2011 Year In Review and 2012 Outlook
The seasons are beginning to shift and with this inevitable change comes that of baseball waking from its annual slumber. This awakening is no different in Stockton where the Ports intend to duplicate their previous success and have adopted a renewed sense of optimism towards their upcoming campaign.
Stockton finished last season with a consistent 75-65 record and stampeded through their northern division foes during the post-season by defeating Modesto in three games and San Jose in four en route to a championship series appearance versus Lake Elsinore. And while Stockton was unsuccessful in being crowned California League champions for the first time since 2008, they have constructed a legitimately sound blueprint to succeed in 2012. Despite a gargantuan personnel migration to Midland, they have received an influx of youth and potential from the A's 2011 Vermont and Burlington squads to congeal with an assortment of Stockton veterans as they'll attempt to bring home a title in 2012.
The Ports will be led by the leadership of manager Webster Garrison, who guided Stockton to a 2011 championship series berth and a miraculous 17-game winning streak (June 12th- July 1st). He has been a coaching fixture throughout Oakland's minor league system since 2001 and boasts a career .527 winning percentage. There seems to be a widely accepted notion that Coach Garrison will elevate Stockton to the playoffs once again and judging from his managerial record, why not? As for assistant coaches, Craig Lefferts and Brian McArn have both been recognized individuals in Oakland farm system for years and plan to retain Stockton's reputation as an elite California League pitching staff and to recuperate and improve an offense that finished last in team average and eighth in on-base percentage in 2011.
As Stockton descends onto Banner Island to signal the birth of a fledgling season, it's about time to investigate the assorted characters that will comprise the 2012 Ports and usher in an intriguing and distinct era of Stockton baseball.
The Stockton Infield and Catchers
Stockton's void at first and third base left by Anthony Aliotti and Leonardo Gil will be replenished by an instrumental piece in the Andrew Bailey trade, Miles Head. (Head, a first baseman in the Boston system, will split time at first and third, in part to allow A.J. Kirby-Jones to acquire opportunities at first.) Head demolished the South Atlantic and Carolina leagues within Boston's minor league system last year, posting a cumulative statistic line of .299/.372/.515 with 37 doubles, 22 HRs and a staggering 255 total bases. There's no doubt that Head's power is for real and he has a chance to become the resident slugger for the Ports. Expect and prepare for some offering to end up in McLeod Lake when Miles Head enters the box at Banner Island.
Tony Thompson, who spent last season with Low-A Burlington, figures to see a lot of time at third base for the Ports, while also getting some time at first and at DH. Thompson hit 14 homeruns last year in an injury-plagued campaign. He alternated hot and cold months last year for the Bees.
Michael Gilmartin will reside as the veteran infielder amongst the Ports being the only member of the positional group to return to Stockton. The Wofford alum and California native put together a respectable 2011 record hitting .264/.338/.437 with 215 total bases, 14 HR, 25 doubles and nine triples. The 2011 mid-season All-Star's expertise will be vital to a Ports squad that experienced a massive personnel shift to Midland.
Joining Stockton eventually will be the highly touted shortstop prospect Yordy Cabrera. Cabrera is recovering from a lower back injury at extended spring training, but he is expected to make his full-season home in Stockton once he is healthy and has accumulated enough at-bats in extended spring. Cabrera had a rough professional debut season last year with Low-A Burlington, posting a .231/.297/.368 line in 101 games with 132 total bases, 21 doubles. However, he did show flashes of his vast potential and was named a Midwest League mid-season All-Star. Cabrera was having a strong spring training before his back injury and the A's are looking for improved production from their 2010 second-round pick this year.
Rounding out the cast of infielders for Stockton is an influx of former Burlington standouts that will restock Stockton's infield arsenal. They are A.J. Kirby-Jones (.240/.360/.415, 13 HR, 18 doubles, 101 strikeouts in 94 games), Tony Thompson (.259/.330/.408, 14 HR in 108 games), Nino Leyja (.235/.320/.349, 20 doubles, 28 stolen bases in 113 games), and Ryan Pineda (.255/.333/.373, 18 doubles in 84 games). Stockton has constructed an infield prepared to surprise with its talent, leadership, and potential.
