Oakland Athletics Assistant General Manager and Director of Player Personnel Billy Owens spoke with me on Monday morning at length about the Oakland A’s system from the big leagues on down. In part one of our multi-part interview, Billy and I discuss several of the young players currently getting their feet wet in the big leagues with the A’s this season.
OaklandClubhouse: It’s midseason and there has been a lot of player movement around the organization lately, which is normal for this time of year, but there has been a lot more movement to the big leagues in recent weeks than perhaps we normally see. What are your thoughts on giving guys like a Jaycob Brugman or Matt Chapman a full half-season in the big leagues to assess where they are at for next year?
Billy Owens: It’s the normal maturation process. It’s similar to the situation in 2012 where guys had gotten to the point where they were veterans in Triple-A. They had enough at-bats and enough innings pitched. They are talented and they have performed at every level.
Jaycob Brugman, he kind of forced himself onto the prospect radar by basically doing well at Low-A, High-A, Double-A and Triple-A. Now he’s getting his feet wet in the big leagues. He’s a guy who was never on the prospect list radar, or maybe was on the back end of it, but he’s worked his way up by just playing well. He’s a guy who plays a lot of facets of the game very steady. Honestly, I think his athleticism at the end of the day is probably underrated.
Matt Chapman, he comes as advertised. He hit 36 homers last year in the minor leagues and his glove is glittering. You think of names like Nolan Arenado, Manny Machado, Matt Chapman plays that kind of defense at third base. It’s just a matter of getting competitive in the strike-zone and learning the nuances of advanced-level pitching and being able to exploit weaknesses and extenuate his strengths. He’ll be dangerous. The fact that he is so good defensively and can be dangerous at the plate, you can live with the peaks and valleys because of the defense and the power are so valuable.
OC: It was a shame that Chad Pinder injured his hamstring a week or so ago, but were you impressed with how he was able to handle so many different roles since he was called up in early April?
BO: Yeah. Chad, same thing. He’s just a really good player. Going back to his versatility, in college, Chad played a lot of outfield his first year and then his sophomore and junior year, he played a lot of third base and shortstop. It was a little different, even his junior year, depending on who was on the mound and different situations, he would fluctuate between third base and shortstop, sometimes in the same game. The versatility aspect was always there.
We had Addison Russell and Daniel Robertson [at shortstop] when Chad was drafted along with Renato Nunez [at third base], so the infield was pretty crowded. Chad was able to bounce around. He played second base. He played third base. Then in Double-A, he had the breakout year when he was the Player of the Year and he played shortstop exclusively. Last year, in Triple-A, he played mainly shortstop.
It’s no surprise that he has been able to move around. It’s just getting used to the pitching at the major league level. It’s always different. We have scouting reports. They have scouting reports. Pitchers are able to execute at a much higher degree and, frankly, their stuff is better at the top level. So it’s an adjustment period, but there is no time like the present. Once you get a certain amount of at-bats in the minor leagues, you get to a point where it is time to take that step. I’m glad we are giving him the opportunity.
OC: Matt Olson worked with A’s hitting coach Darren Bush at the end of last season to make some adjustments with his hands in his set-up at the plate. Do you think that he is able to get the bat through the hitting zone quicker than he was able to in previous years? [NOTE: this interview took place before Olson was sent back to Triple-A Nashville on Monday afternoon.]
BO: Yeah, I think with Matt, I go back to when Matt hit 37 homers in Stockton. Stockton can be pretty friendly to right field. He hit the 37 homers at a tender age, but with that, he got a lot more pull oriented. Midland is a much different ballpark and he still stayed pull. Then in Triple-A, the highest level in the minors, they were able to start shifting more and executing better. Matt is very smart and he realized that he needed to make an adjustment. He got with Darren Bush. They definitely made something different with his hands. His hands are away from his body and a little higher. Then they go back subtly when the pitch is about to be thrown. And he’s just a lot more direct to the baseball. Less false movement and he’s able to use the whole field, left field to right field now. I wouldn’t say that he’s totally shift-proof, but teams are a lot more cognizant of not using the shift right away. He’s made adjustments.
He’s 23 years old, playing in the major leagues on that elevator up-and-down [between the big leagues and Triple-A]. He’s always hit homers. He’s always walked. This year in Triple-A, he’s hitting for a higher average. I’ve said it a million times, but if you watch the timeline of baseball, there are a lot of adjustments at every level. I think the 1%, or even less than that, of players – the centerfielder in Anaheim for one, the Detroit first baseman and the Anaheim first baseman/DH – I think those guys set a bar that is so unrealistic for everyone else playing baseball. Everyone else has an adjustment to major league baseball.
OC: Speaking of adjustments, Franklin Barreto perhaps received his call-up a little earlier than anticipated because of injuries at the big league level. He has been a player who has historically struggled a bit early in his time at a new level, but has proven able to pull himself out of those struggles and find ways to succeed wherever he has played. Is that a quality that you like to see from a young player, that ability to make adjustments mid-season like that?
