50. James Simmons
|Simmons took a step forward on the road to recovery. b>|
Although the ERA wasn't pretty (5.48 in 42.2 innings), Simmons' stint with the High-A Stockton Ports in 2011 was a big step forward. The A's 2007 first-round pick missed all of the 2010 season and the first half of the 2011 season with a shoulder problem that required major surgery. He didn't have full range of motion in his right shoulder and his velocity was down, but Simmons was healthy and was able to throw strikes, two positives that he will take into the off-season. In those 42.2 innings with Stockton, Simmons struck-out 36 and walked only six, but he also had a tendency to catch too much of the strike-zone at times, leading to 56 hits allowed, including five homeruns. Simmons did fare considerably better as a reliever with Stockton than as a starter, posting a 2.30 ERA with a 17:2 K:BB ratio and a .246 BAA in 15.2 innings.
Before injuring his shoulder at the tail-end of the 2009 season, Simmons was on the verge of the major leagues. He had improved his change-up and his breaking ball and those pitches, coupled with his outstanding fastball command, made him a strong candidate for the A's rotation. Unfortunately, the shoulder injury derailed him completely and he is now having to rebuild his arm strength from scratch after having surgery to repair a frayed labrum, among other issues. While with Stockton, his velocity on his fastball was down three to five miles per hour from his peak. A's minor league pitching coordinator Gil Patterson is optimistic that the off-season will help Simmons regain those lost miles per hour.
"I'm hoping that with this off-season and then all this time to rest and recover, he'll be improved next season," Patterson said during the A's fall Instructional League.
"It was nice to see him pitch without any [physical] set-backs. He can always locate and I'm hoping that maybe he gains a little bit of arm strength when he comes into camp next year. The breaking ball was better. His fastball was 88 and when he first signed with us, it was 90-92. I'm hoping that he can maybe get back to that after having pitched this summer."
If Simmons is able to regain his full arm strength, he could move all the way up the A's chain next season. The A's are relatively thin on upper-level starting pitching prospects, so there is room for Simmons to advance within the system if he is throwing at his full capabilities. When healthy, Simmons profiles as a similar pitcher to current A's starter Brandon McCarthy in that he can throw strikes at will and isn't afraid to challenge hitters to make contact. Recovering from a shoulder injury can be unpredictable, but Simmons passed the first test of getting through nearly 50 innings healthy with flying colors. The A's won't be counting on Simmons, but he could present a pleasant surprise for the team if he continues his positive recovery.
49. Wilfredo Solano
|Solano is getting his feet wet. b>|
It was a year of adjustments for Solano, who made the transition to playing in the United States for the first time. The 18-year-old shortstop appeared in 45 games for the A's Arizona Rookie League team and while the results weren't always pretty, he laid a foundation for next season.
Solano was given a seven-figure signing bonus by the A's before the 2010 season. The native of Venezuela made his professional debut in the Dominican Summer League in 2010. Although he hit only .179, Solano showed impressive plate discipline, walking 30 times in 45 games. He also made a strong impression during the A's US fall Instructional League camp after the 2010 season, hitting for power and flashing a strong arm at shortstop.
Coming into the 2011 season, the A's felt that Solano was perhaps too passive at times at the plate, sometimes looking for a walk instead of a good pitch to hit. They encouraged him to be more aggressive. That encouragement resulted in a jump in batting average to .244 for the Arizona Rookie League A's, but a steep drop-off in his plate discipline (eight walks against 33 strike-outs in 45 games). He did hit for more power, upping his SLG from .192 to .305.
While his numbers have yet to jump off of the page, Solano does offer a lot of promise. He is an excellent athlete with above-average hand-eye coordination. He has shown the ability to hit for power and he has good speed. Solano has also proven to be someone who takes to coaching well. When the A's have asked him to work on different aspects of his game, he has made immediate changes. Case-in-point, the team had him make a few adjustments to his approach in August, and he drew six of his eight walks for the entire season. He hit lefties fairly well (.297 BA) and was solid with runners in scoring position (.326 BA).
Solano is a project player and his progression through the system, at least for the next year or two, will be gradual. He will be 19 throughout the 2012 season, so the A's will take their time with Solano. He figures to start the 2012 season at extended spring training once again and then play for short-season Vermont starting in June.
48. Evan Scribner
|Scribner has a plus curveball. b>|
For the past decade, the A's have shown a distinct fondness for relievers with funky deliveries, or those who generate a lot of groundballs and have good command, or those who rack up a significant number of strike-outs. In Scribner, they have all of those attributes. Claimed off of waivers from the San Diego Padres' organization this off-season, Scribner could factor into the A's bullpen equation in 2012, especially if they deal some of their veteran relievers this winter. However, like so many A's prospects, Scribner will be working his way back from an injury this off-season.
Scribner began his career as a 28th round pick out of Central Connecticut State by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2007. He quickly overcame the stigma of being a low-round pick from a small school by posting outstanding numbers out of the bullpen. By 2008, he had raised his stature enough to be the prospect the Padres asked for when they traded veteran first-baseman Tony Clark to the D-Backs. With San Diego, he continued to shine, posting ERAs of 3.07 or lower in every season from 2008-2010 and striking out well more than a batter an inning.
The Padres added Scribner to the 40-man roster before the 2011 season to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. He pitched well during major league spring training, but wasn't given much of a chance to make the big league roster. However, three weeks into the season, the Padres called on the right-hander to make his major league debut. Scribner remained on the Padres' roster until June. He made 10 appearances, posting a 7.07 ERA, but with a fielding independent pitching (FIP) ERA of 3.38. He struck-out 10 and walked four in 14 innings.
