Oakland A's Top-50 Prospects: 25-21

It's that time of the year when we take stock of the Oakland A's organization and analyze the top prospects. For the next few weeks, we will profile our top-50 prospect list in groups of five. Today, we continue the series with a review of prospects 25-21.

25. Anthony Aliotti

Aliotti had a .350 BA for the RockHounds.

Aliotti's climb through the A's system has been a gradual one, but the East Bay native has opened a lot of eyes over the past two seasons and is finally in a position to make a push for a big league spot sometime in the next 12 months.

The St. Mary's College and De La Salle alum was selected in the 15th round of the 2009 draft by the A's. Since that time, Aliotti has demonstrated an above-average ability to get on-base, as well as good skills with the glove at first. However, over the past few seasons, Aliotti has become more than just a guy who can work a walk and pick a short-hop. In 2012, he was arguably the Midland Rockhounds' top hitter when he posted an 811 OPS and a .292 average in 123 Texas League games. This year, Aliotti returned to the Texas League because of a backlog of first basemen in Sacramento. He dominated the Texas League in 91 games before finally getting that promotion to Triple-A.

In 340 at-bats with Midland in 2013, Aliotti hit .350/.452/.541 with 12 homers, 66 walks and 29 doubles. To put those numbers in context, the league average for the Texas League was .252/.319/.388. Had he remained in the Texas League all season, Aliotti would have had been in the running for the league's MVP award.

At the end of July, Aliotti was promoted to Sacramento, as the River Cats' roster finally had an opening. His numbers dipped in his first taste of Triple-A baseball. In 154 at-bats, Aliotti hit .266/.329/.344 with two homers, 15 walks and four doubles. His overall slashline for the 2013 season was still very impressive, however, as he finished with a .324/.416/.480 line. Aliotti established career-highs for batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, homeruns, doubles and walks.

Aliotti was 22 when he signed with the A's and he has never had the traditional power profile that the elite first base prospects carry. Because of those facts, he has had to fight an uphill battle to be recognized as a legitimate prospect. However, Aliotti has improved his game every year he has been a pro and he is firmly on the radar of the A's front office.

"I think that first and foremost that Anthony is definitely a prospect," A's Director of Player Development Billy Owens said during the season. "You can't hide from that fact. The way that he's hit .300 in Double-A last year in his first year at that level and has backed that up by hitting .350 in the first half this year is impressive. His extra-base hits have increased, his walk numbers have increased, he uses the whole field. He can hit the ball from foul line to foul line with authority. His glove at first base is tremendous.

"From a scouting perspective, I have always looked at him as he has risen through the ranks as someone like Mike Aldrete, who was a Bay Area favorite when I was a kid."

Aliotti is a patient hitter who isn't afraid to get into two-strike counts. He has increased his line-drive percentage significantly the past two seasons. Aliotti doesn't have plus power, but he has been able to take advantage of hitter's counts to hit for more power in recent years. Despite striking out more than 100 times in each of the past four seasons, Aliotti is able to hit for average consistently.

Defensively, Aliotti has excellent range and soft hands at first base. He is a good athlete and he handles the throw to second base to start a double-play very well. Aliotti is a student of the game who is always working to improve on both sides of the ball. He has been very durable throughout his pro career, never playing in fewer than 120 games in any of his full professional seasons.

Aliotti will turn 27 during the 2014 season, so he is on the older side for a prospect. He was stuck behind Daric Barton on the A's first base depth chart last season. Aliotti and Barton are very similar players, with Barton having the distinct advantage of several years of major league experience. Barton remains on the A's 40-man roster, although he is out-of-options. The A's may still make some moves this off-season as it relates to their first base situation, but if things remain as they are right now, Aliotti should get another crack in Triple-A at the start of next season.

24. Dustin Driver

Coming into the 2013 draft, Driver was considered the top high school pitching prospect in the state of Washington. The big right-hander had a strong commitment to UCLA, and many teams shied away from him in the early rounds, assuming he'd be too expensive to sign away from the Bruins. The A's took a flier on him in the seventh round and they were able to allocate enough money ($500,000) in their bonus pool to bring him into the fold.

