[EDITOR'S NOTE: This kind of work and look into the A's organization deserves front page status. Excellent work again, Taj. - Blez]
There's something about the 2007 Sacramento River Cats that has brought out the best of the Oakland organization and has reminded me a lot more of Oakland teams of the recent past rather than a way-station for players on their way up, down and to and from the major leagues. The Cats, with a combination of top prospects , almost-forgotten talent passed up on the depth chart, other organizations' cast-offs and grizzled veterans looking for one last chance (sound like the Moneyball A's?), have endured a roller-coaster season with hundreds of player transactions and, due mostly to a "loose" clubhouse and genuine chemistry, capped off a truly inspired season by winning their third PCL Championship in the last 5 years.
The RiverCats' Cinderella season gives me hope that the energy from Sacto can travel down I-80 to reinvigorate the big league club next season and has prompted me to take a long look at the 2007 minor league baseball season and dig out a few names I think AN should be made aware of in the hopes of a brighter future for this organization. 'Twas somewhat of a disappointing overall season for the system, as only one affiliate (the aforementioned Rivercats) clinched a playoff berth, especially for a system that has been so successful in recent years.
Yet even though the A's were somewhat stymied in their attempt to bread a "winning culture" by emphasizing system-wide team success in the minor leagues, there were enough individual player successes and progressions at all levels of the system to reasonably claim that from a player development standpoint, the 2007 minor league season was a success for the organization.
That being said, overall I'm not nearly as hopeless about our minor league system as I was even two months ago. There's no denying that the system is not as stocked with potentially high-impact, high-cieling talent like the D-Rays, D-Backs, BoSox or the hated Angels. But there are several bright spots system-wide, and I think that becomes apparent after a few things are understood:
- Had the big club been competitive and healthy this year, then the upper levels of our system would look pretty good with Suzuki, Buck, Braden and Murphy all likely spending full-seasons in AAA and putting up predictably excellent numbers, and
- Beane's draft strategy the past few seasons has really not been that bad and hasn't been as disastrous as most people think. Beane built a team that he expected to be very competitive from the years 2006-2008, mostly from sticking to the somewhat conservative drafting approach outlined in "Moneyball". He took polished collegiate players with his high picks in 2001 (Crosby), 2002 (Swisher, Blanton), 2003 (Ethier) and 2004 (Powell, Putnam, Street) in the strategy that the players would proceed methodically, reach the majors rather quickly and form the type of home-grown and relatively cheap core of players that would reach their individual primes together, which would lead to success (a la the Big Three and Chavez, Tejada & Giambi). He then supplemented that young core with trades and signings for veterans to fill the gaps (Kendall, Kotsay, Loaiza, Thomas) sacrificing his 1st round draft pick in 2006 to do so, but banking that the sacrifice would be worth a division title or two and a lengthy playoff run (which turned out to be the case last season).
In the meantime, while he was relatively satisfied with the state of his major league team for the next several seasons, he decided to tweak his drafting strategy just a bit, and went from almost exclusively targeting "polished" collegiate players, to mixing-in higher-cieling high school players and "raw" collegiate players that might not have an immediate impact, but might pay higher dividends down the road when an influx of new talent would be needed when the aforementioned core is broken apart. In 2004, he went out and got Richie Robnett in the first round, who had tremendous raw power and could've been a star but was not really "polished" in the traditional sense and was more of a risk/reward type of pick...in 2005 , he drafted two high school pitchers (Italiano and Lansford) in the second round and in 2006, without a first round draft pick, he grabbed another high school pitcher with his first second round pick in Trevor Cahill.
Now, not all of those picks worked out well, but in the context of what was going on with the big league team and with the perceived weakness of the 2006 draft, spending a few picks on high-upside guys that might need several years of seasoning in the minors before contributing, the strategy was not all that bad, and helps explain why the middle levels of our system (A-Stockton & AA-Midland particularly) have seemed to be devoid of high-level talent this season, while Low-A Kane County and Vancouver have most of the talent that will be showing up on prospect lists this winter.
With the team in transition mode, jettisoning veterans and a new core being formed in the upper levels of the system and at the big league level, Beane reverted back to his old self and drafted almost exclusively polished collegiate players with his picks in this year's draft, probably betting that the combination of his established big-league talent (Swisher, Chavez, Haren), young studs (Buck, Barton, Suzuki) and high-school arms (Cahill) could be supplemented by some polished players who would help jump start a new window of opportunity.
