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Down On The Farm: Green, Gray, Choice, Russell & Muncy


Well, the A's expected recall of second baseman Grant Green in time for Monday's game has been the big news of the last 24 hours. And fortunately, I had the chance to talk with Green, along with top prospects Sonny Gray, Michael Choice, Addison Russell and Max Muncy - along with their managers - while on a trip to Sacramento and Stockton just a little over a week ago. You can find the complete interviews on my Athletics Farm blog, but I've compiled some highlights from my interviews with Green, Gray, Choice, Russell, Muncy, Stockton manager Webster Garrison, Sacramento manager Steve Scarsone and Sacramento pitching coach Rick Rodriguez for you this week right here on Athletics Nation...

River Cats Manager Steve Scarsone on GRANT GREEN...

AF: What about Grant Green? He's been hitting well lately and has been picking it up as the season's gone on. He's been out there at second base most of the time, just one position now. Where do you see him at this stage of the game both at the plate and in the field?

SS: Well, offensively as a hitter, we know what he can do. He's done it at every level. He did it here last year. He'll continue to hit as long as he wants to play this game. Going from shortstop to the outfield and now to second base has kind of frustrated him. But I also think he's such a hard worker that he's taken each position change and he's run with it. But the move back to second base feels a little more natural to him. It might be the better position for him as opposed to shortstop - having a little bit more time for throws. And there are times when maybe he's not making the right decision or his reactions were a little bit slow, but he'll then come to us and ask what he could have done differently or we'll go to him and tell him what he could have done differently. And that's why he's playing predominantly second base here, so that he can experience all those things. I think he should have a nice, easy transition up to the big leagues and he could be an everyday guy up there.

AF: So you think you're seeing enough continual development from him the more he's out there every day at second base that you can pretty easily envision him as a major league second baseman at this point?

SS: Yeah, I think he's there, especially since his bat plays up. We all know that if you hit, we'll leave a little defense on the table. So that's something that I think will make him a little bit more attractive to the major league club down the line. The defense will come. And you never know, he could end up being that guy that will be a full defensive and offensive player. But he's still learning through some of those experiences.

Grant Green on GRANT GREEN...

AF: You've been having a good year here, and things have been going well for you at the plate. So are there any particular adjustments you've made?

GG: Just better plate discipline, better balance - that's something we worked really hard on last year. I kind of had a good season and wanted to keep it going this year.

AF: So are you waiting more for your pitch now?

GG: Yeah, definitely not trying to get that pitcher's pitch early and just waiting on mine.

AF: It seems like you've been hitting an awful lot of doubles this year. Is that just due to waiting for the right pitch a little more?

GG: Yeah, I've had a little bit more success hitting balls in the gap this year. I've always been the type of guy who's had quite a few doubles. I think last year was the lowest amount of doubles I've had in a season. But it's definitely just been a matter of getting my pitch and doing something with it.

AF: Well, it seems like you're in one of your best stretches of the year right now. Are you just seeing the ball really well right now?

GG: Yeah, I'm definitely just seeing the ball well. I've had a couple of at-bats where the ball's fallen for me, and that kind of happens when you're going well. So it's been a combination of both.

AF: Well, you've also been hitting them over the wall and in the gaps lately too, so that's not just luck. (He would hit two home runs in the game later that night). But what about in the field? You've been playing second base for most of the season, and it's a rarity for you to be at one spot most of the season. How do you feel about second base and how are things developing for you over there?

GG: I'm feeling good. I'm definitely feeling a lot more comfortable than I was at the beginning of the year. It's almost becoming second nature now. So that's definitely a good feeling - being able to worry about one position only. I'm still just doing the usual, just working on little stuff here and there - whether it's turning two around the bag, because it's just a different look from what I'm used to, or different feeds to second base. Those are really the main two things that we work on.

AF: You've obviously spent plenty of time playing shortstop, so how does second base compare to shortstop for you? What's different for you over there?

