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AN Visits with Minor League Expert John Sickels

SportsBlogs Nation is really fortunate as we have John Sickels writing the best minor league blog on the Web in Minor League Ball.  Sickels does excellent work at that blog and I suggest you make it part of your daily reading.

I figured it was a great time to check in with him since that's what most of us A's fans have done with 2008, and that's look forward to 2009 and beyond.  Oh and make sure you pick up Baseball Prospect Book 2009 when John releases it next year.  It will be chock full of A's prospects.  Hope you enjoy.

Blez:  - The A's got Eric Patterson, Sean Gallagher and Josh Donaldson back for Rich Harden and out of all of the Billy Beane deals in recent years, this one seems to get the most heat.  You gave Patterson a B, Gallagher a B and Donaldson a B.  You're also a notoriously hard grader so a B is a very good prospect.  What do you think the A's ultimately will have to show for a pitcher who couldn't stay healthy?

John Sickels:  Well I like Gallagher a lot, he has been a personal favorite for some time. He is erratic, yes, and he needs to get his walk rate down closer to what it was in the minor leagues, but as long as he remains healthy I still think he's going to be a solid number three starter, an inning-eater type. Patterson isn't really a .195 hitter, I think he's more of a .260-.270 hitter with flashes of power and good speed. He's not terrific but he should be useful. I might have stuck with him a bit too long as a Grade B prospect. Donaldson was having a bad season before the trade, but seemed to get back on track at Stockton after it. Granted, that's a better place to hit than the Midwest League, but still, the Cal League is a level higher than the Midwest League and at least some of the improvement is real. I'd rate him a Grade C+ right now. If everything pans out, they will have a number three starter, a speedy guy who can cover a couple of positions, and power hitting catcher.  

Blez:  Many minor league experts talked throughout the year about the A's young pitching in their system as being the envy of all of baseball.  Of Cahill, Anderson and Mazzaro, which do you think can make the jump right into the rotation next year?

Sickels:  Tough question. I like Cahill and Anderson better than Mazzaro at this point since they have been more consistent. I suspect that Anderson will be ready the soonest, but that Cahill will end up as the best pitcher of the group in the long run. Mazzaro was great in the Texas League obviously but got hit around in the PCL. That's hardly damning of course, but I'm not quite as sold on him given the entirety of his track record. I want to look at more scouting reports as I write my book before I grade him.      

Blez:  Are you higher on Sean Doolittle now?  You gave him a B- in this year's Prospect Book due mostly to his lower batting average.  He was up over .300 this year. 

Sickels:  I was actually more worried about the lack of power in his first look at pro pitching in 2007 than I was about his batting average. He slugged .560 in the Cal League, but reverted to .388 in the Texas League with much worse strike zone judgment and a high strikeout rate. I might go with Grade B now, but I haven't decided yet.

Blez:  Aaron Cunningham is getting a shot with the A's now after a very, very good year in the minors.  You gave him a B- as well but called him a personal favorite.  Where do you think he projects now?

Sickels:  Yeah, I have liked Cunningham for awhile now and would raise his grade to a Grade B. I think that power is going to be an issue for him in the short run, but in the long run he should be something like a .280/.340/.450 guy, with some speed, which isn't superb but is certainly quite useful.    

Blez:  Several A's fans think that the A's rushed Carlos Gonzalez and even Gio Gonzalez and both have kind of crashed and burned.  Do you think that organizations risk long-term psychological damage to these players by calling them up a little too early?
Sickels:  Of course they do. It's always a risk when you promote a guy. But both Gonzalezes are still young, and if you are going to succeed in the majors, you have to have emotional resiliency. But I don't know if these guys were really promoted too fast, especially Gio, who had two years of Double-A under his belt and 22 starts in Triple-A. It was time to see what he could do, the decision to promote him was correct. You could say that Carlos needed more Triple-A and I'd agree with that probably.

