Athletics

Arizona Fall League roundup: A's prospects playing for championship

Arizona Fall League roundup: A's prospects playing for championship

Sometimes it pays to tie in sports. Rarely does it ever in baseball, but that's exactly the case for the Mesa Solar Sox, which includes seven A's prospects in the Arizona Fall League. 

Despite ending the regular season of the AFL on Thursday with a 6-6 tie against the Scottsdale Scorpions, the Solar Sox (16-15-1) won the East Division title when the Salt River Rafters (15-15-1) lost to the Surprise Saguaros before the Solar Sox's game ended. 

Mesa will play Surprise in the AFL championship game on Saturday at Scottsdale Stadium. 

In the final game of the AFL regular season, A's top prospect Franklin Barreto stayed hot at the plate, going 2-for-5 with two singles and a run scored in the tie. Over the final week, the shortstop finally found his way at the plate. 

Barreto hit .368 (7-for-19) and scored four runs in four games. His shaky defense did continue Thursday though with a throwing error, his seventh error of the fall. 

Barreto's bat coming around isn't surprising. But Frankie Montas allowing an earned run in the AFL certainly is. After 16 straight scoreless innings, an earned run finally crossed home plate on the big right-hander on Nov. 14 against the Glendale Desert Dogs. 

The issue in Montas' first real trouble on the mound this fall, was his command. Montas issued four walks in 2.2 innings pitched, upping his total to eight free bases in six appearances out of the bullpen.

Montas now owns a 0.53 ERA over 17 innings in the AFL.

***

-- A's starting pitching prospect Dylan Covey leads the Solar Sox in wins with a perfect 4-0 record. Covey is also second on the team in innings pitched with 24.2 and third in strikeouts (17). 

-- The Solar Sox have two pitchers who have not allowed an earned run. After those two, three straight A's prospects are at the top for ERA with Montas, Trey Cochran-Gill (1.84) and Sam Bragg (1.98). 

-- Bragg has only walked one batter in 13.2 innings pitched. Two others on the team have only walked one batter, but the two combined have thrown 8.2 innings.

-- Thanks to his last few games, Barreto leads the team in hits (23). He is also tied for third in runs scored (15), but defensively Barreto leads the team in errors by three more than the next guy, A's prospect Yairo Munoz. 

Aggressive by nature, Matt Chapman learns patience to become A's star

Aggressive by nature, Matt Chapman learns patience to become A's star

Sean Manaea walked into the Oakland Athletics locker room carrying a FedEx box Monday evening. The A’s starting pitcher was all smiles as he removed a nerf basketball hoop from the package and hung it above his locker. 

Khris Davis and Matt Olson instantly jumped in on the action, shooting low line drives from around the room to avoid the duct work overhead. 

It was a dream atmosphere. The young A’s were loose coming into their all-important three-game stretch with the Seattle Mariners. The fact that Seattle was nipping at their heels in the standings was palpable once the team hit the diamond, but in their own space, the feel was relaxed and fun. 

The current version of the A's is working. It’s a well-oiled machine that continues to win at a startling pace. They took two out of three from the Mariners to improve to 72-49 on the season. Following a day off on Thursday, they’ll host the first-place Houston Astros Friday evening at the Coliseum with an opportunity to reel in the reigning champs. 

There is plenty to like about the club. Davis hits monster home runs. Jed Lowrie is the seasoned vet having a career year. The patchwork starting rotation continues to compete and Oakland’s bullpen is likely the best in baseball. 

It’s a versatile roster that allows manager Bob Melvin to mix and match his lineups every game. They hit, pitch and play defense. 

The A’s also have a star. 

Matt Chapman is earning his way into the upper echelon of MLB players, and he’s doing it with his glove first. His diving stop in the series opener saved a run. In game two, he sprawled out on the rolled up tarp to snare a ball, a la Josh Donaldson.

“I just want the ball hit to me and I want to make every play that is near me and I just try to go for every ball and just kind of leave it out there,” Chapman told reporters following Monday’s win. 

You can see it in his eyes. This isn’t lip service. The 25-year-old third baseman plays with the intensity that you would expect from a more seasoned player. He literally wants every ball hit his way. 

There are times when he goes too far. He’s stepped in front of shortstop Marcus Semien multiple times this season, gunning down runners on the move as he approaches the second base bag. 

Chapman is not selfish. He wants to win. He wants to make a play and get onto the next hitter. 

“He takes pride in it,” third base coach Matt Williams told NBC Sports California. “He’s certainly dynamic and athletic, but I think the biggest thing for me is his work ethic. He genuinely loves to make a great play. All of those things combined make him an elite guy at the position.”

Williams knows a few things about manning the hot corner. He spent 17 seasons in the league, winning four gold gloves at third base. The five-time All-Star sees a bright future for Chapman, but continues to preach one thing to his young prodigy. 

“I think he’ll get better. I think there’s a lot for him to learn. Certainly, I think he can learn some patience,” Williams said. “He’s so aggressive by nature that sometimes it gets him in a bad position. He’s able to make up for it with his hand-eye coordination.”

When asked about Williams’ critique, Chapman agreed. His passion for playing sometimes gets him in a tough spot. 

“I have a good base right now, I feel like I’m confident, but there’s always room to work,” Chapman said. “(Williams is) right, the last error I made against the Angels, was me rushing to the baseball. I feel like sometimes I want the ball so much I get like, a little antsy and I try to go get everything when I have time.”

