I was out of town for much of this past weekend, and when I got back I drove straight to the Coliseum to watch Sunday's game from Section 128. Didn't even stop to take a shower. I didn't need to tell you that, but I did anyway. You can't unread it now.
For the entire weekend, I had been looking forward to the best pitching match-up that the Bay Area currently has to offer: Matt Cain vs Brandon McCarthy. Mr Perfect vs The SI Cover Model. $100M man vs ...$4M man? That last one doesn't have the same ring to it. $4M is a lot for the A's, though. Trust me.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I arrived at the stadium to find A.J. Griffin of the Sacramento River Cats being announced as the day's starter. That's like getting to the front of the line at the movie theater to find out that the Avengers is sold out, but that they still have tickets for Rock of Ages. Sure, it might still turn out to be good, but it's really not what you came to see. And is Tom Cruise wearing a fur coat with no shirt? Is that what they did in the 80's? Good lord.
Furthermore, I had been out of cell phone reception all of Saturday, so I hadn't seen that day's box score yet. When I pulled it up on my phone, I couldn't help but notice something different about the 9th spot in the lineup. That's right, Oakland's shortstop got a hit! Also, it was not Cliff Pennington. I noticed that as well. It was also not Eric Sogard, though, nor Adam Rosales or even Grant Green. Instead, it was Brandon Hicks, who had been called up to take the spot of Collin Cowgill after the outfielder went on the DL with a sprained left ankle.
Two new players, neither of whom were completely out of nowhere, but neither of whom were considered top prospects who were supposed to reach the Majors this year. I realized that I didn't really know anything about either of these guys, so I did a little reading. Join me after the jump for a rundown on the two newest Oakland Athletics, Griffin and Hicks.
Griffin is a (Southern) California boy. He was born and raised in El Cajon, and attended college at University of San Diego. The Phillies drafted him in 2009, but he went back to school for his senior season. In 2010, the A's selected him in the 13th round, one round after choosing one his USD teammates. After dominating in a handful of innings in rookie ball and Low-A that year, he started 2011 in Burlington (Single-A). He destroyed the Midwest League for 52 innings (9.20 K:BB, 1.56 ERA), and then continued that success for 70 innings in Stockton (High-A), striking out 10.4 batters per 9 innings and posting a 5.86 K:BB ratio. He faltered in his promotion to AA Midland (strikeouts gone, walks/hits/homers skyrocketed), but still made a start for Sacramento before the year was out and allowed only 2 runs in 6 innings, striking out 8 and walking 2. The greater point is that he pitched at 4 different levels in his first full pro season. When people talk about a "meteoric rise" through the minors, this is what they're talking about.
After his wildly successful 2011, Griffin opened this season in AA. His second tour in Midland went much better than the first, as he went back to posting a Milone-like K:BB ratio (6.29) to go along with a 2.49 ERA in 43 innings. He didn't miss a beat upon his promotion to AAA; his strikeouts dipped (from 9.1 to 7.0 per 9 innings), but so did his walks and homers, allowing him to maintain a 5.71 K:BB ratio and a 2.81 ERA over 51 innings. At this point, Oakland had seen enough. With Graham Godfrey showing that his ceiling is likely "4-A," and Tyson Ross already in the rotation to replace Bartolo Colon, Griffin was an easy choice to take McCarthy's turn. He will definitely get one more start in Oakland, and possibly more depending on how things shake out.
I've profiled a few players this season, and I've usually concluded with some version of "don't get too excited about this guy; he's kind of a fluke and you should enjoy the ride while it lasts before he literally sprouts whiskers and a tail to prove just how much he ultimately belongs on the River Cats." I'm not going to say that this time. I'm going to let myself get excited about Griffin. He's got it all. He's got a big frame (6'5", 215 lbs), although he doesn't use it to generate a lot of velocity. He's got the minor-league track record. He's got great control. And now he's made a quality start against a Major League team. While he's not overpowering, he isn't exactly a smoke-and-mirrors guy, either. Here is a scouting report from Derek Norris, via Susan Slusser:
Here is another scouting report, which attributes Griffin's low prospect status to his lack of overpowering stuff or high velocity. It also includes this (partial) sentence, which I found relevant: "Proving that a low draft selection isn't necessarily a reflection of talent (only of risk)..." It's nice to remember that a 13th round pick can be a good player, it just isn't likely. Griffin can absolutely be a good Major League pitcher. I'm really looking forward to watching him this year (hopefully in Oakland rather than Sacramento).
That was the good news. Now for the bad news: Brandon Hicks is not nearly as exciting as Griffin. A 3rd round pick by the Braves in 2007, Hicks is a shortstop who never really hit much in the minors. His first real success came as a 25-year-old in AAA last year (.252/.333/.446), and in 28 plate appearances with Atlanta in 2010 and 2011, he collected just one hit and two walks against 11 strikeouts.
In March, Oakland claimed him off of waivers from Atlanta. Slusser reported that the move was strictly about infield depth, since Sacramento's middle infield options on any given night included Sogard, Rosales, and the first two fans to touch second base after the gates opened to the public. Braves fans weren't really broken up about the news, either. According to a brief skim through the comments section of that link, Hicks plays good defense but strikes out too much and just generally doesn't hit enough. Also of note: The Braves have a prospect named Joey Terdoslavich. They call him "J-Terd." I'm jealous.
In Sacramento this year, Hicks showed that his 2011 season was no fluke. It should be noted that, at age 26, he was a bit old for AAA, but success is still better than failure, right? For the first time in his career, he hit for a decent average and got on base effectively, and did both of those things while still maintaining his power (triple slash: .272/.374/.548). Hicks' 37 extra-base hits, combined with Pennington's slow start to 2012 and Sogard's everything, resulted in Hicks getting a shot in Oakland. He already has two doubles in 6 trips to the plate, and figures to get a start or two per week in order to spell Pennington and Jemile Weeks (who is also struggling, if you hadn't heard). He will also back up Brandon Moss at 1st base, though it's not clear if that means he'll get any starts there.
With Sogard going back to AAA to make room for Evan Scribner's return to the bullpen, Hicks is now the utility infielder on the roster. Is he going to keep knocking doubles and hitting .333, as he is now? No. Is he a young prospect who is here to challenge the jobs of the current starters? No. Is he a competent shortstop who deserves to be on a Major League roster as an option off the bench? Yes, absolutely. If he can provide solid defense and a bit of power, I will be more than happy. Just don't get too excited about his first 6 at-bats.
Two new players. One a pitcher, one a hitter. You may not have heard of either of them before this weekend. If you had heard of them, you almost certainly didn't know very much about either of them. Now you know virtually everything about each of their careers. My work here is done.
Travis Blackley takes on Seattle's Jason Vargas at 7:10pm. With a win tonight, Oakland could be playing for a return to the .500 mark tomorrow. Just saying.