Reviewing the 2015 Arizona Rookie League A’s

(Originally published 09/17/15 on OaklandClubhouse)


Our 2015-in-review series continues with a look at the season that was for the 2015 Arizona Rookie League A’s.

Long before the final name of the 2015 MLB Draft was called, there was a clear cut winner. Ask anyone, from any organization and they’ll tell you: hands down, the Oakland A’s won the draft. Of names, that is. No other organization came close to having the array of young men with names as memorable as those selected by the Athletics in early June.

It started with 3rd round pick Dakota Chalmers, followed by 4th round pick, Skye Bolt, then 6th rounder Bubba Derby (whose given name is Bowdien); then 14th-rounder Boomer Biegalski, 16th-rounder Dustin Hurlbutt, then James Naile in the 20th round, and wrap it up with 35th round pick, Tim Proudfoot.

Thank you and good night!

[mic drop]

Initially, it was their names that drew the attention. It was a novelty that enticed me, as well. As one who enjoys word play, I was delighted to have such a bounty of possibilities, even if many would head off to Vermont before seeing much time in the AZL. But as I walked through the fields and into the facility at Fitch Park, I forgot about the fun with names and the word play; I saw the faces of the boys taking the very first step toward living the life they’ve dreamed of, representing every supporter (and doubter) who helped them get to this point.

There was something different about this group, though; a level of confidence, and a deeper level of … something, gratitude, maybe) than I recall from years’ past. Given the backgrounds of these young men, a deep level of gratitude seems fitting. Many – many –  had some sort of arm-related surgery, prompting them to question their future, and a few had more than one such experience.

Confidence from this group greeted me that first visit in June. As I walked from the practice fields to the batting cages, the first person I encountered was 5th-round pick Kevin Duchene. Though he’d been with the A’s for maybe a minute and a half, Kevin was a wonderful “host.” He welcomed me and we chatted as we walked to the batting cages. His Midwest “accent” matched his respectful behavior. The tone for the season was set, whether we knew it or not.

Later, after meeting many of the newest additions to the green and gold; including Derby, Kyle Friedrichs, Evan Manarino, Naile and Heath Bowers, I listened as they shared stories of the past season with returning players and fellow rookies. There was no posturing or looking to establish the alpha male. They were listening and sharing until practice started, causing Friedrichs’ story of his Long Beach Dirtbags facing Thomas Eshelman’s Fullerton Titans to end abruptly. In the three days before the start of the Arizona League season, many more stories were shared, and a bond, unlike anything the general public will experience was sealed.

The stats and scores over the 56 games of the AZL A’s season indicate middle-of-the-pack production; but what the numbers don’t include are the intangibles that are strengthened in order for growth and development to take place. Rookie ball is important; this group, these leaders show the young athletes how professional baseball is to be played.

The AZL opening night roster included some familiar names, including: RHP Branden Kelliher, who spent the summer on a conservative pitch limit after discomfort during the spring, and RHP Ryan Gorton – who was drafted as a catcher in 2012 out of Oregon State and would be making his debut as a pitcher in the first week of the season.

New additions from the Dominican Summer League (with a few returning players, as well) included pitchers Angel Duno, Argenis Blanco, Emerson Nelo, Jorge Martinez, Ivan Andueza, Phillip Ortiz and Yordy Alejo; infielders Eric Marinez, Carlos Hiciano, Jean Carlo Rodriguez, Miguel Mercedes; outfielders Luis Barrera, Rodolfo Penalo and Jhonny Rodriguez; and catchers Robert Mullen and Miguel Guzman.

There was another catcher on the AZL Opening Night roster who, though he was drafted in 2014, had yet to make his professional debut. Tom Gavitt learned soon after he was drafted in the 14th round out of Bryant College in Rhode Island that he would have to undergo Tommy John surgery, thus postponing his professional debut one full year.

On June 20, 2015, Gavitt replaced starting catcher (and 2015’s 8th round pick out of Georgetown) Nick Collins in the 6th inning against the Angels. In a stroke of amazing luck and timing, as Gavitt introduced himself to home plate umpire Joe Schwartz, I captured the moment with my phone’s camera. The expression on Gavitt’s face, after having placed his dreams on hold for a year, while watching others who came after him, take that first step, was priceless; and I captured it at the right time. Because of its meaning, it is easily my favorite photo of the year, and could be my favorite of all-time.

Photo by Kimberly Contreras

The AZL home opener was the first officially recorded game played at Oakland’s new home, Fitch Park in Mesa after many years at Papago Baseball Complex in Phoenix.

Before heading off to join the Vermont Lake Monsters in the New York Penn League, pitchers (and a converted catcher) Derby, Duchene, Andrew Tomasovich, Naile, John Gorman and Gorton made their professional debuts in Arizona.

