Organization Review: Top Pitching Prospects

<i>This is a free preview of premium content.</i><br> Adam Miller lists the top A's pitching prospects and analyzes the chances for each to make an impact in the major leagues.

Already deep in pitching (well, at least deep in starting pitching) at the major league level, with a rotation that is arguably tops in the American League (and the majors) from top to bottom, a look at the A's minor league system shows that there is plenty of pitching left in the cupboard.

One thing you might notice is the predominant amount of right-handed pitchers here: only 3 of the 20 pitchers I have profiled are left-handed. What once was a unique strength – starting 4 left-handed pitchers in the rotation in 2003 – may fade unless the A's restock with some more lefties should Mulder or Zito leave through free agency or trade.

1) Joe Blanton, RHP, 6'3", 225. Age: 23. Level: AAA (Sacramento).
Far and away the best prospect, pitching or otherwise, currently in the A's minor league system, Blanton is major-league ready right now, and on teams with a lesser rotation, he's already be up in the Show. He throws his fastball in the low to mid-90s, and complements it with two nasty breaking pitches (the curve and the slider), as well as a changeup he's still working on. After pitching 100 innings in his final year at the University of Kentucky in 2002, the A's rested Blanton's arm, only letting him throw 20 innings…although he still struck out 21 batters. In 2003 with Kane County, his stuff and command proved too much for the hitters in the Midwest league, where he posted a 144/19 K/BB ratio in 133 innings over 21 starts. In 7 appearances for AA Midland in the remainder of the year, Blanton posted a 30/7 K/BB ratio in 35 2/3 innings while decreasing his hits allowed. Although Blanton's hits and walks are up, and his strikeouts are down in 2004 with AAA Sacramento, he is still on track to join the major league club sometime in late 2004/early 2005. When he gets complete control of his changeup, he'll have a devastating arsenal of pitches at his disposal. With his excellent control of the strike zone, that will be a scary thought for opposing major league hitters.

2) Brad Sullivan, RHP, 6'1", 190. Age: 22. Level: A (Modesto).
Sullivan saw limited action in 2003, throwing only 11 1/3 innings after throwing 250+ innings in his final 2 years at the University of Houston. In 2001, he struck out 157 batters in 128 innings while giving up zero home runs. His K rate is down in his first full season in the minors at Modesto (6.39 K/9 IP), and he currently has a WHIP over 1.500. He also is giving up the longball at a high rate: 1.07 HR/9 IP. His loss of velocity from college is a bit of a concern. But the A's have faith in their former first-round pick; his performance level should increase, as he showed solid strike zone command in college (2.92 K/BB ratio), and was known as a hard thrower, with a nasty slider to complement his plus fastball.

3) Mike Wood, RHP, 6'3", 195. Age: 24. Level: AAA (Sacramento).(traded to Kansas City on 6/24/04)
Wood came out of the gate fast with the A's, putting up very impressive numbers in a season and half in Modesto and Vancouver in 2001 and 2002: a 2.89 ERA and 126 strikeouts against only 20 walks in 121 1/3 innings. Like many pitchers, his control and strikeout rate suffered upon facing stiffer competition in AA (where he spent the remainder of 2002) and AAA (where he spent the majority of 2003, and has begun 2004). Wood doesn't have overpowering stuff; he throws his fastball in the high-80s/low-90s, and has a split-fingered fastball and a slider that he mixes in. Wood's improved his K rate and control in his second go-around with the Rivercats, after a brief September call-up last year. He probably doesn't have the dominant stuff or exceptional control necessary to make him a front-line starter, but he's certainly useful at the back of the rotation or in middle relief.

