Crystal Ball 2015: 10 Breakout Performers

With the regular season drawing near, it's time to start looking in our crystal ball to predict what might take place during the upcoming 2015 season.

A baseball season rarely goes as one expects it will, but it is nonetheless fun to try to predict what might happen before it begins. Over the next few weeks, we will make several “crystal ball” predictions on what will unfold during the Oakland A’s 2015 minor league season. First in this series, we name 10 players not currently among the A’s top-30 prospects who we predict will have breakout seasons in 2015.

Note: these players are listed in no particular order. Life is random; embrace it.

Jordan Schwartz, RHP: The A’s selected Schwartz with their fourth-overall pick in the 2014 draft. Although the right-hander was already 22 when he was drafted, Schwartz came to professional baseball with relatively little pitching experience, as he had split time between the mound and playing the outfield in college. The Niagara alum was kept on a short leash in his pro debut, tossing 20.2 innings – all in relief – between the A’s two short-season squads. He then spent a significant amount of time working on revamping parts of his delivery during fall Instructs. Schwartz recently turned 23, so he will be old for the A-ball level in 2015. However, he has plus arm strength (can hit 97 MPH) and his change-up and breaking ball are starting to come together.

Schwartz’s command improved during Instructs with his new mechanics and he should get a shot in the rotation of a full-season club this year. In some ways, Schwartz is a similar prospect to former A’s right-hander Blake Treinen. Schwartz is beginning his pro career on the older side, but his arm is fresh and he has the pure stuff to make an impact in the big leagues. Schwartz may ultimately find his future in the bullpen, but he should get time in minor league starting rotations to develop his entire arsenal, much like Treinen did before becoming a reliever in the big leagues with the Nationals.

Kris Hall, RHP: Hall has always had a big arm, but he has been held back some by command issues and a couple of minor injuries during his first full professional season. Last year, Hall spent the entire season in the High-A Stockton Ports’ bullpen. He had outstanding stuff at times, as evidenced by the fact that Hall struck-out 77 in just 56.2 innings. However, he was also prone to the big inning, in large part because his command had a tendency to betray him without warning.

Hall’s fastball sits in the mid-90s and he has the makings of a good breaking ball. Left-handers hit only .183 against him last season, but he walked nearly one for every three lefties he recorded outs against and allowed more homeruns against them than he did versus right-handers. Hall has been at the A’s minor league complex since the start of spring mini-camp and he has been working diligently to improve his delivery to be more consistent with his command. If he can work out those kinks, Hall has the stuff to shoot up the A’s relief depth chart.

Justin Higley, OF: The talented Mr. Higley showed both sides of his scouting report in 2014. While with the short-season Vermont Lake Monsters, Higley hit for power and average and ran the bases well. With Low-A Beloit, Higley’s free-swinging tendencies prevented him from duplicating his success with Vermont. He struck-out 59 times in 48 games and hit only .240/.291/.343. During Instructs, he made significant progress with his approach at the plate and his ability to recognize pitches. He was one of the top hitters in A’s camp last fall.

Higley has loads of talent, but it remains to be seen whether he will be able to make enough contact to let that talent play in the upper levels. Word from A’s minor league camp is that he has had a better approach thus far this spring. Higley has the ability to be a middle-of-the-order hitter, and he also has the speed to make a significant impact on the bases. He should get an entire season with a full-season league affiliate. If he is able to make contact on a more consistent basis, he is a strong candidate for a 20-20 season.

Jesus Lopez, SS/2B: At 17-years-old, Lopez was the youngest position player to suit up for an A’s US affiliate in 2014. He hit only .221/.316/.272 in 42 games for the A’s AZL affiliate, but Lopez showed promise in his first professional season. The middle infielder hit well during the final month of the season and looked to have a good idea of what he was doing at the plate, even though he didn’t see the results in the statsheet. Lopez is now a year older and is stronger physically and should see better results on the balls he puts into play in 2015.

Lopez is a switch-hitter who is naturally right-handed, but he has a solid swing from both sides of the plate. He is under 6’0’’ tall, but Lopez is well built physically and could be a player who reaches double-digits in homeruns eventually. Defensively, he is still smoothing out his footwork at both short and second, but he has good hands and solid instincts with the glove. Lopez may repeat in Arizona this season, although a strong extended spring training camp could put him on the Vermont roster as an 18-year-old. Either way, look for him to make significant improvements in 2015.

Branden Cogswell, SS: After a long collegiate season that included a trip to the College World Series, Cogswell did not have the pro debut he was hoping for in 2014. The Virginia alum suited up for the Low-A Beloit Snappers. Despite a scouting report that pegged him as a polished collegiate hitter, Cogswell struggled in the Midwest League, hitting only .203/.309/.234 in 40 games. The only positive was that he walked 17 times.

During Instructs, Cogswell worked with the A’s hitting staff to tweak his hitting mechanics so he stayed on the ball longer and kept his front side in. Those changes paid off during Instructs, and he was making much better contact than he was with Beloit. Reports out of minor league camp indicate that those changes have carried over into the spring and Cogswell is playing well. There is a chance that he could start the season in High-A if the A’s want him to get more reps at shortstop this season. Cogswell could benefit from a much more hitter-friendly environment in the Cal League for his first full pro season, much the same way fellow UVA alum Sean Doolittle did in 2008 (Doolittle hit .233/.320/.347 in the MWL in 2007; .305/.385/.560 in the Cal League in 2008).