Scribner would only make 17 more appearances after being sent down to Triple-A thanks to a balky right shoulder. He finished the Triple-A season with a 4.71 ERA (the highest of his career), but a 27:12 K:BB ratio in 28.2 innings. Scribner spent the final two-plus months of the season on the DL with a right shoulder strain, but the A's are hopeful that he will be ready for spring training.
Although Scribner isn't a soft-tosser (his fastball ranges from 90-93 MPH), his best pitch is his breaking ball, which has been described by past teammates as a "Bugs Bunny pitch." It is a slow curveball that registers in the low- to mid-70s, giving him a 20+ MPH difference between his fastball and breaking ball. He has toyed with a change-up and a cutter in the past, but he is essentially a two-pitch pitcher (four-seam fastball and curveball). Scribner hides the ball well and does a good job delivering his curveball with the same motion as his fastball. With the exception of the 2011 season, he has been durable throughout his minor league career.
Provided he is healthy, Scribner will enter spring training with a legitimate chance to win a spot in the middle of the A's bullpen. He will be 26 at the start of the season.
47. Anthony Recker
|Recker finally reached the major leagues. b>|
If there was a player in the A's system who best defined persistence, it would be Recker. Despite being passed over by the A's for playing time and, at times, even promotions during his six years in the system, Recker has continually grown as a player. That growth was rewarded in 2011 with a major league call-up for the final six weeks of the season.
Before the A's made the decision to bring up Recker and send down long-time back-up catcher Landon Powell in late August, Recker appeared to be on his way to minor league free agency and a spot in another organization. Despite reaching double-digits in homeruns in each of the past six seasons and posting an OPS above 800 in all but one of those seasons, Recker was never given much of a chance by the A's. In three seasons at the Triple-A level, Recker posted an 841 OPS. His 2011 campaign was his best yet with the River Cats. Given a chance to play everyday for the first time since he was with Midland in 2008, Recker had an 889 OPS in 99 games for the River Cats. Those numbers were finally too good to be ignored by Oakland, and the front office called on him on August 21.
"It was really a matter of Anthony sort of forcing our hand. He's had such an outstanding year down there and, more than that, he has literally gotten better every year that he has been in the organization," A's assistant GM David Forst said of the decision to recall Recker.
"… [I]t is hard for me to think of a guy who was more deserving of a call-up in my time here, a guy who didn't say anything and kept his nose down for six, seven years and continued to get better. He really earned that promotion."
At the start of Recker's professional career, he was considered a bat-first, glove-second catcher. Over the years, however, he has developed into a solid defensive backstop. He was among the Pacific Coast League leaders in fielding percentage with a .994 mark. His caught-stealing percentage was down in 2011 (25%), but he has developed into a better thrower over the years. He has developed a nice rapport with many of the A's young pitchers who have come up through the system and gets high marks for game calling and temperament behind the plate.
In addition, Recker added defensive versatility this season. For the first time in his career, he saw significant playing time at a different position, appearing in 25 games at first base. Although not a natural at the position, Recker held his own and, given his track record in terms of work ethic, should continue to improve at the position as he gets more time there.
Despite the late-season call-up, Recker's future with the A's is still not crystal clear. As of November 17, the A's were carrying four catchers on their 40-man roster, all of whom have big league service time. Of the four, Recker is the second-oldest, with only Powell being older. Recker has been incredibly durable throughout his career and has arguably the most power of the A's four 40-man roster catchers. It seems unlikely that the A's will carry four roster catchers into spring training, but Recker's 2011 season should open some eyes around the baseball world and he should get a legitimate chance at the big league level soon, whether it is with the A's or another team.
46. Tyler Vail
|It was a struggle for Vail in 2011. b>|
When Vail debuted in the Arizona Rookie League last year fresh out of high school and posted a 29:8 K:BB ratio while using a power sinker, there were some who thought perhaps the A's had another Vin Mazzaro on their hands. When Vail came to spring training throwing his fastball a few miles per hour harder than the year before (touching 95 MPH at times), those thoughts increased. The A's chose to put Vail on the same development path that they sent Mazzaro on in 2006, having him start his first full professional season in the Low-A Midwest League at age 19.
While Mazzaro took his lumps at times with Kane County in 2006, things went significantly smoother for Mazzaro at that level than they did for Vail with Burlington in 2011. Vail struggled all season to find a consistent release point and to command the strike-zone. He posted a 5.68 ERA with a 34:28 K:BB ratio in 57 innings with the Bees before the A's sent Vail down to short-season Vermont for the second half of the season.
Things didn't get a whole lot better for Vail with the Lake Monsters. Although he was able to make some adjustments with his mechanics, he still had trouble repeating his delivery consistently and finished his time with Vermont with a 6.05 ERA and a 22:25 K:BB ratio in 38.2 innings. Fatigue may have also been an issue for Vail during the season's final month. Over his last five outings, Vail made it into the fifth inning only once and he lasted just one inning in his last start, walking three and allowing four runs before being lifted.
"He'll throw you some sinkers as good as almost anybody in baseball. Then he'll come out of his delivery and miss poorly," Gil Patterson, the A's minor league pitching coordinator, said.
"At the same time, his change-up is coming along. Along with repeating his delivery, the change-up is probably the biggest thing that he needs. Really before you can think about a breaking ball, you need fastball command and a consistent change-up. He's going in that direction and that's the priority. He definitely needs to throw a better breaking ball."
Despite the disappointing first full season and the long list of areas that need improvement, Vail still has plenty of time to develop into a major league caliber starting pitcher. He has excellent sinking action on his fastball, and – much like Mazzaro – is able to get that pitch into the mid-90s. He is a good athlete and has a starter's build. Vail turns 20 in early November, meaning that he will still be younger than any college pitchers taken in the 2012 MLB draft. The A's will likely send Vail back to Burlington for the 2012 season.