4) Brad Knox, RHP, 6'3", 210. Age: 22. Level: A (Kane County).
The A's are very high on Knox internally, and think he could be a sleeper after being selected in the 14th round of the 2002 draft. In 41 innings of rookie ball in 2002, Knox struck out 42 batters while walking only 9. Moved up to Vancouver in 2003, Knox posted a 63/18 K/BB ratio in 70 innings, while lowering his ERA and hit rate. Brad was again moved up in 2004, this time to Kane County, where he's put up the best numbers of his minor league career. Knox has struck out 76 batters in 59 1/3 innings while walking only 10 and allowing 55 hits. He has nothing left to prove at the low-A level, and a promotion to Modesto or Midland is imminent. Knox will be interesting to track in the future, as his control and stuff appear to be excellent at this point.

5) Ben Fritz, RHP, 6'4", 225. Age: 23. Level: AA (Midland).
Fritz was one of the A's first-round selections in 2002 out of Fresno State. He didn't become a starter until his last year in college, but improved his strike zone command, K rate, and WHIP each year, even with increased innings, from 1.74 WHIP, 1.06 K/BB, and 5.67 K/9 in limited action in 2000, to 1.13 WHIP, 2.72 K/BB, and 7.41 K/9 in 2002. Don't be fooled by his high ERA (4.91) at Modesto in 2003; he posted the highest K rate of his career (9.00 K/9), and still kept up a 2.26 K/BB ratio. Big Ben was promoted to AA Midland for 2004, where he again has a high ERA (4.88), but his peripherals are down across the board: 7.19 K/9, 1.57 K/BB, and a high WHIP of 1.59. Fritz appears to need some more seasoning versus the tougher competition in the Texas League before moving to the next level.

6) Justin Lehr, RHP, 6'1", 200. Age: 27. Level: AAA (Sacramento). Lehr excelled in his minor league debut season in 2000, posting a 3.19 ERA in a workhorse-like 175 innings, along with solid peripheral numbers. Justin posted 7.10 K/9, a WHIP of 1.183, and displayed a mature command of the strike zone with his 3/1 K/BB ratio. After being promoted to AA Midland in 2001, Lehr struggled to adjust, as his ERA and WHIP shot up (5.45 and 1.603), and his peripherals plummeted. Justin was hurt by the 20 longballs he served up to the Texas League hitters. Lehr showed enough improvement at Midland in 2002 to be promoted to AAA Sacramento in 2003, where he posted better numbers against stiffer competition: a 3.72 ERA, 1.347 WHIP, 7.68 K/9, and a 2.37 K/9 ratio, as well as only 3 HRs allowed in 75 IP. So far in 2004, Lehr has taken a big leap forward in his performance. He is frustrating PCL hitters, striking out 31 batters in 25 2/3 innings, and only allowing 9 walks and 21 hits (and zero home runs). Lehr is a bit old to still be considered a prospect (27 in baseball years this season), but he looks ready to compete on the major league level at this point.

7) Shane Komine, RHP, 5'8", 160. Age: 23. Level: AA (Midland).
Komine struck out 510 batters in 429 innings at the University of Nebraska (10.70 K/9), and also posted a 3.80/1 K/BB ratio; think those are reasons that the A's selected him in 2002? Like many of the A's college draftees, he was essentially rested in 2002 after a heavy college workload, and dominated the Midwest league in 2003 in 54 1/3 innings (50 K, 9 BB, 11 ER) before earning a promotion to AA Midland. In 167 2/3 innings at Midland in 2003 and 2004, Komine's K rate has dropped a bit (120 K, or 6.44 K/9), and the walks have gone up. Injuries will always be a concern because of his size (he suffered an elbow injury in his final year at Nebraska), but Komine could end up being a steal if he can harness his control. His strikeout numbers indicate that he probably has the stuff to compete on the big league level.

8) John Rheinecker, LHP, 6'2", 215. Age: 25. Level: AAA (Sacramento).
Perhaps the best thing Rheinecker has going for him is his exceptional command. Rheinecker throws his fastball in the high-90s, and mixes in a slider, but he hasn't shown the ability to consistently strikeout batters. He kind of reminds me of Mark Buerhle a bit, with his low strikeout rate, solid command, and the fact that he gives up a ton of hits, but I don't think he has anywhere near Buerhle's upside, and Buerhle never allowed as many hits as Rheinecker. His hits allowed and walks have steadily increased as Rheinecker has progressed through the minors. Good: 392/106 K/BB in 448 2/3 minor league innings. Bad: 512 hits allowed (10.27 H/9) in those innings, including 311 hits in 238 innings since the start of the 2003 season (11.76 H/9). Also, Rheinecker has given up 10 home runs in just 57 2/3 innings so far in the 2004 season for the Rivercats. I just don't think Rheinecker will be that useful as a major league player at this point, unless it's in a Jesse Orosco-type role.

