With the exception of the final two days, the 2014 season was a dream for the Stockton Ports. The Ports finished 30 games over the .500 mark with the best record in the California League. Stockton had several memorable individual performances, including from first baseman Matt Olson, who hit 37 homeruns, and third baseman Renato Nunez, who hit 29 homeruns. As a team, the Ports finished with a team OPS of 805 and finished second in the league in walks. The Ports’ pitching staff led the league in team ERA with a 4.08 mark and struck-out the most batters as a staff.
The 2015 squad has a few returning members, but most of the roster is made up of newcomers. The Ports also have an almost entirely new coaching staff. 2014 manager Ryan Christenson and pitching coach John Wasdin are now with Double-A Midland. Hitting coach Brian McArn is returning to Stockton and will be working with several of the A’s youngest top hitting prospects.
Longtime A’s scout and minor league manager Rick Magnante will skipper the Ports in 2015. Magnante was the A’s short-season manager from 2006-2013 and served as Low-A Beloit’s manager last season. As a scout, Mangante signed several eventual major leaguers, including Barry Zito, Eric Byrnes, Bobby Crosby and Ryan Ludwick. He has been the South African national team manager for several years.
Longtime A’s pitching coach Rick Rodriguez joins the Stockton staff for the first time. Rodriguez has 11 years of experience as a pitching coach in Triple-A and two years as the A’s bullpen coach. Rodriguez made his major-league debut with the A’s in 1986. Nearly every star pitcher who appeared in the A’s minor league system has worked with Rodriguez over the past 13 years.
McArn has been the Stockton hitting coach since 2011. He has been a hitting coach in the A’s system since 1998 and he is one of the most respected teachers in the A’s system.
The Ports’ 2015 roster features several players entering their first full season of professional baseball. Many of the Ports are among the A’s top-50 prospects.
The Stockton starting rotation includes two pitchers who were in the Stockton rotation for part of last season and three others making their High-A debuts. Opening Day starter Dylan Covey leads a rotation that includes Tim Atherton, Kyle Finnegan, Dillon Overton and Lou Trivino.
Covey had an up-and-down first full professional season in 2014. At times, Covey was unhittable, but he was prone to the big inning and finished the year with a 5.46 ERA in 140 innings between Beloit and Stockton. Covey has a devastating two-seam fastball that he uses to get groundballs at a high rate. His four-seamer can reach 95, but he shied away from using it in favor of the two-seamer a lot last year. Covey also has a swing-and-miss breaking ball. He could have a breakout season in 2015.
Atherton joined the A’s organization before the 2014 season as a minor league Rule 5 pick. He had a 5.04 ERA in 15 starts with Stockton before finishing the year on the disabled list. Originally a position player, Atherton is in his fifth season as a pitcher.
The A’s see plenty of potential in the right arm of Finnegan, who can tick 96 on the radar gun and is capable of getting lots of groundouts. Finnegan has struggled with command and with his repeating his delivery. Despite those issues, he has a career 3.90 ERA in 182.1 minor league innings. Like Covey, Finnegan has the stuff to dominate if he can get his delivery under control.
Overton makes his Opening Day debut this season with Stockton. The A’s 2013 second overall pick missed his first two Opening Days while recovering from Tommy John surgery. He had the surgery shortly after he was drafted and returned for the short-season last year. Despite the fact that Overton’s velocity has yet to return to the 89-93 MPH range that he sat at when healthy in college, Overton still dominated last year. In 37 innings for the A’s two short-season squads, Overton had a 1.95 ERA with 53 strike-outs and four walks. His curveball and change-up are excellent offerings and he can command all three of his pitches. If his velocity returns during the season, he could be on the fast-path up the ladder.
Right-hander Trivino rounds out the rotation. The A’s 11th-round pick in 2013 spent all of last season with Low-A Beloit. He had a 5.28 ERA and a 95:43 K:BB in 139.2 innings. Trivino’s velocity fluctuated last season, but he can touch 96 when he is at his best. He has a deep arsenal of pitches, featuring a two-seam, a four-seam, a cutter, a curveball and a change-up.
