50. Josh Horton
|Horton's defense is much improved. b>|
It has been a quiet couple of years for Horton, who entered the A's system with fanfare in 2007 when he was the team's second-round pick out of North Carolina. Horton was impressive during his first stint as a pro, posting a .419 OBP in 52 games for short-season Vancouver and Low-A Kane County in 2007. In both 2008 and 2009, however, Horton got off to solid starts at the plate with the High-A Stockton Ports and the Double-A Midland Rockhounds, respectively, only to see his numbers fall off considerably during the second half of the season. He would finish the 2008 campaign with a 678 OPS and the 2009 season with a 700 mark.
The 2010 season didn't get off to a rousing start for Horton, as he began the year at Extended Spring Training after off-season elbow surgery. However, unlike for so many of the A's prospects, Horton had a smooth recovery from surgery and was back on the field in early May. He started with Stockton, but after collecting 14 hits (including two homeruns, a triple and five doubles) in 30 at-bats, Horton was sent back up to Midland. He would wind-up playing in 108 games for the Rockhounds, providing a steady presence in the Midland line-up. In 420 at-bats, Horton posted a .286/.353/.364 line with three homers and 51 RBIs. He was named to the Texas League's post-season All-Star team.
For the most part, Horton was remarkably consistent with the ‘Hounds at the plate. In his four full months with the team, his batting average was never lower than .274 or higher than .287. He also maintained a nearly 1:1 or better K:BB ratio in every month except for June when he inexplicably had 15 strike-outs and only one walk. He finished the year with 41 walks and 50 strike-outs. Horton would go on to collect 17 hits in 37 at-bats for Hermosillo of the Mexican Winter League during the off-season.
Horton made his biggest strides in the field, however. Considered a hit-first, defense-second shortstop coming out of college, Horton has transformed himself into an above-average defensive shortstop.
"I'm really excited about what he's become: a solid defensive player. He has shown range and the ability to play the position," A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman said after the season.
Horton has always been held back by his lack of gap power. He came to the pros with a swing that didn't utilize much of his legs and he was far more likely to look to drop something into the opposite field than he was to try to drive the ball. He has added more lower-body action into his swing as he has progressed as a pro and he has seen some positive results, although he will never be a power hitter. He has one of the best eyes in the A's system and his ability to fight off a lot of pitches makes him an asset at the top of the line-up. He doesn't have enough speed to be a classic lead-off hitter, however, and that lack of speed and extra-base power probably limits his ceiling to a part-time player in the big leagues. In some ways, Horton profiles similarly to current A's shortstop Cliff Pennington, but he doesn't have Pennington's speed or cannon arm.
Horton receives high marks for his clubhouse presence. Over the past three seasons, he has helped his team reach three league championship series and has won two rings and he was a big part of the success of the UNC program when he was in college. He will be 25 before the start of spring training next season and he should get his first crack at Triple-A.
49. Josh Whitaker
There is a saying that it's not how you start, but how you finish. That saying describes Whitaker's professional debut season to a tee. Whitaker posted a .179/.262/.179 line over his first 18 games with short-season Vancouver, but finished with a .299/.368/.519 line over his next 22 games with the C's. He would then put on an impressive power display at the A's Instructional League camp after the end of the regular season.
Whitaker was the A's 25th round pick out of Kennesaw State University. The Georgia native saw his 2009 collegiate season impacted by injury, limiting him to only 22 games. He had good health in 2010, playing in 52 games for the Owls and finishing with a .336 average and an 886 OPS. During his first two collegiate seasons, Whitaker split time between the infield and the outfield, but he became a full-time corner outfielder in 2010.
Although Whitaker's numbers from college and his first pro season aren't overwhelming, he has a few plus tools that make him a player worth keeping tabs on. He already has a classic corner outfield build, at 6'2'', 235 pounds, and A's Director of Player Personnel Keith Lieppman was impressed with Whitaker's size and power. It is worth noting that Whitaker posting a slugging percentage of .417 at Vancouver's Nat Bailey Stadium, which is a notoriously difficult park in which to hit for power. He has played third base in the past and has a plus throwing arm from the outfield. He recorded 11 outfield assists during his collegiate season and four more with Vancouver in 37 games. Whitaker also has decent speed for a player of his size.
Dating back to college, Whitaker has always been a player who has racked up a lot of strike-outs. He walked 16 times and struck-out 40 times in 142 at-bats with Vancouver, a ratio that will need to improve as he progresses professionally. Although Whitaker was a college junior at the time of the draft, he will turn 22 in February, so he isn't young for his level. However, in a system that has been short on power prospects over the past few years, Whitaker can quickly make a name for himself if he continues to hit with the kind of authority that he displayed during his final month with Vancouver and in Instructs.
48. Trey Barham
|Barham handled the jump to the California League. b>|
Since being selected in the 25th round of the 2008 draft out of VMI, Barham has flown under the radar despite putting up consistently good numbers. Mostly a starter in college, Barham has been a reliever for much of his professional career and has taken well to the role. After posting a 1.24 ERA in 43 innings for Low-A Kane County in 2009, Barham made the successful jump to High-A in 2010, putting up a 2.77 ERA in 68 innings for High-A Stockton.
Despite going from a pitcher-friendly league to a hitter-friendly one, Barham didn't miss a beat. He walked only 19 and gave up only five homeruns in his Cal League debut. He also induced more than two groundball outs for every flyball out. Although he isn't a strike-out pitcher by nature, Barham did strike-out 56, or nearly 7.5 per nine innings in 2010.
