I had the chance to talk with A’s assistant general manager Billy Owens a week ago about some of the A’s top prospects for my Athletics Farm site. My primary focus was on the players who appeared on my site’s preseason Top 10 Prospect List, but I also took the opportunity to ask him about this season’s hottest young pitching prospect, Daniel Mengden. When I spoke with Owens, Matt Olson and Chad Pinder were still struggling, but it should be noted that in the week since we spoke, from last Sunday through this Saturday, Olson has hit .345 and Pinder has hit .370. That’s quite a turnaround, and hopefully we’ll continue to see improved performance out of both of them. It’s also worth noting that we spoke just one day before 1st-round draft pick Richie Martin made his season debut with Stockton, so there wasn’t much to discuss in terms of his performance this season. But with that in mind, here’s what the always enthusiastic Mr. Owens had to tell me about some of the A’s top prospects…
AF: Okay, I wanted to go through A’s Farm’s preseason top 10 prospect list with you and get your take on where they’re all at now that we’re about a third of the way into the minor league season at this point. So let’s start out with #1 on our list, pitcher Sean Manaea, who’s already made it to the major leagues, maybe even a little sooner than everyone expected due to all the injuries. He’s obviously a very talented young arm. Can you tell me a little bit about what you like about him and how you see his future in the major leagues shaping up?
BO: Obviously, he’s young and it’s early in his professional career. It’s only his third full season. We made the deal last year with Ben Zobrist to acquire Manaea and he’s been super for us. He came over to Midland last year and he helped that team to a Texas League championship. He had a lights-out spring training. And with the injuries and Sean’s very good performance there in Nashville, we promoted him. He’s got really good stuff. He’s topped out at 96 mph. He throws from a slightly unusual slot that causes deception. He’s got a nice slider and a developing changeup, and he attacks the zone. It’s obviously early in his development, and there are going to be peaks and valleys, but at some point he’s going to settle in and be a really good major league starting pitcher. Physically, he reminds me of the old Pittsburgh Pirates lefty John Candelaria – he kind of throws from that same slot as the Candy Man. Sean’s going to be a really good pitcher, but it’s early and he’s young. He’s acclimated himself very well. He’s a hard-working kid, he doesn’t take himself too seriously and he takes everything in from the veterans. And it’s exciting to see what he’s done so far.
AF: It looks like he could be more of a strikeout pitcher than Candelaria was in his heyday. He’s obviously very talented, but he’s hit a few bumps in the road early on. Is there anything in particular that he needs to do to get over the hump?
BO: You know, they always tell you about the major leagues but, once you get there, it’s still a little bit different – it goes at a faster pace. And he obviously only had a handful of Triple-A starts. So he’s just got to fine-tune his stuff and keep on going pitch to pitch, because in the major leagues things happen quickly. So it’s nothing earth-shattering. His timetable’s just been accelerated…and at the end of the day, he’s going to be a really good major league starting pitcher.
AF: So maybe just more of a mental adjustment for him then.
BO: I wouldn’t even say that. I just think that the major leagues are the ultimate test. And so until you see it, until they make adjustments, until you adjust back, until you watch the video of the major league hitters, until they watch you, it’s a constant chess match. And you don’t really master that chess match until you’ve been through the wars and gone back and forth and settled in. So for a kid in his third full season, it’s a lot to ask, but he’s taken everything in his stride. He went 6 2/3 innings in his last two starts. Everything’s been positive, he’s aggressive and he’s having fun out there.
AF: He certainly seems to have a good attitude, that’s for sure. #2 on our list is infielder Franklin Barreto. One good thing to see out of him this year is the fact that his errors in the field are certainly down from last year. He’s also been moving around, playing a little bit of second base in addition to shortstop. So how do you see his positional future shaking out and how do you view his play in the field this year?
BO: I think that so far, he’s 20 years old in Double-A, he’s a really talented kid, he’s got 4 or 5 home runs already and he’s got 13 stolen bases. At the youth level, the best kid always plays shortstop. So from an athletic standpoint, he’s a talented kid. He’s almost a double-plus runner on a major league scale. He’s got power – he hit 3 home runs in major league spring training this year. Last year, he started off somewhat slowly but he finished over .300 in the California League, so offensively he’ll be fine. In Double-A, we’ve got guys like Matt Chapman and Yairo Munoz who are all capable of playing shortstop. So with all those guys on the same team, it’s been advantageous to move those guys around.
