Prospect Barfield making transition to mound
Son of former big leaguer, Oakland outfielder following Doolittle's lead
OAKLAND -- Jeremy Barfield is the son Rickey Henderson never had.
Entwined by Jesse Barfield, Jeremy's father and Henderson's Yankees teammate, their wardrobes looked identical -- "He used to dress me up as if I was his son in the same outfits as him," says Jeremy -- and so did a few of their baseball mannerisms.
Specifically, they're both members of what can be viewed as the game's oddest fraternity. They bat right-handed and throw left-handed.
"I do blame Rickey for that," Jeremy said, laughing.
The two stay in touch, made convenient by their ties to the A's, who made Barfield their eighth-round Draft pick in 2008. Henderson remains a special assistant in the organization, and the Hall of Famer has a pact with the prospect.
"Whenever he's in town, he has this place in Oakland where he gets chicken pot pies from, and any time I hit a home run he gets me a chicken pot pie," said Barfield, who reached double digits in homers in each of the last four seasons in the Minors. "It's the ultimate motivation. It's the best chicken pot pie I've ever had."
They'll soon have to hammer out a new deal.
Barfield hasn't picked up a bat since his last birthday. On July 12, he was called into manager Steve Scarsone's office in Sacramento. Readying for a birthday celebration at his go-to spot, Burgers & Brew, with his teammates, Barfield was now instead preparing to receive news that would quickly change the course of his professional career.
He had played in just 35 games in a span of two months in his first stint with Triple-A Sacramento, so they must not need a bench warmer anymore, he thought. Then the office doors closed, presumably meaning only one thing: He was headed back to Double-A Midland.
Take a week off, he was told, and then back your bags for Arizona.
This 25-year-old was headed back to rookie ball -- to make the transition from outfielder to pitcher.
"I don't know if I was breathing or blinking, I was so shell shocked," Barfield said. "To this day, if I had a choice, I'd rather hit, because that's just who I grew up as. They said they'd give me time to decide, but there was really nothing to decide."
He had pitched sparingly in high school, but Barfield had always been known for his cannon left arm since the A's plucked him out of San Jacinto College, annually racking up more outfield assists than anyone else in the organization -- much like his father did during his 12-year big league career.
Barfield posted respectable offensive numbers, but barely budged on the depth chart.
"I think it reached a point where we knew it wasn't going to be an easy road for him to get to the big leagues," said Keith Lieppman, longtime A's director of player development. "But we always thought he had a genuine tool that was worth looking at. There's that debate from within. When do you pull the plug on one side and try to go another direction?"
That time was now.
Lieppman called up A's Minor League rehab pitching coordinator Garvin Alston, and the plan was set in place.
"We didn't want to miss out on possibly seeing this guy on the mound," said Alston. "I talked to Keith, and we discussed doing the same steps that we did with Sean Doolittle."
Doolittle's remarkable story is well-documented. Oakland's southpaw needed just six months to transform from an oft-injured first-base prospect to Major League reliever. Doolittle's now one of the best lefties in the game, and he is in line to potentially take over closing duties in place of free agent Grant Balfour next year.
Doolittle's a special case, and in no way is it fair to compare any player to him. But A's personnel see similar arm strength from the left side when watching Barfield, who complements his fastball -- currently topping out at 93 mph -- with a slider and split-finger.
The slider, says Barfield, "was absolutely garbage" when he first threw it. So he sought out help from Dontrelle Willis, who advised him with his grip, and slider aficionado Mike Jackson, a former big league closer who also happens to be Barfield's godfather.
"He used to throw me his slider in the cage, and I didn't want anything to do with it," Barfield said. "Now I want to know all about it."
The split-finger was born on its own.
"That's definitely my best pitch," he said. "We were working on throwing a circle changeup grip, and I tell you, I looked like Rick Vaughn [from the movie 'Major League.'] I was missing by 10 feet. I couldn't throw it. I was trying my hardest and couldn't do it. So I told Garvin, 'Let me throw a split-finger.'"
It's not a pitch the A's like their guys to use, mostly because of health concerns. But Barfield convinced Alston to let him throw just one.
"The first one was so nasty that it kind of handcuffed him with the glove and hit him in the shin," Barfield said. "He goes, 'All right, you got a splitter.' I don't want to toot my own horn, but it's disgusting. I've had catchers tell me not to throw it."
The lefty pitched in Instructional League before taking his newfound talents to the Dominican Republic, where he threw in a handful of winter ball games. He works one-on-one with Alston on a daily basis, and he also has an extra set of eyes and ears in Doolittle, who works out at the same facilities in Phoenix during the offseason.
That's where Barfield's day starts, continuing with another job -- putting Christmas lights on local houses, mostly owned by big leaguers. That's how he was first introduced to Willis.
"All those houses make me want to work harder," Barfield said, "just so I can live there. All I want is a chance."
"Not everyone's going to be like Doolittle, but we felt like he had that type of upside where it would be worth a shot," said Lieppman. "He throws strikes and gets swings and misses. He's raw in other areas, but that's to be expected, and he'd made tremendous progress in a short period of time.
"Everybody that ever saw him said that if he doesn't make it as a position player, put him on the mound. All of the ingredients are there, so why not have a repeat of a Doolittle? I would love to see that happen, so we're rooting for him."