Everyone loves a good underdog-takes-home-the-title story. That was the tale of the 2014 Midland RockHounds. Decimated by injuries and led by a group of veteran players who easily could have been bitter about their return trip to the Texas League, Midland posted the second-best regular season record in the Texas League and then shocked everyone by storming through the playoffs and winning the title. It was the RockHounds’ first outright league title since 2009 and the third in franchise history.
The success of the Midland squad started at the top with manager Aaron Nieckula, pitching coach Don Schulze and hitting coach Webster Garrison. The trio led a team that lost top prospects Addison Russell, Raul Alcantara and Tanner Peters to injuries during the first few weeks of the season. The coaching staff then kept the team together through the emotions of watching two teammates suffer serious beanings (Josh Whitaker and Max Muncy) and got the most out of several players who were demoted from Triple-A to Midland mid-season.
The Midland offense ranked third in the league with a 717 OPS and 628 runs scored. They led the league in walks (541) and were second in OBP (.332). They also ranked second in stolen bases (137 in 180 chances) and SLG (.385). Midland hitters knew how to find the gaps this season, leading the league in doubles (247) and finishing fourth in triples (28).
The Midland pitching staff didn’t feature any “big name” prospects (after Alcantara was injured) in their starting rotation, but managed to pitch well enough to keep the RockHounds winning throughout the season. The team ERA was 3.71 and they tossed 10 shutouts. In a league geared towards pitching, these totals left the RockHounds in the middle of the pack. Midland played a number of close games and finished third in the league in saves with 41. They were second-to-last in strike-outs (981), but middle of the pack in walks allowed (460).
Midland fielded the second-oldest team by average age at the Double-A level this season, according to MLBFarm.com. Experience can work both ways in minor league baseball. On some teams, having older players can be a detriment because those players are frustrated at still playing at the level they are playing at. In Midland’s case, their experience was a blessing, as the veteran players on the squad were leaders on the field and in the clubhouse.
Players with at least 100 at-bats were considered for this article
There is no question that the heart and soul of the 2014 Midland RockHounds was shortstop Dusty Coleman. Coleman was the consummate professional despite being sent back to Midland for a third consecutive season. Coleman, who will be a minor league free agent this off-season, led the RockHounds in games played (135), doubles (27), homeruns (18), RBI (81) and was second on the team in stolen bases (16). He also played above-average defensively at shortstop. Coleman has always had trouble limiting strike-outs and he led the league in K’s with 202. However, his overall value to Midland well exceeded this flaw in his game. Coleman was a post-season hero, as well, hitting a two-run homer in the second inning of the decisive Game Five to give the RockHounds a lead they would never relinquish.
Utilityman Conner Crumbliss also returned to Midland for a third-straight year. Crumbliss actually began the year on the Triple-A Sacramento roster, but he was sent down to Midland before he even made an appearance with the River Cats. Crumbliss got off to a slow start with Midland, posting a 660 OPS and an uncharacteristically low .327 OBP before the All-Star break. He turned things around in a big way during the second half, however, posting a .281/.379/.452 line. He showed his defensive versatility, playing 83 games at second base (a position he hadn’t played since 2012) and 34 in the outfield. Crumbliss also homered in the RockHounds’ Game Five win.
First baseman Max Muncy had to overcome a beaning from an errant throw while he was sliding into second base, but he still had a solid season for the RockHounds. The 2012 fifth-round pick returned to Midland after spending the final two months of the 2013 season with the RockHounds. He did an excellent job of getting on base, leading the Texas League in OBP (.385) and walks (87). Muncy, who hit 25 homers between Stockton and Midland last season, managed just seven homeruns during the regular season, but he homered twice during the post-season. Muncy should get an opportunity in Triple-A next year.
After missing most of last season due to injuries, third baseman Jefry Marte quietly put together a solid year, although another ill-timed injury cost him an opportunity to play in the post-season (Marte injured his oblique during the final week of the season and was replaced on the RockHounds’ roster by Matt Chapman. Chapman would go on to hit .310/.375/.586 with two homers in eight post-season games). Marte has always shown power in batting practice, but he had yet to reach double-digits in any one season in homers until this year, when he connected on 10. Marte controlled the strike-zone well, walking 49 times against 69 strike-outs in 405 official at-bats. He also swiped nine bags. Defense at third was still a struggle for Marte at times, although he improved his fielding percentage significantly in 2014 compared to 2013. Marte was signed as a free agent by the New York Mets in July 2007, so he is eligible for minor league free agency this off-season.
