Oakland A's Top-50 Prospects: 5-1

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 conclude the series with a review of prospects 5-1.

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.

5. Michael Taylor

Taylor improved in 2011, but was it enough for a 2012 big league nod?

After a nightmarish 2010 season, Taylor was in desperate need of a rebound campaign in 2011. The 6'5'' outfielder made his debut in the A's organization in 2010 and posted only a 740 OPS for Triple-A Sacramento. His power all but evaporated in 2010 and he hit only six homeruns. The 2011 season wasn't a complete rebound for Taylor, who had posted OPSs of 968 and 944 in 2008 and 2009 while in the Phillies' chain, but it was a significant improvement over his 2010 season.

The 2011 campaign didn't start out well for Taylor. Days after being sent down from big league camp, Taylor injured his wrist and was shut down for nearly six weeks. Although he hadn't had much opportunity to swing the bat in extended spring training, Taylor was sent out to join the River Cats in mid-May when a rash of injuries impacted Sacramento's roster. Despite being rusty, Taylor got off to a decent start with Sacramento, batting .318 in 16 games. His power stroke didn't return until June, however, when he hit seven homeruns in only 21 games and slugged at a .554 clip.

Taylor's solid play continued into the month of July, when he posted a season-best 900 OPS. He walked more than he struck-out that month and posted a .489 SLG. His production fell off in August (695 OPS), but that didn't prevent the A's from calling on Taylor when big league rosters were allowed to expand to 40 in September. Taylor didn't receive a lot of playing time during the month of September with the A's, but he did manage to hit his first big league homerun – one of his six hits in 30 at-bats.

Although Taylor posted the same batting average for Sacramento in 2011 that he did in 2010 (.272), he improved all of his other numbers. His OBP jumped from .348 to .360 and, most importantly, his slugging percentage bumped up from a meager .392 to .456. Taylor nearly tripled his 2010 homerun total (six to 16) in 34 fewer games and he also swiped 14 bases in 93 contests.

The 2011 season was a journey for Taylor, who was essentially rebuilding his swing after losing his feel for it in 2010. The A's coaching staff – and 2011 Sacramento hitting coach Todd Steverson, in particular – emphasized getting Taylor in a position to hit for more power instead of looking simply to make contact or go the other way, especially in favorable counts.

"The main focus was how to get the most out of what he possesses, day-in and day-out. It entailed a little bit of what he was not used to in his development along the way before he got to us, which was that Mike was basically a good contact hitter," Steverson, who is now the A's minor league hitting coordinator, said this fall.

"It's really matter of being able to keep the same swing and not about hitting homeruns. It's about having a consistent swing that allows you to take advantage of those pitches that you are able to hit homeruns off of. That's the difference that a lot of players don't understand. Mike was starting to get it towards the end. It's not that they are trying to hit homeruns. It's that they are putting themselves in position so that when the mistake happens, they can put a good swing on it and the homer could happen. "It was about being aggressive and recognizing that this is his at-bat and his time kind of thing. He grew as a person and as a hitter. There is always more to do. He'll probably say there is more to do, too. But I'm proud of him that he was able to go up to the big leagues and pretty much hold his own when he had the opportunity to play."

The A's front office was pleased with Taylor's ability to put the disappointments of 2010 aside and improve in 2011.

"We certainly think that Michael has had some stretches this year that have shown the player that we traded for a year and a half ago. He's much more consistent," A's Assistant General Manager David Forst said late in the season.

"He has done a good job of putting last year behind him. He certainly has some fans in this organization who say this guy is a legitimate option to be an everyday corner guy in the big leagues."

Whether the A's still view Taylor as an option to be one of their everyday corner outfielders at the start of the 2012 season is an open question. The team acquired two corner outfielders with major league experience (Josh Reddick and Seth Smith) this off-season and both are currently slated to be the A's starting corners. Taylor was used as a platoon outfielder during his big league time last year, netting the vast majority of his at-bats versus southpaws. Both Reddick and Smith are left-handed hitters, so the A's could be envisioning Taylor in a similar role in 2012. He may not be that well-suited for a platoon role, however, as he had only a 699 OPS versus lefties while posting an 859 OPS versus right-handers with Sacramento.

When he is on his game, Taylor is a dangerous force both offensively and defensively. He runs well for a man of his size and has an above-average throwing arm. Despite some defensive miscues during his big league time last year, Taylor is a solid defensive corner outfielder who can play centerfield in a pinch. As a hitter, he uses the whole field well and has the power to reach the seats in any ballpark. The key for him is to be in a position where he can take advantage of a pitcher's mistake when he gets one, something he improved on during the 2011 season. Taylor is very intelligent, but that intelligence can sometime work against him, as he has a tendency to over-think, especially at the plate. When he is relaxed and trusting his skills, he is at his best.