Driver's pro career got off to a slow start. When he arrived at the A's facility in Phoenix after signing, he was put on a throwing program rather than into Arizona Rookie League action because he hadn't thrown since the end of his high school season. The A's wanted to be cautious with their young right-hander, so they built his arm strength up slowly for much of the Arizona Rookie League season. Driver would throw only 11.1 innings in the AZL before the season ended.

The numbers for Driver's pro debut season weren't pretty, although they are hardly indicative of the likelihood of his future success. In seven appearances, Driver allowed 18 hits and nine earned runs in 11.1 innings. He walked 11 and struck-out only four.

Fastball command was a major issue for Driver during his brief AZL tenure. He came to the A's with three secondary pitches – a change-up, a curveball and a slider. The A's had him drop the curveball for now so that he could focus on sharpening the slider and reigning in his fastball command. A's roving minor league pitching coordinator Scott Emerson noted that Driver made significant strides with his fastball command during the A's fall Instructional League.

"His last game, he did an outstanding job throwing his fastball," Emerson said at the end of Instructs. "In his last game, I think he threw about 30 fastballs and 20 secondary pitches. It's coming along slowly. The time-off he had after his high school season might have hurt him a little bit. It took him awhile to get going again. But anytime he can command his fastball, he's got a lot to offer, and that's one thing that he really worked on during Instructional League."

It's easy to see why the A's are excited about Driver's future despite his slow start. He can run his fastball into the mid-90s and he already has a good feel for his change-up. He has a big frame that should allow him to handle a lot of innings moving forward and could also allow him to add a little more velocity as he improves his physical conditioning.

"Dustin Driver, the numbers are what they are, but I think the stuff is top shelf," A's Director of Player Development Billy Owens said. "He's up to 96 and the breaking ball is solid. The change-up is probably his best pitch. He has a strong, physical body and he's a good athlete. It was a small sample size. The numbers weren't what you'd expect, but he definitely has time to assess things, come back in excellent shape, keep that fastball in the 95-96 mold and sharpen up the breaking ball and fill up the strike-zone.

"It's fun to get a kid like Driver, who has those kinds of attributes."

Driver will be 19 throughout the 2014 season. Given how few innings he pitched in the AZL this season, Driver is likely to pitch for short-season Vermont next season.

23. Bobby Crocker

Crocker overcame a slow start to put in a solid season for Stockton.

Thanks to a slow start, Crocker's 2013 season with the Stockton Ports flew a bit under-the-radar. However, the toolsy centerfielder put together a solid season for Stockton, and at times looked like the best player on the field. The Cal-Poly alum has a high ceiling, but he will need to improve his K:BB to maximize his potential.

Crocker, who attended the same high school as A's Scouting Director Eric Kubota, was Oakland's fourth-round pick in 2011. The A's had been following him for several years before the 2011 draft, and they had selected him in the 38th round when he was coming out of high school. Despite being a college selection in 2011, Crocker was considered a bit of a project player, as he had more raw tools than polished skills.

Since turning pro, Crocker has made slow, but steady progress through the A's system. He had a mediocre season for Low-A Burlington in 2012, and the A's kept him at that level for the entire season, during which he posted a 716 OPS. Crocker improved his numbers significantly with the Ports in 2013, posting a 797 OPS and adding nearly 100 points to his slugging percentage. In 449 at-bats with Stockton, Crocker had a .276/.343/.454 line with 31 doubles, eight triples, 11 homeruns and 22 stolen bases (in 31 chances).

Crocker's numbers with Stockton would have been even better if not for a slow start to his season. In April, he hit only .228 with a 679 OPS. For the rest of the season, Crocker didn't hit lower than .274 or post an OPS lower than 745 in any given month. After the All-Star break, Crocker hit .296 with an 851 OPS.

Making consistent contact was a struggle for Crocker all season, and he finished with a K:BB of 159:32. He did improve in that area as the season went on, and his K:BB was 71:9 before the break and 88:23 after. Still, Crocker's K:BB will need to improve over his second-half numbers for him to find success at the upper levels.

Former A's minor league hitting coordinator Todd Steverson and 2013 Stockton Ports' hitting coach Haas Pratt worked with Crocker on his approach throughout the season. They tweaked his set-up to improve his timing and were pleased with the progress he made with his mechanics as the year progressed. They also worked with Crocker on trying to get into more positive hitter's counts, something he struggled to do early in the year.

