The Midland RockHounds made history last season, becoming the first team in 91 years to earn three straight Texas League titles. The RockHounds return a talented roster that looks poised to challenge for a fourth straight title.
The RockHounds will be led in 2017 by skipper Fran Riordan, who takes over for Ryan Christenson. Christenson is now the manager for Triple-A Nashville. Riordan joined the A’s organization as a minor league manager last season, overseeing the Beloit Snappers. Veteran pitching coach Don Schulze joins Riordan on the Texas League staff, while Brian McArn returns as the hitting coach.
The Midland roster is long on experience, with all but three members of the Opening Day active roster with at least some experience above High-A ball.
The A’s are employing tandem starting rotations at the Double-A, High-A and Low-A levels. Corey Walter, Brandon Mann, James Naile, Grant Holmes, Heath Fillmyer, Joel Seddon, Ben Bracewell and Kyle Friedrichs will team up as the pairs of scheduled pitchers each day.
Walter returns to Midland after a brilliant 2016 season with the RockHounds. A reliever early in his career, Walter moved to the rotation last season and posted a 2.15 ERA in 100.1 innings. He was a strike-throwing, groundball-inducing machine, walking only 15 and posting a 2.15 GO/AO. He allowed only two homeruns. Walter has a hard sinker that can touch 93 and he compliments that pitch with a four-seam fastball, change-up and breaking ball. He doesn’t miss a lot of at-bats but isn’t afraid to challenge hitters to get themselves out.
Mann returns to Midland for a second season, as well. The left-hander spent the second half of last year with the RockHounds after starting the year on the suspended list. He had a 4.48 ERA and he struck-out 63 in 62.1 innings. He was an important part of the RockHounds’ post-season rotation, allowing just one run in 12.1 innings over two starts. Mann throws hard and is very tough on left-handed hitters. At 32, he’s the oldest player on the RockHounds’ roster.
Naile pitched for all four full-season affiliates last year, his first full professional season. Naile made three regular season starts for Midland and one post-season start, when he threw six scoreless innings. On the season, Naile had a 3.39 ERA and a 125:38 K:BB in 156.2 innings, the majority of those innings coming with Low-A Beloit and High-A Stockton. Naile’s best two pitches are his sinker and his slider, but he also improved his change-up and added a cut-fastball last season. He had a 2.11 GO/AO last season.
Holmes is the youngest pitcher in the Texas League this year and comes to the RockHounds with no experience over A-ball. The talented right-hander is still working on consistency, but he has the potential to be a frontline starter in the big leagues. Holmes joined the A’s last season in the Rich Hill/Josh Reddick deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He struggled after joining the A’s, posting a 6.91 ERA in six starts for the Stockton Ports. In 134 innings in the California Leagues for both the Dodgers and A’s, Holmes had a 4.63 ERA and a 124:53 K:BB. He is a groundball pitcher who can touch 96 with his four-seam fastball. He has a hard sinker that sits in the low-90s, a firm change-up that sits 88-90 and breaking ball. Holmes also tinkered with a cut-fastball last fall. He is prone to over-throwing at times and losing his command, but if it comes together for Holmes, he could be special.
Fillmyer returns to Midland after spending the final six weeks of last season with the RockHounds. He was excellent in his first stint in Double-A, posting a 2.54 ERA and a 29:8 K:BB in 39 innings. In 134 innings between High-A and Double-A, Fillmyer had a 3.29 ERA and a 118:39 K:BB. Fillmyer can hit 96 with his fastball and he has an outstanding change-up that sits in the upper-80s and acts like a split-fingered fastball with its late downward break. His breaking ball is also an effective pitch. Fillmyer is one of the A’s best athletes on the mound and is a student of the game. He was part of the A’s big league camp as a non-roster invitee this spring.
Seddon spent all of last season with Midland. The right-hander struggled the first half of the season, but he was the RockHounds’ most consistent pitcher during the second half of the year. His ERA overall was 4.40 in 143.1 innings, but he had a 1.84 ERA in 13 starts during the second half of the season. Seddon rarely tops 91 MPH, but he can locate his fastball to both sides of the plate. He also has an effective change-up, curveball and slider. Seddon is a groundball pitcher who fills up the strike-zone. He was a closer in college and maintains that aggressive mentality in a starter’s role.
Bracewell went back-and-forth between the rotation and the bullpen for Midland last year. In 88.1 innings, he had a 2.14 ERA. Bracewell, like Seddon and Naile, doesn’t throw particularly hard, but he fills up the strike-zone and mixes his pitches well. He had an impressive spring training and could be one of the first (along with Walter) Midland starters promoted if the A’s have an opening in Triple-A.
