The Stockton Ports missed the post-season in 2016, but a roster stacked with top prospects from the Oakland A’s 2016 draft class and returning members of the 2016 roster have the Ports optimistic about a successful run in 2017. The Ports began the year with a 3-1 series win over the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes.
Stockton’s season-opening roster features eight players in their first full season of professional baseball, four who had no previous experience above Low-A and 14 players who have previous experience at High-A. Relievers Carlos Navas and Joey Wagman are the only players who have appeared in a game above the A-ball level, and both have fewer than 10 advanced level appearances.
Stockton manager Rick Magnante isn’t concerned about how the first-year players will make the transition to the Cal League.
“There are some new guys on the team and it’s their first year in pro ball, but they are college guys. It’s not like you are pushing a high schooler from Vermont to the Cal League. I think they will do fine,” Magnante said on Sunday. “There will be some growing pains, certainly. The 140 games always takes its toll at some point in the season when they hit a little bit of a wall physically and maybe emotionally, but that’s part of the learning experience. I think that this team will fight through whatever that malaise might be potentially because of the character of the club. There is leadership here.”
Magnante is in his third year as the manager of the Ports. He is joined for a second-straight year by hitting coach Tommy Everidge and pitching coach Steve Connelly. With the make-up of the players on the team, Magnante said the Stockton coaching staff is employing a new technique for reaching their players this season.
“We talk a lot about leadership in Oakland and we read a lot of books and we have to present. We are dealing with the millennials. It’s a unique generation. To think that you are going to relate to them the same way as a baby boomer or a post-baby boomer would be a mistake. It’s not the same,” Magnante said. “We’ve found that they don’t like the top-down authority. They like to be more horizontal. We have introduced to them this year a new opportunity. We said ‘this is what the organization expects. This is what the coaches expect. What do you expect?’ Put the onus on them a little bit to say, ‘in the clubhouse, this is what we like. On the field, these are our expectations.’ When we bring that all together, then truly it is ‘us’ as a team and as a staff. It’s not the staff dictating to them how it is going to be. We’ll see how that goes, but we are giving it a try.”
Magnante pointed to the pitching staff and the defense up-the-middle as the strengths of the team.
“When you look at pitching and you look at catching and you look at defense up the middle, you think to yourself ‘the old adage is if you can hit and you can play defense, you can compete.’ If the bats come around, then maybe it’s baseballpalooza. It might be pretty good. I like the ballclub,” Magnante said.
The A’s first three picks in the 2016 draft – A.J. Puk, Daulton Jefferies and Logan Shore – highlight a talented pitching staff that held Rancho Cucamonga to six runs over the first four games of the season.
Puk, Jefferies and Shore are part of an eight-man tandem starting rotation that will also feature Brett Graves, Casey Meisner, Evan Manarino, Angel Duno and Dustin Hurlbutt. At the outset of the season, the pairs are: Graves and Meisner, Shore and Duno, Jefferies and Manarino, and Puk and Hurlbutt.
Puk, the A’s top pick last season, was a non-roster invitee to big league camp and he impressed during his stay with the major league team. The 6’7’’ left-hander works comfortably in the mid-90s with his fastball and can reach 97 when he reaches back for something extra. His slider is his best secondary pitch and the A’s are working with Puk to incorporate his change-up more frequently. Puk made his professional debut with short-season Vermont last year and he posted a 3.03 ERA with a 40:12 K:BB in 32.2 innings.
Jefferies came to the A’s in the compensation A round of last year’s draft. The Cal product was one of the best starters in Division I baseball early last year, but a calf injury and later a shoulder injury limited Jefferies to 50 innings during his junior season. That hurt his draft stock but allowed the A’s to pick him up with the 37th overall pick. Jefferies threw only 11.1 innings in Rookie ball last season, as the A’s were cautious with him after his injuries with Cal, but he comes into this season with a clean bill of health. Jefferies is on the shorter side for a right-handed pitcher, but he has four average or better pitches and gets plenty of groundballs.
Shore was Puk’s teammate at Florida in college and it was Shore who was the Gators’ Friday night ace. The tall right-hander doesn’t have Puk’s explosive fastball, but he has a lot of running movement on the fastball and an excellent change-up. Shore has incorporated a cut-fastball and is truer four-seam fastball since joining the A’s. He has a strong understanding of how to attack hitters and isn’t afraid to challenge hitters.
Connelly believes all three first-year pros will have a smooth adjustment to the Cal League, despite its offense-friendly nature.
“It’s a big jump to go to the Cal League in your first year, but these guys are exceptional,” Connelly said on Sunday. “They are great character guys and they have great stuff, obviously. They are a really close-knit group. They spend a lot of time together and they hold each other accountable.”
