Last week, I took the opportunity to talk with A's assistant general manager Billy Owens about some of the team's top prospects, and I wanted to be sure to share a portion of that interview on Athletics Nation so all of you here would also have the chance get Owens' take on some of the players that are frequently discussed here. I've included our conversation about five position players: Franklin Barreto, Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, Renato Nunez and Jaycob Brugman. If you'd also like to see what he had to say about pitching prospects Daniel Gossett, Paul Blackburn, Corey Walter, Grant Holmes and A.J. Puk, you can find that here – Billy Owens Interview. And remember, you can always stay up to date on all the A's top prospects and minor league teams on Athletics Farm…
Now that we’re a couple of months into the minor league season, we wanted to step back and take a look at how some of the A's top prospects have been shaping up so far this season. And there’s no one better to help us do that than A’s assistant general manager Billy Owens.
Owens originally joined the A’s organization back in 1999, working as an area scout and coaching short-season baseball over the next five years. He was then named the A’s director of player personnel in 2004. And about a year and a half ago, he was promoted to the position of assistant general manager, where the A’s have been able to put his extensive knowledge of the game and its players to use in a variety of different ways.
Owens took some time out to speak with us this week while he was busy scouting prospects for this year's amateur draft. We asked him about ten of the most intriguing prospects in the A's system – five hitters and five pitchers – and, as always, his knowledge of and enthusiasm for the A’s young players is apparent…
AF: Let's start out with the team's top prospect, shortstop Franklin Barreto. He got off to slow starts the past couple of seasons, but this year, as a 21-year-old at Triple-A, he started out hot and has continued to hit well over the first two months of the season. What kind of progress have you seen out of him this year and what does he still have left to learn at the Triple-A level?
BO: I think Franklin's always been a gifted hitter. He's a guy who we've scouted since he was 14 years old in Venezuela. He's always been able to use the field, he's got power that's untapped, and he's improving defensively. He's very athletic, he's got a short swing, but he still needs to tighten up his strikeout-to-walk ratio. He's always been something of a free swinger. But kids like that who are so talented, they can touch a lot of different pitches, so they're not apt sometimes to go deep in the count and do a lot of things in terms of plate discipline, because he can barrel the baseball. He's talented, and for a 21-year-old kid who's in a tough environment to hit in Nashville, one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in that league, it's pretty impressive. He had a strong spring training this year, and I think that probably was the impetus for him to start out so strong this year in Nashville. He popped a couple of homers this year in spring training, and he really acclimated himself well to the major league staff. Everybody was able to see, the staff, the fans and the players at the upper level, what kind of talent Franklin has. And, obviously, he'll get an opportunity at some point because he's very talented.
AF: It seems like he's been playing with a lot more energy this year. I know the plan originally was for him to split time between shortstop and second base this year at Nashville, but I think he's only played about half a dozen games so far this year at second base.
BO: I think he's playing a solid shortstop, and he's such a good athlete that he could play all over the diamond. Obviously, short is probably the toughest place to play defensively, and he's shown, at 21 in Triple-A, that he can handle the position fairly well. He's got all the tools and all the components to handle the position. And just the way the roster's constructed, we have a lot of guys there who have versatility and we have 40-man-roster players who are playing various positions there. So, from a positional standpoint, it just makes the most sense for him to be doing what he's doing at shortstop and really kind of assert himself. Everybody has a different opinion about what his final destination's going to be, but at some point, he'll be a very productive major league player, and it's nice to see him getting the bulk of his games so far at Triple-A at shortstop.
AF: Another top prospect who's started the season in Nashville is third baseman Matt Chapman. He missed some time in the first month with a wrist injury, but he's certainly been making up for it since he's been back, and he hit 11 home runs in the month of May. So what have you been seeing out of him and what's he still got to work on at Triple-A?
BO: I think, with Matt, his defensive talent is off the charts. He's probably one of the most talented third basemen at any level. You hear the names of Machado and Arenado when you're discussing his defense – that's not hyperbole, that's just the fact. This guy's defense is superlative and, offensively, his power is undeniable. He had 36 homers last year. Our fans have been able to see it first-hand the last two spring trainings. He had a 3-homer game last year in his brief time in Triple-A. And for him, it's just all about really defining that strike zone, you know, learning it. With the injury, he started out fairly slow in April. But in May, with the 11 homers, his strikeout rate is actually a little bit lower this month than it was for his whole Texas League season last year when he was the Texas League MVP, so that's encouraging. I think Matt's capable of making adjustments, he's smart, and he's not afraid at all, as we've seen so far in his two big league camps. With him, it's just all about tightening that strike zone and eliminating some swings-and-misses. But the bottom line is that he's a really gifted defender, and every time he steps up to the plate, he's dangerous. And coming at a premium position, that's a pretty solid package.
AF: One guy at Nashville who really seemed to turn it up a notch in May is first baseman Matt Olson. I know there was some talk this spring about him altering his swing a bit. Has that played much into this recent uptick and where do you feel things are at with him at this point?
