This begins a series of somewhere between one and 30 parts (we'll see how much time I have and how much demand there is).
I know a lot about minor league baseball. I read Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America Prospect Handbook every night as bedtime reading (a team in every night), so naturally, I have quite the player database in my head.
Thus, I've decided to start going through teams and giving my own take on prospects and projects.
Before I start, I'd like to offer up my definition of "prospect." To me, a prospect is someone who projects to have a significant major league career.
By significant, I mean something more than just a September callup or two. They don't have to be starters or anything—just guys who are good enough to break camp with a team and stay there.
Then there are "projects." I define a project as someone who has some skills of note, but doesn't really project (for the time being) to be a major leaguer, aside from maybe a September look.
These players are too good to write off, but are either very old for their levels or have some flaw that will only magnify as they move up. Thus, they are "projects" of the organization, which has to help them improve if they will contribute in the majors.
A project is to a prospect what a tropical storm is to a hurricane; it can become one, and a major one, but it can also often fizzle out into nothing.
What I'm going to do is go through a team's system, look at its players, state who the prospects and projects are, and give some sort of reasoning. If a player isn't on the list, it means I don't think they will ever be able to become a major leaguer.
Also, I can never keep track of who's lost rookie eligibility, so I'm just going to go through minor leaguers who don't have extensive big league experience (like half a season or less).
If you have a question about a major leaguer or minor leaguer with more experience, feel free to ask me in the comments.
These articles will not include 2009 draft picks, at least for now.
We'll start with the Oakland A's. I've been covering their system for OaklandClubhouse.com for over a year, so I can offer more about them than any other system.
Starting Pitching Prospects
James Simmons is a command righty who won't be a star, but he should be a nice third or fourth starter by next year. He gives up a lot of fly balls, which plays well in Oakland. He throws a low-90s heater with a very good change.
Simmons needs better results from his mediocre slider and curve if he's going to be a major league No. 3. He'll be more of a No. 4 or No. 5 if he can't improve his breaking pitches, but he'll have a nice career. Think Kyle Lohse.
Gio Gonzalez has a ton of upside, as his low-90s fastball and hard curveball have flummoxed batters throughout the minors. Gonzalez was hit hard in the majors last year, and his command isn't there yet, but I have confidence that he's going to figure it out—he just needs time to adjust to each new level.
Gonzalez reminds me of a young Johan Santana, and he could be nearly as good. Expect a minor contribution from him in Oakland this year, a back-of-the-rotation slot in 2010, and then some great results in 2011 and beyond.
Ben Hornbeck was a 32nd-round draft pick last year, but he shot up to Double-A Midland in less than a season. The 21-year-old lefty throws in the mid-to-high 80s and is still polishing his curveball, but he throws a plus-plus changeup that hitters can't touch.
He put up a 1.25 FIP (!!!) in five starts in the hitter's paradise Cal League, striking out 39 and walking just seven in 27.2 innings, allowing no homers.
Hornbeck could be the next Dallas Braden for the A's; he has a similar arsenal and minor league track record. However, he's a year away from the majors at least.
Michel Ynoa, the Dominican wunderkind of 2008, has yet to throw a professional pitch, but scouts agree he's a once-in-a-decade talent. At age 16, Ynoa threw a 91-94 mph fastball with plus movement, an MLB-average curve and change, and a decent but erratic splitter. He has years to improve from there, and his ceiling is enormous.
Relief Pitching Prospects
Jay Marshall has already spent a year in the majors (2007), but it was as a Rule 5 guy, so I'm including him here. The sidearmer kills lefties and is a very extreme groundball pitcher who could have a 15-year career as a situational guy.
Brad Kilby is another lefty relief prospect, although he can be used against righties as well as lefties (23 Ks of righties in 18.1 IP against them). Kilby throws an 86-91 mph fastball and a plus slider out of a deceptive windup that hides the ball.
Kilby has severe conditioning issues (just take a look at the fourth picture in this gallery), but they haven't hindered him yet, and they help him hide the ball. Think of him as the next Ray King, possibly better.
Jeff Gray has been up and down between Sacramento and Oakland for several years and could be a useful middle reliever. He throws an excellent sinker that leads to a ton of grounders, and he can get it up to 96 mph. Gray also throws a plus slider and plus curveball, giving him three distinct speeds (the slider goes in the mid-80s and the curve in the low-to-mid-70s).