With ALL that being said, here is a glimpse of some of the prospects I personally find interesting - not the best per se - but just a few that I think AN should keep it's collective pulse on, and ignoring (for the sake of time and space) any player who has already auditioned for the major league team (Braden, Meyer, etc;):
RHP Trevor Cahill
"Cerebra-hill" or "The Brain" as I like to call him (he turned down a full scholarship to Dartmouth to sign with the A's) definitely had one of, if not the most, notable season of the A's lower level prospects, especially in the second half of the season. He has been brought along conservatively by the organization (only pithing in 9 total innings last season), but this year he made big strides and the patience is beginning to pay off. The 19-year old finished his season with Low-A Kane County with a 2.73 ERA, 117 K's in 105 innings, with 40 walks and only 3 homeruns the entire season! That's a ridiculous HR/9 ratio of about .25! The Brain obviously kept the ball on the ground, inducing roughly twice as many groundball outs to flyball outs. With strikeout-stuff, groundball tendencies and high-intelligence, it's not hard to imagine Cahill as a top of the rotation starter in a few years, maybe as soon as July 2009, but more likely sometime in 2010 when he's physically filled out, mastered his relatively-mild control issues and added a click or two to his current low-90s fastball.
RHP James (Donald) Simmons
"The Donald" was our top pick in this year's draft and, after giving him some time to rest and recuperate from his last collegiate season, he was immediately sent to Double-A, where he threw about 30 innings with mixed results. He started off hot, only giving up 1 run through his first 4 appearances (9 innings) while coming in for long relief. He then proceeded to get hit pretty hard in the middle of August, giving up 12 earned runs in 11 innings, before settling down at the end of the month (and season) with 4 perfect innings of work over two seperate outings. He struck out 23 and walked 8 in his brief debut and ended up with a 3.94 ERA. Those aren't great numbers, but you have to consider "The Donald's" performances in his college seasons to get a sense of why I, and the organization, are pretty high on him. While pitching 2 and a half seasons in the ultra-competitive Big West League (against powerhouses and major league talent factories Cal-State Fullerton & Cal State Long Beach and this year's NCAA tourney Cinderella story UC Irvine "Anteaters") "The Donald" compiled a 23-9 record, 2.77 ERA (2.40 this past season), with a ridiculous K/BB ratio of nearly 6.2/1 (234/38)!
He's obviously a wicked control artist. When drafted, A's brass said that he has "an advanced feel for pitching" with exceptional fastball control. Translation: they're not worried that he's going to give up his fair share of hits, and they know he doesn't have the best stuff or highest ceiling. But by skipping three levels of minor league baseball and performing respectably at Double-A coming directly out of his junior year in college, Simmons obviously showed that he's got the moxie to cut it in the big leagues. He's headed to the AZL for even more seasoning, which, for the A's, typically indicates that the player is a season or two away from the major leagues (see Buck, Ethier, Barton, Street et al) and if he makes strides with his breaking pitches while continuing to locate his fastball, then I could realistically see him in Oakland after the break next season (especially if we trade Blanton anytime before then). Since he doesn't strike that many guys out (a little less than a batter an inning) "The Donald" will probably top-uut as a mid-rotation (3/4) starter. But a 3rd or 4th starter that will probably give us a ton of innings and stabilize the back end of the rotation for several seasons.
RHP Andrew Bailey
I don't have a catchy name for this guy, but if you can come up with a witty one, I'll surely be the first one to use it. Bailey was the fastest-rising A's pitching prospect this season, starting in Low-A Kane County, where he struck-out 74 in 51 innings, thereby getting promoted to High-A Stockton, where he continued whiffing a lot of batters, with 72 K's in 66 innings. He then recently concluded his season by "spot-starting" the final game of AAA-Sacramento's regular season, bypassing AA-Midland altogether. He pitched remarkably well in that start, going 8 innings and striking out 4 while giving up only one run. He finished the season with cumulative ERA around 3.50 - once again, good but not great. Bailey's reportedly got a mid-90s fastball, overhand curveball and "developing" changeup, as well as a "classic starter's build" - 6'3, 220.
I like the K's with Bailey, but I don't like the walks (54 in 125 innings pitched), the homers allowed (14, for a higher-than 1 HR/9 ratio) or the age (23, relatively high for someone who spent 99% of the season in "A" ball). I know those peripheral numbers aren't really bad at all and it seems like I'm nitpicking Andrew to death, but I just don't get that "Hoo-rah" feeling when I look at him, especially after seeing him pitch live earlier this season. Of course, if he continues to strike out more than a batter an inning and improves or even maintains his other peripherals next season at Double-A and/or Triple-A, then I'll believe that he has a future in the rotation. But overall, I just get the feeling that at some point next season he'll get transitioned to the bullpen, where his high-velocity heater and changeup should give him a better opportunity to get the big leagues and stick.
