Arizona is arguably the epicenter of baseball. From amateur tournaments to the MLB owners’ meetings and everything in between, there’s always something baseball-related happening in the Copper State. Media coverage and public attention target the bookend events of the season: Spring Training and the Arizona Fall League. During those two seasons, those in uniform can feel a bit like they are living in a fishbowl. Move the calendar one week and to a new crop of uniformed players and the fishbowl has been emptied; now there is no doubt they are in the desert – more like in exile. They aren’t wrong, either.
The Oakland A’s, like the other 14 organizations of the Cactus League, have their player development facilities in Arizona. The Lew Wolff Training Center on Athletics’ Way at Fitch Park in Mesa is home to an Extended Spring Training, an Arizona Rookie League (AZL) and a Fall Instructional League teams. Of the three, only the AZL is an official league – where innings and plate appearances are recorded and live forever. The other two, also known as “Extended” and “Instructs”, are not official. The former, which is taking place now through the beginning of June, is to some degree baseball “purgatory”, where games are played by those waiting to hop a plane and fill a roster spot and where those on the DL carefully and cautiously work their way back to healthy production. All of this happens with the combined team staffs of the Arizona League A’s and short season Vermont Lake Monsters of the New York Penn League.
Field coaches, trainers, strength and conditioning staff, clubhouse and equipment heroes, and let’s not forget to mention the head groundskeeper / turf-manager extraordinaire Chad Huss (do I ever?). If not for the excellent condition of the fields maintained by Chad and his staff, where would the boys train and play their games? The Extended Spring super-staff is led by field coordinator and Vermont manager Aaron Nieckula whose passion for teaching and for the game is a winning combination for the boys who spend their days “in exile.”
I stopped by Fitch last week, saw a few innings of an intrasquad game and caught up with a couple of the boys who are working their way back to the mound. Unfortunately, I did not see everyone in the program nor did I watch every play of the game. But what I can tell you is that everyone I saw looks good, is well taken care of, and always have enough water available and enough healthy food to eat. They’re also enjoyed the unseasonably cool temps. Triple digits returned today but the reprieve was nice for them while it lasted.
Usually, the first thing you notice at Fitch is the positive energy that seems to grow with each blade of grass. But less than a month after losing one of their own, young shortstop Casey Thomas, emotions are still tempered. Wearing wristbands of support, some, like RHP Oscar Tovar, have written his initials on their ball cap, and are making each day the best it can be. Casey’s legacy will live on in the green and gold.
As I glanced around the field and in each dugout, I saw many familiar faces, including: catchers Lana Akau, Jarrett Costa, Jordan Devencenzi, Roger Gonzalez, Beau Taylor and Skyler Weber; infielders George Bell, Javier Godard, Jesus Lopez, Sandber Pimentel and Jean Carlo Rodriguez; outfielders Robert Bennie, Anthony Churlin, James Harris, Jeramiah McCray and James Terrell, as well as batboys (filling their day-after-duties) RHPs Marc Berube and Wandisson Charles.
The high school talent from last year’s draft (namely Anthony Churlin and Jeramiah McCray) are going to make their presence known this season. And the near gluttony of catchers drafted is evidenced by the sheer numbers in Extended. Gonzalez can hit, Weber is a grinder who can run the bases, and though I didn’t see Costa in action, I know he’s a leader and an outstanding defensive backstop. Can’t help but be elated to see that a healthy James Harris is making his way back and tearing up the basepaths.
Whether on the mound or on the bleachers, there were pitchers-a-plenty, unfortunately most are at various phases of their rehab. The three I saw on the mound include: rehabbing big leaguer Felix Dubrount, 20-year-old RHP Jean Ruiz and RHP John Gorman.
Lucky for me, Gorman had multiple innings, which is a great sign of his progress. He’s clearly not spending money on haircuts or razors and it seems to be working for him. I’m sure he can’t wait see real game-action. It’s been a long road for the former Boston College Eagle. Very happy for him!
In the stands: LHP Ivan Andueza, RHP Argenis Blanco, LHP Zack Erwin, RHP Kris Hall, RHP Branden Kelliher, LHP Chris Kohler, RHP Oscar Tovar, LHP Kyle Twomey, and a pair of rehabbing Hornets from Alabama State –RHP Armando Ruiz and RHP Joseph Camacho.
It did my heart good to spend a little time with a wonderful young man – and a legit flame thrower – Kris Hall. The 8th round pick from 2012 was proudly displaying his Ohio pride with a “440” t-shirt and a smile that removed any doubt about how good he feels since having back surgery. Big Kris is doing well. Assuming his rehab progresses as expected, he could be back in action toward the end of the season. That’s great news. Baby steps though. I covered Kris in the 2015 Arizona Fall League when he was a bright spot on the staff of the Mesa Solar Sox. Looking forward to his return. [Hi Jim!]
At one point, I saw Daulton Jefferies (Tommy John surgery), but he was outside for just a bit. The days are long, and patience can wear thin for those working their way back from extensive procedures. The physical toll is obvious, but the mental strain is also very real. By the time they return to game action, they’ve often matured as much as they’ve healed.
