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15. Vicmal De La Cruz, OF
|De La Cruz struggled with pitch recognition this season.|
The A's signed De La Cruz to a six-figure bonus before the start of the 2011 season and he rewarded them with an outstanding professional debut campaign in the Dominican Summer League. His debut in the US was highly anticipated after he hit .318/.438/.453 in 192 at-bats as a 17-year-old in the DSL in 2011.
The outfielder struggled in his first season playing for a US affiliate, however. In 135 at-bats, De La Cruz posted a disappointing .230/.291/.378 line. Despite those numbers, the A's still see a bright future ahead for the Santo Domingo native.
"…Vicmal's polish is there. You can see it when you go to the park," Oakland A's Assistant GM David Forst said in September.
De La Cruz's 2012 season got off to an inauspicious start when he injured his wrist diving for a ball during spring training. Before the injury, the A's had thoughts of sending De La Cruz to short-season Vermont at the end of extended spring training, but the injury kept him in Arizona for the entire summer. He was healthy by the start of the Arizona Rookie League season, although the wrist injury may have had a lingering impact on his season. At the very least, it cut into his development time during extended spring.
Scouts love De La Cruz's bat speed and the quickness of his wrists. Although De La Cruz walked more than he struck-out in the Dominican in 2011, he is an aggressive hitter who is quick to pull the trigger when he sees a pitch he thinks he can drive. Part of his struggles in 2012 stemmed from pitch recognition and learning when to attack a pitch and when to let it go.
"Vicmal's game is a very aggressive game. Sometimes that can be a hindrance to him because of how aggressive he is," A's minor league hitting coordinator Todd Steverson said. "Over-aggressive and aggressive are two different things. He has a very firm swing. He's got power. He's got gap power. He can hit. …[I]t's a matter of him recognizing pitches and understanding that every pitch that you swing at isn't going to result in the ball going out of the ballpark.
"That comes with the maturation process. That comes along with him learning how to take his mind and calm it down to make sure that his thoughts are better. How to control his thoughts at the plate better."
De La Cruz showed improvement with his pitch recognition during the A's fall Instructional League camp and has shown a willingness to make adjustments. The A's see him as a perennial .300 hitter with double-digit homerun power and some base-stealing ability. He also has an above-average throwing arm and has the tools to be a solid defensive outfielder.
De La Cruz turned 19 in November. If he comes into spring training swinging a very hot bat, the A's could decide to challenge him at the Low-A level. However, he is more likely to spend another spring in Phoenix at extended spring training and play for the Vermont Lake Monsters during the short-season.
14. Michael Taylor, OF
|Taylor is big league ready, but needs an opportunity.|
Things haven't gone according to script for Taylor since he joined the A's organization in a trade before the 2010 season. When he was acquired, Taylor had a clear path to the big leagues with Oakland, but since that time, that path has been obscured. Taylor struggled during his first season with the A's in 2010, but since that time he has improved each year with Triple-A Sacramento.
In 2012, Taylor posted his best season as a member of the A's organization. However, with the A's current depth in the outfield at the major league level, Taylor appears to be an odd-man out with Oakland.
Taylor arrived in Oakland in 2010 on the heels of a 2009 campaign in the Phillies organization that saw him hit .320/.395/.549 in 116 games at the Double-A and Triple-A levels. He had a small chance of earning a spot on the A's big league roster that spring, but struggled in limited big league spring appearances and was sent to Triple-A to start the year. Taylor would struggle all season with the River Cats, posting a .272/.348/.392 line – his worst since 2007. He was slowed some that season by a strained quad and he admittedly struggled to adjust to the teachings of a new organization while also being on the cusp of the big leagues.
In 2011, a wrist injury kept Taylor sidelined for the first five weeks of the season. Once he was back with Sacramento, Taylor was much improved. He hit .272 once again, but his OBP jumped to .360 and his SLG jumped to .456. The A's rewarded Taylor with a September call-up and he had six hits (including his first big league homer) in 30 at-bats.
