I took the opportunity to stop in Nashville last week to check in with a few guys. While there, I had the chance to talk with hurler Jesse Hahn (who has since been sidelined with a lat strain), first baseman Matt Olson (who is now set to rejoin the A’s), as well as hitting and pitching coaches Eric Martins and Rick Rodriguez. I also took some time to do an interview with Nashville manager, and former A’s outfielder, Ryan Christenson about his job and also got his impressions of a few of the main members of the A’s youth movement like Bruce Maxwell, Chad Pinder, Matt Chapman and Franklin Barreto, which I’ve included below. You can find the other interviews with Hahn, Olson and Martins and Rodriguez on my Athletics Farm site. But for now, see what Sounds skipper Ryan Christenson had to tell me about some of Nashville’s top prospects…
Originally drafted by the A’s in the 10th round in 1995, Ryan Christenson began his major league playing career as an outfielder with the A’s back in 1998. He made it to the playoffs with the A’s 2000 team before being dealt to Arizona during the 2001 season. The southern California native made his last major league appearance with Texas in 2003, and finished out his playing career by spending the 2004 season playing in the Pacific Coast League.
He then left the game for a while to go into the business world before being bitten by the baseball bug again and returning to the field in 2013 to skipper the Beloit Snappers, the A’s Class-A affiliate in the Midwest League. Christenson quickly impressed the A’s organization with his ability to work with young players and, like many of his young charges, he moved through the system quickly, taking the reins at Stockton in 2014, before moving on to manage Midland in 2015 and 2016, and then becoming the skipper of the Nashville Sounds this season.
Christenson has managed many of the A’s top young prospects as they’ve moved through the system together. He began at Beloit back in 2013 with Bruce Maxwell, Matt Olson and Renato Nunez. In 2014 at Stockton, in addition to Maxwell, Olson and Nunez, he also had Ryon Healy, Chad Pinder and Jaycob Brugman, and he managed all six players again at Midland the next season. Top prospects Matt Chapman and Franklin Barreto came under his charge at Midland in 2016, and have spent time with him at Nashville this year as well.
Obviously, Christenson has had a major hand in helping to develop many members of the A’s current youth movement. He’s had the chance to watch the A’s top prospects play on a daily basis as much as any other human being alive and knows them as well as anyone. So, last week in Nashville, I took the opportunity to talk to the skipper about his job and also got his impressions of a few of the main members of the A’s youth movement like Bruce Maxwell, Chad Pinder, Matt Chapman and Franklin Barreto…
AF: As a player, you played for that 2000 A’s team that started that four-year playoff run in Oakland with guys like Giambi, Chavez, Tejada and the beginning of the Big Three with Hudson, Mulder and Zito. Those guys you played with on that 2000 team really formed the core of those winning A’s teams of the early 2000s. So, what was that whole experience like for you and what did you take from that that may be of use to you now?
RC: Obviously, just having been in the organization at every level, I still have a feel for the philosophy that we try to teach here as a player development person with the A’s now. I think one of the things that I remember most about that group there was just the closeness that we had with the young core group of players, because it seems like we all came through the system together and kind of all arrived in the big leagues together in the late ’90s, and then started to really play better baseball and were able to win the division there in 2000. So, that’s what I see and hope for with this group as we change over now. A lot of these guys have all come through the minor leagues together and have an opportunity to do something special at the big league level with that relationship already set in place.
AF: After you retired as a player after the 2004 season, you were out of the game for a while until you came back and started managing at Beloit in 2013. So, what led to you getting back into the game at that point?
RC: After I was done playing, I finished up my degree. I had a business degree and kind of saw myself going into the business world. I did that for a couple years but realized pretty quickly that being behind the desk was not where I really wanted to be. I felt myself starting to miss the game and realized how much I loved the game. As a player, I didn’t think that I was going to go into coaching, but I did feel that I was missing the game. And I had some friends like A.J. Hinch, Sal Fasano and David Newhan and some guys I was talking to who were in the game and were enjoying themselves…I interviewed in 2012 and didn’t get anything, thank goodness. And I happened to land in a perfect spot with the A’s, back where I came up. And it was just a good fit. It was everything I was looking for – with a boss like [farm director] Keith Lieppman, obviously some familiarity with [Vice President of Baseball Operations] Billy Beane and [General Manager] David Forst, and [special assistant] Grady Fuson was here, and I knew [assistant general manager] Dan Feinstein from my playing days. So, that just made it feel like a good place to start my coaching career.
AF: You’ve coached at every full-season level in the system at this point, going from Beloit up to Nashville now. So, what’s the difference for you managing guys who are just starting out their careers in Single-A and then managing guys up here in Triple-A who’ve been around a bit and who’ve maybe even spent some time in the big leagues before?
RC: The guys here already have a feel for what they have to do on a day-to-day basis. They have a pretty good understanding of the game. At the lower levels, you’re helping these guys understand what their day-to-day routine is going to be and how they get through a day. And then up here, it’s more managing the players than managing the work day – so getting to know these guys, having that relationship, because it’s a whirlwind here. Sometimes, you have to have some tough conversations; sometimes, you get to have some real exciting conversations as far as sending guys up. But if you don’t have a pulse of where they’re all at, then this job could spiral on you in a hurry.
AF: Yeah, you’re actually in the middle of a lot of personal drama here in Triple-A. Guys here often find themselves going through some major changes one way or another.
