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Minors  | General  | 1/24/2012

Top Prospects: Oakland Athletics

Patrick Ebert     
Photo: Vanderbilt

General Manager: Billy Beane
Minor League Director: Keith Lieppman
Scouting Director: Eric Kubota

Sacramento River Cats (Pacific Coast League) 88-56
AA: Midland RockHounds (Texas League) 63-77
Hi A: Stockton Ports (California League) 75-65
Low A: Burlington Bees (Midwest League) 76-62
Rookie Adv.: Vermont Lake Monsters (New York-Penn League) 39-35
Rookie: AZL Athletics (Arizona League) 27-29
Dominican: DSL Athletics (Dominican Summer League) 24-46

System Overview

The Athletics certainly have provided an interesting storyline over the past decade, which includes the success and debate created by Michael Lewis' best-selling book,
Moneyball, which was recently turned into a movie in which the charismatic Billy Beane was depicted by Brad Pitt.

For as much as
Moneyball tried to explain some of the concepts Beane and the front office executives he surrounded himself with used to gain an advantage over other teams in the league, it also created an unfair perception of scouts vs. stats.

And the A's have been at a disadvantage for many years, although they aren't the only team out there presented with the challenges of building a successful franchise in a small revenue market.

The team's future will continue to be clouded until it is determined whether or not they will move to San Jose or some other location. Major League Baseball has placed a priority on the A's future, as the San Francisco Giants currently have territorial rights to the San Jose market. Even if a decision is made relatively quickly, the earliest the A's would move to San Jose, at least in a new stadium (Cisco Field, which has yet to be built), would be 2015.

Similar to the Marlins, the A's may be targeting that date for their next revival, trimming payroll now to potentially reap the rewards advertising, luxury boxes and the overall allure a new stadium, in addition to an increased fan base, will bring.

Whether their future lies in San Jose, Oakland or somewhere else, they still face the challenge of regaining the perennial success they enjoyed when they advanced to the American League Championship Series in four consecutive seasons from 2000 through 2003. They returned to the ALCS once again in 2006, the last time they made the postseason.

In the five years since their last playoff appearance, the A's have had only one season (2010) in which they have finished .500, although they have been fairly consistent, averaging 76 wins per season during that time.

And they have done so with a payroll that annually is among the lowest in all of baseball. Their fan base isn't doing them any favors either, finishing last in attendance both last year and in 2009.

As noted above, the A's once again pared their payroll this offseason, moving arbitration-eligible players including their two best starting pitchers from 2011, Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez, as well as closer Andrew Bailey and outfielder Ryan Sweeney. Josh Willingham was allowed to leave via free agency as the team once again targeted young talent either still in the minors or young big-leaguers several years away from arbitration and free agency.

The top prospect list below is well represented by the players the team received in return for Cahill and Gonzalez, and the team stands to gain two compensatory selections for Willingham to continue to help strengthen the system.

Payroll shaving has become something Beane is well accustomed to, with a long history of trading proven, successful Major League players for younger talent. Two members of the 'Big Three' that helped propel the A's to their four consecutive ALCS appearances, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson, were traded, while the third, Barry Zito, was allowed to depart as a free agent.

Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye are other notable players that left via free agency, while other notable players including Carlos Gonzalez, Huston Street, Matt Holliday, Dan Haren, Ramon Hernandez, Nick Swisher, Brett Wallace and Joe Blanton were all involved in trades.

During this time the A's have done a very good job identifying and developing pitching, which appeared to be their priority once again this offseason. Much of the pitching they have acquired in recent years have come via trades and not from within their own system.

For as much emphasis as on-base percentage has received from the organization (and
Moneyball), the team hasn't been as successful scoring runs.

That said, the organization has struggled to develop impact players internally for quite some time. While they're not the only team that prefers college players to high school ones when it comes to the draft, they have taken a rather conservative approach to drafting, even in the college players they select. They have been more active in the Latin American free agent market in recent years, and a handful of those players may start making a case for the big leagues around the year 2015 much like Miguel Tejada did in the late-90s prior to their impressive run in the early 2000s.

2011 Draft

Not surprisingly the A's did not select a high school player until the ninth round of the draft, and that player, Jace Fry, went unsigned and is one of the more promising freshmen pitchers in the nation at the college level at Oregon State.

The A's spent just over $2.6 million on the eight players they selected and signed within the top 10 rounds. 14 individual players taken last June received bonuses greater than that total.

In the first-round they selected right-handed pitcher Sonny Gray out of Vanderbilt. Armed with a mid-90s fastball and hammer curve, the only reason Gray fell as far as he did was due to the scrutiny that all sub 6-foot right-handers receive. Going against the grain is what the A's do best, and Gray could turn out to be a very productive and successful professional pitcher given his repertoire and track record.

After losing their second round pick to the Rays after signing Grant Balfour last offseason, B.A. Vollmuth was the team's third-round pick, with a profile similar to current A's farmhand Grant Green. Like Green, his larger size as a middle infielder may necessitate a move to another position down the road. Vollmuth posted huge numbers as a sophomore at Southern Miss, and has a power/power arm/bat profile that may fit best in right field if he doesn't have the lateral quickness to handle the hot corner.

