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In 2006, the Oakland A's won the American League West and advanced all of the way to the American League Championship Series, thanks in part to the veteran contributions of starter Barry Zito and DH Frank Thomas. The A's would lose both of those players to free agency that off-season, leaving Oakland with five picks in the first two rounds of the 2007 draft.
The A's viewed the 2007 draft as an opportunity to replenish a farm system that had been thinned by the team's success in the early 2000s. They took five college players in those first two rounds, with UC-Riverside right-hander James Simmons leading the way as the 26th-overall pick.
Things didn't go according to script for the A's 2007 draft class. While two of those first five picks have made the big leagues (second pick Sean Doolittle and third pick Corey Brown), none of them have had the careers they were projected to on draft day. Simmons, Doolittle, Brown, fourth pick Grant Desme and fifth pick Josh Horton have all seen injuries impact their development.
Desme missed virtually the entire 2008 season with an injury and retired abruptly after a solid 2009 campaign to join the priesthood. Doolittle missed nearly all of the 2009-2011 seasons with injuries before making the career-saving switch from slugging first-baseman/outfielder to hard-throwing relief pitcher. Brown struggled with shoulder and knee injuries in 2009 and was traded to the Washington Nationals before the 2011 season. He finished the year on the Nationals' major league roster and is fighting for a major-spot this spring. Horton has had to fight through shoulder and hamstring injuries that have stalled his development. He is currently in A's minor league mini-camp, fighting for a spot on the Triple-A Sacramento roster.
Also in mini-camp is Simmons, who has had a similar injury history to his 2007 draft brethren. After being selected with the 26th pick, Simmons was sent to Double-A Midland to make his professional debut. He pitched well in 29.2 innings for the Rockhounds in 2007 and returned to lead the Midland staff in 2008. In 2008, Simmons posted a 3.51 ERA and a 120:32 K:BB ratio in 136 innings. He was named a Texas League post-season All-Star and he entered the 2009 season as one of the A's top prospects.
Simmons' 2009 campaign got off to a solid start with Triple-A Sacramento and it appeared to be just a matter of time before the right-hander would make his major league debut. However, he injured his shoulder midway through that season. Simmons attempted to pitch through it and finished the year with 119.2 innings pitched, but he didn't look like himself by the end of that season. The pain continued into the off-season and by spring training 2010, Simmons and the A's were searching for answers as to why his arm didn't feel right.
After several tests and attempts at rehabbing the injury, it was determined that Simmons had a frayed labrum and a torn rotator cuff. He missed the entire 2010 campaign and the first half of the 2011 season. Simmons joined the High-A Stockton Ports midway through the 2011 campaign. Although he posted a solid 36:6 K:BB ratio in 42.2 innings for the Ports, Simmons had an ugly 5.48 ERA and he struggled to get his fastball above 85 MPH.
Simmons was somewhat of a wildcard going into the 2012 season. He was healthy during spring training and pitched well enough to be sent to Double-A Midland to start the year. The A's moved Simmons from the starting rotation to the bullpen and he pitched in relief for the entire 2012 season. With increased velocity, Simmons showed marked improvement in 2012. In a season split between Midland and Triple-A Sacramento, Simmons posted a 2.98 ERA and he had a 50:22 K:BB ratio in 63.1 innings. He followed that performance with a solid showing in the Arizona Fall League, where he allowed just two runs on two hits in 11.1 innings.
Although Simmons wasn't added to the A's 40-man roster or invited to big league camp as a non-roster player, he was invited to the A's spring training minor league mini-camp with the idea that Simmons would have a few opportunities to pitch in big league camp this spring. Thus far, Simmons has made two appearances for the A's in big league spring games, and he has allowed only a hit and he has two strike-outs in two scoreless innings.
We caught-up with Simmons on Wednesday to talk about his journey back from shoulder surgery, his early spring action, his goals for the 2013 season, and more…
OaklandClubhouse: It seems like you are off to a good start this spring with your two outings in big league camp. How have you been feeling since the start of the mini-camp?
James Simmons: I felt really good coming into the mini-camp. I wanted to carry some of the success that I had in the Fall League over into the mini-camp. As far as my arm goes, I know that it has been a question in people's minds ‘how is he going to recover from the surgery,' and ‘is he going to be able to stay healthy?' And, as far as my arm health, it's better than it has been. It feels like I didn't even have surgery. I'm fortunate in that aspect.
OC: Has it been good for your arm to be in a relief role like you are now, or has it been tough to recover after pitching one day and being asked to pitch the next day?
JS: At first, when they told me that they were going to put me in the bullpen, I had never pitched out of the bullpen up until last season. I didn't really know what to expect or how to handle it, or from the mental side, how to deal with it. It was all new for me at the start of last year.
At first, I thought, okay, if I'm going to have to pitch every other day or two days in a row, I'm not sure how my arm is going to respond because I have always been a starter and I was used to having that four days off between starts. At first it was a little bit of an adjustment, but as the season went on, my arm adapted to it and I enjoy coming out of the bullpen. As far as the way my arm responded to it, I feel like it responded really well.
OC: Has it changed your approach on the mound coming out of the bullpen? Are you still using all of the pitches you used as a starter, or are you concentrating just on a few pitches?
