The Oakland A's have a storied history in Burlington, Iowa, as future stars such as Vida Blue and Sal Bando of its World Series teams of the 1970s sharpened their skills in this Midwest League locale. The A's have returned to southeast Iowa after four decades with a new crop of aspiring big-leaguers, including a large contingent fresh from the draft class of 2010.
The Burlington Bees enter the 2011 season with a mix of 13 pitchers and 12 position players on a roster that opens the season on the road against the Clinton Lumber Kings Thursday night. Among the 25-man opening day roster are 16 picks from last summer's amateur draft.
Headlining that group is second-round pick Yordy Cabrera, who was drafted 60th overall and elected to sign with the A's over a baseball scholarship at the University of Miami. The 6'1'', 205-pound shortstop has just 16 professional at-bats under his belt, hitting .188 over five games in the Arizona Rookie League. But the organization thinks highly of his tools and saw enough of the prospect this spring to send him to the Midwest League and full-season ball.
Corner infielders Tony Thompson (6th round – 2010) and A.J. Kirby-Jones (9th round – 2010) are also highly regarded prospects, and join Nino Leyja to comprise one of the top infields in the Midwest League.
The 6'4'', 220-pound Thompson signed with the A's out of Kansas quickly and racked up 62 games of action in Vancouver, hitting .246 with three homers and 21 RBIs. Kirby-Jones showed polish out of Tennessee Tech during a 75-game stint in the Northwest League finishing with a 887 OPS. Leyja is entering his fourth season of pro ball and split time between Kane County and Vancouver last summer.
2010 draft picks Wade Kirkland and Ryan Pineda will see time in the middle infield. Kirkland, the A's 11th-round pick last season, hit .271 for Vancouver, while Pineda, the A's 28th-round pick, hit .211 for the AZL A's and Vancouver in 2010.
Leyja is one of just three ex-Kane County players who will remain in the Midwest League with Burlington this season. Reliever Chris Mederos (3-1, 2.14 ERA, 26 Ks in 21 IP) and outfielder Tyreace House (.245/.396/686) are the other veterans.
The outfield corps includes House, Royce Consigli, Douglas Landaeta and Jose Rivero. Consigli, who is still just 19 years old, returned to the Arizona Rookie League and excelled by finishing third in batting average (.340), fourth in OPS (893) and earned his way onto the AZL post-season All-Star team.
A free-agent signee in 2006 out of Venezuela, Landaeta is entering his third year playing on American soil after hitting .293 with two homers and 32 RBIs in 71 games at Vancouver in 2010. Fellow countryman Rivero originally signed with Seattle in 2006 and was traded from Arizona to the A's last December. He split time between the Northwest League and Appalachian League last summer, combining for a line of .272/.335/763.
After being eased into their professional careers as relievers last summer, 2010 draftees Blake Hassebrock (8th round), Josh Bowman (10th round), A.J. Griffin (13th round) and Jake Brown (26th round) will move into starting roles this season. They are joined in the rotation by opening-night starter Seth Frankoff (5-5, 2.81 ERA in 15 starts between the rookie league and Vancouver in 2010).
The hard-throwing Hassebrock struggled in 14 relief appearances for Vancouver, allowing 11 earned runs in 19.1 innings. Opposing hitters notched a .329 average against the UNC-Greensboro product. Bowman also notched 14 bullpen outings with the Canadians and finished with a 3.48 ERA and struck out 23 in 21 2/3 innings. Griffin posted a sub-3.00 ERA with 27 strikeouts in 21-plus innings in the Northwest League. He served as the Canadians' closer and saved 15 games en route to a post-season All-Star bid. After a successful collegiate career at Georgia Southern, Brown had no problem getting out hitters in split-season ball allowing six earned runs in 29.2 innings at Vancouver.
2010 draft selections Zach Thornton, Drew Tyson and Jeff Urlaub will all be in the Bees bullpen. Urlaub is the only lefty on the Burlington Opening Day pitching staff. Thornton struck-out 29 in 26.2 innings for Vancouver last season, while Tyson had 49 strike-outs in 36 innings for Vancouver and the AZL A's. Urlaub had a 26:3 K:BB ratio for the AZL A's in 26.1 innings.
Michael Hart, Nathan Long and Daniel Tenholder are the veterans of the staff, having been drafted in 2008 (Hart) and 2009 (Long and Tenholder). Long was a starter for Vancouver last season, while the other two were exclusively relievers last season. Jeiler Castillo, a minor-league Rule 5 acquisition this off-season, had five minor league seasons under his belt but has never pitched above the short-season level.
A pair of late-round selections from 2010 will man the catching position for the Bees. Daniel Petitti (.123/.207/.372) and John Nester (.182/.256/.477) both struggled with the bat while splitting time at Vancouver last season.
While the roster has been overhauled and Low-A affiliate relocated from Kane County to Burlington, the coaching staff remains the same as it was in 2010 in Kane County with manager Aaron Nieckula, hitting coach Haas Pratt and pitching Jimmy Escalante.