Previewing The 2014 Midland RockHounds

The Midland RockHounds missed the playoffs in 2013, but with a roster studded with top-ranked prospects, will Midland return to the post-season in 2014? We preview the A's 2014 Double-A squad.

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The Midland Rockhounds might be returning 18 players on their Opening Day roster who suited up for the team in 2013, but that doesn't mean that the team is short on talent. The RockHounds have the A's top two prospects, as well as several others who appear on our pre-season top-50 prospects list. With a mix of experienced players and top prospects, Midland is poised for a big season in 2014.

Aaron Nieckula returns for his second season as the manager of the RockHounds. He has nine years of managerial experience in the A's system under his belt. He will be joined by Don Schulze, who has been the RockHounds' pitching coach for the past four years, and hitting coach Webster Garrison, who was the manager of the Stockton Ports the past three seasons. Midland did not qualify for the playoffs last season.

The RockHounds begin their 2014 on Thursday at home versus the Arkansas Travelers.

Position Players

There are several big-name prospects on the RockHounds' roster, but none bigger than shortstop Addison Russell. Russell, who turned 20 in January, is the youngest player on the team and the top prospect in the A's organization. The A's top pick from 2012 spent most of last season with the High-A Stockton Ports. He starred in the Cal League despite being the youngest player in the league for much of the year. Russell won the Cal League's Rookie of the Year and was named to the league's Post-Season All-Star team. He played the final week of the season with Triple-A Sacramento and could make the jump to that level at some point this season if he gets off to a fast start.

If Russell struggles initially, look for the A's to be patient with him. Russell hit under .200 during his first month with Stockton, but he recovered from the slow start and finished the year with a .275/.377/.508 line. The Texas League (especially Midland's home park) can be tough on right-handed power hitters, so it wouldn't be surprising if Russell's homer totals dip in 2014. However, provided his legs are healthy (he had a strained hamstring during spring training), Russell should be one of the RockHounds' top base-stealers in 2014. He stole 21 bases in 24 chances last year.

Russell might be fast, but there is no question that the fastest player on the Midland roster is centerfielder Billy Burns. Acquired during the off-season from the Washington Nationals, Burns made a big impression on his new club this spring. He led the Cactus League in stolen bases and hit .306 with a .370 OBP while staying with the big league club until the final day of camp. Burns also played well defensively all over the outfield. Burns stole 74 bases in 81 chances last season and he reached base at a .425 clip. He spent the final five weeks of the 2013 season at the Double-A level and could be an early promotion candidate if he plays well at the start of the season.

Nieckula will have plenty of options for his leadoff and centerfield spots. In addition to Burns, speedy outfielders Chad Oberacker and D'Arby Myers have experience both playing centerfield and leading off. Oberacker hit .237 in his first season at the Double-A level last year, but he stole 17 bases in 18 chances for the RockHounds. He is a solid defensive centerfielder, as well. Myers had the longest hitting streak in the Texas League last season, which was his first in the A's organization. He hit .285 with 20 stolen bases for the RockHounds in 2013.

Josh Whitaker, a natural right-fielder, rounds out the Midland outfield. Whitaker boasts an above-average throwing arm and surprising speed for a player of his size and stature (6'3'', 225). Injuries had a big impact on Whitaker's 2013 season, but he still managed 12 homers and a 779 OPS in 86 games. Whitaker played in 32 games for Midland last season.

The RockHounds' infield is stacked with talent even beyond Russell at short. First baseman Max Muncy had a big first full professional season in 2013, leading the A's minor league system in homeruns (25) and RBI (100). He posted a .381 OBP and walked 88 times in 140 games. Muncy is an excellent defensive first baseman, as well. The 23-year-old spent the final two months of last season with Midland.

Last season, corner infielder Miles Head was the top prospect on the Midland roster. He had a disappointing 2013 season that was cut short by a shoulder injury. Head actually injured the shoulder during the Arizona Fall League the previous off-season. Although Head was supposedly healthy at the start of the 2013 season, he never got the shoulder right at any point that season. He appeared in only 40 games and hit .196. In 2012, Head hit .333 with a 968 OPS in a season split between Stockton and Midland. He will see time defensively at third and first this season, and he is also likely to get some at-bats at DH.

Fellow corner infielder Jefry Marte also saw his 2013 season with the RockHounds' cut short by injury. Leg injuries kept Marte on the DL for much of the middle portion of the season and he only played in 71 games. He hit .278 for Midland with a 729 OPS, but he was one of the hottest hitters in the Texas League during the final three weeks of the season. Marte has big power potential, but he has yet to translate that potential into in-game power. He homered twice last season. Marte will see time defensively at third base.

Veterans Dusty Coleman and Tyler Ladendorf will give Nieckula plenty to work with in the middle of the Midland infield. Both players are natural shortstops, although Russell will likely see most of the playing time at short. Coleman and Ladendorf can also play second and third base, and Ladendorf can play in the outfield, as well. Both are above-average fielders with good speed. Coleman hit .260 with a .340 OBP and 17 stolen bases for the RockHounds last season, while Ladendorf batted .263 with a .340 OBP in an injury-shortened year. Ladendorf may be limited during the first few games of the season. He had his wisdom teeth removed this week.

Two returning players will man the catcher position for the RockHounds: Beau Taylor and Ryan Lipkin. Taylor struggled during his first season in Double-A, hitting .191 with a 548 OPS. He hit .292 the season before and is capable of much better results at the plate than what he showed last year. Lipkin, a USF alum, appeared in only 18 games last season due to injury. He appeared in 53 games for the RockHounds in 2012 and hit .204.