JS: I am definitely not mixing my pitches as much. As a starter, I was predominantly a fastball command guy and that hasn't really changed. I feel like I am a little bit more aggressive out of the bullpen. As a starter, you have five or six innings, and if you have a rough first inning or a rough second inning, you can kind of settle in and get into that rhythm. Coming out of the ‘pen, you don't really have that option to go out and have a bad inning. I'd say that you kind of have to turn up your aggression a little bit. It's not something that's out of control, but, for me, I've just got to go out there and focus. That's the main thing.
OC: Earlier this week, A's manager Bob Melvin mentioned that he was impressed with how you went out there and threw strike-one, strike-two in your big league outing. Command has been a calling card for you throughout your pro career. Was command something that you always had as a pitcher or was that something that you had to develop in high school and in college?
JS: It's hard to say. I played a lot of baseball when I was younger, between Little League, travel baseball, Pony League. I don't remember any weekend from the time I was nine years old until I was out of high school that I had a free weekend. I pretty much played year-round. I think it might have been a result of just playing the game a lot.
I pitched a little bit, but not a lot, until I got to high school. I mainly played third base. So I think being an infielder before I started pitching might have helped me out a little bit, but it's hard to say where the command might have come from. I have always been able to see the glove and hit the glove. I'm fortunate that I have that ability.
OC: In 2011, with Stockton, it was your first year back after the surgery. You were throwing a lot of strikes that season but your velocity wasn't where it was before the injury. When did you start to feel like you were back to where you were before you were hurt?
JS: Yeah, that Stockton season was hard for me because in my own mind, I knew what I was capable of doing but my body wasn't letting me do it. Mentally, it was tough. During spring training last season when I came in, it wasn't fine-tuned yet to where I thought it should be. It was probably mid-season when I felt like my velocity was starting to come back. Then when I got to the Fall League this past off-season, I really felt that I was throwing the ball harder than I had been.
I don't know if it was time that I needed or my arm strength just needed to be built back up. I know that after I had the surgery, my arm, I couldn't really move it much. I kind of had to re-learn my arm slot, re-learn to throw, my release point, everything. I think, more than anything, time was the biggest factor in the velocity coming back.
OC: How much did it mean to you to get back to Triple-A last year and get back to the Fall League and basically be back where you were before the arm injury?
JS: It definitely meant a lot. That was my main goal coming into spring training last year. I told myself when I started that I definitely wanted to end up where I was before I got hurt. It was definitely hard to lose that whole season in 2010 knowing that I was in Triple-A in 2009 and I was right there and was throwing well before I got hurt. I didn't want to waste too much time getting back to that point. It took a lot of hard work, but I was able to accomplish the goal.
OC: What are you working on this spring? Are you able to focus on different things now that you have had a full, healthy season, or are you still focused on the same things that you were last spring?
JS: I'm just trying to carry over the success I had last year and fine-tune things a little bit. I know that last year there were times when my fastball command wasn't as good as I would have liked it to be. Now that I have some of the velocity back and I have developed a decent breaking ball that I can throw for strikes, for me it is now about fine-tuning that stuff and getting it to where I am more consistent with it. So far, I have been happy with the progress.
OC: What has your velocity generally been sitting at these days?
JS: I know in the Fall League it was right around 90-92. I'm not sure what it is right now. It's early in the spring, but I would hope it is that, but they don't really tell us.
OC: How has the mini-camp gone specifically when you have been over at Papago? Is it a program that is similar to what you are going to be doing when the big camp opens, or are you doing different stuff at the mini-camp?
JS: I think it is kind of along the same lines. I'm not really sure what minor league spring training is going to have to offer. We have a new pitching coordinator [Scott Emerson]. He was my pitching coach right after I got drafted in Midland and the year after in Midland, so I have a pretty good relationship with him. I don't know if he is going to run things differently than they have been run in the past, but so far, I'd give him an A-plus with the job he is doing with the mini-camp guys. That's not a knock against Gil [Patterson, the former A's minor league pitching coordinator], because Gil was an excellent pitching coordinator. But I think that Emerson has stepped in and he has done more than I think they could have expected.
OC: What was it like for you to go over to big league camp for those two games? I know that you have been a non-roster invitee to big league camp in the past, but was it nice for you to be able to go over there and show that you can get big league hitters out?
JS: Yeah, definitely. I knew coming into mini-camp that there was the possibility that I could go over there and throw, so I definitely wanted to go over there and make a good impression. I wanted to let everyone know that I am still around and still capable of pitching well. That has been pretty much my goal coming off of the surgery is to get back to where I was, if not better, and make sure that I'm not forgotten along the way. In my own mind, I'm still the same pitcher that I was before I got hurt. I didn't want the injury to put in their minds that maybe I'm a different pitcher than I was before the surgery.
That was my goal coming into this mini-camp was to go out there and pitch the way I know I can pitch and hopefully open somebody's eyes.
OC: You and Sean Doolittle were members of the same 2007 first-round draft class and went through some of the same injury travails. Was it inspiring for you to see him move up as quickly as he did last year and would it be funny for both of you to be in the same bullpen someday given that he was drafted as a position player?
JS: Yeah, definitely. When he made the transformation [to pitcher], I talked to him quite a bit about it. I don't think he quite expected it to go as quickly as it did, but I am really happy for him. Him and I are pretty good friends; we actually live together during spring training. That would be incredible to be in the same bullpen. I know the paths that we took weren't the ones that we wanted, but that would be awesome if we ended up in the bullpen together. It would be a cool story.
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