Thank You…

I’ve put this off long enough. I need to just write and be done with it. The problem is…I don’t really want to. I don’t like goodbyes. When I’m at a going-away party, I’m the one who heads to the kitchen to clean-up, then sneaks out (once the dishes are done but) before it’s time for the tears. Can’t do anything now. My kitchen is clean, and there isn’t a party, so I’ll just have to cut to the chase.

As much as I have loved every minute of the past six-plus years, my time covering the Baby A’s – my Baby A’s – has come to an end. If you know me – either thru social media or in real life – you know how much I love what I’ve been able to do; how much I care about the boys and their families; the Oakland A’s organization, and most especially those on the scouting and player development staffs. I’ve been accused of being too sensitive and too protective where the boys are concerned. Maybe I am, and I’m ok with that. Over the years, I’ve spent so much time from Extended Spring, AZL, and into Instructs and the Arizona Fall League – I know these boys. I observe everything that happens – maybe “absorb” is a better word. When the hype is focused elsewhere, to the point when activities at Fitch Park, on Athletics’ Way, are all but forgotten by the outside world. What happens at Fitch, or at any of the player development “sanctuary” in Arizona throughout the year? Magic. That’s what.

These activities – the magic – has been the center of my world. I see the struggles and conflicts the players experience, I see and hear the field staff and trainers unify in support of every young man wearing green and gold, and I love witnessing the breakthrough that leads to a stronger, more confident young man. I love the very first sign or improvement; when it all starts to click. I love watching the coaches who worked with him, when they see it come together for him. Never anything loud or obvious, but it should be. They’re changing lives; saving careers here. It’s magical. Unfortunately, if outsiders are reporting the same incident, without background or insight, they focus on the irrelevant, and that’s all that’s available on social media. So, yeah, I take it personally, not for myself, but for the boys and the staff. I’m not going to counter a report like that because none of this is anyone’s business, really. However, I’m quick to approach a poacher, when I see what they’re about to do. I’m not always nice about it, but I get my point across. The more I’m around, the less I report because so much of it is none of anyone’s business.

I’ve been privileged to do what I do, and the access with which to do it, because of two people, to whom I owe so much, I’ll never be able to repay: Melissa Lockard and Keith Lieppman.

Melissa is simply the best. She IS OaklandClubhouse; she’s the master behind everything on the site, years of quality, in-depth articles and profiles (not just click-bait as is much too common these days.) Working with Melissa, not the team or the organization, is the reason I signed up for this ride in the first place. Who could blame me? She’s a smart, strong woman of principles whose professionalism, integrity, and passion for the game is a force that rivals gravity. When it comes to the Oakland Athletics Baseball Club, she’s a frickin’ savant! It’s been like having a personal search engine! From the first visit I made to Papago through the Fall League Championship Game a few months ago, my number one priority has always been the same: to ensure my conduct reflects positively on her, and to make her proud. I never once lost sight of the fact that I wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for her.

As a publisher/ editor, her principles and guidelines for anything submitted were clear: We don’t pretend to be the GM, we report and provide insight in an ethical manner. And… check this out, she has this CRAZY almost pre-historic demand that we cite and credit the source of ANYTHING we use in our articles. Isn’t that wild?? I’m sure there are some organizations Googling what that means right now – including some from the league’s staff. Then again, there are specific people who will just wait until Melissa writes about it and then copy, paste and distribute as their own work. Most of that isn’t horrible if they would just CREDIT THE DAMN SOURCE!  Journalism 101, kids.

In terms of content, there was only one article she ever sent back for me to change. Who can say that about an editor? Unbelievable! The article was on Michael Ynoa making his first appearance above the AZL in 2012. Having been at his debut in Arizona, spending time with him, watching him with his teammates, and getting to know him a little bit, I felt that his AZL batterymate and good friend, Reynoldo Mateo should have been his receiver at his first game at the next level instead of Bruce Maxwell. Still do. But this has nothing to do with ability; Bruce was without a doubt the stronger, more dominant defensive catcher, my perspective was from a comfort level. I know the importance of the battery-pairings and felt Ynoa’s first outing in Vermont should have been with his AZL catcher who was also added to Vermont’s roster. Regardless, I removed that comment and more importantly, appreciated and respected Melissa’s redirection.

To recap: Melissa is the best, in every possible way; she is also a naturally good, nice person. If you mess with her I’m gonna call you out. Even now. Especially now. Got it? Good.

Moving on to one who shares so many of the same qualities as Melissa. In this world of job changes and multiple employers, where names on jerseys at the Coliseum are best attached with Velcro, a foundation set in Arizona provides a stable environment to develop players and coaches alike thanks to the leadership of Oakland’s 2nd round in the January 1971 draft, a 3rd baseman from the University of Kansas Keith Lieppman is not only the man you want to be entrusted with your development, he’s the kind of person you want to be when you grow up.

Amazingly, he’s had one color scheme is his wardrobe for more than 46 years. Wow! But what’s even more unbelievable is that he has been the Farm Director for 30. In this age of newfangled approaches to player development, many organizations have made wholesale changes in effort to find the recipe for building a legacy of championships. Oakland is not in this group. And that’s the best, smartest thing they could do. “Lipp” as he’s called by many is the standard of exceptional leadership against which all others are measured. From our very first interaction, he was kind and incredibly helpful. And as a journalism major, he was the perfect first-interview of a new organization.

Keith’s goodness is so obvious, it’s as if there’s a neon arrow pointing to him as he goes through his daily life. Talk to anyone who reports to him and you’ll find a rare selfless loyalty that makes a bystander green with envy. In the cut-throat business of professional, affiliated baseball, anyone fortunate to work for Keith knows he has their back and would do anything for them. They know it’s a priority to Lipp to foster an environment that makes each of them better coaches, leaders, husbands & fathers. This level of commitment is returned with an understanding of how fortunate they are to call him their boss. Mention Keith’s name to ANYONE who ever worked for him, and it becomes a love fest. Of course, modest as he is, Keith doesn’t see things that way. He credits his staff with everything good that happens. Of course.

Over the years, Keith provided even me with a very respectable level of comfort. Case in point: on the 2nd to last day at Papago (October 2014), I repeated the same question I had asked a hundred times before: how will the final day at Papago be commemorated? Every other time I got a shoulder-shrug, at best.  On this day, Keith listened as I insisted on taking a photo to commemorate the final group occupying the long time home before moving to Mesa. To my delight, he agreed and even organized all staff members present to be in the photo. Though the “suits” (front office folks) were in a meeting, all were invited to join the heart of the staff and personnel for a commemorative photo; only one made the effort; of course, it was Grady Fuson. In all the years, and a million photos, that final group photo at Papago is my very favorite, and seeing Keith and Grady, front and center, is a constant reminder of everything that’s good about the Oakland A’s.

Grady, whose official title is “Special Assistant to the General Manager” has been known to say he’s Keith Lieppman’s assistant. But what he is, really is a teacher by calling. His voice is always the loudest and most encouraging when it matters the most. You won’t find anyone of his caliber anywhere In major league baseball who is as front-line invested in the success of each player as Grady. He’s brilliant but he doesn’t flaunt it. To me, he’s never been anything but kind and incredibly respectful. He’s so down-to-earth, I’ve told him I’d love to watch a game with him; not say a word just listen to his thoughts. He’s never laughed at me, knowing I couldn’t be quiet for that long without asking a million questions. But that’s Grady. He’s in a league of his own.

Personally, a lot has changed from when I first started on this adventure. Then, all 3 of my kids lived at home; I was still going to PTO meetings, and the most important sports schedule had one if not both of my boys on the roster. Today, I have 2 college graduates (including a first-grade teacher) as well as a son-in-law, and a son who’s pursuing his dream of being an actor and living in New York City. As they say, “don’t blink.”

In that same time frame, I witnessed a group of the most talented ballplayers play and win together like it was the only thing they’d ever known. They were led by then-Manager Marcus Jensen, and pitching coach Jimmy Escalante. Both men were stellar examples of class and respect; so important to see at this most impressionable level. Their recipe for success continued at every level despite some key subtractions and a few additions to the core group. With some luck – ok, maybe quite a bit of it – they’ll help make July- 2012-me look smart when I responded “2017” in answer to a question of their projected impact in Oakland. That group of boys whom I affectionately and almost immediately named, the “Swingin’ Baby A’s” have given hope to a fan base that’s already embracing them. So, if not in 2017, the championships will return to Oakland soon enough – if the core group remains intact.

