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Straight Outta' Stockton: Interviews with A's prospects Jacob Nottingham and Yairo Munoz

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Jacob Nottingham Slaps a Double
Jacob Nottingham Slaps a Double
Spencer Silva

At first, it's shocking, "You've been traded."

These were the words that came out of the receiver, spoken by Astros' Field Coordinator Paul Runge, telling Jacob Nottingham he and his mustachioed teammate Daniel Mengden were no longer Astros; they had been traded for Scott Kazmir. He packed his stuff and walked across the field at The Hangar (Lancaster, Calif.) to the visitor's clubhouse, where his new team, the Stockton Ports, readied themselves for a 7:00 game. It was dubbed the "Walk of Trade" by Astros trainer Taylor Rhoades.

For better or worse, the three words above aren't foreign, or they shouldn't be, to past, present, and future A's. Call it preparation, call it practice, or -- simply -- call it a way of life. "I didn't know how to react at first," Nottingham related to me before a game against the R.C. Quakes. "[Runge] called me and just told me that I'd done a great job, but I got traded, they need some pitching to make a playoff run. I totally understand."

He said the A's organization welcomed him with open arms and the transition has been smooth. "The team was very welcoming, a lot of great guys," he said. "They took me in and showed me around. They're doing an awesome job."

Nottingham was drafted by the Astros in 2013, in the sixth round, and spent his first two pro seasons in the Appalachian and Gulf Coast Leagues (Rookie). At both stops, he struggled offensively, posting OPS's of .710 and .692, explaining why he was left off Baseball America's organizational Top-30 prospect list heading into the season.

This season, he started at Low-A Quad Cities (Midwest), but, after a thorough manhandling of the league, was promoted. He slashed .326/.387/.543 with 10 home runs in 59 games. Once in Lancaster, he continued to hit, hit, hit, and by July 23 -- i.e. the Walk of Trade -- Nottingham was regarded as one of the better prospects in a loaded Astros farm system; and, to wit, a likely fixture on industry top-100 prospect lists this offseason.

So, how did Nottingham go from an unpolished hitter with shaky defense to one of the best catching prospects in baseball? "It started off in Spring Training," he said. "[I'm] swinging at better pitches, and, honestly, trying to do less. Focusing on good contact and hitting the ball where it's pitched."

It may sound like a cliche, but it's the same thing I've heard from other players, including Red Sox catching prospect Austin Rei, who credited his offensive improvement at the University of Washington to looking for specific pitches in specific zones, and adjusting to the rest. Like many power hitters, Nottingham has a long swing that's dependent on timing and some guesswork, so something as simple as looking fastball, on the outer-third of the plate can have a profound effect. "I still have a long way to go," he explained, "but I'm just trying to sit one pitch and take advantage of it."

On the field, the transition has been smooth as well. Although his regular catching routine was broken in the wake of the trade, he's now settled back into his regular pre-game work: blocking and receiving etc.. And, despite the Astros' publicity as catcher-framing organization -- in 2012, they hired Baseball Prospectus's Mike Fast after his groundbreaking research into catcher-receiving value -- Nottingham says there haven't been many differences in terms of emphasis. "[They both] emphasize being a professional and doing things the right way," he said, evoking classic baseball cliche.

He's calling pitches and meeting before games to go over scouting reports, and is continuing to develop his chops behind the plate. Evaluators seem to think his improvement behind the plate this year will augur well for his chances to stay there long term. For the full scouting report on Nottingham, read my interview with BP's California League scout Wilson Karaman.

★★★

Yairo Munoz is from Nagua, a beach town on the North Eastern coast of the Dominican Republic.

I lead with this because, amazingly, it's new information. No outlet -- not Baseball America, not Milb.com, not Baseball Reference, hell, not even the Stockton Ports media guide -- lists his hometown. It's symbolic of the virtual dearth of information pertaining to Munoz, who's become one of the A's best prospects, boasting one of the flashiest tool sets in the organization.

At 16, Munoz flew to the United States to play baseball without a contract. He wowed scouts at the Under Armour All-America Game (yes, ironic) at Wrigley Field in 2011. The A's subsequently gave him a $280,000 signing bonus for his services and the rest, as they say, is history.

Despite four full years in the A's organization, and the U.S., by extension, he speaks little English. Fortunately, I dusted off the cobwebs and put my Spanish major to good use, asking him to explain his recent on-field success -- specifically, how he increased his OPS more than 200 points since being promoted -- and what adjustments he's had to make.

Munoz began the season with Low-A Beloit (Midwest), and after a hot start, faded. At the end of last month, despite the regression in performance, he was promoted to Stockton to fill in for Franklin Barreto, who injured his wrist.

When I first saw him in the cage, he was cheerfully flipping his bat around between BP sessions. He was clearly excited with his career progress. "I feel good, getting new experience for my career," he said. "Life's given me a new opportunity, I'm moving forward, playing, you know? I'm getting closer to my goal." His goal, of course, is reaching the majors as soon as possible.

On the night I caught him, Munoz's strengths and weaknesses were readily on display. His beautiful swing netted two base hits and hard contact, but he also struck out twice and swung at the first pitch of every at-bat. So far, however, the approach is working. Since joining the Ports, he's slashing .329/.361/.481 with two home runs and six doubles in 21 games. It's a small sample, sure, but encouraging nonetheless.

He credits his improved approach and attitude with the hot streak. "The difference between here and Beloit is that I was thinking too much about my numbers, you know, I wasn't thinking like a good teammate. Since I've come here, I'm making better contact, running hard. I wasn't thinking like that before." He continued, "In Beloit, I was thinking about results. Now I'm thinking about what I can do to help my team."

I asked him what it was like, not being able to understand fully what's going on around you for so long. He says he wants to learn English, so as to communicate better with his teammates, but it's an uphill battle. "We have to learn, because you need English." He turned away from me. "But it's ... really hard."