I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that the A's fanbase is more attuned to their minor league system than most fanbases. As with any small-market team, the A's have to rely on homegrown talent to at least a moderate extent, and the fans know it. The fact that Billy Beane's player development is so glorified (rightly or wrongly) in Moneyball has also always focused the lens of attention on A's prospects more than those in many other organizations.
As a result, A's fans probably are at least somewhat familiar with the "big guns" of the system at any given time. Right now, those players are Addison Russell, Michael Choice, and Sonny Gray; others with pedigree, such as former first-rounder Grant Green and high-profile signee Michael Ynoa, also are closely monitored by fans. Today, I want to look at a few guys beyond that obvious group that we should all be monitoring closely, guys who may not have huge draft profiles but are having big seasons that are forcing people to take notice--one per each level.
Triple-A Sacramento--Arnold Leon, RHP
It's been a winding career path for the 24-year-old. He was a prized signing out of the Mexican League before the 2008 season and was polished enough to spend his age-19 campaign in High-A and his age-20 season in Double-A, even though he was just a relief pitcher. He was finally moved into the Double-A rotation for a spot start late in the 2009 season and immediately was part of a combined no-hitter, prompting the experiment (which always made sense due to Leon's wide arsenal) persist for the rest of the year.
Then he got hurt, had Tommy John surgery, and threw a grand total of 10 2/3 innings across the next two seasons. By the time Leon reappeared in 2012, the sight of his name in a boxscore was a downright surprise, and he was just another 23-year-old reliever in High-A.
He almost immediately worked to make up for lost time, though. Leon blitzed through Stockton in 15 1/3 innings, striking out 25 batters along the way and getting back to Double-A, where he needed just 15 2/3 frames to convince A's brass he no longer needed time at that level either. Leon then posted a 1.77 ERA (albeit with a 4.35 FIP) in Sacramento in 22 relief appearances, impressing scouts with a fastball that occasionally reached 97 mph. He was talked about as a possible setup option for the A's in the relatively near future.
However, the organization had different plans, as they sent Leon back to Midland this year to work on starting again. His strikeout rate suffered with the change, but he's turned himself into a Bartolo Colon prototype on the statistical front, with a 48/11 K/BB ratio in 72 2/3 frames. That was enough to get him back to Sacramento this week, where he promptly struck out nine batters in seven shutdown innings in his first Triple-A start.
Leon has a smooth delivery, and even though he's a short righthander, he generates good arm speed and consistently works in the low 90s as a starter. He gets some cut and occasional sink on his fastball and posts solid if unexceptional groundball numbers. Leon, like a lot of Mexican pitchers, uses a wide arsenal highlighted by a slow curveball. He also has a hard slider and a changeup.
The effort to make Leon a starter again was an inspired one, and he may be shaping up to be the A's seventh starter in the near future, behind the front four, Dan Straily, and Sonny Gray. At worst, he should be able to make an impact in relief with his combination of control, velocity, and movement.
Double-A Midland--Anthony Aliotti, 1B
I still can't quite believe Anthony Aliotti is a prospect. There aren't many legitimate first base prospects to begin with--look at how little the vaunted combination of Chris Carter, Daric Barton, Brandon Allen, Kila Ka'aihue, and Sean Doolittle ended up bringing to the position for the A's. The first base prospects that do exist usually either a) come with big draft status (Eric Hosmer, Yonder Alonso, Joey Votto, Justin Smoak, etc.) or b) almost immediately show why they deserved to be drafted high as soon as they reach pro ball (Paul Goldschmidt, Albert Pujols, Mitch Moreland, etc.).
Anthony Aliotti falls into neither category. He was drafted in the 15th round in 2009--out of college, mind you--and promptly hit .239/.351/.275 (.036 ISO from a first baseman!) in the short-season Northwest League. Sure, people liked his glovework at first, but when your power stroke makes Doug Mientkiewicz look like Chris Davis, that would seem to seal your fate.
Aliotti kept on, though, and had a nice season in Low-A the next year (.278/.392/.379), drawing 92 walks but hitting just five home runs and striking out 132 times. He was pretty old for the level and still had nothing approaching acceptable power for the position, so there was no reason to take him seriously. Ditto for the following year in the hitter's paradise known as the California League, where he did it again--.276/.392/.396 with (gasp!) eleven homers. He turned 24 halfway through that season--yeah, the walks and glovework were nice, but it was still nigh impossible to take Aliotti seriously given his friendly environment, advanced age, and still way-substandard power.
Where things got interesting is last season, where the St. Mary's (MI) alum surprisingly showed no ill effects moving away from California's utopian hitting environs into Texas' more neutral ones, facing upper-minors pitching for the first time. He still wasn't homering (just ten in 123 games), but with 29 doubles, he managed to slug .400 for the first time, hitting .292/.385/.426. That didn't make him a prospect, turning 25 midseason and all, but it did make him a nice organizational guy. Plays a good first, takes walks, hits some doubles and the very occasional homer, and is Double-A-proven? There are plenty of worse players out there that get bandied about as guys to watch.