No need to look any farther for an example of this than to 2013 Supplemental round pick, then-18 year old LHP Chris Kohler. Chris was Oakland’s 5th selection out of Los Osos High School in California. The four chosen ahead of him include: Billy McKinney, Dillon Overton, Chad Pinder and Ryon Healy. From his debut in June 2013, Kohler’s talent took center stage each time he took the mound; he was a joy to watch. Well… unless you were rooting for the opposing team. Kohler is a tall, blond California kid whose warm smile and friendly demeanor make him an easy favorite of all who meet him.
After appearing in 13 games (22.2 innings) in the AZL his rookie year, Kohler sat out the entire 2014 season due to injury. He was always with a positive attitude, always excited about when he would be able to throw the baseball again. Especially without pain or discomfort. I watched him grow-up, and he had a great roommate that year; fellow rehabber who was recovering from right labrum surgery – current catcher in the Washington Nationals organization, Nick Rickles. Two good young men. Little did either one of them know that after spending the 2015 season with the Vermont Lake Monsters, appearing in 11 games for 38.2 innings, Kohler would end up having to sit out all of 2016 season after having the same surgery as his former roommate: labrum surgery, but on the left side for the lefty pitcher.
When Chris told me the news of his surgery, I marveled at his positive outlook, but at the same time felt so bad for him. In his four years as a professional ballplayer, he had thrown little more than 60 innings. In that time, I believe I spent more time with him on the fields at both Papago and Fitch, than with most of the staff. I wasn’t worried about his physical development. He was so young, and really, the fact that he wasn’t throwing meant his arm had few miles on it. But I’ve seen what it can do to young, highly touted prospects who have to spend so much time out of action and on the DL. They have little history of success, and most of that coming at the amateur level. Then there’s the inevitable rehab outing where they get rocked. After waiting all the time – even if it’s just the five days between outings, they give up hits, walks and runs. How you respond to that kind of adversity impacts the rest of the process, and when you’re older you call upon past success to get through these times, but when you’re a kid, where does that strength come from? Even with a wonderful, supportive family it is still a test you don’t think about having to pass as you sign your professional contract.
Kohler, along with his 2013 draft cohort, right handed pitcher Dustin Driver (7th round out of high school in Wenatchee, WA) have had similar injury-laden paths, though it’s been Dustin’s back that has been his challenge. Driver is on the Extended Spring roster but was away from Arizona as he welcomed his first child into the world. Otherwise, like Chris, he’s spent more time in Arizona than not. The duo is also about the same age as my twin sons. I think about them and their development more than I care to admit.
It was such a treat to catch up with Chris on Friday. Not only is he healthy and on track to have his name added to a roster sometime in June, but the 22-year-old is about to become a college student – of the online variety. First stop: an Associates’ Degree in Business.
As a pitcher, Chris is contractually obligated to play golf in his down time, which he does enjoy, but with the abundance of downtime in the past year, Chris has tapped into his creative side and added another hobby: photography. Scenery, nature, portraits you name it, he enjoys using his camera to capture all aspects of life.
Chris was very helpful to me, too. When I spotted a new face, Chris provided the name. At one point my “Who’s that?” was answered with “Kyle Twomey.” Before I could say that I remembered listening to his one outing with the Midland RockHounds, Chris added that there was a connection between the Kyle and himself; matter of fact, it’s because of Twomey that Chris was drafted where he was. This is because Twomey was drafted out of high school by the A’s in the 3rd round of the 2012 draft, instead of signing with Oakland, Kyle chose to attend the University of Southern California and pitch for the Trojan baseball team until signing with the Cubs in 2015 after being drafted in the 13th round. Kohler pointed out that since Twomey chose to not sign with the A’s in the 3rd round, it rolled over and was the slot where Chris was drafted the following year. It really is a small world.
The guys in exile are working hard, thanks to a wonderful group of coaches, trainers, and support staff who are also working very hard. There are roughly 3 weeks of Extended Spring games to be played before day one of the MLB first year player draft (Monday, June 12). About this same time is when Nuke and his Vermont staff will take the first group to Burlington and will start their season on June19. The Arizona Rookie League (AZL) begins for the Athletics on Saturday, June 24 at the Cubs, and the home opener on June 25 – both games start at 7pm.
AZL A’s Staff
Manager: Webster (Webby) Garrison
Pitching Coach: Gabriel Ozuna
Hitting Coach: Ruben Escalera
Coach (and new U.S. citizen): Gabe Ortiz
Strength and Conditioning: Terrence Brannic
Athletic Trainer: Chris Lessner
Rehab Pitching Coordinator: Craig Lefferts
Manager: Aaron Nieckula
Pitching Coach: Bryan Corey
Hitting Coach: Lloyd Turner
Strength and Conditioning: JD Howell
Athletic Trainer: Toshi Nagahara
Photos from Extended Spring Training
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