GG: Definitely, the view off the bat is much different. But other than that, the only other thing I really see that's different is the turns. Coming from short, you're able to kind of read the play because everything's in front of you - you see the ball, see the runner. When you're at second base, it's more of a reaction thing, more of a feel, that you know on certain balls you've got to get rid of it quick and on other balls you've got a little bit more time and you can stay in there.

AF: And are you feeling more confident every day you're out there at second?

GG: Oh yeah, much more confident. Like you said, it's a rarity that I've been able to stay at one position most of the year. So it's definitely nice to be able to know when you come to the yard that not only are you going to be playing but the odds are you're going to be at one position and you're going to be able to work on that one position during BP.

AF: So do you pay much attention to what's going on with the big league club in Oakland and how they're doing and how guys up there are playing?

GG: Not really, other than the guys I've come to know through the system who've gotten called up. Other than that, it's not the thing on my mind. I'm a River Cat right now, and that's what I am. So until that call-up comes, I'm going to be here in Sacramento being a River Cat.

River Cats Manager Steve Scarsone on SONNY GRAY...

AF: I wanted to ask you about Sonny Gray. He's been pretty consistent all year. So what's your take on where he's at at this stage of his development?

SS: Well, I think you hit it on the head - he's been consistent all year. Last year he and I were both in Midland, and we saw him struggle - not on the field - but struggling trying to get a hold of some of the mechanics stuff that the pitching coaches were working with him on and getting away from some of his natural stuff that he had so much success with in college. And you know, it's kind of tough as a young player because you fall back on your success in your amateur days...

AF: This worked for me before...

SS: Exactly, so there was some resistance to it all. And then eventually over time, there was just a little give and a little take, and he's found himself a nice little compromising type of mechanics. And it's a very clean delivery and windup and everything. He's taken a lot of extra movement out. And it's keeping him much more in line, which I think is a lot of the reason why he's had so much more control and command of his fastball. And that's his pitch - he's got an A+ fastball. And anytime that he can spot that up, all of his other pitches are going to be all that much more effective. So he's kind of built off of all those things and he's had a tremendous season so far, and I think it all stems from that fastball command.

AF: So if the fastball's going where it ought to go, then everything else falls into place after that.

SS: Certainly. As a hitter, if you're facing a pitcher who's putting his fastball where he wants it - in, out, up, down - it makes things tough. I mean, you've really got to get yourself geared up for a fastball, and then all of a sudden he comes back with a changeup of his breaking ball, which is a plus breaking ball as well. So he's really given himself the opportunity to have three quality pitches and really keep hitters from having any kind of comfort in the box.

AF: It certainly seems like his games are a lot more efficient. He's throwing far fewer pitches and walking far fewer guys and just getting through games a lot more quickly and efficiently.

SS: Exactly right. And that builds confidence, and then that confidence allows him to feel like he's in control of this game. It's been really fun to watch him progress from last year to this year, and we're so excited to see what happens for him in the future.

River Cats Pitching Coach Rick Rodriguez on SONNY GRAY...

AF: I wanted to talk to you about Sonny Gray. Obviously he's had a really good season and he kind of looks like he's gotten over the hump. So as his pitching coach here this year, can you define from your perspective what he's been doing right this season?

RR: Yeah, this is really the first year I've ever worked with him. I remember him from spring training last year. And just going by the little bit I saw last year compared to this year, it's like night and day. His command of his fastball has gotten a lot better. His changeup has gotten a lot better. He's getting more confidence in it - he can throw it pretty much anytime now. His curveball has always been nasty. And he's learning how to pitch. He's learning that you just can't pump fastballs in there all the time. So he's using that changeup. He's learning to pitch back and forth and learning how to use that changeup when he's behind in the count.

AF: It certainly seems like his outings have been a lot more efficient. He's throwing far fewer pitches, he's not walking a lot of guys. So what's the source of that newfound efficiency?

