Matt Watson Looking To Stick With Oakland In '05
"I would always have rather hit .330 then hit 30 homeruns. I've always been a high-average guy throughout my career," Watson said.
True to form, he hit over .300 in Sacramento last season – his fourth minor league season achieving that milestone. However, whereas Watson began his career as a centerfielder with a high batting average but only average power, he has gradually changed his approach at the plate to add more of the traditional extra-base power that major league teams covet in a corner outfielder.
"[In today's game] teams really look for corner outfielders who can hit for power, so I have adapted my game to be more of a power hitter," Watson said.
"I don't think I'll ever be the kind of hitter who will hit .250 and 35 homeruns, but I'd aim to be a guy who hits .300 with 20 homeruns, or something like that."
Adding power isn't the only part of Watson's hitting approach that has changed over the course of his career. He has always been a contact hitter and had never struck out more than 52 times in a season going into the 2004 campaign. Watson, however, wasn't what he would consider to be a patient hitter when he first began his professional career.
"Especially when you come right out of college, you don't realize that you have 500 at-bats that season so you tend to swing early on [because you are anxious to hit]," Watson said.
Of course, coming into the Oakland A's organization, Watson was quickly indoctrinated into the school of patient hitting and working the count. Like many players who join the A's organization, Watson pressed early on to try to take more pitches. Consequently, his strikeout total went up, as he found himself hitting in more two-strike situations. However, his walk total rose along with his strikeouts and he posted a very respectable .377 on-base percentage for the season. By the end of the year, Watson was more comfortable with the A's philosophy on hitting and found a good balance between being aggressive and working the count.
"I did try to work the count more [during my first season in the A's organization] and I struggled with that a little bit last season, but by the end of the year it was coming together," Watson said.
"Coming out of college, I was definitely not as patient of a hitter, but now I feel a lot more comfortable at the plate. I recognize pitches better and I have a good idea of when to be patient and when to be aggressive."
Before joining the A's last season, Watson spent the previous two seasons in the New York Mets' chain. During his first season with the Mets, Watson posted his lowest full-season batting average of his minor league career (.279). Numbers can be deceiving, however, as Watson points to that season as one of his most positive professional campaigns.
"What goes on paper isn't always the best indication of a season. I think one of my best years was my year in AA when I hit .279. .279 doesn't look great on paper, but I was hitting something like .230 mid-way through the  season and I really came on in the end and that season I felt the best I've ever felt at the end of a season," Watson said.
That good feeling transferred over into the 2003 campaign. Even though he struggled with injuries during the beginning part of the 2003 season, Watson was able to put together an impressive 250 at-bats for AAA-Norfolk. He earned a promotion to the big leagues that September and joined a Mets team that was at the tail-end of a disappointing campaign. Despite the Mets' woes, Watson's time in the big leagues was still very memorable.
"It was everything I dreamed it would be. It was amazing to be surrounded by Hall of Famers like Mike Piazza and Tom Glavine," Watson said.
"After you get past the initial awe, though, you have to think of yourself on the same level as those guys if you are going to be successful."
Watson tasted some early success in his big league career, when he made two starts against the Chicago Cubs and recorded hits off of aces Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. However, the starting assignments quickly dried up for Watson and he found himself being called on to pinch hit more often than not. Watson struggled as he learned how to be a bench player after spending his entire career as a starter. He got some good advice from major league veteran Tony Clark, who had developed into a good pinch hitter after a long career as a starter. Watson said that Clark helped him with his approach to being a bench player in a National League game, where a player's only appearance in the game might be as a pinch-hitter for the pitcher in a late-game situation.
When Watson finished up the season, he figured that he'd have many more days at Shea Stadium with the Mets. Consequently, he was surprised when he received a call from the Mets that October informing him that he had been removed from the 40-man roster, making him available to the rest of the league on waivers. Joining him on the Mets' waiver wire was former AAA-Norfolk and New York Met teammate Marco Scutaro.
"[The Mets' front office] told me when I was removed from the roster that they were trying to bring in Mike Cameron and they needed a roster spot for him. They thought they could sneak me through waivers and then put me back on the roster later in the off-season, but that didn't happen," Watson said.
What happened instead was that Watson was claimed by the Oakland A's, along with Scutaro. Scutaro, who had spent parts of the 2002 and 2003 seasons with the Mets, had brought veteran leadership to the AAA-Norfolk team during the 2003 season. Entering spring training last season, Watson was glad to have a familiar face in Scutaro around to make the transition to a new organization easier.
"He was one of the guys who really helped me when I got to AAA [in 2003] to get adjusted to being there. He had been there before [the big leagues and AAA], so he helped me learn how to play at that level," Watson said.
Unfortunately for Watson, he and Scutaro were not teammates during the 2004 season. Scutaro, through injuries to A's major league middle infielders and an impressive spring performance, earned a spot with Oakland as a second baseman. Conversely, when Watson finished spring training, he found himself stuck behind a number of outfielders on the depth chart.
"Last year [during spring training] I got only 10 or 12 game at-bats so I didn't really have a chance to show what I can do. Hopefully, this year will work out better," Watson said.
"Last year, I was a new guy and they told me they wanted to take a longer look at some of the organizational guys like Mike Edwards and Graham Koonce [during the spring], but this year, hopefully, they'll think of me as an organizational guy since I've been with them an entire year. I'm excited to go down there."
After being assigned to AAA-Sacramento, Watson found himself surrounded by players who had been a part of the RiverCats' 2003 PCL championship team. He quickly became friends with two of the RiverCats' more veteran players, Edwards and Koonce.
"They were good guys to learn from. I used to ride the ups and downs of a season pretty bad. When I was doing great, I was great to be around, but when I wasn't, it was rough. Mike is always on an even-keel, so it was good to learn that from him. Graham was great because he never had an attitude problem. He was the MVP of the PCL [in 2003], but he never complained about [not getting called up in 2004]," Watson said.
Despite the disappointment of not being recalled to the major leagues last season, Watson still valued his season in Sacramento, where he won his first professional baseball championship when the RiverCats' repeated as PCL champions.
"Aside from not being called up, last year was probably my most enjoyable season playing baseball. It was great to get on the field and feel like you had a chance to win everyday. The better your teammates do, the better year you have. I led a team once with, like, 55 RBIs, but on this team we had four or five guys who had almost 100 RBIs. That's a lot of fun," Watson said.
Watson will be joining fellow RiverCat stars Nick Swisher, Joe Blanton, Dan Johnson, Chris Mabeus and Huston Street in battling for a roster spot with Oakland this spring. He may be facing an uphill battle for that spot, as the A's are currently carrying five major league outfielders on their roster and, among those five players, only the newly acquired Charles Thomas and the highly-touted rookie Swisher have minor league options left. A's outfielder Eric Byrnes has been the subject of numerous trade rumors this off-season and if Byrnes were to be traded, it would open up a large opportunity for Watson to compete for a spot. While Watson is aware of the rumors, he tries not to let that sort of information interfere with his off-season preparations.
"I'm definitely not blind to the rumors. I try not to pay attention to them, but my mom and my wife do. I can't really worry about it too much. I know it is cliché but the only thing I can control is my own game, so I focus on that," Watson said.
"I have a new agent and he spoke with [A's Assistant General Manager] David Forst in January and [Forst] said that they have me slated as a fourth or fifth outfielder [for the A's]. I'm not sure if that is just the company line [to motivate me], but it's good to think I have a shot, at least."