Day 1 of the Minor League season came and went last night. Here are the results from the action:
Tacoma 2 - Sacramento 0
Greg Smith was the tough-luck loser for the Cats as he pitched 6-innings of 2-run ball with 4 K's and one walk. The Cats offense just didn't give Smith any support against Ryan Feierabendm, mustering just three walks and five hits.
The Good News: Landon Powell had one of those hits and one of those walks and played the entire game at catcher! Looks like he's pretty much recovered from his second torn ACL.
Midland 3 - Little Rock 2
Amidst the tornadoes in Central Arkansas, the Midland Rockhounds pulled out a rain-shortened Opening Night victory. Mike Madsen pitched 6 strong innings of 2-run ball and the offense was able to string together some encouraging rallies on consecutive singles and doubles to put enough runs on the board in the 1st, 2nd and 5th innings to hold off the Travelers.
Modesto 3 - Stockton 2
Playing against Oakland's former High-A affiliate, the Ports weren't able to back a very strong performance from Fautino de los Santos. DLS threw 6 innings, gave up 5 hits, 2 runs and struck out 6 while walking only one. The Ports' offense fell short, unable to capitalize on five walks issued by the Nuts. Henry Rodriguez will look to avenge the loss tonight at 7:05pm.
Kane County vs. Beloit (cancelled due to rain)
Kance County's opener will be pushed back to at least this evening due to rain. To make up for the canceled game, the two teams will play a double-header on Saturday, consisting of two 7-inning games.
So, although the organization as a whole dropped two out of three Opening Night games, you have to be encouraged by the system so far. All three starters for the A's affiliates threw quality starts and the bullpens protected leads. There's no doubt that this year will be the season of dominant pitching in the A's system.
Minor League Preview
Looking to reverse the trends begun by a 2007 season that saw the A's minor league affiliates largely struggle all year en-route to a cumulative record of 340-351, Billy Beane went on a trading rampage, swapping four MLB veterans for 13 largely unproven prospects that have totally reworked the complexion of the A's farm system. Rather than invest too heavily in high-upside, high-risk sub-AA talent or settle for limited-potential, close-to-the-majors finished products, Beane did a masterful job acquiring a wide-range of talented prospects at different stages of development. This strategy will likely diffuse the risk and attrition-factor inherent with player development and will also probably improve the on-field play of several A's affiliates simultaneously, which is good news for us, the fans!
The A's minor league season officially kicks off tonight with this refurbished collection of talent now ranked as one of the best in the majors. In case that isn't enough to get you jazzed about this minor league season and/or the future of the A's organization, here are five reasons to check out a game this year in Vancouver, Geneva, Stockton, Midland and/or Sacramento:
The Stockton Ports Pitching Staff
If you can only see one A's affiliate play this season, make sure it's the Stockton Ports. The future of the Oakland Athletics franchise will be on full display at the beginning of this season in the form of Stockton's pitching staff, which some observers believe could be the most talented staff in the entire minor leagues. The two best arms picked up in the Haren and Swisher trades (Fautino de los Santos and Brett Anderson) will combine with the best arms originally drafted/signed by the A's (Trevor Cahill, Henry Rodgriguez and Arnold Leon) to front the Ports' staff.
The rotation will feature a perfect mix of contrasting styles and strengths for your viewing pleasure: the precision and poise of lefty Anderson, the prototypical power repertoire of de los Santos, the dipping and diving action of Cahill's sinker and knuckle-curve, the no-holds-barred 100mph heat of Rodriguez and the command and control of Leon. It will truly be a spectacle to behold, but the strength of the staff won't end with the starters. The bullpen will likely be able to secure many victories for the 1 to 5 guys, as it will feature talented righties Jared Lansford (finally fully healed after last season's injury debacles), Jason Fernandez (2.77 ERA, 1.16 WHiP last season for Kane County), flame-throwing ex-college closers Andrew Carignan and Sam Demel and two lefties with good stuff and experience in James Heuser and Derrick Gordon. Throw in a potent offense led by 5-tool talent Jermaine Mitchell (CF) and big-time slugger Chris Carter (1B/DH) and you're talking about one hell of a minor league team...at least for the first half of the season.
