Previewing The 2014 Stockton Ports

The 2013 Beloit Snappers were the best team in the Oakland A's farm system. Many of those players and coaches have moved up to High-A Stockton this season. Will the 2014 Ports have "Snapper-like" success?

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The 2013 season wasn't kind to the Stockton Ports, who missed out on the playoffs. However, that doesn't mean the team didn't feature some good individual performances. Addison Russell burst onto the Cal League scene in a big way, winning the league's Rookie of the Year and earning a spot on the Cal League post-season All-Star team. Right-hander Drew Granier started the Cal League-Carolina League All-Star game for the Cal League, while Max Muncy hit .285 with 21 homers in only 93 games with Stockton.

This year's Stockton club is stacked with top prospects from the A's system, many of whom played together on last year's Low-A Beloit Snappers' squad. That squad reached the post-season and was one of the best teams in the Midwest League. The Stockton roster features three first-round picks, as well as two players signed by the A's out of the international amateur market to seven-figure bonuses.

Former A's outfielder Ryan Christenson is the manager for the Stockton squad. He guided Beloit last season and is in his second campaign as a minor league manager. He is joined by former A's pitcher John Wasdin, who was Christenson's pitching coach in 2013, and by hitting coach Brian McArn, who has guided some of the A's brightest position player prospects to break-out seasons.

The Ports begin their 2014 season on the road, first in Visalia for four games and then Bakersfield for three. Stockton's home opener will be Thursday, April 10 at 7:05pm.

Position Players

For a second consecutive year, the Oakland A's top pick from the previous season begins his first full professional campaign in Stockton. Last year, it was Addison Russell. This year, it is outfielder Billy McKinney. Like Russell, McKinney comes to Stockton as a teenager, having been a high school draft pick last season. McKinney will turn 20 on August 23.

McKinney had a solid professional debut in 2013, but at the start of spring training, he looked set to join the Low-A Beloit roster. Those plans changed because McKinney played so well during the A's fall Instructional League and then again during spring training that he forced the A's hand. McKinney is likely to lead-off for much of the season. Although a natural centerfielder, McKinney will play all over the outfield, as Stockton has two other natural centerfielders on the roster (Aaron Shipman and Bobby Crocker) who will see time at that position along with McKinney.

Shipman makes the jump to High-A for the first time this season. The A's 2010 third-round pick overcame a slow start last year to put together a solid season with Low-A Beloit. In 68 games, Shipman had a .397 OBP and he stole 17 bases. Shipman has plus speed and an excellent eye at the plate. He isn't much of a threat to go deep, but he can be a disruptive force at the top or bottom of a line-up.

Crocker returns to Stockton after spending all of last season with the Ports. He had a solid year with Stockton last season and could move up to Midland once there is an opening. Crocker hit .276 with 11 homers, 22 stolen bases and 31 doubles last year. He struck-out way too much (159) and didn't walk enough (32), but he has the talent to be a game-changing player and his approach improved during the final month of last season.

Rounding out the outfield is Dusty Robinson, who returns for a third stint with the Ports. Robinson, like Crocker, needs to improve his plate discipline, but he has power and decent speed (he hit 21 homers and stole 18 bases last year). Robinson will see time in the corner spots and as a DH.

Stockton's infield is littered with players selected by the A's in the high rounds over the past two seasons, as well as one of the team's highest-profile international amateur signees. 2012 supplemental first-round picks Daniel Robertson and Matt Olson and third baseman Renato Nunez were all key cogs for the 2013 Beloit Snappers' club. All three are among the A's top-15 prospects and all could have huge seasons in the offense-friendly California League.

Robertson, who just turned 20 in late March, had a solid season with Beloit despite missing time at the beginning of the year while finishing a rehab on a knee he injured during the fall Instructional League camp. In 101 games, Robertson hit .277 with a .353 OBP. He hit 21 doubles and nine homers and should see his power numbers increase in the more offense-friendly Cal League environments. Robertson was a standout defensively at shortstop, drawing raves from coaches around the Midwest League for his range and arm strength. He had a good spring training and spent a significant amount of time playing in big league spring games. Robertson will be primarily a shortstop for Stockton, although he could see some time at second and third to increase his versatility.

Olson led the Snappers with 23 homeruns last season. He also drove-in 93 and walked 72 times in 134 games. A high strike-out total (148) led to a .225 average, but there was a lot to like about what Olson accomplished during his first full professional season. Olson is 6'4'' and has had to work to find a level of comfort with his set-up at the plate because of his long arms. He made significant improvements last season and has drawn praise for his work ethic. Olson is a good athlete who fields his position well. He should start regularly at first for Stockton this year.

