Midland RockHounds 2015 Season Preview

The Midland RockHounds are looking to repeat as Texas League champions and they have enough talent on the roster to pull off the feat.

Overview

The Midland RockHounds shocked the Texas League last season, taking home their third league title since 2005. The 2014 Midland Opening Day roster featured several of the Oakland A’s top prospects, but injuries and trades impacted many of those top prospects, leaving the RockHounds with a scrappy veteran roster for most of the year. Midland entered the post-season as an underdog, but the RockHounds beat Frisco and Tulsa to secure the crown.

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The RockHounds return with an all-new coaching staff. Midland’s 2014 skipper Aaron Nieckula was promoted to minor league field coordinator. In his place will be fast-rising manager Ryan Christenson. The former big league outfielder has moved up a level a year since joining the A’s as a manager in 2013. He has led each of his first two teams to the post-season. Last year, Christenson’s Stockton Ports finished the year with the best regular season record in the California League.

Pitching coach John Wasdin has been paired with Christenson for the past three years. Last season, the former big league starter won the Cal League’s Coach of the Year award. Wasdin pitched for 12 seasons in the big leagues. He joined the A’s as a pitching coach in 2011 with short-season Vermont.

Rounding out the Midland coaching staff is hitting coach Eric Martins, who moves into a coaching position after serving as a scout in the Southern California region for the A’s for the past seven years. Among others, Martins was responsible for signing A.J. Griffin, Matt Chapman and Daniel Robertson.

The RockHounds’ 2015 Opening Day roster blends together many of the position players from the 2014 Stockton Ports and much of the pitching staff from the 2014 RockHounds. Midland could be in a good position once again to challenge for a title in 2015.


Pitchers

Although not filled with big names, the 2014 RockHounds’ pitching staff was one of the most consistent and effective staffs in the Texas League. Much of that staff returns for the 2015 season, as the A’s added several veteran pitchers on minor league deals this off-season, pushing many pitchers back to Double-A who look ready for Triple-A.

The rotation will be led once again by the tandem of Nate Long and Chris Jensen. Long and Jensen were two of the top pitchers in the Texas League last season. Long was the MVP of the RockHounds’ staff. He began the year in the bullpen but he wound-up throwing 150 innings in the regular season and 17.2 more in the post-season. Along the way, Long had a 3.18 ERA and a 126:49 K:BB. Long won 13 games and earned his first mid-season All-Star honors.

Jensen joined the A’s before the 2014 season as part of the Brett Anderson trade. He had a strong first season in the A’s organization. Jensen finished second on the team with 12 wins and he led the ‘Hounds with a 3.14 ERA. The right-hander threw 160.1 innings during the regular season and was named a post-season Texas League All-Star. Jensen is an extreme groundball pitcher who is continuing to improve his secondary offerings.

Joining Jensen and Long is right-hander Zach Neal, who has spent parts of the past three seasons with Midland. Neal began last season with the RockHounds, but he was so dominant that he moved up to Triple-A early in the year. He threw 166 innings between Triple-A, Double-A and a short High-A cameo. Neal posted a 3.09 ERA and a 124:20 K:BB. He is one of the best command pitchers in the A’s system and he allowed just eight homeruns last season.

Chris Lamb and Jake Sanchez should round out the rotation for the RockHounds. Lamb had a breakthrough 2014 season, starting the year in the Low-A Beloit bullpen and finishing it as a key member of the Stockton Ports’ rotation. The left-hander had a 3.25 ERA in 130 innings last year. He struck-out 134 and walked 45 whle allowing just six homeruns. Lamb’s fastball can touch 94.

Sanchez jumps up to Double-A after spending last season pitching at the A-ball levels. The right-hander began the year in the Chicago White Sox’s chain and was acquired for Michael Taylor midway through the year. Sanchez was impressive with Stockton, posting a 3.42 ERA and a 72:17 K:BB in 71 innings for the Ports. He also had a 2.80 ERA in 61 innings for Low-A Kannapolis.