AF: I think he’s only got about 9 or 10 walks so far this season. So would you like to see him improve his plate discipline a little bit at this point?
BO: Yeah, but you’ve got to put it in context. He’s 20 years old in Double-A, and he’s always been a career .300 hitter and he’s an aggressive player. So we could sit here in May and talk about certain ratios, but not a lot of people have been 20 years old at Double-A putting up solid numbers. And just from development and games played, he’ll learn to tighten the strike zone and, from there, he’ll definitely flourish and be a really good player.
AF: #3 on our list is Matt Olson. He’s been a top power-hitting prospect in the system for a few years now. But he’s struggled a bit so far this year at Nashville. I think he’s got just 3 or 4 home runs and he’s been hitting below the Mendoza Line for most of the season. So can you talk a little bit about the challenges that he’s faced adapting to Triple-A?
BO: Yeah, I think we’re still very excited about Matt Olson. Triple-A is definitely a very big test, especially for a kid who’s still at a young age – 22 years old. Coming off a solid Double-A season, the first two months are definitely going to be challenging, but it’s been encouraging the last ten days or so where he’s tightening the strike zone and the walk-to-strikeout ratio is starting to pick up. You know, Double-A pitchers have really good stuff, and in Triple-A, they start being capable of really hitting their spots and pitching in sequences and really pitching to the scouting report. And then in the major leagues, they have both. So every level is a challenge as you climb the ladder. And I think Matt had to go to Triple-A to see the adjustments there that he had to be able to make. He’s a smart kid and a very talented player, and now hopefully from May going forward, he’ll continue to make those adjustments and tighten the zone. He had a really good second half last year in Midland. So this year, expect more of the same. He’ll make an adjustment from May going forward and have a really strong second half of the season.
AF: He’s primarily been playing in right field this season. I think he’s only spent about half a dozen games at first base this year. Given that there could be an opening at that position in Oakland in the near future, do you expect him to continue getting most of his playing time in right field this season?
BO: Yeah, I think that it increases his versatility. We’ve talked in the past about the fact that Matt’s a plus defensive first baseman, no question about it, but I also think he’s an underrated athlete. Last year, he went out to the Texas League and it was the first time that he’s really played that much outfield. And he had a ton of assists – he was among the league leaders in assists from the outfield. So going forward, having that versatility, he can always play a really good first base, and getting acclimated to right field at the higher level is only going to benefit Matt and the organization going forward.
AF: #4 on our list is someone you’ve got to be pretty excited about this year, third baseman Matt Chapman. He’s leading the Texas League in home runs with 11, which isn’t an easy thing to do, and he’s been taking some walks as well. So what have you been seeing out of Matt Chapman at the Double-A level this year?
BO: He’s been exciting from the moment he stepped in the organization. We picked late in the first round that year. And Eric Kubota identified Matt Chapman as somebody we’d have a chance to get with our pick that year in the draft but also somebody he thought was going to be a high caliber first-round pick, and he’s proven correct. I mean, Matt Chapman’s exciting. He’s got a ton of natural power to all fields, not just pull-side power. He’s got plenty of power to the opposite field, which he showed on a few homers in major league spring training. His throwing arm is top shelf – as good a throwing arm as you’ll see out there. For Team USA, when he was a rising prospect, I think he threw 100 mph as a reliever – his arm’s that good. And he showed it in major league spring training. I think he got voted one of the top defensive third basemen last year in the minor leagues. He’s a natural fielder, and he’s capable of sliding over to shortstop and playing a really good shortstop as well. The power is definitely going to be there, and it’s exciting to see him tighten the strike zone and improve the walk-to-strikeout ratio.
AF: With the arm he has, do you feel he has enough range and enough natural ability to be able to play shortstop at the major league level?
BO: Yeah, I think it’s possible. He’s definitely a top-flight third base defender, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could log some games at shortstop at that level.
AF: #5 on our list is third baseman Renato Nunez. He got off to a good start at Nashville this year and he’s been leading the team in home runs there. So how do you feel about the way he seems to be handling things at Triple-A this year?
