Oakland A's MLN: Arizona Fall League Preview

For big leaguers, playing October baseball is their chance to shine in the playoff spotlight. For minor leaguers, playing October baseball is their chance to show shine against other top prospects in baseball at the Arizona Fall League. Last year, the A's prospects helped lead the Phoenix squad to an AFL championship, as Huston Street and Omar Quintanilla made big names for themselves. We take a look at the A's prospects participating this season to see who might have similarly big AFL seasons.

For the second straight year, the A's will be sending six prospects to the desert to play in the Arizona Fall League. All six players will be members of the Phoenix Desert Dogs and all but one of the players were a part of the Midland Rockhounds' 2005 championship squad. The A's have chosen to send three pitchers and three position players to this year's league. The hitting prospects are more well-known commodities. The pitching prospects are less well-known, and all have something to prove. We'll take a look at all six:

The Hitting Prospects

Three of the biggest names in the A's minor league system will be donning the colors of the Phoenix Desert Dogs this fall. Top prospect Daric Barton, Texas League MVP Andre Ethier and 2004 Johnny Bench Award winner Kurt Suzuki will be looking to make a splash similar to the one top prospects Huston Street and Omar Quintanilla did in 2004.

Both Street and Quintanilla entered the 2004 AFL season under a head of steam after stellar 2004 regular seasons. Street blew AFL hitters away, allowing only a small handful of runs and earning All-Star honors. His performance in the AFL was one of the factors that pushed him into a position to compete for a 25-man roster spot in Oakland during the following spring.

Quintanilla opened a lot of eyes with an outstanding season at the top of the Desert Dogs' batting order. The Texas alum showed his ability to be a slashing, line-drive hitting lead-off batter and his AFL season moved him to the top of the A's minor league middle infield depth charts. Although Quintanilla had a somewhat disappointing first-half of the 2005 season with Midland, his profile had been raised enough by his AFL season to make him an attractive prospect to the Colorado Rockies. The Rockies acquired Quintanilla in a mid-season trade and, after sending him briefly to AAA-Colorado Springs, they brought Quintanilla to the big leagues for the last eight weeks of the season. He will compete for a starting spot in the Colorado infield next season.

If any A's prospect has a similar impact on the AFL this season, it will likely be Daric Barton. The former St. Louis farmhand came to the Oakland A's organization this past off-season with the tag of being the next great big league hitter, and he has done nothing in 2005 to dissuade the experts from having that opinion of Barton. The A's will be watching the youngster closely to see how he handles hitting against advanced pitching prospects with an eye on whether he should be allowed to compete for a 25-man roster spot this spring. Although the A's are likely to give Barton at least one more season in the minor leagues, he could change the A's mind with a big AFL season.

The A's will be looking to see whether Barton can continue to control the strike zone against advanced competition and whether he can hit with power. Barton posted better than a .400 on-base percentage this season, but he has yet to show the homerun power most experts believe he is capable of. If he can get on-base and hit with power this fall, Barton could go into spring training as a wildcard for a roster spot in the same way that Huston Street did this past season. Barton will also be working on various defensive positions while he's in Arizona. The Desert Dogs are carrying only two catchers, so Barton will likely get some time behind the plate, as well as at first. There is also the possibility that he will see some time in left-field, as that has been another rumored defensive destination for the top prospect.

Outfielder Andre Ethier also has a chance to push his name into the roster discussion for 2006 with a big AFL season. Ethier has already accomplished a lot in 2005. He was the Texas League MVP and led a potent Midland offense to the Texas League championship. The Arizona State alum will be playing in front of friends and family in his hometown of Phoenix, and he will be looking to put on a big show. Ethier has always had a natural swing that produces line-drives on a regular basis. However, until this season, Ethier very rarely hit with any power. Part of that may have been because Ethier was struggling with a back injury that required surgery before the 2005 season. He made it through the 2005 season healthy and hit a career-high 18 homeruns and 30 doubles. He also won the Texas League All-Star Home Run Derby.

Like Barton, Ethier will need to show that he can handle hitting more advanced pitching prospects, and he will need to demonstrate that he can hit with some authority. Ethier will also need to show more plate patience, as the only blemish on his stellar 2005 season was that he struck out 93 times and walked in only 48 instances. Ethier is a smooth outfielder who is capable of playing centerfield, but probably will be a corner-outfielder long-term, as he doesn't have enough natural foot speed for center. He has improved his throwing and will be trying to show that he can make the throws from right-field and that he can hit like a corner outfielder.