At the start of the off-season, it appeared Taylor was a lock for a spot in the A's outfield. Oakland was expected to lose all four of its 2011 starting outfielders (Josh Willingham, David DeJesus, Coco Crisp and Hideki Matsui). The A's would end up re-signing Crisp and then they added Josh Reddick and Collin Cowgill via trades and Yoenis Cespedes and Jonny Gomes via free agency. All of those moves left Taylor without a realistic opportunity for a big league spot in spring training.
Despite that disappointment, Taylor went back to Sacramento and improved on his 2011 numbers. He didn't hit for quite as much power, but he raised his batting average to .287 and his OBP to .405. His 86 walks and .405 OBP were the second-best totals amongst A's minor leaguers. Twice during the season, Taylor was recalled to Oakland to fill-in for injured players, but both opportunities were short and came with little playing time. Oakland made few recalls in September and Taylor wasn't one of them.
Although Taylor still isn't the power hitter that many would like him to be based on his 6'5'', 255-pound frame, he has developed into a solid all-around hitter. He uses the opposite field well, sees a lot of pitches and has finally found swing mechanics that he is able to repeat in each at-bat. Defensively, Taylor has above-average range in the corner outfield spots and a strong arm. He can play some centerfield, although he is best suited for the corner spots. Taylor is a smart base-runner and he has above-average speed for a player of his size. He swiped 18 bases in 21 attempts for Sacramento.
Taylor has struggled to slow the game down at the big league level, often looking jumpy at the plate and in the field. With more experience in the big leagues, however, he should get past those nerves.
That big league opportunity doesn't appear to be coming with the A's, however. Oakland is returning Crisp, Cespedes and Reddick and has added centerfielder Chris Young. In addition, Brandon Moss established himself at the big league level last year. Although Moss played mostly first base with Oakland, he has been a corner outfielder for the majority of his career. Chris Carter also had a solid rookie season with the A's and looks to have the inside track on many of the A's DH at-bats in 2013.
Taylor will likely need a change of scenery to get the opportunity to establish himself in the big leagues. The A's aren't going to give away a player of Taylor's talents, but it wouldn't be surprising to see Taylor traded this spring. He will be 27 throughout the 2013 season.
13. Pedro Figueroa, LHP
|Figueroa went from injury rehab to the big leagues in less than a year.|
On the A's 40-man roster since November 2009, Figueroa entered spring training 2012 with his first legitimate chance to make an impression on the A's major league coaching staff. The hard-throwing southpaw injured his elbow during the 2010 season and missed more than a year rehabbing after Tommy John surgery.
Figueroa made only two appearances in 2011 – both for the A's Arizona Rookie League team – but he was throwing well during the team's fall Instructional League. Despite the missed time and his lack of experience (Figueroa had only 13 appearance above A-ball before this spring), he almost made the A's Opening Day roster after tossing seven shutout innings in seven relief appearances this spring. He struck-out five and walked two.
The A's assigned Figueroa to Sacramento at the end of spring training. He got off to a hot start with the River Cats and was one of the first relievers recalled by the A's when injuries and ineffectiveness opened spots in their big league bullpen. Figueroa would have three stints with the A's, appearing in 19 games. He struggled with his command as a big leaguer (15 walks), but he managed to limit the damage and post a 3.32 ERA.
For the majority of the season, Figueroa was with the River Cats. In 32 appearances with Sacramento, Figueroa had a 2.62 ERA in 44.2 innings. He struck-out 40, walked 18 and allowed only one homerun.
Figueroa's emergence in 2012 was a remarkable story. The A's weren't sure what they were going to get from Figueroa at the start of last spring, and even at their most optimistic, they were hoping for a healthy season that would bring Figueroa a step closer to the big leagues. They certainly weren't expecting him to be big league ready by April. Figueroa was not only able to pitch the entire season without any health set-backs, he was able to make a smooth transition from starter to reliever. Going into the 2012 season, Figueroa had only 15 career relief appearances and all of them came during his first two seasons as a pro.
