New Faces Fueling Stockton Offense

After a strong first half, the Stockton Ports lost a number of players to promotion and the Ports struggled at the start of the second half. Their roster received a boost last week with the addition of two supplemental picks from last year's draft. Now Stockton is playing better, having won four in a row, and newcomers Corey Brown and Josh Donaldson are playing a big role in the team's resurgence.

Their immediate paths to Stockton may have been different, but the career arcs of outfielder Corey Brown and catcher Josh Donaldson have been very similar. The Florida natives were born less than two weeks apart from one another. After starring in high school, both players headed to Division I programs – Brown to Oklahoma State and Donaldson to Auburn. Three years later, their paths crossed again, this time in the supplemental first round of the 2007 draft. Both players were scouted heavily by the Oakland A's, but Donaldson was scooped up by the Chicago Cubs with the 48th overall pick, allowing Brown to be taken by Oakland with the 59th pick overall.

Donaldson homered in his first two games at Stockton's Banner Island Ballpark.
Once they signed with their respective teams, both players were sent to the pitcher-friendly Northwest League where they found immediate success. Brown became the first Vancouver Canadians player since 2004 to reach double-digits in homeruns, finishing with 11, while Donaldson was arguably the league's top hitter, batting .346 with nine homeruns and a 1075 OPS.

In 2008, Brown and Donaldson continued down the same career path, this time venturing to the Midwest League. Despite the inclement weather early in the year and the spacious ballparks, Brown found the pitcher-friendly Midwest League to his liking at the plate, hitting 14 homeruns and posting an 842 OPS for the Kane County Cougars. He was named as a starter in the Midwest League All-Star game and drove-in two runs in the contest. Donaldson didn't find much success in the Midwest League, however. He got off to a rough start in April and was only able to raise his average to .217 in 62 games for the Peoria Chiefs.

Last week, both players bid the Midwest League adieu for the West Coast. Brown was promoted from within the A's chain as a replacement on the Ports' roster for California League All-Star Sean Doolittle, who was sent up to Midland. Donaldson was acquired by the A's as part of the Rich Harden/Chad Gaudin deal with the Chicago Cubs, and the A's decided to send Donaldson directly to the California League rather than to Kane County.

After two years in leagues better suited for pitchers, both Brown and Donaldson are looking forward to competing in the more hitter-friendly California League.

"I've heard that it is more of a hitter's league, which is a good thing. Being a power guy, sometimes you can hit a nice fly ball and it can carry out," Brown said over the weekend.

"The [Midwest] league is a good league. There are a number of good parks to play in. Sometimes though, especially in the beginning, it is difficult to play in the cold, especially me being from Florida. I'm not really used to that weather. It was difficult at first, but you just have to grind it out. It is a grind anyway to play every day, let alone in the cold weather."

Brown has 26 homers in 148 games as a pro.
Donaldson is happy to have a clean slate in a new league and on a new team after getting off to a rough start to his season. He received a call from A's Assistant General Manager David Forst after the trade with the Cubs was completed and was told that Oakland wasn't concerned about his early season struggles with Peoria. Since joining the Ports late last week, Donaldson has gotten off to a fast start with his new organization. In five games, he has collected seven hits in 19 at-bats (.368 BA) and he has homered twice and driven-in eight runs.

"I think [coming to the California League] helped out a lot [in terms of shaking his early season struggles]. Also, it gives me some confidence to know that the assistant general manager thinks highly of me. Even though I struggled, he saw something in me that gave him the confidence to send me out to California. I am thrilled to death to be here and I am excited to hopefully finish out the season here," Donaldson said.

Donaldson believes his early success with the Ports has had more to do with better luck than it has had to do with the offense-friendly environment of the California League.

"I had heard that it was a hitter's league, but I feel like I have had some better at-bats [since the trade]. Maybe it is not so much the ballparks or anything like that, so much as I feel like I have caught a few more breaks here that I haven't in the past. I think that is what has lead to the early success," Donaldson said.

Donaldson is excited about the opportunity to play in the Oakland system.

"I know that Oakland does a lot through their minor league system. There probably isn't a better team out there for me at this point," Donaldson said.

Donaldson threw out two base-runners in his first game with Stockton.
Both Brown and Donaldson joined the Ports at the tail-end of the team's recent Southern California road-trip. After dropping the first game in Bakersfield, the Ports have won four straight games since the duo arrived from Illinois. Part of the life of a minor league player is having to constantly get to know new teammates, but it has still been an adjustment for both players.

"It is a good group of guys. I've played with some of them and met some of them during spring training," Brown said.

"I'm a pretty laid-back person, so if I don't know you, I don't really want to go up to you and introduce myself. I kind of just wait for it to happen, but so far the new guys that I have met have been really nice. The coaches are great and so far it has been a good experience."

Coming to a new organization, Donaldson didn't know many players on the Ports' roster when he joined the team last week. There were a couple of familiar faces, however. Shortstop Josh Horton was a teammate of his in the Cape Cod League and pitcher Graham Godfrey was a close friend of Donaldson. According to Donaldson, the biggest adjustment he has had to make is getting to know the pitchers and what they like to throw.

"It feels like spring training again. Learning new signs, learning a whole new system," Donaldson said.

