In past years, the River Cats have held some of the A's top prospects like Sonny Gray, Michael Choice and Grant Green. And at the start of last season, the River Cats' roster had five former 1st-round draft picks. This season though, most of the A's top prospects are down the road at Stockton, and there are a lot more veteran minor leaguers getting most of the playing time for Sacramento. One thing that hasn't changed from the point of view of the Sacramento fanbase though is that the team is still a winner on the field - and they've been doing it in true A's style, averaging a walk-off win almost every week. I recently had the chance to talk about the team with River Cats manager Steve Scarsone and pitching coach Rick Rodriguez for my Athletics Farm site and thought Athletics Nation readers might also be interested in seeing what they had to say.
Scarsone was the Phillies 2nd-round draft pick back in 1986. And after spending two seasons mentoring A's minor leaguers as the manager at Midland, he's now midway through his second season as the skipper in Sacramento. The A's 2nd-round draft pick back in 1981, Rick Rodriguez is the long-time River Cats pitching coach, though he also served a brief stint as the A's bullpen coach, and he's had a hand in developing many of the A's most talented young pitchers. I spoke with them both just a day before one of the River Cats' top players, shortstop Andy Parrino (who was the first player I'd asked the skipper about), was recalled by the A's...
AF: I wanted to start off by asking you about a couple of guys who've been real staples for you here this year in Sacramento. First off, Andy Parrino. What is it that you like about him, what does he bring to your team and what can you see him bringing to a major league team as well?
SS: Well, right off the bat, we're talking about a guy who plays solid defense. He's a top caliber shortstop, and I believe he can help any major league team defensively. He's also shown that he can have some flexibility at second base and third base, and I know that last spring we used him in the outfield a little bit as Bob Melvin was trying to get an idea of how he could fit in with that club up there. What Andy does here is give us great stability in the infield. I think the pitchers are better when he's back there. And I think the rest of the fielders rise a little bit to try to stay at his level because of his knowledge of the game, his preparation and the way he anticipates what's going to happen. As a former infielder myself, he's just a joy to watch, to talk with and strategize with, and he will apply what we want to do. That I think is his biggest asset to this club or to a major league club. Now this year, he's swinging the bat much better than last year. Last year, he had a little off year. So this year, he's back on track with that. He's currently leading our club in home runs, which isn't a lot, but someone's got to do it! And he's just a guy who works hard every day, goes out and plays hard every night and really cares about his performance, the team's performance and winning - and that's a great combination.
AF: The other guy who's been a real lock for you in the lineup every day this year is Shane Peterson. What does he bring to your team and what skill set could he have to offer in the majors at some point?
SS: Well, just like Andy, Shane spends a lot of time preparing himself for the game defensively and offensively. He's shown that he's able to play all three outfield positions. He's done most of his time in center field this year, mostly because of the other personnel we've had on the club, but it's given him an opportunity to showcase himself as a center fielder. He's kind of been trying to beef up his stolen bases to show that he can steal some bags, so he's brought that to our club. I think he's been a much smarter hitter than in the past years that we've been together in terms of his planning and staying with his plan. And he's just a very likeable guy. The club follows him naturally and he goes out there and plays hard every night, just like Andy. The two of those guys are really examples of why we've had success this year. It's guys like Andy and Shane and their approach to every game and that never-quit mentality that's pushed us over the top in so many close games.
AF: A couple of new guys here I wanted to get your impression of. Josh Whitaker came up not too long after he was pretty seriously beaned in the head at Midland, which was a little scary. Now that he's up here with you, what have you seen out of him and what are your impressions so far of Josh Whitaker?
SS: I've gotten a chance to see Josh a little bit through the years...I was initially concerned that he was pushed up here a little quick after coming off the concussion stuff. But be that as it may, it looks like he's taken a little bit of time to get himself acclimated. I know he's just trying to get himself going again after the injury, and then at a higher level. So I've taken that into account when I'm making my evaluations or observations. What I've seen over the last two series is a guy who's starting to feel a little bit more comfortable at the plate. He's starting to become more aggressive. For a bigger guy, he plays a very good outfield. He's made a couple of really nice catches, and his arm has proven to be something that people are going to have to take note of. He's had a couple of outfield assists already, and he's not afraid to let it loose. So, I think we've got something here.