My Swingin’ Baby A’s were so good offensively, in fact, they consumed all the attention of this hard core pitching-and-defense gal. That is until Gil Patterson called me out for not reacting to the pitchers – and defensive efforts – the same way I would to the others. Mind you, this was as he introduced himself to me during a game at Papago one summer night. I’d seen him at the games but couldn’t tell which kid was his. He would encourage them all with the same belief that only comes from the heart; I remember thinking how fortunate his kid was, whichever one he was.  In all my years, I’d never mistaken a coach for a parent, but I also hadn’t ever met Gil Patterson. I’ll say it again, if you are (or your son is) a pitcher in Oakland’s system, you must give thanks.  There are no guarantees in baseball, however, with Gil on your side you are at a distinct advantage. Watch him work with the boys, listen to how he talks to them, the tone of his voice, the words he uses.  It’s like eavesdropping on a father-son talk, one where the son is learning to throw a cutter, that is. Ugh. I’m really, really going to miss that.

Other things I’m going to miss: the obvious one; watching the boys learn and develop. I will root for all of them; whether they stay in Oakland’s system, move elsewhere, or transition out of baseball completely. I will follow the games – I won’t deny myself the pleasure of listening to the wonderful Zack Bayrouty in Stockton and Bob Hards in Midland whenever possible. I predict a breakout year for Chris Iriart (aka Babe Ruth) and Casey Meisner, and I warn everyone to not sleep on Jeramiah McCray. A wise man once said, “If you find a kid with 70 speed who can play center field, take him.” Hit two triples to left field after going 0-for-13. Nothing is impossible for this kid.

I could talk about each one of the boys. Each is gifted and hard working, or they wouldn’t be where they are. What I want every one of them to know is that rankings are not important. Yes, I get upset at them when I see stupid things like Matt Chapman, Oakland’s #1 pick in 2014, one of, if not the best defensive 3rd baseman ranked 100? Be better than I am. (Cuz you and I both know Chapman is a BEAST and will make a lasting impact in the big leagues very soon.)

I’ll miss the masterful turf manager, Chad Huss, and everyone on his exceptional staff. Always so good to me. Means more than you know.

I’ll miss coaches, like Ruben Escalera my friend, the hitting instructor I listen to most; Webster Garrison, the light that shines from you, Webby is a gift! Juan Dilone (DILO!!) big teddy bear. Aaron Nieckula: I passed on MLB tickets to stand in my kitchen and listen to Midland win its first (of three) championships. The energy and passion is contagious. Finally watching Ryan Christenson in action in the Arizona Fall League was even better than I expected. He’s special. Then there’s his pal Steve Connelly – love him almost as much as I love Emily and their beautiful babies. My “Convo with Conns” in the 2015 Fall League were the highlight of every day. Craig Lefferts, “Lefty” the original sprinter from the pen to the mound, AND one of the friendliest, most positive people I know! He’s so nice, makes me forget he’s a kitty from that school down south.  

Carlos Chavez will always be connected to our beloved Bob Welch. Part of the Extended Spring team of 2014, easily to most impactful period. Most of the boys on that Extended roster have transitioned out of baseball, but every one of them has something that will never be taken from them: they were the last ones to benefit from the wisdom of Welchie.

I’ll really miss the workouts before AZL opening night; when all the newly drafted boys take the first step toward fulfilling their lifelong dream.

I’ll miss witnessing the efforts of the hardest working group in baseball; the area scouts. Whether I’ve met them in person or not, there was no bigger fan of their tireless efforts than I. Scouts are the unsung heroes, the backbone of the game we all love. Oakland’s scouts are just a little more special, if you ask me.

One more thing before I close. Before my time with Melissa, I had already contributed to the A’s, or more accurately, to Billy Beane’s financial well-being. When Moneyball was released. I purchased enough hard copies I should have qualified to write a forward in the reprint.  Whether it was a coach at my kids’ school or a kid on the baseball team or a friend of mine, if we discussed the book, I would just hand them my copy and buy a new one for myself, and repeat. I even did it again last week with a new friend.

Don’t get me started with my kids’ 2009 Mothers’ Day purchase of the video game “MLB Front Office Manager.” I was so excited to get started on it but never got past creating an avatar. Why? There wasn’t a female option. Pissed me off. Never played it.

This is already much longer than I anticipated, but since it’s my blog, I don’t care. Though I’ll not be covering a team, I will always be around baseball.  I haven’t decided how to proceed with my social media accounts. I’ll figure that out in time. Feel free to unfollow – and alert your friends who’ve muted me and have them do the same. J

Thank you for following and for reading and for welcoming me into your lives.

 

Kim

 

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Oakland A’s 2016 Minor League Preview

Originally published on OaklandClubhouse.com

Photo by Kimberly Contreras

KIMBERLY CONTRERAS

04/07/2016

Kimberly Contreras pens a guide on the 2016 Oakland A’s minor league season, from Triple-A down to extended spring training.

As the last player walked into the Lew Wolff Training Center, after the final intrasquad game, spring training was officially over for the Oakland A’s minor league ball players. Whether they were headed for Nashville, Midland, Stockton, Beloit, or staying in Mesa, each had an assignment. Many were unhappy with their assignments. That’s how it is; everyone, to a man, wants to be a level higher, believes he should be above his assignment. Nothing wrong with that; playing with a little something to prove never hurt anyone.

For those who are closest to the farmhands, namely parents, family, girlfriends, friends, two of the biggest questions are: where are they going and how do I stay connected? The “veterans” are familiar with the process, but for the purpose of clarity, I’ve put together this guide to help navigate through Oakland’s minor league affiliates on a very basic level. There are essentially three ways to follow a team (player).

FIRST THINGS FIRST

If you haven’t already done so, download the *free* First Pitch app for Android and iPhone now. Go to “Settings” and personalize your favorite teams and choose the notifications you’d like to receive. This mobile application from Minor League Baseball is indispensable, as long as your interest is with one of the revenue generating teams. You’ll see that I use that term quite often, and with good reason. Never forget that baseball is a business, first and foremost.

The First Pitch app will not, however, update on the Extended Spring Training (EXST) activities in Arizona, which would not have been expected anyway. However, in June, when the OFFICIAL Arizona Summer Rookie League (AZL) or its Florida counterpart Gulf Coast League (GCL) begins, they will not be included either, despite the fact that both are official, stat recording leagues. Hit a home run in the AZL and it goes on the back of your baseball card; give up that home run and your ERA reflects it. But, because they do not produce any revenue (no ticket sales or advertising dollars) it’s as if they do not exist.

From your computer or non-Apple tablet you’ll need to connect like we did in the ‘olden days’. Via the respective team’s website. Archaic, I know.

If you want to listen to a game, most teams have, at the very least, a part time broadcast partner – most have a full time professional broadcaster. If/when a broadcast is available you can either use the TuneIn Radio app on your phone or tablet, or from the team’s website / MiLB audio page. TuneIn Radio:  http://www.milb.com/multimedia/audio.jsp?sid=t237

** One advantage to using the TuneIn app on your phone: you can record parts of a broadcast (an inning, an at-bat, whatever) while you’re listening to it and it remains with your TuneIn app. See the red circle to the left? That’s it.

TuneIn App

The second option is to watch on MiLB TV– live streamed and recorded/archived games. Mostly higher-level (Triple-A/Double-A) games (due to equipment at the stadiums) but some A level teams / games are available, as well. MiLB TV is not free. According to the site, it’s $50.00 for the entire season or $13.00 per month (double the price in past years) but depending on your priorities, and the ability to watch a game you may have missed so, it’s not an obscene amount, as long as the options and quality prove to be worth the price. At any rate, it is an option. http://www.milb.com/milb/multimedia/

Lastly, my favorite way to stay updated on all the game activity of every active level is using the scores-by-affiliate scoreboard. I would bookmark this link à http://www.milb.com/scoreboard/index.jsp?cid=&lid=&org=133&sc=&sid=milb&t=affiliate&ymd=20160407 but you’ll need to manually update the date by clicking “Today” near the top. I use this link more than anything else.

Now that you know how to stay updated, here are the teams to connect with:

Triple A – Nashville Sounds

Website:  http://www.milb.com/index.jsp?sid=t556

Twitter: @NashvilleSounds

April 7th is a big day in Nashville for two reasons. First, it marks the start of Nashville’s 2ndseason as the home to Oakland’s AAA team. The beautiful new facility, First Tennessee Park, has received rave reviews, and is frequented by country music stars. What’s not to love? Let’s go!

