Stockton Notebook: Ports Remaining Upbeat

It has been a rough start for the defending California League champion Stockton Ports in 2009, but Larry Cobb, Michael Richard and Matt Smith all see better things ahead for the Oakland A's High-A affiliate.

Cobb Looking For An Opportunity

After a down 2007 season that included a serious injury, Larry Cobb reminded everyone why they were excited about him as a prospect when he was drafted in 2006 by hitting .273 with 13 homers and 70 RBIs for the Kane County Cougars in 2008. That performance earned Cobb co-Cougar MVP honors with Toddric Johnson and an invitation to speak at the Cougars Winter Banquet.

"Last year was a fun year. It is always a fun year when you are playing well," Cobb said over the weekend.

"We had a good group of guys and we were winning, so it makes it a lot more fun."

Cobb followed his 2008 Kane County manager Aaron Nieckula to the High-A Stockton Ports to start the 2009 campaign. Cobb is excited to play for Nieckula once again.

"It's good to have a guy who knows how you play and knows your game. He wants me in the line-up, so that makes it a lot more fun," Cobb said.

Cobb is a manager's best friend in that he can fill a number of different roles in the starting line-up. He played in the outfield primarily in college, but Cobb has seen a lot of time in the middle infield since signing with the A's. He puts a lot of work into both his infield and outfield defense.

"I work on both mostly every day. I get my flyballs in the outfield and I get my work in in the infield every day," Cobb said.

Like many of the Ports, Cobb has gotten off to a slow start at the plate, going one-for his first-12. At the moment, he is looking for any opportunity to get into the line-up on a regular basis.

"It's always fun to be promoted. I haven't been playing much yet, but hopefully over time I will get into that line-up more," Cobb said.

Cobb isn't discouraged by the Ports' 1-12 start, however.

"I think we are going to have a good season. We have a good team. We have a bunch of guys who can run and steal a lot of bases," Cobb said. "We have quite a few guys who can hit 15-20 homeruns, I think, so once we get into the groove and get that feel of winning, I think it is going to be a fun season."

Richard Ready To Run

Rarely are the words "slow" and "Michael Richard" used in the same sentence, but the Ports' shortstop used the word slow to describe his start to the season over the weekend. After hitting .287 and swiping 35 bases in only 85 games last season for Low-A Kane County, Richard came into the 2009 with high expectations for his first season in the hitter-friendly California League.

Like the rest of his Ports' teammates, however, Richard's offense has been stuck in neutral for the first week-and-a-half of the season. In 10 games, he is batting only .162 with a .225 OBP. Like Cobb, Richard is confident that things will turn around for him and for his teammate.

"Really I wasn't looking forward to a slow start. I've heard a lot about the league. It is a fun league," Richard said.

"I'm just trying to put together a good season right now. I've kind of started off a little slow, so, really, I am just trying to come out of that and get going."

Richard is a rare commodity in the A's organization as a player with plus, plus speed. Selected in the 11th round of the 2007 draft out of Prairie View A&M University, Richard has been a base-stealing machine since signing with Oakland. He stole 25 bases in 2007 in less than half of a season with short-season Vancouver and then tacked on 35 more in a season truncated by a thumb injury in 2008.

It isn't a secret that when Richard reaches base, he is looking to run.

"Man, when I get on-base, I like to have the green light. I'm a runner, so it is important for me to have that green light. That is a big part of my game. We talked about it before the season and pretty much whenever I get on, I've got it," Richard said.

Although he has walked only once in his first 10 games this season, Richard came into this season with a career 76:70 BB:K ratio. That patience, combined with his speed, makes Richard a manager's favorite in the lead-off spot.

"[Leadoff] is where I have hit my whole life, so that is probably my most comfortable spot," Richard said.

On defense, Richard has been something of a work-in-progress at shortstop since turning pro. He committed 15 errors in 47 games at short with Vancouver in 2007 and 25 errors in 83 games at short for Kane County in 2008. He has three errors in 10 games thus far this season. Richard knows that that area of his game needs to improve, and he has been working hard on getting better with the glove.

"I have worked on defense a lot this off-season. I know I made some errors last season and I don't want to commit too many this season, so I worked on it a lot. Shortstop is where I am most comfortable. I think that it has improved a little bit," Richard said.

Smith Down, But Not Out For Long

When Matt Smith landed on the disabled list in 2008, it was for a season-ending injury. The catcher appeared in only 25 games for High-A Stockton and Low-A Kane County in 2008 before being sidelined by a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. Less than a year removed from the surgery, Smith is back on the field and throwing with his normal arm strength.

"It was a tough rehab, but I am feeling 100 percent now," Smith said on Saturday afternoon.

A few hours after that conversation, the catcher was felled by a foul tip off of his throwing hand. The injury looked serious at first, as he had to be removed from the game, but the X-rays came back negative and although Smith was placed on the DL, he isn't expected to miss more than a week of action (minor league DLs are seven days rather than 15).

That is good news for the Ports, as Smith was one of the few Stockton hitters off to a good start this season. In eight games, Smith was batting .269 with a homer, a double and three RBIs. Smith had an 840 OPS in 18 games with the Cougars last season before his shoulder injury.

The Texas Tech alum was a standout hitter in college, posting OPSs of 905 or higher in each of his three seasons. The A's thought he was advanced enough both offensively and defensively that they assigned him to a full-season affiliate immediately after he signed with the team in 2007. He was the first player in his draft class to play for an A's full-season affiliate.

Despite missing much of last season with injury, Smith has the luxury of having worked with some of the Ports' pitching staff in game situations in seasons past. Smith considers his defense to be an important part of his game and he worked hard with the entire Ports' pitching staff this spring to develop a rapport.

"Working with these pitchers is something that is started back in spring training, so I have a pretty good idea of what these guys throw," Smith said.

Like Cobb and Richard, Smith is remaining upbeat despite the Ports' early struggles.

"We are going to be fine as a team. We just have to run a few wins together," Smith said.

Roster Notes

The Ports made a few roster moves on Tuesday. Catcher Raul Padron, who was on the Ports' original roster but was promoted to Triple-A Sacramento before the start of the season, is back with Stockton and has taken Smith's spot as the Ports' regular catcher for now. Reliever Steve Sharpe has also been activated from the disabled list and he threw a scoreless inning of relief in his season debut on Tuesday night.

Lefty Nick Walters has been placed on the DL. He last pitched on Monday and he has a 4.15 ERA in 4.1 innings this season.

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