Friedrichs joins Midland after spending all but two innings of last season in Low-A and High-A. Overall, Friedrichs had a 3.35 ERA in 153 innings, the last two of which came for the RockHounds. Friedrichs also made one post-season appearance for Midland, tossing 5.1 scoreless innings in relief. Another strike-thrower, Friedrichs walked just 16 all of last season. He doesn’t throw hard, but everything he throws has movement and he is always around the strike-zone. Friedrichs has a similar profile to former A’s starter A.J. Griffin.
The RockHounds’ bullpen was arguably the best in the Texas League last season and nearly all of those relievers return for 2017. The group is led by closer Jake Sanchez, who is coming off of a winter ball season during which he dominated the Mexican Winter League and landed a spot on Team Mexico’s WBC roster. A starter until last season, Sanchez’s fastball jumped up to the high-90s in a relief role and he also throws a sinker, a split-fingered fastball and a slider. He struck-out 72 in 66.2 innings last season and saved three games during the RockHounds’ post-season run.
Sanchez has plenty of firepower behind him in the Midland bullpen. Sam Bragg, Lou Trivino and Kyle Finnegan can all top 95 on a regular basis. All three are coming off of successful seasons that included long stints with Midland.
Bragg spent all of last year with the RockHounds. He began the year in the starting rotation but struggled badly in that role and moved back to the bullpen in May. Bragg was strong the rest of the season, posting a 2.70 ERA in 56.2 innings after the move back to the bullpen. Bragg then continued to pitch well in the Arizona Fall League. He allowed just three runs in 13.2 innings for the Mesa Solar Sox and was named to the Rising Stars All-Star game. Bragg’s curveball is his best pitch and he can locate his fastball, as well. He throws a lot of strikes and misses a lot of bats.
Finnegan and Trivino both began last season with High-A Stockton but made the move to Midland during the year. Finnegan threw 42 innings with the RockHounds, posting a 2.14 ERA and striking out 41. He can top 100 MPH with his fastball. His command can get wobbly at times, but when Finnegan is throwing strikes, he is very hard to hit. Opposing batters hit .217 against him last year.
Trivino, like Finnegan, can reach triple digits with his fastball. He also features a hard cut-fastball that sits in the low-90s and a breaking ball that tops out around 85. He also mixes in a cutter at times. Trivino made 12 appearances for Midland last year and overall had a 2.85 ERA in 60 innings for Midland and Stockton.
Cody Stull is the lone lefty in the Midland bullpen. Stull spent most of last season with Stockton but did make one appearance with Midland at the end of last year. With Stockton, Stull was the Ports’ most consistent reliever. He went more than a month without allowing a run during one stretch of the season and had a 1.61 ERA and a 65:14 K:BB on the year. Stull throws a lot of strikes and has an above-average change-up to go along with a one-seam fastball and a cut-fastball. All of his pitches have plenty of movement and lefties hit under .120 against him last year.
Like the pitching staff, Midland returns a lot of their 2016 roster on the position player-side. Infielder Melvin Mercedes, catcher Argenis Raga and outfielder B.J. Boyd are the only three RockHounds’ position players who haven’t played at the Double-A level for at least a handful of games prior to this season. Boyd did play several games in Triple-A at the end of last year.
Boyd arrives in Midland a year later than most expected. The A’s 2012 fourth-round pick hit .277 for Stockton in 2015 but was forced to repeat the level in 2016 thanks to a backlog of outfielders in the A’s system. He had a solid year for the Ports, batting .288/.346/.395 in 101 games. Boyd joined Nashville late in August and had eight hits in 30 at-bats for the Sounds. Boyd has a solid approach at the plate, above-average speed and has shown flashes of power during his career. He had a big spring and could be in-line for a breakout season.
Like Boyd, outfielder Tyler Marincov was forced to repeat at Stockton at the start of last season after a solid year with the Ports in 2015. Marincov did get an opportunity with Midland last year, earning a mid-season promotion after posting an 860 OPS in 36 games for the Ports. Once in Double-A, Marincov was one of the RockHounds’ most consistent hitters. He posted a 743 OPS with 10 homers in 101 games. Marincov then hit .438 with an 1139 OPS in eight post-season games with the RockHounds. He finished the regular season with 19 homers and 88 RBI. Marincov could stand to cut down on his strike-outs, but he is a solid overall run producer. Despite a solid stint with the RockHounds last year, Marincov has been once again forced to repeat the level thanks to a backlog of outfielders in Triple-A. He is in good position to be the first outfielder promoted to Triple-A when the A’s have an opening.
2016 RockHounds’ J.P. Sportman and Brett Vertigan will complete the outfield rotation. Sportman played 120 games for Midland last season, batting .267 with 18 stolen bases. A hard-nosed player who is aggressive at the plate, in the field and on the bases, Sportman has some pop in his bat and the ability to hit for average. If he can work his on-base percentage up, he could factor into the A’s fourth outfield competition next spring.