The date is also important in that it marks the 13th anniversary of a perfect game authored by one of our very own, when he was a member of the Nashville rotation: Midland Rockhounds’ pitching coach, John Wasdin. I asked Waz about the game; the ever humble Florida State Seminole said there were maybe 50 people in the stands that day. Modest as always.

Nashville kicks off the 2016 season at home behind RHP Chris Smith, against the Oklahoma City Dodgers.

Nashville Sounds 2016 schedule

Listen to Jeff Hem (@JeffHemPBP) via: ESPN 102.5 Nashville: (and ESPN 94.9) Opening night on 94.9 or watch on MiLB TV http://www.milb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20160304&content_id=166220962&fext=.jsp&vkey=news_t556&sid=t556

FIELD STAFF

Manager: Steve Scarsone – 4th season as AAA manager. Drafted by the Phillies in the 2ndround in 1986.

Hitting Coach: Eric Martins – 1st season at AAA, 2nd season as hitting coach after a successful career in amateur scouting. Drafted by Oakland in the 17th round in 1994.

Pitching Coach: Rick Rodriguez – veteran pitching coach, 1st season at AAA. Drafted by Oakland in the 2nd round in 1981.

Athletic Trainer: Brad LaRosa

Strength and Conditioning: A.J. Seeliger

Double A – Midland Rockhounds

Website:  http://www.milb.com/index.jsp?sid=t237

Twitter:  @Rockhounds

The two-time Texas League Champions are going for a three-peat! In 2014, led by then-manager Aaron Nieckula, Midland defeated Tulsa (then-Rockies affiliate) for its first Texas League title. In 2015, with a completely different field staff – led by current manager Ryan Christenson, pitching coach John Wasdin, and then hitting coach Eric Martins swept the NW Arkansas Naturals in three games for their second consecutive title.

On Thursday, April 7th, behind RHP Chris Jensen, and thanks to a schedule modeled after MLB’s, Midland starts the 2016 season right where they ended 2015; in Little Rock, at the home of the Naturals. These two teams recently faced off at Fitch Park last week; the tension was palpable. Ok, not really. The focus was actually on a game between the High-A match-ups in Tempe, where Mikey White and Tyler Marincov each homered off Jered Weaver. I was there for White’s home run. Fun times.

First pitch in Little Rock is scheduled for 7:10pm local time (5:10 in AZ/CA). The Rockhounds full time broadcaster is the wonderful Bob Hards. Listen to the veteran call all but three games on Newstalk 550 AM KCRS newstalkkcrs.com, and on each of the options listed above.

The three daytime games when there will not be a Rockhounds broadcast include:

April 19 vs NW Arkansas

May 17 vs Frisco

June 14 Frisco

2016 Midland RockHounds schedule

FIELD STAFF

Manager: Ryan Christenson: 2nd year at AA, led every team to the post-season. Drafted by Oakland in the 10th round in 1995.

Pitching Coach: John Wasdin – 2nd year at AA, Christenson’s pitching coach from 2011. Drafted by Oakland in the 1st round in 1993.

Hitting Coach: Brian McArn: 2nd assignment at AA (2013 & 2014) Drafted by Oakland in the 26th round in 1991.

Athletic Trainer: Justin Whitehouse

Strength and Conditioning: Henry Torres

High A – Stockton Ports

Website:  http://www.milb.com/index.jsp?sid=t524

Twitter:  @StocktonPorts

The thin, dry air and gale force winds of the High-A, California League is known for inflating both hitters’ power numbers and pitchers ERAs. That’s ok. It’s California. No rain, no bad weather. Just a little warm sometimes.

Banner Island Ballpark (BiB) is home to the Stockton affiliate; the closest to Oakland of any in the farm system. It’s also close enough for some loyal fans to drive down and see the stars of the not-too-distant-future.

Thursday, April 7th, the Ports behind RHP Daniel Gossett, open the 2016 campaign at 7:10pm against the Rockies’ affiliate, the Modesto Nuts. The teams faced each other just a week ago in spring training.

The not-so-hidden-jewel of the Stockton Ports is play-by-play announcer Zack Bayrouty(@zackbayrouty.) The Worcester, Massachusetts, native is smart, articulate, and a true seasoned professional. Listening to him broadcast games – both home and away – on KWSX 1280AM is a delight. However, home games are a little more fun, because if you listen carefully, you can hear the Ports long-time PA announcer Mike Conway(@ironmike1959) in the background.

One item to note; Sunday games at BiB in the first half of the season have a first pitch time of 2:09pm to coincide with the (209) area code. By mid-July, when the forecast high has triple digits, day games become a thing of the past. 

2016 Stockton Ports schedule

FIELD STAFF

Manager: Rick Magnante: Long time scout credited with signing Barry Zito and Eric Byrnes. Drafted by Cleveland Indians in the 13th round in 1969.

Pitching Coach: Steve Connelly: 3rd year as pitching coach; moved his way up each year, served as pitching coach in the 2015 Arizona Fall League. Drafted by Oakland in the 24thround in 1995.

Hitting Coach: Tommy Everidge – also 3rd year coach. A fan favorite from his playing days. Drafted by Oakland in the 10th round in 2004

Athletic Trainer: Travis Tims

Strength and Conditioning: Sean Doran

Low-A – Beloit Snappers

Website:  http://www.milb.com/index.jsp?sid=t554

Twitter:   @BeloitSnappers

Beloit, Wisconsin is just north of the Illinois border, off I-90. The fan base mainly belongs to Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs. But as they begin their 4th season as an Oakland affiliate begins, the green and gold is adding Beloit-area supporters to its fan base. Top prospects including Daniel Robertson, Matt Olson, Renato Nunez, and Bruce Maxwell were Snappers in 2013; Matt Chapman, B.J. Boyd, and Boog Powell in 2014 – when RHP Kyle Finnegan was MVP of Midwest League All-Star Game representing Beloit. The 2015 team included Mikey White, Sandber Pimentel, Dustin Driver, and a pitching staff that, if they had another six weeks added to the season would have sort of been the Midwest League version of the NY Mets.

On Thursday, April 7th, hosting the Brewers’ Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, RHP Kyle Friedrichs and the Snappers will start the 2016 season with a roster of prospects that will prove to be trouble for every opponent in the Midwest League. If you have the opportunity to attend a Snappers game and you don’t go, you’ll have no one to blame but yourself. Pitchers who can pitch, hitters who hit, and defenders who…. well, you get my drift. If I could spend the season following one team, I would head to Beloit.

Given the long and storied broadcast woes of the Beloit affiliate, that decision would assure that I never miss a Snappers game. Especially since only a handful of Snappers games will be streamed online this season, despite recently adding a new broadcast partner. In 2015, Janesville Community Radio partnered with the Beloit Snappers. The sporadic broadcasts by well-meaning volunteer game callers led to most parents/ friends / me mastering the list of who’s’ who of opposing broadcasters, and learning when to give up trying to listen, and just rely on an online scoreboard.

Toward the end of the season, Josh Keener took over the play-by-play duties. He is smart, professional, and a delight to listen to. Coach Keener (@CoachKeener23) will broadcast Snappers games, once his Rockford University baseball season is over. Until then, we will rely on opposing teams’ broadcasts. There are some that are quite good, including: Wisconsin’s Chris Mehring and Lansing’s Jesse Goldberg Strassler. 

In sharp contrast to the Snappers’ broadcast predicament, and as another another example of how lopsided the business of minor league baseball really is, some Midwest League opponents provide a television broadcast for their fan base on MiLB.tv along with a full time, professional radio broadcast team. The Snappers travel to Dayton, Ohio, home of the Reds’ affiliate in mid-July. It won’t be easy to return to Beloit after seeing how the other half lives. The Dayton Dragons are the rich kids on the block.