Centerfielder Billy Burns also did a good job controlling the strike-zone. The switch-hitter posted a 44:65 BB:K in 364 official at-bats for the RockHounds. Burns was with the team until late July, when he was promoted from Midland directly to the big leagues. When Burns was optioned back to the minor leagues, he was sent to Sacramento, where he spent the final month of the season.
Burns had an up-and-down first year in the A’s organization in terms of his production at the plate. His .250 average and .333 OBP for Midland were well below his career averages. However, most of his struggles came as a left-handed batter, which is not his natural side. Burns is still new to switch-hitting and the A’s coaching staff felt he made strides with his left-handed swing during the season. On the bases, Burns was a menace, swiping 51 bags in 56 chances in just 96 games. Defensively, he covered a lot of ground in center. Burns is likely to start next season in Triple-A (unless the A’s make several trades), but he should see more big league time in 2015. Burns was the only member of the 2014 RockHounds’ roster to play in the big leagues this year.
The A’s claimed outfielder Kent Matthes off waivers from the Colorado Rockies just before the end of spring training. He was initially assigned to Triple-A Sacramento, but Matthes was sent back to Double-A after a rough first five weeks of the season. Matthes would miss much of June with an injury, but when he was in the line-up, he was the RockHounds’ top power threat. He homered seven times in July alone and 15 times in 295 official at-bats. Matthes also had 21 doubles and a .471 SLG. His OBP was just .295, however. Defensively, Matthes’ throwing arm was a weapon, as he threw out 11 base-runners from the outfield. Matthes played a big role in the RockHounds’ post-season run. He had a homer, two doubles and a .368 OBP in nine games.
During the first half of the season, outfielder Josh Whitaker and first baseman/outfielder Anthony Aliotti represented the heart of the Midland order. Whitaker missed a little time with a back injury and then had to overcome a scary beaning, but he still posted impressive numbers during his time with the RockHounds. In 51 games, he hit .320/.367/.523 with nine homers and 42 RBI. Those numbers earned Whitaker a mid-season promotion to Sacramento. Unfortunately, injuries would keep Whitaker from playing the final five weeks of the season with the River Cats.
Aliotti started the year with Sacramento, but found himself back in the Texas League after a rough April. The 2013 post-season Texas League All-Star got back in the groove when he returned to Midland. He hit .277/.388/.482 with seven homers for the RockHounds. Aliotti earned a spot in the Texas League All-Star game for a third straight year before he was promoted back to Sacramento to finish off the season.
A broken wrist kept outfielder D’Arby Myers on the sidelines for half of April, all of May and most of June. When he was on the field, Myers was one of the RockHounds’ most effective hitters. In 59 games, he hit .305/.357/.418. Myers was a minor league free agent last off-season but chose to re-sign with the A’s. He will be a free agent again this off-season.
The most high-profile player on the RockHounds’ roster this season was infielder Hiroyuki Nakajima. The former Japanese Professional League star hasn’t had the success playing baseball in the US that the A’s thought he would when they signed him to a two-year deal before last season. However, he has been a true professional while playing in the A’s minor league system. Nakajima spent all of last year in Triple-A and he began this year with the River Cats, as well. However, he was sidelined in late April with a leg injury and found himself sent down to Double-A once he was healthy. While with Midland, he had a good attitude while toiling in the Texas League. He hit .266/.337/.367 in 73 games for Midland while playing shortstop, second base, third base and a little bit of first. Nakajima missed all but the first game of the post-season, however, when he broke his wrist during a collision at first base in the first inning of Game One of the division series. He is a free agent at the end of the season and is likely to return to Japan.
Chad Oberacker and Miles Head returned to Midland this season after spending all of last year with the RockHounds. Both struggled to get their bats going in 2014. Oberacker hit .220/.275/.313 in 291 official at-bats with Midland. He was sent down to Stockton briefly mid-season but returned to Midland after just six games in the California League.
Head hit only .219/.264/.362 in 58 games with the RockHounds in 2014. Those numbers were an improvement over Head’s .196/.264/.264 line with Midland in 2013, but it still was nowhere near the numbers he put up for Stockton and Midland in 2012. Head dislocated his shoulder during the 2012 Arizona Fall League and had surgery on the shoulder in 2013. This year, Head battled a variety of nagging injuries and was placed on the DL at the end of June. He rehabbed the rest of the year in Arizona, but he wasn’t able to get healthy enough to return to Midland before the end of the season.
The Midland catching corps went through a number of changes during the year. Beau Taylor and Blake Forsythe received the bulk of the playing time behind the plate, while Bruce Maxwell, Jose Chavez and Ryan Lipkin each made appearances at catcher.