RR: I think it's just more confidence. Coming into this level, he's seeing that he can compete and dominate this league. And hopefully for however long he's here, he can continue to do that and then when he goes to the big leagues he'll have all the confidence in the world.

AF: Now what about his third pitch - the changeup? I know that's something the organization's been working on with him for a while now. So how's that been developing?

RR: Yeah, I give him credit. He's working hard in the bullpen on it. That's part of his routine - he works it in. He knows you do X amount of fastballs here, okay now we're going to do the changeup. He's limiting the use of his breaking ball in his side work - he's working primarily fastball/changeup. And I think that's translated into the success he's having right now.

AF: Is there any one particular thing that you're trying to work on with him right now?

RR: You know, I keep talking to him - we preach first-pitch strikes. So we're always working on first-pitch strikes. But in addition to that, once you get 0-1, hey let's get 0-2. Instead of throwing a ball, let's go 0-2 and start really putting those guys in a defensive mode. And I think he's starting to understand that - he's trying. It's a learning process, and he's still very young, so he's still learning how to do all that.

AF: So you'd really like to make him even more aggressive right off the bat.

RR: Yeah, he's got all the talent in the world. And like I said, he's very young and he's still working on some things, but he's going to be a good one.

AF: Well, at this point, he's the next prospect in line if anything should happen. So what do you think he still needs to do to be in a position to be a successful major league pitcher?

RR: His mound presence is very good. His emotional presence is very good in the dugout. I think that's a big plus for him - I think he's learned that. The one thing I think he probably needs to do is the execution of his pitches probably needs to be a little bit more consistent - meaning if the catcher's going fastball down and away to a right-handed hitter, I want him to hit that fastball down and away or miss down and away, not for it to come back over the plate. And just like with anybody else, you get in little ruts and sometimes the ball does come back over. And with Sonny, he's learning, if that ball does come back over, what to do to get it where he wants it. And I think if he can improve on that, he's going to be tough.

Catcher Stephen Vogt on SONNY GRAY...

AF: Well, you've been catching Sonny Gray in Sacramento, who seems to have gotten over the hump this year. From your perspective as a catcher, what have you seen from him this season?

SV: Electric stuff - three great pitches. He really is learning how to pitch. He's learning how to get people out. He's competing really well. Honestly, I just can't say enough about how he's coming along. He's going to be something pretty special.

AF: Is there any one thing that's been the key to his success this year?

SV: Just his command. When he's on, he's on. He struggles a little bit sometimes with his command. But for the most part, this year, he's been outstanding. And he's not far away. He's got really good stuff.

AF: So when you've got a game plan, he's throwing it right where it's supposed to be - which makes things a lot easier for you.

SV: Absolutely. He's a lot of fun to work with.

Sonny Gray on SONNY GRAY...

AF: I know you've been working on your changeup for quite a while. So where do you feel you're at with the changeup right now?

SG: I think it's good. I think I threw 7 pitches in the 5th or 6th inning tonight, and I think I threw 5 changeups and got some early contact. So I'm very confident - I'll throw it whenever, to righties or lefties. Tonight it got me out of the 2nd inning with the double play, and I got a lot of swings and groundballs and soft contact with it.

AF: Do you feel a lot more confident throwing it this year than you would have at any point last year?

SG: Oh, at any point in my whole career, in my whole life. It's just something that finally got in my mind that it helps me and it makes me that much better of a pitcher.

AF: Is there anything in particular you're focused on working on right now now that you're feeling confident in the changeup a little more?

SG: The only thing I'm doing every time out is just trying to make pitches and get as many outs as possible. There's not one thing that I would say I'm getting lectured on. It's just trying to get outs every time you get out there.

Q: So at this point, it's just a matter of executing the game plan and doing everything you know you need to do.

SG: Yeah, right.

River Cats Manager Steve Scarsone on MICHAEL CHOICE...

AF: Another guy you had last year in Midland who also seems to have turned a corner is Michael Choice. So where do you see he's at at this point?

