Minor league expert John Sickels recently released his Baseball Prospect Book 2006. It's an excellent book and the best resource available on minor league prospects.
Sickels recently took the time to have a chat with me about the A's system and top prospects.
The following is a transcript of that chat:
Blez: The A's system seems to be a little bit of the case of the cupboard being bare, especially near the top of the system. How do you see the A's minor league system now?
John Sickels: These things are cyclical, and due to graduations to the majors they are on the down side of the cycle right now. The one real stud right now is Barton, but there are some other guys like Melillo, Putnam, and Buck who could/should blossom this year. I haven't done formal system rankings yet but Oakland is probably middle of the pack I'd say.
Blez: How would you compare the system to some of the division rivals? Better or worse?
Sickels: Anaheim is better than Oakland. Seattle and Texas...hmm...hard to say. Angels are the top dog but the others are clustered together.
Blez: In the book, you mention Barton's position conundrum. Where do you think he'll wind up?
Sickels: DH/1B. Splitting time between the two.
Blez: The A's went and drafted high schoolers, especially arms. Judging from some of your grades in the book, you see Italiano as the class of the high schoolers. What does he project out to at this point? And yes, I know it's early.
Sickels: If he stays healthy and improves his command, he has Wood or Beckett-like potential. I wrote in the book that he could turn out like those guys. . .or that he could turn into Colt Griffin if everything falls apart. That's pretty much how I see it. . .sky is the limit in terms of potential, but lots of things can get in the way for him. High risk, high reward. The "safe" guess would be to project him at the midpoint between Wood and Griffin.
Blez: What do you think of Cliff Pennington and Travis Buck? The early returns are very good.
Sickels: Yeah, I like both of them, Pennington in particular. At the least they should be solid major league players. The question is if they have star potential, and we don't know the answer to that yet of course. Right now I like Pennington better. As an infielder there will be less pressure on him to hit. Buck will have to show power to be a regular outfielder and he may not have a lot of raw home run juice, sort of an Andre Ethier type situation.
Blez: What do you think of the A's losing Ethier? Is that one that fans will regret down the line?
Sickels: I think Ethier will be a fine player, but with guys like Putnam, Buck, Herrera, and Robnett still in the system, they had the depth available to deal Ethier. I wouldn't worry about it too much.
Blez: You still seem to be high on Jairo Garcia (also known now as Santiago Casilla), giving him a B+. You cite his command as a problem, yet he only gave up 20 walks. Is it possible that his fastball is too straight? Or what do you see as the issue with Santiago?
Sickels: Well, now that we know his true age I'd have to downgrade him a bit from the book comment. As for his command, 20 walks in 48 innings is OK but not that great. That would be like 83 walks in 200 innings. But utlimately I still think he is one of the higher-ceiling relief prospects around.
Blez: Why is Myron Leslie one of your personal favorites? You left us hanging there in the book.
Sickels: Sometimes you just notice guys. I noticed him when he was in college because of his high walk rate and because his name was "Myron," which isn't exactly a common name any more. There's nothing more to it than that really...just a guy I noticed and decided to follow.
Blez: Javier Herrera had the suspension last year. Is it tough to grade a player like that since you might feel like you haven't seen the "pure" athlete yet?
Sickels: yes, it is. Although he continued to play well even after being off the juice. But it does factor in, adding an X-factor of uncertainty about how he'll hold up at higher levels.
Blez: When I asked for players who were in the system who could surprise people, Billy Beane pointed out Shull, Ray and Madsen as particular favorites. What are your thoughts on those guys? You gave Ray a C+, Shull a B- and Madsen a C.
Sickels: Ray: really good arm, possible bargain in the 8th round from a small college but command is a problem. Shull doesn't throw quite as hard but is more polished and should advance more quickly...outstanding K/BB and K/IP ratios in short-season ball. Madsen throws even softer than Shull and isn't as good of a prospect. Obviously Beane knows 97.835% percent more about these guys than I do, but it isn't just propaganda on his part, they look like legitimate guys to me, especially Shull and Ray.
Blez: 97.835%? Wow, you really are a numbers guy.
Sickels: Yeah, well that number is an obscure reference, a VERY obscure reference.
Blez: You can't just say that without explaining.
Sickels: it will make me look like a total geek if I explain it.
Blez: Come on...
Sickels: Of course, since I AM a total geek I suppose it won't harm anything to explain that it is a very obscure Star Trek Original Series reference, but I won't explain it more than that. :-)
Blez: We're cool with that. The A's had several key prospects suffer injuries last year, including Dan Meyer, John Rheinecker and Landon Powell. Do you know anything about how healthy any of them are (I know how secretive the A's are about injury reports)? And do you expect any of them to get back to form this year?
Sickels: I'm positive you would know more about that than me! :-). Seriously, I have no inside information about those injuries.
Blez: The A's signed Mark Ellis to an extension this offseason. Do you think Pennington or Melillo will make him expendable in that time frame?
Sickels: Yes, Ellis will be expendable soon.
Blez: Who do you like better, Melillo or Pennington?
Sickels: Well, Melillo has proven himself at a higher level so I gave him a Grade B+ in the book, while Pennington has a Grade B since his pro track record is less extensive. But it's quite possible that Pennington will have a better career. I like them both. . .Pennington might be a more "balanced" player since he seems to have more defensive value.
Blez: Dallas Braden seemed to come out of nowhere last year and excel until he reached Double-A. Is he smoke and mirrors or the real deal?
Sickels: His problems in Double-A are typical of a guy who relies on a trick pitch to breeze through lower levels. He's a Grade C prospect, a possible contributor at the major league level, but not someone who is likely to play a huge role.
Blez: Think they'll be another Lansford wearing the green and gold soon?
Sickels: Define "soon". He'll need some time, at least 3 years.
Blez: I guess that's the answer.
Blez: Give me a sleeper who could become a top prospect. Someone out of the C grades you gave this year.
Sickels: Just from the oakland system?
Blez: Are there other systems?
Sickels: I'd have said Madsen but we already mentioned him. I liked Ryan Webb going into 2005. He didn't do what I thought he would do last year, but it is too early to give up on him and he is still a sleeper. Scott Deal had some ugly numbers in rookie ball, but the arm strength is there if he can refine it. Kevin Bunch is another high school guy like Deal and Webb who is a sleeper.
Blez: It's mandatory that in talking with anyone who knows about the minor leagues that I ask about Jeremy Brown. Does he have a chance to be a major leaguer still or has his time passed already?
Sickels: He still has a chance. Grade C prospect...one of the obstacles he'll have to overcome is the whole "Moneyball" thing that prejudices scouts and (probably) other organizations against him. He won't be a regular but I can see him as a useful bench guy, like a lot of other Triple-A players.
Blez: Finally, which team do you see winning the AL West?
Sickels: This year? none of them are out of the question. In terms of probablity, I think I'd rate it Angels, Athletics, Rangers, Mariners in that order.
Blez: Thanks so much for your time, John. AN really appreciates it.
Sickels: No prob. Thanks!
[EDITOR'S NOTE: I will be running an interview with Lewis Wolff I did this morning either later tomorrow or early Wednesday. - Blez]