9) Chris Mabeus, RHP, 6'3", 210. Age: 25. League: AAA (Sacramento).
Mabeus was a 13th-round selection by the A's in the 2001 draft. He was grabbed in the December Rule 5 draft by Texas last year, but ended up being returned to the A's. Mabeus struggled with his control in his first two seasons in the minors, but looked like he got a handle on it in 2003, upping his K/BB ratio and K/9 rate significantly, from 1.94 K/BB and 5.95 K/9 in 2001 and 2002 to 4.67 K/BB and 10.16 K/9 in 2003, when he struck out 70 batters against only 15 walks in 62 innings at high-A Modesto and AA Midland. At Midland this year, Mabeus put up some ridiculous numbers, with more strikeouts (27) than hits (23) and walks (2) combined. After nearly 23 innings of a 1.99 ERA, and having allowed only 2 home runs in his last 85 innings of work, Mabeus was promoted to AAA Sacramento. He's only made 3 appearances thus far, but has struck out 3 batters in 3 1/3 innings. Mabeus is another pitcher who could be of help to a major league bullpen soon. He throws a good sinker and slider to complement it.

10) Shawn Kohn, RHP, 6'2", 200. Age: 24. Level: AAA (Sacramento).
Kohn was a 22nd-round draft pick out of the University of Washington in 2002. He wasn't much of a strikeout pitcher in college, but kept the homeruns and walks down, and commanded the strike zone well. In the A's minor league system, however, Kohn has been striking out batters at a surprising rate, while maintaining his excellent strike zone command. Shawn showed flashes of what was to come in 20 brief innings in 2002 at Vancouver, striking out 20 batters while only issuing 6 walks. In 2003, used primarily as a reliever at A Kane County, Kohn struck out 69 while only walking 15, posting an incredible 4.6/1 K/BB ratio, in 88 2/3 innings, with an ERA of 2.45, and a WHIP of only 0.970. Promoted to A Modesto to start the 2004 season, Kohn dominated California league hitters, striking out 25 batters in only 12 innings, while issuing only 6 hits to go along with zero walks and zero runs. Shawn was called up to AAA Sacramento, where he continues to dazzle with his strike zone command, striking out 15 while walking 2 in 13 2/3 innings. He's given up considerably more hits than is the norm for him, and had some problems with the home run, but if his K/BB and K/9 rate remain high, he's got an excellent chance to help the A's bullpen at some point in 2004 or 2005.

11) Kirk Saarloos, RHP, 6'0", 185. Age: 25. Level: AAA (Sacramento).
Saarloos was acquired for Chad Harville earlier this year, when Harville was placed on waivers due to a lack of room for him on the major league roster. Saarloos is another control pitcher; he allowed only 41 walks and 7 homeruns in 191 minor league innings from 2001-2003, while posting 175 strikeouts (although his K/9 rate tailed off at AAA New Orleans). In 2 stints with the Houston Astros in 2002 and 2003, Saarloos' walk and hit rates rose sharply, while his K/9 rate plummeted, although he still displayed a 2.2/1 K/BB ratio in the majors. Kirk uses a Greg Maddux-like fastball, changeup, and a slider in his repertoire. In one start with the Rivercats before going on the disabled list, Saarloos went 6 innings, striking out 5, walking 2, and allowing 3 hits and 0 runs. The A's could turn Saarloos into a Mark Redman-type pitcher for the back end of a rotation or the bullpen. His peripheral stats indicate that he could be effective in either of those roles, if utilized correctly.