RC: Yeah, they are major. And a lot of them have wives and families. At the lower levels, you don’t have to deal with that issue. Moving around is a little bit easier. But here, it can be a major uprooting.
AF: Yeah, going back and forth between Beloit and Stockton isn’t quite as dramatic a change in life as going back and forth between Nashville and Oakland! Now you started out in Beloit with guys like Bruce Maxwell and Matt Olson, and you’ve been with them almost every year through their minor league careers. So, what’s it like for you personally to see them making it to the major league level after having started out with them back in A-ball?
RC: It feels good, just because you’ve seen all the work that they’ve put in. Somebody like Maxwell, you see the transition that he’s made to turn himself into a very, very good defensive catcher. He came in as this great hitter, but the catching has continuously gotten better. So, just to see him pay attention to that and turn himself into the best catcher we have in the organization has been really neat to watch. But just the fact that I’ve been around them for four or five years and had some pretty solid relationships with these guys, just to be able to see them go up there and do it on TV at the ultimate level, which is where they all wanted to be, is pretty cool.
AF: A guy you had at Stockton, at Midland, and for a little while here at Nashville this year is Chad Pinder. He’s an interesting player with his versatility. How do you see him profiling as a major league player?
RC: I think he’s panning out into being the super-utility guy that we’re seeing right now. I think the throwing and the glove on the infield are probably not the quality to do it every single day at this point, not that it can’t improve. But he’s got the tools to shift around and play any of the three infield positions and play them well. So, it’s good to have a guy who can bounce around and do all three versus one position every single day. And now that he’s shown that he can go in the outfield, the fact that we can put him out there anywhere on the field is huge. The first day in spring training when I saw him go to the outfield, his instincts and his first move and his desire to want to get a good jump and go get the ball kind of impressed me that he can do it, because he’s a tremendous athlete. He’s a very strong and powerful guy, and some of the home runs that we’ve seen him hit already this year up there show the capabilities that he has. But he’s got a short swing, which allows him to get the ball deep. I think he’s still kind of coming into his own and figuring out his approach. He needs to improve to be successful at the major league level as far as working counts a little bit more and drawing a few more walks. Not going out of the zone as much as he was and being an aggressive swinger is only going to help his numbers as far as what they really want to see him improve on, which is that on-base number, and he can certainly do that.
AF: Earlier this year, you had two guys here who are considered two of the A’s top position player prospects – Matt Chapman and Franklin Barreto. Chapman’s up with the A’s now, and Barreto was up for a bit but now he’s back here in Nashville. What have you seen out of those guys, what makes them such special players, and what do they both need to do to really be able to succeed at the major league level on a long-term basis?
RC: Well, I think both of them are right along the lines of what we were just talking about with Pinder. A refinement of their strike zone is the main thing. I think Barreto’s seen that at this level here and when he’s been in the big leagues. Somebody can be exploited that can’t lay off of that slider or that fastball that starts in the zone and by the time it gets to the hitting zone it’s dropped out of it. So, I think that’s where the improvement’s going to come offensively for all three of them – Chapman, Barreto and Pinder. Chapman is one of the best, if not the best, third basemen I’ve ever been around. The kid is absolutely electric. He’s as dynamic left and right as you can get, he’s got one of the best arms in the game at third base, and he’s got range. And especially in Oakland, he’s a perfect fit, with all that foul territory, so he’s going to be huge for them at third base. I still think they’re figuring out whether Barreto fits better at shortstop or second base. He’s a young player still kind of finding his focus. I think some of his errors that he’s made here are just a lack of focus at times, which you can see kind of drift in and out with young players. But I love what I’ve seen from him at second base. I’ve seen him make plays that remind me of Roberto Alomar. And Chapman and Barreto are both extremely powerful. Obviously, Barreto’s not as powerful as Chapman, but for a little guy, Barreto can really drive the ball to all parts of the ballpark, which is fun to watch.
AF: Well, it sounds like he might be more of a standout player as a second baseman than as a shortstop.
RC: I think so, I think in a perfect world. Just watching some of the young players we have in the minor leagues, I think Richie Martin is our best pure shortstop. He’s just as electric left and right as Chapman. So, I think if you can just envision those two guys on the left-hand side, that’s lock-down quality defense. Richie’s still kind of trying to figure himself out as a hitter. I’m not sure what they’re expecting or would like to see him hit, but it’s not a lot. He’s that good at shortstop. I think Barreto’s going to end up doing both. But possibly at this point in time, second base might be his better of the two.
AF: And since you played with him, does Chapman remind you a bit of Eric Chavez?
RC: I’m telling you, I played a lot with Chavy, and Chapman’s better than Chavez as a defender. Obviously, Chavy was a great hitter. But Chapman is better – I tell people he’s the best I’ve seen. I was always a baseball fan growing up, and I can never remember ever watching a better third baseman. He’s incredible – so much fun to watch.
AF: So, now that you’ve had the opportunity to do this job for a few years, what’s the single best part of it for you?
RC: My whole life I’ve just been a baseball fan. So, to be able to work in the industry of baseball has been a blessing. I was out of it and realized how much I love it and was able to get back into it. And it’s not always that easy just because you played to get back in – there’s only so many jobs to go around. But I feel very fortunate to be able to do that. And I’ve also been real fortunate to be around this young group that we’re trying to watch do something in the big leagues right now. It’s just been incredible to watch these guys play great baseball. We’ve done a lot of winning over the last four years. It’s been a great experience all around. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.
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