2012 Year In Review and 2013 Outlook
It was a tough year for the Oakland A's Double-A affiliate in 2012. Despite a roster laden with talent, the team finished 10 games below the .500 mark and out of the post-season. The RockHounds were an even .500 during the first half, but they slumped during the second half, as promotions and injuries took a tool on the club.
Several RockHounds had strong individual seasons, however. Two members of the Midland Opening Day starting rotation would reach the big leagues – RHPs Dan Straily and A.J. Griffin. In addition, LHP Sean Doolittle would make a brief stop in Midland on his way to the big leagues.
The RockHounds had three former first-round picks on their roster last season: OF Michael Choice and RHPs Sonny Gray and James Simmons. All three have been promoted to Triple-A for the 2013 season. Choice had a slow start to his 2012 season, but he was the Texas League's hottest hitter in June and July before he was hit by a pitch on his hand that ended his season. Simmons pitched well in the Midland bullpen and earned a mid-season promotion to Triple-A, while Gray remained in the RockHounds' rotation until a promotion to Sacramento for the final week of the season.
The Midland offensive MVPs last season were 1B Anthony Aliotti (.292/.385/.426) and UT Conner Crumbliss (.257/.414/.391). Crumbliss has moved up to Sacramento, while Aliotti will return to Midland for a second season.
The RockHounds' coaching staff will be led by manager Aaron Nieckula, who had spent the last two seasons managing the A's Low-A affiliate (then in Burlington, Iowa). Nieckula, a high-energy manager who was a minor league catcher in the A's and Giants systems, has also managed at the High-A level. Don Schulze will return as the Rockhounds' pitching coach, while Brian McArn will serve as the batting coach. McArn was the batting coach for the High-A Stockton Ports last season, and he has coaching experience at every level of minor league baseball.
The 2013 RockHounds will begin the year with an experienced roster. Only three players on the Opening Day roster will enter the year with no previous experience at the Double-A level.
The Midland Infielders and Catchers
Aliotti will lead the Midland infield for a second straight year. He will be joined by returning infielders Dusty Coleman, Miles Head and Tyler Ladendorf, as well as newcomers Jefry Marte, Tommy Mendonca and Darwin Perez.
There will be plenty of competition for at-bats amongst the infielders, especially at the corners. Aliotti and Head should see the bulk of the time at first base, although Mendonca and Marte could get some time there, as well. Head, Marte and Mendonca will also share time at third.
Head spent the entire 2012 season at third base, but he has experience at first from his time in the Boston Red Sox organization, and he probably profiles best at that position long-term. Head was the top hitter in the A's system last season, as he posted a .333/.391/.577 line in 124 games between Midland and High-A Stockton. Head was set to play in the Arizona Fall League, but he injured his shoulder during the first game of the fall and missed the rest of that season.
The A's were disappointed in Head's off-season conditioning, as he arrived in camp about 15 pounds over-weight. However, he is a talented hitter and has historically dominated leagues during his second go-around. If history holds, Head could be in for a big first-half with the RockHounds.
Marte and Mendonca were off-season acquisitions. Marte was acquired from the Mets for Colin Cowgill, while Mendonca was a minor league Rule 5 acquisition from the Texas Rangers. Both are natural third basemen. Mendonca, a 2009 second-round pick, spent some time at catcher last year, but isn't expected to be behind the plate in the A's system. He has a reputation for being a strong defensive third baseman with good power but a free-swinging approach.
Marte is the youngest player on the RockHounds' roster (he is six weeks younger than Head). A native of the Dominican, Marte was moved aggressively through the Mets' system. Although still raw, he will be repeating at the Double-A level. Marte had a strong spring and has power potential and an aggressive approach at the plate.
Up the middle, Midland will have three talented defensive players in Coleman, Ladendorf and Perez. All three are natural shortstops who can move around the infield. Ladendorf and Perez are also both capable of playing in the outfield and they could get some reps there, as well. Coleman and Ladendorf shared middle infield duties with Midland last season. Coleman led the RockHounds with 15 homers, but he batted just .201. Ladendorf had a hot first half, but he struggled down-the-stretch. Both are currently blocked at Triple-A by several players on the A's 40-man roster, but trades or injuries could open a path for them during the year.
Perez was a minor league free agent signing by the A's over the off-season. The former Angels' farmhand had a solid spring in big league camp for Oakland. This will be the fourth straight season that Perez has seen time in the Texas League. He spent the entire 2011 and 2012 seasons with Double-A Arkansas. Despite that experience, Perez is still just 23.
Behind the plate, the RockHounds will have Nick Rickles and Ryan Lipkin. Rickles is making the jump from Low-A straight to Double-A despite having a down 2012 season with Low-A Burlington. He hit only .220 with a 584 OPS with the Burlington Bees last season, but Rickles hit .310 with an 829 OPS in short-season ball in 2011 and the A's like his approach at the plate and his defensive abilities.
Lipkin is a strong defensive catcher who has moved between High-A, Double-A and Triple-A the past two seasons. The University of San Francisco alum appeared in 53 games with the RockHounds last season and he batted .204.