There is still room for improvement from Figueroa, who will be 27 throughout the 2013 season. Figueroa's command was far from perfect last season. He also didn't show a lot of confidence in his change-up, instead relying heavily on his mid-90s fastball and hard-breaking slider in key situations.
Figueroa has never been a command pitcher, and his command was better in the minors than it was in the majors, so some of his struggles with the strike-zone with Oakland may have been due to nerves. However, he will need to bring down his walk totals significantly to earn the trust of the A's coaching staff in key situations.
A's Director of Player Personnel Billy Owens has compared Figueroa to former major league reliever Damaso Marte. Figueroa has been a groundball pitcher throughout his career and has allowed only 25 homeruns in 426 career minor league innings.
With Figueroa's talent, it would be tempting to move him back to the starting rotation now that he has had a healthy season under his belt. However, the A's are unlikely to make that move for a couple of reasons. Figueroa is already 27, has never had a start above Double-A and would likely be limited to only 100 innings next season because of his injury layoff and the fact that he threw only 66.2 innings in 2012. Secondly, Figueroa has already used three option years. The A's are likely to get one injury option exemption because of the time he missed in 2011, but that still wouldn't give them much time to continue his development as a starter.
The A's will have a lot of competition for bullpen spots this spring. Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle and Jerry Blevins should be automatics, but the other two or three spots will be open for competition. Figueroa should figure prominently in that competition. Even if he doesn't make the team out of spring training, Figueroa should see time with Oakland in 2013.
12. Ian Krol, LHP
|Krol got off to a slow start, but finished 2012 pitching well.|
It's rare that a pitcher can post an ERA above 5.00 for the season and point to that season as a positive, but that is the case for Krol. After missing virtually all of the 2011 season with an arm injury and then a suspension, Krol had a healthy and controversy-free campaign in 2012. Although his stuff wasn't quite back to his 2010 form, he showed signs of being the pitcher that so many around the organization were excited about in 2010.
Krol began the year with High-A Stockton as part of a prospect-laden six-man starting rotation. Like the rest of the Ports' team, Krol got off to a poor start. He posted a 6.91 ERA in April and had a 1.88 HR/9 rate. Krol would improve on those numbers as the season went on, but he never quite got in the groove he had with Kane County in 2010, when he had a 2.65 ERA and was a Midwest League All-Star.
In 86.1 innings with the Ports, Krol finished with a 5.21 ERA. He allowed 13 homers, but his 79:24 K:BB ratio was solid and he was actually a groundball pitcher despite the high homer total. His FIP with Stockton was 4.27.
Because Krol missed the 2011 season, he was on a strict innings limit for the entire year. When he got to the 75-inning mark with Stockton, Krol was moved to the bullpen to allow him to stay active for the rest of the season while keeping his innings at 100. In 12.2 innings as a reliever with the Ports, Krol posted a 2.84 ERA with a 17:4 K:BB ratio.
The A's moved Krol to Double-A Midland for the final month of the season. He made seven relief appearances for the Rockhounds. In his second appearance for Midland, Krol allowed four runs on three hits and a walk in one-third of an inning. In the other six appearances, he allowed two runs on eight hits and one walk in 10.1 innings. In total, Krol struck-out 27 and walked six in 23.1 relief innings between Stockton and Midland.
It would be tempting to peg Krol's future in the bullpen thanks to his success in that role and his struggles as a starter last season. The A's, however, still firmly believe the 21-year-old's path to the big leagues is in the rotation.
"I still feel like he has a future as a starter. He has the three-pitch mix and the sort of know-how on the mound to turn the lineup over a few times," A's Assistant GM David Forst said at the end of the season.