Catcher Kurt Suzuki, along with Barton, will be one of the younger prospects in the AFL, as he will be turning 22 next week. The Maui native and Cal-State Fullerton alum is coming off of a solid first full professional season behind the plate. After a red-hot spring training that saw him hit over .400 in big league camp, Suzuki posted a respectable 811 OPS for the Stockton Ports in 2005. He clubbed 12 homers, drove in 65 runs and, perhaps most impressively, walked 63 times against 61 strikeouts. He also caught more than 100 games and showed excellent durability.

Suzuki is still at least one year, and more likely two years, away from competing for a starting spot in Oakland. He is still learning his footwork and blocking techniques behind the plate and defense will likely be his primary focus during the AFL season. He already has a solid reputation for being a good game-calling catcher, although he will likely continue to work on that skill this fall, as well. With 2004 first round pick Landon Powell spending the fall in the A's instructional league rehabbing from a serious knee injury that caused him to miss all of the 2005 season, Suzuki could firmly establish himself as the A's top catching prospect with a solid AFL campaign.

The Pitching Prospects

Most even casual fans will have heard of the A's three hitting prospects, but even the hard-core A's fans may be pressed to know much about the three pitching prospects the A's are sending to Phoenix. Unlike the A's AFL hitting prospects, who are all rising stars, the A's AFL pitching prospects are all looking to show enough in the AFL to be considered for a 40-man roster spot this spring. All three pitchers are coming in with question marks that they are hoping to erase with big fall seasons.

Shane Komine's AFL season will be like a regular season for him. The diminutive right-hander's path to the big leagues hit a huge hurdle last June when he was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery. Komine missed the second half of the 2004 season and all but the last two months of 2005. Before the injury, Komine was one of the A's more intriguing pitching prospects. He isn't blessed with overpowering stuff, but he has somehow managed to make hitters miss at every level he has played at. In college, Komine was always amongst the NCAA leaders in strikeouts and he has averaged 7.25 K/9 during his minor league career. However, he has also struggled with injuries, as he had shoulder surgery in college and has now had Tommy John surgery.

Komine made a strong return from surgery at the tail-end of the 2005 season. After brief stints with the A's Rookie League team and the Stockton Ports, Komine arrived in Midland to stabilize what had become a weakened Rockhounds' rotation after Jason Windsor and Dallas Braden were shut-down with arm fatigue. Komine was solid for Midland, going 2-1 with a 3.16 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP in five late-season starts. He was also excellent in the playoffs and helped lead the Midland pitching staff in their title run.

At the AFL, Komine will be looking, more than anything else, to prove that he is 100% recovered from the injury. He will also be aiming to show that he can get out the best hitting prospects in baseball despite being only 5'8'', 160 pounds. He will be 25 in mid-October and he will be eligible for the Rule 5 draft if the A's don't choose to put him on the 40-man roster this off-season, so he will have a lot to play for.

Reliever Shawn Kohn will also be pitching with something to prove this AFL season. The University of Washington alum has been an effective reliever throughout his minor league career, but he has yet to be seriously considered for a major league roster spot despite four solid minor league seasons. Kohn is a Chad Bradford-type reliever in that he relies on an unusual delivery to keep hitters off-balance. There is no question that that delivery has been effective at fooling hitters, however, as Kohn has struck out 9.24 batters per nine innings during his minor league career. This season, Kohn struck out 92 hitters in 84 innings, and he was the Rockhounds' most valuable reliever.

Kohn, like Komine, will be pitching to make a name for himself in hopes of being included on the 40-man roster or picked up in the Rule 5 draft. He will need to show that his funky delivery is effective against advanced hitters and that he can keep the ball in the ballpark despite the homerun-friendly desert air.

The A's final AFL pitching prospect is lefty Matt Lynch. The Florida State product was a 2003 10th round pick. He is coming off of a mixed 2005 season that saw him struggle in the Midland starting rotation, but pitch well out of the bullpen. Lynch had a solid 2004 campaign with the Modesto A's, where he led the team with 13 wins and posted a starting rotation-best 3.93 ERA. He also showed excellent control in striking out 111 and walking only 38. In 2005, his walk total remained the same in 40 less innings and his strikeouts fell to 65. His ERA also jumped to 4.40.

Despite those dips, the A's are likely to give Lynch a long look this fall. The A's are thin on left-handed minor league pitching and Lynch has a solid collegiate record and that excellent 2004 campaign on his resume, making him more intriguing then many of the A's left-handed minor league pitchers.

Don't forget to log-in to OaklandClubhouse.com throughout the fall season to get exclusive update and interviews from the Arizona Fall League…

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