"It's also not just knowing the pitchers, but they are better [than the pitchers in the Midwest League]. I have to adjust my game along with them. There have been some bumps in the road and there are going to be some more. All I can do is go out there and do the best that I can and help these pitchers be successful."

Brown has replaced Sean Doolittle as one of the Ports' best left-handed bats, and biggest users of pine-tar on the helmet.
Catching is a relatively new thing for Donaldson, who was primarily a third baseman at the start of his collegiate career before shifting behind the plate for his final season at Auburn. He has worked hard to become a better backstop and has developed a reputation for having an above-average throwing arm.

"Being an infielder all of my life, I feel like the hands part and the throwing [of catching] came more naturally to me," Donaldson said.

The biggest adjustment that Donaldson has had to make as a catcher is learning to deal with the day-to-day wear-and-tear of being behind the plate. The A's plan to have Donaldson catch four or five times a week with Stockton, and give him time at the corner infield spots and at DH when he isn't catching.

"As far as how catching is going along, the biggest thing is just learning how to deal with the grind and how to go out there and get beat up everyday. As far as the tools and everything like that, I feel like everything is getting better," Donaldson said.

Brown, too, has had to make a position adjustment since he turned pro. Primarily a right-fielder at Oklahoma State, Brown has played predominantly in centerfield since signing with the A's.

"I like it a lot. I played there very little in college. I played there in high school, but last year in Vancouver, I played about half and half [in center or a corner]. I struggled a little bit, but every day now, I have gotten a little bit better and I have been able to step-up and handle the position," Brown said.

"I like being in the center of the outfield. I like to be in charge of the outfielders, I guess you could say, or sort of tell the other outfielders where they should be positioned. I feel confident there. I still have some learning to do, but it is a good feeling to see that I have been able to handle it thus far."

Brown is one of those rare players in baseball who can hit for power and steal his share of bases. A 20-20 player during his final season at OSU, Brown is already a double-double player in his first full pro season. Through Monday, he had 15 homeruns and 12 stolen bases in 12 opportunities. Although Brown recognizes that the A's organization is not known for running, he relishes the opportunity to take an extra-base when he the opportunity presents itself.

"The A's, they are not huge on stealing, but the second half our coach [Kane County manager Aaron Nieckula] said, ‘you know, we've got to start stealing more bags.' He gave some of the guys on the team with speed the green light. I just try to take advantage of that," Brown said.

"Bushie [Stockton manager Darren Bush] here says the same thing that if I have an opportunity to steal – except when [Chris] Carter is up, you've got to let him swing – but whenever anyone else is up, if I feel like I can get a good jump, he says I can go ahead and try to steal that bag. If I have the opportunity, I like to put the pressure on the pitchers and I like to show that I am a power and speed guy."

If he makes it to Oakland, don't look for Brown to be doing any Rickey Henderson head-first impressions into second base, however. Brown's season with Vancouver was cut short last year when he slid head-first into second and tore two tendons in his pinky finger. It was the second time that Brown had injured that pinky finger, and that initial injury also came on a head-first slide. Brown elected not to have surgery on the finger, which could have delayed his start this season.

"It doesn't really affect me. It's just my pinkie. It's a little crooked, but I have been able to play alright with it. The only time it bothers me is if I slide on it, so that is why I have to be careful because the two times I hurt it was sliding. So right now I just try to take care of it and try not to slide head first, and I'll be alright," Brown said.

Both Brown and Donaldson have had reputations throughout their careers as guys who can work a count and get on-base. Donaldson had a .460 OBP during his first pro season and even when he struggled with Peoria, he had a nearly 60 point difference between his on-base percentage and his batting average. Even before Donaldson joined the A's organization, he already sounded like a disciple of Oakland's hitting philosophy.

"I really take a lot of pride in my on-base percentage and in not striking out, and in just putting the ball in play," Donaldson told Scout.com's Inside the Ivy before the start of the season.

"I want to win the game and I feel the best possible way to do that is to get on-base and score runs."

Brown feels similarly, and it has been a sore point for him that he hasn't been able to develop into more of a contact hitter at this stage of his career. Although he has drawn his share of walks and has maintained a solid on-base percentage during his short career, Brown has also racked up prodigious strike-out totals. Already this season, he has struck-out 107 times in only 89 games. It is a number that Brown is working hard to improve.

"I think it's hard not to worry about it. I know the numbers and obviously the strikeouts are high. It is my number one goal at the start of every year to cut them down. I haven't quite been able to yet. As long as I am able to hit the ball and collect some hits or hit some homeruns, it makes me feel better, but it is nothing that I am happy with," Brown said.

"Every year, I try to work on something different [to cut down on the strikeouts], like trying a new two-strike approach. Maybe they say they don't care that I am striking out a lot, but I still think that if I could just put the ball in play more, maybe the average would go up 20 or 30 points and I'd be able to use my speed more. So hopefully one of these days it will improve."

With the Ports very much in the race for a spot in the California League playoffs, Stockton will be leaning heavily on their new offensive weapons to protect Cal League homerun leader Chris Carter in the middle of the Stockton line-up. Thus far, the early returns on the new line-up have been positive, as Stockton has scored 45 runs over the past four games. Brown and Donaldson have been in the middle of that action, hitting a combined three homeruns with 12 RBIs and 12 runs scored. Now that their parallel career paths have now finally intersected, Brown and Donaldson will be working together to try to bring home a California League championship.


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