SS: Well, I think Michael is becoming a much smarter player. He's always been a smart player since I first got to see him last year. He really dissects his at-bats. He has an understanding of what pitchers are trying to do with him and how they're trying to get him out, and he tries to get himself in the best position to avoid that. But he's being more intelligent about how he approaches his game. He used to have a lot of movement in his swing and his set up. It's a little bit more refined now, a little cleaner. He's able to adjust himself during the course of a game. To me, that's an intelligent ballplayer, when you can make adjustments on the fly and you can stay away from doing the same thing that's not getting you results. He's able to kind of pull himself away a little bit and redirect his energies. He has a lot of natural ability. His bat speed's there - there's a lot of good things there. So for him to make the next step, it's going to be from those adjustments. And we're seeing those adjustments, so we think that's going to be a great advantage for him.

AF: It sounds like the bottom line is obviously he's a very talented player, and he's now learned that baseball is a game of constant adjustments - you've constantly got to make adjustments - and he's now doing that.

SS: Exactly right. And I think it's a good sign that he's willing to do that. And we also moved him to the corner outfield spots to get him some experience on those. He's made that adjustment and adapted to that and he's done a good job there too. So you can see how his natural abilities allow him to adjust to other things as well, not just hitting.

Michael Choice on MICHAEL CHOICE...

AF: You've been having a good year here in Sacramento, and you had a really good spring too. Did you have a little extra confidence, because it seems like you just came out the chute raring to go this year?

MC: Just going back to the off-season, I spent a lot of time working in the off-season and getting myself ready for spring training. And all the hard work just paid off.

AF: Was there anything you did different this off-season as opposed to the past?

MC: Not too different. I had a little more time to get things going. The off-season before I went to the [Arizona] Fall League, the season before that there was instructs (instructional league). So there was a lot more time to kind of rest and get yourself into more of a routine that you'd like to get into. So basically I had a lot of time to get in the cage, especially in the winter when it's cold.

AF: It seems like you've been taking a lot of walks and getting on base a lot this year. Is there anything different in your approach at the plate, or is there anything different in what you're looking for or what you're trying to do at the plate?

MC: Not so much, just kind of basically picking up where I left off at the end of last year at Midland - just really trying to swing at good pitches, pitches I can handle that are more up in the zone and trying to leave the ones down alone.

AF: And what about your basic swing and your mechanics, how much are you still tweaking that, or are things pretty much settled in now?

MC: I mean, with hitting, you're always tweaking something, but most of the time, it's more mental than physical. At this point, I work on the physical stuff before the game, but once the game starts, it's all mental and you're more worried about what the pitcher has and how you're going to be successful against him.

AF: Now they've been having you spend a little time in left field and right field this year. So how is it different for you playing the corner positions rather than center field?

MC: Corners are a little bit faster. You've got to read angles. Knowing the hitter's important - which guys like to pull, which guys like to hit the ball opposite field. But it's been going good so far, just getting my reps in during BP and making sure I can get good reads in the game.

AF: When you left the big league camp in spring training, did Bob Melvin or anybody pat you on the back or let you know they appreciated what they saw from you in camp this year?

MC: Yeah, you have those sit-down meetings before you get sent out, and they basically just said, "Keep working hard and knock the door down."

Stockton Ports Manager Webster Garrison on ADDISON RUSSELL...

AF: I wanted to ask you about shortstop Addison Russell. He started out a little shaky this year. But what have you seen from him in the three months that he's been here so far?

WG: The kid's a hard worker. But he's not putting as much pressure on himself as he was earlier in the season. There were a lot of expectations on him, and he was just trying so hard to get it done, then he started getting a little frustrated as well. Now he's got it going a little bit. We moved him in the lineup from first to second just to take a little pressure off him where he's not the first guy up every night. And he's just settling in and having fun. He's a good guy - the guys enjoy his company out here. And he's just started to get comfortable out there and play extremely well as of late.

