One of the main reasons the Oakland A's traded Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey this off-season was to strengthen their farm system. Before the trades, the A's system was considered middle-of-the-pack, at best. The infusion of new talent has moved the A's system up in the ranks; however, the system could receive an even bigger boost with the return of several high-profile prospects who missed most or all of the 2011 season with injuries. We take a look at eight such prospects who are heading to spring training with clean bills of health and a hopeful outlook for 2012.
|Is this the year for Ynoa to get a full, healthy season in? b>|
Michael Ynoa: Until the A's signed Yoenis Cespedes last week, the organization's most high-profile international signing was Ynoa. It has been more than three-and-a-half years since the A's shocked the baseball community and inked the 6'7'' right-hander to a $4.25 million bonus. Before the Ynoa signing, the A's had been second-market players overseas, at best. Since signing Ynoa, the A's have made significant in-roads in the international amateur free agent market. They have signed several players to six-figure bonuses and have extended the boundaries of their scouting reach into Asia, Europe and different parts of Central America.
Unfortunately, the one thing that hasn't happened since July 2, 2008 is the development of Ynoa himself. Thanks to a bum right elbow, the Puerto Plata native has pitched in only three official minor league games for a total of nine innings. All of those outings and innings came with the A's Rookie League team in 2010. The A's are hopeful that this is finally the year Ynoa will be able to make significant progress on the mound rather than in the doctor's office.
Ynoa is now 18 months removed from his 2010 Tommy John surgery and is set to report to spring training on time and without restrictions. While he will be on a strict innings limit this year, the hope is that that will be the only limit imposed on Ynoa's development. Because the A's are likely to keep Ynoa well under 100 innings this season, they probably won't send him out to a full-season team this year, even if he pitches well during spring training. Pitching for the short-season Vermont Lake Monsters is a real possibility for Ynoa, however.
At the end of the day, it won't really matter whether Ynoa gets his innings pitching for Vermont or the A's Arizona Rookie League team, as long as he gets those innings somewhere. Despite the three lost seasons, Ynoa is still only 20-years-old. The A's will have to decide whether or not to protect him from the Rule 5 draft this off-season. If he can put together 50 promising innings of short-season baseball, it will make the A's decision to add him to the 40-man roster that much easier and will set him up for being able to pitch at a full-season level as a 21-year-old in 2013.
When Ynoa has been on the mound in exhibition games and for bullpens, his immense talent has been very evident. Having a healthy year from a pitcher of Ynoa's talents would be a big boost to the overall depth of the A's farm system.
|Krol needs to put 2011 and all of its pitfalls behind him. b>|
Ian Krol: Krol's season began with a left forearm injury sustained during spring training and ended with a team-imposed suspension. The end result was that the top pitching prospect in the A's system heading into the 2011 season threw only five innings, and all five of those innings came with the A's Rookie League team. In 2010, Krol put together a standout first full professional season, posting a 2.80 ERA in 138.1 innings for the A's two full-season A-ball affiliates. He allowed only eight homeruns and posted a 111:28 K:BB ratio.
The left-hander's suspension was lifted after the end of the regular season, and he was able to participate in the A's fall Instructional League camp. Krol was on a mostly regular routine at Instructs and is expected to report on-time and without restrictions to the A's minor league spring training mini-camp tomorrow (February 23). Krol isn't a flame-thrower even when healthy (his fastball fluctuates from 86 to 91 MPH), but he pounds the lower half of the strike-zone and induces a lot of groundballs. He has a highly competitive nature on the mound and rarely beats himself with a bad pitch selection or location. Off the mound, Krol is intelligent but has been dogged by a reputation for immaturity thanks to an incident in high school that resulted in a year-long suspension from his baseball team and last year's suspension-inducing Tweet.
Krol was slated to pitch for High-A Stockton in 2011 before the injury and suspension scuttled those plans. Barring another injury this spring, Krol should head to Stockton for the 2012 season, where he will likely be joined by fellow top A's pitching prospect A.J. Cole. Krol was seemingly on the fast track through the A's organization before last year's missteps. If he can put together a healthy and productive season on the mound and keep his behavior in check off the field, Krol, who turns 21 in May, will be right back on that fast track. Although the A's are much deeper at starting pitcher in the minor leagues now than they were at the start of last year, Krol can still separate himself as one of the top pitching prospects in the organization with another year like his 2010 effort.
|Leon could be used as a starter or a reliever. b>|
Arnold Leon: The 2010 season was the year of Tommy John amongst the ranks in the A's minor league system. Leon was the first of several high-profile pitching prospects to undergo the surgery that year. Because Leon had his surgery early on in the 2010 season, the A's were hopeful that he would be able to pitch more than a handful of innings during the second half of the 2011 campaign. Leon made it back on the mound in late June, but he ran into some additional soreness and was shut-down for a month after only 2.1 innings. He did return in time to make three appearances for the A's Rookie League team in late August but totaled only 6.1 official innings for the season.