BO: It’s been exciting to watch Renato’s development. He’s made adjustments at every level. He hit almost 30 home runs in the California League, then he cut down on his strikeouts dramatically moving up to Double-A, and he’s continued to tighten the strike zone at the Triple-A level. And he’s got a nice swing – it’s short, it’s compact and he produces a lot of home runs with that swing. He’s capable of using the whole field, going line to line. He’s a solid offensive hitting prospect. It’s been fun to see him make the adjustments, and he definitely has a chance to continue that going forward and improve his numbers.
AF: And what have you seen in terms of his defense at third base so far this year?
BO: Yeah, he’s been solid over there. He’s definitely an offense-oriented player. But he works hard and shows flashes defensively. We have Eric Martins there, our hitting instructor, but he also has a lot of experience in the infield, and Steve Scarsone, our manager, who also was a very good infielder for a long time. They’re constantly helping Renato develop into a solid infielder. And time, reps and opportunity hopefully lead to progress and we’ll see where it goes.
AF: #6 on our list is infielder Chad Pinder. He’s another guy who, like Matt Olson, has had some difficulties at Nashville early on. I think he’s only had about half a dozen walks there this year. Can you talk about some of the challenges he’s faced at the Triple-A level this season?
BO: Yeah, it’s the same kind of thing we talked about. Triple-A is definitely another step – it’s a challenge. The pitchers are better, but Chad will definitely adjust. He’s been on a hot streak the last 10 or 15 games. He’s making a lot harder, more authoritative contact. He’s tightening the strike zone. He’s always been somewhat of a free swinger, and he’s had success doing that, but Triple-A poses more challenges with that style. He’s a very instinctive player, he’s a smart player and I believe he’ll adjust. Now that he’s seen that caliber of pitching for the first six or seven weeks of the season, we’re slowly seeing him making the adjustments – he’s starting to barrel more baseballs and he’s driving the ball a lot better towards the end of the month. So going forward, it’s definitely going to be exciting to see how he progresses this year. He’s an exciting player, and he’s just going to continue to progress and evolve and make adjustments.
AF: He’s had about a dozen errors at shortstop so far, and I think a lot of them have been throwing errors. Has he just been rushing things a bit? How do you account for that?
BO: For one, shortstop’s the most difficult position on the field – you get the most chances. And with young infielders, you don’t judge them by the number of miscues per se. He’s a solid fielder. He’s working hard with Eric Martins, he’s working hard with Steve Scarsone, and he’s continuing to improve. He only went back to full-time shortstop in the last year and a half. He’s steady and he had a solid major league spring training. So going forward, he’ll continue to work at it and he’ll be able to improve his shortstop positioning but also, at some point, be able to play all three infield positions, because you never know when opportunity’s going to arise.
AF: #7 on our list is a pitcher who’s been at Triple-A this season, Dillon Overton. He’s a little ways past the Tommy John surgery now and it’s my understanding that he’s finally off the leash and free to go. He’s hit a few bumps in a couple of his starts, but his command has continued to be solid. What have you seen out of him at Triple-A this year?
BO: Dillon’s a very good pitcher. He reads hitters very well. He just has a natural instinct to pitch, and he moves the ball in and out. He’s got a really advanced changeup and a solid curveball. His fastball will sit comfortably in that 87-91 mph range, a touch more occasionally. But he understands the game, he has a natural instinct for the mound and he’s got very good touch. He’s unpredictable out there as far as his sequencing. So he’s solid. He’ll definitely be a major league pitcher at some point, and then we’ll see exactly what role that is, but he can pitch, for sure.
AF: Is his velocity about where it was last season or has it ticked up at all this year?
BO: Yeah, I’d say it’s more similar to where it was last year. And honestly, I think we all saw Dillon pre-surgery and he showed flashes of having more velocity than he has as a pro. But, like you said, he’s got a fantastic strikeout-to-walk ratio. He’s progressed at every level, he gets hitters out, he pitches deep into ballgames now, and he pounds that strike zone. So he’ll be a major league pitcher regardless, and he’ll be a major league pitcher with the arsenal that he has currently.
AF: #8 on our list was catcher Jacob Nottingham, whom you guys traded away in the offseason in the Khris Davis deal. Can I just ask you how hard it was to trade away a top catching prospect like that whom you guys had just made an effort to acquire?
BO: I think that all 30 teams are trying to win as many games as possible. We’re excited to have Khris Davis. And when you make a trade, both organizations are trying to improve themselves. We were able to acquire a 30-home-run bat and they were able to acquire a good catching prospect and a solid pitching prospect. So both sides agreed to to the deal, and we’re happy.