If given an extended opportunity, he would pitch 4.00 ERA-quality ball in the majors.
Henry Rodriguez can hit 101 mph with his fastball, but he needs better control and secondary pitches to become an ace reliever. He is making strides toward that goal this year and has K'd 21 batters in 13 Triple-A innings. If Rodriguez can keep his walk rate below 4.50 BB/9 and improve his slider from "average-minus" to "average," he could be a flamethrowing relief sensation very soon.
Sam Demel is a hard thrower who also throws a plus slider. The righty's fastball goes 92-96 mph with excellent late sink, so it gets both empty swings and groundballs. Demel profiles as a shutdown reliever and has a sub-1.00 ERA thus far in Double-A. He could be up relatively soon.
Mike Benacka is a former indie leaguer who doesn't throw hard, but is so difficult to hit that it doesn't matter. Benacka has a very deceptive delivery with a big leg kick that makes his mid-to-high-80s fastball jump on hitters. While his curveball isn't that good, Benacka puts hitters away with a plus-plus changeup that he'll throw in any count.
He's improved his command from troublesome to average since signing with the A's in mid-2008. He compares favorably to Yankees middle reliever Edwar Ramirez and could have an even better career.
Arnold Leon has been hit around a bit (6.55 Double-A ERA), but he's only 20 and in his first full US season. Leon's a short righty with low-90s heat and a big, high-60s curveball. He's been unlucky this year and actually deserves an ERA around 4.00. Leon may move into the rotation at some point; his upside is probably something along the lines of Vicente Padilla's career (10 years in a rotation with one All-Star Game).
Josh Donaldson is an OBP-oriented Double-A catcher who was a 2007 first-round pick of the Cubs.
He was having a terrible year in Low-A in 2008, was sent to the A's in the Rich Harden trade and immediately promoted a level, and suddenly he was on fire at the plate. Donaldson's hitting .264/.377/.442 so far, with his doubles power and stellar plate discipline making up for a mediocre average.
Donaldson isn't a great defender, although he's good enough to stay at catcher in the majors. If he can turn some doubles into homers, he'll be a major league starter; if not, he'll be a backup.
Petey Paramore is a 2008 third-rounder who is also an OBP guy (.273/.396/.381 in Low-A), but he has less power and better defense than Donaldson. Paramore was considered possibly the best defensive catcher in the 2008 draft class. He profiles as a switch-hitting version of Brian Schneider—a very good backup and decent starter.
Tommy Everidge should be in the majors right now. Period. The first baseman's body is only going to reinforce the Moneyball stereotype (see the picture above), but he can flat-out hit.
The 26-year-old is crushing Pacific Coast League pitching in his first try at Triple-A (.333/.423/.533) and has the versatility to play first or third base. He walks a lot and has a low strikeout rate for a hulking slugger.
Everidge has posted a big platoon split throughout his career, often putting up obscenely high OPS figures (1.100 and higher twice) against lefties. Installing him as a 1B, 3B, or DH against lefties is something the A's should do right now. He projects to have a Wes Helms-like career at least.
Sean Doolittle is an excellent defensive first baseman who also can play left and right field. He has good pull power and is already a good Triple-A hitter in just his second full season.
Doolittle needs to walk a little more or strike out a little less to be a true big league asset; right now he projects as a .255/.345/.450 hitter, which isn't bad, but is mediocre for a first baseman.
If he can raise either the average or the OBP about 20 points, he'll be an asset. If not, he may be a Quad-A player. His Gold Glove-caliber defense will help his case, though.
Chris Carter could be a superstar. He's hitting .298/.399/.500 in Double-A at age 22, and scouts agree that he's barely scratched the surface of his power potential. Carter crushed 39 homers last year, but the .298 average shows that he, like Everidge, is far from an all-or-nothing slugger.
Carter, like Doolittle, strikes out a lot, but then again, so do Ryan Howard, Adam Dunn, and Jack Cust, and last I checked, they were fearsome middle-of-the-order guys.
Scouts compare Carter to a right-handed Howard; he could be that scary, although like Howard, Carter isn't much of a defender at any position (he's been tried at 1B, 3B, and RF).