Chalmers, 3rd round RHP from North Forsyth High School, GA, also debuted in the AZL and stayed for the season. It was a similar development approach to that taken with Kelliher. No rush to move young high school pitchers. Chalmers and Kelliher both benefited from the patient approach shown by Oakland’s player development principles…much to the slight-frustration of the gifted young athletes.

Catchers Collins (who should just carry a rake with him, because…that’s what he does),Jordan Devencenzi (Nevada-Reno); Proudfoot (Texas Tech, who impressed everyone with his defense), and OF Seth Brown (from Lewis Clark State, did nothing but hit and hit with power all season long) were also on the fast track to Burlington after a quick stop in Mesa.

Catcher Brett Sunde (18th round, Western Michigan) along with Gavitt, shared duties behind the plate with Mullen, Miguel Guzman, and at times, a rehabbing Andy Paz.

Centerfielders James Terrell, Mike Martin and Peñalo also shared the role of lead-off batter.

Terrell, a proud Bay Area native was selected in the 11th round from St. Patrick – St. Vincent HS. He is guaranteed to have a clean uniform only until he leaves the clubhouse. He cannot wait to meet his childhood idol, Rickey Henderson. The combined energy of Rickey and Jimmy could power a small country!

Martin, technically more of a DH in his pro debut, was chosen in the 33rd round after earning a degree in Economics from Harvard, where he played with Zach Olson, the brother of Midland RockHounds’ slugger Matt Olson. Martin led the AZL A’s with 8 stolen bases, while only being caught once.

Peñalo returned for his 2nd year with the AZL A’s. Though he spent part of the season on the DL, his team-leading 25 runs scored is eight more than the next highest producer. Barrera, Rodriguez and Robert Martinez completed the outfield contingent. Barrera and Rodriguez are both 19 years old, while Martinez, the elder statesman, is 21.

Canadian Brett Siddall (13th round, Canisius College) was the starting right fielder for most of the 19 games he played in Arizona. His almost 1.000 OPS, 9 strike outs, 10 walks, 3 triples, 5 doubles, and only 1 error were good indicators that his days in the desert were numbered. Siddall’s work ethic, execution, and demeanor on and off the field are elite and admirable qualities.

Chicago area native Shane Conlon (34th round, Kansas State) was originally recruited by the Wildcats as a left handed pitcher, then underwent Tommy John in 2012 and began his transition to first base. So far, so good. Only 2 errors in 30 games at 1st base, while being in the team’s top 3 in  most offensive categories; including on base percentage and run scoring.

Former Florida State Seminole Biegalski turned 21 years old on July 13, shortly after reporting to Mesa. He appeared in 6 games and finished the season with a WHIP of 0.88. The tall, thin Tallahassee native had rave reviews about the meals provided for the players at the Lew Wolff Training Facility; he proudly shares that he added almost 20 lbs to his 6’2” frame this summer.

RHPs Marc Berube (28th-round, Pittsburgh), Armando Ruiz (32nd-round Alabama State), Brendan Butler (30th round, Dowling College) and Hurlbutt all had several outings during their rookie year; as did Xavier Altamirano (27th round, Oral Roberts) who, as an Arizona native, benefitted from having a family member or two in the stands each time he took the mound.

During the 2013 Instructional League, a young RHP from the same hometown in Venezuela as the Mariners’ Felix Hernandez made his first US appearance. Jesus Zambrano had turned 17 just a few weeks before the start of Instructs, and his baby face made him seem even younger. During our first conversation, I called him “Chico” meaning “boy” or “young man”, and it stuck. He is an endearing young man, who works hard, looks to the right people for guidance and to use as examples, and who talks about his mother and how much he misses her in a way that will melt your heart. But, because Chico has been in Arizona (Instructs, Spring Training, Extended Spring, and AZL) for the past 2 years, it’s easy to forget that if he had been raised in the States, he would have graduated from high school only 3 months ago. And, he had never thrown a pitch above the Arizona Rookie League until August 30th, when he traveled to Tacoma, Washington, to join the Nashville Sounds for the 2nd game of a make-up double header against the Mariners Triple-A affiliate.

Chico (the kid), who celebrated his 19th birthday just a few days earlier, took the mound in Tacoma, faced James Jones to start the 1st inning and struck him out. He gave up a 2-run home run to the then-PCL home run leader, walked one, and struck out 4 batters in 4 innings. A week later, against the Omaha Stormchasers, the Royals’ Triple-A team, Zambrano went 5 innings, allowed 2 earned runs, struck out 2 and earned the WIN.

The kid who had never thrown a pitch above the rookie level, threw 9 innings at Triple A and looked like he belonged.

Now, that’s the way to end the season!


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