At 26 years old, Taylor isn't a young prospect anymore and there is some urgency to find out exactly what he is capable of at the major league level. He is only in his second option season, however, so he could find himself going back-and-forth between Triple-A and the big leagues yet again in 2012.

4. Chris Carter

Can Carter break through in 2012?

It was a frustrating season for Carter, who began the year with expectations of establishing himself as a big leaguer and finished it with fewer big league at-bats than he received the year before.

In 2010, Carter spent his first full season in Triple-A and also made his major league debut. Although his big league debut was less than stellar, he still showed a lot of promise at the Triple-A level, where he posted an 894 OPS. Carter also finished the major league season on a hot streak and there was hope that that hot streak would give him the confidence to succeed on the big stage the next time he reached it.

Carter wasn't given an opportunity in the big leagues at the start of the 2011 season. The A's brought in two veteran corner outfielders and a veteran DH during the off-season and had Daric Barton at first base, so there was no room for Carter on the A's roster on Opening Day. He was sent to Sacramento, but his season took a wrong turn early when he re-injured his left thumb, an injury that he first sustained diving for a ball in the outfield in 2010. The 2011 injury would cost Carter eight weeks of the season.

After a short rehab stint with High-A Stockton, Carter returned to the River Cats' line-up in mid-June. He would only be with the River Cats for a little more than a week when the A's called him up to the big leagues to serve as a pinch-hitter and occasional starter during inter-league play. Still rusty from his injury, Carter managed only three hits in 25 at-bats spread over 17 days.

Carter was sent back to Sacramento on July 11th and for the first time during the season, he was finally able to settle into a regular routine. He started off slowly with the River Cats, but picked up steam as the season progressed. In August, he posted an 865 OPS and over the final five games of the season, he hit .500 with two homers. Overall, Carter finished his Triple-A season with a .274/.366/.530 line over 75 games. He hit 18 homers for Sacramento and three more in six games with Stockton, giving him his fifth consecutive minor league season with at least 20 homeruns.

The River Cats would reach the Pacific Coast League finals and Carter was a big reason why. He led all PCL hitters with a 1338 post-season OPS and he hit four homers in eight games. He also walked eight times and scored nine runs. The A's brought Carter back to the big leagues after the River Cats' season ended, but he once again didn't receive much playing time. In 14 at-bats over an 11-day stretch, Carter managed only two hits and he struck-out six times.

There has been frustration that Carter has failed to show much during his three big league stints over the past two seasons. In fairness to Carter, he has a long history of starting slowly at every new level before turning on the jets, so to speak. He also has a tendency to look lazy or unathletic when he is struggling, although his work ethic is solid. His time with the A's in 2011 wasn't under the easiest of circumstances. He wasn't given regular playing time and, in the first stint, was asked to contribute before his timing had really returned from his injury layoff.

A's minor league hitting coordinator Todd Steverson has confidence that the true Carter will show himself at the major league level eventually.

"You get so many opportunities in this game to go out there and prove that you are a major league ballplayer. Really through all of the learning and coaching and tutelage you have been given along the way, it's really up to you to use that and it's your responsibility to take it upon yourself to go out there and get it done," Steverson said this fall.

"You know it's there. It's always going to be there. He just has to figure out how to transfer what he knows he can do and believe that he can do that at the highest level. He's a very talented hitter. I wouldn't say he is a pure hitter, but he has some attributes that don't come along every day. You want to see that. I know everybody wants to see that. They see all of the numbers and they are like, ‘wait a minute, when is this going to happen?' I firmly believe it is going to happen for him. When he puts it together, it's going to be nice looking."

Whether that time comes with the A's or not remains to be seen. The A's tried to move Carter into the outfield in 2010 to give him another avenue besides first base or DH to reach the big leagues, but that experiment was met with failure. Carter will have an opportunity to compete for the A's first base job this spring and will be the favorite to be the team's DH if the A's don't sign a veteran between now and Opening Day. Carter's minor league history suggests that if he is given time to play everyday at the big league level, things will click for him and he will become the power hitter the A's have been looking for since Jason Giambi left.

"[A]t some point Chris will get over that hump and hopefully it is in our timeframe," A's Director of Player Personnel Billy Owens said.

3. Grant Green

Green flashed power during the AFL season.

