The Backfields (Mesa, Arizona)

Things were a little different today. After spending Sunday spinning vinyl records in Old Town Scottsdale at this hip place called Scapegoat – I needed to provide some evaluation/insight for an agent friend looking at a potential client on the minor league side of things at the Oakland Athletics complex in Mesa. (I also wasn’t opposed to having a break from the noise and fanfare of the big league games either). This type of scouting is a bit of a throwback – there’s no scoreboard, there’s no roster, you really just let your eyes gravitate to the players that show you TOOLS on the quiet backfields, away from the TV’s, PA’s, fans, and hype. Here in the backfields, you might see someone you’ve never seen before, you might “discover” someone before they become a prized prospect, you might see an already prized prospect be humbled, or even a former or current big leaguer “working on things” away from the pizzazz. You might even see a player, who once upon a time you saw in the town of Novara, Italy, when he was a skinny 15-year old catcher, and caught your attention for the first time because of his pitching framing and keen batting eye (more on that later).

Today’s set-up was stripped down and action packed. On 3 of the 4 fields, pitchers threw a “live bullpen” to catchers and hitters swang against them with no fielders and no real count. This was one of my favorite uses of practice time when I was a head coach in Europe and Australia (albeit, not accepted very well in either place). The “mono-e-mono” structure allows for efficiency and allows for pitchers to work on things while hitters get comfortable/familiar with the live pitching instead of your standard BP. The fourth field saw a live intra-squad game from a higher level group of Oakland minor leaguers. In this capacity, I could walk around and view match-ups seamlessly. I also had cover from the constant and unusual drizzle in this normally dry time of year.

Two Right-handed pitchers caught my attention – Malik Jones showed an easy Fastball with good life that ate up the batters he faced and produced a couple of consecutive broken bat swings. Nick Highberger showed a nice 3-pitch arsenal and low to mid 90s FB with quality movement and a somewhat deceptive release.

I also had a chance to see aforementioned Italian catcher Cesare Astorri from Parma Italy. A shameless plug here but after noticing Cesare back at the small European tournament in 2014 (where I was the only scout in attendance), I followed him for a couple of years and then after he hit his growth spurt and showed me a 1.9 pop-time and legit game power at the 2017 Prague Baseball Week tournament I tried unsuccessfully to sign him to an Orioles contract. I then invited him to participate in the 2017 International Stars College Showcase held every October in Mesa/Glendale Arizona in hopes I could help him land a college scholarship. He was so good at the week-long event, I invited some scouting friends to take a look at him and that’s where Oakland scooped him up on a Free-Agent contract. I pegged him as a young Yan Gomes with the body type and profile projection. He has legit pull power from the Right-Hand side but even more impressive is his ability to receive and his strong throwing arm from the catching position.

Last year, playing mostly at age 20, he hit .289 at the Rookie-Level and threw out a number of runners. I think this kid has a real shot to play in the big leagues and he even though he is a bit raw still because he doesn’t have the same exposure to the amount of games that most Latin and North American players do, he holds is own in this environment. He caught and blocked well in the rain today and in his first live AB’s he put some good balanced swings on the ball, with a good eye at the plate, even if his timing was a little off. Just as important he displayed maturity and a grasp to handle his pitchers both in English and in Spanish, which is really a great attribute to have as a catcher.

When the live BP ended, I took a look at the intra-squad game and saw a number of guys who I have evaluated in the minors over the past couple of years and who I have already seen appear in the Major League Spring Training games for the A’s. Lefty Tyler Alexander, with his side-arm slinging lefty delivery, was interesting enough – showing some quality movement and command that warrants some consideration as a match-up specialist. He was signed as a free-agent this past off-season after bouncing around the Independent and Foreign Leagues the past couple of years. Former Orioles and Rays catching prospect Jonah Heim stood out with some impressive swings and a solid defensive showing behind the dish. Lefty swinging Outfielder Luis Barrera, who I’ve been impressed with on both sides of the ball since seeing him last October/November in the Arizona Fall League, was up to his usual tricks – playing hard, making solid contact, and hustling everywhere. Even top-prospect Jorge Mateo was on hand to get some work in.

After a couple of hours of walking between the fields and trying to stay dry I felt like I did enough spying for the day. A ball rolled to my feet as I was getting ready to leave, no one chased it down or yelled at me to give it to a kid and then as I was walking out I took a photo for one of the players and his girlfriend. I smiled. This is baseball on the backfields.