With all four of the A's minor league affiliates just getting their seasons underway last Thursday, I figured I'd kick off my minor league reports for Athletics Nation this season with a slightly condensed version of my recent prospect chat with A's special assistant Grady Fuson. You can find the complete version on my Athletics Farm site here. And then we'll start back up with individual team updates for all the affiliates next week.
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 five years ago to serve as a special assistant to general manager Billy Beane.
During spring training, Fuson can most frequently be found patrolling the A's minor league fields, now located at Fitch Park in Mesa, while keeping a close eye on the team's most prized prospects. And it was there during the last week of spring camp that I had the opportunity to catch up with him...
AF: Well, let's start right off with the team's top prospect, Matt Olson. He spent some time in the big league camp this spring. And everyone's really got their eyes on him now. So what have you been seeing out of him?
GF: Well, he impressed over there. He did a great job defensively. He got off to a little bit of a slow start, swinging and missing early in camp, but then it all came around. He's a young kid, still just 20 years old when he went over there - he just had his 21st birthday. But his swings were good. His development is on track. He's got huge power, and I think he let everybody know who he was over there. He's what's left of that high school group.
AF: Yep, he had to say goodbye to his buddies Addison Russell and Daniel Robertson this past year. But what does he need to focus on or try to work on this season at Midland?
GF: I think the same things - just trying to improve the contact, and instead of missing balls, maybe he's got the ability to foul them off and get them out of play. He's still got a tremendous eye. He knows the strike zone - very advanced for a young guy. It's a little bit of new ground when you're dealing with a young kid who's advancing at this rate. There's no rush, to me it's just going to be typical development.
AF: Another guy who impressed in big league camp this year is Max Muncy. He's been hitting well and learning a new position at third base. How close is he to being ready?
GF: He's definitely back on time from where he was late last year at Double-A. I think he got out of sorts a little bit. Midland has a way of doing that to a lot of hitters. I think they try to overpower the conditions there sometimes and it just wreaks havoc on their day-to-day approach. And I think Max and a lot of guys who've gone through the Texas League get caught up in that.
AF: He actually told me that himself just the other day.
GF: Yeah, it happens. I mean, we've already talked to Olson and said, "Are you going to be the first guy who can go there and not come out of there crushed?" But with Muncy, he's back on time with his swing. He's always seen the ball very well. He's always swung at good pitches and taken balls. He got out of sorts, but in this camp he came along great. And on top of that, he's played more games at third base in big league camp than he's played in the minor leagues, but he held up. We always thought this guy could go over there and do it. We just never had the flexibility to get him over there for long enough. But where things are in the system now, he's going to get a lot more time over there.
AF: A guy who seems to have made some big improvements this year is Billy Burns. He didn't have a great offensive season last year, but he's been one of the A's best hitters this spring and has looked great. So is that just an illusion or has he made some real improvements that are going to last?
GF: Well, it's his second year of being the gold star spring training player, so we're going to see! But I'll tell you the difference. Last year, so many of his hits were ground balls and a lot of things he out-ran. This year, it seems like he's in his legs better, using a little core, using the bottom half and driving the baseball a little bit better. That was always the goal last year. And a few of us thought, if he's just going to be a handsy, punch hitter, they're going to shrink the field on him the higher he goes up. But now, he's at his second camp and he's driving the ball a little bit better, so hopefully he stays with this part of his game. He's another year into the switch-hitting, so he's getting a little bit more comfortable from the left side. But he's staying in his legs, and when you use your legs in hitting, that's so much of your body mass and where your strength comes from.
AF: Another guy who's made a great impression in big league camp this year is Tyler Ladendorf. He's been moving on up the depth chart. He never hit that much in the system until he got to Sacramento last year. He was hitting great there and then the suspension happened. But where do you see Ladendorf's at at this point?
GF: Well, he's fighting to be one of the last guy's on that club right now. And as long as we're an outfielder short, his versatility is holding up because he's one of the few who can play second, third, short and get in the outfield and do some things. And obviously something started to click halfway through last year where the at-bats started to become more quality. I hand it to him, he's put himself in a very good position. I think he's grown up a lot in life, more importantly than just baseball. You know, the last 300 at-bats of his life so far have been pretty solid, so God bless him!