12) Mario Ramos, LHP, 5'11", 180. Age: 26. League: AAA (Sacramento).
After being referred to as the next Mark Mulder as recently as 2001, Ramos' star fell quickly when he was traded to Texas as part of the Carlos Pena deal. I guess being under the "tutelage" of the Texas pitching system can do that to you. After posting an ERA of 2.88 in two years in the Oakland system, Ramos' ERA shot up to 5.74 in two years in the Texas system, along with a skyrocketing hit rate and a sharp drop in his K rate. Mario will never be confused as a power pitcher, with a fastball that barely touches 90, but he has a nice changeup and curve to complement the fastball, which he locates well (at least, he used to locate it well). In 2001, Ramos was striking out over a batter per inning in the PCL, so his stuff isn't the problem. So far in 2004, the K rate is climbing back up, and the ERA is down. If the A's can turn Ramos back around, he could be useful as a spot starter for Oakland or as trade bait, yet again.

13) Jairo Garcia, RHP, 6'0", 165. Age: 21. League: A (Kane County).
Garcia was signed by the A's as a non-drafted free agent in 2000 out of the Dominican Republic. Garcia struggled a bit with the walks as a 17-year-old on the A's Dominican rookie ball team, but has been lights out since then. Jairo is a power pitcher with an electrifying arm, which is evidenced by his extremely high K rates. Moved to Oakland's rookie league team in Arizona in 2001, Garcia struck out 50 batters against just 6 walks in 47 1/3 innings. After posting a 66/17 K/BB ratio on the Arizona Athletics in the beginning of 2002, Garcia was moved up to Vancouver in the Northwest league for the remainder of the season. The strikeouts remained high (16 in 12 1/3 innings), but the walks returned (7). Jario was again promoted in 2003, this time to low-A Kane County, where his ERA (2.55) and hits allowed per 9 IP (8.50) were low, but the K/BB ratio and K/9 rates declined again. However, Garcia has once again been dominating hitters, remaining at Kane County this year. In 21 IP, Garcia, has allowed only 9 hits, 4 walks, 1 ER, and zero home runs to complement an astounding 36 strikeouts, a rate of 15.43 Ks/9 IP. Garcia is due for a move up to stiffer competition, perhaps to high-A Modesto or AA Midland by the end of the year. This young fireballer bears watching, as he could turn into a Guillermo Mota type pitcher out of the bullpen.

14) Jose Corchado, RHP, 6'0", 190. Age: 20. League: A (Kane County).
Corchado was nabbed in the 18th round of the 2002 draft out of Isabella, Puerto Rico. He started games in the Arizona rookie league in 2002, but eventually was moved to the bullpen. Promoted to low-A Vancouver to start 2003, Corchado showed marked improvement in his strikeout rate, jumping to 10.43 K/9 with 51 strikeouts against 16 walks in 44 innings. Moved to Kane County for 2004, Corchado is still striking out over a batter an inning, and showing solid command of the strike zone with a 31/9 K/BB ratio, while being moved back to a starting role. He still needs to cut down on the hits and home runs, but at only 20, Corchado could end up being a sleeper down the road if he can maintain his strikeout rates and control as he moves through the A's minor league system.

15) Chris Shank, RHP, 6'2", 185. Age: 23. League: A (Modesto).
Shank, like many of the A's minor league pitchers, is stingy with the free pass. In 143 1/3 minor league innings, Chris has struck out 136 batters while only walking 31, for an incredible 4.39 K/BB ratio. With the exception of a brief 22-inning stint at A Kane County in 2003, Shank has also posted K/9 rates of 8.76 or better in all his minor league stops. So far this year, Shank has pitched well for the Modesto A's, striking out 35 and walking only 8 in 35 1/3 innings. He has had some problems with the home run this year, surrendering 4 so far, which is a bit of an anomaly, considering Shank had only given up 5 home runs in 108 innings prior to this year. Assuming he can get his home run tendencies under control, Shank is another pitcher who could help the A's in the future, either as trade bait, or in the bullpen.

