Oakland A's Top-50 Prospects: 20-16

It's that time of the year when we take stock of the Oakland A's organization and analyze the top prospects. For the next few weeks, we will profile our top-50 prospect list in groups of five. Today, we continue the series with a review of prospects, 20-16.

Note: These rankings are from our original top-50 prospect ranking posted on November 17, 2011. We will re-rank the A's top-50 prospects to incorporate any newly acquired players in late January.

20. Jermaine Mitchell

It all came together for Mitchell in 2011.

It was never a question of ability with Mitchell, but after three disappointing seasons, one could forgive even the most optimistic prospect watcher for deciding that the performance would never match that ability. Mitchell, the A's fifth-round pick in 2006, was one of the A's top prospects going into the 2008 season after a strong professional debut in 2006 and a solid 2007 campaign with Low-A Kane County. He was part of the uber-talented 2008 California League champion Stockton Ports' squad and, at times, looked like the best player on that team. However, far too frequently Mitchell would seemingly disappear and his overall numbers that season (715 OPS) were extremely disappointing.

Stockton subsequently became somewhat of a purgatory for Mitchell. He repeated the level in 2009 and struggled once again. His OBP picked up to .350, but his SLG dropped to a paltry .327 (leaving him with a career-low 676 OPS). In 2010, he was sent back to Stockton for a third season and most prospect-watchers began to chalk Mitchell's career up as a lost cause. He did finally master the level in 2010, posting a 936 OPS, but he struggled in his first taste of Double-A baseball (629 OPS in 37 games). He got a brief taste of Triple-A at the end of the 2010 campaign, and while his overall numbers were not strong for Sacramento, he did have a couple of big hits for the River Cats down-the-stretch.

Going into the 2011 season, Mitchell was in a do-or-die situation. Despite his obvious talent, he was in danger of being let loose by the A's if he didn't put together a strong season. Playing with his back against the wall, Mitchell put together easily the best year of his career. He began his season with Midland and dominated the Texas League for the first half of the campaign. Mitchell posted a 1042 OPS, flashing power, patience, speed and solid defense in centerfield. He reached double digits in all three power categories in only 74 games and was leading the league with a .355 BA at the break.

After starring in the Texas League All-Star game, Mitchell was promoted to Triple-A, where he would play for the rest of the season. He started off slowly with the River Cats, batting only .248 with a 681 OPS in July, but he picked up the pace in August and September. He would finish his first extended stint at the Triple-A level with a solid .302/.401/.453 line. Mitchell also added 13 stolen bases and continued to shine defensively in center.

Unfortunately, he was unable to show what he could do at the major league level in September. It was revealed after the River Cats' playoff run ended that Mitchell was playing with a knee injury for most of the season. He went under the knife early in the off-season for what was expected to be a relatively minor surgery to repair a torn meniscus. It turned out to be anything but, as the surgery revealed that Mitchell not only had the torn meniscus, but also a defect in his knee that required much more extensive surgery. His rehab is expected to take six months and he may not be ready for the start of spring training.

"He played through it the whole time, which is amazing and it says a lot more about the great season he had," A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman said.

"The [doctors] feel that he will have a complete recovery, but it will just take a little bit longer [than originally anticipated]."

Assuming Mitchell is able to make a complete recovery and that he is back on the field in March or April, he should have an opportunity to make his major league debut at some point during the first half of the 2012 season. The A's are completely remaking their outfield and they figure to audition several young players throughout the 2012 campaign.

When healthy and on his game, Mitchell brings a dynamic presence to the top of a line-up. He has always been a patient hitter who can turn on a pitch when given the opportunity, but is just as likely to take what he is given and go the other way. Mitchell is a stat-box filler – he reached double digits in doubles, triples, homeruns and stolen bases, and he walked 93 times in 130 games. A football player in high school, Mitchell has a muscular build and above-average speed. He hasn't always been the most successful base-stealer despite that speed, although he improved both his reads and his jumps during his time with Sacramento last season. Defensively, Mitchell can cover a lot of ground in centerfield and he has an average throwing arm.

