While I was in Stockton last week, I took the opportunity to talk with A's special assistant Grady Fuson about some of the team's top prospects. Fuson was in town checking in on things with the Ports, and it's always fun to get the chance to talk to a guy like Grady who's been around the game for so long and who also has a track record with the A's organization dating all the way back to the Billy Martin era. This time, we talked about hot young hitting prospects Matt Chapman, Franklin Barreto, Matt Olson, Renato Nunez, Chad Pinder and Joey Wendle, top pitching prospects Dillon Overton and Raul Alcantara, as well as recent draft picks Richie Martin and Dakota Chalmers, and we even touched on a fairly experienced minor leaguer whom Grady drafted and signed way back in 1999 when he was the A's scouting director - lefty Barry Zito. You can check out more of my interviews and reports from Stockton, including my interview with former 1st-round pick Matt Chapman, and get daily updates on all the doings in the A's minor league system on my Athletics Farm site, and you can get the inside scoop on all the A's top prospects right here on Athletics Nation...
Long-time baseball man 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.
Of course, many know Fuson as the scout in the cinematic version of Moneyball who has a dramatic confrontation with the A's general manager - though that's not quite how it happened (which we chronicled here), and he and Beane are both back on the same team and rowing in the same direction.
Prior to the draft in early-June, Fuson's duties primarily consist of scouting amateur players in preparation for the draft. But once the draft is complete, he typically begins a tour around the A's system while also checking out some of the team's potential targets prior to the trade deadline.
We were fortunate enough to catch up with Fuson in Stockton a few days before the start of the major league All-Star break. We took the opportunity to pick the brain of one of baseball's top talent evaluators and get the lowdown on some of the A's top prospects at Stockton, as well as a number of other promising players from throughout the system.
AF: Well, let's start out here in Stockton with last year's top draft pick for the A's, third baseman Matt Chapman. Ever since you guys drafted him, you and others with the A's have always talked a lot about his power potential. And now, here he is leading the A's minor league system in home runs after missing the first month or so of the season. So what have you been seeing out of him this year and how do you feel about the development of his power potential?
GF: Well, I don't think there's any question about the power. The power is actually staying ahead of the quality of the day-to-day at-bats. He's in the middle of the process now. This is his first full year, even though he missed almost a month and a half. So we're just trying to get him into better positions day in and day out so that more of those four at-bats a night become of quality. There's no doubt about the power - the power's going to be there. It's all going to depend on how good a hitter he ends up becoming.
AF: Yeah, the batting average is still a little low and his strikeout numbers could stand to be a little lower.
GF: Yeah, he's got some fundamental things that, little by little, we're trying to pick apart on him and trying to get him into better positions more often. There's growth but, like with anybody at this level, things are always a work in progress.
AF: Well, I'm sure it must be nice to see those home runs flying off his bat anyway. But another top prospect here in Stockton is shortstop Franklin Barreto. He started off a little slow, but he's really been coming on strong of late. So what kind of development have you seen with him over the first half of the season?
GF: Well, now that we've been able to see more of him on a day-to-day basis, going back to our first look in spring training, I think a lot of it was just getting used to a new organization and getting comfortable with people. He did not come into camp prepared. So, out of the chute, we got kind of an obscured look. And then, he got off to a sluggish start, but we kind of figured on that being a 19-year-old in this league. But he's picked it up. There are some things defensively he's done better than we thought he'd do. Obviously, he's still got some errors, but that's typical. But he's starting to be more comfortable with his at-bats. He's squaring it up often and swinging at better pitches, and he's got enough strength to make himself a little dangerous from time to time. So it's starting to blossom into a good year. From where he played in short-season last year and for a teenager to walk into this league, that's a big step. That was quite a push in our eyes to put him here. But this is such an easier league early in the year to become comfortable in. I don't care how good you are, the Midwest League in April and May is just difficult - the weather is inconsistent, the temperatures are inconsistent. So this was a better spot for his development.
AF: It seems like the A's have been pushing a lot of the top prospects right past Beloit lately.
GF: Yeah, it's almost like, if you're good enough, you're coming.
AF: A guy who didn't start out the season as a top prospect but who's been having a great year on the field here is center fielder Brett Vertigan. So what's accounted for his success this year?
GF: I think the biggest thing is everything he had to go through last year. If you go back to last year, he didn't even break camp - he got stuck in extended spring training. And it was tough on all of us - it was tough to see him have to stay there. But we just felt that we had some other guys who needed to get out and play. And for a college guy at that age to be told that he's going to extended, it's kind of hard to take. But he got over it and he earned his way back into Beloit and, since then, he's kind of taken off. But I think the biggest difference this year is he's a lot more confident. And what he's needed to work on, he's worked on. He's done a much better job keeping the ball out of the air. But when things go the way they're going for Brett, he's seeing the baseball better and he's putting better swings on better pitches. So his whole game has taken off. He's stealing more bases, he's walking more, and he's doing all the things that come with the building of confidence. And when you start doing some things at the plate and you know you can compete, your confidence grows and the odds of your whole game playing up come up. I think he's got 20 plus stolen bases between two clubs, he's got around 50 walks between two clubs and he's hitting around .300 between two clubs, so he's done a great job.