The A's continued to target bats with several of their early picks, and continued to place a preference on production over projection. Bobby Crocker (fourth), Beau Taylor (fifth), Dayton Alexander (sixth), Dusty Robinson (10th
), Xavier Macklin (12th), Jake Tanis (13th) and Nick Rickles (14th) all enjoyed success at the plate at the college level, but none of them stand out in the tools department.

A handful of big-bodied, live arms were also added, including Blake Treinen (seventh) and Colin O'Connell (eighth). 16th
 rounder Tanner Peters has a similar stature to Gray and an equally similar propensity for missing bats.

The team's mostly toolsy addition comes in the form of their 44th-round pick Chris Bostick, who the A's lured away from St. John's with a six figure bonus.

Top 10 Prospects

1. RHP Jarrod Parker
Baseball-reference player profile

Parker was the ninth overall pick in the 2007 draft by the Diamondbacks, recently acquired by the A's along with Collin Cowgill and Ryan Cook for Trevor Cahill and Craig Breslow. He missed the entire 2010 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery late in 2009, when he made 20 starts in the Southern League at the AA level in only his second full season playing professional baseball.

He returned to the AA level this year to pick up where he left off, and quickly reminded onlookers why he is considered one of the top pitching prospects in the game, and he pitched in the same rotation as other prominent hurlers such as Tyler Skaggs and Trevor Bauer. Parker's velocity once again found itself in the mid-90s, and he also was able to get the feel for his slider, the same one-two punch that vaulted him up draft boards back in 2007. He has the ability to take a little off his fastball for added movement, a hard, fading low-80s changeup, and a developing, big bending 12-to-6 curveball, giving him a well-rounded four-pitch arsenal.

While he doesn't have the perfect, projectable stature of a starter, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Parker has good athleticism and employs a compact and repeatable delivery. While his injury history is somewhat of a concern, he passed the biggest test this past year, and was rewarded with a big-league call-up in September for the NL West winning D-Backs.

2. OF Michael Choice
Baseball-reference player profile

Choice could be the big bat that the A's have desperately needed for several years, certainly now that Josh Willingham has departed. The 10th
 overall pick in the 2010 draft, he was aggressively assigned to Stockton of the Hi-A California League during his first professional season.

He proved that placement was fitting, slamming 30 home runs and slugging .587. Choice will likely always be susceptible to strikeouts, fanning 134 times in 118 games last year, but he does a good job working the count, as evidence by his 61 walks and .376 on-base percentage in relationship to his .285 batting average. While he has a good eye, strong hands and wrists and vicious bat speed, his desire to hit for power with his current approach could limit how high of an average he'll hit for annually.

A good overall athlete, Choice is expected to continue to bulk up as he adds strength to his powerful frame. Left field is his likely future home, and he has more than enough power to fit that profile.

3. RHP Sonny Gray
Baseball-reference player profile

As noted above, based solely on Gray's success and results serving as the staff ace for Vanderbilt the past two years, he wouldn't have fallen to the 18th
 overall pick, but he faces the same scrutiny that all sub 6-foot right-handed pitchers do.

Gray's fastball has the ability to reach 97 mph, settling in comfortably in the 90-94 range that he complements well with a 12-to-6 hammer curve, giving him two legitimately swing-and-miss pitches. He also throws a changeup, although relies mostly on his fastball/curveball combo. Gray made one appearance in the Arizona Rookie League after signing before the A's pushed him all the way to AA Midland of the Texas League. There he made five starts, giving up only one run while striking out 18 batters in 20 innings of work.

After a heavy workload during the spring for the Commodores, the A's took it easy on Gray's arm, and he's likely to return to the AA level to open the 2011 season, although even then he still remains on the fast track to Oakland. While it isn't something to consider at this point in time, at the very worse Gray could settle in as a very effective short reliever/closer should his size hamper him from sustaining the rigors of starting every five days.

4. RHP Brad Peacock
Baseball-reference player profile

One of the four players the A's received as part of the Gio Gonzalez trade, Peacock enjoyed a breakout season in 2011, going 15-3 with a 2.39 ERA between the AA and AAA levels of the Nationals' farm system. For the first time in his career, he struck out better than a batter an inning (177 in 146.2) and also drastically cut down on the number of base hits against him (98) relative to his four previous minor league seasons. He was rewarded with a late season call-up, making three appearances for Washington, two of which were starts.

Predominantly a shortstop in high school, arm strength has never been an issue for Peacock with the ability to sit in the low-90s while peaking around 94-96. He can also add late movement to the pitch, and has made improvements in both the break and command of his curveball and changeup.

Even if Peacock doesn't make the big-league staff out of spring training, he will provide an excellent option to turn to at the AAA level, which is the more likely destination to open the 2012 season as the A's have little motivation to start his arbitration clock any earlier than they need to.