The Midland Outfielders
Barfield returns to the Midland outfield for a third straight season. The 6'5'' right fielder increased his production last season in his second year in the league, making the mid-season Texas League All-Star team and raising his average from .257 to .272. He has the strongest throwing arm in the A's system and is regularly among the league leaders in outfield assists.
Myers was a minor league free agent signing by the A's this off-season. The former Phillies' farmhand can play all three outfield positions. He split last season between High-A and Double-A and batted .305 in 67 games. Myers was a fourth-round pick in 2006 out of high school and is a cousin of NBA legend Shaquille O'Neal.
Oberacker will be making his Double-A debut after spending his first full professional season last year with the A's two A-ball clubs. After beginning the year with Low-A Burlington, the centerfielder was a sparkplug for the Stockton Ports for most of the season, batting .260 with 13 homers and 25 stolen bases in 107 games, mostly at the top of the Ports' roster. He and Myers will likely share time in centerfield.
The Midland Pitching Staff
There will be plenty of experience on the RockHounds' pitching staff at the start of the year. Only reliever Jeff Urlaub enters the season without experience at the Double-A level, and many of the RockHounds' pitchers have pitched at Triple-A or in the big leagues.
The RockHounds' rotation is expected to include Arnold Leon, Josh Bowman, Murphy Smith and Josh Stinson, Carlos Hernandez. Sergio Perez, Frank Gailey, Darren Byrd, Urlaub, Zach Neal, Paul Smyth, Carlos Fisher and Kyler Newby are likely to handle the bullpen duties.
Leon will be returning to the starting rotation for the first time since he injured his elbow with the RockHounds in April 2010. Leon missed nearly all of the 2010 and 2011 seasons after having Tommy John surgery and spent all of last season as a reliever. Leon has a deep arsenal of pitches and his velocity has returned to the low-90s level that it was at before his injury.
Bowman is coming off of a strong season with the High-A Stockton Ports, during which he posted a 3.62 ERA in 146.2 innings. Bowman struck-out 127 and walked 33 and he was particularly effective for the Ports during the second half of the season. Bowman made one start for the RockHounds during the final week of last season.
Smith spent all of last season in the RockHounds' rotation, making 27 appearances (24 starts). The right-hander had a strong first half and he made the Texas League mid-season All-Star team. However, he faded down-the-stretch and finished with a 4.82 ERA and an 83:57 K:BB ratio in 140 innings. Smith had a strong spring training and could be in-line for a breakout season.
Stinson is a newcomer to the A's organization, having been acquired via waivers from the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday. A hard-throwing right-hander, Stinson has extensive experience at the Double-A level and has pitched some at Triple-A and in the major leagues. Last season, he spent the year with Double-A Hunstville. He had a 3.16 ERA, but a mediocre 91:71 K:BB ratio in 145.1 innings. Stinson is a groundball pitcher.
Hernandez has spent time on the RockHounds' staff every year since 2009. The left-hander can fill a variety of roles for Midland, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him pitch both in the rotation and the bullpen this season. Hernandez had a 5.10 ERA in 102.1 innings for Midland and Sacramento last year. He had a strong winter league season.
Perez, Fisher, Newby, Gailey, Byrd and Neal are all new to the organization. Perez is a veteran right-hander who spent all of last season pitching in the bullpen for Triple-A Oklahoma City. He has plenty of experience as a starter, as well as a reliever, and could fill a variety of roles this season.
Fisher was a minor league free agent signing this off-season. The right-hander pitched in the major leagues for parts of the 2009-2011 seasons. Last year, Fisher spent the year in the Triple-A Louisville bullpen, where he had a 4.61 ERA. Fisher has strike-out stuff, but he has had his struggles with his command.
Newby and Gailey were also minor league free agent signings. Newby pitched in big league camp for the A's and he has plenty of experience at the Double-A level. Newby spent most of last season at the Double-A level in the Orioles' chain and he saved 19 games for Bowie. He is an option to close for the RockHounds this year. Gailey pitched at four levels in the Phillies' organization last season. From 2007-2011, the 5'9'' left-hander pitched in the Toronto Blue Jays' chain. He struck-out 58 in 59 innings last year.
Byrd and Neal were recently added to the organization in late spring acquisitions. Byrd had a standout year with Double-A Hunstville last season, posting a 2.59 ERA and striking out 71 in 73 innings. Byrd has a hard sinker and is a groundball pitcher but can struggle with his command. Neal is a big-bodied right-hander who spent the past three years in the Miami Marlins' chain. He made 21 appearances (10 starts) for Double-A Jacksonville last season, his first experience at the Double-A level.
Urlaub and Smyth are the only two relievers in the bullpen who were drafted by the A's. The lefty Urlaub has one of the best K:BB ratios of any pitcher in the A's organization. In 2011, he struck-out 72 and walked 10, and last year he struck-out 58 and walked nine. The sidearmer Smyth returns for his third season with the RockHounds. In 2012, Smyth was a reliable member of the Midland ‘pen, posting a 4.02 ERA in 44 appearances. He struck-out 53 in 69.1 innings.