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Staturday: The Loneliest Number

So...

I had a plan.

The next time my turn rolled around to write a Staturday article I was going to sit down and do some Major League Equivalencies for our minor leaguers, just so people could get a bit of a feel for how good (or not so good) some of our prospects would look in Oakland. Well, plans change.

One of AN's most frequently asked questions is whether or not the A's minor league development program can develope raw talent into a productive big leaguer. We know the A's are very good at adding polish to guys like Travis Buck, Kurt Suzuki and Huston Street but can they turn raw but talented teenaged prospects into productive big leaguers? It's been difficult to answer this question because for years the A's have avoided taking such young amateurs in the draft, preferring instead to focus on college trained players. There's much less mystery when projecting a 21 year old college player vs. a 17 year old high schooler, thus there's (usually) less actual development involved in trying to turn a college trained player into a big leaguer.

I tried to figure out how best to answer this question. Should I compare the A's college-heavy success rate to teams like the Dodgers or Braves, two organizations who have always been willing to go after high school talent and who have often been considered standard bearers for running top notch minor league programs? But does it really make sense to make such an apples and oranges comparison? Simply put the A's use a different type of material to develope their organization.

Back in January I sat down to look at how well teams did in converting their draft picks into big league players. What I found is that once you get past the 2nd round you've basically got a 5% or less chance at drafting a big league ball player unless you're signing a bonus baby or a draft-&-follow. Since taking over as GM in 1997 Beane has drafted 7 high school players within the first 3 rounds of the amateur draft, that's out of a total of 47 total picks. That indicates a pretty strong bias against taking teenagers in the draft. Interestingly, the only 2 HS players drafted by Beane prior to 2005 (Gerald Laird '98 and Jeremy Bonderman '01) are both in the Show although neither one of them went past High-A ball while in Oakland's system. In 2005 and 2006 Beane drafted 5 high schoolers (4 pitchers) in the 2nd and 3rd rounds of the draft, it's too early to determine the success or failure of those draft picks.

Does the fact that 6 of the 9 prospects the A's received in the Haren and Swisher trades were originally drafted out of high school or signed as FA amateurs indicate anything? It makes sense that the A's themselves would not pursue in a trade young talent they did not feel confident in developing. I agree with that general principle but don't feel it's applicable in this instance. DLS and Anderson both spent the 2007 season in their respective organization's minor league system and had played well, earning in-season promotions. They had already cleared one of the most important hurdles in becoming big league ballplayers. Dos Gonzalez, Carter and Sweeney all had multiple seasons in the minors before coming over to Oakland, they too had passed the litmus tests that many high school draft picks fail to master.

But I think the basic principle, that the A's won't acquire someone that they don't feel capable of developing, is the key to answering our original question. While it's true that the A's have increased their efforts to sign young talent in Latin America and have drafted high school arms as recently as the 2nd round of the 2006 draft, nothing says "We can turn a kid into a big league ballplayer!" like popping a high school player with the 12th overall pick in the 2008 draft. That is how we'll try to answer our question, we'll watch and see whom the A's draft in a couple weeks.

That seems a little simplistic, doesn't it? Should the A's not draft a college player even if he's the highest guy on their board simply to prove to AN and the world that the A's are fully capable of investing in a high school player? No, but again we're being over-simplistic. See, this year's draft features 7-8 guys that the experts agree are at the top of the pack. (In case you're wondering, by experts I'm referring to MiLB.com, BA, BP and John Sickels.) While there isn't a Joe Mauer or Justin Upton in this year's draft there is a top teir and assuming that those players get drafted as their talent dictates then they'll all be gone by the time the A's draft 12th. After that top tier things (and draft boards) get muddled. The next group, legitimate 1st rounders all, could have vastly different ratings on team draft boards simply due to organizational preferrences.

Now I don't pretend to know who the A's are looking at in this year's draft but looking at the organization as a whole it's obvious that the system is strong in certain areas (SP, 1B/DH, OF, C) and weak in others (SS, 3B). I agree with the arguement that teams shouldn't reach out of need (i.e. they shouldn't pass over a dozen more talented players just to draft a SS) but when the talent level is so close between a dozen guys it makes sense to go after the guy who can play a position of need. Bobby Crosby is signed through 2009 but after UGA's Gordon Beckham gets picked there isn't a college SS worth taking 12th overall. (It seems a safe assumption that a HS player wouldn't be ready by 2010.) Eric Chavez is signed through 2010, with a team option for 2011. That should provide enough time for a HS player to be drafted and developed to take over at 3B.

So let's focus on 3B, which barring one of the top tier guys falling into the A's lap at 12 (could happen, but shouldn't) will probably be an area the A's will be looking at. They could also go after SP, because you can never have too much pitching, but for now stick with me on this 3B tangent. The top 2 3B eligible prospects that should be available at 12 are ASU's Brett Wallace and Georgia high schooler Ethan Martin. Martin is actually considered a two-way prospect, with some teams liking him more as a SP. Baseball America grades him as a legit 3B prospect with plus raw power and athleticism. He's currently hitting .528 with 9 doubles and 12 HR in 72 at bats but I think it's fair to question the level of competition he's faced. Wallace might be the best college bat West of the Mississippi, with one scout saying if Wallace can't hit in the Show then he didn't know who could. He's got outstanding plate discipline and he should have 30 HR power. The downside is no one really thinks he can stay at 3B and he doesn't have the athleticism to convert to the OF. He's 1B bound basically, and while his bat is everything the A's tend to gravitate towards where would they play him in the Show?

Brett Wallace represents a safe pick for the A's, 'cause barring injury his bat will play in the big leagues. He's had 3 years playing against top level college competition and his .414 batting average and 16 HR in 186 at bats can attest, he's had success. No one, myself included, could fault the A's for taking a player like Wallace at #12.

What about Martin? Not only is he dominating with his bat, his pitching has been top notch as well. In fact, Sickels in particular likes him better as a SP then as a 3B. A 22/112 BB/K rate in 60 IP can cause that kind of stir. I think Martin represents an opportunity for the A's, he's a player they can try to develope at 3B and if his bat can't handle it they have the fallback option of converting him to the mound. Either way, Martin is the type of player who needs time to develop and that is not something the A's have traditionally allowed for their high profile prospects. One of the main reasons the A's have focused so strongly on college draft picks is how quickly those types can move through the system. Huddy, Mulder, Zito, Buck and Street all took less then 2 years to get to Oakland. Very few high school draft picks develop that quickly.

Are the A's in a position to wait a few years for their 12th overall pick to develop? Short answer is... yes. In a recent interview with Scout.com Oakland A's Manager of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi said the A's feel like they have enough depth in the organization that they can gamble a bit with the 12th overall pick, that in the past the team has felt pressured to score with every 1st round pick so they didn't pursue the high-risk/high reward types. (I'd link the article but it's a locked webpage.) And that approach has worked for the most part. Going after a bat like Wallace would be a continuation of a successful strategy. But there comes a point when you have to break the mold in order to have success, and when it comes to finding a big league caliber 3B the "safe" options tend to be few and far between.

So maybe we'll find out if the A's are confident enough in their organizational development skills on June 5th. It's tough to say that one draft pick can define an organization's abilities but this year's draft could present just such an opportunity.

Enjoy the 3-day weekend.