Since Green was selected 13th overall in the 2009 draft by the Oakland A's, there have been questions about whether he would be able to stick at the shortstop position. Those questions were answered this past season, when the A's moved him from shortstop to centerfield. The transition was an emotional moment for Green, who had been a shortstop since he started playing baseball. However, it should allow for a quicker path for the USC alum to reach the big leagues.

While questions about Green's glove have always followed him, questions about his bat have been practically non-existent. Even though he had a less-than-stellar season with the Double-A Midland Rockhounds in 2011, many scouts still believe strongly in Green's hit tool.

In his first season at the Double-A level, Green hit .291 with a 750 OPS. For the most part, his offensive numbers were similar to the numbers he put up with High-A Stockton in 2010 – with one glaring exception: his SLG dropped from .520 to .408. Green managed only nine homeruns in 127 games after hitting 20 in 131 games for Stockton. His batting average also fell from .318 to .291. Green battled back soreness for a chunk of the season, although the strong Texas League winds may have had as much to do with his power drop as the back issues.

Defensively, Green showed promise during his first few months as an outfielder. Although he still was a work-in-progress as a centerfielder this fall, he held his own at the position in the Arizona Fall League. Todd Steverson, who was Green's manager at the AFL, praised Green's work ethic.

"Grant's out there working really hard. He's trying to get comfortable with reading how the ball comes off of the bat," Steverson said during the AFL.

"It takes a minute. A lot of people think it's easy to stand out in the outfield – the ball goes up and you catch it. There is a lot more involved than that and the amount of time it is going to take for him to really understand how to read balls off of the bat is going to take a little bit longer than five, six games here or 20, 30 games [during the regular season]. Some people take to it faster than others, but it is still a process to learn how to work your feet out there. It's a lot different than the infield."

At the end of the day, what will carry Green to the major leagues is his bat. He isn't a classic A's position prospect in that he is an aggressive hitter who has never walked a lot during his career. His K:BB ratio in 2010 was 117:38 and in 2011 it was 119:39. He also isn't a slugger in the classic sense, despite his 20 homeruns in 2010. Still, there is a lot to like about Green's potential at the plate.

"He is a very natural hitter. He easily uses the whole diamond," A's Director of Player Development Billy Owens said.

"There is definitely some power in there. With Grant, it's just about staying consistent, having good at-bats. There is no question in my mind that he can definitely make that leap to the big leagues in the next couple of years and be somebody that hits as well as he is portrayed to."

Scout.com's National Baseball Expert Frankie Piliere has been a big believer in Green's hit tool since the Southern California native was in college.

"His combination of balance and quick hands have long impressed scouts," Piliere, a former scout for the Texas Rangers and Cleveland Indians, said.

"He continued to show off that bat in Arizona during the fall. Green turns on the plus fastball with relative ease and impressed by taking some breaking balls to the opposite field. He's also showing an improved ability to fight off pitcher's pitches when he's behind in the count. There's never been much doubt about his ability at the plate, but the polish is really beginning to show up."

Now that Green is an outfielder, there will be expectations that he hit with power at the big league level. Green showed some of that power during an impressive MLB Futures Game performance and he took home MVP honors for his efforts. He made some adjustments with his swing this fall during the AFL and the early returns were positive. In less than a fifth of the number of at-bats he had during the regular season, Green finished with more than half (five) of his full-season homerun total with Midland (nine). He also collected nine doubles and two triples.

Green doesn't run a lot but he has above-average speed and should be able to handle centerfield from a range perspective for now. His arm was average to below-average for a shortstop, but it should play fine in the outfield. Green has always drawn praise for his work ethic and his ability to be coached, so his progress with both his transition to the new position and his newly refined hitting mechanics should continue without too much of a hiccup in 2012. He will need to be protected from the Rule 5 draft this off-season, and it is likely that the A's will add him to the 40-man roster sometime before the end of September, allowing him to make his major league debut. The A's have added a number of veteran outfielders this off-season, but Green should be a big part of their outfield discussion for 2013.

2. Sonny Gray

Gray was impressive in a stint with Midland.

After three consecutive years of selecting a position player with their number one overall pick, the A's dipped back into the pitching market during the first round in 2011. Gray was tabbed with the 18th overall pick after a standout career as the number one starter for Vanderbilt University. He signed with the A's on July 25th, in time to make an appearance for the A's Rookie League team and five starts for Double-A Midland. His impressive showing in those five Texas League starts lent optimism to the idea that Gray's time in the minor leagues would be relatively short.

