1) The Stockton Ports' pitching staff will finish among the top-two teams in Team ERA for the California League
It's looking like 2008 all over again in Stockton. The Ports are expected to feature a talented staff that has been fortified by some of the A's off-season dealings. The rotation will likely be headed by two talented young starters with similar last names and completely different pitching styles and repertoires. Fire-baller A.J. Cole, acquired from the Washington Nationals this off-season, and command artist Ian Krol should be one of the top one-two punches in the California League. Blake Hassebrock, who posted a 2.64 ERA with Low-A Burlington last season, is expected to join Cole and Krol in the rotation, as is Josh Bowman (3.55 ERA in 2011 with the Bees). Two promising right arms from the 2011 draft class – T.J. Walz and Blake Treinen – are expected to jump to High-A after strong springs, as well. The pitching staff is also likely to include two members of that 2008 California League championship squad – Sean Doolittle (who was a hitter back then) and Arnold Leon. Both Doolittle and Leon have had their share of injury problems the past few seasons, but both are now healthy and could be poised to put up big numbers for the Ports – at least until they are promoted to Double-A.
2) The Midland rotation will have at least two 10-game winners
Pitching (and starting pitching, in particular) was an issue for the 2011 Midland Rockhounds, who finished near the bottom of the Texas League in team ERA, but that trend shouldn't repeat itself in 2012. The Rockhounds could have one of the best starting rotations in the league. The Opening Day roster is expected to feature two former first-round picks (2011 first-rounder Sonny Gray and 2007 first-rounder James Simmons), as well as one of the system's top starters in 2011 (A.J. Griffin). Daniel Straily is also expected to join the Midland staff after a strong year with High-A Stockton in 2011. The starters will be bolstered by a strong bullpen that should include 2011 Stockton closer Jose Guzman (20 saves), as well as hard-throwing righty Brett Hunter, sinker-balling sidearmer Paul Smyth and solid lefty Trey Barham. The Midland offense also carries some promise, with 2010 first-round pick Michael Choice leading the charge. Some of the most talented Midland starters might not stay with the team long enough this season to earn 10 wins with the club, but there should be several who spend the bulk of the year in the Texas League given the depth of the A's pitching in Triple-A and the big leagues.
3) A's will recall at least six pitchers from the Sacramento Opening Day roster during the season
Over the past several seasons, the A's have dipped heavily into the Sacramento roster for pitching help, as injuries and trades have altered the A's staff from its Opening Day look. This season figures to be no different, as the A's have several pitchers on their Opening Day roster with lengthy injury histories, as well as several promising young pitchers at Triple-A who are expected to make the jump to the big leagues at some point in 2012. Young right-handers Jarrod Parker and Brad Peacock are two of those pitchers expected to make the jump to the big leagues this season. In fact, one of them may be called on as early as mid-April when the A's need a fifth starter for the first time. Both pitchers were acquired by the A's this off-season. They had their struggles during spring training, but the A's are high on their futures. Lefty Pedro Figueroa opened a lot of eyes during his time in big league camp and could be one of the first pitchers the A's call on should one of their lefty relievers get hurt. Veteran A's farmhands Carlos Hernandez and Travis Banwart could also position themselves into big league roles, a la Graham Godfrey last season, with strong starts with Sacramento. Oakland has also signed several veterans to man the Sacramento bullpen and all of them are candidates to fill in for the A's at the big league level, should the need arise. The River Cats' likely Opening Day staff will include several relievers with major league experience, including Edgar Gonzalez, Bruce Billings, Erick Threets, Jim Miller and Neil Wagner.
4) At least two A's minor league relievers will have 20 saves
Thanks to trades this off-season and a strong 2011 draft class, the A's farm system is deeper and more talented than it was at this time last season. The A's sent three of their four full-season minor league affiliates to the post-season in 2011 and that trend could continue into 2012. With winning comes pitchers who accumulate a lot of save opportunities. Last year, only Stockton closer Jose Guzman finished with 20 saves, but we'll go out on a limb and say that there will be more than one in 2012. In addition to Guzman, there are several candidates to break that barrier, including Paul Smyth, Sean Doolittle, Zach Thornton, Connor Hoehn, Jim Miller, Neil Wagner and Daniel Tenholder.
5) The A's will have four minor league pitchers with at least 150 strike-outs in 2012
Last season, the A's had three pitchers strike-out at least 150 batters – A.J. Griffin, Daniel Straily and Rob Gilliam. Gilliam was traded to Washington this off-season, but Griffin and Straily are still in the organization and poised to break the 150-strikeout barrier again in 2012, if they remain healthy. Other candidates are newly acquired prospects A.J. Cole (108 strikeouts in 89 innings last season) and Raul Alcantara (50 strikeouts in 65.1 innings last season). If they spend most of the 2012 season in the minor leagues, Sonny Gray, Travis Banwart, Brad Peacock and Jarrod Parker are also candidates to challenge that number. Ian Krol could also make a run at the 150-strikeout mark. He whiffed 20 batters in 19.2 innings with High-A Stockton in 2010.
Bonus Prediction about the Overall System: One of the A's affiliates will win a league championship in 2012
Last season, the A's sent five minor league affiliates to the post-season and two of those affiliates lost in their league championship series. With the additional talent that has been infused into the A's system and the organization's continued emphasis on winning at every level of the minor leagues, look for a similar level of success across the system in 2012. In 2008 – the last time the A's made several off-season trades to upgrade their farm system – the A's captured two league championships. In 2012, we are betting on at least one.