"He admitted to the fact that he has swung out of the ‘zone more than he would like to swing out of the ‘zone," Steverson said during the season. "Quite a bit of our philosophy of hitting is to swing at strikes. What ends up happening is that he fouls off a couple of his strikes and then gets caught swinging out of the ‘zone with two strikes.

"If you foul off your balls to hit consistently, then it is going to happen [strike-outs]. Being in a lead-off role, he is going to see his fair share of fastballs, but pitchers knowing the kind of damage that he can do because obviously he has some power to him, he'll see breaking balls late in the counts or mixed in. Then they are going to go to their put-away pitches. If you are going to see their put-away pitches consistently in your at-bats, that's not conducive to a good walk-to-strike-out ratio.

"I think at the end of the day, that is what has happened to him. He hasn't put his ball in play early enough [in the count] or been able to stay out of a lot of two-strike counts. At that level, you can call it what you want to call it, but if you get to two-strikes, your chances of striking out are increasing super high. Your ball in play is not going to be as firm and your batting average is not going to be as good as it is earlier in the count. I think he has found himself missing his pitch too much and that has resulted in him being put in that two-strike situation too frequently."

If Crocker can improve his K:BB, he could be a dangerous player. He has above-average speed and he can hit for power, as evidenced by his 50 extra-base hits in 2013. He is a versatile player to have in the line-up because he can hit at the top of the order or in the middle of the order. His splits were fairly even against right-handers and left-handers, although the right-handed hitter did strike-out more frequently against same-side pitchers. Crocker covers a lot of ground in centerfield and he has good arm strength. He had five outfield assists from center in 2013 and nine spread between all three outfield positions in 2012.

Crocker brings a football mindset to the diamond and occasionally that aggressive style of play has led to injuries that have kept him out for short periods of time. He hasn't had any major injuries since turning pro, however. Crocker is a hard-worker who has impressed coaches with his willingness to identify his weaknesses and ask for help. Crocker's contact rate may have been down in 2013, but the contact he did make was harder and more in the air than it was in 2012 in Low-A. That bodes well for his power development.

Crocker will turn 24 early on in the 2014 season. He is likely to receive a promotion to Double-A next year. Double-A will be a big test for Crocker, who will need to show a better approach to succeed against advanced pitching. However, if he can improve his pitch selection, Crocker could be in-line for a breakout 2014 campaign.

22. Ronald Herrera

Signed as an amateur free agent out of Venezuela before the 2012 season, Herrera has wasted no time establishing himself as one of the A's top young arms. Although not physically imposing, Herrera has a good fastball and an ability to throw strikes that belies his age.

Herrera made his professional debut with the A's in 2012 in the Dominican Summer League. The 5'10'' right-hander posted a 2.47 ERA and a 44:20 K:BB in 58.1 innings as a 17-year-old in the DSL. The A's often have pitchers spend two seasons in the DSL before bringing them stateside, but they wasted no time with Herrera. He joined the A's extended spring training camp in Phoenix and opened a lot of eyes with his ability to fill the strike-zone and the crispness of his pitches.

At the start of the short season, Herrera was assigned to the A's Arizona Rookie League team. He threw 70.2 innings for the AZL A's, posting a 3.82 ERA and a 58:11 K:BB. Herrera allowed just three homeruns and he had a 1.24 GO/AO. The A's gave Herrera a taste of the New York-Penn League at the end of the season. He made two appearances for the Lake Monsters, allowing one earned run in his first outing (five innings) and four earned runs in his second (2.2 innings).

Although several inches shorter, Herrera has drawn comparisons to fellow A's pitching prospect Raul Alcantara for his ability to throw strikes and the quality of his stuff. Herrera's fastball sits in the low-90s and can touch 94. He also has a sharp breaking ball and a change-up he can throw for strikes. Herrera works both sides of the plate and he mixes his pitches well, according to A's Director of Player Personnel Billy Owens.

A's roving minor league pitching coordinator Scott Emerson raved about Herrera.