Krol isn't a hard-thrower, with his fastball rarely jumping above 92 MPH. However, he has good command of the pitch and the ability to throw it to both sides of the plate. He also adds and subtracts velocity off of his fastball well. His best pitch is his curveball, which he can use to get hitters to chase outside of the strike-zone, but he can also throw it in the ‘zone to get called strikes. Krol spent a lot of the 2012 season working on his change-up, and he developed more confidence in the pitch as the season wore on.
Scouts love Krol's mental toughness on the mound and his ability to out-think hitters by changing speeds off of his fastball and pitching backwards (throwing off-speed pitches in hitter's counts). Krol's command wasn't quite where he'd like it to be in 2012, but that may have been as a result of the layoff. He has had two high-profile incidents where he has been suspended (one came in high school), so his off-the-field maturity is somewhat of a question. But he won't turn 22 until May and should mature as he gets older and wiser.
Krol's time with Midland last August was intended to give him a taste of the league he will be pitching in at the start of the 2013 season. The Texas League can test the mental toughness of any player with its long bus rides, hot weather and repetitive match-ups. However, if Krol can tighten up his command, he should find success in the Texas League.
With his reliance on changing speeds and his demeanor on the mound, Krol has drawn comparisons to former A's starter Dallas Braden. Krol will need to improve his change-up to reach Braden's level of success, but Braden proved that a left-hander doesn't need a mid-90s fastball to succeed in the big leagues if he knows how to pitch.
11. Renato Nunez, 3B
|Nunez was one of the best run producers in the Arizona Rookie League.|
Michael Ynoa's more than $4 million signing bonus is well-known, but many forget that Ynoa is hardly the only international amateur free agent to be given a big bonus by the A's in recent years. Nunez received the second-largest international amateur free agent bonus given out by Oakland when the A's signed him for $2.2 million in 2010.
Nunez had a decent professional debut in 2011, hitting five homers in 194 at-bats in the Dominican Summer League, a league that is notoriously difficult for homerun hitters. However, his approach at the plate was extremely raw, as evidenced by his 42:6 K:BB ratio. His hitting mechanics were stiff and he struggled defensively, as well.
Despite those struggles, Nunez showed enough skill to go to the US for the fall instructional league in 2011 and be brought back for spring training and the 2012 regular season. Nunez showed vast improvement both offensively and defensively in his first season in the States. He posted impressive offensive numbers (.325/.403/.550 in 160 at-bats) while improving his footwork and throwing from third base.
Although the progress is encouraging, there is still lots of room for improvement for Nunez, who will turn 19 in April.
"He's found a decent slugging stroke, I'll call it. He has been doing a lot of damage to balls that are in the middle of the plate or closer, which is great," A's minor league hitting coordinator Todd Steverson said during the season. "But, at the end of the day, you still have to be able to cover the majority of the outer-third portion of the plate, and I think that is where the majority of his strike-outs are coming from.
"It's not a swing-and-miss kind of thing. It's a pitch recognition kind of thing. And it's not just him. That goes for every player in baseball. You have to be able to recognize balls and strikes to be successful. I'm pleased with his progress from last year to this year in terms of his swing and his approach. He does need to be more mindful of his recognition of balls away that are in the dirt or just off of the plate.
"That comes with maturity. Once you start to really believe and realize that you are getting yourself out by swinging at balls, the mindset changes. Hopefully he can make that [strike-zone] capsule a lot smaller."
There is a high ceiling for Nunez's talents. He projects as a profile corner infielder offensively, a hitter who can put up big power numbers and hit for average. He has power to all fields and already has a feel for how to drive the ball out of the park. Defensively, he has a strong arm and decent hands, although his side-to-side footwork still needs work.
Nunez is still very young, and while he had a lot of success in the Arizona League, he may not yet be ready to make the jump to full-season ball. The A's will make that assessment during spring training, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see him suit up for Vermont rather than Beloit in 2013. The A's will also be looking to get Nunez plenty of playing time at third base and will likely try to keep him and 2012 supplemental first-round pick Daniel Robertson on different rosters.