SNAPPERS GAMES BROADCAST SCHEDULE – ALL HOME GAMES:

Thursday, April 7 & Friday, April 8

Friday April 29, – Sunday May 1

Thursday, May 12 – Sunday, May 15

Friday, June 3 – Sunday, June 5

Thursday, June 16 – Sunday, June 19

Friday, July 1 – Sunday, July 3

Friday, July 8 – Monday, July 11

Friday, July 22 – Monday, July 25

Saturday, July 30 – Friday, August 5

Thursday, August 11 – Sunday, August 14

Saturday, September 3 – Monday, September 5 (final series of the season)

2016 Beloit Snappers schedule

FIELD STAFF

Manager: Fran Riordan: 2nd year manager with Beloit. Voted into the Frontier League HOF as both a player and a manager

Pitching Coach: Don Schulze – 1st year with Beloit. Drafted by the Cubs in the 1st round in 1980  

Hitting Coach: Juan Dilone – 1st year with Beloit, coach with Oakland since 2002. Signed with Oakland as an International Free Agent in 1990

Athletic Trainer: Brian Thorson

Strength and Conditioning: Matt Rutledge

Extended Spring Training (EXST) – Mesa

Each of the 15 Cactus League teams has an Extended Spring Training squad. Just like spring training games, there are no official records, so unfortunately, home runs hit here will not be counted, but neither will giving up five runs in one inning. When you read that a rehabbing major leaguer will play in a game in Arizona, this is where it happens.

Rosters are comprised of those who were not assigned to a full season team to start the season – maybe in need of more at bats, more playing time, rehabbing players from higher levels. Free agents newly signed, those who are working on something (pitch etc.)

Make no mistake: no one wants to be left behind while everyone else heads off for crowds and promotions and a “real team.” And it does get a little warm toward the end of the Extended Spring time, but there’s never a weather delay, and you don’t need coats or rain gear as is the case for many teams east of Arizona.

The field staff is like one mega coaching team: the combined staffs from short season Vermont and the AZL A’s, along with the hands-on coordinators and higher-ups. We will cover these teams as their seasons near, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the benefit of having Aaron Nieckula (Nuke) lead the short season Vermont Lake Monsters. As manager of the Double A Midland Rockhounds in 2014, he led his team to its first title with an approach that parallels preparing 7th graders for college rather than high school. He brings that same methodology to the lower levels.

There are no broadcasts, nor are lineups officially posted in EXST.  When I am at Fitch or at any of the games – which is a few times a week – I will post the good news and fun info, and that will be it.

For convenience and saving of time and travel, the farthest west the A’s squad will travel is to the Brewers in Maryvale, only once in the first week. Other than that, it’s all east valley match-ups – including 4 at the Giants minor league facility (the worst place for games. Period.)

Periodically, games at either of the Salt River Fields teams (Diamondbacks or Rockies) will be played IN the Stadium. But there is no notice and usually no one around to help.

SCHEDULE

First game played on Monday, April 11 at Fitch against the Giants. Final game played Tuesday, June 7 at the Giants facility.

EXST games are played on the backfields early in the day:  Monday – Friday at 10:30 and on Saturdays at 10am. Sundays are OFF days.

2016 Oakland A’s extended spring training schedule

 

Field Staff

Vermont Manager: Aaron Niecklula 1998 22nd round, Oakland

AZL Manager:  Webster Garrison – 2nd round 1983 – Toronto

Vermont Pitching Coach: Carlos Chavez 1992 17th round Baltimore

AZL Pitching Coach: Gabriel Ozuna – DR pitching coach, 2015 AZL

Vermont Hitting Coach: Lloyd Turner 2002 16th round Oakland (Billy O)

AZL Hitting Coach: Ruben Escalera – played with Brewers and Reds – coach w/Oakland since 2002

Vermont Athletic Trainer: Toshi Nagahara

AZL Athletic Trainer: Chris Lessner

Vermont Strength and Conditioning: Omar Aguilar

AZL Strength and Conditioning: Terence Brannic

Video Guru: Mark Smith

Coordinators

Pitching: Gil Patterson – returns from Yankees – was with Oakland 2008 – 2012

Hitting: Jim Eppard – from Angels = Oakland 13th round 1982

Field / Catching Coord: Aaron Nieckula

Defensive Coord: Juan Navarette

Rehab pitching: Craig Lefferts

The Definitive Guide to Oakland A’s Minor League Spring Training

Originally published 03/06/16 on OaklandClubhouse.com

03/06/2016

Everything you need to know about the Oakland A’s minor league spring training schedule — from times and game locations to maps of the facilities and tips for maximizing your experience

To even the most casual baseball fan, spring training is a fun experience. You don’t have to be able to name the 1981 World Series MVPs to enjoy sitting in the warm sun with a cool beverage in hand watching a split squad game between the Oakland A’s and the LA Dodgers at Camelback Ranch in Glendale. Just enjoy the environment and watch out for fly balls. However, if your son, brother, boyfriend, or husband is one of those players on the field and in uniform, then the entirety of spring training means something different to you. Especially if his games aren’t played in the stadium, but on the back fields.

It’s for this group of Arizona-bound travelers that I offer this quick guide to spring training. Maneuvering around the backfields of various facilities isn’t as easy as it could be, especially when no two facilities operate the same way. Especially if this is your first, with a vested interest. In addition to these tips, you’ll also find a comprehensive schedule of minor league games and their locations, as well as maps to each team scheduled to play this spring.

First: If you traveled to Mesa this summer or fall to see him in the Arizona Rookie League (AZL) or perhaps during the Fall Instructional League, don’t expect much to be the same. Spring training is run by the big league clubs. Unlike the non-revenue-generating AZL and Instructional Leagues, spring training is big money for the teams, for local businesses, and for the state of Arizona. Security is very tight, too.

The good news is that admission to minor league spring training games are still free – that’s one thing they have in common. Parking, however, may set you back, depending on the facility. First, let’s review some essentials:

The Basic Information

Minor League spring training games, just like those during Instructs, are not official games. There are no official stats nor any media coverage. Since these are exhibition games, the opponents are local to save on travel and time (in other words, not all Cactus League teams will square off during minor league spring training).

Games start at 1pm local time on the minor league fields.

There are four teams divided into two squads – Triple-A, & Double-A /  High-A & Low-A.

Two games are played at each location. They play the same opposing team on the same day, but one squad will travel to the opponents fields while the other squad will play at home.

  • For instance: Wednesday, March 23rd: the Athletics and Cubs face each other.
  • Oakland’s AAA/AA squad travel the four miles to Sloan Park
  • Oakland’s A+/A squads host the Cubs at Fitch Park
  • Then, on Tuesday, March 28th, the two organizations face off again. This time the AAA/AA squads stay at Fitch and host the Cubs, while the A+/A clubs travel to Sloan.

Anything and everything can be changed without notice. The players go where they’re told; don’t rely on them to update you with changes. No one informs me either, but if I do learn of changes, I will tweet it out, but I am not informed ahead of time of changes.

Always bring with you to games:

  • 2 WATER BOTTLES per person {1 frozen} and some easy snacks such as grapes, crackers, nothing that melts.
  • Concession stands are not open during the games. Restrooms are open.
  • Remember to always clean up after yourself.
  • Sunscreen
  • Comfortable shoes (there will be some walking, no matter where)
  • Optional, but one that I strongly suggest is a towel to sit on. There are usually metal bleachers to sit on, but cannot guarantee their cleanliness.

PLAN TO ARRIVE EARLY, ESPECIALLY AT AWAY GAMES, ESPECIALLY THOSE NEXT TO A STADIUM WITH A GAME ALSO BEING PLAYED AT 1PM.

Be patient arriving and departing; traffic can be bad with all games starting at the same time. Most parking attendants, etc. are only focused on the big league (revenue generating) game. Often, especially at the start of games, the “security” or parking staffers don’t even know there are games being played. This can be very confusing – not to mention frustrating.

MINOR LEAGUE GAME PARKING:

Is a pain at the Giants Minor League Facility on the south east quadrant of Hayden and Camelback Rd (not Scottsdale Stadium)

Limited parking lot that is shared with a city run fitness facility. Parking down the street is most likely an option – this is where the comfy shoes come into play.

  • Bring cash for parking at: Angels (Tempe Diablo) and possibly Cubs

The Cubs sell out almost every game, and traffic on Rio Salado & Dobson (the main artery to Sloan Park) is designed for one thing only: the revenue generating game in the stadium.

As you’ll see on the maps I created for this purpose, you’ll see the less-traditional way to get into the minor league fields at Sloan Park.

Salt River Fields is home to the Rockies and Diamondbacks

  • Rockies fields and entrance are on the SOUTH side of the complex
  • Dbacks fields and entrance are on the NORTH side (off Via de Ventura)

Camelback Ranch Glendale is home to the White Sox and Dodgers. For only one day, the AAA / AA A’s travel west to play the Dodgers. There is a game in the stadium, but it’s a 7pm start. Parking should not be a challenge. There should be signs directing where to go for Minor League games. Just be sure you’re going to the right set of games.

And then there’s the home facility – Fitch Park.

