It has been a forgettable stretch for the Stockton Ports, a stretch which included a streak of 16 consecutive losses and ultimately resulted in 24 losses out of 28 games. There have been some signs of life, however. Despite losing their last two series, the Ports are 3-4 during that stretch and they had a 13+ run differential. There is optimism that the Ports will return to the winning form they displayed during the first 10 games of the season, when they won seven games.
The Ports will be embarking on this journey without two high-profile members of the team's Opening Day roster. This week top pitching prospect A.J. Cole and outfield prospect Rashun Dixon were sent down to Low-A Burlington. Right-hander Sean Murphy was promoted from Burlington to take Cole's place in the Ports' rotation. Murphy had a standout debut on Thursday night, carrying a perfect game into the seventh inning. Dixon is currently on the inactive list, but he will join the Bees' roster soon. His spot in the Ports' outfield was taken last week by Dusty Robinson, who was promoted from Burlington and has already homered twice.
Oakland A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman is hoping the new setting will be beneficial for both Dixon and Cole.
"Both are going back [to Low-A] to improve their consistency and to regain their confidence," Lieppman told OaklandClubhouse.com.
"Neither move had anything to do with the recent Stockton losing streak. Tuesday's big run production was a boost to the team morale and the back to back wins last week are starting them in the right direction."
It has been an up-and-down career for Dixon thus far. The A's 2008 10th round selection came to professional baseball with a superb athletic pedigree that included three brothers who were standout athletes: Anthony (a fullback for the San Francisco 49ers), Antwon (a defensive back at Midwestern State) and Deshun (a minor league outfielder in Tampa Bay's system). Dixon's brothers motivated him to excel athletically when he was growing up.
"Everything was a competition," Dixon said.
"Whatever you could think of we made into a competition. All of us were so competitive."
Dixon himself was a two-sport standout in high school. He would ultimately garner collegiate attention as a wide receiver in football at Terry High School, amassing 52 receptions, 971 yards and nine touchdowns in a senior campaign that gifted him with a football scholarship to Mississippi State University. However, Dixon opted to enter the MLB draft rather than pursuing a football career.
"Growing up I played more baseball than football," Dixon said. "And ultimately that was the deciding factor."
Dixon's production on the diamond trumped his output on the gridiron. As a senior, he hit .530/.643/1.096 with 53 runs and 13 homers and he earned the "Mississippi Player of the Year" honor. Despite those achievements, Dixon was still considered a raw prospect when the A's took him in the draft.
Dixon's raw talent and lack of polish have been on display throughout his pro career. He would excel in his initial exposure to minor league competition in Arizona, smacking 10 triples, 3 doubles and eight homers in 179 at-bats to compliment his .263/.328/.525 line for the A's Rookie League team in 2008. However, his production would significantly decline while entering his first full farm system season in the Northwest League, which would see his OPS deflate from 853 in his AZL debut to a mediocre 581 with short-season Vancouver. Still, the A's would promote Dixon to Low-A Kane County in 2010 and he would compile arguably his most successful minor league season to date. In a professional high 515 plate appearances, Dixon hit .275/.371/.383 while producing his highest BB rate (11.3%), lowest strikeout rate (26.2%), most SB (nine) and his loftiest BABIP (.376) over the entirety of his Oakland career.
Last season, Dixon was promoted to High-A Stockton and he hit a career high 11 homers and launched five triples and contributed as a regular to the Northern division champions, but managed only a 696 OPS. After hitting only .243/.317/.379 with Stockton in 2011, Dixon was sent back to Stockton this year. It was the first time he was asked to repeat a level.
"I didn't really think about it," Dixon said earlier this month when asked if he was expecting a promotion to Double-A at the start of the season. "I didn't really think I had that good of a year last season. So I figured I'd return to Stockton."
Dixon's struggles with the Ports have deepened in 2012. Before his demotion, Dixon hit .206/.278/.343 in 30 games with the Ports. In 102 at-bats, Dixon compiled a 35.7% strikeout rate that was elevated during his final eight contests, when he went 0-21 with 12 strikeouts. The A's are counting on Dixon's previous success in the Midwest League helping the outfielder work through his slump. Despite all of the ups-and-downs Dixon has experienced in his career, the outfielder is still only 21 years old.
Cole is also experiencing a demotion for the first time in his young professional career. The right-hander was the top prospect acquired by the A's in a December swap that sent Gio Gonzalez to the Washington Nationals. Cole was a fourth-round selection of the Nationals in 2010, but he was so highly regarded that he received the highest signing bonus in the history of the round. In his first full professional season, the 6'4" flame-thrower pitched in 89 innings for Low-A Hagerstown of the South Atlantic League. He rang up a 10.92 K/9 rate and collected a 2.53 FIP despite being haunted by a 63.1% LOB% and .342 BABIP, which contributed to his lackluster 4.04 ERA.
Entering 2012, Cole was included on Scout.com's top 100 prospects list at #76 and expectations were high for him despite the fact that he was one of the youngest pitchers in the hitter-friendly California League. Cole, who is only 20, never got on track with the Ports, however. In eight starts for Stockton, he managed to get through the sixth inning only once and he surrendered at least four runs in each of his starts, leaving him with a 7.82 ERA. With runners in scoring position, he had a 20.45 ERA, 1.91 WHIP and .409 opponent's batting average. Even his FIP regressed, having increased to 4.99, which ranked the second-highest amongst all California League starters. The drastic FIP increase cannot be pinpointed to his strikeouts or walk numbers and ratios, which have remained somewhat steady. He recorded a 7.34 K/9 with Stockton compared to his 10.92 K/9 with Hagerstown and a 2.37 BB/9 with the Ports and a 2.43 BB/9 with Hagerstown.
Cole's troubling statistics with Stockton are most likely linked to bad luck. His BABIP skyrocketed to .405 and his LOB% stalled at a ridiculous 52.2% thus far for Stockton. An unreliable Ports' defense that has committed 53 errors in 45 contests may have been the culprit. Cole's largest mistake personally would be his homer-rates, which have risen from 0.61 HR/9 the previous season to 1.66 with the Ports. Overall, in 51 fewer innings pitched, Cole has surrendered more homers (seven) in the California League compared his total from the previous season (six). Moving to a more pitcher-friendly environment in the Midwest League should help Cole lower his homerun rates, although he did allow two homers in his Midwest League debut on Wednesday night.
Stockton manager Webster Garrison indicated during the Ports' last homestand that Cole's struggles stemmed from a number of different factors.
"It's a combination of things," Garrison said.
"It's mainly his location and sometimes his pitch selection. He's a young pitcher and growing, so he's definitely got the stuff. He's got the arm, the makeup, everything. But right now he's working on putting some hitters away when he gets ahead and trying not to leave the ball up in the zone where they can put a bat on it.
"He's been up in the zone and being hit a little bit. So if he works on just keeping that down and hitting his spots he'll be okay."
Senior Editor Melissa Lockard contributed to this story.