AF: #9 on our list is infielder Yairo Munoz. He got a bit of a late start to the season with some nagging injuries, but he’s been showing some pop in his time with Midland this year. What have you seen out of him in his time at Double-A so far this season?
BO: He’s a talented kid and he always responds to challenges. He’s got a lot of tools – he’s got pop in his bat, he can run, he’s got a fabulous throwing arm. Matt Chapman and Yairo Munoz have the two best infield throwing arms in the system by far. He’s hit the ground running in Double-A. He got a taste of it last year, he got moved up for the playoffs, and now he’s been off to a good start. Like you said, he had some nagging injuries, but he’s there now and he’s having solid at-bats – he’s driving the baseball. He’s a natural shortstop. With him, Barreto and Chapman, with those three kids capable of playing shortstop, it’s allowed all three of them to gain some versatility by moving around. But Yairo is definitely a solid major league prospect, and I could see him moving up our rankings as time goes on.
AF: I know he’s been playing shortstop, second base and now a little bit of third base this year. So do you see him continuing to see time at all three of those positions as the season continues?
BO: Yeah, I just believe that the best players normally start off as shortstops. So from a draft process or when you sign a kid internationally, a lot of times you sign shortstops or you draft shortstops. And in our case, in the last couple of years, between Barreto, Chapman and Munoz, they’re all at the same stage of their development at Double-A. They all have shortstop/third base experience, but they’re on the same team. They can’t all play one position, so they’re going to move around and gain versatility and also help that team win ballgames.
AF: Well, speaking of shortstops, #10 on our list is shortstop Richie Martin. Everyone was really looking forward to getting a better look at him in his first full season this year. Obviously it must have been disappointing to see him get hurt. But even though he’s been off the field, can you tell me what you like about Richie Martin based on what you’d seen out of him prior to his knee injury this spring?
BO: Yeah, Richie’s got a very good shortstop profile. He’s strong defensively – he’s got all the actions you want to see. He’s got a strong throwing arm, he’s got very good hands and he’s got tremendous agility and flexibility for the shortstop position. Offensively, he’s got a line-drive bat and he uses the field. And I believe, last year, he was one of the youngest players from the SEC who got drafted. He’s got tools, he has intangibles and he’s got really good makeup. It’ll be exciting to see when he gets on the field and shows what he can do.
AF: And with Nottingham off our list due to the trade, we replaced him with pitcher Casey Meisner. When he came over from the Mets in the Tyler Clippard trade last year, he got off to a great start and looked really solid at Stockton last season. But he seems to be struggling with his command a bit this year. So can you tell me what you’ve seen out of him so far this season?
BO: He’s a tall kid – he’s 6’7”. When he’s pitching very well, he’s had a great angle on the ball – he throws downhill, throws strikes. He’s got a pretty good changeup and a solid breaking ball. At Stockton, it’s an offense-oriented park…and Stockton can be challenging. Starting this year, he’s been okay, but definitely he needs to keep on working on pounding that strike zone, getting ahead in the count and having a strong second half going forward.
AF: And finally, one guy who wasn’t on our top 10 list, or many others, whom I have to ask you about just because he’s gotten off to such a great start is pitcher Daniel Mengden. He seems like a really smart pitcher who’s been tremendous so far this year. So what you’ve seen out of him and what accounts for his great start this season?
BO: He’s a student of the game. In college, he was a top-flight pitching prospect. He got dinged up in his junior year and it caused him to fall in the draft to the fourth round. Houston was able to get him there and then we were able to acquire Daniel and Jacob Nottingham in the Scott Kazmir trade. And since he’s come over, he’s been fabulous. He’s been up to 95-96 mph with the fastball. He’s got a solid breaking ball and a good changeup. He’s absolutely pounded the zone and been very efficient and aggressive. He keeps a book on the hitters. He’s been outstanding and it’s been fun to watch. He’s met every challenge and, going forward, we expect more of the same.
AF: So is there anything else he needs to do to get to the next level?
BO: He’s at Triple-A now and he’s knocking on the door. He’s putting up zeroes, he’s a diligent worker and he’s been very aggressive. When he came over to the system, he acclimated very well. So the future’s definitely bright!
You can visit my site - Athletics Farm - for updates on the A’s minor league teams and all the top prospects down on the farm.