BO: Franklin, he’s a talented player. He’s got a career average right at .300 and he’s always played up a level. I think with talented players like that, they kind of force the issue and make you push them up. When other guys went to Rookie ball, Franklin went to short-season. The next year, most guys would have gone to Low-A, but he went to High-A. So he’s always been ahead of his class. With that, there is going to be an adjustment period at every level. It’s not going to be smooth-sailing. Last year, I believe almost a year to date, Franklin was hitting around .220-.230 in Double-A. A lot of the prospect transcripts were calling for what is wrong, and then it ends up the same, with him hitting close to .300 by the end of the year and hitting .350 in the Triple-A playoffs.
It’s maturation. It’s getting adjusted to a level. He’s 21. He’s been in the big leagues this year. His body has always resembled Rafael Furcal. He can go line-to-line. He’s going to eventually hit for average in the majors. He’s eventually going to hit 15-20 homers in the majors. And he’ll steal his share of bases. The talent is there. The timeline maybe is quick, but, honestly, there is really no perfect time – whether a guy is ice cold or scorching hot – to call a guy up because the big leagues are adjustments regardless. The league is different. Sometimes, they almost let you succeed early just to see what you can do, but at some point you’ll get an avalanche of what you can’t do, and you’ll have to make an adjustment there.
He’ll be fine. It’s not going to be roses and cherries right away, but eventually he’ll settle in as a significant force at the major league level.
OC: Bruce Maxwell is getting a chance to catch a young big league rotation with several starters that he caught when in the minor leagues. Do you like the idea of having a young catcher grow together with a young pitching staff at the major league level?
BO: Bruce had that minor league stretch where he got drafted pretty much for his bat. He came to catching late in the game in college. He came to short-season and the bat looked good but the catching was something that he needed to work on. Then he had a weird period where he became a strong defensive catcher and he still always controlled the zone offensively, but the bat wasn’t up to his standards. Then last year in Triple-A, everything kind of came together where he hit .300 with 10 homers and played sterling defense and threw out a high percentage of runners.
We are at a point where Bruce is talented. He’s always controlled the zone offensively. He’s a big man and he’s going to be able to have a double-digit homerun season at the big league level. His arm is plus. It’s strong. His receiving skills are outstanding. I’m sure he will go through an adjustment period in the big leagues. He started off hot here, but at some point, the league will make an adjustment.
We are similar to where we were in 2012. We have a lot of guys who have been in the minor leagues for four years and have been successful. These guys have won together at every level. That group has been in the playoffs nearly every year. They were in 12th grade ready to go to college, and now they are freshmen in college, so to speak.
OC: Now that Daniel Gossett has reached the big leagues, what kind of starter do you project him to be? Is there a former big league starter that his array of pitches compares to?
BO: It’s hard to say. There are so many pitchers out there. Daniel Gossett, his nickname is Goose, he attacks. With [minor league pitching coordinator] Gil Patterson coming back last year, he added a little bit of a cutter to his repertoire. He’ll top at 95 and pitch normally in that 91-92ish range. He’s got a nice four-pitch mix. He attacks the zone. He really had a breakout last year between High-A, Double-A and a handful of Triple-A starts. This year, he has been solid. In big league camp, I actually thought his command was better in 2016, and he started off a little rocky in Triple-A. But he settled in and now he is at the big league level.
Same thing, it’s not going to be totally smooth initially. He’s going to have his periods of highs and lows, but he’s going to force the issue. He’s going to throw strikes and mix his pitches and then from there, hopefully he settles in as a solid starter at the major league level.
OC: Paul Blackburn had a nice major league debut over the weekend. Have you liked what you have seen from him since he was acquired? Did he come as advertised?
BO: Yeah. Paul is a kid who we actually worked out at the Coliseum a couple of days before the draft his draft year , so we are very familiar with Paul. A Brentwood kid. He’s always been a strike-thrower. His pitches have always been efficient in the minor leagues. His strike-out rate in Double-A was somewhat down. I think almost sometimes he throws too many strikes. Coming over here, getting together with Gil Patterson and with Scott Emerson at the major league level, he’s been able to mix-and-match, throw that change-up, improve that breaking ball. He’s got some sink on the fastball and he’s aggressive. He throws strikes.
That was a nice big league outing to go six innings his first time out. He’ll get another opportunity and from there, it’s on the job training. You just go through the pitchers. You can name the top-20 starting pitchers really in the history of the game, they are going to have peaks and valleys at the early stages of their big league careers. They are going to go back-and-forth from Triple-A. But Blackburn really had a great opportunity and he threw strikes – which he’s always done – he attacked the zone, he mixed his pitches and he had an outstanding debut.
Stay tuned for part two of this interview, when we chat about several players currently in the upper-levels of the A’s system.
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