I'll be catching the Ports Monday April 28th in Rancho Cucamonga and I suggest any other Californians to catch a game with these guys sooner rather than later, since many of them will probably move to the Texas League before you can say "Banner Island Ballpark".
Triumph of Scouting over Stats
When I first saw that the A's picked up Greg Smith and Aaron Cunningham (amongst others) for Dan Haren, I ran to "thebaseballcube.com", checked out their stats and thought, "Why these two?" It's not their stats weren't good, it's just that they weren't great and all the initial reports I read about these guys implied that Smith's "stuff" wasn't that good and Cunningham's "tools" weren't off-the-charts. For instance, this is what Baseball America had to say about Cunningham:
"While Cunningham does everything well, he doesn't do anything exceptionally, leading to questions about whether he'll end up as a tweener. He has a long swing and better pitchers have been able to get inside on him."
But then I started reading direct quotes from A's officials, like baseball operations guru Farhan Zaidi, who praised both Cunningham & Smith as guys who play above their abilities and have outstanding makeup, poise and leadership abilities:
Zaidi on Cunningham: "One of the comparisons that our scouts made who saw [Cunningham] during the year and saw him at the Fall League, where he performed pretty well, was Aaron Rowand...He’s a guy who does just a little bit of everything and he has off-the-charts intangibles, and that is how we see Cunningham."
Zaidi on Smith: "This is a guy who we believe has the secondary pitches and the command and more than anything else, just the competitiveness and the moxie to be successful. Our scouts have said, to a man, that this is a guy who pitches above his stuff."
When was the last time competitiveness and moxie were used to measure the value of a young A's player? For an organization that often gets (unfairly) labeled as overly-obsessed with tangible statistical analysis, and often disregards scouting opinions of players, it's nice to see the A's take a chance on two guys who probably offer more in terms of intangibles than tools or stats. So far, the results have been very positive, as Smith nearly carved his way onto the 25-man roster with a strong Spring Training while Cunningham was impressing before going down with a broken wrist. Aaron's injury is concerning, but he's young enough to bounce back for Double-A in the second half of this season while Smith will likely tear-up the PCL this season en-route to a mid-season call-up. Both of these guys will be great stories for the A's throughout the season and will probably "moxie" themselves onto the major league roster sometime in the next calendar year.
The Return of Speed
It's been a long while since the A's have had a bona fide speedster tearing through the minor leagues. Esteban German burst onto the scenes in 2000 and stole over 80 bases in his 3rd year in the organization. He went on to snatch over 40 in 2001, but faded over the next few years before getting released from the organization. Then Freddie Bynum came on in 2002 to steal 41 bases for Visalia. But neither of those guys made a major impact at the major league level, and since 2002, no A's minor leaguer has really come close to the 40-stolen base mark.
That will undoubtedly change this season. Three guys in the organization have a realistic chance of getting to that mark this year, beginning in the low minors with OFer Adam Klein, who stole a remarkable 33 bases in only 45 games last season for the rookie league team. Klein should see time with Vancouver this season. In Kane County, shortstop Michael Richard probably has the best chance of eclipsing the 40 SB barrier, since he stole 25 bases (to go along with a .400 OBP) in short season Vancouver last year and is now moving to a full-season affiliate. In Midland, minor league free-agent signee and Hayward-native Archie Gilbert also has a very good chance of swapping over 40 bags, since he grabbed 35 bags in each of the last two seasons in the White Sox chain.
I'll go on record and say that if these guys all stay relatively healthy, one of them WILL steal more than 40 bags this season and will be well on their way to stealing some major league bases sometime in the near future.
