Editor's Note: After the publication of this article, Cedric Hunter was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for cash considerations.
2011 Year In Review and 2012 OutlookThe Oakland A's Double-A affiliate, the Midland Rockhounds, are attempting to build off their late season success in 2011. Despite a slow first half, Midland ended the 2011 season with a 19-15 record in August and September and a third place finish in the Texas League South Division.
Manager Steve Scarsone is entering his second season with the Rockhounds along with pitching coach Don Schulze and hitting coach Tim Garland. Athletic Trainer Justin Whitehouse is entering his fifth season with the staff. The only new addition to the coaching staff is strength and conditioning coach Jared Elliot.
The Rockhounds will be featuring both a talented and experienced squad on Opening Day. The team is returning 14 players that participated in part or all of the 2011 season and the roster is highlighted by three former A's first-round picks.
The Midland Infielders and Catchers
Returning Rockhounds Michael Spina and Shane Peterson will be splitting time at first base in 2012, although Peterson will also see time in the outfield. Spina is no stranger to the Rockhounds. He spent the entire 2011 season with the club. He batted .282, hit 10 home runs and led the team with 75 RBI. If Spina starts the season hot, there is a good chance he'll get a call to Triple-A. Peterson split time with the Rockhounds and Triple-A Sacramento. He tore up the base paths in Triple-A, hitting .293 with six home runs and 32 RBI. Anthony Aliotti will also be biding for time at first. A defensive stalwart, Aliotti earned a spot on the team after recording the second-most RBI (66) with High-A Stockton last season. Aliotti drew 80 walks in 127 games.
Infielder Tyler Ladendorf hit .225 in 125 games for Midland last season, his first at the Double-A level. Ladendorf has good speed and is one of the A's best minor league defensive players. He has played both the infield and outfield during his career and figures to be moved around the field once again in 2012.
Shortstop Josh Horton was invited to big league spring training last season but saw his minor league season cut to only 27 games by a serious hamstring injury. Horton was apart of the Rockhounds' 2009 and 2010 playoff teams and played a key role in those runs. Look for him to get back on track this year while playing some short, third and second base. Third baseman Leonardo Gil is a newcomer to the team. Last season with Stockton, he batted .256 and drove in 39 runs with an on-base percentage of .313.
Dusty Coleman, a shortstop, appeared in 10 games with Sacramento and 120 games with Stockton in 2011. After missing all of the 2010 season with a wrist injury, Coleman showed some pop at the plate smacking 15 home runs in 2011. He also stole 21 bags in for Stockton, good for third on the team. In Triple-A, Coleman showed some promise hitting .333; however, he needs to be more consistent on the routine plays defensively. Although he has excellent hands, range and a strong arm, Coleman committed a team-leading 30 errors with the Ports last year.
Speedy and patient utilityman Conner Crumbliss will see time at second base and in the outfield this season. Depsite a stone-cold April, Crumbliss had 24 stolen bases, a .404 on-base percentage and scored the second-most runs on the team (75) for Stockton last year.
The Rockhounds will be carrying two catchers to start the season. Ryan Ortiz hit .340 in 28 games with the Ports then moved to Midland and had a batting avg. of .237. Ortiz, who was invited to big league spring training this year and spent the fall participating in the Arizona Fall League, was ranked by this site as Oakland's 29th-best prospect. He missed the first five weeks of last season after undergoing shoulder surgery in 2010. After beginning the year in extended spring training thanks to an appendectomy, Ryan Lipkin spent the rest of the year with Stockton. In 83 games, he batted .248 with 47 RBI. He is a solid defensive catcher. Both players should see plenty of playing time.
The Midland Outfielders
The Rockhounds' outfield mix is highlighted by Michael Choice, who was selected 10th overall in the 2010 draft and was Co-Organizational Player of the Year in 2011 after having a breakout season with Stockton. In 118 games, he blasted a league-best 30 home runs and drove-in 82 runs. OaklandClubhouse named him the A's top prospect going into this season. Choice was a non-roster invitee to the A's 2012 spring training camp. At only 22 years old, Choice has unlimited potential.
