Shortly before the major league All-Star break, I spent a few days in Stockton talking to some of the team's top young players, manager Ryan Christenson, as well as A's special assistant Grady Fuson. You can find my interviews with Christenson as well as top prospects like Daniel Robertson, Matt Olson, Bruce Maxwell, Chad Pinder, Ryon Healy, Seth Streich and more on my Athletics Farm site. I recently posted my interview with Fuson there as well, but I thought I'd also share it here with all of you on Athletics Nation since we touched on so many players of great interest to all of you who like to keep a close eye on all the team's top prospects.
As most of you know, Grady Fuson served as the A's scouting director from 1995 until 2001, when the team drafted such talented players as Eric Chavez, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Rich Harden. He left the A's at the end of 2001 to become the assistant general manager of the Texas Rangers and, after moving on to head up the Padres scouting department, Fuson eventually returned to the A's a little over four years ago to serve as a special assistant to general manager Billy Beane. Prior to the amateur draft in June, Fuson's duties primarily consist of scouting prospects in preparation for the draft. But once the draft is complete, he begins a tour around the A's minor league system, starting with the teams in Sacramento and Stockton, which is where I had the chance to catch up with him...
AF: So let me just start off by asking you, as a guy with a long background in both scouting and development, how does it feel to lose a couple of top-quality prospects like Addison Russell and Billy McKinney?
GF: Well, it hurts, but I'm in this business for the same reason as the people I work for, and I know everything we do is about that big league club. As good as our club has been the last two years, to me, this is what you've got to do. And I think Billy [Beane] worked through this thing magically - the timing, the quality of the players we got. We didn't just add pitching, we added aces, and this could end up being the difference in us possibly putting a ring on our finger or not. And when it's all said and done, that's a big part of development - drafting and developing these prospects to be at that level of interest so that they could be a part of a deal like that.
AF: Well, this year, most of the A's top prospects are right here in Stockton. Of course, shortstop Daniel Robertson was probably more affected by the Addison Russell trade than anyone. So what do you see for Daniel Robertson's baseball future at this point?
GF: He's on time with his progression. He has many talents. Maybe he's not as "sexy," if that's the word, as Addison, but probably more consistent in some areas. But he's taken another step in his maturity as a baseball player. You can't out-work him - he's here every day. He wants to get better, and he's shown he's better this year than he was a year ago. He's becoming more consistent. The biggest thing - the thing we were all counting on when he signed - was coming into some power, and it's starting to come. You can see it in his numbers, you can see it in BP - it's starting to come. Everything else is in his hands, and he's playing great baseball.
AF: Did his development this year make it any easier for the organization to make the deal and trade away someone like Addison Russell?
GF: Maybe to some hidden degree. But Billy's come out on the record and said that we're going to worry about 2015 and 2016 when we get to them. And it's really no different down here in the system. You know, we're not as deep as we were a couple years ago. We've made a lot of trades, we've made a lot of moves. But one good move is we do have a Daniel Robertson at a key position. Maybe he's not on as a quick a path as Addison could be on, but Danny's not far behind Addison in any category, trust me.
AF: Another guy who looked to be really affected by the trade, particularly by Billy McKinney's departure, was center fielder Herschel Powell. He had a great first half at Beloit before getting called up to Stockton and then was hit with the 50-game suspension after just a couple of weeks here. So what's your take on his performance this year and the recent developments with him as well?
GF: Well, he's gone crazy a little bit this year. He really had a great first half at Beloit. He's learning the little things a little better. He's always been a runner, and he's always had the tools to play center. He's always been an aggressive hitter, and now he's learning the strike zone. He's getting on base more. His instincts stealing bases still need some work but are starting to come. He came here and had a quick two weeks, and it didn't look like the Cal League was prepared to stop him. And now we got the "oopsie," so we got to wait 50 [games].
AF: With Powell out for a while, another outfielder who was hitting well at Beloit and is now getting a chance here in Stockton is Jaycob Brugman. I remember you telling me to keep an eye on him in spring training, and he's gotten off to a pretty good start here in the California League so far.