"This guy to me is a big prospect," Emerson said. "For an 18-year-old kid to be able to throw his fastball to both sides of the plate with above-average velocity and above-average sink with a good curveball and change-up, he's way ahead of his curve. He's a very intelligent kid."

Herrera won't turn 19 until next May, but there is a chance that the A's will push him to a full-season league at the start of the 2014 season, as they did with Alcantara during his age-19 season. Although Herrera is still learning the nuances of pitching, his ability to throw strikes and get movement on his pitches will give him a chance to compete in the Midwest League against players several years his senior.

Because Herrera is under 6'0'', it is hard to know whether he will continue to add more velocity or if he is maxed out from a physical progression standpoint. However, given his ability to induce groundballs and throw strikes, Herrera's current velocity should be enough at the higher levels.

21. Blake Hassebrock

Hassebrock's move to the bullpen was a positive step in his career progression.

Since signing with the A's as an eighth-round pick in 2010, Hassebrock has had one of the best fastballs in Oakland's system. The right-hander can reach the upper-90s with the fastball and he gets a lot of movement on the pitch down in the strike-zone. Despite that plus pitch, Hassebrock's movement through the A's system has been gradual, in part because of injuries and in part because the A's were trying to develop him as a starter. The 2013 season saw Hassebrock move to the bullpen, and that move could accelerate his path to the big leagues.

From a numbers-perspective, Hassebrock has had an up-and-down pro career. He had one of the lowest ERAs in the Midwest League in 2011 (2.64). In 2012, Hassebrock struggled with injuries and posted an ERA of 6.72 in a season split between High-A Stockton and Low-A Burlington. His K:BB also slipped from 110:46 in 2011 to 64:30 in 2012.

In 2013, Hassebrock began the season in the Ports' rotation, but he found himself struggling in much the same way that he did in 2012 (6.53 ERA in 20.2 innings as a starter). The A's moved Hassebrock to the bullpen in May, and he found a home in that role. His ERA as a reliever with Stockton was 3.12 and he improved his K:BB significantly. In 40.1 innings as a reliever with Stockton, Hassebrock walked only 12 and he struck-out 42.

The A's gave Hassebrock a taste of Double-A for the final six weeks of the season. He struggled initially with the RockHounds, allowing eight runs over his first five innings pitched. After that, he settled in, allowing four runs over his final 11.1 innings. His K:BB with the RockHounds was an ugly 5:7, but he maintained his excellent groundball rate.

Hassebrock admits that mentally the move from the rotation to the bullpen was a relief. He was able to narrow his focus on the mound in a shorter outing and not worry about mixing his pitches as much. A's roving minor league pitching coordinator Scott Emerson liked what he saw from the change in Hassebrock's mentality as a reliever.

"He just comes in [out of the bullpen] and has that grip-and-rip mentality," Emerson said. "The focus is better for him when he is going to come in and pitch two innings. I think sometimes when he's a starter as the game gets longer for him, he loses a little bit of that focus. Now he's got the ability to stay focused and pitch for two innings, and that has made his ability to get outs much better."

Hassebrock's fastball is by far his best pitch. He can touch 97 MPH with his fastball and the pitch moves significantly, especially down in the strike-zone. Because he does get so much movement, Hassebrock can be wild at times. Hassebrock's secondary pitches still need more work, but he has improved his change-up significantly over the past two yeasr.

"He has a serviceable slider and a serviceable change-up. When those two pitches come around and they can be the solid slider and the solid change-up, the sky is the limit for him because he possesses that mid-90s fastball with movement," Emerson said.

In some ways, Hassebrock has a similar profile to former A's prospect Ryan Webb, who always had great stuff but didn't find consistent positive results until he moved to the bullpen. Both are tall right-handers who are hard-throwers that get a lot of groundballs. Webb has turned in a solid career in the major leagues as a reliever, and Hassebrock could be heading down the same path.

The A's left Hassebrock unprotected for the upcoming Rule 5 draft. Given his lack of experience above the A-ball level, Hassebrock isn't likely to be drafted in the Rule 5, but there is some risk given the quality of his fastball. Assuming he remains with the organization through the off-season, Hassebrock is likely to start next season back with Double-A Midland. A good first half could see him in Sacramento for the final few months of the year.

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