Prospect Profile: RP Ron Flores

After six long seasons in the minor leagues, Oakland A's rookie reliever Ron Flores finally received an opportunity to show his mettle at the major league level. Although he hasn't had a lot of appearances, Flores has impressed during his short time in the big leagues and he is positioning himself as a strong challenger to be a lefty specialist out of the A's bullpen next season. We take a look at the University of Southern California grad in this edition of "Prospect Profile"…

Ron Flores took the road less traveled in getting to the major leagues. He was drafted out of the University of Southern California in the 29th round of the 2000 amateur draft after a solid career out of the Trojans' bullpen. However, he didn't immediately sign with the A's. Instead, he held out for the money he needed to finish his final two semesters at USC. Flores knew it would be tough to make a living as a professional ballplayer and he wanted that college degree to fall back on.

Flores began his Oakland A's career with the Vancouver Canadians, but struggled in 13 appearances with the Canadians. However, the A's showed faith in the brainy lefty and they sent him up to high-A Modesto instead of having him repeat short-season. Flores rewarded the A's faith with a solid year, posting a 2.86 ERA in 47 appearances for the Modesto A's.

He was sent the next season to the A's other California League squad, the Visalia Oaks, and earned his stripes at the back-end of the Oaks bullpen. In 2002 for Visalia, Flores made 53 appearances and finished 38 games, saving 11 of them. He threw 80.1 innings and struck out 92 batters while walking only 16. His 2002 season was the start of a string of five consecutive 50+ appearance seasons, as the durable Flores proved to be a workhorse.

Flores continued to find success in 2003, as he began the season with the AA-Midland Rockhounds and was so impressive that he was promoted to AAA-Sacramento after 39 appearances at AA. Flores continued to strike out batters at an impressive clip in Midland, whiffing 66 in 59.1 innings. However, his transition to AAA baseball was not as smooth.

For the first time since his debut season in 2000, Flores struggled to get hitters out when he arrived in Sacramento in 2003. In 12 appearances, the lefty posted a 6.59 ERA and he allowed three homeruns in only 13.2 innings. Flores returned to Sacramento in 2004 and rebounded to have a fine season. He made the PCL All-Star team and threw 54 effective innings out of the River Cats' bullpen. He continued to show remarkable control, striking out 55 and walking only 19.

Despite those strong numbers, Flores was left off of the A's 40-man roster last off-season. Consequently, he was left exposed in the Rule 5 draft. Flores was bypassed in the draft and wasn't even invited to spring training with the A's at the start of the 2005 season. The California native endured, however, and quickly forced the A's to take notice of his talents.

Flores put together arguably his finest minor league campaign in 2005. He led all Sacramento relievers with 52 appearances despite spending more than four weeks in Oakland, showing once again his now-trademark durability. He limited opponents to a .213 batting average and held hitters to a .179 batting average with runners in scoring position. His 2.39 ERA in 2005 was the lowest of his career. His walk total jumped up (30 in only 60.1 innings), but he was otherwise extremely effective.

With the early season injuries to the A's bullpen and the injury to left-handed starter John Rheinecker, Flores was able to position himself as one of the A's top AAA options for a major league call-up. He got that first call-up in June during inter-league play and made a quick impression, as he retired Jim Thome twice in the span of three games. Flores made four appearances during his first stint with Oakland and did not allow a run in 3.1 innings of work. He was sent back to Sacramento on July 15, but was brought up again briefly at the end of August. He appeared in two games against the Baltimore Orioles and allowed his first big league run, a solo homerun by Melvin Mora.

Flores was sent down again on August 30, but was brought back up with the expanded rosters on September 9. Since he returned to the A's in September, Flores has been impressive. He has made four appearances and has allowed only one hit in 2.1 innings while striking out three. His most recent appearance was a 1.1 inning outing against the Texas Rangers in which he kept the A's close in an important game.

During his young major league career, Flores has allowed only one run in 7.2 innings and has yet to walk a batter while striking out six. Flores has been extremely effective against left-handers in his major league debut, limiting lefties to an .091 batting average against. He has been mostly used as a lefty specialist during his time in Oakland and has done well in that role. In outings where he was asked to retire just one batter, he has allowed only one hit and no runs over four such appearances.

So what does this mean for next year? Well, a lot actually. The A's have had the services of Ricardo Rincon as their lefty specialist since the middle of the 2002 season. However, Rincon is a free agent at the end of the season and isn't likely to be re-signed, as he has been declining in performance over the past two seasons and is expensive. Joe Kennedy, the other left-handed member of the A's bullpen, is really a starting pitcher and would likely be a long-reliever if he was returned to the A's bullpen next season (there is still a good chance Kennedy would be a starter). Rheinecker was off to a fast start with Sacramento this season before his season-ending finger injury. It is possible that the A's will take a look at Rheinecker as a reliever next season, but he will be coming off of a ten-month layoff and he hasn't spent a significant amount of time in the bullpen.

Unless the A's sign a left-handed reliever out of the free agent market, Flores will enter the 2005 season with the inside track on taking Rincon's place in the bullpen. So how will Flores stack up against Rincon? Like Rincon, Flores is more effective against lefties than he is against righties (although Flores' minor league splits between lefties and righties are not nearly as dramatic as Rincon's major league splits are). Flores strikes out more batters per nine innings than Rincon (Flores average more than nine strike outs per nine innings over his minor league career) and walks a lot fewer hitters. Naturally, Flores will be less experienced than the veteran Rincon, but Flores has shown a lot of poise on the mound during his few major league outings thus far. Look for Flores to be kept on the 40-man roster this off-season and look for him to get a lot of work in Phoenix in March.

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