Vertigan is one of the most fundamentally solid outfielders in the A’s system. He adds value with the glove and on the bases. Last season, he stole 14 bases in 15 chances and he walked 40 times in 110 games. Vertigan doesn’t hit for power, but he can serve as a lead-off hitter, a “second lead-off hitter” from the ninth hole or a pinch-hitter or runner late in games.
Utilityman Joe Bennie will also see some time in the outfield, as well as at second base. Bennie was arguably the best hitter on the Ports last season, batting .302 with an 826 OPS in 111 games. He earned an August promotion to Double-A and struggled early but started to find his footing late in the month. Bennie has one of the highest hard-contact rates of any hitter in the A’s system. He is a solid run producer and brings versatility with the glove.
The RockHounds’ middle infield will be manned mainly by shortstop Richie Martin and second baseman Max Schrock. Martin, the A’s top pick in 2015, missed the first eight weeks of last season with a knee injury and then struggled at the plate until the final month of the year. He hit only .230/.322/.312 with Stockton, but hit .292 in August and had five hits in 15 at-bats in a late-season stint with the RockHounds. Martin had a strong spring and looks poised to take a leap forward in 2017. He is already a polish defender and he has above-average speed and a solid approach at the plate. He struggled with the timing of his swing last year, but that improved as the season went on. Martin has the potential to be a top-of-the-order hitter and defensive asset in the big leagues.
Schrock joined the A’s in a late August trade with the Washington Nationals. A 13th-round pick of the Nationals in 2015, Schrock hit .331/.373/.449 with nine homers in 22 stolen bases in his first full professional season. He finished the year with Midland and hit .391 in six regular season games. Schrock also participated in the Arizona Fall League. His bat-to-ball skills are among the best in all of minor league baseball and he is starting to tap into his power.
To start the year, newcomer Jordan Tarsovich will see plenty of reps at third base. Acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers this off-season, Tarsovich hit .221 between High-A and Double-A in the Dodgers’ chain last year. The 25-year-old can also play shortstop and second base and should be used in a variety of roles during the season.
No one is used in more roles than Mercedes, who played all nine positions in a game for Stockton late in the year. This is Mercedes’ first exposure to Double-A after two seasons with the Ports. Mercedes is a sparkplug who can work a walk and steal a base while playing any position on the field. He’s a manager’s best friend.
Like last season, Midland’s first base spot will be manned mainly by Viosergy Rosa, who etched his name into the RockHounds’ history books when he hit a walk-off grandslam to win Game Three of the Texas League semi-finals. Rosa hit nine regular season homeruns last year and walked 74 times. His approach is outstanding and he has shown big power in flashes. If he can tap into that power more consistently, Rosa could be in-line for a breakthrough season.
Behind the plate, the RockHounds begin the year with Raga and Andy Paz as the active catchers on the roster and Jose Chavez on the roster on the DL. Raga, Mercedes and Holmes are the only three players on the Midland roster with no previous experience above High-A ball. Raga hit .263 with a .329 OBP in his age-21 season with Stockton last year. He is still developing defensively, but Raga is a good athlete with a strong arm.
Paz had a breakout season with Midland last year, hitting .320 in 46 games. Paz also showed improvement defensively. He struggled with injuries early in his career, but Paz has always had a strong approach at the plate and may finally be coming into his own.
Chavez is one of the top defensive catchers in the A’s system. The 21-year-old hasn’t received a lot of consistent playing time and his bat has suffered as a result, but if he can figure out how to hit a little bit, he could be a solid back-up catcher in the big leagues thanks to his defensive prowess.
In addition to Chavez, three other players currently rehabbing injuries should factor prominently into the Midland season eventually: infielder Yairo Munoz, outfielder James Harris and catcher Beau Taylor.
Munoz was slated to join the Midland roster until he strained his hamstring the final week of spring training. He spent his age-21 season with Midland last year and struggled to find consistency at the plate, hitting only .240/.286/.367. He played well during a stint in the Arizona Fall League, however, and had a solid spring training before the injury. Munoz is one of the most physically gifted players in the A’s system. Offensively, he has above-average bat speed and some pop in his bat. He also runs well despite a heavy lower half. Defensively, Munoz has one of the strongest arms in the A’s system and smooth actions at short, second and third. He needs plenty of polish but has big league starter potential.
Harris is with Munoz at Extended Spring Training, but he should join the RockHounds once he is healthy. The Oakland native hit .303/.379/.423 with 21 stolen bases in 119 games with Stockton last year. He joined Midland in mid-August and hit .216 in 11 games. Harris is one of the fastest players in the A’s system and a tough out at the plate.
After four years of struggling with Midland, Taylor put together an All-Star campaign for the RockHounds last season. In 95 games, he hit .280/.383/.398. He also was one of the top defensive catchers in the Texas League. Unfortunately, Taylor was suspended this off-season for violating baseball’s banned substance policy and he will miss the first 50 games of the year. Taylor could be assigned to Nashville once activated, although there isn’t currently an opening in Triple-A.