That was evident in the A’s loss to Seattle on Wednesday. Chapman scooped a ball and then airmailed all 6-foot-5 of Olson at first base. The error was his 14th of the season.

The A’s coaching staff will live with the occasional gaff from Chapman. His defensive WAR (wins against replacement) ranks first in the entire league at 2.9. He’s top 10 in overall WAR, in large part due to his work with the glove.

At the dish, Chapman has steadily improved over the season. He’s made a habit out of hustling out of the box and he’s not your conventional 3-bagger on the base paths. 

His slash line on the season is .279/.367/.509 with 50 extra base hits, including a career-high 16 home runs, 28 doubles and six triples. He plays the game hard every game and he’s quickly becoming a catalyst for a team pushing for their first playoff appearance since 2014. 

Chapman is starting to put it all together. His development happens to coincide with the A’s becoming one of the best stories in baseball.

The comeback of Billy Beane: A's architect reminds us he still knows how to play

The comeback of Billy Beane: A's architect reminds us he still knows how to play

OAKLAND -- The A’s were snoozing through a mediocre season, wins with losses in equal amounts, when they snapped awake in mid-June, putting boots to backsides, barging into the playoff picture, forcing Major League Baseball to take note and wonder.

Is Billy Beane still in Oakland?

This was, given the quiet despair of recent A’s seasons, not an unfair question. The answer, yes, has been ringing through the halls of baseball in recent weeks but is incomplete without elaboration.

Back in October 2015, shortly after the A’s finished at the bottom of the AL West, Beane was promoted from general manager, a job he held for 18 seasons, to executive vice president of baseball operations. His longtime assistant, David Forst, was elevated to GM. The A’s then repeated their last-place finish in 2016 and made it three straight in 2017.

The A’s never made three straight trips to the cellar while Beane was GM. No matter the payroll restrictions imposed by ownership, he wouldn’t stand for it. He so detested losing that he committed to finding creative new ways to win, spawning enough success to generate a book and a movie.

But now Beane was rolling into middle age. He and his wife had toddlers at home. He’d received a small share of A’s ownership, was making speeches here and there and feeding his passion for soccer. The perception among some was that the game’s hungriest wolf might be distancing himself from the action.

Well, no. Billy was laying low, plotting and planning, positioning himself to pursue a prey within reach. The prey materialized last month in the form of a potential postseason berth, and he has been sprinting after it ever since.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say that he wasn’t engaged before,” Forst says of Beane. “I don’t subscribe to that narrative. He’s been just as engaged as since the day I got here. There’s this myth out there about him not watching games, or doing soccer or whatever. A lot of that is nonsense.”

A “lot” of it was nonsense, but not all of it. After spending his early GM years continuously sprinting at burnout pace, Billy had dialed it back and become more judicious about those moments of blowtorch intensity.

Then came morning of June 16, when the A’s leapt out of bed and responded to a four-game losing streak that dropped them to 34-36 by winning 12 of 14 over the rest of the month. As they prepare this weekend for the defending champion Astros, who led the division by two games over Oakland, the A’s have won 38 of 51.

The activity on the field has been impressive, as has the action upstairs, where the big chair still belongs to Beane. There may be nothing in any front office in American sport more fascinating, at least from the outside, than Billy finding inspiration in midseason. He is in his element, prowling, scouring the landscape for talent, and capturing it.

Beane went straight after pitchers, mostly relievers, specifically closers. On July 21, he snagged Mets closer Juerys Familia. Two weeks later he grabbed Nationals reliever Shawn Kelley, and then trapped Tigers starter Mike Fiers the next day. Three days later, Beane hauled in Twins closer Fernando Rodney.

“The opportunity is precious,” Forst says. “We just went through three years where we didn’t have that opportunity. And you know Billy’s personality. As soon as he sees it, he’s going to jump on it.”

Several contenders needed bullpen help, but Billy’s raid, over 19 days, emptied most of the field and did so without immediately giving up even one major leaguer.

Beane refashioned a decent bullpen into the deepest in baseball. Adding Familia, Rodney and Kelly to a ’pen anchored by filthy Lou Trivino and filthier closer Blake Treinen effectively allows manager Bob Melvin the comfort of bringing his hook to the mound anytime a starter shows the slightest sign of faltering.

“The bullpen has been so good, and now it’s even deeper, the starters know they can just go out and pitch,” Melvin says. “They’ve got a lot of arms behind them.”

The Kansas City Royals rode bullpen depth to back-to-back World Series appearances in 2014 and 2015. The New York Yankees once had John Wetteland and Mariano Rivera as a devastating 1-2 combo.

No team relied on its ‘pen more than the 1990 Reds, whose World Series sweep of the A’s featured “The Nasty Boys” -- Norm Charlton, Rob Dibble and Randy Myers -- in starring roles. The seventh, eighth and ninth belonged to them.

“We didn’t invent this formula,” Forst says. “ We’re using a blueprint that has worked. It doesn’t work for every team, but we’ve got starters who can give us five or six innings. We know the script.”

The A’s under Beane have yet to reach a World Series, much less win one. But questions about his gusto fading are answered. He still knows how and when -- and what -- to chase. The 2018 A’s are ahead of schedule, yet it didn’t prevent him from taking a few days to modify it in the fly.