OverviewTo view the RockHounds’ full roster, click here.
Dynasties are fairly rare in minor league baseball given the ever-changing nature of minor league rosters. The Midland RockHounds have an opportunity to be one of those rare exceptions, as they enter this season with a chance to win a third-straight Texas League championship.
The RockHounds are once again led by manager Ryan Christenson, who managed the RockHounds to the title in 2015 after taking over the post from 2014 title-winning skipper Aaron Nieckula. John Wasdin returns to Midland as the pitching coach, while Brian McArn moves from Stockton to Midland as the hitting coach.
Midland’s Opening Day roster is a mix of players who contributed to the team’s title run last season and rising prospects, including A’s top prospect Franklin Barreto and the star of A’s major league camp, Matt Chapman. Midland begins its season on Thursday on the road at Arkansas. After three games versus the Travelers, the RockHounds take on the Northwest Arkansas Naturals before returning home to take on the Travelers on April 14.
The RockHounds will feature a prospect-heavy starting rotation, led by Raul Alcantara, Dylan Covey and Daniel Mengden. Veteran Chris Jensen will return to the Midland roster for a third season and Joel Seddon will round out the rotation to start the year, although the A’s are still toying with the idea of making Sam Bragg a starter at some point this year, according to A’s Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman. The RockHounds open the season with no lefties on their staff, an oddity.
Alcantara returns to Midland for the first time since he injured his elbow with the RockHounds in April 2014. He required Tommy John surgery and only returned to game action midway through last season. He spent the 2015 season with High-A Stockton. The hard-throwing, groundball-generating Alcantara was the A’s top pitching prospect when he went down with the elbow injury.
He will be monitored closely this season after throwing 48.2 innings last year, but he should have more free reign than he did last year when he was on a strict pitch count. Alcantara is on his third option year, although the A’s may petition for an extra option year given the time he missed to injury. He just turned 23 in December and remains one of the most talented starters in the A’s system.
Covey jumps to Midland after a year-plus in Stockton. The big right-hander had a solid season with the Ports last year. He was a mid-season Cal League All-Star and one of the anchors of that staff. Covey, who has the best sinker in the A’s system, had a 3.59 ERA in 140.1 innings.
Covey has never struck-out as many batters as one would expect given the quality of his stuff (a four-seam fastball that can hit the mid-90s and good secondary offerings), but his strike-outs tipped up towards the end of the season. Covey’s ability to get a groundball whenever he needs it has allowed him to be a workhorse the past two seasons.
Mengden begins his first full season in the A’s organization with the RockHounds. Acquired from the Houston Astros mid-season, Mengden made a strong first impression on the A’s in his time with Stockton last season.
Mengden would have fit well with the Swingin’ A’s of the 1970s with his handlebar mustache, stir-ups, old fashioned delivery and his ability to pound the strike-zone. In 42.1 innings with the Ports after the trade, Mengden had a 41:10 K:BB and he had a 125:36 K:BB in 130.2 innings overall. It was Mengden’s first full season as a pro and he handled the heavy workload without issue.
Jensen returns to the Midland rotation for the third straight season. He was a Texas League post-season All-Star in 2014 but saw his BABIP go up significantly in 2015, resulting in a big jump in ERA.
Jensen, like Covey, has a sinker that he uses to work efficiently. His groundball rate dipped last season, however. His ERA went from 3.14 in 2014 to 4.87 in 2015. Many of his other numbers were the same, but he saw his homerun rate go up considerably. If Jensen can get back to his groundball ways, he should find success once again.
Seddon begins the year in the Midland rotation, but he may end up going back-and-forth between the rotation and the bullpen, just as he did last season. The A’s view him as having a similar skillset to former Oakland swingman Jesse Chavez and are likely to keep Seddon sharp on both starting and relieving throughout his development.
Seddon doesn’t have over-powering stuff, but he pounds the strike-zone and gets plenty of groundballs. He was a closer at South Carolina and succeeded despite not having big velocity because of his willingness to challenge hitters. That approach worked for him in the Cal League last season, as well. He tired a bit at the end of the season, but Seddon had a 3.59 ERA in 105.1 innings in the hitter-friendly Cal League. He had an 82:17 K:BB and nearly identical numbers as a starter and as a reliever.
Bragg’s ultimate role is yet to be determined, but if he does move into the rotation, he will have a solid base of innings to work from. In each of the past two seasons, Bragg has thrown at least 74 innings in a long relief role.
Bragg has moved steadily through the A’s system since joining the A’s from a Georgia junior college in 2013. He had a 3.65 ERA in 74 innings for Stockton last season, striking out 92 and walking 23. Bragg allowed eight homeruns, but he was otherwise very effective. He has an excellent breaking ball and a fastball that can touch 96 and sits 92-94.
