Which A's Prospects Will Rise In 2012?

After three disappointing seasons hovering in the lower-tier of the Oakland A's farm system, outfielder Jermaine Mitchell had a breakout year in 2011, earning him a place on the club's 40-man roster heading into spring training. Are there any A's prospects poised to follow Mitchell's lead and move their way up the organizational ladder in 2012? We profile 10 candidates inside…

B.A. Vollmuth, 3B

The A's second-overall draft pick in 2011 played just 12 games between two short-season squads in 2011, but still managed to make a positive impression on his new club. The powerful third baseman has the ideal build at 6'3'' and 215 pounds to become a middle-of-the-order threat down the road. His tools rate well defensively after playing both positions on the left side of the infield in college. Vollmuth could start the year at High-A Stockton with a good showing in spring training.

Vollmuth had a standout sophomore season at Southern Miss when he hit .386 with 20 home runs. Those numbers dipped to .301 and 12 in his junior campaign – a year in which he struggled through a hip-flexor injury. He saw his draft stock fall because of that dip in his numbers. He wasn't quick to sign with Oakland after being selected in the third round, but after appearing in eight games with the A's Arizona Rookie League team, he went on to become a catalyst for the short-season Vermont club, where he hit .500 with a 1517 OPS during a four-game stint with the Lake Monsters.

Scouts believe that Vollmuth's struggles during his third year in college helped the third baseman mentally prepare for the rigors of the professional game. Having played three years in college, the 22-year-old is far enough along in his development to skip Low-A and head directly to Stockton. A good year could position Vollmuth as the A's long-term solution at third base. The best-case scenario has Vollmuth mirroring top-prospect Michael Choice's 2011 by spending the season at High-A Stockton, making a push toward Double-A next year and competing for a spot on the 25-man roster in 2014 or 2015.

Chris Bostick, SS

During his 14-game stint with the A's Rookie League team last August, the athletic middle-infielder showed why he was the A's only high school signee from the 2011 draft. Bostick hit .442 with a 1136 OPS in his abbreviated stint, a possible precursor for what could be a promising 2012.

Only turning 19 this season, Bostick is likely to spend more time in the Rookie League or the short-season A-level Vermont, although the possibility remains that he would be sent out to Low-A Burlington. The 44th-round selection's potential at the plate and athleticism have the team excited. He was a two-sport star in high school in upstate New York and he received offers to play wide receiver in college. Some scouts believe if he played in a warm-weather climate, he would have garnered more attention during the draft.

Bostick still has a lot of developing ahead of him, but he has all the tools to become a successful middle infielder. A strong showing in 2012 could mean Bostick's ascension to Stockton next year as a 20-year-old and he could cement his reputation as a late-round steal.

Matt Thomson, RHP

The Santa Rosa native is looking to return from a torn labrum he had surgically repaired in 2011 and is hoping to recapture the form that impressed the organization in 2010. Thomson went 3-2 with a 2.15 ERA in 12 appearances (nine starts) with Low-A Vancouver before being promoted to Stockton. In his lone appearance for the Ports, the 6'4'' right-hander went five innings and only allowed two hits while striking out 10.

Despite his injury-shortened 2011, Thomson boasts the versatility of a starter and reliever with four pitches to his repertoire. Starring in both football as a receiver and baseball at El Molino High in Forestville, CA, Thompson was drafted by Toronto in the 22nd round of the 2007 draft, but elected to attend the University of San Diego. In 2009, he was drafted again by Detroit, this time in the 12th round. After electing to return to school, Thompson was taken in the 12th round again in 2010, this time by Oakland.

Thomson should be ready to go in 2012 and could be poised for a strong year assuming he's fully recovered from a tricky labrum injury. It's possible he could get a longer look in extended spring training to ensure he's healthy before a promotion to Low-A or possibly High-A Stockton. But having already exhibited his high ceiling with plus stuff and control, Thompson could put himself in position to become a highly regarded prospect once again with a strong season.

Rashun Dixon, OF

In his first full season with Stockton, the former 10th-round selection struggled with just a 696 OPS and 135 strike-outs in 125 games. Despite those poor numbers, Dixon possesses many of the tools scouts look for, including strength and speed, but has yet to put it all together in his three and a half years as a professional.

At just 21-years-old, there's plenty of time for the former high school football star to develop at the plate. He's been promoted in each year of his career, which bodes well for his progression. It's likely that he'll go back to Stockton in 2012 to work on pitch-recognition and making adjustments in the batter's box. Dixon has proven he can play at each outfield positions, while making the majority of his appearances in right field.

The A's hope Dixon can regain his 2010 form, when he had a career-best on-base percentage of .371 before falling to .317 with the Ports in 2011. He'll also need to cut down his strikeouts, although the whiffs will be less of an issue if he can reach his power potential. Because 2012 is likely to be the first time the 6'2'', 210-pounder repeats at a level in the minor leagues, his numbers could be in for a significant jump.

Nick Rickles, C

Over the past few years, Oakland has done a nice job acquiring some intriguing prospects at catcher. One of those intriguing prospects is Rickles, who made a strong impression right away after being drafted in the 14th round of last season's draft. Rickles began his pro career by compiling a 973 OPS in six games in the AZL before going on to hit .310 with an 896 OPS with short-season Vermont over 166 plate appearances.

A testament to his maturity, the 21-year-old landed on Triple-A Sacramento's roster late in the year as an emergency catcher. He did not get into any games for the River Cats, but the fact that he was promoted bodes well for his standing within the organization.