Cliff Pennington is so much better than Bobby Crosby that it appalls me that Crosby is on the A's and Pennington is not. Pennington is another OBP guy (it's the A's system; who would've guessed the first six hitters I mention have good OBPs?).
He has almost no power, but he's a very good defensive shortstop with a cannon arm. Pennington projects to be about a .260/.360/.350 hitter with plus shortstop defense, and while that's far from stardom, it's good enough to start, especially on a team that's wasted most of a decade on Crosby.
Adrian Cardenas is a high-average, moderate-power infielder who most scouts think will be a .300 hitter in the majors.
The question is where he’ll play; he came up as a shortstop but now has played some second, and some scouts wonder if he’d be best off at third.
Statistically, Cardenas is something of a left-handed Dustin Pedroia, whose .306/.370/.444 career line is a reasonable expectation for Cardenas’ eventual upside.
Nino Leyja is only in short-season A-ball, so he’s a long way from the majors. However, the 2008 15th-rounder projects as a solid big leaguer.
Leyja’s almost a year younger than I am, but last year he ripped apart the Arizona Rookie League with a .315/.383/.479 line, with 10 steals. Leyja also projects to stay in the middle infield, although it’s unclear whether that will be at second or short.
Leyja is 4-for-11 in three games this season at short-season Vancouver, so he’s off to a good start. Still only 18, he was a big steal in last year’s draft and is a long-term player to watch.
Corey Wimberly set off a ton of buzz in A’s camp this spring because of his socks, but he is more than just a hero of hosiery.
A small-ball guy, Wimberly’s game seems like it belongs on the Angels, not the A’s, but he understands that his role is to get on base, so he puts up average or better OBPs despite very little power. He can play anywhere but catcher, so he should be a nice utilityman.
He’s currently on the DL with a broken wrist, but when he returns, he won’t need much time in the minors before he’s ready for the bigs.
Jemile Weeks, the A’s first-rounder last year, is setting the Cal League on fire. Weeks is a five-tool second baseman who also brings strong plate discipline to the table.
The switch-hitter should be good for at least a .280/.350/.430 line once he comes up; he could be even better than that, but we won’t really know how good he is offensively until he gets to the Texas League, which isn’t quite as hitter-friendly.
He’s not great at second, but he’ll be able to play there in the majors.
Eric Patterson, like Pennington, should be given a long look right now instead of players like Bobby Crosby and Jack Hannahan. Patterson has always hit minor league pitching, and he’s got good speed as well. He can play second base and all three outfield positions.
If the A’s would give the guy three months to show what he can do, they’d realize he’s at least a .270/.330/.400 hitter right now, and probably even better.
Matt Sulentic’s numbers are just okay in Double-A (.278/.333/.404), but he’s only 21 and holding his own at the level.
Sulentic has doubles power on top of a good ability to hit for average. He also has average-plus speed and has stolen 12 bases this year. Sulentic’s biggest issue, unlike most A’s prospects, is plate discipline, as his is below average right now.
If Sulentic improves his walk rate, he’ll basically be the second coming of Travis Buck (2007 version). If not, he’ll be a backup outfielder.
Rashun Dixon, like Leyja, is a low-ish 2008 draftee (10th round) who already projects to make the majors. As a 17-year-old last season, he put up an impressive .263/.328/.525 line in Rookie ball, and he’s 5-for-12 with a homer so far in Vancouver.
A true five-tool player, Dixon is still fairly raw and far from the majors, but if he develops well, he could be an All-Star. His upside is probably a right-handed Curtis Granderson.
Grant Desme was plagued by injuries in 2007 and 2008, but he’s now healthy and showing why he was a second round pick in 2007.
Desme is hitting .274/.334/.490 in a very difficult offensive environment in the Midwest League, and he adds to that value by being an incredible 24-for-24 in steals. Improving his strikeout-to-walk ratio (81/21 this year) will be important if Desme is to start down the line.
Desme’s got a rocket arm in right field and is above average there, and he can handle center if asked.
He should be a good platoon RF (.581 SLG vs. LHPs this year) even without good plate discipline. At 23, this power/speed/defense outfielder will need to move fast, but he’s talented enough to make it happen.
