Oakland A's ST 2014 – From An NRI Reporter

Phoenix Muni welcomes A's fans one last time.

Spring training is done and the regular season is here, but the memories of the Oakland A's final spring at Phoenix Muni and Papago Park live on. Arizona Correspondent Kimberly Contreras runs down the highlights from this spring.

Spring Training 2014 is just a memory...and it was certainly one to remember. From February 14th through March 29th, there were memories and experiences of all flavors and from each end of every spectrum: the additions (the "steal" and the "little engine that could") and the subtractions; the NRI's "taste of the big league" and the "reassignment Rumba"; the plays of the spring, the comeback games, and the BEST game of the year.

You name it, it happened during the 40 days of spring training 2014.

The Timeline

Friday, February 14th:
Pitchers and catchers reported to Oakland's major league camp. Of course, position players arrived early in order to get started on the season. As of Monday the 17th, there were 55 players on the roster; including 15 Non-Roster Invitees (NRI's)

Saturday, February 15th:
Start of the Minor League Mini-Camp with pitchers and catchers reporting first.

Monday, February 17th:
Claimed LHP Joe Savery off waivers from Philadelphia

Wednesday, February 26th:
First game of the Cactus League, at the Giants in Scottsdale, where the "catch(es) of the year" (not just spring training) were made by Josh Reddick.

Thursday, February 27th:
First home game of the lastseason at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. Added INF Jake Elmore to the roster from the White Sox.

Monday, March 3rd:
Minor league pitchers and catchers reported to Papago; position players on March 9th.

Monday, March 10th:
Triple-A/ Double-A games begin

Friday, March 14th:
The first announcement of Griffin and Parker injuries

Monday, March 17th:
Single-A games begin. Parker announced to have Tommy John surgery – out for the year.

Wednesday, March 26th:
Last Cactus League game for the A's at Phoenix Muni – in gale-force-wind conditions.

Saturday, March 29th:
Last minor league spring training games at Papago Sports Complex against Colorado.

Credit Oakland's scouting and player development staffs for my essentially over-staying my welcome at Phoenix Muni this spring. I have not spent as much time at stadium games during spring training as I did this year. Generally speaking, I am on the backfields (or at Papago) with the minor league activities, but with so many prospects playing in stadium games, that's where I needed to be. A highlight for me was meeting Susan Slusser (pause for reverence) who somehow managed to add a few steps to the pedestal I've had her on for many years. I am smart enough to not attempt to cover the same information, same situations as the former president of the BBWAA, so I spent most of my game time out by the A's bullpen area. I aligned my experience this year with the non-roster invitees on the team; resulting in a perspective of an NRI correspondent who, happily, did not make the opening day roster.

I missed a lot at Papago, but I wouldn't have missed the stadium games, especially the later innings, for the world.

The additions (the "steal" and the "little engine that could") and the subtractions

Additions include not only players (Philip Humber, Jake Elmore, and Joe Savery) but coaches (Bret Boone) and new operating procedures (home plate collision, Rule 7.13 as well as Instant Replay).

Without question, the "steal" of the off-season was the December acquisition of OF Billy Burns - the American League's Billy Hamilton – from the Washington Nationals in exchange for Jerry Blevins. Burns was not on the A's 40-man roster but he was invited to major league spring training – defining him as a non-roster invitee (NRI).

Once Cactus League play began, perhaps due to the lack of attention (or hype) that the Reds speedster Billy Hamilton received, Burns did not initially distract opposing teams' pitchers when hewas on base. And, as the team's leader in hits with 22, that was quite often. However, after stealing 4 bases in the first 5 games; 7 in the first 9, Burns got everyone's attention. Burns finished spring training with 10 steals in 26 games; tied with Kansas City's Jarrod Dyson. (Reds Billy Hamilton and Dodgers Dee Gordon each finished with 9.) Burns, with his high socks – to match his energy - is FUN to watch!

One free agent signing that made an impact on his new team was INF Alden Carrithers. The 29-year-old infielder was originally signed out of UCLA by Detroit in the 15th round of the 2008 draft. Carrithers' Bruin teammates included Giants' Brandon Crawford, Arizona's Charles Brewer, Toronto's Rob Rasmussen, Padres Cody Decker, and Niko Gallego, the son of Oakland's 3B coach, Mike.

