I had the chance to speak with A’s special assistant Grady Fuson last week 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 complete conversation which also covers pitchers Jesus Luzardo, A.J. Puk, Grant Holmes, James Kaprielian, Daulton Jefferies, Parker Dunshee, Brian Howard and more on my site here. I also had the opportunity to talk to top A’s prospects Jesus Luzardo and Sean Murphy last week. And if you’re interested, you can find those interviews here: Jesus Luzardo / Sean Murphy
*ADDED NOTE: News broke late Wednesday night that Luzardo will be shut down for the next 4-6 weeks with a rotator cuff strain. And the A’s released six minor league pitchers earlier this week – Kyle Crockett, Sam Bragg, Corey Walter, Heath Bowers, Evan Manarino and Brendan Butler. You can find updated minor league rosters here.
After originally joining the A’s organization as an area scout under the Billy Martin regime 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 nine years ago to serve as a special assistant to the general manager.
Of course, many know Fuson as the scout in the cinematic version of Moneyball who has a dramatic confrontation with Billy Beane and ends up getting fired – though that’s not quite how it happened (which I chronicled here). And the offseason before last, he received a pair of prestigious awards from his baseball peers for his service as a scout as well as for his contributions in player development. During spring training, Fuson can frequently be found at the A’s minor league complex, now located at Fitch Park in Mesa, keeping a close eye on the team’s most prized prospects. And it was there, on the morning of the A’s Cactus League finale, that I took the opportunity to sit down and pick the brain of one of baseball’s top talent evaluators to get the inside scoop on some of the A’s top hitting and pitching prospects…
AF: Well, let’s start out by talking about some of the team’s top hitting prospects. And at the top of the list is your top catching prospect, Sean Murphy. There’s a lot to like about him, but just how close is he to being ready, and what’s left for him to work on to get where he needs to be?
GF: Right now, it’s kind of a hard tale, because he didn’t get a lot of time in big league camp. Obviously, we dealt with the [Nick] Hundley/[Josh] Phegley/[Chris] Herrmann scenario. Murph was the fourth. It was a couple times a week getting an inning, so not a lot of look-sees. But Murphy is closing in. I’m just waiting to see him catch every day again and see the consistency behind the plate, the accuracy throwing. He’s had some good at-bats in big league camp, not that that’s an indicator at all. [Sheldon] Neuse raked here all last spring. I think his whole point of evaluation will come once he gets out to Vegas and does his thing.
AF: He obviously has a really strong arm but, last year, wasn’t there a little issue with the accuracy of some of his throws?
GF: Yeah, yeah, the accuracy kind of went away a little bit and got erratic, all footwork type of stuff. Hopefully we get that cleaned up.
AF: The next tier of hitting prospects in the system is made up of a bunch of young outfielders. Austin Beck, who was your number one pick in 2017, played every day in center field for Beloit last year as a 19-year-old and hit .296. But he hit just two home runs, which was kind of surprising. So, where do you feel Austin Beck is at and what are you looking for out of him this year?
GF: Yeah, we were all a little lost how the ball was coming off his bat last year, as much as we saw it out of high school. And he’d leaned up – he’d gotten a little leaner. I don’t know if he was trying to protect his speed or whatever. But I think he learned a lot from it. Fundamentally, mechanically, there’s some changes that have gone on with his start and load to put him back on time a little bit. That’s helped. He spent the winter working out hard. He looks great, his swings look great, and the ball’s coming off better.
AF: So, you think he’s looking a little bit beefier now?
GF: Yeah, he looks a little stronger.
AF: Well, maybe playing in Stockton this year will help increase his power numbers a little bit too.
GF: It’ll come. It’s coming back.
AF: I talked to [A’s scouting director] Eric Kubota about it last summer and he said that one thing he wasn’t worried about was Beck’s power, that it was in there. But the next guy is a young outfielder who played right next to Beck last year, Lazaro Armenteros. He’s still just 19, and he put up some pretty good numbers for a very young guy in Beloit last year. I’m sure there are many things you’d like to see refined about him at this point, but where do you feel Lazaro’s at after last year?
GF: Well, there’s no doubt about power, but it’s how he gets to it. There’s a pull-oriented move to everything he does. He doesn’t allow himself to use the middle of the field as well as he needs to. He’s got good speed. We’ve had three years now of constant arm issues…with bad arm action, and it’s created arm problems. We’re dealing with it now, where he can’t throw.
AF: Oh, so when you say arm issues, you mean physical arm issues.