Corey Brown is also 23, but he’s already crushing Double-A pitching, with a line of .331/.409/.559.
Last year, Brown was similar to Desme in Low-A (.270/.359/.483, perfect 12-12 in steals, 96/41 K/BB ratio), but this year, he’s added a good ability to hit for average to his skillset, making him look like a future major league starter.
Brown can play a decent center and may soon be a better option there, offensively and defensively, than Ryan Sweeney.
Starting Pitching Projects
Graham Godfrey is a quintessentially average minor league pitcher putting together a nice year in Double-A. He’s good enough to cling to the back of various teams’ rotations for a few years, but he’s not exceptional in any way, so he’ll need some luck to make it.
Bobby Cramer is 29, and I wouldn’t ordinarily mention a 29-year-old in Double-A, but the dude can pitch. He limits walks and homers while getting a ton of strikeouts and grounders. He pitched well in Triple-A earlier in the year (sub-3.00 FIP) but was demoted to Double-A to make room for some of the hotshot prospects.
Still, Cramer does really everything a pitcher’s supposed to do, and he could be an effective big leaguer right now. That said, he’s 29 and in Double-A; he faces steep odds.
Craig Italiano is a power pitcher with two plus pitches: a mid-90s fastball and mid-80s curveball.
He has a lengthy injury history; most notably, a liner from Mariners uber-prospect Carlos Triunfel fractured his skull in 2007.
Italiano was the best pitcher in the Midwest League last year but has struggled in the high-offense Cal League. His walk rate (more than five walks per nine innings) isn’t going to get it done.
He has a Rich Hill-like shoulder tilt in his delivery that may be hindering his command. However, with his power stuff, Italiano should not be given up on.
Tyson Ross is another power pitcher with mediocre Cal League results. Ross doesn’t have any glaring statistical flaws, but his numbers really don’t blow you away either. He’s certainly good enough to reach Triple-A at some point, but he’ll need to dominate more than this if he is to ever get a major league look.
Scott Mitchinson is a 24-year-old Aussie still in High-A, but he has good command of a decent four-pitch mix and could be in the back of a major league rotation or bullpen someday. Mitchinson’s had some arm trouble, which is why he’s still in the low minors at 24; he’s pitched well at every stop.
Anthony Capra is a command guy in Low-A. He’s a classic polished college lefty who throws in the high-80s and has an excellent changeup. Capra’s breaking ball is well below average, and he’ll need to really improve it if he is to reach his ceiling as a No. 4 starter.
Shawn Haviland, a Harvard product, pounds the strike zone with a three-pitch mix, with an 86-92 mph fastball, a sharp curve, and a diving splitter. He’s a 23-year-old in the Midwest League, however, so we won’t know if he’s a real prospect until he hits Double-A.
Kenny Smalley celebrates his 22nd birthday tomorrow (Happy early birthday, Kenny!) and he’s a dominant Low-A pitcher, so he certainly appears to be a good prospect. Smalley’s put up a 2.66 FIP so far in Kane County. He throws a low-90s fastball, plus changeup (since when does half of a Low-A team throw plus changeups???), and an improving overhand curve.
Smalley, Haviland, and Hornbeck give the A’s three late 2008 picks (24th, 33rd, and 32nd rounds, respectively) who look like they may contribute in the majors someday.
Brett Hunter has an absolutely golden arm, hitting 102 with his fastball on occasion, and he also snaps off a good curve.
However, Hunter has extremely messy mechanics that make it extremely difficult for him to throw strikes, as evidenced by a disgusting walk rate (11.71 BB/9).
If he can trim the walks, he’ll be a star; even with that walk rate, his FIP is somehow just 5.62, so if he cut his walk rate in half, he’d be a 4.00 ERA pitcher.
Fautino De Los Santos was considered a top-50 prospect by some (not me) entering 2008, but he struggled in High-A before succumbing to Tommy John surgery.
De Los Santos works off a mid-90s fastball and throws a plus curve and plus slider, but he’s now 23 and far from guaranteed of a big league future.
He’s a week or so away from returning, and he still has good potential.
Michael Madsen was on the verse of the majors before coming down with arm trouble last April. He is only just now returning to action. Now 26, Madsen still holds mid-rotation potential as a righty with low 90s heat and a killer 12-6 curve. He could also be a useful reliever. Like Cramer, Madsen’s age works against him.