Stockton's catching corps will be manned by two familiar faces: Max Stassi and Petey Paramore, both of whom saw time in Stockton in 2012. Stassi returns to Stockton after an injury-plagued 2011 season. The A's 2009 fourth-round pick appeared in only 31 games last season because of a shoulder injury and he hit a mere .231/.331/.311 performing exclusively as a designated hitter. In late May, the then-20 year old underwent shoulder surgery that ended his season. Stassi, who is already an accomplished defensive backstop, received an opportunity to attend the major league camp this spring and is building momentum towards a memorable 2012.
Before Stockton's scrimmage with Sacramento on Tuesday, Stassi touched on the areas that he is most focused on improving in 2012.
"I would say my swing. You know, getting in a position to hit, that was the main thing I was working on," Stassi said. "With my swing previously, I wasn't truly in a position to hit at all times."
The strategy is seemingly proving effective as Stassi homered in each of Stockton's exhibitions with Sacramento this week. Expect memorable performances strewn throughout 2012 for the Ports backstop.
Complementing Stassi is Paramore. The catcher and 2008 third-round selection was demoted to Stockton from Midland after a lackluster performance in 2011. Paramore hit .235/.319/.429 during his time with the Ports. The switch-hitter has always been known for his strong plate patience and his defensive abilities. He will provide veteran leadership to the team.
The Stockton Outfield
The most blatantly noticeable difference in Stockton outfield core is the absence of the A's 2011 Co-Minor League Player of the Year, Michael Choice. Choice shone in a Ports uniform last season (.285/.376/.542, 30 HRs, 253 total bases, and 28 doubles). This cumulative performance thrust him toward being ranked as the A's top prospect and earned Choice a ticket to Midland.
Despite this glaring departure for an offense in need of power, Stockton returns a familiar cast with the intangibles to impress including a noticeable All-Star addition from Burlington. The outfield corps is led by the Ports' 2011 batting champ, Myrio Richard. Richard impressed frequently throughout 2011, compiling a .292/.363/.419 slash line with 29 doubles, 181 total bases and 27 steals. And despite a lackluster 7-49 (.143) performance during Stockton's playoff run, Richard promises to establish leadership and consistency in the outfield.
Complementing Richard's capabilities on the basepaths will be a useful utility outfielder in Eliezer Mesa, who was acquired from the Colorado Rockies at the end of last season. The Dominican prospect missed a significant portion of 2011 with injury that cost him all of April and May and continued to prove itself as a nagging hindrance throughout the remainder of the season. He hit a meager .256/.320/.311 in 164 at-bats with 11 stolen bases with Modesto before joining Oakland via the Mark Ellis trade in September. Mesa has proven himself in past though hitting .302/.367/.420 with 33 doubles, nine triples, and 29 SBs while earning numerous accolades in the South Atlantic League in 2010. Overall, Stockton should receive a threat to burglarize bases and a player capable of asserting his offensive potential once more.
Similar to Mesa, Rashun Dixon will look to acquire his past success as the familiar face in Stockton returns for 2012. Dixon disappointed last season, compiling a line of .243/.317/.379 with 74 runs, 11 HRs and 173 total bases in 125 contests and acquiring an appalling 26.6 K% along the way. Dixon possesses the capability to impress and theoretically should improve after acclimating himself with the California League over the course of 2011. Dixon had a strong spring training and fall Instructional League camp. Look for Dixon to capture and resume his usual role as an everyday outfielder for the Ports.
Josh Whitaker, an All-Star in Burlington last season, completes the outfield for Stockton. Whitaker obliterated the Midwest League in his first full professional season, hitting .326/.402./556 over the duration of 396 at-bats. He had 17 HRs and 34 doubles as well. Whitaker was named a Midwest league post season, Topps Class A and MiLB All-Star. Whitaker played primarily at first base and DHed in Burlington, but he should see plenty of time in the outfield with the Ports, as well as some time at first and at DH.