Barham is a diminutive left-hander. His fastball rarely tops 91 MPH and usually sits in the high-80s, but he gets good movement on it and has improved his ability to spot the pitch on both sides of the plate. In fact, all of his pitches get good movement, which can occasionally get Barham in trouble when his pitches move back over the plate. He hides the ball well and does a good job of pitching to the lower-half of the strike-zone.
Despite being mostly a reliever since turning pro, Barham still has a starter's pitch mix, as he features a two-seam and four-seam fastball, a curveball, a change-up and a slider. The slider has improved for Barham every year and is now arguably his best pitch. Backspams limited Barham to 43 innings in 2009, so the 68.1 innings and 59 appearances in 2010 were both professional career highs. He seemed to tire towards the end of the season, as he gave up four homeruns over the final eight weeks of the season after allowing only one over the first four months. Two of those homers came in his final appearance of the season in the bandbox stadium in Bakersfield.
Being a lower-round pick without plus velocity, Barham has to prove himself every season. However, effective left-handed relievers are always going to be in demand. Barham dominated left-handed hitters in 2009 with Kane County, but he actually pitched better against right-handed hitters in 2010. If he makes the big leagues, it will be as a situational left-hander, so Barham will need to get his numbers against left-handers back closer to the 2009 levels in order to challenge for a big league spot. He is slated make the jump to Double-A in 2011.
47. Conner Crumbliss
|Crumbliss was the minor league walk leader. b>|
There are patient hitters and then there is Conner Crumbliss. The A's 2009 28th round pick made walking an art form in 2010, drawing a whopping 126 walks in 134 games for Low-A Kane County. That total was enough to lead all of the minor leagues and gave Crumbliss a .421 OBP for the season. Walking is nothing new for Crumbliss, who drew 60 walks in 71 games during his professional debut season in 2009. He finished the 2010 campaign with a .271/.421/.371 line with five homeruns and 24 stolen bases.
Despite the impressive walk and on-base percentage numbers, Crumbliss' 2010 season was slightly disappointing compared to his 2009 effort. He saw his slugging percentage dip from .404 to .371 and he struck-out with far more frequency (37 in 71 games in '09; 92 in 134 games in '10). Consequently, his batting average took a 19-point dip, as well. The Midwest League is a difficult league to hit in, especially early in the season when the weather is inclement. Crumbliss saw his numbers rise considerably starting in July. He hit .245/.400/.318 before the All-Star break, but hit .295/.441/.419 after the break. His base-running also improved, as he was only caught stealing twice after the break after being caught six times in 19 chances before the break.
Last season, A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman compared Crumbliss to former A's prospect of Moneyball fame, Steve Stanley, but with more power. Crumbliss' game also bares some similarities to former A's prospect Esteban German's. Like German, Crumbliss can play the infield and the outfield and he is a threat to steal, although German has more pure speed than Crumbliss. The A's had Crumbliss come to their fall Instructional League to work on his bunting and his outfield defense, as they envision him being the kind of player who can come in off the bench and fill a number of different roles in the major leagues.
Crumbliss will be 24 for most of next season, so he doesn't have a lot of leeway age-wise when it comes to moving up through the A's system. He should make the jump to High-A Stockton next season. As he moves up, he will continue to be challenged by pitchers who are more capable of controlling the strike-zone than they are at the lower levels. If he can continue to get on base at a .400 clip, he will have no trouble moving up the A's chain.
46. Jake Brown
In the 26th round of this year's draft, the A's selected a left-hander from Georgia-Southern University. Thanks to a long collegiate career that included two different community colleges and finished after his senior season at GSU, Brown was the oldest player selected by the A's at 23. An older player would be expected to handle short-season with relative ease and Brown didn't disappoint. Acting as a reliever for the Vancouver Canadians, Brown began his career with a stellar 1.82 ERA and a 31:5 K:BB in 29.2 innings.
Because of a heavy workload for GSU during the season, the A's limited the number of innings Brown threw with Vancouver. A starter in college, Brown's ultimate role with the A's may still lie in the rotation, although he pitched so well in a relief role in 2010, Oakland may choose to leave him in that role. Brown allowed fewer than a base-runner an inning and didn't allow a homerun with the C's. Opposing batters hit only .218 against him and left-handers managed only a .200 average.
Brown isn't a hard thrower and didn't strike-out a lot of batters as a starter in college. However, strike-outs were easy to come-by for Brown in a relief role, as his excellent command allowed him to locate on both sides of the plate. Brown has a clean, quick throwing motion that A's Minor League Pitching Coordinator Gil Patterson has compared to Chicago White Sox's star Mark Buerle's motion. Like Buerle, Brown rarely tops 88 MPH with his fastball, but he mixes his pitches well, changes speeds and gets a lot of movement on all of his offerings. In addition to his fastball, Brown throws a change-up, curveball and cut-fastball. He has received praise for his competitiveness.
Brown turns 24 this month, so he doesn't have the luxury of some of his draft classmates to move through the system at a leisurely pace. Consequently, the bullpen might be his best path to the big leagues, as he can move more quickly up the ladder. That being said, Brown has a starter's pitch mix and his control is above-average, so it might be worth seeing Brown in a starting role for at least half a season to see how he fares. It would be a relatively easy transition for him to go back to the bullpen if the experiment doesn't meet with great success.