The Midland bullpen is a blend of experienced pitchers and those reaching Double-A for the first time. Kris Hall, Ryan Doolittle, Andres Avila and Jake Sanchez all return to Midland after playing important roles in the RockHounds’ title run last year.
Hall was a workhorse for the RockHounds last year, racking up 72 innings. He had a 2.50 ERA and struck-out more than a batter an inning (74). Walks were an issue for Hall (53), but he was able to mitigate that damage by inducing plenty of groundballs. Hall is one of the hardest throwers in the A’s system, topping out at 100 MPH.
Doolittle, who re-signed with the A’s as a minor league free agent this off-season, was in Oakland’s big league camp as a non-roster invitee for the first time in his career. He struggled in big league games, but Doolittle got off to a slow start last season and recovered to put together a strong year. In 57 innings, Doolittle had a 3.32 ERA and a 46:16 K:BB. He has fastball that can touch 95 and a sharp breaking ball. Doolittle has always been a strike-thrower and he generates plenty of groundballs.
It may be Opening Day, but Avila is already in mid-season form. In fact, he never really had an off-season. The right-hander pitched all winter in his home country of Mexico. During spring training, he took a brief break from A’s camp to pitch for Mexico in the WBC. The rubber-armed Avila should be an important part of the RockHounds’ bullpen once again this year. He began last year with Stockton, but earned an early-season promotion and logged 48.1 innings with the RockHounds. Another strike-thrower, he walked just 16 in 62 total innings last year. Avila has experience as a closer and as a middle reliever.
Like Avila, Sanchez should be in mid-season form after pitching as a reliever in the Mexican Winter League and pitching for Team Mexico in the WBC. The SoCal native was a starter for Midland last season, but he looks to be moving into a full-time relief role. His stuff plays up better as a reliever. He is a groundball pitcher who can stifle top line-ups when on his game. He should be able to give the RockHounds plenty of innings out of the bullpen this season.
After spending all of last season in Triple-A, Aaron Kurcz starts the year in Double-A. The hard-throwing right-hander has electric stuff, but he has struggled locating at times since joining the A’s midway through last year in a trade with the Atlanta Braves. Kurcz has the stuff to be a dominating closer for Midland, and he could slide into that late-innings role if he is throwing strikes early in the year.
Corey Walter is another candidate to pick up saves for Midland. The big right-hander served as the Ports’ closer for half of last season, saving eight games in nine chances. He had an outstanding year with Stockton, posting a 1.42 ERA in 57 innings. Another groundball pitcher, Walter allowed only one homerun. In fact, he has allowed just one homerun in 84 career innings. Walter had a 46:17 K:BB and a 1.73 GO/AO for the Ports. His fastball can touch 94 and he gets plenty of movement on the pitch. Walter’s motion is deceptive, making his stuff play up even more.
Trey Cochran-Gill joined the A's this off-season in a deal with the Seattle Mariners. A 14th-round pick of Seattle's in 2014, Cochran-Gill raced through A-ball to reach Double-A in his first full season. He offers plenty of deception and he is an extreme groundball pitcher. He will need to improve his command to move up to Triple-A, but his ability to generate groundballs makes him a good fit in this Midland bullpen.
The infield is the strength of this talented Midland roster, and it is highlighted by three top-20 A’s prospects: Franklin Barreto, Matt Chapman and Ryon Healy. Fellow top-20 prospect Yairo Munoz could join the fun later in the year. He is currently dealing with heel and foot issues. Munoz is scheduled to see the doctor this week. Depending on his timetable and team needs, Munoz could join either Stockton or Midland later this year.
The A’s top prospect begins the year on the Midland roster for a third straight season. In 2014, it was Addison Russell. In 2015, it was Matt Olson. Now Barreto takes home that title.
Barreto turned 20 just before the start of spring training and he is the youngest player on the Midland roster. It’s entirely possible he will be the youngest player in the Texas League once all of the rosters are filled out. Barreto was several years the junior of his competition last year, as well, but he more than held his own, batting .302/.333/.500 with 13 homers in 90 games.
Barreto showed mental toughness last year, overcoming a horrific start in April that would have buried a lot of other players mentally. He is an electric hitter who can produce via the longball and also hit for average and put pressure on defenses with his legs. Defensively, Barreto is still finding his way as a shortstop. At times, he looks completely competent there. Other times, he struggles with his footwork, especially on throws. He could see time at a few other positions this year, but Barreto will continue to get the bulk of his reps at short for the time being.
When at short, Barreto will team up on the left side of the infield with Chapman, who was the talk of A’s big league camp this spring.
The A’s 2014 first-round pick homered six times during his first big league camp and he dazzled defensively. Chapman battled two different injuries in 2015, but while he was healthy, he was dynamic for Stockton. He homered 23 times in 80 games and was the top defensive third baseman in the Cal League.