By most accounts, the A's had a solid draft all the way around last June. The organization's top pick, James Simmons, performed well after an aggressive, late-season assignment in Midland, where he pitched in 13 games and put up solid numbers (3.94 ERA, 23/8 K-BB ratio in 29 innings). He followed that up with a strong AFL performance and a few token appearances at big league Spring Training where he distinguished himself as a very mature pitcher for his age. He's well on his way to becoming a reliable, back-of-the-rotation innings eater...Blanton-lite if you will. He'll be back at Midland to start 2007 and could be up with the big club to stay by this time next year.
The aforementioned relievers Carignan and Demel have drawn raves for their arm strength and stuff and could move quickly through the system due to their collegiate polish. The collegiate pitching trio of Scott Hodsdon, Travis Banwart and Brad Hertzler (him of the 5-inning, rain shortened complete game last year) will all start the year in Kane County's rotation and figure to also move quickly through the system if they can continue last season's successes.
On the offensive side of the ledger, the A's 2007 draft was equally as fruitful as the pitching side. In the first few rounds, the A's grabbed outfielders Corey Brown (.924 OPS at Vancouver last season) and Grant Desme in lower spots than they were projected, partly due to makeup concerns and injury issues, respectively. Both guys project as solid major leaguer regulars and could also move quickly. The A's also addressed the organization's need for middle infield depth and right-handed power presence by drafting shortstop Josh Horton in the 2nd round and corner infielder Danny Hamblin in the 11th. Horton is a lefty swinger with a fantastic batting eye (.419 OBP/ 36-34 BB-K ratio last season in Vancouver/Kane County) who has improved enough defensively over the winter to convince A's brass that he can stay at short long-term. Hamblin has long been on the A's radar and now that he has been brought into the organization's fold, he's produced, hitting 11 homers in only 68 games last season in Vancouver.
The 2007 draft's strong returns are a nice supplement to all of the other player transactions from this off-season that have filled out the A's farm system and it's certainly expected that several of these draftees will be in Oakland within a year or two, so catch them now while they're still young and hungry!
The Rivercats' Defense of Their 2007 Triple-A Championship
The 2008 Cats will be hard-pressed to recreate the magical run of last season's PCL and Triple-A champion Sacramento squad. Not only did several of the team's stars from last season graduate to the major leagues (Barton, Suzuki, Murphy), but so did their manager, Tony DeFrancesco, who is now the big league team's third base coach. To add insult to injury, the team lost clubhouse bedrocks Lou Merloni and Jeremy Brown to retirement over the winter.
But Cats fans should not fear. The off-season trades have brought fresh reinforcements to Raley Field, including lefty starters Gio Gonzalez (last year's minor league strikeout leader) and Greg Smith, who gets tonight's Opening Day nod against the Tacoma Rainiers, Seattle's Triple-A squad. In fact, the Sacramento pitching staff will be almost as stacked as Stockton's, featuring Gonzalez, Smith, PCL-dominators Dan Meyer and Dallas Braden, and Los Kirk Saarloos, backed in the bullpen by the likes of former first round pick Joey Devine in the closer's role and an assortment of set-up men who can just flat out get the job done - Jerry Blevins, Jeff Gray, Brad Kilby, "Internet Superstar" Brad Zeigler and vets Troy Cate and Ryan Wing.
The offense will feature some potent sticks for the first time in years, as CarGo will highlight the lineup, surrounded by a fully rehabbed Landon Powell ready to bust out in a big way, the raw power of Richie Robnett and Brooks Conrad, the rapidly-improving contact-oriented bat of Gregorio Petit and the steady right-handed presence of Wes Bankston and Jeff Baisley at the corner infield spots.
Suffice it to say that another big playoff push is expected in Sacramento this year, with or without the Gonzalez's, who might be in Oakland before long...
Opening Night Schedule
Sacramento @ Tacoma - 7:00pm
Midland @ Arkansas - Rockhounds up 3-2 in top of the7th
Stockton vs. Modesto - 7:05pm
Kane County vs. Beloit - currently on rain delay