In our third poll category –the top starting pitcher in the A's minor league system in 2004 – the readers' picks were again very similar to the staff picks, with the only difference coming at the #3 spot, where the staff chose Joe Blanton as the third best starting pitcher in 2004, while the readers chose John Rheinecker. Here are the winners:
1) Brad Knox, RHP (347 votes)
Brad Knox has simply dominated the competition at the lower levels of the minor leagues. In his finest season yet, Knox went 14-5 with a 2.59 ERA in 156.1 IP at low-A Kane County. But it's the peripheral stuff that really catches your attention. Brad struck out 174 batters (just over 10K/9 IP) with only 24 walks. That's over 7 strikeouts for every 1 walk issued, and just over 1 walk per 9 innings. That's also an exceptional demonstration of strike zone command. The only troubling item is the doubling of his homerun rate this past season – from only 4 homeruns (0.32/9 IP) in 2002-03 to 11 allowed (0.63/9 IP) in 2004 – but that's acceptable if he keeps mowing down hitters the way he has the past 3 seasons.
Knox's 2004 performance isn't a complete surprise when you look at his previous two seasons, where he struck out 104 batters while walking 27 in 111 IP, with an accompanying ERA of 2.84. He's always exhibited outstanding control. He has a full arsenal of pitches – a high-80s fastball, a changeup, a slider, and a curve – and his exceptional control allows him to throw all of them for strikes in any count.
What does the future hold for Brad? He's not extremely old for his level; he'll turn 23 at the start of the 2005 season. It's likely that the A's will promote him to high-A Stockton or even AA-Midland after keeping him in Kane County for all of 2004. It will be interesting to see how Knox fares against tougher competition in the near future.
2) Steven Bondurant, LHP (288 votes)
Steven Bondurant's 2004 season was a bit of a mixed bag. He began the season in low-A Kane County, and was brilliant for the majority of the year there: 125.2 IP, a microscopic 2.08 ERA, and a 132/24 K/BB ratio. He also only allowed 6 homeruns while pitching for the Cougars. Steven showed across-the-board improvement from both his 2003 campaign with short-season Vancouver, and from his college production at the University of South Carolina.
We profiled him here back in June, noting that, "If he continues to pitch at this level, a promotion to high-A Modesto or AA-Midland is imminent." Well, that exact thing happened, with Bondurant promoted to AA-Midland at the end of July. Unfortunately, Steven struggled against stiffer competition, posting a 6.39 ERA in 38.0 IP, along with a severe dip in his strikeout and walk rates. He appeared eminently more hittable in Midland (10.18 H/9), and while that could be the result of a small sample size of only 38 innings, it may also signal that he is not yet ready to be moved up through the system so quickly. Bondurant is not a hard thrower, and his professional success has hinged on his ability to control the strike zone, and to keep the ball from leaving the park.
Bondurant was a bit old (24) for low-A last year, and he appears to have mastered that level of competition. He should start out 2005 at high-A Stockton or AA-Midland. He's one of the better left-handed pitching prospects in an organization not particularly filled with them, and could move up to the high minors quickly if he pitches well again in 2005.
t3) Joe Blanton, RHP (staff pick)
Joe Blanton was perhaps the most ballyhooed prospect in the Oakland minor league system entering the 2004 season. He was a consensus top 50 player in nearly every minor league ranking, and was the top player left in the high end of the Oakland system after Bobby Crosby moved to Oakland for good. And rightly so; in his first full professional season in 2003, Blanton recorded a 2.29 ERA in 168.2 IP, striking out 174 while walking only 26.
Promoted to AAA-Sacramento to start the 2004 season, Blanton struggled a bit to adjust to the tougher hitters in the PCL, seeing his ERA rise to 4.19, his strikeout rate dip to 7.30/9 IP, and his homeruns nearly double. However, Joe was able to maintain his control, walking only 34 batters in 176.1 IP. It should also be noted that the PCL is a notorious hitters' league, and Blanton's ERA is more palatable when viewed in that light. Blanton was called up to Oakland in early September, and pitched well in relief while there, allowing only 1 run in his first 7 major league innings, and holding his ground in 3 important divisional games.
As for Joe's future outlook, he will have the opportunity to compete for the fifth starter's spot in the 2005 Oakland rotation now that Mark Redman has been traded to Pittsburgh. The A's may elect to start the big right-hander in the bullpen and ease him in to a major league starting role. Regardless of how he is handled, expect Blanton to begin the season on the major league roster, and to earn a spot in the rotation at some point in 2005.
t3) John Rheinecker, LHP (112 votes)
John Rheinecker was a first-round pick out of Southwest Missouri State in 2001. In his first full professional season, John was stellar, posting a 3.07 ERA in 178.2 IP between high-A Modesto and AA-Midland, along with 162 strikeouts versus only 34 walks. That 2002 season had him talked about in the same breath as former teammate and current Oakland starter Rich Harden.
He moved quickly up through the ranks, arriving in AAA-Sacramento in just his second full minor league season in 2003, and staying there full-time in 2004. In 2004, Rheinecker sported an 11-9 record to go along with his 4.44 ERA in 172.1 IP. He struck out 129 batters and walked 51, for a K/BB ratio of 2.53. Those are solid numbers. Again, like with Blanton, the 4.44 ERA can be taken with a grain of salt, as the PCL is a tough hitters' league. However, his homeruns per 9 IP have shot up from 0.45 in 2002 all the way to 1.15 in 2004, and coupled with a declining K/BB rate, there is a little cause for concern.
Rheinecker's command is his best asset. Maintaining that control in the high minors and into the majors will be the key for Rheinecker, who throws his fastball in the high-80s and mixes in a curve and a slider. He is the most major-league ready left-handed pitcher in the Oakland system, and may have a higher ceiling than former RiverCat Mike Wood (although Wood's right-handed), who was traded to the Kansas City Royals in 2004 as part of the Octavio Dotel deal. Don't be surprised to see him in Oakland in 2005 as a spot starter or fill-in, or even in long-relief out of the bullpen. He could also end up as a full-time starter as the result of a trade, either to another team, or via a trade of another of the A's starting pitchers.
Questions or comments? Contact Adam Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org
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