Relief Pitching Projects
Ryan Webb is a sinker-slider pitcher who gets good velocity from a big frame. He’s on the 40-man because the A’s were afraid other teams would want a 6’6” pitcher with 90-96 mph velocity in the Rule 5 Draft.
Despite all his potential, Webb always puts up ERAs between 4.00 and 6.00, and he doesn’t get as many strikeouts as someone with his stuff should.
Webb has the talent to be a good major league pitcher, but he needs to harness it better.
Andrew Carignan is, in my opinion, the most overrated player in the system. While he has good stuff (mid-90s heat, plus slider), he walks a ton of batters. His fastball is straight, and he’s short, so he doesn’t get good angle on it.
While many people think Carignan is a future stud closer, I’m far from sure he’s ever going to be a major league pitcher. Like Hunter, he needs to make major strides with his command, and it’s anyone’s guess as to whether or not he will.
Lance Sewell is fun to watch. His delivery looks like a cross between Tim Lincecum’s and Barry Zito’s (you can see it here), and it obviously confounds batters, as evidenced by his high strikeout rates. Now in High-A, Sewell doesn’t have a ton of stuff: his fastball goes only 86-89 mph, and he’s got a big curve, but has little feel for it; however, it’s the deception and leverage he gets in his delivery that keeps hitters flailing.
An extreme flyball pitcher, Sewell would take well to the spacious Oakland Coliseum (or whatever the A’s stadium is called this week).
Leonardo Espinal is being groomed to be the next Brad Ziegler, although he throws much harder. The sidearmer is 25 and just in High-A, so he needs to move quickly, but he’s new to sidearming, so it’s understandable why he’s still in the low minors. Ziegler was in High-A at the same age.
Espinal pounds the bottom of the zone with a 90-93 mph sinker and an average-plus slider. Because he’s new to his mechanics, his command comes and goes, and he’ll need to refine it to have a big league future.
If Ziegler can do it, so can Espinal, but the big righty’s got a long way to go.
Jon Hunton is also old for his level (26 in Double-A), but he also has an excuse; he’s in his first year in the organization after being signed out of the indie leagues.
The former Cubs prospect is the largest player in the A’s organization (6’9”, 260) and is thus an imposing presence on the mound. He’s got four pitches: a low-90s fastball and an average slider, changeup, and splitter. Hunton’s got decent command of his pitches and does enough well to perhaps be a decent middle reliever someday.
Jamie Richmond is a swingman who has excellent command of a traditional fastball-curve-change arsenal. At 23, he needs to move quickly, but the Canadian right-hander could fill a swing role one day.
Scott Deal is a sinker-slider-change pitcher in his third year in the Midwest League. Still only 22, Deal gets grounders and doesn’t allow many walks or homers. His 90ish velocity doesn’t really blow anyone away, and he pitches to contact.
He could have a future as a middle reliever if he improves his slider.
Mickey Storey was the A’s 31st round pick last year. Incredibly, the last three picks they signed (31st, 32nd, and 33rd rounds), were Storey, Hornbeck, and Haviland, who all are prospects or projects.
I don’t know much about Storey, other than that he’s a college pitcher who has utterly dominated the low minors. He has good command and keeps the ball on the ground because of the good movement on his fastball.
Obviously, he isn’t a huge stuff guy, or else Storey wouldn’t have slid to the 31st round. Still, he’s been spectacular so far. Like Haviland, we won’t know if Storey is a prospect until he reaches Double-A.
Jason Ray is a power pitcher with a 91-97 mph fastball and big power curve. He missed all of 2008 with an arm injury and returned to action in May. Ray just turned 25 and is in Low-A, although he has High-A experience and likely will be back in Stockton as soon as he shows his old stuff. If he can shake off the health problems and get his velocity back, Ray still could be an excellent reliever—but that’s a big if at this point.
Anthony Recker is a power hitter who doesn’t bring a whole lot else to the table. He’s 25, and catchers can develop late, but he needs to improve his contact, plate discipline, and defense to be a starter. He’ll need to improve two of them to be a backup.
Dusty Napoleon was voted to have the coolest name in the minors before the 2009 season, but he’s more than just a name. He has a .415 OBP in Low-A and is an average defender. Napoleon needs to get stronger and show some doubles power to have an upper-minors future.