Power hitters can struggle in the Texas League, especially at the RockHounds’ home park where the winds swirl in from right center. Chapman has an up-the-middle approach and may lose a few homeruns to right center to those winds. However, he also has plenty of power to the pull-side and ultimately could put up the best power-hitting season in Midland since Chris Carter in 2009.
Returning to Midland in a tough-luck assignment is Healy, who was arguably the best hitter in the Texas League during the second-half of the 2015 season.
Healy hit .355 after the All-Star break last season and has no real business being back in Double-A. However, as I wrote a few weeks ago, the A’s have a crunch of infielders needing regular at-bats in Triple-A. Unfortunately for Healy, several of the other infielders in Nashville are on the 40-man roster, so it makes more sense for them to be in Triple-A while using an option year.
The A’s logjam in the infield is likely to break at some point, as injuries and performances are inevitably going to necessitate the A’s moving some of those Sounds to the big leagues. Healy should be the first in line for a promotion, provided he is healthy. While in Midland, Healy will see some time at third when Chapman is in need of a break, but will mostly be at first base and DH. He also could get a look in right field to increase his versatility.
Wade Kirkland returns to Midland for a second season, and he is likely to play a similar role to the one he played in 2015. Last season, Kirkland filled in at short, second and third base and even saw some time in the outfield. A natural shortstop, Kirkland has a cannon for an arm and can fill in pretty much anywhere on the field. He had a hot end to last season, batting .311 in 132 second-half at-bats.
Minor league free agent signee Josh Rodriguez will also play a utility role for the RockHounds. Rodriguez is a 10-year minor league veteran and a 2006 second-round pick of the Indians. He played last season in Triple-A and Double-A for the Mets organization and hit .282 with an 857 OPS in Double-A. Rodriguez should find playing time all over the field, as he has logged innings at every position but catcher during his career.
Newcomer Viosergy Rosa will also get at-bats at first base and DH for Midland this year. A minor league Rule 5 pick this off-season, Rosa was a well-regarded prospect in the Marlins’ chain before a disappointing 2015 season dropped his stock. The powerful left-handed hitter bashed 23 homers and walked 74 times in 133 games at the Low-A level in 2013. In 2014, he posted a 795 OPS in a very difficult hitter’s league (the Florida State League) and finished the year in Double-A. Last season, Rosa never got going at the Double-A level, hitting only .217 with 10 homers in 122 games. He should see more at-bats once Healy is in Triple-A.
Midland returns two backstops who played for the RockHounds at various points last season.
Carson Blair was a mid-season All-Star for the RockHounds’ last season, posting an 855 OPS and impressing on both sides of the ball. He made the jump to Triple-A around the All-Star break and finished the year in the big leagues, making his major-league debut. Blair was designated for assignment after the season, but he remained with the A’s as a minor league free agent. He lost his spot in Triple-A to Bruce Maxwell this spring, but Blair is still a factor in the A’s catching depth chart and will see the bulk of the reps behind the plate this season.
Beau Taylor has spent parts of the past three seasons with the RockHounds. One of the most talented defensive catchers in the A’s system, Taylor has struggled to hit at the Double-A level. He put up his best offensive numbers as a Double-A hitter during his late-season stint with the RockHounds last season. If he can continue to hit well, Taylor will factor into the A’s catching depth chart. He has an outstanding arm and is a good receiver behind the plate.
Several of the RockHounds’ infielders will also see time in the outfield, but four true outfielders will see the bulk of the innings there.
Jaycob Brugman returns for his second season with Midland. Brugman played in left and center field for Midland last year, batting .260 with a .343 OBP in 132 games. Brugman isn’t flashy, but he does everything well, grinding out at-bats and playing solid defense. Like Healy, Brugman should be near the top of the list of players who will be candidates for in-season promotions to Triple-A.
J.P. Sportman missed much of last season with a broken hamate bone, but he has impressed so much when healthy that he earned a spot on the Double-A roster despite the missed time. In 45 games with Stockton last season, Sportman hit .298 with a 767 OPS and he stole 10 bases. Sportman is a high energy player who has power to the gaps and the ability to hit for average. He can play all three outfield positions and even some second base.
When Sportman got hurt last year, Brett Vertigan stepped up in Sportman’s place in the Stockton outfield and the Ports didn’t miss a beat. One of the best defensive centerfielders in the A’s system, Vertigan had his best offensive season last year. Between Stockton and Beloit, Vertigan hit .288 with a .365 OBP and he stole 30 bases in 137 games. Vertigan, Brugman and Sportman are all options to lead-off for Midland.
Danny Oh rounds out the Midland outfield in his first season in the A’s organization. The former Cal Golden Bear joined the A’s as a minor league Rule 5 pick from the Yankees. He split last season between High-A and Double-A and hit .305 with a .360 OBP. Oh has outstanding contact skills. In 256 career games, he has struck-out just 156 times. Oh has mostly played right field during his career, although he has also logged time at center and in left.