At the start of the 2010 season, Oakland A's infield prospect Josh Horton was in danger of being left behind on the A's minor league depth chart. The 2007 second-round pick missed most of spring training while recovering from off-season shoulder surgery and his outlook for 2010 was hazy.
Instead of fading away, Horton put together arguably the best season of his minor league career. In 116 games – mostly for Double-A Midland – Horton hit a career-best .298. He also posted a .361 OBP and had a career-high .400 slugging percentage all while playing standout defense at shortstop. He was named to the Texas League's post-season All-Star team despite missing nearly 30 games at the start of the season.
The A's rewarded Horton's big season by inviting him to major league camp for the first time. He appeared in 14 big league spring games and got 11 at-bats, collecting two hits and one walk. Horton relished the time he spent with the big league club.
"It was cool to be up there and get some time with those guys and with the staff up there. I had a good time with it and I'm coming into this season excited about the year," Horton said.
Contributing to his excitement for the 2011 season is the fact that Horton was injury-free this off-season. Not having to go to rehab everyday allowed him to prepare his entire game.
"When you have an injury, you spend a lot of time focusing on rehabbing that particular thing, so it was nice to not have to go to physical therapy every day. Being able to hit and throw and go to the gym definitely lightens up the off-season," Horton said.
One area of focus for Horton since he was drafted out of North Carolina in 2007 has been on his defense. Although Horton was considered a decent defensive player while at UNC, many scouts believed he wouldn't be able to stay at shortstop when he moved to the pros. Horton has defied those prognostications.
"I'm really excited about what he's become: a solid defensive player [at shortstop]. He has shown range and the ability to play the position," A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman said over the off-season.
Horton believes that the level of instruction he has received since turning pro has been instrumental to his improvements with the glove.
"The instruction [on defense] has been really good. Our infield guy, Juan Navarette, is amazing and I think from day one, just working with him, I think was the main thing," Horton said.
Coming out of college, Horton had a reputation for being "a winner." An integral part of two College World Series teams at UNC, Horton has continued his winning tradition in professional baseball, taking home league titles in 2008 and 2009 (with High-A Stockton and Double-A Midland, respectively). Although he admits that the camaraderie that builds among college teammates is hard to replicate in the minor leagues – where players come and go throughout the year – Horton still places a high value on winning those minor league titles.
"College is kind of a different beast in that you spend the entire year with those guys. These guys, you become good friends with other players in the organization, but then you might spend the better part of the year not talking to them. I think something is gained from that in college," Horton said.
"On the other hand, you spend 140 games trying to achieve a goal, so being able to achieve that is special too. It's different, but I think equally important and special."
Horton's manager on those two championship squads is his manager again this season, Darren Bush. This is the fourth full season of Horton's minor league career and he has played for Bush in all four of those seasons.
"I am definitely comfortable with Bushie. I don't think that comes from the continuity of spending a lot of time with him. I think it is more the type of manager that he is, it's difficult to feel uncomfortable around him. It's very relaxed and he's definitely a player's guy," Horton said.
One of Bush's greatest challenges in his first season as the Sacramento manager will be distributing playing time among the River Cats' infielders. Horton is one of seven infielders on the River Cats' roster. Although he has some experience playing second and third base, Horton has primarily been a shortstop throughout his career. He is comfortable with the idea of playing all over the infield, however.
"The middle infield spots are kind of similar because you are a lot more involved, especially with runners on base. At third base, it seems a little more relaxed in the fact that you don't have to do something or be in control [of the running game] the whole time. But on the other hand, you are a lot closer [to the hitter], so there maybe is a little more high anxiety there," Horton said.
Horton also knows that with the number of infielders on the River Cats' roster, playing time might be more irregular for him than in previous seasons when he was an everyday player. Through Wednesday, he had appeared in only two of the River Cats' first seven games. In those two games, Horton reached base three times with a hit and two walks and he stole a base. Getting on-base regularly is nothing new for Horton, who has a career .358 OBP and a 192:241 BB:K ratio over three-and-a-half minor league seasons.
The North Carolina native is keeping his goals simple this year.
"I just want to have good at-bats. If at the end of the day, I know that I controlled what I could, I'd be happy with that," Horton said.