GF: Physical…and so, we always try to work with his arm action and try to find a different spot. We’re going to do it again after this. That’s going have a lot to do with how well this guy’s going be able to defend himself.
AF: Well, I guess we’re probably going to see what he can do at the next level in Stockton this year. Another young outfielder whom the A’s just drafted in the 2nd round last year is Jameson Hannah. He’s still just 21, but everyone seems to talk about how much they really like him as a hitter.
GF: Well, he’s probably the purest hitter of last year’s draft. He’s got all the attributes to hit, to hit with some power. He’s a pretty good defender. He’s also going through a little arm thing right now where he’s been kept out of some outfield stuff. Hopefully his arm is back on time, by the time we break. But he’s exciting. This guy’s got speed, he’s got a natural gift for the bat. He’s come into camp a little more physical. But there’s some upside to this kid.
AF: From what I hear, it sounds like he’s probably going to end up going to Stockton with Beck and Lazaro.
GF: We’ll see.
AF: Well, there could be a lot of talented guys there this year. Let’s talk about a couple of guys who were at Nashville last year, and let’s start with shortstop Jorge Mateo. He’s clearly a very talented and very toolsy guy but, obviously, he struggled much of the year at Nashville. So, has he been making any adjustments, and what’s he got to do to get to the next level?
GF: He had a very good big league camp. They were very impressed. The only reason he came down [to the minor league camp] as early as he did is because of this whole Japan thing and how that’s kind of making this camp a lot different. But he’s a talented guy. I think we’re starting to see a little more maturity about the game itself. For a guy who has all the tools in the world at short – the arm and everything – the footwork is still something that you’re trying to put together, and then some pitch discipline, plate discipline. But he’s got electric hands, he’s got electric legs, and he’s got an electric arm. And this kid’s young. It’s kind of like [Franklin] Barreto. They kind of got up to the upper echelons of the minor leagues, and there’s this quick big league expectation. But you’ve got to remember there’s a finishing-off process that can take some time, and that’s where he’s at.
AF: Right. It kind of seems like he’s been around forever, but he’s still just 23. I actually talked to him earlier this year, and he was saying that he realizes he needs to focus more and be more consistent. So, I would think that just even saying that or having that in his head is...
GF: Yeah, that’s good to hear him say that to you.
AF: It’s progress, right? And it sounds like, from what you’re saying, that you’ve kind of been seeing some of that too. Now the other guy at Nashville whom you mentioned earlier is third baseman Sheldon Neuse, who had a big spring last year but then struggled much of the year at Nashville. He started to turn things around in the second half, but he was still striking out a fair amount. So, where are things at with him at this point?
GF: Yeah, and the homer production never really came. He did have a good second half, no matter how you want to look at it, especially compared to the first. He’s just in between on some of his swings. A lot of it is early-in-the-count stuff. It’s about him gaining some better recognition early in the count. He got away with it all the way through Double-A. And it was addressed – it was taught to him. But you’ve got to remember, he was doing so well then. If he swung early in the count in Stockton and Midland, he was squaring stuff up. But Triple-A is a whole different animal. You run into these guys, they pitch ass backwards. And that’s what he ran into. They were flipping stuff up there early in the count that he thought was the same stuff he was seeing in Stockton, and it wasn’t. And that really put him in a funk. So, he’s working himself out of that. And I think everybody expects a major rebound this year in Triple-A.
AF: You’d think that a second year in Triple-A for both Neuse and Mateo would certainly help them figure things out. Well, there’s a couple of guys who have a little major league experience but look like they’re probably going to end up starting the season back in Triple-A again this year. One is outfielder Dustin Fowler, who’s already been sent over to the minor league camp. He struggled a bit during his time with Oakland last year, but he hit very well at Nashville. Obviously, he doesn’t take a lot of walks, and I’d imagine if he could manage to work his way on base a little more, it would make a big difference.
GF: No, you’re dead on. He’s just got to get to that point where he can define exactly what kind of hitter he is. Is he going to be an on-base guy and do what he does? And I think he’s getting better at it. We’re not real sure he played 100% last year after everything he came off of with the leg. So, I mean, I think it’s fair, if we’re going to have an evaluation of the true Dustin Fowler, that it’s this year, and not as much last year.
AF: Are there ongoing conversations with him about plate discipline?
GF: Oh, yeah, without a doubt. [A’s hitting coach] Darren Bush spent a lot of time with this guy. Bushy’s the main core as far as trying to get him a little bit on line…a little bit more discipline.
