AFL Prospect Q&A: Jeff Gray, RP

Over the past two seasons, Jeff Gray has gone from a relatively unknown player as a starting pitcher in the lower levels of the Oakland A's system to a rising prospect in the upper levels of the system as a hard-throwing late-inning reliever. Gray led the Sacramento River Cats in saves in 2007 and is now competing at the Arizona Fall League. We caught-up with Gray from the Arizona desert…

Jeff Gray began the 2007 season on an absolute roll, throwing 12 innings for Double-A Midland, during which he didn't allow a run and he struck-out 12 while saving three games. Gray was promoted to Triple-A Sacramento after that hot start, and he put together a fine season in his first exposure to Triple-A baseball. The hard-throwing right-hander made 46 appearances for Sacramento, saving a team-high 12 games and striking out 45 in 55 innings. Gray was particularly tough down the stretch for the River Cats, saving six games and posting a 1.42 ERA during the month of August.

Gray is currently competing at baseball's premier prospect showcase, the Arizona Fall League. In four appearances for the Phoenix Desert Dogs, Gray has allowed four runs in 4.1 innings (8.71 ERA), but he has struck out four and walked none over that stretch. We spoke with Gray about the AFL experience, the challenge of facing hitters who have been in the big leagues, the experience of winning the PCL and Triple-A Championships with Sacramento this season and more…

OaklandClubhouse: What has the AFL experience been like for you thus far?

Jeff Gray: It's been a lot of fun. It's been challenging at times. It's also been a blast meeting all of the new guys and talking with them about their teams and everything. The competition is overwhelming. Just seeing the level of talent that you are going up against, it's outstanding.

OC: Have you gotten a chance to talk to coaches from other organizations to get tips, or have you been working mostly with A's coaching staff while you are at the AFL?

JG: Actually, it has been a combination of both. We are actually close enough [to the A's minor league complex at Papago Park] that we can talk to our coordinators and pitching coaches, but at the same time, I have been getting little tidbits from other coaches from other organizations about the way that they approach things. It has been a good experience just to get a little more knowledge of aspects of the game that you haven't really thought about and new insights on the game.

Actually, though, most of the stuff that I have been learning has come from just sitting down in the bullpen and learning from the guys. Figuring out what they have been doing and what has been working for them and vice versa, giving them little tidbits about what has worked for me.

OC: Is there anything in particular that you have been focused on with your game that you are looking to see improve by the end of the AFL season?

JG: Like always, it has been working on command and trying to control my breaking ball. Making my slider a little better than what it was during the year. Those are the two main things. Also, working on getting out of trouble and having the mindset that when somebody gets on or what have you, that I will be a really tough candidate to deal with. It has been getting the mental aspect of the game a little better on my part, as well.

OC: Is fatigue a factor at this point in the season or was there enough rest at the end of the minor league season that you feel fresh now?

JG: A little bit of both. I took a little bit of a break after the season and then came down here early [to Arizona] just to make sure that I was ready and I felt great. These games, you play every day except for Sunday and you throw the ball even more, I feel, but it is more like a spring training atmosphere. You might throw every day or every other day in a game or every two days at the AFL. There is a little bit of fatigue setting in, I'm not going to lie, but I am still feeling strong and sticking with my plans and with the routine that I have been doing and it has been getting me through here. It's alright out here. I'm not too fatigued yet.

OC: What are the game atmospheres like? I know that the crowds are pretty small, but there is such a high concentration of scouts in the crowd, it must be a different experience.

JG: The intensity is heightened a bit because when you look behind home plate, all you see are about 30-50 scouts back there waiting for you to pitch, pointing radar guns and waiting for you to mess up. [laughs] You've got to just throw that out of the way and have fun with it. You talk to a lot of guys about the fact that it is October and we are still playing when other guys are at home playing golf and stuff, so it is interesting.

There is a lot of joking around with the guys and keeping the games a lot of fun, and I think that is one thing about this AFL that you have to do: you have to have fun with it. We don't have a lot of fans who are at the games. They are mostly scouts and reps and stuff who are in the stands, but you've got some fans that come to see you every home game or a few fans that just come out to see you play. But the whole team is just having an absolute blast playing out here.

OC: Are any of the guys that you have faced or are teammates with guys who have made their major league debuts already?

JG: I've faced a few guys who have made their major league debuts. I have faced Cameron Maybin and a few other guys who are their teams' franchise players. It is a different feeling when you face those guys because you really want to get those guys out. You definitely don't want them to get a hit off of you. You also face guys who you saw in the California League who moved on before you did or that you saw drafted high or that you played in college with, so that is pretty cool. We have a handful of guys who have played in the major leagues this season or who have played in the major leagues a little bit before.

OC: When you have teammates who have played some in the major leagues – whether you were teammates with them in Sacramento this season or currently in the AFL – do you find that you are picking their brains to find out what that experience is like so that you are ready when you get there?

JG: Yeah, definitely. You take a look at what the talent is. There is great talent in this league. You can't find any better talent than what you've got here, unless it is the big leagues. You face those guys who have been there and you see what you have to do to get there or how you pitch to certain guys or how they hit off of you. It's interesting to watch their whole mindset and to see what you have to do to get where they have reached.

OC: What was the whole PCL playoffs and Bricktown Showdown experience like for you?

JG: It was really exciting. The PCL was just great. We came back from almost being eliminated and turned that around and then swept New Orleans. Just that experience was great. I've had a couple of chances in the lower levels [to win rings], but I just haven't gotten there. Actually winning it was really cool, just to be a part of that team. Then going to the Bricktown Showdown, that was really cool. All of the media and having ESPN there and to go out on the field and see all of the cameras there, that was pretty exciting. And to see all of these fans there, and they haven't even watched you much during the regular season, but they are there to see a good baseball game. It was an unbelievable experience.

OC: You got a chance to be used as a closer on a regular basis for the first time in your pro career this season. Was that a learning experience for you?

JG: I learned a lot this year, just being in that role for the whole year and talking to the guys about [being a closer]. It's going to be interesting to see what [the A's] want to do with me next year, especially since they have seen a whole year of [him as a closer]. I'm still learning the role too. I've been a starter and they've kind of moved me around the pitching staff. Closer is the fun place. Being a closer is where you want to be. I like that situation of giving me the ball when the pressure is on. We'll have to see what happens.

OC: What do you see as your go-to pitch right now?

JG: That's a tough question. Definitely depends on the hitter. [laughs] But I'd have to say that the one that is kind of dependable for me right now is my sinker. I would have to say that all of my pitches are my go-to pitches, but we'll have to see which one stands out more [at the end of the AFL season].

OC: Has it been a difficult transition to go up four levels in only two years? [Gray spent the 2006 season in Kane County and Stockton and the 2007 season in Midland and Sacramento.]

JG: It was a lot, but the way that I tried to approach it was that I had to take it one day at a time and one game at a time. I just try to play and enjoy the game and not worry about the atmosphere that is surrounding me. I had an absolute blast this year and have learned a ton and hopefully based on the experience I have had this year, I'll know what to expect next year. I think that was the difficult part this year is that I didn't know what to expect and now I know.

OC: Do you feel confident now that you've had those 55 innings in Triple-A and have established that you can pitch well at that level that you can take that next step and pitch at the big leagues?

JG: Yeah, I believe so. I think that establishing myself and showing that I can get outs [in Triple-A] is one thing, but now I need to go out and be more consistent with it. That's what I am trying to do here.

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