The Ports’ bullpen should have plenty of options for saves. One of those options will be right-hander Brendan McCurry, who had a spectacular pro debut in 2014. A 22nd round pick out of Oklahoma State, McCurry allowed just one run in 28.2 innings last year. He spent most of his debut season with Low-A Beloit, but he finished the year with Stockton, tossing one scoreless regular season inning and two more in the post-season. McCurry had a 37:3 K:BB and he allowed just 14 hits during the regular season. McCurry doesn’t throw particularly hard (topping out at 91 MPH), but he gets a lot of movement on every pitch he throws. He also uses a couple of different arm angles, creating significant deception for the hitters.
Fellow 2014 draft picks Joel Seddon and Corey Walter join McCurry in the Stockton bullpen. Seddon, a South Carolina alum, pitched mostly for Low-A Beloit last season. Seddon had a 2.84 ERA and a 20:8 K:BB in 25.1 innings for the Snappers. Seddon is a groundball pitcher who works quickly and gets outs early in counts. His fastball sits 89-91 and can touch 93. He also has a solid change-up and curveball. There had been some thought about moving Seddon into the rotation this year and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him throwing some longer outings out of the bullpen.
Walter, the A’s 28th-round pick last season, put up mediocre numbers at West Virginia, but he was a quick-study after turning pro and made several significant improvements to his delivery last season. The results were immediate. He had a 2.33 ERA in 27 innings. Walter struck-out 27 and walked 11. He then went on to earn the ‘Most Improved’ award during Instructs. Walter’s four-seam fastball can touch 94 and he gets a lot of sinking action on his two-seamer. His change-up and curveball are both promising offerings, as well.
Right-hander Andres Avila was a starter for much of the first three seasons he was in the A’s system, but he transitioned into the bullpen late in the 2013 season and he has pitched well in that role. Last season, Avila was the Snappers’ closer during the first half of the season. He saved 11 games and had a 2.67 ERA in 33.2 innings. He earned a trip to the Midwest League All-Star game. Avila spent much of the second half with Stockton, and he had a 3.00 ERA and a 41:11 K:BB in 36 Cal League innings.
Longtime A’s farmhand Jonathan Joseph returns to Stockton after spending all or parts of the past three seasons with the Ports. Joseph was a minor league free agent during the off-season, but he chose to re-sign with the A’s. The right-hander was a longman for Stockton last season and figures to play a similar role in 2015. He had a 3.58 ERA and a 72:38 K:BB in 78 innings.
After a solid season with Low-A Beloit in 2014, Sam Bragg makes the jump to High-A. The 22-year-old right-hander had a 3.23 ERA and a 68:26 K:BB in 75.1 innings last season. Bragg saved seven games. His fastball is his best pitch. The pitch has sinking action and sits in the 91-93 range, touching 96. Bragg also has a promising breaking ball.
Like Overton, Tyler Hollstegge is entering his first full season after having Tommy John surgery. Hollstegge’s surgery came before the 2013 season and he missed that entire year. He appeared in 29 games as a reliever last year at three levels, including High-A. Command was still an issue for Hollstegge, as he walked 24 in 31.1 innings. He had a solid spring and should see much better results in 2015.
Last year, Sam Roberts made the move from infielder to pitcher. Despite relatively little experience on the mound, Roberts fared pretty well in his first season as a pitcher. He had a 2.50 ERA in 39.2 innings. He struck-out 24 and walked 19. Roberts pitched some in college at VMI, so he is entering this role with a solid background in pitching. He has plenty of arm strength and not a lot of recent mileage on that arm.
The Ports had plenty of highly regarded position player prospects last season and that will continue into 2015. The Ports begin the year with the A’s number two prospect, shortstop Franklin Barreto, on the roster. Third baseman Matt Chapman, the A’s number three prospect, is expected to join the Ports when he completes his rehab from a spring knee injury.
Barreto was the highest-ranked prospect the A’s received in the deal that sent Josh Donaldson to the Toronto Blue Jays. A native of Venezuela, Barreto spent last season in the short-season Northwest League as an 18-year-old. In 73 games with the Canadians, he hit .311/.384/.481 with six homers, 61 RBI and 29 stolen bases. One source who followed Barreto all season with Vancouver said the shortstop was the best player to come through the Northwest League since Jurickson Profar played in the league. Barreto, 19, will be the youngest player on the Ports' roster. He will be challenged by the more advanced Cal League pitching, but the A’s will be patient with his ups-and-downs as he develops this season.