AF: And he’s open to that, he’s not resisting that?
GF: Well, we hope not.
AF: I guess we’ll see.
GF: All we can do is wait for the by-product.
AF: And then the other guy you mentioned earlier is infielder Franklin Barreto. Again, it seems like he’s been around for a while now, but he’s still just 23. He’s probably going to start the year back in Triple-A again. But it looks like he’s shortened his swing a bit. He had a good season this winter in the Venezuelan League, and then he’s had a really good spring here in Arizona as well.
GF: I think it started late last year in Nashville and then carried on to the big leagues, where Darren Bush and [Triple-A hitting coach] Eric Martins got him to calm some things down. I don’t know if you remember what he looked like at the plate in his stance, but he had all this hand movement. And then when he advanced to the baseball, there were inconsistent, erratic moves. It hinders your vision. It hinders how you read and react to the baseball. And I think, little by little, that’s what’s getting improved.
AF: He certainly looks like a much more competent and professional hitter now.
GF: Yeah, it was good to see. And we finally moved him around the outfield a little bit to see how that is, so that was our first look at him out there.
AF: Right, so do you think that’s going to continue to happen if he ends up in Triple-A?
GF: Yeah, it’s going to have to.
AF: Play him all over the place and make him as versatile as possible.
GF: Yeah, exactly.
AF: I guess you’ve got to do that with everybody these days.
GF: Well, especially us.
AF: So, are there any other young hitters who’ve been popping up on your radar lately, anyone who’s caught your eye?
GF: Nick Allen has a cleaner, more direct path going on in all the mini-camps and sim games and things that we’ve done. I think Jeremy Eierman is coming with a different plan – not to be so pull-ish, college-homer mentality. He’s starting to get in the mind of – I need to develop as a hitter first and just let the power come. He’s starting to get there. Alfonso Rivas, a kid we took in the 5th round, is a very good-looking hitter. He’s put on 10 pounds. Down the road, what level of prospect he becomes is all going to depend on how many balls he gets out of the ballpark. There’s no doubt that this guy’s got a chance to be a plus hitter, but how much damage is he going be able to create? Like I’ve always said, power is the last thing to come. And so, we’ll just wait and see on that. But very polished, knows the strike zone, swings at strikes, takes balls, good defender. He’s a good-looking player.
AF: Yeah, I’ve heard a lot of people talk about him being a very professional hitter. Do you know if he’s mainly going to play first base or spend a little more time in the outfield?
GF: More first, yeah. That doesn’t mean he won’t go out there [to the outfield], wherever he goes.
AF: Are there any other under-the-radar guys we should keep an eye on this year?
GF: I’m hoping for better things from Kevin Merrell, especially offensively. We brought him back the second year in a row to instructs to work on some things, and it’s carried over. We’ve defined for him exactly what pitches and why he rolls over to the pull side as much as he does, when he’s a flyer who ought to be hitting the ball over there [the opposite way]. He’s got a 70% ground ball rate to the pull side of the field. So, just trying to get him to understand, if you just shift your sights on where you see the field playing and use that as your mentality in your swing…three quarters of those are going to turn into on-base opportunities, whether it’s a hit, an error, they can’t throw you out because of your speed. But you’re just killing yourself by turning the thing over. So, we’ve done a lot of things to try to work on that path. And it looks good. We made him take all day long in instructional league – trying to improve his discipline, trying to improve his confidence, that you can hit with two strikes. You don’t have to be undisciplined and avoid getting to two strikes. So, we went through a lot of at-bats in instructional league where we made him just spit on pitches until two strikes. Hopefully some of that carries over into his on-base. And defensively, we’ll see where that ends up. He’s still going to go out as a shortstop, and we’re going let him prove how long he can stay there. Not that he’s an under-the-radar guy, but I think people have softened on him a little bit since the draft…and there are good reasons why.
AF: Yeah, he really didn’t swing the bat that well at Stockton last year.
GF: Yeah, he’s been hurt. And then when he has played, it’s been a soft .270, and there’s not a big on-base. And he’s not a pure shortstop. So, I can understand. But I am expecting bigger and better things from him.
You can find our complete conversation which also covers pitchers Jesus Luzardo, A.J. Puk, Grant Holmes, James Kaprielian, Daulton Jefferies, Parker Dunshee, Brian Howard and more on Athletics Farm here. And if you’re interested, you can also find my recent interviews with top A’s prospects Jesus Luzardo and Sean Murphy here: Jesus Luzardo / Sean Murphy
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