Leon was healthy enough to pitch during the A's fall Instructional League camp, although his velocity had not yet returned to its normal 88-91 MPH range by the end of camp. The A's believed that that aspect of Leon's recovery would come in time and were pleased in general with how he pitched during Instructs. He is set to report to minor league camp with pitchers and catchers on March 5 and should be pitching without restrictions.
The A's originally signed Leon out of the Mexican league before the 2008 season. They had to share the right-hander with his Mexican league club for the 2008 campaign and Leon also continued to pitch in the Mexican Winter League during the off-season before the 2009 and 2010 campaigns. Although the innings totals weren't outrageous, Leon was essentially pitching full-time for three consecutive years. In some ways, his elbow injury may have come at a good time, and may have saved him some wear-and-tear down-the-road.
Leon, 23, has had success both as a reliever and as a starter during his short minor league career. The native of Saltillo, Mexico, is a groundball pitcher with excellent command and a plus breaking ball. He was pitching for Double-A Midland at the time of the injury and will be competing in camp to return to the Rockhounds. Whether he is in a bullpen or a starter's role remains to be seen. Leon's career-high for minor league innings pitched is 74.1, so look for him to be kept to 100 innings or so at a maximum this season.
|Figueroa's velocity had returned at the A's fall Instructs. b>|
Pedro Figueroa: The hard-throwing Figueroa was another pitcher who succumbed to Tommy John surgery in 2010. The injury came at an unfortunate time for the Dominican native. After several years in the A's system, Figueroa broke through as a top prospect in 2009 when he posted a 3.38 ERA and struck-out 145 in 152 A-ball innings. He was added to the A's 40-man roster before the 2010 season.
Figueroa's elbow injury flared up midway through his first season at the Double-A level. He wasn't himself with the Rockhounds, allowing a .295 BAA and six homeruns in 71.1 innings. Figueroa rehabbed throughout the 2011 season, returning to the mound at the end of the 2011 campaign. He threw two innings for the A's Rookie League team, striking out the side in both frames. He continued to progress during the A's fall Instructional League. His velocity returned to the mid-90s and his plus slider showed its usual break.
Figueroa is participating in the A's big league camp as a member of the team's 40-man roster. The 26-year-old is on his third option season, but he has yet to pitch at the Triple-A level. He is likely to start the 2012 campaign at Double-A, but he could be a candidate to move up to Triple-A mid-season if he is pitching well. When healthy, Figueroa has arguably the most lively left arm in the A's system.
|Doolittle impressed at Instructs. b>|
Sean Doolittle: Doolittle has been on the "recovering from injury" list since 2009, but there is optimism that this will be his first healthy year since 2008. Plagued by a torn patella and then a torn wrist tendon the past three years, Doolittle is hopeful that a position change will be the key to keeping him on the field. The former first base/outfield prospect made the transition to pitcher last August and things have been going according to plan thus far. He was able to pitch through some minor bicep tendinitis during the A's fall Instructional League and was generally impressive during that camp, showing good command and reaching 95 MPH with his fastball.
The left-hander was an accomplished pitcher in college at UVa, so his learning curve on the mound isn't nearly as steep as it would be for most position players making this same transition. However, Doolittle did show some rust during Instructs, especially with his move to first and with maintaining the same arm speed on his secondary pitches as he does on his fastball. Assuming he can iron out those details and stay healthy, Doolittle could rise quickly through the A's system.
Doolittle was a starter in college and has enough pitches to be a starter professionally, but he may be kept in the bullpen in order to make his path to the big leagues shorter. Given that he hasn't pitched a full season since 2007 (and that that season was in college), Doolittle won't be allowed to go past 100 innings, so a relief role may make the most sense. Assuming camp goes smoothly, Doolittle is likely to start the season with High-A Stockton, where he starred as a hitter in 2008. He was added to the 40-man roster before the start of last season, and this is his second option year, giving him a relatively short timeframe to position himself as major league ready. With his arm strength and command, however, Doolittle could become a top relief prospect in a hurry.
|Doolittle is a strike-throwing machine when healthy. b>|
Ryan Doolittle: Sean's younger brother Ryan has had similar struggles with injuries since he turned pro in 2008. Ryan missed all of the 2009 season and the majority of the 2011 season with a right forearm strain. Like his older brother, Ryan was able to participate fully during the A's fall Instructional League. Ryan is expected to report to minor league camp on time and without restrictions.