The RockHounds will feature a deep and talented bullpen. Several of the A’s top relief prospects are on the Midland staff. Hard-throwing right-hander Bobby Wahl was the talk of A’s spring training, regularly hitting 98 MPH with his fastball. The Mississippi alum also has a wipeout breaking ball. Wahl had an uneven 2014 season, but he pitched well after moving from the rotation to the bullpen midway through the year. Wahl projects as a future closer at the big league level. He should get some of the save opportunities this season.

Right-handers Seth Frankoff and Tucker Healy will also get plenty of late-inning opportunities. Frankoff was the RockHounds’ primary closer during the first half of last season and he earned an All-Star nod in that capacity. Frankoff saved 15 games for Midland and had a 2.41 ERA with 47 strike-outs in 33.2 innings. He earned a mid-season promotion to Triple-A. After a slow start, he finished the year strong. He had a 4.40 ERA and a 22:10 K:BB in 30.2 Triple-A innings, but he pitched better than those numbers would indicate in Triple-A.

Healy moved up three levels last season, starting in High-A and finishing in Triple-A. Healy cruised through High-A and Double-A before struggling in Triple-A. Even with his Triple-A struggles, Healy struck-out 86 in 61 innings last season. He has 205 strike-outs in 138.1 innings during his two-and-a-half minor league seasons.

Right-handers Ryan Doolittle, Tanner Peters and Ryan Dull return to Midland after spending nearly all of the 2014 season with the ‘Hounds. Doolittle was eligible for minor league free agency this off-season, but he re-signed with the A’s and pitched in the Arizona Fall League. Like his older brother, Doolittle has outstanding command. He has walked just 41 in 220.1 career innings. Doolittle is a groundball pitcher, as well.

Peters began 2014 in the Midland rotation, but he landed on the DL early in the year with shoulder trouble and missed most of the rest of the season. He returned in time to pitch in a handful of games in the Arizona Rookie League and then added more innings in the Arizona Fall League. Peters doesn’t throw particularly hard, but he has an excellent curveball and a solid change-up. He has walked only 63 in 291.2 career innings. Staying healthy has been Peters' biggest issue since turning pro.

Dull was the RockHounds’ best reliever during the second half of the 2014 season. He finished the year with a 2.88 ERA and a 61:15 K:BB in 56.1 innings. Dull has an outstanding change-up and a sinking fastball that fills up the bottom of the strike-zone.

Right-hander Kris Hall moves up from High-A to Double-A for the 2015 season. Hall had his ups-and-downs at times with Stockton last season, but he showed plus stuff, striking out 77 in 56.2 innings. The A’s believe Hall has the potential to be a force at the major-league level if he can find some consistency with his delivery.

The only lefty in the RockHounds’ Opening Day bullpen is Jim Fuller. Fuller joined the A’s organization this off-season as a minor league free agent. He began his career in the New York Mets’ chain before joining the Minnesota Twins’ chain last season. With Double-A New Britain, Fuller had a 2.41 ERA with 68 strike-outs in 56 innings. Fuller was a non-roster invitee to A’s big league camp.

Although not listed on the active roster to start the year, left-hander Jeff Urlaub figures to be part of the RockHounds’ bullpen for much of this season. Urlaub is on the comeback trail after missing the final four months of the 2014 season after an elbow injury. Urlaub began the 2014 season with Midland and he moved up to Triple-A before landing on the DL.

At some point this season, right-hander Raul Alcantara figures to join the RockHounds’ rotation. Alcantara was on Midland’s Opening Day staff in 2014, but he injured his elbow during his second start of the year and he ended up having Tommy John surgery. One of the A’s top starting pitching prospects, Alcantara is projected to return from his rehab around mid-season.