The only restrictions are: 

  • Please park in the general lot – just off to the right, past the entrance to the fields – and walk back to the field entrance.
  • As at all facilities, the Tower is for team staff (as in “decision makers”) only.

It’s good to be home.

STADIUM PARKING

In the even that you choose to attend a stadium game while you’re here, bring cash to park when seeing the following teams: Angels, Cubs, A’s, Padres, & Mariners. They all charge for parking at stadium games. Reason being there are volunteer groups that help out throughout the stadiums, and the parking fees generally support the volunteer group.

Keep in mind: Triple A and Double A games begin Wednesday, March 16th at the Cubs. There is no game at the stadium that day, so it will be much easier getting in and out. The lower level games – A+ and A – begin Monday, March 21st AT THE GIANTS facility. Sorry.

The Game Schedule

Oakland A’s 2016 Minor League spring training schedule

The Maps

Map to Tempe Diablo Stadium

Baby A’s Are Locked and Loaded!

Originally published 2/18/16 on OaklandClubhouse.com

The Oakland A’s don’t officially open spring training until Saturday, but there are already several players at Fitch Park preparing for the new season. Kimberly Contreras has a report from the early days of spring 2016.

LOCKED AND LOADED!

With a nod of respect to the few big leaguers I SAW in action before camp officially starts, here’s a quick update – a teaser, if you will – of the all the good stuff happening on Athletics Way!

Locked and loaded should be the theme for the A’s system in 2016. Each and every hitter I saw in my three days at early camp was exactly that. Maximum effort on fielding drills; extra grounders, extra plays with a specific improvement and requested by the fielder.

Fielding drills were fun to watch with the third base trio involved: Matt ChapmanMax Muncy and Renato Nunez. Chapman looks great, but you don’t need to ask him how he feels, just watch his defensive skills on display. Muncy is taking his experiences in 2015 and putting them to good use already. Locked and loaded. Nunez, whose off-season was shorter than that of the others, is coming off a successful Arizona Fall League performance.

At first base, receiving the throws from Chapman – and his pin point cannon – is Matt Olson. The resident “Walk King”, who has a better sense of the strike zone than most who call balls and strikes, is ready to put into practice the lessons last season. Matt traveled to Europe this offseason before serving as a groomsman, along with Daniel Robertson andBilly McKinney, in the January wedding of their dear friend Addison Russell.

Joey Wendle, who spent 2015 with the Triple-A Nashville Sounds, was the lone man at second base for these drills. Just as shortstop Marcus Semien was the lone man at the six position until Chad Pinder arrived. Pinder, the reigning Texas League Player of the Year, had a shorter off-season, as well, playing in the Arizona Fall League.

During live batting practice, the players in camp early absorbed the wisdom and insight of big league assistant hitting coach Marcus Jensen. Whether he was talking shop behind the shell while bullpen catcher Phil Pohl was throwing his first rounds of the season, or if Marcus was on the mound himself, the early bird hitters hung on his every word. Watching, as Marcus gave immediate feedback, you could see the body language change when his message “clicked”, was processed, and then put into action. 

Beau Taylor, who split the 2015 season between High-A Stockton and Double-A Midland,B.J. Boyd, the real Pride of Palo Alto, who had a really good season in High-A Stockton, and Chapman are in the right place, mentally and physically, everything to come together in 2016.

In the batting cages, just like on the field, it was extra-this and extra-that.  Swings, buckets, time, and live pitches and feedback from 2015 Beloit and 2016 Vermont hitting coach Lloyd Turner; they wanted more of everything and executed accordingly. No one looking to impress or out-perform his abilities, just focused on being the best he can be.

 

 

 

I passed or peeked my head in the cages several times each day. They were always busy, lots of hitting off the tee – highly underrated exercise. I believe Bruce Maxwell was in there every time I looked. Bruce will leave Mesa and report to Team Germany on March 14th and work out with the team prior to the WBC Qualifiers in Mexicali on March 17—20.

I watched their body language and how they’d react when they didn’t feel they executed as they should have – not the result, the execution. To a man, they are locked and loaded. And camp hasn’t even officially opened for pitchers and catchers yet, let alone for the position players. 

In addition to those mentioned above, the hitters and fielders I saw this week include Josh Phegley, Billy Butler, Jake Smolinski, and Andrew Lambo. I know other players reported early, I just didn’t see them.

Day 3 of my visit to early camp was focused more on seeing pitchers for the first time. To my delight, in addition to the non-roster-invitees throwing bullpens, I saw several pitchers who have reported even earlier; some will participate in the minor league mini-camp, which begins one week from today – February 25th – and others aren’t due until March 5th.  I usually stay quiet to observe and not distract from work being done, especially at times like this, but when I saw these boys, I wasn’t quiet. Dustin Driver, Heath Fillmyer, Dakota Chalmers, Heath Bowers, and Jordan Schwartz are present and accounted for.

Dillon Overton, Sean Manaea, Ryan Dull, Sonny Gray, Sean Doolittle, Dylan Covey, Seth Frankoff, Daniel Coulombre, and Chalmers all threw bullpens. I saw some of each, but a group who saw all included manager Bob Melvin, bullpen coach Scott Emerson, and rehab pitching coordinator, Craig Lefferts, to name a few.

Manaea was nice enough to talk with me a bit after his bullpen session. The 6’5” lefty has an equally big and illuminating smile. When I first met him prior to the start of the Arizona Fall League, before I ever saw him throw a pitch, his kind, genuine personality, and warm welcoming smile endeared him to me. I wondered what his disposition would be like on the mound. I knew he threw fire but he just seemed too nice. Ha! As I quickly learned, “Game Day Sean” is all business, and I don’t believe batters would ever use the term “kind” to describe him. Ever.

Thankfully, today was not a game day. The Indiana State University product, who came to Oakland in the mid-season trade with Kansas City for Ben Zobrist, put on a show in front of the big league skipper. I asked if he felt any pressure throwing in front of Melvin et.al, given the speculation and projection that he could very well pitch his way on to the opening day roster.

His response: “No, it’s great. Fun, exciting. This whole experience is just…awesome!”

Sean attended the MLB Rookie Development Program in Washington, D.C. earlier this year, and has been working out at the facility in Mesa since early January. He, too, is locked and loaded.

On Saturday, pitchers and catchers will officially report to camp and they’ll take physicals and such. Then, on Sunday, the first public workout of pitchers and catchers will open camp with morning workouts (9:30-ish til 12 or so) at Fitch Park – 160 E. Athletics Way, Mesa, Arizona 85201. 

City of Mesa Honors Athletics Way

Originally published 2/16/16 on OaklandClubhouse.com

       Photo by Bill Mitchell

City of Mesa honors the ‘Athletics Way’ in street name-change ceremony

KIMBERLY CONTRERAS

02/16/2016

MESA, AZ – The City of Mesa honored the Oakland Athletics franchise as they begin their second season with their Arizona facilities at Fitch Park.

It’s here. Baseball is back. Camps don’t officially open until later this week, but at every facility in the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues, big leaguers and non-roster invitees are already getting to work. The fields at Fitch Park, spring and player development home to the Oakland Athletics, are no exception. Earlier today, close to 60 players were on the fields taking batting practice, throwing bullpens and working on fielding drills. Players and staff will continue to arrive each day as the A’s second season at Fitch Park officially begins.

Inside the facility, everything looks great in the Lew Wolff Training Center. The walls, lined with photos from great moments in Oakland’s history, welcome those who enter as if to say, “All is well with the world because you are here and there is baseball to be played.”

Stepping outside, the fields, of course, look spectacular; head grounds keeper Chad Husswould have it no other way. The almost-90-degree temps, with no relief in sight, can be intimidating this early in the year, but stand in the shade and cool off quickly. It really is a dry heat. Then you hear the familiar sounds of players calling out to one another, bats hitting balls that are caught and thrown; you can see the play in your mind just by the sounds. Yes, baseball is back. Everything just as it was when we left last fall.

Well, there is one change.

And it’s pretty cool.

Fitch Park is little-over half a mile south of Hohokam Stadium on Center Street. To enter the fields and watch workouts or minor league games, you turn off Center and head down to the public parking area off to the right. This is a short private road that houses a building belonging to the City of Mesa on one side, and the Arizona offices of the Oakland A’s on the other. Only two buildings on the street, only two buildings with the street address of 6th Place. Same address the previous inhabitants, the Chicago Cubs, used for the many years they called Fitch Park home.