AF: Now what about one of your newest additions, who was claimed off waivers from Toronto, outfielder Kenny Wilson? A lot of people don't really know that much about him, so tell me what you can about Kenny Wilson at this point.
SS: He's a guy who's kind of been bouncing around a bit, A-Ball, Double-A. He spent a couple years as a switch-hitter. I think if you go back and look at his numbers a few years ago, you're going to think he wasn't doing much. But he was attempting to switch hit. He's since abandoned that and he's just a right-handed hitter now. He's got some speed, he's going to steal some bases, which I know will fit in well here, as well as up above. It's going to be fun to see how he develops.
AF: Another guy I want to ask you about is Tommy Milone. For you, as the manager here, what's your approach when someone who's clearly major league talent ends up on your roster here?
SS: I've gotten to know Tommy over the last couple of years, so there's already a familiarity there and a mutual respect I would hope. So when you have a guy like Tommy coming down and he's done everything that they've asked him to do in Oakland and yet here he is, it is a little different situation. I think all of us who've been in the game for any number of years, you're going to be asked to do things that maybe don't make sense in your head but it's for a bigger cause. I think Tommy's pretty grounded as an individual and he understands some of the business end of it. I'm sure he wasn't happy, and I'm not going to be the one to make it worse for him. So it's an open-arms type of situation. It's how can we help you transition. And you kind of give a guy like that a little bit more leeway.
AF: I know you're in touch with the minor league operations staff all the time, but how much communication do you have with the major league staff about the players here?
SS: It's not a daily thing. It's more as situations present themselves. Most of my communication on that end is from [A's assistant general manager] David Forst bringing down ideas or suggestions on where he would like things to go. We try to facilitate what they want done here. But I don't expect Bob Melvin to be calling to see how things are going or if I'm doing okay. I'd be worried if he did. He's got his hands full...We make nightly reports, so most of the information is there. And every once in a while, there might be a question. Like maybe I'll get a call about Tommy and how he's doing transitioning, and I'll try to be as honest as possible.
AF: Well, you've got another winning team here this year in Sacramento. But not only is it a winning team, but you seem to be having an awful lot of big, dramatic wins - a lot of walk-off wins. So how much fun has it been for you to manage this team this year?
SS: First of all, it's been a great time. It's a great bunch. We've had some fun games. We've had some late-inning heroics and stuff. Those are always exciting and help fuel the grind of a season. But I've also been doing this for a while, so I'm not hanging on every single win or loss. I'm looking at the bigger picture - we've got to keep moving them forward, keep moving them forward. They're a great bunch because they work hard and they really do kind of just go with the flow and there's no sense of panic - and it's evident in as many late-inning wins that we've had. If we fall behind, we don't panic. And I think that's a huge thing. When you think about a minor league game and a major league game, what's the difference? The difference in a major league game is that you have to win. Winning that game is the only thing that they're concerned with. Down here, we do strive to win, but we're not going to jeopardize a player for a win...But you get in the tight games late, now the heat's up. It simulates more of what an everyday major league game is going to be like. So the more games that we have that are tight like that, the better-suited these guys are going to be when they get into a big league game. So the more we can create a game intensity here, I think it'll be a greater benefit to these guys moving up...That's kind of what's happening in our whole organization. I mean, you see them up there and they're not phased by the pressure - and we're trying to be the same way.
AF: Having an experienced guy like Tommy Milone back here in Sacramento, for you as a pitching coach, what's your role with him like at this point?
RR: Well, just to kind of find out exactly what he's done in Oakland. I know from talking to Curt Young, our big league pitching coach, that they had done some things. So I want to get on the same page and kind of find out exactly from him what they've been doing and just try to continue it, because he has been throwing the ball very, very well. So that's kind of what I have planned for him.
AF: So basically just trying to continue through with the program that he's been on.
RR: Yeah, he knows how to pitch. He knows what he's doing. It's just kind of looking for things that he wants me to look for in his delivery.
AF: Now a guy here who got a long look in spring training and looked really good down there in Arizona is Arnold Leon. The other night, he struck out 13 guys over 6 innings but gave up a couple of home runs, which did him in. But tell me where Arnold Leon's at, what you like about him and what he needs to work on.