5. RHP A.J. Cole
Baseball-reference player profile

One of the most projectable high school pitchers eligible for the 2010 draft, Cole was a member of the 2009 Perfect Game/Aflac All-American Classic where he received Baseball America's Pitcher of the Year award. He slipped to the fourth round, and the Nationals made sure to keep him away from Florida with a $2 million signing bonus.

He spent the entirety of his first full professional season at the Low-A level and showed considerable promise. His electric arm speed allows him to stay in the low-90s consistently, and on good days he can creep towards triple digits. Both his breaking ball and changeup need more consistency, but both show promise and are expected to improve over time as he enjoys a steady ascent towards the big leagues.

Another key part of the package received in return for left-handed starter Gio Gonzalez, Cole will likely be assigned to Hi-A Stockton to open the 2012 season, and could be ready to shine in the big leagues when and if the team ever finds itself in San Jose in 2015.

6. OF Grant Green
Baseball-reference player profile

Green was the starting shortstop for the West squad in the 2005 Perfect Game/Aflac All-American Classic, and was selected 13th 
overall in the 2009 draft coming out of USC after a productive college career. Green has continued that productivity at the plate since beginning his professional career, with a .304/.353/.463 slash line in over two full seasons.

His future home defensively is still up for debate, as Green was moved to centerfield last year and may be a better fit for a corner outfield spot due to the lack of ideal straight-line speed for the position.

As good as his numbers are offensively, he will need to make adjustments to his approach and his swing as he strikes out at a high rate while not walking as frequently as the A's would like to see. Should he end up on a corner outfield spot, he will also need to show more power than what he has up to this point, although he does create excellent leverage with his tall stature and long, wiry strong limbs.

7. C Derek Norris
Baseball-reference player profile

Norris is yet another player acquired from the Nationals in return for Gio Gonzalez, and his offensive profile fits the A's perfectly. While he hit only .210 last year at the AA level, he hit 20 home runs and drew 77 walks en route to a .367 on-base percentage while slugging .446. He is very strong through his forearms and wrists, and his power potential alone while playing a premium defensive position makes him a very intriguing prospect.

With a compact and strong, sturdy frame, playing everyday behind the plate won't be an issue for Norris, who also shows very good arm strength on throws to second. His profile is similar to that of Kelly Shoppach, and he should spend most of the year at the AAA level with Kurt Suzuki firmly entrenched as the A's starter behind the dish.

8. OF Collin Cowgill
Baseball-reference player profile

Acquired from the Diamondbacks as part of the Trevor Cahill trade, the 5-foot-9 Cowgill fits the A's organization perfectly as a player that isn't overly toolsy, but always maximizes his value by his approach, hustle and overall skill-set. He's one of the rare left-handed throwing, right-handed hitting players that have played in the big-leagues, and hit .354/.430/.554 with 30 steals in 33 attempts at the AAA level last season. That led to him receiving a call-up to appear in 30 games for the Diamondbacks, which included his inclusion on the team's postseason roster.

Cowgill has spent most of his career playing centerfield, but may be somewhat of a 'tweener in that he doesn't fit the profile perfectly, nor does he have the power potential for an outfield corner. That leads to a frequent “fourth outfielder” tag, but Cowgill has played bigger than labels in the past. He could serve as an immediate replacement for Ryan Sweeney, and could find himself playing a key role for the A's next season.

9. 1B Chris Carter
Baseball-reference player profile

Carter was added to the system in 2007 as part of the multi-player deal that sent Dan Haren to the Diamondbacks and Brett Anderson to Oakland. Built like an NFL linebacker, it's easy to recognize Carter's power potential.

While he has great natural strength, he has an equally big swing which has led to 41 strikeouts in 114 big-league at-bats during two cups of coffee between 2010-11. However, he has also hit 170 home runs in seven seasons in the minor leagues, including 21 a year ago between his time at the team's AA and AAA levels. He has surpassed the 100 RBI mark twice in the minors, and drove in excess of 90 two other times. To stick in the big leagues however he will need to address his overall approach while laying off on breaking balls thrown low and away, a common hole for young sluggers.

While the A's have tried him in left field to increase his versatility, first base is his best position.

10. OF Vicmal de la Cruz
Baseball-reference player profile

As noted above, despite the A's conservative approach toward the draft, they have been quite aggressive in recent years in Latin America. Vicmal de la Cruz' $800,000 signing bonus doesn't look quite as big as compared to the $4.25 million right-handed pitcher Michael Ynoa and the $2.2 million third baseman Renato Nunez have received in recent years.

Although de la Cruz is several years away from contributing at the big-league level, his overall polish is impressive for a player of his age, particularly at the plate, where he hit .318/.438/.453 in the Dominican League, walking more times than he struck out (which isn't common in the DSL). He's a good overall player with a sweet left-handed swing and an obvious understanding of what he's doing at the plate. His profile is similar to that of former Oakland A's outfielder David DeJesus, although de la Cruz could hit for more power as he continues to progress.

Others in the Conversation:
RHP Raul Alcantara, SS Yordy Cabrera, 1B Miles Head, LHP Tom Milone, OF Jermaine Mitchell, OF Michael Taylor, SS B.A. Vollmuth