Position Players

For a second straight year, the Midland Opening Day roster features the A’s top prospect. Last year, it was shortstop Addison Russell. This year, it is first baseman Matt Olson. Olson moves up to Double-A after a standout 2014 season with Stockton. He led the California League in homeruns with 37 and in walks with 117. Olson has plus power to all fields. He will be challenged by the winds to his pull-side throughout the Texas League, but Olson’s power should still make an impact this season in the Texas League.

Joining Olson in the Midland infield are 2014 Stockton teammates Ryon Healy, Chad Pinder and Wade Kirkland. Healy got off to a horrific start with Stockton last season, but he recovered to hit .285 with 16 homers in 136 games. Healy is a line-drive hitter who is a candidate to reach double-digits in homeruns this season. He split his time between third base, first base and DH last season and figures to do the same again this year. At the start of the season, third baseman Renato Nunez will be at extended spring training rehabbing a calf injury. In Nunez’s absence, Healy should be the RockHounds’ everyday third baseman.

Pinder had a solid year for the Ports last season, batting .288 with a .489 SLG in 94 games. He was limited by a series of nagging injuries, but he showed promise at the plate. Last year, Pinder played mostly second base while Daniel Robertson was at short. With Robertson now in the Tampa Bay organization, Pinder is back at shortstop and should see the bulk of the playing time at that position this season.

Kirkland and infielder Colin Walsh will team with Pinder in the middle of the Midland infield. Kirkland, a natural shortstop, can play all over the infield. The Florida native hit .241 with four homers in 64 games with Stockton last season.

Walsh, a Stanford alum, joined the A’s as a minor league free agent at the start of last season. He played at three levels for the A’s, seeing time with Midland, Stockton and in Triple-A. Walsh is a very versatile player who has seen time at every position but center and catcher during his minor league career. He hit .290 with a .375 OBP in 78 games in the A’s system last year.

The RockHounds start the year with three catchers on their roster: Bruce Maxwell, Carson Blair and Phil Pohl. Maxwell spent half of last season with the RockHounds after starting the year with Stockton. He struggled with Midland, hitting only .141 in 25 games. With Stockton, Maxwell hit .273 with a .365 OBP. Maxwell converted to catching late in his collegiate career. He has improved his defense considerably over the past two years. He threw out 37% of attempted base-stealers last season.

Blair joins the A’s organization as a minor league free agent. Previously a member of the Boston Red Sox’s chain, Blair had an 868 OPS in 84 games between High-A and Double-A last season. He was a non-roster invitee to big league camp. A high school draft pick in 2008, Blair will be 25 throughout the season.

Pohl spent most of the 2014 season at the Low-A level, and he also spent a month at the Triple-A level. A solid defensive catcher, Pohl also hit six homeruns in 80 games last year.

The Midland outfield will include Jaycob Brugman, Bobby Crocker, Chad Oberacker and Ryan Mathews. Both Oberacker and Mathews are also capable of playing first base and they could see some time there as well as in the outfield.

Brugman jumps to Double-A after splitting last season between Low-A and High-A. In his first full pro season, Brugman hit 21 homeruns and posted an 860 OPS in 120 games. A solid all-around player, Brugman has at least average tools in every category and could move into the A’s top-15 prospects with another strong year.

Crocker gets an opportunity in Double-A after two seasons in High-A. A very gifted athlete, Crocker has the speed to play centerfield and enough arm to play in right. He has reached double-digits in homeruns and stolen bases in each of the past two seasons. Crocker needs to make more consistent contact, but he has the tools to have a breakout season for the RockHounds.

Oberacker has played most of the past two seasons with the RockHounds. The smooth fielding outfielder is a good base-runner and is capable of hitting for average. He struggled last season at the plate with Midland but showed promise during his first season at that level in 2013.

Mathews skips over High-A after spending two seasons with Low-A Beloit. The NC State alum has power and reached double-digits in homeruns each of the past two seasons with the Snappers. Like Crocker, he needs to improve his plate discipline, but he has the tools to be a solid contributor for Midland this season.


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