I spoke with A’s special assistant Grady Fuson a little earlier in the month about some of the top prospects in the A’s system. Some of you may have seen that interview on my Athletics Farm site, but for those of you who might have missed it, I thought I’d feature a portion of it here this week. You can find our conversation about a number of the A’s top prospects below. And you can find our complete conversation, which also covers pitchers Brian Howard, Parker Dunshee, Logan Shore, Miguel Romero, Bobby Wahl, Daulton Jefferies, James Kaprielian, Boomer Biegalski and more, on my site here. But here’s a portion of our recent conversation…
After originally joining the A’s organization as an area scout under the regime of Billy Martin back in 1982, Grady Fuson rose through the ranks and eventually ended up serving as the A’s scouting director from 1995 until 2001. It proved to be a very fruitful period for the organization, 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 San Diego Padres scouting department, Fuson eventually returned to the A’s a little over eight years ago to serve as a special assistant to the general manager.
AF: I wanted to start out by asking you about this year’s draft. You guys surprised some people by going with Kyler Murray, who’s probably been better known as a football player, in the first round. Did you personally get to scout him and get much of a look at him yourself?
GF: Yeah, four games. I got the whole picture.
AF: So, what did you think and what should we know about him?
GF: Well, I think just from a baseball talent standpoint, we probably got the most talented guy in the draft. I mean, he’s skilled up in every facet. Maybe the arm’s a little late, but plenty playable. But the legs, the timing, the swing, the quickness, the strength, the speed to this guy, the athlete to this guy is usually what you see in the top two picks in the draft.
AF: So, just in terms of raw talent, you feel like you couldn’t really do much better.
GF: I don’t really know that he’s raw. You know, it’s pretty impressive for him to do what he did, playing as little as he has the last few years and walking into the Big 12 and hitting .290 or .300 with 10 homers and stealing 20 bags – pretty impressive.
AF: A lot of people still considered that to be kind of a ballsy pick, given his desire to play football this fall and everything that comes along with that. So, what was the process like leading up to that decision?
GF: Well, it took some time. There were a lot of unanswered things until you got to the draft. Some people had to talk to the kid, talk to [agent] Scott Boras, figure out the truth about what’s really going on, the truth about football. The only thing I would say is it’s going to be interesting to see, when this guy does come to the game full-time, the energy level and the passion that he displays. A lot of times to me, he looked like he was a prized football guy standing on a baseball field if you know what I mean. But he didn’t dog it. He ran balls out. He played hard. There were some things that kind of left you guessing. But you know, the guy’s got a hell of a lot going on between spring football and everything. So, anyway, ballsy pick? Dead on – no doubt!
AF: So, it sounds like eventually everybody just decided that the potential upside was worth whatever the risk was just because the upside looked so good.
GF: Yeah, and there were some things that just kind of fell apart. A lot of these college guys just had bad medicals that scared us off a little bit. And when that happens, then you slide somebody down because of that risk, and somebody’s got to move up.
AF: So, I guess if things are looking a little more uncertain with everybody else, then maybe he doesn’t look quite so risky anymore.
AF: But I guess you won’t really get to see him in action until spring training anyway.
GF: Right, we won’t see him till spring.
AF: What about last year’s top draft pick, Austin Beck, who’s been at Beloit this year? What do you think of where he’s at as a 19-year-old in the Midwest League?
GF: I think he’s doing great. I think instructional league was monumental for him. A little bit of his character, his caution, getting to know people, being around people, that started to come out and he became more comfortable. You can tell when he came back to spring training that he took everything we worked on in instructional league…he took it home and worked on it. He’s doing everything the right way. He’s becoming a hitter before trying to get to all the power. When we signed him, he just wanted to crush every ball, and he lost balance, he lost vision, he lost timing. So, here’s a guy at 19 who’s competing in the Midwest League as good as anybody, especially when you look at all the number one picks last year. There’s not a lot of them out there killing it. He’s doing as good as any of them.
AF: So, given everything else, maybe the fact that he’s only hit one home run this year isn’t too big a deal from your point of view.
GF: Yeah, the concern is not there yet. His game awareness has improved. His day-to-day at-bats have improved. His temperament for the game has improved. So, everybody’s happy.
AF: So, it sounds like you’re confident enough in his power potential that you’re just glad to see him doing the other things right at this point.
GF: Yeah, that doesn’t go away. It’s like everything we’ve always talked about it. You’ve got to learn how to be a hitter before all this power starts to come. Guys who go into our game and think they can sit here and crank all day in BP, they can’t hit a lick, they can’t put it all together.
AF: What about your other top high school pick from last year who’s also at Beloit, shortstop Nick Allen? He’s always been more known for his defense than his hitting…
GF: Still is. We basically left Nick alone. He was so confident in his approach when he signed. We kind of left him alone. We talked about a few things in instructional league and in spring training. But, you know, Nick thinks he’s a little bigger and stronger than he is. He’s always had a little fly ball revolution mentality in him and it’s come back to bite him. So, little by little, he’s eliminating some of the leg kick that gets him going uphill. And since he and [Beloit hitting coach] Juan Dilone have been working on that, there’s been a rise in his performance in the last month. But I think the defense is going to be over the offense for a few years. And his at-bats have not limited his performance in the field at all. He’s played stellar shortstop.