Joining Barreto in the middle of the Stockton infield will be Branden Cogswell and Chih-Fang Pan. Cogswell has been a shortstop throughout his college and pro career, but he will shift over to second this season and play alongside Barreto on most days. Cogswell had a rough debut with Low-A Beloit last year, but he has made several adjustments to his set-up and swing to get more power behind his swing. He has an advanced approach at the plate and should get on-base at a solid clip this season.
Pan, a native of Taiwan, has struggled with injuries throughout his pro career. He missed all of the 2013 season after undergoing shoulder surgery. In 2014, Pan hit .254 with a .311 OBP in 84 games with Low-A Beloit. Pan is a slasher at the plate and a good contact hitter. He can play both secondbase and shortstop.
The Ports will open the season with the starting corner infield tandem from the 2014 Florida State Seminoles and the 2014 Vermont Lake Monsters. Jose Brizuela and John Nogowski both heard their names called by the A’s during the draft, continuing their run as teammates from college to the pros. Both showed promise last season with short-season Vermont and both are skipping Low-A.
Brizuela hit .254 with six homers and a .320 OBP in 59 games between Rookie ball and the New York-Penn League last year. A line-drive hitter, Brizuela is capable of racking up a significant amount of doubles. Nogowski hit .264 with a .351 OBP for the AZL A’s and the Lake Monsters last season. The big left-hander has an excellent eye at the plate and is an above-average defensive player at first base.
Power-hitting first baseman Michael Soto will share time with Nogowski at that position and will also get plenty of at-bats as the DH. Soto’s 2014 season was truncated by a broken finger, but he was impressive when he was on the field. In 71 games for Beloit and the AZL A’s, Soto hit .290/.353/.492 with nine homers. Soto has plenty of power and could put up impressive power numbers in the hitter-friendly Cal League.
J.P. Sportman is another 2014 draft pick who is making the jump to High-A in his first professional season. Sportman opened a lot of eyes during his pro debut, hitting .309/.365/.409 at the A’s two short-season levels. Sportman continued to impress during the fall Instructional League and during spring training. He got a few opportunities in big league camp this spring and took advantage, homering twice and picking up a double in five plate appearances. Sportman has the speed and instincts to play centerfield, but he will likely move all around the field this season, seeing time in all three outfield positions, as well as in the infield. He could develop into a player similar to current A's utilityman Tyler Ladendorf.
The Ports have three high-ceiling outfielders on their roster: Tyler Marincov, B.J. Boyd and Justin Higley. All three spent at least part of last season with Low-A Beloit. Marincov spent the final month of the season with Stockton after playing the bulk of the year with Beloit. The 23-year-old hit 18 homeruns and stole 18 bases in 127 games between Beloit and Stockton. Marincov is an excellent athlete and he has a strong arm in right. He can be prone to the strike-out, which is an area he will look to improve in 2015.
Higley also needs to cut down on the strike-outs. The Sacramento native struck-out 90 times in 72 games with Beloit and Vermont last season. When he does make contact, Higley has the talent to do a lot of damage to the baseball. He has power to all fields and hit seven homeruns last season in 72 games. Higley is also a plus runner and he stole 16 bases in 17 chances last year. He will likely remind some Ports fans of former Stockton prospect Grant Desme.
Boyd, a Bay Area native, had a rough 2014 season after putting together two solid years to start his pro career. Boyd never got on track with Beloit, hitting .226 with a .300 OBP in 125 games. The speedy outfielder hit .285 with an 817 OPS in 2013 with Vermont and .301 with an 835 OPS with the AZL A’s in 2012, so the A’s are hoping that 2014 was anomaly for Boyd. He had a solid spring and could benefit from playing closer to home. Boyd is one of the fastest players in the A’s system and he has some power in his 5’11’’, 230-pound frame. He won’t turn 22 until mid-July.
Behind the plate, the Ports will feature two veteran catchers: Beau Taylor and Nick Rickles. Taylor spent most of the past two seasons with Double-A Midland, but he finished last season with Stockton and was a productive contributor for the Ports down-the-stretch. Taylor has struggled in the Texas League, but he is a career .330/.420/.485 hitter in 84 California League games. Taylor is also a solid defensive catcher who should work well with the Stockton pitching staff.
Rickles returns to the field after missing all of 2014 with a shoulder injury that required surgery. Before the injury, Rickles was the top throwing catcher in the A’s system, and his arm strength and accuracy looked to be back this spring. The 2011 draft pick had one game in Double-A in 2013, but he has otherwise never advanced past the Low-A level before this season.