AF: Now speaking of second base, what about Joey Wendle? When the A's traded Brandon Moss for him, a lot of A's fans were wondering what was so great about him to justify that deal. But now that you've had a chance to see him here in camp, what have you seen out of Joey Wendle?
GF: Well, he's a player I never really knew much about until Billy [Beane] made the trade. But he seems to come as advertised. He's athletic, he's got quickness and he's a tough out. He's got a little pop in the bat and he uses the whole field. It looks like he's got the chance to be solid at second. I don't know how much versatility there could be to him. That's going to take some time for us to see him some more. But he's an offensive second baseman, he's a gamer and it seems like he's got some character to him as well.
AF: A guy I know you were very high on last year in camp is Chad Pinder. What have you seen out of him this spring and what are you expecting out of him this year?
GF: I go back to last year when he went home and put on some strength. You know, he's really come into himself as a baseball player, not only defensively but offensively. He's got a good, pure swing. The only thing with him right now is just his patience at the plate. He's been a very low walk-rate guy, and I think when it's all said and done, that needs to improve. But when you think about where his career is, he hasn't played that much baseball professionally. It's really just a year and a half. We're going to have him at shortstop, probably open the year at Midland. But he's going to get his opportunity every day at shortstop to begin this year and we'll see where it goes.
AF: Another guy I wanted to ask you about who was in big league camp for a while is Renato Nunez. So where's he at in his learning curve?
GF: Yeah, he's a guy we started with at 16 or 17, and how many changes have been made to his body and size and strength? He's an improving third baseman. The accuracy of his throwing continues to be on the bubble - that's one thing he's going to have to step up. You know, the one place that we're starting to get some depth right now, even with the trades, is third base and short. When you think about, you know, if Matt Chapman was out here, and Nunez and Ryon Healy, and Pinder actually looks more third base-ish than he does second base or short. The young kid Edwin Diaz is becoming very physical and very big. So we have all this depth. And depending on how they're moving up together and getting them time...Nunez got some at-bats in big league camp and wasn't overly productive. He's been hurt since he's been down here [in minor league camp]. He's got some nagging little things, but he shouldn't be out too long. You know, he's still got to get a little firmer with his body, get a little tougher and stronger as far as his commitment to how he's taking care of himself. But he certainly comes with a ton of impact if everything really hits. You know, he's got time on his side.
AF: Well, I guess Midland will be a big challenge for him this year. He'll either have to rise to the occasion or not. So for now, he's staying at third though?
GF: Yeah, that's going to be an organizational discussion. If we move him - when, where? Obviously, you're not loaded with options. But depending on the movement of a Chapman or a Healy or him, who stays at third? Healy's a first baseman by trade. Chapman has the edge defensively on all of them, but he's behind Healy and Nunez and even Pinder on the depth chart right now. And he's hurt - he's missed the whole camp so far. Get them healthy and get them out and playing, and then we'll go from there.
AF: You mentioned the left side of the infield and you've got a couple of particularly interesting guys over there now. The young shortstop Yairo Munoz really came on strong last year. What have you been seeing out of him this spring?
GF: He's taken this camp by storm. He's come in stronger and smarter. He's been showing more patience at the plate, playing hard, playing aggressively, playing smart. He's done everything right in this camp. He's good to go. Electric tools - there's power in the bat, super arm strength. There's life in his body, and he plays the game with vigor and enthusiasm.
AF: And how do you see him in the field as a shortstop?
GF: Good - I mean, typical young mistakes here and there. But skill-set-wise, he's solid. This guy runs, he throws, he's got life, he's got actions, he's got pop in the bat. He's got everything you're looking for.
AF: The A's also got another shortstop from Toronto this offseason, Franklin Barreto. I know he was late to camp, but he's another highly-touted shortstop. So what have you been able to see out of him in the time that he's been here?
GF: Definitely seen the bat. It's quick, it's short and it's direct to the ball. He impacts the ball well. It seems like he's got a clue at the dish. He's got good actions in the field. We haven't seen a lot of arm strength yet at this point, so we don't know if he's a little tired. I've checked, and he's not hurting. And again, he's kind of behind physically...so we're just waiting to see that one out.
AF: So how would you compare Barreto and Munoz?