Taylor was the RockHounds’ regular catcher during the first half of the season, but he was sent back to Stockton after hitting .239/.316/.354 in 63 games. He was replaced on the Midland roster by Maxwell, who would get regular reps with the RockHounds during the final six weeks of the season. Taylor, who impressed with the glove all season, hit very well for Stockton. He returned to Midland for the final few games of the post-season when Forsythe was felled by a sprained ankle. Taylor hit .267 in five post-season games for the RockHounds.
Forsythe, who won the minor league version of the Gold Glove for catchers in 2013, was signed by the A’s as a minor league free agent early in the season. He provided a solid veteran presence behind the plate for Midland for much of the year. Forsythe threw out 27 of 70 attempted base-stealers. He also saw a little time at first and in the outfield. At the plate, he hit .224/.307/.349 in 72 games.
Late in the season, the Midland outfield corps added veterans Jeremy Barfield and Kenny Wilson. Barfield spent the first half of the season on the mound, as he attempted to make the switch from outfielder to reliever. After 35 innings pitched with Stockton, Barfield requested a return back to the outfield, and the A’s compiled. He returned to Midland as a hitter, making 2014 his fourth season as an outfielder for the RockHounds. Barfield did a good job reaching base for Midland. In 142 at-bats, Barfield batted .261/.378/.394 with 29 walks and 11 extra-base hits. He also tossed two scoreless innings in relief just for good measure. Barfield hit .310/.487/.414 in nine post-season games for the RockHounds. The Texas native is a minor league free agent this fall.
Wilson was a waiver claim by the A’s from the Toronto Blue Jays organization in July. He began his A’s career in Sacramento, but was sent back to Midland after hitting .135 in 14 games. Wilson was a force for the RockHounds, however. In 27 games, he hit .327/.345/.407 and he swiped seven bases.
Pitchers with at least 20 innings pitched for Midland were considered for this article.
The Midland pitching staff was led by aces Nate Long and Chris Jensen all season. Long began the year in the Midland bullpen, but the right-hander slid into the rotation when Alcantara and Peters landed on the DL. Long finished first in the Texas League with 13 wins and Jensen was second with 12.
Long threw a career-high 150 regular season innings and then made three starts in the post-season. He was consistently effective, posting a 3.18 ERA and a 126:49 K:BB. He made the mid-season Texas League All-Star team. Long’s K-rate was the best of his career as a starter. He won Games One and Five of the Texas League Championship Series, tossing 13.2 innings in that series and allowing just one run.
Jensen was the RockHounds only post-season Texas League All-Star. In his first year in the A’s organization, the right-hander led the Midland staff with 160.1 innings pitched (a new career-high). He used his heavy sinker to keep the ball on the ground, allowing just three homers. Jensen pitched to contact all season, striking out just 94. He was particularly good for Midland during the second half of the season, posting a 2.26 ERA in 13 starts. Right-handers hit just .213 against him. Jensen made two starts during the post-season, allowing a run in 6.1 innings versus Frisco and five runs in four innings against Tulsa.
After missing all of last year recovering from Tommy John surgery, Shawn Haviland finished third on the team in innings pitched – and that is despite the fact that he spent most of April in Stockton. With Midland, the Harvard alum had a 3.87 ERA in 146.1 innings (he threw 16.2 innings for Stockton). Haviland held Texas League batters to a .254 average. He threw another 10 innings in the post-season and will enter his minor league free agency with nearly 160 innings thrown and a fully healthy season under his belt.
Right-hander Drew Granier was the RockHounds’ Opening Day starter, and he spent most of the year in the rotation, although he moved to the bullpen towards the end of the season. Granier had a 4.56 ERA and he walked a league-high 76 batters in 126.1 innings. His strike-out totals also dropped precipitously. After striking out 8.86 per nine innings last year, he struck-out just 6.63 batters per nine. Granier has better stuff than his numbers at Double-A have shown thus far, but his command issues have hurt him at this level. He will continue to get work at the Arizona Fall League.
Murphy Smith, Sean Murphy, Zach Neal and Andrew Werner made most of the RockHounds’ starts that weren’t made by Long, Jensen, Haviland and Granier. Smith was a starter for Midland each of the past two seasons, but he actually spent most of the 2014 season in the bullpen as a long reliever. Smith did make seven starts and he finished fifth on the team in innings pitched with 85.2. He struggled in his seven starts (8.46 ERA), but his stuff improved significantly in his relief appearances. As a reliever, he had a 2.95 ERA and a 43:17 K:BB in 58 innings. As a reliever, Smith’s fastball was clocked as high as 95 MPH and he was able to disguise his secondary offerings better. If he makes the jump to Triple-A next year, Smith will likely serve in a relief role.