Despite his talent, Mitchell has taken a long time to put all of the pieces together at the professional level. He will be entering his seventh professional season in 2012, but it is his first as a member of the A's 40-man roster. Mitchell isn't young, either. He turned 27 in November, meaning that his window to establish himself as a major league player is relatively small.

Major League Baseball history is littered with stories of late-bloomers, however, and the A's are hopeful that Mitchell will add his name to those annals. Given that he is already 27, Mitchell isn't likely to develop into a star at the major league level, but with his patient approach at the plate and his speed, he could be a valuable fourth outfielder/part-time starter at the big league level. The left-hander hits better versus right-handed pitching, so a platoon situation might be the best fit for him in the big leagues. He could split time in center in Oakland with the newly acquired Collin Cowgill, who bats right-handed.

19. Josh Donaldson

Donaldson improved at catcher but saw increased time at third base.

After going back-and-forth between Triple-A and the big leagues in 2010, Donaldson spent the entire 2011 campaign with Sacramento. He sandwiched poor months of April and August around a strong three-month stretch of May through July and finished the 2011 campaign with a .261/.344/.439 line with the River Cats.

Since being acquired from the Chicago Cubs in the Rich Harden deal in 2008, Donaldson has been highly regarded within the Oakland A's organization for the offensive production that he brings to the catcher position. Recently, however, the A's have been looking at Donaldson at the third base position with more frequency as the team's depth at catcher has outstripped its minor league depth at third base. Donaldson was a third baseman in college and the transition between the two positions hasn't appeared to be too difficult for the Auburn alum.

Ironically, as Donaldson's playing time at third base has increased, his skills behind the plate have also improved. He drew praise for his work with Sacramento pitchers this past season and he threw out a solid 37 percent of would-be base-stealers. Donaldson still has work to do defensively behind the plat, however, as he led the PCL in errors with 14. Donaldson spent this winter playing in the Dominican Winter League, where he spent his time in the field at third base.

"I think ultimately Josh's versatility is going to help him out getting [to the big leagues] and hopefully staying here at some point. That said, he has improved a lot behind the plate and I know that the pitchers down there feel good about him," A's Assistant General Manager David Forst said.

"He's thrown out runners as well this season as he ever has. We have made a point to make sure that he has played some third base and has played some first base and his ability to do that is going to be valuable in a big league role at some point."

Offensively, Donaldson appears to be caught between an identity as a power hitter and as a patient hitter more likely to hit for average and collect a lot of doubles. Early in his professional career, he was known more for his patience. He had a .460 OBP during his pro debut season in 2007 with the Cubs and he walked 82 times with Double-A Midland in 2009. However, in recent years he has moved away from that approach, presumably to hit for more power. In his two years with Sacramento, Donaldson has posted OBPs of .336 and .344, but he has hit 18 and 17 homeruns in each of those two seasons.

Donaldson's aggressive approach was exposed during his brief stint in the major leagues in 2010 and he is likely to find more sustained success at that level by being more patient. Donaldson's most productive offensive month in 2011 came in July when he posted a 921 OPS. His SLG was actually lower that month than it was in May and June, but he had a significantly higher OBP and his BA was also the best he posted during the season.

The 2012 season will be crucial for Donaldson, who turned 26 in December. He likely won't ever be strong enough defensively to be an everyday catcher in the big leagues, but he could be a valuable utilityman in the big leagues as a part-time catcher and corner infielder. He is an excellent athlete with decent foot-speed and he is an excellent base-runner for a catcher/third baseman. Donaldson has some power, as well, and can work a work when he is waiting for his pitch and not jumping at the first fastball he sees. Donaldson plays the game hard and has found himself battling a myriad of minor injuries in each of the past two Augusts as a result.

As of January 2, the A's were carrying four catchers on the 40-man roster and were hoping to bring back Landon Powell (who was designated for assignment in December) as a non-roster player if he cleared waivers. However, the A's are much thinner on the 40-man roster at third base, with three natural middle infielders – Scott Sizemore, Adam Rosales and Eric Sogard – as the only third basemen on the roster. Given that, Donaldson's best chance to stick on the A's roster this spring could be by showing he can handle the hot corner defensively.

