games.
First-year Snapper pitching coach Carlos Chavez is excited about the potential of his eight-man group that will split starting duties.
“It’s an innings thing,” said Chavez. “They’re all young guys. Some are first full season and some are going on their second full season. It’s not to limit their innings, but to make sure they don’t go past the inning limit we have for them for this season. I’m excited about all of them. I’ve had all of them at some point in their career since they signed, either in extended or in Vermont. I’m really looking forward to seeing them all.”
Rounding out the 13-man pitching staff in Beloit are relievers Xavier Altamirano, Heath Bowers. Andrew Tomasovich, Will Gilbert and Nick Highberger. According to Chavez, Altamirano, Bowers and Tomasovich will be available to pitch multiple innings on any given night, while the duo of Gilbert and Highberger will share the closer duties.
Altamirano was a member of Beloit’s Opening Day roster as a tandem starter one year ago, and went on to pitch in eight games. He posted a 2-4 record and 4.85 ERA with a 18:11 K:BB rate in 26 innings. However, an injury forced Altamirano to return to Arizona for rehab. Once he was cleared, the right-hander moved on to short-season Vermont and posted a 3.22 ERA in 14 appearances (nine starts) with a K:BB rate of 57:10 in 65.1 innings.
A 24th-round selection in 2015 out of Campbell College, Bowers has pitched in 30 games (16 starts) combined over the past two summers at Vermont. The 6'4'' right-hander will finally get his first taste of full-season ball after going 3-7 with a 4.31 ERA in 71 innings last year.
A 23-year-old left-hander who was selected in the 21st round of the 2015 draft out of Charleston Southern, Tomasovich is once again headed to Beloit, where he made 33 relief appearances last season. He posted a 5.67 ERA and 50:26 K:BB rate in 39.2 innings.
Upon signing with the A’s last year as an eighth-rounder out of NC State, Gilbert was a bright spot out of the Lake Monsters bullpen. The 5'11'' left-hander made 15 relief appearances, posting a 2.81 ERA and 31:12 K:BB rate in 25.2 innings.
A 30th-round selection last June out of Creighton, Highberger made 17 relief appearances for the AZL A’s. In 26.2 innings of work out of the bullpen, the right-hander compiled a 18:7 K:BB rate. Oakland also called on him briefly to pitch at High-A Stockton in September, where Highberger allowed just two hits in four scoreless innings of relief.