RR: Lately, Arnold's been doing a really good job of using his fastball more. I think that's what he needed to do. He's been more aggressive moving it in and out of the zone. His curveball was kind of a little bit loopy in the beginning of the year. He changed his grip and got a little bit tighter, so I think that's helped him. His command's always been pretty decent. His changeup was okay in the beginning, but it's getting better now - it has a little bit later sink. So everything I think is starting to hit now and come together for him.
AF: Would you say that sometimes Mexican League pitchers try to be a little too fine and aren't always as aggressive with their fastball as they ought to be?
RR: When he got here last year, his fastball was very good, but his curveball was a little bit sharper. So I think he started to use his curveball a little bit more early and got away from using the fastball. So we were talking and we just decided he needed to use his fastball. He has a very good fastball with very good velocity and very good movement on it - use it, get ahead with it. And use that breaking ball a little bit later in the count instead of maybe over-exposing it too early in the game.
AF: So it sounds like being aggressive with the fastball is really the key to his success at this point. Now I wanted to ask you about a new guy here who you probably haven't had the chance to see whole lot of yet, and that's Tucker Healy. He's put up amazing strikeout numbers in the A's system pitching out of the bullpen. He got into a couple of rough games here to start. But what have you been able to see out of him so far here?
RR: I'm really just starting to get to know him and assess his strengths and what he needs to work on. From what I've seen, it looks like he has a good aggressive fastball and a nice little breaking ball. He's not afraid to go after hitters. But it's just more observation right now and just kind of seeing what he does and not give him too much instruction.
AF: Is there anyone on the staff who you feel has made a big improvement or come a long way over the first half of the year?
RR: Well, Josh Lindblom. He didn't have the best start in the world. And lately, his starts have been a lot more consistent in terms of having quality pitches and quality location. Unfortunately, he was just starting to get in that groove and he got hit in the ankle, so now he's out for however many weeks. He was a guy who was really coming along. And hopefully, maybe it's not as bad and he can come back and still pitch towards the end of the year with a few weeks left and then see what happens.
AF: What's the status of his ankle at this point?
RR: I think he's just going to go in a boot right now and just kind of rest it for a couple three weeks and then maybe just get another X-ray and see where it is...but it's unfortunate that had to happen because he was making some good progress.
AF: Is there anyone else you've seen make some real progress this year?
RR: Well, Paul Smyth. He's had quality outings against both left-handed hitters and right-handed hitters. He's spotting his fastball. He doesn't have that 95 mph fastball, but he's in that 89-91 mph range with tremendous movement. He's got a great slider. I think when he got here last year, left-handed hitters were hitting him a little bit better. But he's made a great improvement on getting left-handed hitters out. He's throwing strikes. He's not afraid to come in in any situation. He's very versatile - he's pitched in the beginning of the game, he's pitched late in the game. If you call down there, he's ready to go. But he's made tremendous improvement.
AF: You've had a few experienced guys in your bullpen this year. Can you tell me a little bit about the guys you've been counting on down there this year?
RR: Yeah, like Evan Scribner. He's been very professional. He's a very good pitcher. He's been around. I had him when I was up in Oakland in the bullpen. He was very good up there. Fernando Rodriguez has been throwing the ball well. He's coming back from Tommy John surgery. His velocity is up there now. His curveball is very sharp. I think the more times he gets out there, obviously the better off he's going to be. So he just needs to pitch. Those two guys have been the mainstays of our bullpen. Jeremy McBryde has come a long way. Starting the year off, we really didn't know where he was going to pitch. He kind of did a little bit of long relief, in the middle, some other stuff. And lately, he's kind of been in a closing role with Scribner. And he's excelled, he's done very well, especially against right-handed hitters, and even against left-handed hitters. But he's a guy who definitely can close a game just as well as Scribner can, or even Fernando coming in too. And then you've got Joe Savery from the left side, who has a very good fastball and breaking ball. Since he's our only lefty, we're trying to put him in situations where he can be used like he would be used in Oakland. And he's been throwing the ball well. All in all, it's been a good year. And I think guys are now starting to hit their stride, so that's a good thing!
You can check out my blog - Athletics Farm - for updates on the A's minor league teams and all the top prospects down on the farm.