LHP Brad Hertzler
Another 2007 draftee, Hertzler, at this point, is probably the highest-ceiling southpaw starter below AAA. When we drafted him in the 15th round in June, I initially thought he might have been a steal at that spot, and so far he's done nothing to make me feel otherwise. In his own words, his repertoire relies on a well-placed fastball, but includes a cutter (presumably for righties), a curve and a changeup and it must be good enough to throw a professional perfect game...which he actually did this season in a rain-shortened game back in late July for the Vancouver Canadians.
At the University of Maine earlier this season and for Vancouver recently, Brad showed really good control (only 2.20 walks per 9), the ability to strike guys out (112 in 126 innings pitched) and to keep the ball in the park (less than .4 homers per 9 in college). He also showed a knack at Vancouver for being tough on right-handed hitters (allowing only a 3.88 ERA against them) even though he's a lefty. The one down-side of Brad's year was his relatively high ERA: 4.20 combined, which seems to be partially caused by the five homers he allowed in Vancouver over a relatively short time.
Overall, I think Brad could have a similar career arc to that of Diamond Dallas Braden. People are going to overlook him as a late round pick and discount him due to his ERA. But I think he's going to surprise some people. If the organization does what I hope they do, and start Brad in High-A Stockton next season rather than Low-A Kane County, and if he continues to post solid numbers, then he should be able to progress along with age cohort. With a solid cutter and changeup to go along with his bread-and-butter fastball, Hertzler should also be able to keep right-handed batters off-balance and thus remain a starter as he progresses, with a possible ceiling as a #5 starter, but will probably settle in as a long man/spot starter (a la DiNardo), which would be a pretty good return for a 15th round pick!
At the beginning of this season, with strong Spring Training performances from prospects Mike Mitchell and Connor Robertson, it seemed that the organization was stocked with high-quality relief arms nearly-ready for the major leagues. But season-ending injuries to Mitchell and Robertson and the trade of Marcus McBeth to Cincy surely muddied that perception. Luckily, several arms in the organization have stepped up in new roles and have re-established some depth.
LHP Jerry Blevins
The "prize" of the Kendall trade - if there even WAS a prize more valuable than getting Kendall's bat out of the lineup - Blevins has taken quite well to his new organization. The tall, lanky left-hander has used exceptional control to strike out well over a batter-an-inning this season (102 K's in 77IP), mostly for teams at the Double-A level, but was an integral part of the RiverCats in their championship run and, as I write this, is now making his major league debut in the big club's bullpen! Jerry's been used equally against righties and lefties this season so if he keeps up his excellent stats, he should make an impact as a general middle/late-inning reliever rather than just a LOOGY.
RHP Andrew Carignan
Since we got lucky a few seasons ago drafting a highly-regarded college closer (Street), Beane went ahead and tried to catch lightning in a bottle again by choosing Andrew Carignan from UNC. Since the Tar Heels made it deep into the College World Series this season I was able to watch Andrew pitch several times. The first thing you notice with him is his bulldog mound presence. He's probably no taller than 5'10" but he flashes a Percival-ian snarl that makes him seem, at least to me on TV, very imposing. The snarl must play on the field as well, since Andrew saved a UNC-record 18 games this past season to go along with 69 strikeouts in 63 innings. He relies almost exclusively on a mid-90s fastball that has some really nice late action that he seems to be able to locate pretty well. He also has some type of a slider and a changeup that he throws in 82-83mph range and generally tails away from right-handed batters - the slider that is.
The one knock on Carignan, and the one thing that makes him different from Street and will limit his upside, is his control. He walked about 4 batters per 9 innings in college and had similar trouble in his brief time at Vancouver (11 walks in 13 innings). Luckily, he's still very stingy with the long ball (with a .25 HR/9 ratio through college) and is also virtually unhittable (only allowing about 5.5 hits per 9). At the very least, Andrew will almost certainly develop into a solid set-up man, and if he improves his control and refines his slider and changeup, he could become the next Huston.