The hard-hitting Nunez will be across the diamond from Olson for most of the season. Nunez turns 20 on Friday and is the second-youngest position player on the team behind McKinney. The native of Venezuela came to the A's in 2010 as a highly touted international amateur signing and he hasn't disappointed. Nunez breezed through the Dominican Summer League in 2011 and the Arizona Rookie League in 2012 before reaching full-season ball last year. In his first year at the Low-A level, Nunez hit 19 homeruns and drove-in 85. He wore down some physically towards the end of the season and still has work to do on his plate discipline and his defense at third, but Nunez has a high ceiling and arguably the most pure power of any prospect in the A's system.

The A's third and fourth overall picks in 2013 will be making the jump from short-season to High-A in their first full professional campaigns. Chad Pinder and Ryon Healy were both polished collegiate players when they were selected and despite mediocre professional debuts with Vermont, both players earned spots in Stockton with strong spring camps.

Pinder split his time in college between shortstop and third base, but he may see most of his playing time with the Ports at second base, given that Nunez and Robertson will be playing at third and short most of the time. Pinder had some injury issues with Vermont, but he comes into this season healthy and ready to prove himself at the High-A level.

Healy was a first baseman in college, but the A's had him play mostly third base with the Lake Monsters. He should log time at both positions – as well as DH – for Stockton. Healy is a powerful hitter who is one of several hitters on the Ports' roster who could challenge the 20-homer mark this season.

Last season, infielder Wade Kirkland played a utility role for the Ports, and he is slated for a similar role in 2014. A natural shortstop, he can play all over the infield. Kirkland hit six homers in 223 at-bats last season, but he struggled to manage the strike-zone. He earned a place in Ports' history last season when he was the winning pitcher and hit the walk-off homer in an extra-inning Ports' win.

Bruce Maxwell, the A's second-round pick in 2012, spent the second half of last season with the Ports. He returns to Stockton for the 2014 season after working extensively during fall Instructs and spring training on his defense. Maxwell was a non-roster invitee to big league camp and he had an opportunity to learn from the A's major-league catching corps. The A's are high on Maxwell's potential to be an above-average catcher and a run-producer at the plate.

The Ports' second catcher is Ryan Gorton, who makes the jump from short-season Vermont. Gorton, an Oregon State alum, was drafted by the A's in 2012, but he didn't sign with the team until 2013 because of an injury that popped up during his post-draft physical. Gorton hit only .212 with Vermont, but he had a solid 19:20 BB:K. He has a reputation for being a strong presence behind the plate.

Pitching Staff

It is unusual for a minor league team to have its most high-profile pitching prospects in its bullpen, but that is the case for the 2014 Stockton Ports. The Stockton bullpen, highlighted by top prospects Michael Ynoa and Nolan Sanburn, looks to be one of the best in all of minor league baseball.

Ynoa, a much ballyhooed international amateur signing in 2008, will be pitching out of the bullpen for the first time in his career (save one appearance last year). The A's decided to move Ynoa from the rotation to the bullpen to speed up his development and allow him to focus on fewer pitches in shorter stretches. Ynoa throws his fastball in the mid-90s and he has a wipeout slider and a developing change-up. Command and health have been issues for Ynoa throughout his career, but if he can locate and stay healthy, he should move up the organizational ladder quickly this season.

Sanburn was a second-round pick of the A's in the 2012 draft. The right-hander pitched out of the rotation and the bullpen in college, but the A's initially had him pegged as a starter. Sanburn suffered a shoulder injury during spring training last year and missed the first half of the season. When he did return, he pitched out of the Beloit bullpen with good success (1.38 ERA in 26 innings). Sanburn has four pitches that have the potential to be major-league average or better, but the A's felt he was best suited for a bullpen role. Like Ynoa, he could move quickly if he finds early success.

Manager Ryan Christenson will have plenty of options to choose from for the ninth inning this season, including right-handers Austin House and Tucker Healy, both of whom pitched well in the back-end of the bullpen last year. House is a sinkerball pitcher with a plus change-up. He started last season in the Beloit rotation, but moved to the bullpen midway through the year and looked good in that role. Healy was dominant in his first professional season. He struck-out 74 and walked only 10 in 48 innings between Stockton and Beloit last season. Only a late-season upper back injury kept Healy from advancing past Stockton last year. He could be the first to move up to Midland if there is an opening.

Right-hander Kris Hall also battled injuries during the first half of the 2013 season, but the 2012 eighth-rounder finished strong for Beloit and comes into this season with positive momentum. Hall has excellent stuff and is one of several Ports' relievers who could strike-out more than a batter an inning this season.