Carrithers was not an NRI; he was called up from minor league camp, as needed. It is his ability to get on-base, his pitch identification, and defensive skills that made him an impact player this spring; but it's his perseverance, to never give up (I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…) is what made him even more of a stand-out. Carrithers, who is from Portland, Oregon by way of Northern California, also spent a little time with a Bay Area expert on hitting: Barry Bonds.

The subtractions included Andy Parrino, Trey Barham, Rashaun Dixon, Myrio Richard and Reynaldo Mateo. Parrino was claimed off waivers by the Rangers, while the others were released towards the end of camp.

The NRI's "taste of the big league" and the "reassignment Rumba"

When the organization's top prospect Addison Russell, top catching prospect Bruce Maxwell, and Venezuelan infielder Darwin Perez were invited to major league spring training, it was clear that none of the three were competing for starting positions; it was a taste of the "Big Leagues." As a non-roster invitee (NRI), each player reports to big league camp on a daily basis, with a locker in the big league clubhouse, a jersey with a number that no one else will wear, and the biggest difference of all: Big League Meal Money.

Cha Ching! Hello Mondays!

However, the NRI pitchers may have thought differently, especially after learning of the injuries to starters A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker. The newly signed pitchers included Jeremy McBryde (SD), Deryk Hooker (St.L), Matt Buschmann (Rays), Philip Humber (HOU), and Jose Flores (CLE) (whom I remember seeing for the minute and a half that he was with Seattle as a Rule 5 selection before being returned to Cleveland.) The difference being: when they were reassigned to Triple-A Sacramento, they probably weren't very happy. But no one ever is. That's expected: if you're competitive and you want to succeed, you are disappointed in anything other than winning.

The opportunities maximized and those cut short due to injuries

Neither Billy McKinney nor Daniel Robertson was an NRI, but each made his presence known in the stadium games. Oakland's 2013 1st round pick Billy McKinney was part of the Minor League Mini-Camp, but not a non-roster invitee. It only took three games for him to make his appearance at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. Friday, Feb 28, against the Giants, top of the 7th inning, McKinney replaces Shane Peterson in left field and bats 9th. Fast forward to the bottom of the 9th; tie game and Jake Goebbert is on 3rd. McKinney comes to the plate, the first pitch is wild, and Jake Goebbert scores from 3rd to win the game! Such fun!! But no pie! Billy went on to play in 11 more games with 13 ABs: 4R; 5H; 2Dbl; 2RBIs; 1BB; 3SOs – OBP: .429/ .462/ .890

Daniel Robertson – for whom I am predicting a phenomenal year – was part of the Mini Camp, though he was not expecting to play in the big league games. Had it not been for his good friend Addison Russell injuring his hamstring, Daniel may not have had as much playing time. He certainly made the most of the opportunities presented to him. At the end of spring training, Daniel had 23 at bats in 17 games; 1R; 4H; 1RBI – OBP: .217/ .217/ .435.

March 10th, against the Dodgers at Camelback Ranch – Glendale, Addison Russell faced Brian Wilson; saw two knuckleballs. Then Wilson left the game. Ended up going on the DL. Later that day, we learned that Russell had pulled a hamstring, and was shut down for the rest of spring training. Tough situation for the young man.

The plays of the spring, the comeback games, and the BEST game of the year

From Day 1, it was agreed that the plays of the year were made by Josh Reddick on the first game of Cactus League play, as he robbed the Giants Mike Morse of not one, but two, home runs. The other play of the spring came on the home opener at Phoenix Muni, against the Milwaukee Brewers. Ryan Braun's return to the Crew's lineup drew MANY LOUD fan reactions. But, on his first time at bat in almost a year, on the second pitch he saw from Tommy Milone was GONE: over the left-centerfield wall. A no-doubter. I was in the front row of the press box, and found myself admiring the beauty of Braun's swing as he made contact. If I'd heard nothing, just by his swing, I would have known the ball was long gone.

It doesn't matter which team you follow, the relentless complaints by the team broadcasters, of the nameless/numberless 7th inning replacements is, in itself, relentless. ENOUGH ALREADY! If they have broadcast more than one spring training, they know the flow: enough with the complaining! These young men are the FUTURE of the organization, and, in my opinion, the BEST part of the game. Why even bother arriving before the 6th inning? All the fun happens after that!