Legit five-tool outfielder and 2006 draftee Mitchell spent the entire season in Low-A Kane County (unfortunately) but put up decent numbers over the course of the season (.288/.390/.413/.803). Going into the season, I was hoping to see Mitchell make it past Kane County this year since he was sort of old for Low-A ball (22), he put up solid numbers at Vancouver last season straight of college and God-knows we could use his super-speed, center-field defense and leadoff-mentality at the big league level. But it was not to be. Mitchell really struggled to maintain his ridiculous BABIP from Vancouver last season (.435), which, combined with an increase in his K-rate and a decrease in his line-drive percentage (since Jermaine really relies on gap-line drives and his speed to buoy his slugging percentage) collectively brought down Mitchell's excellent stats from college and Vancouver last season to the pedestrian level this season. While all that seems disappointing, I'm pulling for Jermaine, since he's shown some real talent in the last couple of years and he's by far the fastest player in our organization, and like Nico has said, "Speed doesn't slump." 2008 will be a make or break year for Jermaine. If he goes to Stockton next season, cuts down on his K's, hits more line drives and approaches or surpasses an .850 OPS over the entire season, then he might have a future in the Oakland outfield...but due to his advanced age, he's got a small margin for error, and if he has another mediocre season chalk-full of K's and ground-ball outs, he likely won't make it past Double-A...I'm keeping my fingers crossed!
Grant was projected to go in the late 1st Round/early supplemental round in this year's draft, but a late season broken wrist likely scared off many teams and allowed him to drop to us in the 2nd round. He's exactly the type of hitter we need at the major league level right now: right-handed batting, slugging, corner outfielder. In this last season as a collegian, Grant won the Big West Conference Triple-Crown, as he slugged 15 homers and OPS-ed a ridiculous 1.227! Over the course of the season, Grant either walked or hit an extra-base hit every 3rd at bat, which is a Custian-like ratio. Additionally, Grant comes into the system as a solid defensive outfielder with the arm of a right-fielder and enough range and speed to play an entire collegiate season in center (which he did last season).
After recovering from his broken wrist, Grant got a few token at-bats (46) with the short-season Vancouver Canadians, hitting .261 with one homer and OPS-ing .750, and will now head to the Instructional Leagues to continue his comeback from his injury. If he fully recovers over the winter from his wrist injury and shows all the tools he flashed this past collegiate season while at Instructs, then I would imagine the organization would challenge Grant next season at High-A Stockton. With two and half years of competitive collegiate ball under his belt, and a fairly advanced bat, Grant might be aggressively promoted through the organization with the hope of getting his right-handed power-stroke to the majors within a couple of seasons.
Middle infield has got to be one of the weakest parts of our system, from top to bottom. Our major league starting shortstop is an offensive black hole and his back-ups have either plateaued in terms of upside (Scutaro, who will also cost several millions next season if we bring him back) or have not really proven anything at the major league-level, other than an ability to hit left-handed pitching (Murphy). At 2nd, Ellis is our stalwart, but he's going to be somewhat costly next season (at $5 million) and even though he earns every dollar of it, he will still likely only be here one more season.
At Triple-A and Double-A we have no near major-league ready nor starting-caliber shortstop prospects waiting in the wings. Sure, Gregorio Petit has a slick glove, but if we're penciling him in for anything more than Scutaro-esque fill-in duty, we'd be really desperate (career minor league numbers: .272/.329/.380/.709). Cliff Pennington has been an unmitigated failure as a former first round pick. He barely made it out of "A" ball this year as a 23-year old "polished" college player and his experiment with switch hitting has been a disaster (.556 OPS vs. lefties, .723 vs. righties). He still walks just about as much as he strikes out, but since he's shown that he can't drive the ball with any authority, his apparent plate discipline skills cannot be deployed to any long-term positive effect.
My great white hope was Justin Sellers (High-A Stockton/Double-A Midland middle infielder) since I've heard stories that he's a really fun guy with some speed...but his year was about as disappointing as Pennington's (.274/.350/.378/.728) and his career contact, line-drive and slugging percentages do not portend a career as an average (let alone above-average) offensive player. Luckily, there is still one second base prospect in the upper minors worth keeping your eye on:
There's a lot to like about Melillo. He's always hit for high averages and surprising power for a second baseman (even leading all A's minor leaguers in homeruns in 2005 with 24 total across three affiliates). He also hits a ton of line drives (almost 20% of the balls he puts into play this season - quite good) which historically tends to be a fairly good indicator of how good of a hitter a minor leaguer is (since batters who hit a lot of line drives usually have good batting eyes, make clean, consistent contact, and find more holes and get more hits than guys who hit a lot of groundballs and lazy flies). Kevin also runs pretty well (45 stolen bases in 3.5 seasons), which is a nice bonus. In the un-quantifiable yet still really important "intangibles" category, Kevin was recently credited with being a team-leader and stabilizing presence for Triple-A Sacramento throughout their recent PCL championship season. This is not surprising since Kevin's always been seen as a take-charge, strong personality throughout his minor league career.