Murphy began the year with Sacramento, but he was sent back to Midland after posting a 7.18 ERA in seven starts. He pitched well in 10 starts with Midland (3.95 ERA and a 53:18 K:BB in 57 innings, but he landed on the disabled list with an elbow injury on August 5 and missed the rest of the year.
Neal spent most of the season with Sacramento, but he made five dominating starts for Midland. In 31 innings, Neal allowed just two earned runs. He struck-out 25 and walked four. He more than held his own in Triple-A, as well, and should return to that level next season.
Werner split his season between the bullpen and the rotation. He made eight starts and six relief appearances. The left-hander posted a 6.32 ERA in 47 innings. He landed on the DL a couple of times this season and was on the DL for good starting in late June. In those 47 innings, Werner struck-out 36 and walked 20.
The Midland bullpen was a strength all season. Seth Frankoff was the Midland closer for the first part of the season, and Jose Flores took over for Frankoff when Frankoff was promoted to Sacramento at the end of June. Frankoff saved 15 games in 16 chances and posted a 2.41 ERA for Midland. He struck-out 47 and walked 11 in 33.2 innings. Frankoff earned a spot in the Texas League All-Star game before his promotion. After a rough start with Sacramento, Frankoff proved he could pitch in Triple-A down-the-stretch and he could be a factor for the A’s next season.
Flores began the year in Sacramento, but after posting a 4.60 ERA and walking 17 in 29.1 innings, he was sent down to Midland. With the RockHounds, Flores saved 12 games and posted a 2.96 ERA in 24.1 innings. He then saved all three wins in the RockHounds’ division series and recorded the final out in the Texas League title clincher.
Right-hander Ryan Dull was third on the team in saves with six and finished second on the team in innings pitched in relief with 56.1 innings. Dull had a rough start, but he was outstanding during the second half of the season. At the midway point, Dull’s ERA was 4.74 in 24.2 innings. He had a 1.42 ERA in 31.2 second-half innings to lower his season ERA to 2.88. Overall, he struck-out 61 and walked 15 and he held opposing batters to a .240 average. Right-handers hit only .187 against him.
Left-hander Frank Gailey tied with Dull for the team-lead in appearances with 40. In 52 innings, Gailey had a 3.46 ERA and a 44:21 K:BB. Gailey held left-handed hitters to a .205 average. His second half ERA was 2.63.
The 2014 season was a momentous one for reliever Ryan Doolittle. After a career filled with injuries, Doolittle finally put together a full, healthy season. The right-hander began the year with Stockton and he was promoted to Midland after 10 dominant innings with the Ports. With Midland, Doolittle posted a 3.23 ERA in 47 innings. He struck-out 47 and walked 19. He had a 1.61 GO/AO and he allowed just four homeruns.
Right-handers Marcus Walden and Deryk Hooker were valuable mid-season additions to the bullpen from Sacramento. Walden struggled as a starter with Sacramento, but he found his way as a reliever with the RockHounds. The former Blue Jays’ prospect had a 3.79 ERA and a 26:13 K:BB in 35.2 innings. An extreme groundball pitcher, Walden had a 2.90 GO/AO with the RockHounds. He was very effective for Midland during the post-season, as well, tossing eight scoreless innings with no walks and nine strike-outs.
Hooker had a 3.45 ERA in 28.2 innings with the RockHounds after spending the first half of the season with Sacramento. The right-hander made three spot starts for Midland during the regular season and then he had an excellent spot start in Game Four of the Texas League Championship Series. Hooker had a 20:11 K:BB for Midland and a 1.28 GO/AO.
Right-hander Blake Hassebrock returned to Midland after finishing the 2013 season with the RockHounds. He struggled in 21 outings with Midland and missed time with injury. The hard-throwing North Carolina native had a 7.24 ERA in 32.1 innings. He struck-out 20 and walked 10. Hassebrock has an above-average fastball, but he was very hittable this season. Texas League hitters batted .391 against him.
Left-hander Jeff Urlaub was one of Midland’s top relievers early in the season, when he posted a 1.57 ERA in 23 innings. He struck-out 19, walked six and held opposing batters to a .198 average. Urlaub was promoted to Sacramento in mid-May. Unfortunately, his season ended only two weeks later when he experienced left elbow pain. He had a clean-up procedure on his elbow and missed the rest of the season. He is expected to be healthy next spring.