Michael Soto, 1B: An unlucky bounce robbed Soto of a true breakout season in 2014, but he could be primed for a big year in 2015 in the hitter-friendly Cal League. The big Dominican first baseman was limited to 71 games between the A’s Low-A and Rookie League affiliates last year because of a broken figure he sustained on a bad bounce grounder at first. Soto hit well when on the field, posting a .290/.353/.492 line 238 at-bats. He homered nine times.

Soto is 23, so he needs to put together a big season to move up the ranks. He should get a chance for one in the hitter-friendly Cal League, where his power should play very well. Soto used his time rehabbing in Arizona last summer to work on his approach at the plate, and that paid benefits when he returned to Beloit late in the summer. He walked 11 times in 31 games after returning from injury and posted a .291/.350/.500 line. If he can keep away from the bad habits that some hitters develop in the Cal League when trying to chase the seats in the homer-friendly ballparks, Soto will be a strong candidate to reach 20 homeruns in 2015.

Corey Walter, RHP: Walter was a fairly low-profile pick by the A’s in last year’s draft. He didn’t put up particularly impressive numbers at West Virginia, but he always had promising arm strength and the A’s took a flier on him in the 28th round. Almost immediately, the A’s coaching staff was able to improve Walter’s mechanics, particularly how he was finishing his delivery. The results were equally immediately positive, as he posted a 3.10 ERA and a 20:8 K:BB in 20.1 innings in the New York-Penn League. He then went on to earn the ‘Most Improved’ award at the A’s Fall Instructional League.

Walter can reach 94 MPH with his fastball, and he got better movement on all of his pitches once he cleaned up the landing on his delivery. He is a sinkerball pitcher who got more than four groundball outs for every flyball out last season. In addition to the sinking fastball, he has a promising curveball and change-up. Walter has proved to be very coachable in a short period of time, another trait that bodes well for his future career. The 22-year-old should be part of the Low-A Beloit staff this season and his stuff should play well in the Midwest League.

Heath Fillmyer, RHP: Fillmyer was the A’s fifth-round pick last season. The right-hander played collegiately at Mercer County Community College. Originally a position player, Fillmyer switched to pitching full-time just last year. Fillmyer immediately caught the attention of scouts because of his raw arm strength and his ability to command his still developing arsenal. Although still raw, Fillmyer turned pro with a fastball that can touch 96 and promising curveball and change-up. Fillmyer didn’t pitch much during the regular season of his pro debut, but he made significant progress during the A’s fall Instructional League.

Fillmyer is still a work-in-progress, but he has some of the best raw stuff in the A’s system. Fillmyer is likely to be part of a tandem starting rotation in Low-A Beloit or held back at extended spring training and then placed in the short-season Vermont rotation later in the year. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him push his way into the A’s top-30 prospects by the end of the season.

J.P. Sportman: Sportman was the A’s 27th round pick last season out of Central Connecticut State. The outfielder opened some eyes with a solid pro debut with the A’s two short-season affiliates. In 60 games with the AZL A’s and Vermont Lake Monsters, Sportman hit a combined .309/.365/.409 with three homers and 22 walks. Sportman also played well defensively in centerfield. He continued to show a solid overall game at the A’s fall Instructional League, and he even drew a comparison to former A’s prospect Boog Powell, who was arguably the biggest breakout performer in the A’s system in 2014.

Sportman isn’t as fast as Powell, but he still has above-average speed and good instincts defensively. He showed off those defensive tools in a big league spring training game last week when he made two good plays on soft flyballs to straightaway center. Sportman isn’t a big guy (he’s listed at 5’9’’), but he is well built. Power isn’t a big part of his game, but if a pitcher makes a mistake, he has enough strength to get it over the fence. He demonstrated that aspect of his game with a two-run homer in the A’s big league spring training game on Monday. Sportman has a good idea of the strike-zone, but he is aggressive when he gets a pitch to hit, not waiting around to get deep into counts if he sees something he can handle. He projects as a player who will hit for average and get on-base at a decent clip. Sportman is likely to suit up for Low-A Beloit at the start of this season. He is the kind of player who can put up good numbers in the Midwest League because he doesn’t try to do too much at the plate and takes what he is given.

Jose Chavez, C: After two seasons in the Dominican Summer League, Chavez was thrown into the fire during his first year playing in the United States. The native of Mexico was ticketed to spend his age-18 season with the AZL A’s, but injuries forced a change of plans. He appeared in games at three levels in 2014 – Double-A, Low-A and short-season A. Chavez competed against pitchers several years older than him throughout the 2014 season and he managed just a .204/.260/.239 line in 65 games. Although Chavez didn’t hit well during his stints in those leagues, he impressed with his defense and his maturity.

Chavez worked a lot on shortening his path to the ball when at the plate, and reports from A’s spring camp are that he is already looking better with the bat than he did last season. He is also an excellent base-runner – despite being a catcher – and is lauded for his all-around baseball IQ. Wherever he plays, he will be a year older and wiser and should see better results offensively. If he can hit, Chavez has a chance to be an interesting prospect because of his defensive abilities.

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