Oakland Clubhouse Mailbag # 13

Mailbag # 13 brings us some questions about the Oakland A's chances of making the post-season, why the A's chose to bring up the number of call-ups they did, who the biggest surprise has been in the A's organization this season and an analysis of two of the A's top outfield prospects. Todd Morgan answers all of those questions. As a reminder, mailbag questions can be emailed to oaklandclubhouse@yahoo.com.

What is the A's best chance of getting into the post-season: wild card or division?

-Holly, Brentwood, CA

I think Oakland's best chance at making the postseason goes through the AL West. The Heavenly Helpers from Orange County are a solvable puzzle for the A's, while the Yankees and Indians present bigger obstacles.

To me, Cleveland is the most impressive team out of the four. They are young, like the A's, but have more ability to put runs on the board and aren't fighting the injury bug like Oakland. For the record, both the A's and Indians have scored 690 runs this year, but the Indians have a huge advantage in team OPS (.776 to .740).

The Yankees are the Yankees – overpriced but possessing a knack for turning experience into crucial wins. They have not spent their money as wisely this year as in years past, but a $200 million payroll is so disproportionate to the rest of the league that it is bound to be a factor down the stretch.

The Angels, on the other hand, are almost as streaky as the A's and struggle to score runs in a similar manner.

From a logistical standpoint, Los Angeles will be easier to get past because the A's have more control over their respective win-loss records, with four of their last seven games of the regular season against the Angels in Oakland.

Finishing ahead of two teams will be more difficult than finishing ahead of one, especially considering the A's only have two games left against the Yankees and Indians combined.

Why haven't the A's called up ten or eleven guys from the minors to help the team's depth like some other teams have? It seems like the A's have a good farm system and could benefit from having a few more bodies on the bench, especially for extra-inning games.

-Frank, Sunnyvale, CA

Because Mickey Morabito's job is already difficult enough. Finding room on flights, buses and in hotels for ten more players and all their luggage is probably his worst nightmare.

Seriously though, at some point extra bodies do nothing more than take up space. As of today the A's have six September call-ups on the big league roster: Juan Cruz, Ron Flores, Jairo Garcia, Alberto Castillo, Hiram Bocachica and Matt Watson. And that does not include Freddie Bynum, who was called up on August 29th.

This group gives them help in every aspect of the game – a possible starting pitcher, 2-3 relievers, a catcher, an outfielder and two guys who can play the infield or the outfield.

I don't see anyone else worthy of a call-up unless the reasoning behind the call-up changes. For example, right now the team's strategy is to bring in bench help and back-ups. If they gave someone like Andre Ethier a look it wouldn't be the wisest choice to win games now. For help in the outfield, Bocachica and Watson are more logical choices because they've proven they can hit in AAA and, therefore, will have a more predictable big league impact.

It's possible that Ethier could make a big splash and add just what the team needs to get past the Bobby Crosby, Bobby Kielty and Rich Harden injuries. But if he is overmatched the team will have wasted a bunch of at-bats finding out, and possibly damaged the psyche of a prized prospect in the process.

Now, if the goal is to give Ethier a taste of the big leagues and see how big the gap is between his current skills and the skills he'll need to be an everyday player in Oakland, a call-up would make sense. That, in turn, would make the Watson and Bocachica call-ups unnecessary and a waste of money. Since the team wants a bench that can give them production, they're going with the guys who are more likely to offer it.

For a team with ever-present budget concerns, ten or eleven players are too many. Can you settle for six or seven?

Who was the biggest surprise in the A's farm system this season?

-David, Topeka, KS

I'd call it a dead heat between Andre Ethier and Kevin Melillo. Those who make a living in player development all say that the transition to Double-A is the most telling for a prospect's chances at making an impact at the big league level. In other words, Double-A separates real prospects from the pretenders. Both of these guys went a long way towards answering the Double-A question this season.

Ethier began the year at Midland and hit the ground running. He cooled off a bit towards the end of the summer, but his final line is still impressive: .319/.385/.497, 30 doubles, three triples, 18 homers, 80 RBI and 48 walks. He played four games in Sacramento and will start 2006 there, with a shot at the big leagues if he impresses at AAA.

Melillo took a longer route to Midland, but, in some ways, he was even more impressive than Ethier. He began the year at Kane County in Low Class-A, hitting .286/.399/.457 in 280 ABs over 78 games. He totaled 18 doubles, three triples, eight homers and 36 RBI and 56 walks before a promotion to High Class-A Stockton. Once there, Melillo blistered the California League to the tune of .400/.471/.800 in 90 ABs over 22 games, with seven doubles, one triple and nine homers.

Nine homers in 90 ABs? That's just sick. The A's thought so too and sent Melillo on to Midland, where he has hit .282/.347/.519, with ten doubles and seven more homeruns in 35 games. His walk rate has dropped a bit, but his power has increased.

What this means for Melillo and for the A's organization is that, suddenly, a second baseman who began the year as a 22 year-old playing in Low Class-A is now a 23 year-old excelling in Double-A. He now has a legitimate shot at playing regularly in Oakland and, along with Ethier, has propelled himself onto the organization's top ten list of prospects.

Which prospect has a higher ceiling: Andre Ethier or Danny Putnam?

-Kevin, Portland, OR

I'm going to go with Ethier as the prospect with more upside, but after reviewing their individual merits I think that it is a very close call. Putnam is talented and had a more impressive Class A season this year then Ethier did last season. Then again, Ethier is an entire level ahead of Putnam despite being only five months older. Let's compare their California League stats:

At age 22 in 2004, Ethier played 99 games for High Class-A Modesto, hitting .313/.383/.442 with 23 doubles, five triples, seven homers, 53 RBI and 45 walks in 419 ABs.

Putnam spent the 2005 season at High Class-A Stockton, hitting .307/.388/.479 with 37 doubles, three triples and 15 homers to go with 100 RBI and 66 walks. As I said, he's been better in A-ball but is only five months younger.

It is important to note that Ethier has had back issues since his days at Arizona State and missed the last month of 2004 when micro-fractures were discovered in his vertebrae. He spent the off-season working with a back specialist to strengthen the muscle groups in his stomach and back in an effort to avoid similar problems in the future. Call it coincidence if you like, but he went from being a physically large player with disappointing power to a legitimate power threat the very next season. The leverage the A's were waiting for arrived, and he is now one good Triple-A season from earning a starting job in Oakland. It's difficult to draw a relevant big league comparison to Ethier, but if pressed I'd say the 6'3, 200-pound lefty's ceiling is Garrett Anderson, but that he is more likely to resemble a player like Raul Ibanez (though without the years toiling needlessly in the minors due to an inept big league club).

I've seen a lot more of Putnam, and the guy I always think of when I watch him at the plate is Brian Giles. He has the same compact-but-powerful build, a smooth lefty stroke and a top-flight feel for the strike zone. One knock on Putnam has always been his defense, particularly his arm. This year he has gone a long way toward eliminating that perception, making one strong, accurate throw after another. His range isn't great, but he's working hard to improve his first step and his routes. Ethier is a better defender, but Putnam isn't as bad as his advanced billing indicated.

So, after all that, I'll stick with Ethier, but only because he is a bit more advanced at this point. If he starts slowly next year and Putnam tears up the Texas League, they could be manning the River Cats outfield together by August.

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