The Stockton Pitching Staff
Stockton will welcome an entirely fresh and innovative rotation to the squad hoping to continue their reputation as an elite pitching force in the California League. The staff includes some intriguing names, most notably top prospect A.J. Cole. The 20-year-old gained notoriety this offseason as one of the four players acquired from Washington in the Gio Gonzalez swap. The Floridian collected rave reviews for his velocity and his physical potential (6'4"/180 pounds) as he utilized his overpowering 94 MPH fastball and breaking pitch to dazzle and earn a top-100 prospect ranking for all of baseball entering 2012. In 89 innings with Low-A Hagerstown last season, Cole compiled a 4.04 ERA and a 4-7 record. However, Cole also earned a 10.92 K/9 rate and acquired a 2.53 FIP that were better indicators of how well he actually pitched. These numbers are sure to excite any Oakland fan as Cole continues to develop steadily. Before the Stockton-Sacramento tilt on Tuesday, Cole stressed that he was working on the development of his changeup entering 2012. Scouts have been taken back by Cole's mediocre change and Cole hopes to alter that perception with the addition of a third pitch to his repertoire.
Ian Krol, one of the few lefties on Stockton's roster, jumps out as another noticeable name on the staff as he reasserts himself into the minor leagues after a lost 2011 season that included a forearm strain and a suspension for conduct. Krol is one of the top command pitchers in the A's organization and uses the changing of speeds and his control to overwhelm his opponents. Krol isn't known for his velocity, although he was clocked as high as 94 MPH on occasion this spring. He constructed a 9-4 record with a 2.65 ERA in 27 starts and 118.2 IP with Oakland's former Low-A affiliate, Kane County, in 2010. That performance earned him a late-season promotion to Stockton where in four starts he pitched 19.2 IP with a 3.66 ERA. Krol's injury- and suspension-shortened 2011 season limited him to only a handful of innings for the A's Rookie League team.
Stockton will feature a six-man rotation to begin 2012. The other members of the starting cast include two standout starters for Burlington in 2011 in Blake Hassebrock and Josh Bowman. The final two spots will be given to the youngsters T.J. Walz and Blake Treinen, two promising 2011 draft selections that have ascended the ranks to begin their first full minor league seasons as starters in Stockton.
The Stockton bullpen is comprised of an assorted cast of characters that will intend on impressing for the Ports. Perhaps the most intriguing figure present on the bullpen roster is the only member of Oakland's 40-man roster to don a Ports uniform in 2012, Sean Doolittle. Doolittle, in his first spring as a pitcher, appeared in 1.1 innings in big league camp, recording three strikeouts and allowing one hit and walk. This is an incredibly miniscule sample size, but reflects nothing but positivity for Doolittle, the former supplemental first-round selection in 2007. The prospect was hailed as Oakland's next slugger, but he virtually all of the 2009-2011 seasons due to knee and wrist problems. He now has resumed his baseball duties, returning to his former occupation as a pitcher in yet another attempt to climb to the majors. Doolittle is accustomed to pitching competitively from taking the mound at the University of Virginia, where he set the school's win record. Doolittle hopes to impress with his mid-90s fastball and, most importantly, to remain healthy.
Joining Doolittle in the bullpen will be the Ports' closer from 2011, Jose Guzman, who saved 20 games for the Ports last season. He was originally slated to move up to Double-A, but was caught in a numbers game when the A's had to send veteran Bruce Billings to Midland. Guzman could be on the fast-track to a promotion should an opening appear in Midland.
Another familiar name in Stockton's bullpen is Arnold Leon, who starred as a reliever for the Ports in 2008. Leon had a promising 2009 campaign with Double-A Midland, but virtually all of the 2010 and 2011 seasons thanks to Tommy John surgery. The Mexican native has arguably the best curveball in the A's system.
The remainder of the bullpen is made up of Nathan Long and Zach Thornton, two former Burlington Bees looking to establish positive reputations in the California League, Jake Brown, a former starter for Stockton that will take to the bullpen for 2012, and Connor Hoehn, a fireballing reliever who spent all of the 2011 season with the Ports.