GF: Brugman's a good player. He's one of our better defenders on the corner. He reads balls well, and he's a good thrower. He's got the best release. There are not a lot of things he does that are way off the charts, but there's nothing that he does below average. He does a lot of good things on all sides of the game.
AF: Now first baseman Matt OIson's been having a good year here - he's been leading the California League in home runs and it looks like his plate discipline has improved as well.
GF: As far as his strikeout percentage, he's cutting that back a little bit. But the good thing is he's walking. So there are times when he's going to swing through pitches, but he's also swinging at strikes, and that's a big key for him going forward.
AF: What kind of improvements have you seen Renato Nunez make this year at the plate but also in the field at third base?
GF: It's a work in progress. It's repetition, repetition, repetition. He's not perfect, but he's working on it. He's getting there. There's no reason not to think he'll be fine there when it's all said and done. The more offensive he becomes, the better at third he becomes! He's gotten stronger. He's a lot more physical this year. Last year, he tapered his body and thinned out at 19. This year at 20, he's starting to add some good weight. His hands are quicker. He's got another 10 yards to the ball when he hits it. He's got a chance to be a beast when he's done.
AF: What about Chad Pinder? It was a big leap for him to skip the Midwest League and come right up to the California League this year, but he got off to a great start here.
GF: First of all, we've got to go back to spring training when he showed up 25 pounds stronger, and it was good weight. He had a whole different look in his eye. He looked a little bit more confident. I thought last year he was kind of frozen a little bit in the pro game. It looked like he was out of sorts and uncomfortable, plus he got hurt and lost a lot of time. But after Instructional League, he got his feet on the ground and worked his tail off in the winter in our strength program. And in spring training, he was one of the more impressive young guys in the whole camp. So we pushed him a little bit and sent him here. He's playing a new position - 80% of the time at second base. Back in his amateur days, it was more short and third. So he's still learning a lot of the nuances at second. But offensively, he's been aggressive. He needs to learn how to control the strike zone a little bit more as he continues to grow, but he's really putting a charge into the baseball when he squares it.
AF: The other guy you guys bumped up here to Stockton with Pinder, Ryon Healy, started off the season slow, but he's really been turning it on here of late.
GF: For me personally, that would be my most improved guy. From last summer to Instructional League and even into spring training, things were a little rough. He himself is learning a new spot at third base. But I can tell things are more comfortable. He's moving his feet better, he's got better angles and lines. But offensively, he's got much more timing and rhythm, and his true hand-speed strength is starting to show up.
AF: How do you feel Bruce Maxwell's been doing both at the plate and behind the plate, and how has he been in terms of learning to work with the pitching staff and that whole aspect of the game?
GF: That bat's fine. There are still some things we're working on as far as the pull side, but his discipline's been good. His receiving's better and he's been throwing real well...One thing that's been impressive in talking to the staff here is that he's really taken a big leap in leadership. He runs our meetings before every series. We have a meeting with all the pitchers and go over the opposing club. And he's basically taken charge of that meeting, so that's a step in the right direction. He's in there, pitchers are digging him, everything's good.
AF: Speaking of pitchers, Seth Streich has been having one of the best seasons of any guy in the system. What's he been doing right, what's been working for him and what's allowed him to have the success he's been having?
GF: The changeup. That's been our plan of attack with him for a year now. He's had one, but it wasn't a pitch that he really used. It wasn't a pitch that he thought he had to use. He's been predominantly a fastball/curveball guy. His changeup's been hard, it's been flat. So all the guys have been working to soften up his change and get some bottom to it. And I think it's really been an added weapon for him. I've always loved the way he throws his fastball. He's one of our best as far as locating it down and away.
AF: How is his overall fastball command at this point and how hard does he throw it?
GF: He's really good with his fastball - he's always been able to nail his fastball. He's 90-93 mph, in that area...but I'll say the same thing now that I said two years ago, he's a changeup away from being a really good pitcher.
AF: Nolan Sanburn has finally been healthy all year and has been out there pitching on a regular basis. So how do you see him coming along at this point?
GF: Good. I think he's prepared to pitch at the next level if needed. The biggest thing is getting back on the field for a full year, staying healthy and getting the innings he needs instead of being hampered by low innings. You don't get better not being on the mound, and now he's getting on the mound consistently and he's been solid.