16) Steve Obenchain, RHP, 6'5", 220. Age: 23. League: A (Modesto).
Obenchain is a big right-handed pitcher who was drafted in the first round in 2002 out of the University of Evansville, where he was primarily used as a reliever. He pitched well at Visalia and Vancouver in limited innings in 2002, with a 39/13 K/BB ratio, and a combined ERA of 2.91. In 2003, he began the season at high-A Modesto, and struggled; his K/BB ratio dropped to a poor 19/20, and his WHIP and ERA rose to 1.740 and 5.15, respectively. Obenchain seemed to regain the control and success he had exhibited earlier when sent down to low-A Kane County for the remainder of the season. Back up at Modesto in 2004, Steve has an ERA of 4.91, but has struck out 37 batters in 36 2/3 innings, which represents a large jump in his strikeout rate. His WHIP is still way too high, which accounts for the ERA, but a high K rate is often an indicator of a low future ERA. Keep an eye on Obenchain, and see if he can harness that WHIP.

17) Shane Bazzell, RHP, 6'2", 180. Age: 25. League: AA (Midland). Bazzell's been bouncing around the Oakland minor league system since 1998, when he came in as a 19-year-old. He's shown flashes of being able to sustain a high strikeout rate, as well as limit his walks and home runs, but he's been overmatched above A ball in 3 previous stints at Midland, with an ERA nearly 2 runs at the AA level. But in 2004, Bazzell may have turned the corner, being used primarily as a reliever. He's struck out 24 batters in 23 2/3 innings with only 1 walk, 20 hits, and 4 earned runs allowed. Bazzell obviously won't keep up the 24/1 K/BB ratio, but it could signify that he's finally ready for tougher competition.

18) Marcus Gwyn, RHP, 6'3", 210. Age: 26. League: AA (Midland).
Gwyn came from Rice University in 2000, where he was largely used as a starter. In 28 innings in Vancouver in 2000, Gwyn put up a 31/2 K/BB ratio. Moved up to Modesto in 2001, Gwyn struggled a bit as a starter, and he was sent down to rookie ball to start 2002. Marc appeared to regain his K rate and control in 2003, when he struck out nearly 11 batters per 9 IP in 60 innings between Modesto and Midland against 26 walks. The K rate has stayed right at 11/9 IP in 2004 at Midland, and the walks have declined even further. Like some other players in the A's system, Gwyn is a bit old to be considered a true prospect, but his high K rate and college seasoning could mean that he is ready for a higher-leverage role sooner rather than later.

19) Daniel Fyvie, RHP, 6'1", 200. Age: 22. League: A (Kane County).
Fyvie, out of Flint, Michigan, is an interesting prospect because he has steadily improved his strikeout, walk, and hit rates at each level of the A's minor league system, contributing to low ERAs each year. In 2002, with the A's Arizona rookie league team, Fyvie posted an ERA of 2.92, with a K/9 rate of 5.84, a K/BB rate of 1.33, and a H/9 rate of 8.76 in 24 2/3 innings of relief. After improving across the board at Vancouver in 2003, Fyvie was moved up to Kane County in 2004, where he has an ERA of 3.04, with a K/9 rate of 10.31, a K/BB rate of 3.75, and a H/9 rate of 7.09. Fyvie is a bit old for Kane County, but if can continue to improve at each level, he will move up the organization's pitching depth chart quickly.

20) Derrell McCall, RHP, 6'3", 205. Age: 23. League: A (Modesto).
McCall has not been much of a prospect before 2004, putting up middling strikeout, walk, and hit rates. He was actually sent down to Kane County from Modesto midway through the 2003 season after struggling through 19 starts with the high-A club. This season, back with Modesto, McCall has struck out 7.95 batters per 9 innings, after never posting a K rate above 5.96 in 4 previous minor league seasons. His hits are also down nearly 2 per 9 innings. Since the A's are stocked with starting pitchers, he's not a great bet to progress in the Oakland system, but could be useful for another club if his improvement continues.

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