I talked to Seattle Mariners new manager, Lloyd McClendon about the late inning comebacks and he said, "All that means is that their AA team played better than our AA team today." Ok, I'll take that! Especially considering how good Seattle's farm system is!

Best game of the year, as far as I'm concerned: March 4 at Phoenix Muni which essentially meant the Stockton Ports defeated the Huntsville Stars (Brewers Double-A team)...and it was wonderful! The only thing that could have made it even better would have been if Daniel Robertson and Michael Ynoa had stayed and not traveled to Mesa for the split squad game at the Cubs.

Straily took the mound for the A's; Peralta started for the Brewers. First pitch at 1:06pm, then something, something, something...and it's the top of the 6th inning: Addison Russell, takes over at shortstop; Alcantara in relief of Gregerson. To the 7th: defensive replacements Gimenez in left, Goebbert in center, Carrithers at third, and Maxwell behind the plate. To the 8th: Hooker comes in for Alcantara, Muncy at first...and the fun begins: with one out, Maxwell throws out Brewers' Velez trying to steal 2nd base for the second out, and then catches Bianchi's foul ball to end the inning.

Bottom of the 8th – A's down by 3: Michael Taylor on first, Goebbert doubles off of RHP Jimmy Nelson to advance him to third, and then Taylor scores on a wild pitch. Addison Russell then singles and Goebbert comes home. Brewers 4, A's 3.

Top of the 9th: Brewers 4 - A's 3. Jeff Urlaub replaces Hooker and gives a quick inning. QUICK. Bottom 9 and down by 1 run: Brewers send RHP Johnny Hellweg to the mound. Bruce Maxwell welcomes him with a long fly ball to where no one is, in centerfield, and is replaced by pinch-runner, making his big league spring training debut: Matt Olson! Muncy sends one to the same area in center, and Olson scores: TIE GAME! At this point, the crowd is going wild!! This is what almost every game was like when these boys played together in 2012 in the AZL. However, had it been true to the time, Olson would have come to the plate, with Daniel Robertson on board, and homered.

Then, with Max Muncy on first, Luke Montz homers over the left field wall; A's win 6-4, and Jeff Urlaub is credited with the W!

Yes, there were other come-from-behind wins, but this game, in particular, captured the essence of what the 2012 draft class, the "Swingin' Baby A's" can do...especially if they are on the field together. That type of chemistry is special...and for the most part, now plays for the Stockton Ports.

Those lucky Ports fans.

The best stories to follow

Returning from an injury or surgery is always a careful watch-and-see process. Without a doubt, Oakland has Garvin Alston, one of the very best around, to help guide the young men through a careful-yet-productive program. This season, there are several talented, focused, and healthy young men back on the mound including: Shawn Haviland, Tyler Hollstegge and Ryan Doolittle (whose story would have been even better if he and his brother had pitched in the same game AND if their mother had been there to see it ... but we will wait until next year).

Lastly, I first saw newly converted pitcher (Jeremy Barfield) on the mound during the Fall Instructional League. Honestly, expectations were low, but realistic. I was impressed...and I continue to be with each time I see him. Definitely, one to watch for the season.

Farewell Phoenix Muni

With little fanfare for the Phoenix Muni finale, a special shout out to Jeff Urlaub and Trey Barham for their Twitter posts acknowledging the appreciation of having been the last A's pitchers to throw from the mound at Muni. Starting in February 2015, Hohokam Stadium – and Fitch Park for the minor leaguers – will be home for the A's, but there will still be baseball played (and beer served) at Muni. The ASU Sun Devils will change the green-and-gold to maroon-and-gold, but thanks to the ability to finally sell alcohol, there will still be "green" at the stadium.

What's next?

The Minor League Baseball season has begun, and most games can be listened to using the TuneIn App or streaming live from the team's website; each is different so test for your preference, and/ or seen via Milb.tv (a fee-for-service, with LOTS of kinks to still work out.) Don't miss a pitch – or hit – because it will be a fun season!

- Extended Spring Training games start Monday, April 7th.

- Day 1 of the MLB Draft is Thursday, June 5th.

- The Arizona Rookie League (AZL) A's will start their season at Papago against the AZL Angels on Friday night, June 20th. I'll be there, and, if I know Oakland's amateur scouting department like I think I do, there will be some great ball players for me to introduce to the fan base, as well.

Until next time!

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