AF: What specific adjustments has he had to make?

WG: Well, hitting-wise, which is what he was struggling with the most, he has to be able to use the whole field. Instead of just trying to crank every ball out of the ballpark, now he's starting to use the whole field. He's waiting back better. He's not as jumpy. He's not as anxious. He's just relaxing and letting the ball come to him and hitting it where it's pitched compared to trying to go get it. And he's getting to know these pitchers a lot better. Basically, he didn't know any of these pitchers. Now that we've been through a couple of teams a few times, he knows what they've got and he knows how they're trying to attack him and he's made a good adjustment and he's having fun.

AF: So do you think he's a fast learner?

WG: Yeah, he's definitely a fast learner for a 19-year-old kid. Most 19-year-old kids would probably still be in struggle mode right now. But he's turning a corner and it's good to see, and he's a mature kid for his age.

AF: Now what about defense, how's his learning curve been in the field?

WG: He's got all the actions. He's got the arm. He's preparing himself. He's coming in, getting the notes, getting to know the hitters. He's positioning himself well. I don't have to watch him as much as I used to because I know he's got a good idea what he's doing out there. He's got good hands and a strong arm and has definitely got the actions. He's got a lot of range out there.

Addison Russell on ADDISON RUSSELL...

AF: You started the season out kind of slow, but the last month or so, you really seem to be putting it together. So what accounted for the early struggles, and what's accounted for the turnaround?

AR: I think I'm just more relaxed now. I'm seeing more pitches. I'm seeing more time on the field. I'm just more relaxed, and I think I perform at my best whenever I feel that way.

AF: Was there a lot for you to get used to when you first came to the California League?

AR: Yeah, me being a young guy, I kind of had to soak everything in. And there was just a lot of stuff that I wasn't used to, so I had to make a few adjustments, and I did.

AF: Besides just getting more relaxed and more comfortable at the plate, what were some of the adjustments you had to make?

AR: It's really just recognizing the pitch. Before this league, I never really saw a cutter or a two-seam, and I'm seeing those pitches really well now. That was just a little adjustment that I had to make.

AF: What about in the field, are there any differences for you at this level?

AR: Yeah, it's a little bit of a faster-paced level. The guys that hit are a little bit quicker to first base and second base, and I have to get rid of the ball a little bit faster, so I had to make that adjustment. But overall, I'm just working on my whole game.

AF: Do you feel you have to try to come in on the ball a little faster now?

AR: I still try to stay in that relaxed state, but just get the ball out a little bit quicker.

AF: You got to spend a little time in the big league camp this spring. So what did you take away from that experience?

AR: I really just tried to get to know the guys and see how they practice, their approaches, their work ethic, just what they do every day to get prepared for the game. And I try to really put that into my routine and my preparation for the game.

AF: So have you kept in touch with your boys in Beloit - Daniel Robertson and Matt Olson?

AR: Yeah, we text and we snapchat and all that stuff every now and then. It's always good to hear they're doing good, and it's always good to hear from them.

AF: Well, you're from Florida, so how is it for you living out here in California?

AR: It's a little different than back home. There's a lot of one-way streets - I'm not used to that.

AF: Well you know, Sacramento's right up the road - the Triple-A affiliate. Have you had a chance to get up there yet?

AR: Yeah, I've been up there to play a pre-season game with the Ports. And it was a pretty nice spot - it was really, really nice.

AF: Well, you never know, it might be home before long!

Stockton Ports Manager Webster Garrison on MAX MUNCY...

AF: A guy who's been a real standout this year is first baseman Max Muncy, who came in and hit from day one with surprising power. So I'm curious to get your take on what he's been doing here this year.