18. Josh Whitaker

Whitaker was a star for Burlington in 2011.

Outside of maybe Mitchell, no player in the A's system surprised more scouts and front office personnel than Whitaker did in 2011. Left back at extended spring training at the start of the season, Whitaker was given an opportunity with Low-A Burlington in late April and never looked back. In 113 games with the Bees, Whitaker put together an MVP-like season, batting .326/.402/.556 with 17 homers. He would spend the entire regular season with Burlington, but got a chance to play for High-A Stockton during the California League championship series and he homered during that series.

"He was one of the guys that forced his way into playing time. In this game, if guys produce you have to find a place for them. You admire people that maybe didn't get the best opportunity, but when they did get it and get their foot in the door, don't let you lose it," A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman said.

Whitaker was a 25th-round pick of the A's in 2010 out of Kennesaw State in Georgia. He flashed some power with the Low-A Vancouver Canadians at the tail-end of the 2010 season, but Whitaker stood out most during the team's fall Instructional League, where his power was on display on a more regular basis. That display continued once he had an opportunity with Burlington. Using all fields, Whitaker put together the best offensive season of any A's prospect in the Midwest League in recent memory.

Although Whitaker didn't technically qualify for the batting title (he was a few at-bats short), he finished with the best average (.326) and slugging percentage (.556) in the Midwest League. He also finished tied for fourth in doubles (34), third in on-base percentage (.402) and tied for 10th in homeruns. Defensively, Whitaker split his time between first base, designated hitter and right field.

At 6'3'', 235, Whitaker is built like a classic corner outfielder/first base slugger. He has had some back problems in the past, which can make him run a little stiff at times, but he is a decent athlete for a player his size. Whitaker has had to split time at first base with fellow prospect A.J. Kirby-Jones the past two seasons and first base figures to be more crowded at High-A Stockton in 2012 with the addition of newly acquired prospect Miles Head to the mix. With the first base depth chart stacked, the A's may choose to have Whitaker concentrate more on playing right field next season.

Because Whitaker was a four-year player in college, he was old for the Low-A level in 2011. He will turn 23 at the start of the 2012 season. Whitaker doesn't have much projection left in his body, so what he is now as a prospect is likely what he will always be as a player. Because of his age and his lack of projection, Whitaker will have to shine offensively to remain on the prospect radar. However, as he proved in 2011, he is capable of putting up big numbers, even in a pitcher-friendly environment. Let loose in the hitter-friendly California League in 2012, Whitaker could be in store for a huge season.

17. Aaron Shipman

Shipman over came early struggles and showed an advanced approach at the plate.

When the A's took Shipman in the third round of the 2010 draft out of a Georgia high school, they were excited about the outfielder's raw athleticism and his ability to square the barrel of the bat to the ball. They also knew that the teenager was going to be a project to develop. That project began in 2011 and, as expected, Shipman's year was filled with ups and downs. Fortunately, most of the downs came at the start of the year and – while he ended the year on the DL – he put together a strong finish to his inaugural professional campaign.

Shipman began spring training with an outside chance of winning a spot on the Low-A Burlington full-season roster, but he struggled and the A's held him back in Phoenix for extended spring training. Those struggles continued into extended spring and Shipman also battled some minor leg injuries during that time. However, to his credit, he worked hard and was in both a good frame of mind and had developed a plan at the plate when he was sent out to short-season Vermont in July.

His first few games with the Lake Monsters weren't overly impressive at the plate, but he improved as the season wore on. In July, he posted a .275/.389/.330 line and in August he hit .293/.418/.320. A broken hand ended his season a week early and he finished the year with a .254/.385/.303 line.

"[A]fter Aaron really struggled during spring training and extended – to see the progress he has made during the summer has been great," A's Assistant General Manager David Forst said of Shipman late in the 2011 season.

"He was stuck in the nine hole in that line-up for a long time, hitting around .200. He got a little more aggressive and brought his average up to about .260. He can really run it down in centerfield. That's never been a problem. His progress just over the past two months has been fun to watch."