City of Mesa Mayor John Giles and OaklandClubhouse correspondent Kimberly Contreras / Photo by Bill Mitchell

Sixth place, huh? You’re in a five-team league and you’re on 6th Place. Your address, that is. Well, that’s ok, that didn’t hurt the Cubs any did it??? Wait… So it may not have been the name of the street that did in the Northsiders, but why take any chances?On February 2, 2015, while doing one of my photo updates of the new facilities, I took 100 photos, and didn’t really look at details until I got home. That’s when I read the sign: “Welcome to the Lew Wolff Training Complex. Public Parking on 6th Place.” Ugh. This needed to changed. I had to say something.

I’ve said it a thousand times; Oakland A’s fans are smart, loyal, and tough. They know, and I mean *know*, baseball. They stay through the down times – though they may be vocal, they pack a football stadium during the decent times, and they celebrate like nothing I’ve ever seen during the great times. They know, and can identify front office personnel, the players and coaches in the minor league system, and they even know some of the scouts.

They know all the details of the latest issue preventing them from buying season tickets at a stadium with brand new plumbing. They want their team(s) to stay IN OAKLAND and not move to San Jose or LA. They’ve been through a lot, but they take nothing for granted. They know it’s not going to be easy and they put almost every other fan base to shame.

Many travel to spring training and stay for more than a day or two. They know their team’s spring training home, and it was safe to say most were sad to be leaving the majestic setting of Papago Park, and the institution known as Phoenix Municipal Stadium. This is a tight fan base, steeped in its tradition.

Oakland A’s President Michael Crowley / Photo by Bill Mitchell

So, while it may not seem like much to most, leaving Papago, where you entered on Walter Haas Hwy, to fields named after beloved managers like Mack and LaRussa, for the new digs on 6th Place, it just didn’t sit well with me.

I approached the mayor of Mesa, Arizona – John Giles. I had never met him before last spring. I don’t live in Mesa, never have. Matter of fact I live about 45 minutes northwest of Fitch. There was nothing in it for him to even entertain my idea of changing the name of the road to anything but what it was. But he listened anyway.

At one point he reminded me that the Cubs had the same address for all their years at Fitch. I asked him how many championships the Cubs won during that time. We briefly discussed name options, including my first suggestion “Bob Welch Way”. Bottom line, it was clear that the mayor thought this could work. He said it would. But I’ve worked with enough elected officials to know that I don’t write in ink.

About a month ago I heard from the mayor and he said I would soon receive an invitation to the renaming of 6th Place. That was the first contact I’d had with him since the end of spring training – 10 months ago.

This afternoon, Tuesday, February 16, 2016, the unveiling of “Athletics Way” took place at the north east corner of Center Street and – what use to be – 6th Place.

It was a lovely ceremony with speakers including: Mesa’s City Manager Chris Brady, Oakland A’s president Michael Crowley, Mayor John Giles and District 4 CouncilmemberChris Glover, who represents the area of Fitch Park. Also in attendance were Vice MayorDennis Kavanaugh, Councilmember David Luna, and Councilmember Kevin Thompson.

Crowley spoke about the fact that coming to Mesa has always felt like “coming home” even before the record-breaking spring in 2015, and he is happy and proud to have Athletics Way on the map.

Mayor Giles began his speech admitting that he has been an Oakland A’s fan from when he was a little boy watching games in Rendezvous Stadium. Named all the greats he saw:Rollie Fingers, Reggie Jackson, etc. who were his heroes growing up. Very cool. He then shared some far-too-generous words about me. (However, if you come to my house, you may find that snippet playing on a loop for the foreseeable future.)  Wonder if I can make a ring tone from it? But I digress…

Lily King-Cisneros and the crew with Mesa Channel 11 covered the ceremony, and famed photographer Bill Mitchell took some beautiful photos, as always. Among those in the small crowd were members of the Mayor’s exceptional staff, including Melissa Randazzo andJessica Stone; and from the Athletics, Brad Huss, Steve Vucinich and Ted Polakowski.

If you see Mayor Giles around during spring training, be sure to thank him for his efforts. Remember, he’s an Oakland Athletics fan, too.

Bruce Maxwell to Suit Up for Team Germany – WBC

Originally published 02/09/16 on OaklandClubhouse.com 

2016-03-06 12.33.15

KIMBERLY CONTRERAS

02/09/2016

Oakland A’s catching prospect Bruce Maxwell will participate in the World Baseball Classic qualifying tournament with Team Germany.

MESA, AZ — The Oakland A’s pitchers and catchers officially report to big league camp on February 20th. Catcher Bruce Maxwell — a non-roster invitee to the A’s big league camp — is already in the Phoenix area getting ready for the season. His energy is high, his focus is unwavering, and his mindset is void of all things counterproductive. His time with the big league club will be paused for a week in mid-March, but it’s for a very good reason.

On March 14th, Maxwell will leave Mesa, Arizona, and join Team Germany as they head to Mexicali, Mexico, to compete in a qualifying round for the 2017 World Baseball Classic. The four-day, six-game double elimination tournament begins on March 17 when Maxwell and Team Germany take on Nicaragua at 12:30 pm PST. Mexico will host the Czech Republic in the night cap of Day 1 at Mexicali’s Estadio B Air.

Maxwell learned of Team Germany’s interest in adding him to their roster from A’s Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman.

“It is a great honor to be able to suit up and do what I can to help Germany win the qualifier and advance to the World Baseball Classic,” Maxwell said.

Lieppman says the honor is well deserved.

“Bruce has become a top flight receiver after making huge progress in his receiving and throwing skills,” Lieppman said. “He has a good grasp of pitch sequencing and building good relationships with his pitching staff.”

And, though it is the oft-mocked statement made by players as they report to spring training, Lieppman’s concluding statement is, in fact, true: “Bruce is in the best shape of his career.”

The Alabama native was born in Weisbaden, Germany, while his father, a career Army officer, was stationed there. In 2012, Oakland drafted Maxwell in the 2nd round out of Birmingham Southern College, where he was named the Division III National Player of the Year. His power bat from the left side and natural leadership ability led the 6’2”, 230lb Maxwell to the backstop position, where his defensive and game-calling skills have strengthened each season.

A member of the back-to-back Texas League Champion Midland RockHounds in 2014 and 2015, Maxwell’s past two seasons have been about growth and development. Maxwell’s first focus as a pro was improving defensively — catching was relatively new to him when he turned pro. Since arriving in Midland midway through the 2014 season, he has had to adjust to Double-A pitching while playing in a home ballpark tough on left-handed power-hitters. That adjustment was made a little more challenging for the Army kid, who only knew to try harder and do more in order to improve. A true blessing, according to Maxwell, has been the trust and guidance of A’s minor league pitching coach John Wasdin, and the recent addition of minor league hitting coach Eric Martins.

Martins, a former A’s farmhand himself, joined the RockHounds in 2015 after spending the past several years as a highly respected A’s area scout, says that Maxwell has been finding his identity at the plate.

“Bruce learned a lot about himself as a hitter,” Martins said. “The last few years he was caught up in trying to hit for power and he forgot that he can hit and that the power will come. The numbers don’t show it, but Bruce has as much raw power as anyone we have in the organization. He focused on solidifying his approach and pick and choose when he wants to try and hit a ball out. Defensively, he did an outstanding job in handling the pitching staff and having a good, solid game plan against opposing hitters.

“He’s really cleaned it up behind the plate and has turned himself into a really good defender. He’s a hard worker who is always one of the first guys to the field; working out and getting in his routine. He’s really hard on himself and wants to do well so much that sometimes it’s to his demise. Left-handed hitting catchers with power are an enticing commodity and Bruce fits that mold well. This is a big year for him; he knows it and he’s spent the off-season getting after it. I think the organization will be pleased by what they see on him in spring training.”

Prior to the last WBC, Team Canada — which included Joey Votto, Justin Morneau andMichael Saunders — put an end to Germany’s journey.  Though Maxwell doesn’t yet know who his teammates will be, as anyone who knows, or has ever even met the charismatic catcher, there are no strangers in this world, as far as Maxwell is concerned; just friends he hasn’t yet met. He’s a man of the people, a true fan favorite, and an incredible teammate. On March 21st, regardless of which country advances to play in 2017, one thing is for sure, there will be a spike in the international fan base of the Oakland A’s by way of Bruce Maxwell.