Not as well known as his brother, Ryan is an intriguing relief prospect in his own right. When he has been healthy, the younger Doolittle has shown a remarkable ability to throw strikes. At the time he was injured while with Stockton last season, Doolittle was on a roll. In 20.1 innings, he had allowed only five runs on 17 hits. He had walked only three and had struck-out 24. Doolittle isn't just a soft-tossing control artist, either. The right-hander has a fastball that sits regularly in the 90-93 MPH range with good sinking action. He also has a solid slider and change-up.
Although he hasn't pitched much, Doolittle has posted some impressive numbers when he has been on the mound. For his career, he has averaged only 1.21 walks per nine innings while striking out more than eight per nine innings pitched. He has also allowed only seven homeruns in 112 innings and has induced more than two groundball outs for every flyball out.
Doolittle has seen time both as a starter and as a reliever during his short career. However, he will turn 24 in March, so his best chance at a big league career may be as a reliever. Doolittle could team-up in the same bullpen as his brother in Stockton to start the 2012 season if he makes it through spring training unscathed.
|Stassi will have a healthy shoulder for the first time in three years. b>|
Max Stassi: During the 2009 draft, Stassi slipped from a projected first or supplemental first round pick to a fourth round selection in part because he had a right shoulder issue during his senior year of high school. The catcher was able to play through the shoulder problem during his first full professional season in 2010, but he wasn't able to repeat that feat in 2011.
The soreness in Stassi's shoulder got worse towards the end of spring training. The A's first attempted to have him rehab the shoulder while DHing for the Stockton Ports. After five weeks it became clear that rehab wasn't going to be enough for Stassi to fix the shoulder issue. He underwent season-ending shoulder surgery in May and missed the rest of the season.
One of the hardest working players in the A's system, Stassi tackled his rehab with gusto and was able to participate partially in the A's fall Instructional League camp. He was on a throwing program during the camp and was able to take regular at-bats. Stassi is now participating in big league camp and is back to throwing without restriction. Assuming he can stay healthy through spring training, Stassi will be starting the season in his best health since turning pro.
In a little more than one year of professional baseball, Stassi has shown glimpses of the player he is projected to be. He had a rough start to his 2010 campaign defensively but made dramatic improvements by the end of the year and had some in the organization calling him the best defensive catcher in the A's system. At the plate, Stassi has shown flashes of power but has also struggled to make consistent contact. Without the distraction of a sore shoulder, Stassi could be in-line to make similar improvements to his offensive game that he made defensively in 2010.
This will be a big year for the Northern California native. The A's acquired highly regarded catching prospect Derek Norris during the off-season and drafted two promising catchers (Beau Taylor and Nick Rickles) last June. To keep himself near the top of the A's depth chart at the catcher position, the soon-to-be 21-year-old will need a strong and healthy season.
|Thomson is recovering from labrum surgery. b>|
Matt Thomson: With the exception of number one pick Michael Choice, no one shined brighter after being selected by the A's in the 2010 draft than Thomson. The lanky right-hander posted a 1.94 ERA in 51 innings that season with short-season Vancouver and High-A Stockton. He struck-out 71 and walked only 10 – all while not allowing a homerun. Unfortunately, Thomson was diagnosed with a slight tear in his right labrum at the end of that season. He had minor surgery after the 2010 campaign and wasn't ready at the start of last season. Thomson spent the first two months of the year at extended spring training and was sent out to the Low-A Burlington Bees in early June. Thomson made it through only two relief appearances before the pain returned.
This time, Thomson had the full surgery on his labrum. Labrum surgery is tricky for pitchers but it is a good sign that Thomson is expected to report to minor league spring training on time and ready to pitch. When healthy, Thomson is a four-pitch pitcher with a low-90s fastball, an above-average slider, a solid change-up and a curveball. He has pinpoint command, as well.
Thomson's college teammate A.J. Griffin had a break-through season in 2011. If he is fully recovered, Thomson could have a similar break-through. Thomson has collegiate experience as both a reliever and as a starter. Whether Thomson is a starter or a reliever, he will be monitored closely.