Yung-Chi Chen is similar to Cardenas defensively: He can be an emergency shortstop, marginal second baseman, or good third baseman. Unlike Cardenas, Chen is only an average hitter who profiles as a .260/.325/.380 hitter, and while that’s fine in a utility role, it certainly won’t cut it every day at third.
Chen was crushing the ball in April and May; he’s now on the DL. If he continues to hit at his early-season pace, he may have a more substantial big league future, but for now, the 26-year-old is a Quad-A utilityman.
Alex Valdez wasn’t going to be included on this list at all; when I started making it two days ago (if stats are a day or two out of date, that’s why), I barely knew who he was. My lack of knowledge is for good reason; why would I care about a guy who hit .169/.183/.195 last year as a 23-year-old in High-A?
Valdez didn’t hit much in High-A early in the year (.258/.279/.387), but the organization promoted the switch-hitter to Double-A anyway, and all of a sudden, he’s killing the ball. Valdez is hitting .311/.369/.533 in 26 games. His walk rate is way up and his strikeout rate is way down, leading to a BB/K ratio seven times higher than his High-A performances.
Valdez profiles similar to Chen defensively; he can play second okay but fits best at third. Since he just came out of nowhere, I’m very skeptical, but if this breakout is for real, Valdez certainly has a future.
Dusty Coleman is a shortstop who is prone to misplays in the field, although he is said to have the range and arm to play shortstop in the majors. Offensively, he’s pretty average right now, a .268 hitter with eight homers in the first half of the season in Low-A. He’s about the average age for the level. Coleman really needs to cut down on his strikeouts (81 so far). If he makes more contact and fewer errors, he’ll be a big leaguer.
Jeremy Barfield is a big, strong right fielder who has every tool except speed. Barfield has only hit six home runs this year, and he needs to tap more into his massive raw power. He’s already shown a good contact stroke and decent plate discipline, and his outfield defense is good. The offensive bar for right fielders is set pretty high, and to reach it, Barfield will need to maximize his power.
Matt Spencer is a powerful outfielder acquired along with Cardenas and Josh Outman in the Joe Blanton trade last July. Spencer ripped apart the Cal League last summer and this spring, but he’s found the Texas League a bit more challenging (.268/.298/.415). His defense isn’t very good, and he fits best at left field or first base.
Spencer is only 23, so he has another year or two to figure out how to improve his poor plate discipline, which is his biggest problem at the plate. Right now, he projects as a .260/.310/.460 hitter; if he can raise that projected OBP 40 points, he’ll have a future, and if he can’t, he won’t.
Archie Gilbert is 26 and still in Double-A; in fact, he’s only in his first year at the level. While his raw speed, plate discipline, and contact are excellent, he has an utter lack of power, which handicaps him (.066 ISO this year).
Gilbert also doesn’t use his speed well: He gets caught too often on steal attempts (his steal percentages are usually in the 60s) and takes bad routes in the outfield. His defensive issues make him a marginal center fielder.
With quick improvements in power, baserunning, and defense, Gilbert could be a fourth outfielder, similar to current A’s fourth outfielder Rajai Davis. If not, he won’t last much longer.
Tyreace House makes Gilbert (and Rajai Davis) look slow; he may be the fastest player in the minor leagues. The A’s sixth-rounder in 2008, House can get from the right side of the plate to first in 3.8 seconds, and he was a track star in high school. House also shows good plate discipline.
Still far away from the majors in short-season Vancouver, House needs to work on adding some power. With his speed and solid approach, he doesn’t need to have game-breaking power or anything, but his .015 ISO in Rookie ball last year won’t cut it; he has one career extra-base hit in 115 ABs. The 21-year-old also plays a good center field and has leadoff potential if he can hit .290 and slug .370.
So there you have it. I hope you found this article informative and enjoyable.
If you have any questions or comments about these players (or any other prospects, for that matter), let me know in the comments.
Also let me know if you want me to do a “Prospects & Projects” entry for any specific team; I’m just kind of doing this series on the fly, so I may not get to all the teams, and I don’t care which order I do them in. I’m basically going to let demand (and my own free time) dictate exactly what I do with this.
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