April presented plenty of obstacles for the Double-A Midland Rockhounds, but despite a long list of injured players and plenty of roster movement, manager Aaron Nieckula's club put together an outstanding first month of the season. Going into May, the RockHounds are 16-9 and just a half-game out of first place in the Texas League's Northern Division.
It hasn't been easy. Midland began the year with a prospect-studded roster that included the Oakland A's top two prospects heading into this season. Both of those prospects (Addison Russell and Raul Alcantara) are currently on the disabled list, as are current team RBI leader Josh Whitaker, sparkplug outfielder D'Arby Myers, promising starter Tanner Peters and veteran catcher Ryan Lipkin. Leadoff hitter Billy Burns is still on the active roster, but he has missed several games with injury, as well.
Through it all, the RockHounds have not only managed to survive, but they have also thrived thus far in 2014. The Midland offense has been solid, with a team batting average of .258 and a team OPS of 724 that put them second and third in the league in those categories, respectively. The RockHounds are third in the league in homeruns and doubles, second in stolen bases, first in on-base percentage and third in slugging percentage. The RockHounds are also second in the league in runs scored.
The Midland pitching staff has been solid, as well. The RockHounds' team ERA of 3.29 is fourth in the league. They have issued the third-fewest number of walks, although they are last in the league in strike-outs. Their staff 1.28 WHIP is fourth in the league. Midland is tied for the league-lead in shutouts with four.
The RockHounds start the month of May at home, looking to win their third straight game. Each of their past two wins were of the come-from-behind, walk-off variety.
Comings and Goings
The transactions began early for the RockHounds, who saw their first roster change on April 3 when infielder Antonio Lamas was assigned to the team after the A's changed infielder Tyler Ladendorf's Opening Day assignment from Midland to Sacramento. Lamas would be released by the A's to play in the Mexican Summer League just days later. On April 4, Conner Crumbliss joined the RockHounds from Triple-A Sacramento, where he had been assigned to start the season. Crumbliss lost his spot in the Sacramento outfield when outfielder Michael Taylor unexpectedly cleared waivers and remained a part of the A's organization.
The first major injury for Midland came on April 5, when top prospect Addison Russell strained his hamstring on a steal attempt. Russell was five-for-his-first-seven with a double and a homer before the injury. He is expected to be out at least another couple of weeks. To replace Russell, the A's signed minor league free agent Colin Walsh. Walsh was released by the St. Louis Cardinals towards the end of spring training. He has filled in for Russell admirably, batting .308 with a .356 OBP through his first 15 games.
Catcher Ryan Lipkin landed on the disabled list with a knee injury on April 7 and he was replaced by 18-year-old backstop Jose Chavez, who arrived from extended spring training. Chavez appeared in three games with the RockHounds before the A's acquired veteran backstop Blake Forsythe from the New York Mets. Once Forsythe joined the Midland roster, Chavez was assigned to Low-A Beloit. Lipkin's rehab is progressing at the A's extended spring training facility and he has started to appear in extended spring games.
The unexpected retirement of right-hander Joe Blanton and the injury to starter Matt Buschmann opened spots in the Triple-A Sacramento rotation and one of those went to Midland right-hander Zach Neal on April 15. Neal didn't allow a run in his two starts with Midland this year (10 IP) and he posted an 11:3 K:BB. Neal has continued to pitch well since his promotion to Sacramento. He made 28 starts for Midland last year.
Right-hander Shawn Haviland replaced Neal in the rotation. Haviland, who began the year with High-A Stockton, returned to Midland for the first time since the end of the 2012 season. He missed all of 2013 after undergoing Tommy John surgery during the 2012 off-season. Haviland has continued Neal's strong start, not allowing a run through his first two starts for Midland (14.1 IP). He had a 3.24 ERA in three starts with the Ports.
On April 16, the RockHounds suffered another major injury, losing outfielder D'Arby Myers to a fractured left wrist. Myers had been off to an excellent start before the injury, batting .324/.429/.529 in 10 games. That loss was followed by an injury to starter Tanner Peters, who landed on the DL with a sore right elbow on April 18. Peters had a 3.63 ERA through his first three starts with Midland (17.1 IP).
The Midland starting rotation continued to be battered by injury when Raul Alcantara suffered an elbow injury on April 18. He was placed on the DL officially on April 26 after a week of rest and rehab didn't alleviate the soreness. In his last start, he allowed three runs in five innings. Alcantara had allowed just two runs total in his first two outings with Midland. He also walked three in that outing after issuing just two walks in his first two starts.
On Tuesday, outfielder Josh Whitaker landed on the disabled list. Whitaker last played on April 24, when he left the game after tweaking his shoulder on a defensive play. He had a 921 OPS and a team-leading 15 RBI through his first 22 games this season.
With Midland hurting, the RockHounds received some reinforcements late in the month from Triple-A Sacramento. On April 26, first baseman Anthony Aliotti – who led the Texas League in hitting for much of last year – rejoined the RockHounds from Sacramento. On the final day of the month, infielder Hiroyuki Nakajima was added to the Midland roster after being activated off of the Sacramento disabled list. Nakajima will make his debut officially on the roster on May 1.
Injuries stopped the hot streaks of Russell, Myers and Whitaker, but there are still several RockHounds swinging the bat well right now. Corner infielder Max Muncy has an 826 OPS and a 22:14 BB:K through his first 25 games. Muncy, a natural first baseman, has been seeing time at third base, as well, in an effort to increase his versatility.
Infielder Dusty Coleman put together a good first month of the season, as well. With Russell shelved, Coleman took over the shortstop position for Midland. In April, he hit .276/.351/.469 with four homers and five stolen bases. Walsh has seen time at second base and he has the highest batting average (.308) of any player on the RockHounds' active roster.
Catcher Beau Taylor and infielder Miles Head both got off to very slow starts at the plate, but both have swung the bat better of late. Taylor is batting .263 with a .356 OBP over his last 10 games, while Head has an 11-game hitting streak and is batting .250 with a .409 SLG over his last 10 games.
Conner Crumbliss hasn't gotten his bat going yet (.198 BA), but he is second on the team behind Muncy with 19 walks and his OBP is .349. On Tuesday, Crumbliss became the 16th player in Texas League history to walk at least five times in one game.
The Midland rotation has pitched well despite injuries, but it has been the RockHounds' bullpen that has starred for the team thus far. Right-hander Murphy Smith leads the way with one run allowed in 21.2 innings. He has a 16:4 K:BB and an 0.60 WHIP. This is Smith's first season in the bullpen after beginning his career as a starter.
Right-hander Seth Frankoff leads the team with five saves and is the staff leader in strike-outs (19) despite being a short-inning reliever. His K:BB is 19:4 in 11.2 innings and he has allowed just two earned runs.
Left-handers Jeff Urlaub and Frank Gailey have proved a potent combo for Midland. Urlaub has an 0.63 ERA and an 0.98 WHIP in 14.1 innings, while Gailey has seven strike-outs and a 1.17 ERA in 7.2 innings.
Starter Chris Jensen is off to a strong start in his new organization. Acquired by the A's from Colorado over the off-season, he has a 2.84 ERA and a 16:10 K:BB in 25.1 innings. Jensen has yet to allow a homerun. Right-hander Drew Granier allowed seven runs in 1.2 innings on Opening Night, but since then he has allowed just six runs in 25.2 innings (2.10 ERA). He has two starts of six innings pitched and no runs allowed.