WG: Yeah, since day one, he's been swinging a real good bat, and it all started in spring training. He came into spring training swinging a good bat, so he's just kept it going all season. He's got a real good idea of hitting. The kid knows what he wants to do. And when he's getting his pitch, he's not missing it much. He was the only lefty in our lineup in the first half, so on certain occasions they really wouldn't pitch to him, and he made the adjustment and takes his walks if he has to. And if they challenge him, he's ready. He's using the whole park as well, but his strong side's his pull side. So when he gets that pitch in, he's ready for it. And he's laying off away until he gets two strikes, and he can definitely go that way as well. He's a good-looking young hitter.

AF: What would you say is his single greatest strength as a hitter?

WG: I would say his swing - where he hits the ball. He goes through the ball and bottom-halfs it. He knows he's not one of the best runners, so he's trying to stay off the ground and he's working hard on creating that back-spin where he's in the air mostly. And it's paid big dividends for him compared to pounding balls on the ground. He's got that back-spin bottom-half where that ball's getting up in the air, and it's a good idea to be hitting like that here and in the California League period.

Max Muncy on MAX MUNCY...

AF: Obviously, you've been having a good year here in Stockton. So what's been the key to your success this season?

MM: I feel like I've been swinging the same way I've swung my whole life. The only difference is there's been a few more home runs...

AF: Just a few?

MM: (Laughs) Just a few...Yeah, I've never put up home run numbers like this. A lot of people say it's because of the ballpark, it's because of the league we're in - maybe a couple of them, but for the most part, I think the big difference is I spent a lot of the off-season working on back-spinning balls. If anyone saw me play last year, they'd notice I had a ton of doubles, but all of them were top-spin balls right down the line. Even the ones I was hitting in the gaps weren't back-spun, they were spinning sideways, top-spin - they didn't have back-spin, so they weren't carrying as much. To me, that's the big difference. If you hit line drives with back-spin, they tend to carry a little bit more than everything else, so I feel like that's been the big difference when it comes to my home run numbers.

AF: So you started working on that at home this off-season?

MM: Well, I've always had a big problem with top-spin. A lot of lefties have that problem. There's not many lefties that back-spin all the time. So that's something I've been working on for a while. And this off-season, I really tried to focus on that. I just worked on getting a more downward plane to the ball, staying inside of it a little bit and not coming out early on my swing. And I feel like that's been a huge difference for me.

AF: I know I was talking with some coaches in spring training who were talking about developing your power potential more. So I don't know if people have always thought that you had greater power potential than you've shown in the past.

MM: Yeah, that's what a lot of people have thought. You know, I've never put up huge home run numbers. In college, I always had a couple, but I wasn't hitting 15-16 home runs in college like some guys were. So I think they saw it, and I knew I had it. But I've been a line drive hitter my whole life, and I still feel like I'm a little bit of a line drive hitter. The only difference is I'm hitting line drives with back-spin that are going a little bit more up in the air because they've got that back-spin and they carry.

AF: So when the season started out and everything started going so well for you right off the bat, you must have been thinking, "Gee, this is working out even better than I planned!"

MM: It was a pretty unreal experience for me. I was getting very good contact on a lot of the balls I was hitting. I was putting them in the air, and I wasn't popping them up - I was hitting them really well. It's hard to explain, because I've never had a start like that before. I've never just hit home run after home run, and to do that was pretty amazing. I had friends calling me from school back home saying, "Hey, mix in an infield single every now and then - those are pretty cool too." It was a lot of fun, and I think I let that get to my head a little bit...

AF: I was going to ask you about that little dip you had in May...

MM: I really think I let it get to my head a little bit. I saw the home runs and I was thinking, "Hey, maybe I can hit more if I start lifting more." And I was hitting a lot of pop-ups, I wasn't getting very good contact. I think my strikeout numbers went up. And that's something I hate doing too - I hate striking out. In the game yesterday, I had a home run but I struck out twice, and I think I was more upset about the strikeouts than I was happy about the home run. That's another thing I've always taken a lot of pride in is walking more than I've struck out.

AF: Well, that'll serve you well in this organization!

You can check out my blog - Athletics Farm - for daily updates on the A's minor league teams and all the top prospects down on the farm.