Shipman has world-class speed and he used that to go 17-for-20 in the stolen base category with Vermont. He also showed an advanced approach at the plate, walking more frequently than he struck-out, an unusual trait in a 19-year-old hitter. Shipman didn't show any power with Vermont. He projects to be a top-of-the-order hitter ultimately, so power doesn't figure to be a big part of his game, but he should hit with more authority as he fills out his 6'0'', 175 pound frame. His patience may also have worked against him in the power department, and the A's expect that he will develop a more selectively aggressive approach as he gains experience.

The centerfielder has the skills to be an elite defensive centerfielder. His speed allows him to cover a lot of ground and he has an above-average throwing arm. Shipman is the son of a former minor league baseball player turned high school baseball coach and the younger Shipman has the baseball smarts that one would expect from a player with that background.

Shipman will turn 20 at the end of January. The A's won't rush him, so he is likely to spend the entire 2012 campaign with Low-A Burlington.

16. Yordy Cabrera

Cabrera struggled but showed signs of potential.

Like Shipman, Cabrera was a high-round pick (second) of the A's out of high school in 2010. Unlike with Shipman, the A's utilized a more aggressive approach with Cabrera's development in 2011. Because he emigrated from the Dominican Republic just before high school, Cabrera was held back a year to let his English skills catch up with his peers and he graduated high school older than most high schoolers. Cabrera also came from a professional baseball background, with his father being a coach in the Detroit Tigers' organization and a former top prospect himself. Given Cabrera's age and his background, the A's felt comfortable sending him out to a full-season league to start his professional career. He would spend the season with Low-A Burlington, appearing in 101 games in his first year as a professional.

The shortstop had his ups-and-downs with the Bees. Offensively, he got off to a fast start, posting a 747 OPS and making the Midwest League's mid-season All-Star team. However, after the break, he really struggled, batting only .210/.270/.317. He finished the year with a .231/.297/.368 line. Defensively, he struggled as well, committing 38 errors, one off the league-high total.

A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman believes Cabrera's struggles this year will be a foundation on which he can build going into next year.

"He's right out of high school and had a great experience. He didn't put up great numbers, but you're looking at a foundational level and starting your career. Some negative things happened and he had a few more errors than he liked, but I think he's learned to handle the game a whole lot better," Lieppman said.

"Sometimes the failures of the game are your best teachers. They promote you to make the changes and adjustments. Somebody like Yordy didn't have a great year, but he's learning how to make the adjustments."

A's Assistant General Manager David Forst said that in 2011 Cabrera flashed the tools that made him such a highly regarded player coming out of high school.

"He's hit for some power, but his average has struggled. He has struck-out a decent amount, but he has enough walks to make you think he knows the strike-zone," Forst said.

"Defensively, he's made some incredible plays at shortstop and then he has struggled with the routine ball at times. It really is sort of what you would expect if you drew up what a 20-year-old's first full season would be like. It has been almost exactly that. Overall, we are very happy with how he has done. In fact, I saw him make a barehanded play on a slow-roller that I'm not sure most big league shortstops make."

Although Cabrera is only 21 years old, he already has the build of a major league player. He is listed at 6'1'' and he weighs in at a muscular 210 pounds. He has the potential to be a power-hitter at the higher levels, but he isn't just a slugger. Cabrera has above-average athleticism and good speed. Although there are questions as to whether he can stay at the shortstop position, most of those questions stem from the belief that he will grow to be too big for the position and not because his physical tools (hands, feet and throwing arm) aren't good enough to stay at shortstop.

The A's have never let big error totals for younger infielders scare them away from keeping a player at a position. Three of the A's best defensive infielders from the 1990s and 2000s – Scott Brosius, Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez – had very high error totals early in their professional careers. Cabrera may see time at second and third base next season just to increase his versatility, but he should primarily be a shortstop for the foreseeable future.

Despite his struggles with Burlington in 2011, Cabrera has a good shot of moving up to High-A Stockton in 2012. The hitting environment in the Cal League will be more conducive for success and the A's like to challenge their most talented prospects when the situation warrants it. Cabrera will be 21 throughout the 2012 regular season.

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