The downside(s) with Kevin is, first of all, his defense. He's never going to be a Gold Glover. Period. He seemed to really struggle for awhile, but then in his second tour of duty at AA Midland last season he led the Texas League in fielding percentage for his position, which is quite an improvement. He's athletic and seemingly a hard worker, so he'll probably develop into an average or slightly-below average glove man. For a team spoiled with seeing the best defensive second baseman in the majors manning the keystone for years now, it might be initially tough to accept a guy with far-less range, arm strength and accuracy and who might occasionally make more than two or three errors a season...but even so, I'm confident Kevin's glove would not be a huge liability.
A second downside (or at least worrying trend) with Kevin has been the steady deterioration of his once-excellent plate discipline. During his college seasons and the beginning of his pro-career Kevin generally walked as often as he struck out - 90/97 BB/K ratio in Rookie Ball, Kane County, Stockton and Midland combined. But the last two seasons that ratio has shifted into 122/198; and while the worsening ratio is worrying in itself, the bigger concern is that in the last two seasons Kevin basically struck out 100 times each season. For a contact-hitting, aim-for-the-gaps type of hitter, that type of strikeout-ratio is very damaging. If that trend only developed recently this season at Triple-A you could probably discount it since Kevin sustained a fairly-serious wrist injury halfway through the year, but since the trend began last season when he was fully healthy, it needs to be taken seriously, and hopefully will get rectified.
Overall, I would like to see Kevin in an Oakland uniform. His above-average power and contact skills with the bat and his take-charge leadership skills would be great additions to the big club. Ellis's option will almost certainly be exercised next season, meaning that Kevin will probably begin next season back in AAA - which isn't such a bad thing if he takes advantage of it and ratchets up his defense and cuts down on the K's. If he isn't traded (which is a very real possibility even though he's on the 40-man roster) then I expect Kevin to be first line to take over for Ellis whenever he moves on, despite any misgivings anyone might have with his defense.
A's brass must have really liked what they saw in Hamblin, since they've drafted him twice in the last two years - in the 9th round last year, couldn't get a deal done - then in the 10th round this year when they got him to sign. And with one look at his stats over the past four years I could see why they were persistent with bringing him into the Oakland fold; the guy has been a model of consistency over his 4-year collegiate career:
- In two of his four collegiate seasons he hit the EXACT same number of extra base hits (28)
- In two of his four collegiate seasons he OPS-ed within .003 percentage points over the course of the years (.991 & .993)
- He never played in more than 64 games a season, but never less than 59 (indicator of good health)
- In 3 out 4 collegiate seasons Danny never walked more than 35 times, but never less than 28
- In 3 out of 4 collegiate seasons, he never struck out more than 69 times, but never less than 60 either
While that type of consistency is nice, you'd probably like to see improvement over a college career and not just the same old thing. Well, one thing Danny REALLY improved upon during his college seasons was turning his doubles into homeruns, which has translated well to his professional career so far. In the course of his 2007 season between the University of Arkansas and short-season Vancouver Danny hit a combined 33 homeruns, which is an impressive power spike over the 35 combined homeruns he hit in his first three seasons at Arkansas.
Defensively, Dan was groomed as a third baseman going into college, but a major shoulder injury forced him from the hot corner. He now plays almost exclusively at first and DH, but could probably play some third if need be.
Overall, Danny is the type of hitter the A's organization lacks: a consistent right-handed power threat. His power stroke has translated well to wood bats, which is good, although his plate patience (already not that great to begin with) got even worse upon turning pro. While he drew a decent amount of walks in college (about 15% of his PAs), I have a gut feeling that a lot of those walks were the "pitching around" type of walks and not the "good eye" type of walks. Either way, Hamblin was drafted because he does one thing well that the rest of system doesn't - hit for power from the right side of the plate, and as long as he keeps doing that, he could be a possible DH, first baseman or Olmedo Saenz-tpye of bench player in a few years.
Well, that's about all I can dig up at this point. Now just for poop and giggles, here's my prediction of what the very first FREMONT A's team will look like:
LF – Matt Sulentic
CF - Travis Buck
RF - Grant Desme
3B - Andy LaRoche (from Dodgers for Blanton and Chavez)
SS - Jed Lowrie (from Red Sox for Huston Street)
2B - Kevin Melillo
1B - Swisher
C - Suzuki
DH - Barton
1 - Haren (extended)
2 - C.C. Sabatha (big free agent splash, bringing the big guy home!)
3 - Trevor Cahill
4 - Simmons
5 - Justin Masterson (from Red Sox for Huston Street)
Closer - Jonathan Meloan (from Dodgers for Blanton & Chavez)
Setup - Carignan, Sam Demel, Jerry Blevins, Brad Hertzler...
Thanks for reading this monster!