BO: Matt Olson, he's definitely a student of the game. And I always go back to Stockton with him. You know, out of the draft, he was more of an all-fields hitter, and then he had a pretty solid season there in Beloit his first year out as a teenager. But Stockton is a fairly hitter-friendly environment and it's very inviting to right field, so Matt was able to pop 37 home runs that year. But I think with that, he also became a lot more pull-oriented by hitting those home runs that year at Stockton. And it carried over to Midland, where it became a pull-heavy approach, and the park wasn't quite as friendly and the defensive shift was more in vogue. So, as he climbed the ladder and they started doing the defensive shifts and he still was pull-happy, he realized that he had to make adjustments to go back to that hitter who uses the whole field. And I think, for some guys, it's always good just to get a taste of the big leagues to realize it is a little bit different, the pitchers can make adjustments and they can exploit your weaknesses. And Matt's a smart kid, so he went to the big leagues, saw what it had to offer and realized he had to make some swing adjustments. So now his swing's shorter, he's using the field a lot more, and he's more conscious of trying to barrel the ball to all fields. It's definitely carried over so far in this Triple-A season and, quite frankly, I think at some point it'll translate to the upper levels. He's another one who's a gifted defender, at first base. I've said it, all our instructors have said it – his defense has been spectacular at first base throughout his minor league career. And once he added some versatility by playing right field – I believe he actually led the Texas League in assists a couple of years ago in his first full-time duty in the outfield – he's proven that he can play above-average major league first base defensively and also actually play an average right field. So, with the natural power that he possesses and an improved contact rate, he'll have a chance to make his presence known at some point in the next year or two.
AF: Another guy who had a pretty good month of May at Nashville is Renato Nunez. He's been doing his usual thing and hitting lots of home runs. He's got as many homers as anyone in your system right now. We know the power is real for Renato, but how far away do you feel he is from being where he really needs to be?
BO: Renato is 23 years old…and he's always been a kid who's capable of barreling the ball to all fields. He got a majestic, pretty stroke. I believe, in Double-A, he hit around .280. Last year, he started out hot but then, for some reason in the second half, he got a lot more pull-conscious. And though he still had a high homer total, his average plummeted. This year, he had a strong spring training, and he's got 13 or 14 homers to start the year. But I still believe that he's got another click left in him, where at 23 years old, he's got time to mature as a hitter and start bringing that average up. He's got a swing that's capable of touching the baseball at multiple spots in the strike zone, so he shouldn't have to sell out for power to hit the homers. He should be able to use the whole field. He's in that .240ish range right now in Triple-A. But I believe, within the next two or three years, that he'll still have the opportunity to go ahead and become more of a line-to-line hitter and become more of a complete hitter. And with Chapman and Barreto manning the left side of the infield, Renato's been able to go out to left field and do a solid job out there and sprinkle some games in at third base and improve his defense. But make no mistake, Renato's a hitter and, at some point within the next two or three years, hopefully he'll start using the field more and become the hitter he's capable of becoming.
AF: As you mentioned, he's been playing a lot of field so far this season. Do you think that's the most likely defensive landing spot for him at this point?
BO: Well, I just think with Chapman being such a special defender at third base, you have Barreto playing short, and when Semien comes back, he can play short, so with all the different players we have the same age playing similar positions, it's been nice to give Renato a chance to improve his versatility by getting comfortable in left field.
AF: A guy at Nashville who isn't always included in the top prospect talk but who's an interesting player is outfielder Jaycob Brugman. He's always seemed to out-perform expectations at every level. He was sidelined with a leg injury to start the season, but since he's been back, he's done nothing but hit over the past month. So what do you think his ceiling is?
BO: You know, he wasn't a high-round draft pick, but since he's been in our system, he's always hit, whether it's been in Beloit, or when he went to the California League and he wrecked it and hit 10 home runs in a month during his brief time in the Cal League. He went to Double-A and he was the igniter at the top of the lineup and played good defense in center field. And in Triple-A last year, they had one of the best records with one of the youngest teams in Triple-A – and at the top of the lineup, Jaycob makes things happen. He's off to a great start. He missed some time with the injury in April, but since he's been playing, he's above .300. He uses the whole diamond, he's got some power in there – he's had double-digit home run seasons in the minor leagues. He's got a very good throwing arm defensively, and he's always been one the higher guys in assists. He takes really good routes in the outfield. So, I think he'll eventually be a major league player. And it's safe to say that he'll be a fourth outfielder, but I think that if he's assertive, he has a chance to surprise some people and do what he's always done at the top level at some point when he gets the opportunity.
AF: For the majority of his minor league career, he's played center field, but most people seem to talk about him ending up as a corner outfielder. How do you feel about his ability to play center field at the major league level?
BO: Well, I think he's definitely capable of playing all three outfield positions and being a fourth outfielder. There's no question in my mind that he can do that. And I think that Jaycob's going to assert himself. He's not a flyer, he's not going to go up there and give you a blazing time down the line and do cartwheels and what not, but he's efficient – he takes great routes and gets good angles. So, he can fill in at all three and be a fourth outfielder. But if he keeps on asserting himself, I think he's going to surprise people at the top level, even defensively. He's a technician and he's efficient in center field with enough speed.
You can read the rest of the interview about pitching prospects Daniel Gossett, Paul Blackburn, Corey Walter, Grant Holmes and A.J. Puk here – Billy Owens Interview
Visit Athletics Farm for updates on the A’s minor league teams and all the top prospects down on the farm.