AF: Do you see him sticking in the bullpen in the foreseeable future?
GF: Yeah, I see that. It's probably up for future discussion though.
AF: What about the guy everyone's always interested in, Michael Ynoa? He's had some good outings and some not-so-good outings here in Stockton this year. So where do you see things are at with him right now?
GF: He's healthy. He's throwing hard. Like you said, it's been 50/50 success. The boys have been giving him a little bit more of a slider look instead of a curveball. Last night was the first time I've gotten to see this new little slider. And even though I saw his breaking ball a year ago in spring training as good as I've ever seen it, the bottom line is he just doesn't repeat it enough to be effective with it. The slider that I saw last night on numerous occasions might be a very, very helpful pitch for him. When he threw it right, it had the perfect depth and angle for a slider to get some swings-and-misses. And that's what Michael needs right now - he needs a pitch that he can get some more swings-and-misses with.
AF: Now you were just in Sacramento, so is there anyone in particular there you could see helping the big club in the near future if needed?
GF: Yes. Andy Parrino could go up there and play defense all day long. He's swinging it a lot better than he did a year ago. He had a unique down year offensively last year, but Andy could be on anybody's big league team in the right role. Shane Peterson continues to do everything you want to see out of a guy. He could be a fourth or fifth outfielder for anybody - thankfully, we haven't needed that because of the job that Craig Gentry's done. But he's talented - he can play all three outfield spots, he gives you quality at-bats. There's a flash of thunder in there, there's a flash of speed in there. So there are a lot of things that could be attractive.
AF: Have you had the chance to see much of Max Muncy or Billy Burns at Midland this year and, if so, where do you feel they're at?
GF: I think they're both in good spots. Muncy has some hot streaks and has some cold streaks, but I think overall he's been pretty consistent this year...I think he's right on track - his patience, his ability to defend. We've toyed with him at third and that looks like a very playable option. Billy can steal a base on call and he's played well in center field. You've got to remember, he's a singles guy - and the higher up you play, the more they shorten the field, so he's having to figure that out a little bit. You know, in spring training, everything's opened up and nobody really cares. But once the season starts and guys start putting hitting charts against you and know where you hit it, they defend you a little bit different. So he's kind of in the middle of that part of the learning curve.
AF: And have you had a chance to see last year's 2nd-round draft pick Dillon Overton, who's been working his way back from Tommy John surgery down in Arizona?
GF: Yeah, I saw his first rehab. He was at 90 mph. The curveball was there - it just wasn't consistent. But he threw easy. He attacked the strike zone at 90 mph. He's been throwing 3 innings.
AF: Do you think there's any chance of seeing him outside of Arizona this year?
GF: Yeah, I think the plan is once we get him up to around a 5-inning-type pitch count, we'll probably send him somewhere, but we're not going to pitch him a ton.
AF: Now what about a couple of young pitchers from the 2013 draft who've been on the sidelines, Chris Kohler and Dustin Driver? What's the latest with the two of them?
GF: Driver's got a back issue, so he's been out. I don't think it's too bad. Before that, he had an infectious disease for a while - it wasn't anything major - but he was basically quarantined from the complex. Then when he came back from that, he threw a couple times and then that's when the back thing popped up, right around the time of the draft.
AF: And what's the latest with Kohler?
GF: Kohler's elbow is just a slow go. It's still biting him. They've gone back in and taken another look. I think he was going back in to have another MRI. But he's not currently in any legitimate throwing program as we speak. I don't see him see pitching a whole lot the rest of this season.
AF: And finally, how much of this year's 1st-round draft pick, Matt Chapman, did you get a chance to see prior to the draft and what's your take on him?
GF: I've seen parts of him for two years...He's a very talented defensive kid. I can't believe he didn't play shortstop in college. He's got a gifted arm. He's got gifted hands. He reacts well. He's very polished defensively. He's got some raw power in there and very impressive strength. There are some things we've got to clean up a little bit in his approach and his moves. But he's got a chance to be a complete guy - you know, hit, hit with some power. This guy's got a chance to be a Gold Glover.
AF: Well, let's hope so! That's great, thanks a lot.
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.