GF: Well, there's two ways to look at it. When you compare their numbers from a year ago, Barreto's numbers were better than Yairo's at the same level of play. But at the same time, Yairo's got some impact skills that might be ahead of him. Obviously, it'll take time to find out who delivers the consistency. One of them can have the bigger upside, but who's going to be the guy who develops the consistency and becomes a true player?
AF: All right, let's talk about some young pitchers with some upside. What about Bobby Wahl? There's obviously a lot of promise there, but he struggled a bit last year. What are you seeing out of him at this point?
GF: Biggest stuff we've got in the system - I mean, when you just break down a breaking ball and a fastball. He can throw it real hard and he can drop a breaking ball that'll buckle you. The whole thing is he's so talented and he's got such good stuff that in the real scheme of development, you'd want him on the mound more often. But trying to protect some of his past injuries and keep him healthy, we have to try to develop him as a 1-2 inning type of guy. Sometimes that slows down development, which is evident with him going to Stockton and not doing very well and then walking into a big league camp and punching out the side. You know, when you've got that kind of stuff, you just never know when it's going to show up in the right spots. I will give him this - he pitched down a lot better in these big league games than he has historically in the minor leagues. So that's been his biggest thing. He's always had the stuff. It's just his location and elevation that's gotten him in trouble in the minor leagues. You know, he was throwing some fastballs 97 mph at the knees in big league camp. Well, that's pretty much going to beat anybody. So it's about him bringing that here.
AF: Now Dillon Overton looked good coming back from Tommy John surgery in the second half of last season. What have you seen out of him this spring?
GF: There have been flashes of who he really is, and then there have been flashes of him getting out of rhythm a little bit, but his stuff is back. I thought his breaking ball and his changeup were back at the end of last year. The only thing that kind of deteriorated through the rehab was his velocity. So the velocity's back to somewhere between 87-90 mph. And I think that's going to increase the more that he goes out there and feels confident.
AF: So far he's topped out around 90 mph then?
GF: Yeah, but he's the kind of guy that, even if it never climbs over 90 mph, this guy's got a good chance of getting people out. He's got a chance to really locate. He's got feel and deception with his breaking ball, he's got a quality changeup, and he's got an idea what he's doing. So this isn't a guy whose success is going to rely on how hard he throws. This kid's got a clue. I see some dominance coming out of him.
AF: A young guy who missed last season with various issues but is back in action this spring is Dustin Driver. He pitched well here the other day. What have you been seeing out of him now that he's back on the mound?
GF: He's healthy. He had a good instructional league. He's stronger, his body's in better shape, and he's got a more mature awareness of the sport. He's got a changeup that he didn't have when he arrived. So it's about commanding the baseball, pure and simple. It's about him throwing fastballs in the strike zone. And when he can prove that he can be efficient enough to go out some place and start filling up that zone with strikes, then he's on his way. His breaking ball's not quality for a guy who throws as hard as he can throw, so that's a work in progress. But he's come a long way with his changeup.
AF: Another young guy who missed last season is Chris Kohler. So what have you been seeing out of him now that he's back on the mound again?
GF: He's been good. He's fully confident in his fastball. He's extending, he's getting out front and he's letting it go. He's got plenty of 92s coming out of his hand. The biggest thing that he's been going through is he's lost the feel for his breaker a little bit. So this camp has kind of been more geared to him getting his breaking ball back. I think our intent was to have him ready to go out, but that's still under discussion what's going to happen. That breaking ball that he has is a weapon for him, and we've got to make sure he's got it. But he'll get it back.
AF: Before we're through, let me ask you about one last position player I know you like who had a big year last year, and that's outfielder Jaycob Brugman. What do you like about him?
GF: He's a baseball guy, he comes to play and he's well-rounded on all sides of the game. To me, I think he's our best fundamentally sound outfielder - not only his routes and his reads, but crow hops and his technique in throwing. I think he's got instincts for the game. He's always been a listener and he's learned quick. He doesn't do anything over the top - there's not a lot of big things you see out of him. But you're talking about a guy who hits, he'll hit it out, he'll steal a base, he'll throw you out. He just does everything well. And last year, between Beloit and Stockton, this guy put up a super year. So let's just keep it going!
AF: Well, let's hope they all do! Thanks.
You can check out my site - Athletics Farm - for updates on the A's minor league teams and all the top prospects down on the farm.