Last week, I talked to Stockton skipper Rick Magnante about some of the A’s prospects who’ve played with the Ports this season. 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 catcher Jonah Heim, shortstop Kevin Merrell and pitchers Parker Dunshee and Brian Howard below. And you can find our complete conversation, which also covers third baseman William Toffey, second baseman Nate Mondou, outfielder Dairon Blanco and more on my site here. But here’s a portion of our conversation from last week…
AF: I know next year will be the 50th anniversary of when you were first drafted by the Indians back in the summer of ‘69. That was a little while ago, but I guess you’re still feeling game for the game!
RM: Absolutely, I’m excited to be here! I’m energized and just very pleased with the effort and the performance and the character of the players on this year’s Ports team.
AF: Okay, let me ask you about a few of those guys. A guy who’s really been one of your most consistent hitters this year also happens to be your catcher, Jonah Heim. We didn’t really know a lot about him when he came over from Tampa Bay in the offseason. So, after watching him on a daily basis for a few months now, tell us what your impressions have been of him.
RM: If you had to profile him, who is he is similar to the big leagues? You’d probably say a guy like Matt Wieters. He’s a tall switch-hitting catcher who has advanced receiving skills. He has an above-average arm in terms of strength and an above-average arm in terms of accuracy. He has a feel to call the ballgame and assess hitters’ weaknesses and stay on the page with what the program is. And then he’s a switch-hitter with a serviceable bat, a chance for power and a discerning eye with the bat. So, he’s just an all-around very good player. I like the fact that his demeanor is kind of quiet in a way. He’s not really a rah-rah guy, but he shows up every day to play, and I think that’s equally as important as the verbal kind of energy that you’re looking for in that take-charge guy behind the plate. So, I’ve been extremely pleased with him. I think it was a great job by our scouting department to find a way to get him into our system, and he certainly has been a force so far this year for us.
AF: Can you talk a little more about his work behind the plate as a catcher? You see him every day, so how does he look back there to you?
RM: Well, I think he’s a big league receiver. I don’t think there’s any question in my mind about that. The thing that impresses me most about him is that he does things so easily. There’s not a lot of effort to what he does. And people who do it easy probably do it more consistently and with greater regularity. People who have to work hard to maximize their tools or their skills tend to be a little bit more inconsistent in their play.
AF: You’ve had some guys here this year who were high draft picks for the A’s last year. Shortstop Kevin Merrell was the team’s second overall pick last year. It seems like he’s been a bit up and down this year. But what were you seeing out of him before he got hurt and had to go on the DL?
RM: As we speak, he’s not here. He’s in Arizona. He’s got a second-degree sprain in his left elbow. So, he’ll be down there for a while rehabbing. There is a chance that we may get him back in mid-August. Here’s a guy who has a skill set and tools to play, certainly to begin with, in the center of the diamond, and has a feel for bat on ball. And really, in fairness to him, I think he’s done a tremendous job here at this level, skipping short-season, playing just a small amount of games in Vermont last year, then going to instructional league and then not being healthy enough really to participate. So, for what he was placed into in terms of an accelerated environment in his first year, I would make his transition to the California League very similar to what Eli White was like last year, that type of guy. As far as where he plays in the future, how long he stays at short – does he move to the right side of the diamond? Does he move to the outfield? That’s a question that will have to be answered at a later date. Right now, we drafted him as a shortstop. And we’re doing everything we can on an everyday basis to improve his defense and make him a better defender than what he was the first day that we saw him here, and there has been marked improvement with his defense. So, I’m very pleased with Kevin. Character, work habits, commitment to play, passion to play – all that’s in place.
AF: Well, it sounds like he’s got the right attitude anyway.
AF: He was really known for his exceptional speed coming out of college. But he’s only stolen five bases here this year. Is that due to something physical with him this year or is that just an organizational thing about not really pushing guys to steal bases?
RM: Well, no. In my personal philosophy, I like to run, and nobody’s told me that we can’t run here. It’s an interesting dynamic in that there are people who can run but they don’t feel comfortable stealing bases. So, you’re hoping every guy that you bring into the organization that has that run tool, that’s the only tool that translates on both sides of the lines, is also going to have the mentality and be the kind of risk taker that is necessary to steal a base and not be afraid to be thrown out. If you talk to Rickey Henderson, that’s basically what he says. You have to work at it like everything else…you have to work on your jumps, your leads, your reads. But, innately, you have to be fearless and not be afraid to be thrown out. If there’s any trepidation, no matter what your foot speed is, you’re not going to steal the base on the last step, you’re going to steal it on the first step, and that’s the toughest one to get. So, we’ve been working with Kevin. And you’re right, he has the tool to be a base stealer, and I think he is a pretty good base runner.
AF: Let me ask you about a couple of pitchers you had here who really led your pitching staff in the first half – Brian Howard and Parker Dunshee. They’re now up in Double-A, but what impressed you about those guys while they were here?
RM: They are both competitors, and they go out there with the intent of beating you with every pitch. So, the focus and the intent are there. So, that’s huge – the mentality of going at hitters. They’re not afraid to throw their pitches. They attack the zone, and they both share that in common. One’s 6-foot-9, and one’s 5-foot-11. It’s a little bit like Mutt and Jeff. Both of them have the ability to pitch with their arsenal. I would compare Dunshee to like a Heath Fillmyer of sorts – not quite the same velocity, not quite the same sharpness on the breaking ball, but the ability to locate, the ability to upset hitters’ timing and the ability to go right after hitters. So, he’s a very interesting guy, another guy who jumped two levels, came here, and the organization felt he was ready for the next level, so he’s up there. Howard, he’s just big and tall and he works downhill. There’s some sink to the fastball, he’s got a nice breaking ball and he’s got a good cutter and a change. And he’s just another guy who can pitch. They’re both strike throwers, and that really does enhance their ability to develop and move quickly because control and command are not really issues with them.
You can find our complete conversation, which also covers third baseman William Toffey, second baseman Nate Mondou, outfielder Dairon Blanco and more, on my site here.
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