Vanderbilt - alma mater of current big leaguers David Price and Mike Minor, among others - has a well-deserved reputation for being one of the top collegiate programs in terms of developing pitchers. So it is saying something that Gray is considered one of the best pitchers to take the field for the Commodores. Over the past two seasons, Gray won 22 games for Vandy and helped lead the Commodores to their first College World Series appearance in Omaha this June. During his junior season, Gray posted a 2.43 ERA and a 132:51 K:BB ratio in 126 regular season innings, many of which came in the tough SEC. He finished off his stellar 2011 campaign with a 20-inning stint in Double-A during which he allowed only one run on 15 hits, while striking out 18.

Coming out of college, Gray was a consensus first-round talent, but scouts were split as to whether his future lies in the starting rotation or the back-end of the bullpen. Those, like the A's, who view Gray as a major league starter, point to his long track record of pitching deep into games, his above-average breaking ball and his competitiveness. Those who see Gray as a future set-up man or closer point to his size (he is only 5'11'') and the fact that he is a hard-thrower who can lose track of the strike-zone at times. The A's are banking on Gray to not only be a starter, but a good one at that.

"I think he's got a track record as a starter, first off, so you can hang your hat on that," A's Director of Scouting Eric Kubota said shortly after the draft.

"He's got great stuff, so he doesn't need to be Greg Maddux. We think his command has improved and has continued to improve. I don't think he'll ever be known as a command guy, but his stuff and his competitive nature and his command all add up to a very good pitcher."

Once the regular season ended, the A's sent Gray to Arizona to participate in the team's fall Instructional League. While there, he spent a lot of time with A's minor league pitching coordinator Gil Patterson and other A's pitching coaches on improving his fastball command and his change-up. Patterson tweaked Gray's mechanics slightly, working on limiting Gray's spin during his follow-through and having him focus on keeping his head on more of a line to homeplate. Patterson believes these changes will not only improve Gray's fastball command, but they will also add sharpness to his change-up and curveball.

"[F]astball command is the key. He is getting better and is going to continue to get better," Patterson said on the final day of Instructs.

"It's not major league command yet. If there is one pitch that you can say might be, it's the breaking ball. He can pretty much throw that in any count. But with the little bit improved delivery, the fastball command is going to get better as well as the change-up. Then the curveball will even get better, believe it or not."

Because of his size, his competitive nature and the fact that he is a right-hander who hails from an SEC school, Gray has drawn comparisons to former A's ace Tim Hudson. Kubota sees some similarities in the make-up of both pitchers.

"I think Sonny shares with Tim that underdog mentality. They were always smaller," Kubota said.

"They've always had to battle and they've always had to prove to people that they can do what they can do, so I think that they share that. I think both of them will never give up. They will fight you to the last breath, really."

Gray throws harder than Hudson did when he was with the A's. Gray's fastball regularly sits in the 92-95 MPH range and he has touched the upper-90s in shorter appearances. He throws a hard curveball that is a swing-and-miss pitch for him and one that should be a big weapon at the major league level. Despite his lack of size, Gray was durable throughout his collegiate career and he is an excellent athlete, fielding his position well.

Because of his collegiate experience and his early success with Midland, Gray should have a short path to the big leagues. There was some talk of him even breaking spring training camp in the Oakland rotation, although the A's have acquired several more experienced pitching prospects this off-season who are more likely to get that early season big league nod than Gray. Still, there is a decent chance that Gray sees the big leagues at some point in 2012 and that he is an every-fifth-day starter for Oakland in 2013.

"From his days in college I viewed him as a guy who would move up the ladder very quickly. And the progress he's made with a changeup only makes his odds better. I can definitely see him pitching and succeeding in the big leagues in 2012," Scout.com's National Baseball Expert Frankie Piliere said.

Although Gray has already gotten his feet wet in Midland, he may not get the promotion to Triple-A Sacramento at the outset of the 2012 season. With the moves the A's have made this off-season, their Triple-A rotation is likely to be crowded – at least early in the year – and of the candidates to pitch at Triple-A in the A's system, Gray has the least amount of Double-A experience. Wherever he starts the year, he should get some time in Sacramento before the season ends, however. He will be 22 throughout the 2012 season.

1. Michael Choice

Choice has the kind of power the A's have been looking for since the teams of the early 2000s.

Taken with the 10th overall pick in the 2010 draft, Choice was the A's highest draft selection since the team selected Barry Zito more than a decade earlier. In many ways, the A's are counting on Choice to be the kind of star that Zito was during his Oakland career. With one-and-a-half professional seasons under his belt, Choice is looking every bit the part of a future MLB All-Star.