The A's have a logjam at first base, so Aliotti's repeating Midland this year...and hitting .352/.457/.540. He already has 26 doubles and ten homers in just 80 contests this year, and he's already drawn 60 walks while striking out just 74 times. He also remains an esteemed defender at first.
He's about to turn 26 and remains a longshot, but Aliotti has advanced high enough and has such a long track record of success and improvement that one can't help but admit to the possibility that he could become a successful major leaguer now. He has his limitations--he doesn't hit lefties well and still has below-average power for the position--but he could end up as a Seth Smith-type hitter. You could draw some comparisons between Aliotti's skillset and slow path to relevance and those of Boston's Daniel Nava, if Nava were a plus defensive lefty-hitting first baseman instead of a lousy defensive switch-hitting corner outfielder.
High-A Stockton--Max Muncy, 1B
The other half of the A's performance-prospect first base duo, Muncy was Oakland's fifth-round selection last year out of Baylor, so he comes with more pedigree--it's telling that he was sent straight to the Midwest League once he signed, and he's spending his first full professional year in High-A.
Between those two stops, Muncy has hit .289/.402/.489 with more walks (100) than strikeouts (94). Unlike Aliotti, he's not really old for his levels, as he hasn't turned 23 yet and seems poised to hit the upper minors as soon as there's space for him (presumably the same time Aliotti will be moved to Sacramento).
Here's an interesting trend to watch:
2012 (Low-A): 20 2B, 4 HR
2013 (High-A): 13 2B, 20 HR
One could read the above as Muncy growing into more power this year, the proverbial "turning doubles into homers." The more cynical reader could read it as "the California League turning normal doubles into home runs." Most likely, there are some of both elements at play, but what weight does each hold? We'll have to wait until he hits Midland to find out.
Still, the CAL isn't driving Muncy's tremendous approach--it's not often you see somebody who can walk this frequently without amassing at least fairly high strikeout totals, which speaks to his knowledge of the zone and natural feel for contact. If Muncy can prove he still has big homer totals in his bat in non-silly environments, he could establish himself as a potential big part of Oakland's plans.
Low-A Beloit--Chris Bostick, 2B
Bostick is the one player on the list I've seen in person--once, last year with Vermont. What struck me at the time was how Bostick--a former 44th-round pick who immediately jumped onto prospect lists with his speed, contact, and defensive ability--looked less like a leadoff slap hitter and more like a player who could put a charge into the ball. I recall putting a 15-homer projection on him after that viewing, even though he hit just four bombs in 84 short-season games between 2011 and 2012.
Lo and behold, he's made good on that projection even before I imagined he would, as he already has eleven big flies in 78 Low-A contests this year. Bostick, just 20, is hitting .312/.384/.516 in Beloit and is rapidly becoming a name any ardent A's fan should get to know. In addition to his power output, Bostick has a better than 2/1 K/BB (65/33), as well as 17 steals in 21 attempts. He needs to cut down on his errors at second (.956 fielding %, 16 miscues), but he has the athleticism to stick there long-term. In a perfect world, he and the ten-months-younger Addison Russell could be a bigtime double-play combo for the 2017 A's.
Short-season-A Vermont--B.J. Boyd, OF
Picked a round before Muncy last year, Boyd hasn't advanced as quickly--being a high schooler (non-Addison Russell/superhuman division)--but has some scintillating career numbers of his own, with a .323/.413/.478 line in 55 games split between the AZL (last year) and Vermont (this year). He's hitting .397/.444/.586 in sixteen contests so far, and he hasn't even turned 20 yet (born, interestingly, six years to the day after Aliotti). He's been moved from center field to left this year, which does put more pressure on his bat, but Boyd has already shown an intriguing mix of tools, with contact, speed, gap power that could turn into more, and an emerging sense of the strike zone. He's far away, of course, but a good transition to Beloit next year could send him skyrocketing up prospect lists.
Rookie AZL A's--Sam Bragg, RHP
I had no idea who Sam Bragg was until yesterday, when he faced ten batters in an AZL game and struck out eight of them. Turns out he was the 18th-round selection of the team this year out of a Georgia junior college (how did the Braves miss him?!) who now has 14 K in 7 1/3 frames with just two hits, one unintentional walk, and no runs allowed. He's not some college senior beating up on guys five years younger than him--he's just a couple of months past his twentieth birthday, being a juco signee. It's anyone's guess as to how legitimate his performance is, but his numbers certainly jump out among the (very) early returns of Oakland's most recent set of draftees.