AF: Well, it sounds like maybe he’s starting to develop an approach that’s more suited to who he really is anyway.
AF: Let’s talk about your top draft pick from a few years ago, shortstop Richie Martin. After struggling for a few years, how much did he have to change up his swing to have the success that he’s been having at the plate at Midland this year?
GF: Yeah, Richie’s been with everybody. Everybody’s had a piece of Richie. And we’ve left it to Richie – pick something you like and let’s go. So, Richie’s worked extremely hard to get where he’s at. You know, Richie always wanted to do things that involve timing – leg lifts and hand movement. And we’ve always tried to tell Richie that all these extra moves, they’re all timing moves, and that’s not a big part of your DNA as a hitter. So, he’s found something that has simplified everything and it’s really working for him. And nobody could be happier!
AF: So, is he just getting the bat to the ball much quicker and simpler now?
GF: Yeah, he’s squaring it up more often. He’s not freaking out when they come hard in. His groundball rate has decreased. He’s hitting more line drives. He was off the charts with his groundball rate a year ago, a lot of rollovers, and now he’s doing something.
AF: Another guy at Midland who’s looked great this year is your top catching prospect, Sean Murphy. Obviously, he was always known for his defense, but he’s been hitting as well as anyone this year.
GF: Yeah, he’s had a great first half. He’s not quite as rotational. I think he’s seeing the ball better. He’s not walking great, but walks are getting better as the year goes on. For the first month and a half, I was worried because he was getting hits but he wasn’t walking.
AF: And that’ll catch up to you.
GF: As it did with [Sheldon] Neuse. But he’s held it together all year. He’s caught really good. The only thing that’s been a little lopsided, and it actually started in big league camp, was his accuracy’s been off a little bit throwing. So, we’ve got to get that going again, but the arm’s been tremendous.
AF: He’s obviously got the arm strength.
GF: Yeah, he’s just throwing a lot of balls away when guys are running on him.
AF: So, speaking of Neuse, I wanted to ask you about him and shortstop Jorge Mateo, two very young, high-profile prospects whom you guys had start the year at Triple-A, and they both spent a couple of months having their struggles there. So, what happened with them and where are they at now as far as you’re concerned?
GF: Well, Mateo is just so talented that it’s hard to just leave him down a level. He’s got tremendous skills, but his game is green – it’s raw. Just the things that make good big leaue players – the consistency of picking up a ground ball, the consistency of throwing it across the diamond with accuracy, the consistency of the at-bats – that’s just all raw with him. He’s all or nothing a lot with his defensive approach and offensive approach. He just needs to learn his own little clock for the game, but a gifted kid. Neuse? You know, we were all trying to study this. Some guys think his swing got out of whack. I don’t think so. I think he had a tremendous year last year at Stockton and at Midland attacking a lot of guys early in the count, and he had a lot of success. And this year, it all changed. They pitch different in Triple-A. I went back a month ago and looked at his first-pitch swings and what kind of success he was having there. And you could tell, just on paper, this is an issue. I think [A’s farm director] Keith Lieppman went in there right before the draft and, since that point, there’s been a change. He’s climbed up and the at-bats are better. You know, the strikeouts have become a little bit alarming, and it’s carried over to his defense. But, you know, it’s just his second full year, and things have come really fast for him. And that’s a hard place to struggle for the first time, so we’ll see how he finishes up.
AF: Let me ask you about one more position player before we move on to some pitchers. You guys got catcher Jonah Heim from Tampa Bay in the offseason, and he’s been hitting really well and doing a great job behind the plate for Stockton this year. So, what do you think about what you’ve seen out of him so far?
GF: Great addition, great move on the trade. Kind of a low-energy guy, not a big spark plug, but he does a lot of things really easy. You watch him receive, and there’s not a lot of excess movement. He’s got good hands and he blocks well. He moves extremely well for a 6-foot-4 guy. His swing’s really easy and direct, and he’s just had a really good season.
AF: Yeah, I really didn’t know that much about him when you guys got him, and now he’s looking like the second-best catcher in the system behind Murphy.
AF: Okay, let’s talk about a few pitchers. You’ve got a talented young 20-year-old left-hander, Jesus Luzardo, who’s been pitching really well at Double-A. So, that’s always got to make you feel good when you know you’ve got a guy like that in the system.
GF: He’s our next “need-to-count-on-this-kid” type of guy. He’s for real. The biggest thing is just getting him through this year. It’s his first full year of pitching. Next year, we can take the reins off a little bit, but we’ve just got to get him through this year, and let him go home happy and satisfied. But he’s been tremendous. He’s come so far. He’s throwing it harder. His breaking ball’s biting better. He’s grabbed on to our changeup program, and his changeup’s become plus. He’s got weapons, and he’s not going to be far away.
AF: At this point, I guess you just want to see him stay healthy this year and then come back with high expectations next year.
GF: Yeah, come back next year and we can open him up a little bit and get him some big league depth, as far as getting deeper into games. But this year, we’ve still got to be careful.
You can find our complete conversation, which also covers pitchers Brian Howard, Parker Dunshee, Logan Shore, Miguel Romero, Bobby Wahl, Daulton Jefferies, James Kaprielian, Boomer Biegalski and more, on my site here.
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