Rickles would have to have a truly outstanding season to overtake Max Stassi, Derek Norris or Ryan Ortiz on the depth chart. But with his experience, athleticism and the fact he's headed into his first full season as a pro puts him on the club's watch list as a potential ascender. It's likely that he will start the year with Low-A Burlington with the possibility to advance later in the year.

James Simmons, RHP

Last season, the former first-round pick from 2007 made some strides in his recovery from the major shoulder surgery that cost him all of 2010 and the first half of 2011. While those strides weren't reflected in his numbers (a combined 4.91 ERA between the AZL and Stockton), Simmons main goal was to find the strike zone again. He proved he was able to do so with a 6-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his 15 appearances.

In 2009, Simmons made 22 starts with Triple-A Sacramento and was considered a prime candidate to crack the A's starting rotation soon after. The shoulder injury, however, sent the right-hander back to square one. This offseason was his first healthy one since the operation. Oakland is hoping that rest and re-strengthening his shoulder can get him back to the form that made him the A's top-overall pick nearly five years ago. At 25, he's still in his athletic prime and will not face the same type of organizational pressure given the club's recent acquisition of solid starting pitching prospects.

Simmons is less of a power-arm than some of the others in the system, but he does spend a lot of time in the strike zone challenging hitters and avoiding walks. A healthy 2012 could get him back on the map, but it should be noted that shoulder injuries like his can be tough to come back from.

Stephen Parker, 3B

Parker comes into 2012 with a chance to be Sacramento's everyday third baseman after putting together a decent year at Double-A Midland in 2011. After hitting 21 home runs and driving in 98 runs with Stockton in 2010, the former fifth-round pick's power dropped significantly, but he still reached base at a solid clip of .373 for the Rockhounds.

Fellow third base prospect Vollmuth might have the higher ceiling of the two, but Parker is much further along in his development at a position that the A's might be looking to upgrade at the major-league level. But Parker will have to regain his power production from 2010 to get his chance in the big leagues.

Parker, 24, didn't put up the prototypical numbers of a power-hitting corning infielder last season, nor did he have very good season defensively with 20 errors. But with the A's seemingly content with Scott Sizemore for the time being, there doesn't appear to be any rush in getting Parker to the big leagues. With a good show of power and defense at the Triple-A level, Parker could force the A's hand at some point this summer should Sizemore regress from 2011 where he posted a 778 OPS with Oakland.

Bobby Crocker, OF

After the A's drafted Crocker in the 38th round in 2008 out of high school, the toolsy outfielder elected to go play at Cal-Poly San Luis Obispo rather than sign. The move worked out for Crocker, who ended up becoming the A's fourth-round selection in 2011 and went on to have a banner year with short-season Vermont. In 129 plate appearances, Crocker amassed an 808 OPS in 32 games.

At 6'3'' and 220 pounds, the Aromas, CA, native not only impressed with his numbers, but with his physical attributes as well. He's far from a finished product at just 21-years-old. With two years of college ball in a competitive conference under his belt, Crocker's solid 2011 should allow him regular at-bats in Stockton with the Ports. Crocker exhibits impressive power to all fields during batting practice, but has yet to show it consistently in games. That's why it might be in his best interest to play in the California League, where power hitters tend to find a groove.

Crocker might own the most powerful outfield bat in the lower-portion of the A's system, making him an intriguing commodity. Given his decent power potential, Crocker's low strikeout numbers and decent on-base percentage from 2011 are especially encouraging. Scouts say his swing can get long, but he'll have plenty of time to sharpen his approach in the plate as time goes on. Should Crocker build off his solid first season, look for him to make a run at Midland in 2013 with a shot at the 40-man roster in 2014.

Jeremy Barfield, OF

As another outfielder possessing good physical tools, Barfield is coming off a year in Midland that could be improved upon. Entering his fourth full season as a pro, Barfield could finally come into his own and improve upon his career minor league line of .265/.334/.394. He has the strongest outfield throwing arm in the A's system and a monstrous 6'5'', 240-pound frame.

A promising 2010 season saw Barfield hit 17 home runs and drive in 92 RBIs for Stockton, while striking out 93 times and walking 52 times in 135 games. With the Rockhounds a year later, his strikeout-to-walk ratio remained virtually the same. However, he hit six homeruns fewer and reached base at a .318 clip after his average fell from .272 to .257.

The A's are hoping the 23-year-old can realize his power potential and will likely give him another year in Midland to improve upon 2011 and solidify himself in the team's plans. Being in an organization as starved for power as the Oakland has been in recent years, the club is hoping Barfield can improve his approach in 2012 and become a candidate for the 40-man roster next season.

A.J. Griffin, RHP

With all of the starting pitchers the A's have infused to their system this offseason, Griffin might be under the radar. But after playing all four years and earning his degree at the University of San Diego, Griffin owns as polished an arm as any in the organization. He proved it during his first two years as a pro, making stops at every level of the organization.

In his first half-season after being selected by Oakland in 2010, the right-hander was used exclusively in relief to keep his innings down after being a starter during his senior year of college. In 2011, the 6'5'', 215-pounder started the year with Low-A Burlington making eight starts with a 1.56 ERA. He would spend the majority of the season with High-A Stockton, making 12 starts and compiling a 3.57 ERA and 1.10 WHIP.

In six starts with the Rockhounds, Griffin struggled with a 6.47 ERA, giving up 39 hits in 32 innings finding the big part of the strike zone too often. He also had one spot start with Sacramento, giving up six hits in six innings. Having recently turned 24, Griffin is poised to return to Midland. A solid start to the year in Double-A could propel Griffin to Sacramento and into the major league conversation for 2013.

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