AF: I wanted to talk to you about a few of the pitchers here. Dylan Covey has been pitching well all season. He's doesn't strike out a lot of guys or blow guys away, but he seems to be getting the job done. So what's been coming together for him this year?
GF: Well, his command is better. I think we all believe he still needs to work on pitching down in the zone better. But as far as him working ahead in counts and staying ahead in counts, he's done a much better job. But you're right, he's not a big strikeout guy. He's got a good sinker when he throws it, but the sinker is a contact pitch, and it needs to be down in the bottom half of the zone for him to get the groundballs. But there are times when this guy will come out and he'll get you ten or twelve groundballs a night, and that's the way he needs to pitch.
AF: The guy who's been a bit of a surprise here lately is Joel Seddon, who was a reliever but has been turned into a starter this year, and he's really been rounding into shape nicely here lately.
GF: Well, he started a little bit in college. And then I think in his last year or so at South Carolina, they made him a reliever. But he's always had three pitches. And we just don't have the depth of starters in this system, so that opened up an opportunity for him to become one. He was the guy we kind of hand-picked to give some starts and get him on the mound longer. And since the middle of last month, the quality of his starts has really improved.
AF: A guy who was here during the first half and just recently moved up to Midland is Dillon Overton, who's still making his way back from Tommy John surgery. So what have you seen out of him this year?
GF: Well, we're finally getting him out to a level where he can be challenged a little bit. We still need to watch his workload, but I think he got what was needed out of here. We're still waiting for the velocity to come back another tick. But even if he doesn't come back to 93mph, at 89-90mph, this guy's got the breaking ball and the changeup and the deception to still be very effective.
AF: Well, he seems to know how to pitch anyway.
GF: Yeah, exactly.
AF: So has he basically been hovering in the high-80s on the radar gun?
GF: Yeah, he's kind of an 87-91mph type of guy. 88-89mph is where he's been comfortable.
AF: Raul Alcantara is another guy who's been coming back from Tommy John. How's he been doing here?
GF: Well, if you ask him, he hates it! But if you ask us who've been around, you know how the whole rehab process works. There's no science to it. You don't know how certain guy's are going to feel. His stuff is certainly there. It's just about him getting his rhythm and delivery back so that he commands the baseball a little better.
AF: So I guess he's eager to get it going!
GF: Oh yeah, his expectations at this point are probably a little higher than ours are. But that's good. Every time you take the mound, you want to throw a no-hitter, right?
AF: Right, I guess there are worse attitudes to have! Now the guy out of the bullpen here who's been really impressive is the closer Brendan McCurry. He just seems to be solid every time out there.
GF: As expected! He was a very polished college guy when we got him. He's still a bit of the trickster. He drops arm angles and he's got all these different slots. But the guy's got four pitches and he commands them and he attacks the strike zone. He probably is what he is, but he's got the stuff to keep it going and do the kind of things he's doing at every level.
AF: Okay, let's touch on a few of the A's top prospects at Midland, starting with first baseman Matt Olson. Of course, Midland is a notoriously difficult hitting environment, but what do you think about what Olson's done there so far this year?
GF: Well, I would say the first month and a half, the target was being met. He hovered around .270 and he was hitting some homers. And we all know the conditions are much different there. We might have cursed him because in spring training we told him, "Hey, be the first guy who goes from Stockton to Midland and doesn't have to stumble around a bit." He's kind of hit a wall. He's had a rough patch, but we've got plenty of time to get things fixed and get back on track and end up having the kind of year he hopes to have.
AF: Is there anything in particular that he's struggling with at the moment?
GF: The swing-and-miss is still there, and that's obviously getting exposed. So if there's any part of his game that needs to take the next step, it's that - it's the contact.
AF: So the tougher pitchers there are just getting him to swing and miss more often.
GF: Right, but at the same time, he's such a studious kid and a hard-working kid, his ability to make those adjustments and get better should be no different than the pitchers who've climbed to that level.
AF: So you think he's capable of making those adjustments then.
GF: Yeah, yeah.
AF: So what about Chad Pinder, who's been back playing shortstop at Midland this year? He's been hitting well, and he's also been getting on base more often than he had been last year, which I think was a bit of an issue. I'm not sure how he's been in the field, but tell me a little bit about where you think he's at both at the plate and in the field.
GF: He's been great on both sides. He's played a very solid short. I think he's opened a lot of eyes as a shortstop. Time will only tell where he ends up position-wise, but he's done a remarkable job. He's been consistent. There haven't been a lot of peaks and there haven't been a lot of valleys in his game. He's been pretty solid. When it comes to his numbers, across the board, the arrows are pointing up. He's walking at a higher percentage and his recognition is improving. So his growth to me is right on target.
AF: The other guy at Midland who everyone's always interested in is third baseman Renato Nunez, who's another one, like Chapman, who got a bit of a late start to the season and is maybe just now starting to get into the swing of things. So what are you seeing in terms of his progress this year?