Pitching Staff

Not only do the RockHounds have the highest-ranked position prospect in the A's system on their roster, they also have the organization's top pitching prospect. Right-hander Raul Alcantara highlights a talented Midland staff. He split the 2013 season between Low-A Beloit and High-A Stockton. In 156.1 innings, Alcantara posted a 3.11 ERA and a 124:24 K:BB.

Alcantara was added to the A's 40-man roster this off-season, and he was impressive in his first big league spring training camp. He didn't allow a run in four innings over two outings. Alcantara is the only member of the A's 40-man roster on the RockHounds' current roster.

The RockHounds' staff is deep in pitchers that have starting experience. Only Jesus Castillo, Seth Frankoff, Ryan Dull, Frank Gailey, Jeff Urlaub, Nate Long and Blake Hassebrock come into the season having made more relief appearances than starts last year. Alcantara, Drew Granier, Chris Jensen, Zach Neal, Tanner Peters, Murphy Smith and Andrew Werner were all primarily starters in 2013. To start the season, the Midland rotation will go Granier, Neal, Peters, Alcantara and Jensen.

Granier had an up-and-down 2013 season. During the first half of the year, he was one of the better pitchers in the California League. He struck-out 97 in 83 innings and was the starting pitcher for the Cal League in the Cal League-Carolina League All-Star game. Granier struggled after a mid-season promotion to Midland, however. He walked 42 in 72.1 innings and saw his ERA jump to 5.23.

Jensen was acquired by the A's in the Brett Anderson deal this off-season. The right-hander spent the 2013 season with the High-A Modesto Nuts and also pitched in that Cal League-Carolina League All-Star game. He had a 4.55 ERA for the Nuts, but the A's thought his stuff was much better than his stats indicated. He struck-out 136 and walked 39 in 152.1 innings last year.

Neal and Smith were two of the top starters in the RockHounds' rotation last season and they return to the club in 2014. Neal led the team with 165.2 innings pitched. He had a 4.35 ERA and a 96:36 K:BB. Neal was impressive in two outings in big league camp this spring. Smith had a 3.48 ERA in 150 innings for the RockHounds last season. This is his third year with Midland. He made significant strides during his second season with the RockHounds. Both he and Neal figure to be among the first pitchers considered for a promotion to Sacramento should a need arise. Smith will start the year in a relief role for the first time in his career.

Peters makes his Double-A debut after a 2013 season that saw him post a 4.07 ERA in 165.2 innings for the Stockton Ports. Peters walked only 27 and struck-out 159. Although not built the same way, Peters has a lot in common with former RockHounds' starter A.J. Griffin. Both throw a ton of strikes, have above-average curveballs and have a tendency to be bit by the homerun bug. Peters retired the first 25 batters in a start for Stockton late last season and had a 3.78 ERA during the second half of the 2013 campaign.

One of only three left-handers on the RockHounds' pitching staff, Werner makes his RockHounds' debut after spending his first season in the A's organization with the Sacramento River Cats. Werner had a 5.78 ERA in 165 innings for Sacramento last season, although he pitched much better during the final month of the season than he did earlier in the year. Werner is a finesse lefty who can work out of the bullpen as well as the rotation. He is the only member of the Midland roster with major-league experience.

Dull leads the RockHounds' bullpen. The 2012 draft pick moved up three levels last season, starting in Low-A and finishing the year with Midland. Along the way, Dull posted a 2.40 ERA and a 78:9 K:BB. He doesn't have overpowering stuff, but his apt-nicknamed "ghostball" gets so much movement it tends to disappear out of the strike-zone at the last second. He saved 19 games last season.

Frankoff will be making his Double-A debut after a breakthrough 2013 season that saw him strike-out 93 in 74.1 innings for High-A Stockton. It was Frankoff's first full season as a reliever and he took to the role, posting a 2.78 ERA and a 1.42 GO/FO. He also pitched well during the Arizona Fall League season.

Hassebrock made the transition from starter to reliever last May, and he, too, found more success out of the bullpen. Hassebrock is one of the hardest throwers on the Midland staff and he also has an excellent breaking ball. He made his Midland debut late last season.

Although limited some by injury, Long had an excellent overall year for the RockHounds as a long reliever last season. In 63 innings, Long had a 3.86 ERA and a 57:20 K:BB. He allowed just two homeruns.

Veteran right-hander Castillo was added to the Midland roster late last season from the Mexican Summer League and then remained with Oakland for this season. Castillo tossed 10 shutout innings for the RockHounds last year and he had a 2.45 ERA in 51.1 innings during the MSL season. Castillo saved 23 games in the MSL and figures to share ninth inning duties with Dull and others. Castillo pitched this off-season in the Mexican Winter League and had an 0.73 ERA in 37 innings. He is an extreme groundball pitcher.

Midland featured two reliable left-handed relievers for much of last year, and Urlaub and Gailey will return to the RockHounds in 2014. Urlaub made his Double-A debut last season. In 46.2 innings, he posted a 3.86 ERA and a 40:13 K:BB. Urlaub also pitched well during the Arizona Fall League season. He is one of the best in the A's system at throwing strikes.

Gailey signed with the A's before the 2013 season as a minor league free agent and he re-upped with Oakland for this year. The former Phillies' and Blue Jays' farmhand had a 2.61 ERA and a 54:11 K:BB in 62 innings last year. Gailey was named the RockHounds' Reliever of the Year for 2013.

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