Seby Zavala – Year One

Originally published 3/21/16 FutureSox.com

Seby Zavala - Year One
Catcher Seby Zavala in his crouch for AZL White Sox (Kim Contreras / Future Sox)

In a world of black and white, Seby Zavala fits in quite well. He’s not really a neon orange or lime green kind of guy. He’s quiet, but he’€™s always watching, always observing, processing, thinking. He takes in everything around him and doesn’t offer unless it is in action. Nothing about the reserved, 22-year-old catcher screams, “LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME!”

Unless you count his bat. Or his pitchers’ earned run average. Or anything else that matters in baseball, or in life.

Bernardo Sebastian (Seby) Zavala was born on August 28, 1993, in Fort Hood, Texas. The love of baseball is in his family DNA. His father and great-grandfather both played above the amateur ranks. Dad, Bernard, took the mound for the Bonn Capitals while stationed with the Army in Germany. Great grandfather Jose Maria (Chema) Zavala was a catcher in Mexico. Even when Seby’s mother, Tatiana, was in labor with him, his dad clearly remembers watching their home town team from Long Beach, CA repeat as Little League World Series Champions. Seby’s mother and sister are both great baseball fans, and his younger brother Dylan is a high school junior whose offensive production is garnering attention for the 2017 MLB draft. Baseball really is a family affair for Zavala.

PREP CAREER

A native of California’s San Gabriel Valley, Seby played soccer and football along with club/travel baseball until high school. Then upon entering Bishop Amat High School in La Puente, California, he turned and focused all of his attention and efforts solely on baseball. His numbers were always good while playing for coach Andy Nieto; producing roughly the same number of triples as doubles and home runs each year. His defensive numbers behind the plate were stellar, despite not having started on varsity until his Junior year. A common theme in Seby’s life is how hard he’s worked to earn anything of value, including the catching position.

When he first joined the varsity squad, Coach Nieto said, “He earned it. We didn’t have a position for him, but when he was moved up to varsity, he earned it”

His end-of-season CS:SB ratio of 1.125 was proof that the position was, in fact, earned. Before graduating from Bishop Amat in 2011, Zavala along with former teammate and current Astros prospect Rio Ruiz, and current Pirates pitching prospect Daniel Zamora, defeated the Palm Desert Aztecs 7-0 to earn the CIF Southern section title. They finished 3rd in the state.

SAN DIEGO STATE

When they were first recruited to play baseball for San Diego State University, Zavala and his teammates had no idea that they would be among an elite group; the last group of players who would be fortunate to play under MLB Hall of Famer, and long-time SDSU head coach Tony Gwynn.

During his freshman season in 2012, Zavala played in almost half of the season’s 63 games; making 11 starts at catcher, and 22 at DH. After playing fall ball, the pain in his right elbow returned, as it would so often. From the time he was a sophomore in high school, the young catcher would periodically have great pain in his elbow, which was routinely diagnosed as tendonitis. Because there is no cure for tendonitis or any immediate treatments, Seby would stop all baseball activities for a month or so and then slowly start back up and increase his workload. Then, after a while, the pain would return and the cycle would repeat. However, in the fall of 2012, the pain was more profound and Seby knew it was time for this to be addressed differently than it had in the past.

Around this same time, Seby’s roommate, outfielder Spencer Thornton, underwent Tommy John surgery. After learning more about another non-pitcher having a tear in his UCL, Zavala took matters into his own hands. In early December 2012, he made an appointment with a legend in sports medicine, and longtime L.A. Angels team physician, Dr. Lewis Yocum. With MRI results in hand, Dr. Yocum confirmed there was, in fact, a tear in Seby’s right (throwing) ulnar collateral ligament (UCL). As he had been asked many times before, Seby again could not recall a “pop” feeling when the ligament snapped, to which the good doctor said it was just a matter of time before the ligament would tear and it would be best to repair it at this point; early in his college career, rather than when his professional career was beginning; because it would happen soon.

The decision was made. Dr. Yocum would perform the TJS procedure, as he had many times before. The doctor’s office would call to confirm the exact date and time it would take place. However, when Dr. Yocum’s office did call, it was not to finalize the details but to inform Seby that the 80-year-old doctor’s health took a turn for the worse and that he would have to find another surgeon. At that point, the catcher contacted the surgeon who works with San Diego State University and 2 weeks later, the surgery was performed and rehab had begun.

Under Coach Gwynn, injured players were not lost for the season – they were utilized in other ways. Zavala and his roommate Thornton spent the season in the press box of Tony Gwynn Stadium recording video of teammates’ plate appearances. After each game, they would spend time with Coach Gwynn, learning to break down video as though it was for advance scouting purposes. In little time the two became so familiar with their teammates patterns and preferences that they could predict situational outcomes with great accuracy. They were learning at the knee of the one of the greatest hitters the game will ever know. They discussed behavior patterns, mental approach, and physio tendencies of their teammates. Then, Coach Gwynn would turn the focus back to the roommates, and on their plate appearances, their swings, their decisions. This rehab time was an intense, comprehensive education in something for which there is no degree.

“You definitely learn more about yourself not playing,” Zavala said. “My baseball intelligence skyrocketed the year I sat down and watched other people play.”

The physical rehab process followed the traditional route under the care of physical therapists from long-time partners with the university’s athletes: Scripps Health in La Jolla, California. One therapist is so valuable to Seby, that he refers to her as, “the smartest person I’ve ever met” with regard to how the body works: Gail Kuwatani. Gail leads an expert staff of physical therapists at Scripps, who invest in the health of the young men, including a famous Aztec alum and pitcher for the Washington Nationals, Stephen Strasburg. She did the same when she worked with Tony Gwynn during his career.

Zavala had just begun his throwing program when his teammates won the 2013 Mountain West Tournament Title. Seby was a member of the team, so he received a championship ring, but he didn’t feel right about it. A typical response from the young catcher who believed he didn’t earn it.

“All the success they were having,” Zavala shares, “You want to say it’s you, but it’s not you.”

The criminal justice major spent the summer becoming stronger (lifting weights, following a strengthening program) along with his throwing program. He was not going to do anything to jeopardize his future; strengthen, improve now, and prepare for 2014, where he would be the left fielder for the season. The team had a starting catcher in Brad Haynal, and Seby understood. He was just happy to be playing and helping his team win. His offensive production was characterized as a little “rusty” after having missed a full season. That may be true, but it was probably more due to playing with a broken thumb and not telling anyone about it. Why would he? He was not going to miss any more time.

On May 25, 2014, the San Diego State Aztecs earned their 2nd Mountain West Conference Tournament Title in as many years. Haynal was named Tournament MVP just prior to being drafted in the 18th round by the Miami Marlins. Seby was a contributor to the success, hitting almost .300 on the season.

“That’s the difference, knowing you did something to earn the ring,” said Zavala.

Three weeks after the elation of winning the championship game, Seby and his Aztec baseball brothers felt the complete opposite when their beloved Coach Gwynn lost his battle with salivary gland cancer on June 16, 2014. The man who meant so much to Seby, the Aztec baseball team, and to baseball fans around the world, was gone.

Along with teammate Ty France (now a farmhand of the San Diego Padres) and baseball operations director, Cooper Sholder, Zavala knew they had to do something to honor their beloved coach.

“We all wanted to get something for Coach Gwynn from the moment he passed away. He meant a great deal to us. He wanted us to be better human beings first, then better baseball players. He always told us the baseball part would fall in line if we did things right on-and-off-the-field.”

The trio agreed upon a tattoo. The design is the familiar number 19 inside of home plate. The meaning is a little different for each, but for Seby, it is a reminder to do things right, on and off the field, a message shared by Gwynn and by Seby’s father, on a regular basis: integrity, responsibility, live a life of quality, be the best person you can be and then baseball will happen.

Seby Zavala shows off his Tony Gwynn-inspired tattoo (via SDSU Aztecs Baseball twitter)

The 2015 Aztec baseball season opened February 13 against Valparaiso, but not before an emotional pregame ceremony honoring their beloved hall of fame coach by retiring the legendary number “19”. Members of the Gwynn family attended the event, some participated, and one member performed the national anthem.  SDSU baseball alumni, including  Travis Lee and Stephen Strasburg returned to honor Coach Gwynn.Then, it was time to get to work. Behind Friday night starter, RHP Bubba Derby, with Steven Pallares, Ty France, and Spencer Thornton also aboard,

Behind Friday night starter, RHP Bubba Derby, with Steven Pallares, Ty France, and Spencer Thornton also aboard, Seby started at catcher. He got a hit and drove in a run in the 5-4 victory over Valparaiso. The next game, on Valentine’s day, Seby announced his presence and set the tone for his season by hitting a grand slam in an eventual 22-12 victory.

