Offseason waiver claim Trevor Oaks was off to a fantastic start in spring training before the COVID-19 pandemic suspended the season. Now in the San Francisco Giants minor league camp in Sacramento, he hopes to get an opportunity.
Players around professional baseball were stunned when the MLB season was suspended in March. For players like Giants right-handed pitcher Trevor Oaks, the news was especially disappointing.
The Giants starting rotation has been up in the air all offseason. Heading into spring training with presumptive ace Johnny Cueto unlikely to be ready for Opening Day and Tyler Beede out for the season with a torn UCL, multiple spots were available.
Offseason acquisitions with longer pedigrees like Tyler Anderson were considered the favorites, but a number of lesser-known minor league signings and waiver claims were vying for opportunities of their own. Oaks was one of them.
Claimed off waivers from the Kansas City Royals in November, the 27-year-old felt good about his position. In a recent interview with Around the Foghorn, Oaks explained, “I felt like I was rolling and I had a shot to make the team.” Oaks had struck out a batter an inning and had yet to allow a run over his three spring training appearances.
He was drafted out of Cal Baptist by the Dodgers in the seventh round of the 2014 draft. Current Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi and manager Gabe Kapler were both apart of LA’s brass at the time. Oaks started his first full season in Class-A and quickly moved through the system, reaching Triple-A by the end of 2016.
Oaks never racked up swings and misses but showed an impeccable ability to limit damage. From 2015-2016, Oaks made 47 minor league appearances, completed 276.2 innings, held opponents with a 2.70 ERA, but only managed 182 punchouts (5.9 K/9). By limiting free passes (only 1.3 BB/9) and working off a strong sinker, Oaks managed to find success without a putaway pitch.
Oblique injuries would limit him to just 15 Triple-A starts in 2017, but he still managed a 3.64 ERA in the PCL. His strong control of the strike zone continued, but he was beginning to find more strikeouts as well (7.7 K/9).
Following the season, the Dodgers traded Oaks and infielder Erick Mejia to Kansas City in a three-team deal with the Dodgers, Royals and the Chicago White Sox.
Hip injury limits Trevor Oaks’ production in Royals system
With Kansas City’s Triple-A affiliate (Omaha) in 2018, Oaks continued limiting runs (3.23 ERA), but saw his peripherals trending in the wrong direction. He was walking batters at a career-high clip and striking out even fewer batters than usual. While still finding decent success, Oaks was noticing something wasn’t right, “Back in 2017 and 2018, I started seeing velocity decreases and different movement on the ball.”
Even with the dip in his performance, Oaks earned his first big-league call-up. The Royals added Oaks to their active roster for three separate stints over the course of the season. His concerning trends in Omaha were harder to work around at the highest level. Across 13.2 innings, Oaks surrendered 21 hits and 11 earned runs.
The following season, Oaks found an explanation for his issues. His hip discomfort reached a point where it was almost impossible to pitch. He underwent major hip surgery last March.
Unlike more common baseball injuries like Tommy John surgery, the recovery for a hip injury is much more unknown. Oaks understood it was necessary to continue his career, but that didn’t make it easy, “The structure of your hip forever changes. It’s something you’ll always have to be working on and that was a hard pill to swallow, but you just have to adapt.”
After months of intense rehab, Oaks returned to the mound for the Arizona Fall League. That didn’t stop the uncertainty, “I knew I was being evaluated, but I didn’t even know what I was going to get. It really left me questioning what was left in my career.”
A decent, albeit unexceptional, performance in the AFL wasn’t enough to keep Oaks on Kansas City’s 40-man roster. The Royals designated him for assignment and the Giants added him to their organization.
SF Giants put in the work to get Trevor Oaks back on track
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He spent the offseason working with Exos to rebuild himself from the ground up, “I had to relearn what made me good.” Understanding the Giants roster situation, he was aware of where he stood, “I was selected off of waivers for depth. It’s my job to compete my way onto the team.”
Oaks has been reminded of his time in the Dodgers organization quite a bit, noting a lot that Zaidi and Kapler seem to have carried over. He credits the younger coaching staff’s approach as well, “It seems like they’re very aware of the technology that’s coming out. They want to utilize that and teach us how our stuff plays on Rapsodo, TrackMan, or [on any new technology.]” Oaks also credits the Giants staff with teaching him new grips for his slider and cutter that improved both pitches horizontal movement.
The coaching staff has given pitchers heat-map cards with data on how their repertoire tends to play against different types of batters. “When you combine that with what you’ve been taught on how to read swings and what your competitive intuition tells you about a hitter, it’s all a super useful tool,” he explained.
They even helped him understand how his body had been compensating for his hip injury back in 2017 and 2018, “My arm slot got higher over the last couple of years… That’s been one of the reasons my fastball hasn’t had as much sink. … They explained how my stuff plays better from my old [three-quarters] slot.”
During the break in play from March to July, Oaks returned home to Southern California and hired a personal coach from Exos to keep his routine. Fellow Giants training camp invitee Rob Brantly was nearby. The pair consistently met up to stay in ready and even coordinated with other ballplayers to set up live batting practice days.
The suspension to the start of the season allowed Cueto to return from injury, which left one fewer spot on the Opening Day roster for players like Oaks. Ultimately, he put together a decent showing in the 60-man summer camp but was assigned to Sacramento.
While players like Andrew Suarez, Trevor Cahill, and probably Dereck Rodriguez are above Oaks on the team’s depth chart, Giants fans have come to expect Zaidi to dig deep into the organization’s depth.
The journey through professional baseball has been a wild ride for Oaks. Between hip surgery, the transition to a new team, and the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, his past year has been filled with uncertainty. Regardless, he knows he can only control so much, “[I’m] just trying to stay ready for whatever happens!”