The leader of the staff at the outset of the season is Graves, who returns to Stockton despite spending all of 2016 with the Ports. Graves had a 4.60 ERA in 141 innings for Stockton last year, but he pitched much better in the second half, posting a 3.36 ERA in 67 innings. He has a four-seamer that can touch 95 and a two-seamer that sits in the 88-91 MPH range. He also features a cut-fastball, a change-up, a slow curveball and a tight slider. Graves threw four perfect innings in his 2017 debut and is likely the first starter to be promoted to Midland should the RockHounds have an opening. For now, Connelly is happy to reap the benefits from Graves’ leadership abilities.
“I hope for him to get out of here as soon as possible. Graves is such a true professional. Everything that he does is just wonderful: from his daily routine to how he scouts opposing hitters to his lifting to his throwing; everything about him is professional,” Connelly said. “He’s a great role model for these younger guys. They look to him and he is guiding them. That being said, I hope he is able to get out of here as soon as possible. We hope for all of our guys to be able to move up. That’s the ultimate goal, to have complete turnover of your team. But he’s fun to watch right now.”
Manarino may also not be long for the Cal League. The left-hander had a brilliant first full year in 2016, posting a 1.98 ERA in 150 innings for Low-A Beloit and Stockton. Manarino doesn’t throw hard, but he pounds the strike-zone and features four pitches he can throw for strikes: fastball, curveball, change-up and slider. He induces plenty of groundballs and was devastating against lefties last year, holding them to a .190 average.
“He’s like a poor man’s Tommy Milone is what he is,” Magnante said. “He doesn’t give in.”
Duno is another finesse pitcher who mixes his pitches well and attacks the strike-zone. The right-hander had a 2.68 ERA in 121 innings for Beloit last season. He only struck-out 76, but he walked just 16 and allowed only seven homeruns. Duno threw four hitless innings in his Stockton debut on Saturday.
“Duno is a crafty righty. He’s not going to over-power you, but he pitches down in the ‘zone and he mixes his pitches and gets in pitcher’s counts,” Magnante said.
Meisner returns to the Cal League after a frustrating 2016 season when he went nearly the entire year without a win. The 6’7’’ right-hander finished 1-14 with a 4.85 ERA. His command was shaky for most of the season and he struggled to repeat his delivery. Meisner made some progress with his mechanics during the A’s fall Instructional League and Magnante is optimistic Meisner can improve in 2017.
“Meisner had sort of a sub-par year last year by his own admission. We are trying to get him going, but there is something there for sure,” Magnante said.
Hurlbutt makes the jump to High-A after a strong season with the Snappers in 2016. He began the year in Extended Spring Training but was one of Beloit’s most consistent starters once he joined the club on June 3. In 98 innings, the right-hander had a 2.57 ERA and a 78:24 K:BB. His fastball can touch 94 and he features two solid secondary pitches: a circle change-up and a slider.
The Ports will begin the year with a veteran bullpen that will bridge the innings between the tandem starters and/or finish off the games. All but one of the Ports’ relief corps pitched for Stockton at some point last season.
The group is led by veteran Carlos Navas, who served as the Ports’ closer for much of last season. Magnante noted Navas’ success in the Venezuelan Winter League during the off-season. He struck-out 72 in 59.2 innings between Stockton and Triple-A Nashville last season.
Right-hander Joey Wagman had an eventful spring as part of Team Israel’s WBC squad. The East Bay native spent most of the 2016 season with Stockton and had a 3.67 ERA in 76 innings. He struck-out 78.
Matthew Sergey joined the Ports on July 4 after signing with the A’s out of the independent leagues. He threw 27 innings for Stockton and struck-out 41 over that stretch.
Jared Lyons is the only left-hander in the Stockton bullpen. He spent most of last season with Low-A Beloit before joining the Ports for the final few weeks. With the Snappers, Lyons had a 1.72 ERA in 52.1 innings. He struck-out 61 and walked just 16. Lefties hit under .200 against him last year.
The only newcomer to the Stockton bullpen is right-hander Nolan Blackwood, a sidearmer who was a 14th-round pick of the A’s last season. Blackwood opened a lot of eyes during his pro debut. He reached 93 with his fastball, which is an unusually high radar reading for a sidearmer. Blackwood also has a slow, sweeping slider. He induced groundballs on 63% of balls that were put into play against him last season. Blackwood should get a number of opportunities in the ninth inning for Stockton this year.
On the position-player side, the Ports begin the year with a mix of returning starters from 2016, starters for Beloit in 2016 and 2016 draft picks. The most high-profile prospect is catcher Sean Murphy, who was the A’s third-round selection last season and the team’s first position player picked. Murphy suffered a hamate injury during his junior season at Wright State that left weakness in his wrist for the rest of the year. He still managed a 915 OPS for Wright State and a 25:18 BB:K. Murphy has power potential on offense, but it is his defense that stands out early in his career. His arm grades 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale and he is a solid receiver, as well.