As expected, Seby was behind the plate for every game in the 2015 season, hitting .290, scoring 42 times, with 67 hits, 13 doubles, and 1 triple. His 14 home runs was the most on the team. Defensively, he only allowed 8 passed balls, which after having missed so much time between regular catching duties is very good.

When it was time for SDSU to again defend their conference title, Seby again produced when it mattered most. In the Mountain West Conference Tournament, he smashed a conference-tying-record 5 home runs, and he went 2 for 3 in the championship game against New Mexico. No surprise, Zavala was named Tournament MVP.  His only comment:

“I couldn’t do this without my teammates, they’re a big part of this.”

 

THE WHITE SOX

Long time area scout, George Kachigian followed Seby’s collegiate career from the beginning. He liked what he saw in the 6 foot, solid built catcher and knew he would be a good fit for his ball club. After all, the Chicago White Sox are like 29 other MLB teams; always looking for strong defensive catchers – good receivers, game callers, leaders with quick strong, accurate arms – who are also offensively dominating.

George’s track record includes names like  Mark Grace, Addison Reed, andTrayce Thompson. He’s good at finding below-the-radar treasures. The more he saw Zavala, the more his unorthodox hitting approach grew on him. It didn’t take long, however, for George to make the comparison to former New York Yankee catcher, Jorge Posada: “…nothing fancy, hard plugger. When you need that base hit to drive in the winning run, he hits a grounder up the middle and wins the game.”

White Sox Amateur Scouting Director, Nick Hostetler agrees on all accounts: “Seby’s offensive potential is what attracted us the most to him. Very advanced approach at the plate.”

Defensively, Kachigian said he “was always a decent catcher, but improved significantly throughout the season to the point that I was convinced he could make adjustments and end up a big league catcher.” Hostetler again agrees: “He didn’t catch full time in college, so there is some ceiling there” He continues, “if Seby continues to put in the work and adapt to what our instructors are teaching, he could become a regular in the big leagues.”

Kachigian knows the cornerstone of who Seby Zavala is, is his integrity and work ethic: “He’s earned everything he’s achieved and has the utmost respect of his teammates.”

And with that, the Chicago White Sox selected Seby Zavala in the 12th round of the 2015 draft. Two days later, once the contract was signed, the 21 year old was headed to Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Arizona – spring training and player development home of the Chicago White Sox (and Seby’s beloved Los Angeles Dodgers.)

Zavala made his professional debut in the Arizona Summer Rookie League (AZL) on June 21st of 2015. He went 1 for 2 and scored a run. He continued to play in 35 regular season games – 18 as DH, 17 behind the plate. Being a catcher in the Arizona League includes handling a staff whose experience ranges from major league rehabbers (like Jesse Crain) to high school and college rookies making their professional debut (such asJack Charleston, Chris Comito, Johnathan Frebis, Jordan Stephens, andBrandon Quintero). Seby thrived with each opportunity, including being the receiver when White Sox 1st round draft pick (8th overall), Carson Fulmermade his one inning professional debut at Camelback Ranch against the Angels.

Being a natural observer, and after the hours spent breaking down video with Gwynn, one of Zavala’s defensive strengths behind the plate is being able to make in-game adjustments. He watches the batter’s body language, reaction to pitches; mental approach, twitches, and works with pitchers’ strengths. Working with catching coordinator, former Angels’ first round draft pick in 1987, and big league catcher. John Orton, was incredibly valuable.

In 35 games regular season games, Seby was behind the plate in 17 – starting 16 – for a total of 131 regular season innings. When he was the receiver, his staff averaged .87 hits per inning, grabbed .9 strikeouts per IP, and pitchers had a mere 2.68 ERA.

Early into the season, along with fellow rookie Corey Zangari, the “Killer Z’s” were born. The two have polar opposite backgrounds, but share the same “clutch gene.” If one wasn’t the offensive hero for the AZL Sox, the other was. Seby was by far the best hitting catcher in the Arizona Summer League (AZL). In fact, he was voted an All-Star (by opposing coaches) with numbers like a .326 AVG, 33 R, 42 H, 17 Doubles, 5 Triples, 4 HR, 35 RBI, 15 BB, 27 SO, 2 SB; .401 OBP, .628 SLG, 1.029 OPS.

On the night of August 30th, the same night that Jake Arrieta and the Chicago Cubs no-hit the Los Angeles Dodgers at Chavez Ravine, the AZL White Sox defeated the AZL Dodgers, 1-0 in 11 innings of the first of three single elimination games; where the winner moves on to be one step closer to the title.  Seby caught every pitch of the 29 innings (including the scoreless 11 inning duel against the Dodgers). The White Sox pitching staff only allowed 3 postseason runs; 1 by the Royals, and 2 by the Mariners in the title game. The game against the Royals was not a simple 4-1 victory; first pitch was thrown on August 31st at Papago Sports Complex, the AZL home of the Royals while their facilities in Surprise were being renovated. The box score shows no delay in

In three postseason games, the AZL White Sox pitching staff only allowed 3 postseason runs; 1 by the Royals, and 2 by the Mariners in the title game. The game against the Royals was not a simple 4-1 victory; first pitch was thrown on August 31st at Papago Sports Complex, the AZL home of the Royals while their facilities in Surprise were being renovated. The box score shows no delay in game; but there was an almost a 24-hour break in the 3rd inning, thanks to a monsoon that rolled through Papago with winds and rain so strong that trees were pulled up from the ground like they were paper dolls. Zavala was at bat when the storm hit. While the rest of us were looking for ways to escape under cover, Seby was not looking to move until his at-bat was over. Mother Nature yelled louder and the game was suspended until the next day, resumed at a new location.

On September 2, the AZL White Sox traveled to the AZL Mariners to contend for the league title. Zavala and right handed starter Christopher Comito were in a groove for 5 innings of play, allowing only one run, while Sox hitters had scored two. Brandon Quintero, Jack Charleston, and Richard McWilliams took care of the remaining 4 innings to ensure the good guys emerged the victors. Though it was a nail-biter to the end, the White Sox defeated the Mariners 3-2 and became the 2015 AZL Champions. As if this first championship was enough, there was a component involving Seby that made it even more special. At the time, the Mariners Director of Player Development was

At the time, the Director of Player Development for the Mariners was Chris Gwynn. He was at the game and next to me behind the backstop for the final 2 innings. I couldn’t help but appreciate the connection: Coach Gwynn’s brother’s team facing one of Coach Gwynn’s former players. Baseball is funny like that.

Zavala returned to Glendale for his first Fall Instructional League (“Instructs”) before he was to join Team Mexico in the Premier12 Tournament in the offseason. However, a broken thumb prevented him from playing. This time, there was no hiding; the White Sox shut him down until his thumb healed. They would have no part of him playing with an injury. As caretakers of their prospects, there are no risks where health is concerned. When he reported to his first spring training on February 1st, he had an insiders’ view from the shared clubhouse at Camelback. He was among the first to work with big league veterans including

When Seby reported to his first spring training on February 1st, he had an insiders’ view from the shared clubhouse at Camelback. He was among the first to work with big league veterans including Mat Latos, catching bullpens and learning the ropes; the perfect environment for the young catcher who soaks in every bit of information like a sponge.

In an on-field ceremony in Camelback Ranch stadium, before the White Sox hosted the Oakland A’s in early March, Seby and his AZL teammates received their championship rings. There was no doubt on his part that it was well-earned by the AZL All-Star catcher.

With the championship season a distant memory, the minor league spring training games were about to begin. Though there are no official stats recorded for the minor league back field games, March 19th will be one to remember. In a game against the Milwaukee Brewers High-A team, Zavala was the starting catcher for Jordan Stephens’ outstanding 3 innings pitched – the first since for Stephens’ since his one-inning-outing in the Instructional League last September. On the next field, was the other half of the Killer Z’s – Corey Zangari, playing with the Class A team against the Brewers’ counterparts. In the bottom of the 2nd inning, with 2 runners on base, Zavala and his slight leg lift launched one over the fence in left field for a 3-run home run, his first of the spring. On his next at-bat, Zangari also went deep – very deep. The Killer Z’s picked up right where they left off last summer.

I will let Nick Hostetler’s insight bring this profile to a close:

“Seby’s solid leadership skills and work ethic have him on the path to becoming a solid guy for us. Seby is in for a big 2016!”