Blez:  Chris Carter hit only .259 at Stockton, but he just mashed down there.  He had 39 home runs and slugged .569.  The good news is that pre-all star he hit .242 and after he hit .277.  What's your opinion of a comparable for Carter and do you think he's going to progress quickly with that kind of pop?

Sickels:  Well I wrote about Carter on my blog recently. I'm more worried about the very high strikeout rate than the batting average, which can be somewhat flukey as you know. The fact that he draws walks helps. We will know more after we see how he handles Double-A breaking stuff. He has shown the ability to make adjustments before and he's very young.  
Blez:  I'm not sure how much you follow the big clubs because you're so focused on the minors, but the A's were counting on the progression of Daric Barton and Travis Buck this year and Barton hasn't shown much until just recently and Buck had a lost year.  Is there anything you notice that Barton is doing differently at the big league level?  Buck looked like a completely different player this year.  Any insight you can offer on these guys?
Sickels:  I haven't seen enough of them in person to judge at this point. You and your readers would know more than I would. Buck's injury problems would have to be a factor I would imagine, and Barton is still young enough to grow substantially.

Blez:  Adrian Cardenas seemed to be a good acquistion for the A's as a possible replacement for a could-be-departing Mark Ellis (although I think that would be a big mistake with so many pitchers who throw sinkers coming through the organization).  Your major criticism of him seemed to be his glove.  Did you get a chance to see him this year and if so, what did you think?

Sickels:  I haven't seen him this year but will in the Arizona Fall League and can tell you more then. A Texas League source told me that Cardenas looked very good defensively, and he didn't make many errors this year, so on paper anyway it looks like he's really improved.

Blez:  What did you think of the A's draft?  Any shining stars or hidden gems we should keep an eye on and did you like the first pick of Jemile Weeks?

Sickels:  I don't have a problem with Weeks. It might be a slight overdraft and Brett Wallace would certainly look like a good pick at this point, or Aaron Hicks, but Weeks does a lot of things well and he should come quickly. The rest of the draft looks pretty solid, although I'm not a huge Tyson Ross guy. I like Jason Christian a lot and thought he was a steal in the fifth round.

Blez:  Have you seen Michel Inoa pitch yet and if you have, what do you think?  Do you think it's wise to spend that kind of money on a 16-year-old pitcher?
Sickels:  No, and no. How often do guys like that pan out? Remember Jose Pett? Ricardo Aramboles? I know all about the hype of Inoa and the scouting reports are wonderful, but people get all excited about these kids and most of the time they burn out or get hurt. I'm less paranoid about high school pitching than I used to be, but  there is a huge difference between an 18 year old and a 16 year old.  

Blez:  You didn't much like Mazzaro last year, giving him a C.  Are there still things you'd like to see him improve on?
Sickels:  Well I want to see him pitch well in Triple-A. I mean, you have to love what he did at Midland, but it was so much different than the rest of his career, really out of context, that I want to make sure he can sustain it. The improvement in his control was very notable this year, but now he has to show that he can dominate more consitently.

Moving up a level can play havoc with a guy. Look at what happened with Craig Italiano this year; dominant in the Midwest League, then horrible in the Cal League. I saw Italiano early in the year for Kane County and he looked terrific, was really in gear with his combination of stuff and command, but it fell apart for him against better competition. I root for Italiano actually, given the injury adversity he's been through. I got to talk with him some this spring and he's a very interesting guy.

Blez:  What do you think of Henry Rodriguez now that he's kind of gone through major ups and downs this year?  Reliever or starter?

Sickels:  Probably a reliever in the long run. And a good one.    

Blez:  Finally, who would you rank as the A's best hitter in the system right now and the best pitcher?

Sickels:  Ask me again after I write up the Athletics system for my book. At this point I really don't know. They have so many people who would have to be considered. The turnaround in this system has been remarkable, through trades and the draft, that to do the question justice would take some time. Let's do this again after I write the Athletics up.