GF: Well, I think we're speaking at a time here in July when things are finally clicking again, where the quality of the at-bats every night are a little more on target, and obviously the performance is coming out of that. He's being moved around - he's playing a little third, playing a little first - because we're using Olson in the outfield quite a bit more now, so he's getting an opportunity at both spots. So I'm hoping for a big second half from him. You know, that league doesn't become quite as difficult for righties as it does for lefties. The right-handers aren't hitting it into the teeth of the wind every day.
AF: Well, I know Michael Choice and Grant Green didn't enjoy it there too much.
GF: Well, it's one of those things you've got to overcome - you've got to go through there.
AF: I guess that's what hurdles look like!
AF: Now one pitcher of particular interest in the bullpen there at Midland is Ryan Dull, who's only given up two runs all year long. So how's he been doing it and what's he got to do to get out of Midland?
GF: Well, he's doing it with the same stuff he's always had. When he's been good, he's been 90-92mph, his ball has a little sink and dive to it, and he pitches at the bottom of the strike zone fabulously. He's got a hard little slider and he's got a nice little changeup. He's one of the better pitchers in our system when it comes to really pitching down in the strike zone consistently, and that's the biggest attribute he has, plus he pounds the strike zone. You know, nobody expects a run like this, so God bless him!
AF: So is there anything in particular that he needs to do or work on still to get to being a major-league-ready reliever?
GF: No, I think his stuff is what it is. I don't think he's the kind of guy you can project bigger stuff out of. I think he's got to do it the way he's doing it right now. And if he continues to do that at every level, he will pitch in the big leagues.
AF: So I guess it's obviously just a matter of getting the opportunities then.
AF: Well, there certainly aren't an awful lot of young prospects in Nashville this year - it's a real veteran team. But one guy the A's got in the offseason, second baseman Joey Wendle, has been the youngest position player there for most of the season. So what have you been seeing out of Joey Wendle so far this year?
GF: It's all been good. Collectively, between most of us, we think there's certainly a hitterish-looking guy there. He's got enough power to kind of be a little scary. And I think his approach leaks back into a power mode a little too often. With the numbers that he's putting up, I think our expectation might have been a little bit more - but at the same time, close to .270 and some homers. There's some defense that still can take another jump. I look at him as like a younger Sogard defensively - you know, the defense just kept getting better and better and better all the time. And I use Sogie because I drafted him in San Diego, and he was all offense. That's what bothers me when Sogie hasn't hit, but he's become a superb defender. By the way, [A's hitting coach] Darren Bush has done a tremendous job with Sogie. He's got him lengthening out his stride. You know for the last couple years Sogie's gone with a no-stride approach, and it's changed the way he attacks pitches in the zone and actually how he sees pitches. I don't know why Sogie in the past has not walked when this guy used to be an on-base machine. So now Bushie's got him back into getting some distance in his stride and being in a better position to see the ball, and obviously he's having a much better offensive year.
AF: So you're looking at Wendle as possibly being on a similar sort of path as Sogard was on then.
GF: Yeah, with a little bit more pop in his bat. He's more physical.
AF: One of the most interesting stories at Nashville this year has been Barry Zito's return to baseball. Since you go way back with him, do you have anything to say about what he's been doing there this year?
GF: Yeah, I've always got a lot to say about Barry because, shit, I signed him way back when! I'm proud of what's happened the last month or so. You know, the first five or six starts he made, you just kind of went, "Ugh, here we go." Not the command that he's used to throwing with, and we all know the velocity's down. But he's been grinding through it and he's been working at it. I know [pitching coach] Don Schulze and [manager] Steve Scarsone say he's been a tremendous citizen. And I would say his last five or six starts have been off the charts. He's been efficient, he's been pounding the strike zone and his breaker's been more consistent. His changeup still kind of comes and goes, but he's been really good.
AF: And finally, I just wanted to get your take on a couple of the A's top draft picks this year starting with your #1 pick, shortstop Richie Martin.
GF: Yeah, he's a high-upside athlete. He's got all the skills you want. He's a plus runner and thrower. He's got actions, he's got hands. There are some things in the offense that we've got to keep our eyes on. He's not a power guy per se, but he's got the strength to hit a few. There are some things, maybe once he gets his legs underneath him a little bit, that we may tinker with offensively in instructional league. But he's got a chance to be a complete guy, minus the big home run threat, but he's a big upside athlete.
AF: And what about the top pitcher you guys took in the 3rd round, the high school pitcher Dakota Chalmers?
GF: It was nice to take a run and get the young kid Chalmers. After taking Martin number one and White number two, we lost some pitching in that area of the draft. So it was nice to be able to come back and get a nice upside guy like Chalmers. I didn't see him throw in high school, but I saw his first or second side down in Arizona, and it was impressive. But he's like most 18-year-olds - you've got to let the body grow up. He's tall and he's thin. His body's going to go through a lot of transformations in the next three or four years. But he's got a good delivery, he's got a good breaking ball and there's some heat coming out of his arm. He looks like he's got a chance to be a little more of a mature strike-thrower, and there's some upside there, no doubt!
AF: Well, that's good to hear. 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.