The Rockhounds are only returning one outfielder from last year, Jeremy Barfield. Barfield led the team in home runs (11) and was second in RBI (72) in 2011. He will get another opportunity to prove himself at this level. Cedric Hunter is one of two players on the team who appeared in a Major League game in 2011. In four at-bats with the San Diego Padres, Hunter managed a hit and he scored one run. The rest of his season was spent with Triple-A Tucson, where he had 33 RBI and 44 runs in 81 games before an injury sidelined him for the final six weeks of the year. Hunter was claimed off waivers by Oakland on October 25, 2011. Peterson, Crumbliss and Ladendorf should supplement Choice, Barfield and Hunter in the outfield.
The Midland Pitching Staff
Gray, Oakland's first-round draft selection in 2011, leads the pack. In five starts with Midland last year, he posted a 0.45 ERA and struck out 18 batters in just over 20.0 innings. Gray is rated by OaklandClubhouse as the A's third-best prospect upon entering his first full pro season. With a strong start for Midland, he could move up to Triple-A or the big leagues very quickly.
Griffin pitched at four levels of the A's organization last year including six games with the Rockhounds (2-3, 6.47). In total, he had a 3.47 ERA and a 156:32 K:BB ratio in 160.2 innings in his first full professional season. Griffin also starred for Stockton in the post-season, helping the team reach the league championship series.
Straily won 11 games for the Ports last season. He is also a workhorse and pitched over 160.0 innings (3.87 ERA) and he struck-out 154 batters in a breakthrough campaign.
Haviland struggled with Midland in '11, his first season at the Double-A level. The Harvard alum had an ERA greater than 7.00 and allowed 113 earned runs in 143.2 innings. Daley Jr. spent time with Midland, Stockton and Sacramento last year, although the bulk of his playing time was with Midland. The former Cardinals' draft pick went 6-7, 5.18 ERA for Midland last year, but had a hot stretch in June and July where he posted a 1.33 ERA in six starts.The Midland bullpen will have a veteran look to it, at least initially. Bruce Billings is expected to close out games at the start of the 2012 season. He reached the majors for a brief stint last season, pitching a total of four games with Colorado and Oakland. Billings was acquired from the Rockies in a trade involving infielder Mark Ellis. Billings is a right hander who spent most of last year in Triple-A, where he posted a 4.46 ERA and 72 strikeouts in 76.2 innings. He is likely to be the first reliever promoted to Triple-A if there is an opening in Sacramento.
James Simmons was Oakland's first-round draft choice in 2007. He made his debut with Midland in 2007 and pitched there again in 2008. Unfortunately, after one season at Triple-A, Simmons injured his shoulder and missed the entire 2010 season. He didn't return until June 2011. The potential for Simmons is evident as he was a Texas League mid-season All-Star in 2008 and is a former top-10 A's prospect. It will be interesting to see how he fares this year.
Left-hander Trey Barham had an outstanding 2011 with the ‘Hounds. He recorded a 2.95 ERA in 56 appearances and should put up similar numbers this year. Fellow Midland returnee Jonathan Ortiz had a strong second half of the season for Midland. In 21 appearances out of the bullpen, he put up a 2.08 ERA. As a whole, Ortiz struck out 60 batters in 65.0 innings pitched with Midland.
Brett Hunter and Paul Smyth are also making a return to the Rockhounds' bullpen. Hunter jumped from High-A to Double-A to Triple-A just last year. Smyth had a 4.85 ERA in 40 appearances with 59 strikeouts.
Newcomers A.J. Huttenlocker and Murphy Smith round out the Midland bullpen. Both are arriving from Stockton. Huttenlocker, the only other lefty on the Stockton staff besides Barham, posted a miniscule 1.83 ERA in 69 innings for the Ports last season. He also recorded 60 strikeouts and had a 1.07 WHIP. Smith will be making the transition from the starting rotation to the bullpen. He was a workhorse with Stockton last season and had a 3.94 ERA in 137.0 innings. He pitched in the Arizona Fall League this past October and November.