“We have a very good looking prospect behind the plate in Murphy,” Magnante said. “He catches well and he really throws. Not only does he throw with arm strength, but he really has good accuracy. He’s on the button most of the time. And I think there is a bat there. I think he’ll figure out the hitting and I think he’ll be a big leaguer.”
Backing up Murphy will be Lana Akau, who returns to Stockton for a second season. Akau hit only .214 for the Ports last season, but he was playing in his age-20 season. He is an above-average athlete and has a lot of arm strength, as well.
The Ports’ middle infield is highlighted by two 2016 draft picks who opened eyes during their pro debuts last season: Eli White and Josh Vidales. White won the Vermont team MVP award after hitting .279 and playing above-average defense at short. White has speed, a strong arm and a good approach at the plate.
“I certainly like the way he moves, the way he looks and the way he carries himself,” Magnante said. “He has some range [at shortstop] and some foot speed and that’s a body that is going to fill out and mature.”
Vidales was a 28th-round pick as a senior out of Houston last year, but he raised his profile within the organization considerably when he hit .345 in the Arizona Rookie League, taking home the league batting title. The switch-hitter controls the strike-zone well and walked more than he struck-out last season. Despite his strong offensive performance in the AZL, it was his defense at second that won him the most notice. He and White should eat up a lot of the groundballs hit up the middle this season.
Joining White and Vidales in the middle infield are veterans Mikey White, Branden Cogswell and Trent Gilbert. White returns to the Ports after a tough 2016 season during which the 2015 second-round pick hit only .215 during the first half. He rebounded to hit .274 during the second half, but he finds himself blocked from Double-A by Richie Martin, Yairo Munoz and Max Schrock. A shortstop and second baseman for much of last year, White is likely to see a lot of time at third base this season. Magnante sees White also filling a leadership role for the Ports this year.
“Mikey White can step up for us as a leader as a position player who was with us all year last year and went through some hardship early on and truly struggling and then salvaging his year with a good second half,” Magnante said. “He has something to prove but he has experience to lend to the other guys, as well.”
Cogswell returns to Stockton after missing all of last season with a shoulder injury. He played all of the 2015 season with the Ports and hit .235 with a .325 OBP. Cogswell can play second, short and third and should see time at all three positions this year.
Gilbert spent the final six weeks of the 2015 season with Stockton but he returned to the Beloit Snappers for 2016. The Arizona alum hit .269 with 35 doubles in 129 games for the Snappers last season. A natural second baseman, Gilbert has seen some time at third base lately and will likely play both second and third this year.
The Ports will have some power at first base, with Sandber Pimentel and Chris Iriart set to share time there and at DH. Pimentel led the Ports in homeruns last season with 21. He struggled with consistency and hit just .237 but his OPS was a decent 779. He begins the year on the seven-day DL but should work his way back into the regular playing rotation once he is healthy.
Iriart spent most of last season with Beloit, but he had a memorable late-season stint with the Ports. The right-handed hitter bashed six homers in 16 games with the Ports. For the year, Iriart hit 22 homers. He did that damage in just 97 games after he had to spend more than a month on the DL after being beaned in the face.
A pair of North Carolina alums highlight the Stockton outfield. Skye Bolt makes the jump to High-A after spending last season with Beloit. Bolt is one of the best defensive outfielders in the A’s system and he has the speed to run down a lot of balls in centerfield. He also has an above-average throwing arm. Bolt is a switch-hitter with life in his bat, but he has struggled with inconsistency as a hitter dating back to college. He batted .231/.318/.345 in an up-and-down year with the Snappers last season. If Bolt can put it together at the plate, he could be a special player thanks to his speed and defensive abilities.
Tyler Ramirez, a 2016 seventh-round pick, was Bolt’s teammate for two seasons at UNC. The left-handed hitting Ramirez isn’t a big guy, but he has some pop in his bat and has an above-average eye at the plate. He has average speed but outstanding baseball instincts and he can play all three outfield positions.
Brett Siddall should see plenty of time in left field this season. The left-handed hitting Siddall batted .241/.321/.356 with nine homers in 135 games for the Snappers last season. Siddall has a solid approach at the plate and he makes a lot of contact. Siddall was a little unlucky on balls he hit into play last year. He may find more success in the hitter-friendly Cal League.
Seth Brown returns to Stockton after spending the entire 2016 season with the Ports. Brown hit .241/.340/.362 in 127 games for Stockton last season. Brown walked 65 times and he works a lot of deep counts. That resulted in 124 strike-outs last season, a number that he will try to bring down in 2017. Brown can play all three outfield positions and he has some pop in his bat, as well.