The centerfielder spent his entire 2011 season with the High-A Stockton Ports. Choice got off to a slow start with Stockton, but as spring turned to summer, Choice began annihilating California League pitching. Before the mid-June All-Star break, Choice was hitting only .248 with an 853 OPS. He finished the year with a .285/.376/.542 slash line. Choice led the Cal League with 30 homeruns and would likely have challenged Chris Carter's Stockton record of 39 in a season if it wasn't for a quad injury that cost Choice two weeks in late-July and early-August and limited him for much of the month of August. Choice would add three more homeruns in 11 post-season games and he hit .426 during the Ports' September run to the California League finals.

Choice's 2011 season only got better once the fall came around. He finished fifth in the Arizona Fall League in OPS with a 1090 mark. Choice homered six times in 17 games and added nine walks, all leading to a .318/.423/.667 slash line.

A's minor league hitting coordinator Todd Steverson was Choice's AFL manager and he was pleased with what he saw from Choice during fall league action.

"He's in a good place right now," Steverson said during the AFL season.

"We talk a little bit about mindset and what he is trying to do. He is a different animal when it comes to his wrists. He has very quick wrists and good bat speed. Sometimes that is a hindrance to you in this game, to have that tool. You need to learn to harness it and control it. He understands that and that's where it comes from."

Although not heavily recruited coming out of high school, Choice developed into one of the NCAA's top sluggers during his time at UT-Arlington. Scouts raved about Choice's bat speed and his raw power to all fields, as well as his athleticism. However, there were concerns about Choice's propensity to swing-and-miss, even against collegiate competition. Choice's strike-out tendencies have carried over into the professional ranks. During his professional debut season in 2010, he struck-out 45 times in only 109 at-bats – although that didn't prevent him from posting a 964 OPS.

In 2011, Choice reduced his strike-out rate over his 2010 effort. With Stockton, he K'd roughly every fourth at-bat (24.7% of the time), down from 35.3% with short-season Vancouver in 2010. Although that K-rate is still high, Choice did improve his contact rate as the season went on with Stockton and he showed significant improvement with his ability to make contact during the AFL season, striking out in only 15.2% of all at-bats.

The A's have stated repeatedly that they aren't overly concerned about Choice's strike-out totals. He has an unusual pre-swing set-up and a lot of pre-swing movement, two areas that the team has worked with him to tone down since he turned pro. But at the end of the day, if Choice is striking out at a high rate and still homering 30+ times a year, the A's aren't going to complain.

"He's exciting. Every time he hits, his bat is a blur through the ‘zone. It's exciting to watch him," A's Director of Player Personnel Billy Owens said.

"Anytime he swings the bat, the outcome could be a ball 500 feet, it can be a ball that's fouled straight back, he could just miss a ball, but you are on the edge of your seat because of the power and the quickness and the mesmerizing bat speed through the ‘zone that he exudes is just pretty remarkable.

"He's got a lot of pre-pitch movement. Some of it is natural and some of it I think he created over time. We were able to minimize some of that as the year went on. Just seeing the pitching day after day and, honestly, he's a guy who hit 30 homeruns and is a force, they are going to pitch him carefully. He had to make adjustments as the season wore on. If you look at his numbers from June 1 to the end of the year, you'll see that he started to make those adjustments.

"We all have visions of Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera, guys who hit .330-plus in the major leagues with 40-plus homeruns, but if you are going to have the type of power that Michael Choice is going to eventually have in the major leagues, you are going to have to give something to get something."

Power isn't the only positive aspect of Choice's game, however. Unlike many sluggers, Choice is not a defensive liability. While he may eventually grow too big to stay in centerfield, he should always been at least an average, if not above-average, defensive outfielder. Choice is one of the fastest players in the A's system, although he hasn't yet translated that speed into much of a running game on the bases. He also has a solid understanding of the strike-zone, something that actually got him in trouble at times early in the season with California League umpires who often didn't give him calls on close pitches.

The A's are desperate for a player of Choice's skillset at the major league level, but they aren't going to rush him. He only turned 22 in mid-November and with all of the adjustments he has had to make with his swing since turning pro, the A's are taking a cautious approach to Choice's development. However, they aren't going to hold him back either. If he dominates the Texas League the way that he dominated the California League during the second-half of the 2011 season, he could get some time in the big leagues by the end of the 2012 campaign. At the very least, Choice should see the major leagues by 2013, barring injury.

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