Lefty Omar Duran K'd 83 in only 53 innings for the Ports last season, his first year at the High-A level. Unfortunately, he also walked 41, leading to a 4.58 ERA. Duran pitched in the Arizona Fall League, although he appeared fatigued, as his velocity was down and his stuff wasn't as sharp as normal during the AFL season. When healthy, Duran can run his fastball into the mid-90s and he also has a wipeout slider. Command and health issues have held him back in the past, but if he ever puts it all together, he could be electric.

Right-hander Jonathan Joseph returns to Stockton for a second season. The native of the Dominican appeared in 47 games out of the bullpen for the Ports in 2013. He posted a 3.50 ERA and struck-out 76 in just 64.1 innings. Joseph saved six games in 2013 and 12 in 2012 with Low-A Burlington. He could see time in the ninth inning again in 2014. He is the longest-tenured member of the A's organization on the Ports, having signed with the club in June 2006.

Veterans Jeremy Barfield and Ryan Doolittle round out the Stockton bullpen. Both have very interesting back-stories and both could move quickly this year if they pitch well early. Barfield returns to Stockton for the first time since 2010, when he was the Ports' right-fielder. He hit 17 homers and drove-in 92 for Stockton that season. Barfield spent the 2011 and 2012 seasons with Double-A Midland and reached Triple-A Sacramento midway through last year before the A's asked him to make a position switch from outfielder to pitcher.

Barfield always had the strongest throwing arm of any A's minor league outfielder, but he had never pitched as a professional before last year. He debuted in games during fall Instructs and has already shown significant improvement in a short period of time. Barfield's fastball can touch 93, but he appears to be throwing even harder to a hitter because he hides the ball well and pitches with an aggressiveness that makes him look like a flamethrower. The left-hander also has a decent slider that has been improving steadily, and a split-finger that serves as his off-speed pitch.

Doolittle, like Barfield a 2008 A's draft pick, is on his first Opening Day roster since 2012, when he was with Low-A Burlington. Doolittle advanced to Stockton early that season (arriving just as his older brother, Sean, was promoted to Double-A), but an elbow injury stopped his progress that May. Doolittle had Tommy John surgery and didn't return to game action until late last season. Doolittle had a 1.48 ERA and a 31:3 K:BB in 24.1 innings with the Ports before his elbow injury in 2012. His fastball sits in the low-90s and he has excellent command.

The Ports' rotation has a veteran feel to it, with only Seth Streich and Tim Atherton making their High-A debuts. Josh Bowman is the Ports' Opening Day starter, and he will be followed by Atherton, Manny Correa, Shawn Haviland and Streich.

Bowman was arguably the Ports' best starter in 2012, when he had a 3.62 ERA in 146 innings. He struck-out 127 and walked only 33 that year. He began last season in the Double-A Midland rotation, but struggled out of the gate and was sent back to Stockton in May. He remained with the Ports all season and had mixed results. In 17 starts, he had a 5.56 ERA and a 74:23 K:BB. Bowman has good stuff and could be in-line for a bounceback season in 2014.

Atherton is in his first year as a member of the A's organization. The native of Australia began his professional career as an outfielder in the Padres' organization. He signed with the Twins in 2011 as a pitcher and has been on the mound ever since. The A's selected Atherton in the minor league Rule 5 draft this off-season. He had a 2.54 ERA and a 102:33 K:BB in 95.2 innings for Low-A Cedar Rapids last season. Atherton pitched for Team Australia against the Arizona Diamondbacks last month and earned the win in the Aussies' 5-0 victory over a mostly MLB D-Backs' line-up.

Correa joined the A's this off-season from the Angels' organization as a minor league free agent. The native of the Dominican Republic pitched in the Texas League last season as a starter. The right-hander had a 5.63 ERA and a 77:23 K:BB in 132.2 innings for the Travelers. Correa pitched in the Cal League in 2011 and 2012 and made one appearance in Triple-A in 2011.

Haviland returns to the Ports' rotation for the first time since he anchored the team's rotation in 2010. Haviland had a 3.65 ERA and 166 strike-outs in 150.1 innings for the Ports that season. He earned Cal League post-season All-Star honors for his work with Stockton. Haviland spent the 2011 and 2012 seasons with Midland. He struggled in 2011, posting a 7.08 ERA, but he improved dramatically in 2012, posting a 4.80 ERA. Unfortunately, Haviland injured his elbow during the Arizona Fall League and missed all of the 2013 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. His innings will be monitored closely this season.

Streich was the A's sixth-round pick in 2012 and he had a solid first professional season with Low-A Beloit last year. In 110.2 innings, Streich posted a 3.82 ERA and an 82:41 K:BB. A groundball pitcher, Streich had a 1.32 GO/AO for the Snappers. He finished the year on the DL with discomfort in his elbow, but he was healthy throughout spring training and he had an excellent camp.

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