Oakland A's Top Prospects: 10-6

It's that time of the year when we take stock of the Oakland A's organization and analyze the top prospects. For the next few weeks, every Monday and Wednesday will be "Top Prospect List Day", as we will release our top 50 list in groups of five. Today, in the ninth of the series, we announce prospects 10-6.

10 – Cliff Pennington, SS

Cliff Pennington was the first player the A's took in the 2005 draft and he signed early, so Oakland was able to take a long look at him this season. Pennington was an advanced collegiate player, so the A's had him skip short-season Vancouver and he went directly to low-A Kane County. The Texas A&M alum was almost immediately put in the top part of the batting order and he would eventually settle into the Cougars' lead-off spot. He acquitted himself nicely at the plate for the Cougars, hitting .276 with a .364 on-base percentage. He proved to be a tough out at the plate, as he showed the ability to fight off pitches. Pennington struck out more then expected (47 times in 290 at-bats), but he walked nearly as often (39 times). However, his biggest contribution offensively may have been with his legs, as he swiped 25 bases in 31 opportunities in only 69 games.

Pennington is the kind of player that both traditional scouts and stats-minded baseball executives like. He is a throw-back shortstop who doesn't hit for power, but switch-hits, gets on-base, steals bases and fields his position very well. Pennington has a strong arm and good range into the deep hole at short and projects to be an above-average major league fielding shortstop. He has a wiry build and doesn't hit with much homerun power at this point in his career. However, he could develop into a 30-40 doubles/ 10 homers hitter down the road. Pennington is an advanced prospect for his draft year who could be in the major leagues as soon as mid-season 2007. He ended the year at High-A Stockton, where he played with the Ports for the playoffs, and that is probably where he will begin the 2006 season. However, he has advanced skills both defensively and offensively, so he could move up to AA-Midland before the 2006 season ends.

It is unclear where Pennington's future lies with the A's with Oakland having shortstop Bobby Crosby locked up for the next several years. Pennington is very gifted defensively, so it is hard to imagine that he would be moved to second base. Offensively, he is arguably the A's best lead-off hitting prospect, as he projects as a lead-off hitter in the David Eckstein or Brett Butler-mold. Consequently, the A's may move Pennington to second just to get his bat at the top of their order. We'll have a better idea about what the team's future plans are with Pennington as he gets closer to the majors. If he gets some work in at second, then you'll know that the team is trying to find a spot for him and that they plan to keep Crosby. However, if he spends his time exclusively at short and he continues to progress as a prospect, then the rumors will begin about whether he or Crosby will be on the trading block.

9 – Danny Putnam, OF

Among all of the A's 2004 draft choices, most pundits pointed to Stanford outfielder Danny Putnam as the most advanced hitter in the group. Putnam had a somewhat disappointing debut in 2004, as he managed only a 771 OPS in 48 games for low-A Kane County. However, he recovered in 2005 to post the kind of numbers that the A's expected him to. Playing for High-A Stockton throughout the regular season, Putnam was a model of consistency at the plate for the Ports. While there were bursts of offensive explosion from other Stockton players, Putnam was consistently excellent and his numbers reflected that. The left-fielder hit .307 with 15 homers and an organization-leading 100 runs batted in. Putnam then joined Midland for the Rockhounds' championship run and he contributed to their success with a .333 batting average in the Divisional Series and a .286 average in the Championship Series.

Putnam is a polished left-handed hitter who always has an idea of what he wants to do when he is at the plate. He works himself into a lot of hitter's counts, which leads to pitches he can drive into the gaps. He has only average homerun power right now, but he sprays the ball well to all fields and is capable of good extra-base numbers. Putnam has a similar offensive game to current A's first baseman Dan Johnson, although Johnson had more homerun power at this point in his career. Like Johnson, Putnam is not naturally gifted with the glove, although he is better then many scouts give him credit for and he is a hard-worker. He doesn't have great foot speed and has only an average arm, but he takes good routes to the ball and catches most everything he can get to. He projects only as a left-fielder or a first baseman because of his lack of foot speed. Despite being slow of foot, however, Putnam is a smart base-runner who gets good jumps on the bases on balls hit to the outfield. He doesn't steal bases, but he shouldn't be a detriment on the bases, either.

It will be interesting to see -- if the A's hang on to Putnam -- what they eventually do with him. Putnam is the least athletic of the A's top outfield prospects (Richie Robnett, Javier Herrera, Travis Buck and Andre Ethier) and he probably will be blocked at DH/1B by Johnson and Daric Barton. However, Putnam has a major league bat and could get a shot with the A's in 2007 or 2008 if they make a trade involving any of the guys ahead of him. Otherwise, Putnam might become prime trade-bait himself. He will likely begin the 2006 season at AA-Midland and could be promoted to AAA-Sacramento if an outfield slot opens up and he hits AA pitching the way that he did in the Texas League playoffs.

8 – Kevin Melillo, 2B

Kevin Melillo may very well turn into the steal of the 2004 draft. Thanks to an injury that curtailed his production for the University of South Carolina in 2004, Melillo fell from being a second or third round pick down to the fifth round, where the A's snatched him up. There were questions about whether or not he would hit enough when he was coming out of college, but he answered all of those questions with a monster 2005 campaign. Melillo hit well during a short stint at short-season Vancouver in 2004, posting a 986 OPS. However, a side injury limited him to only 22 games, so he was still somewhat of a mystery man at the start of the 2005 season.

Melillo began the year at low-A Kane County, where he overcame a slow May to post a respectable 856 OPS that earned him a July 4 promotion to Stockton. Melillo arrived at Stockton red-hot and carried that over in a month to remember with the Ports. In only 22 games, Melillo crushed nine homers and posted a ridiculous 1271 OPS. He was promoted to AA-Midland in late July and held his own in the new league, slugging .519 and hitting .282. For the season, Melillo ended up hitting 24 homers, driving in 94 runs and swiping 21 bases. He also got on-base at a roughly .380 clip.

Although Melillo didn't produce for Midland at the same ridiculous pace that he did for Stockton, he still acquitted himself well at AA. Considering that the jump from A to AA is widely considered to be the most difficult in the minor leagues, the A's have to be encouraged by Melillo's 866 OPS for the Rockhounds. He is, by-far, the A's best second base prospect and, surprisingly, one of their best power-hitting prospects at the moment. He has a smooth, compact left-handed swing and the ball makes a loud sound off of his bat. Melillo is the kind of player who can hit all over the batting order. He takes a lot of pitches and works the count well, so he can be a good top of the order hitter, but he also hits well with runners on-base, making him a good middle of the order guy. Melillo isn't a speed-burner, but he has above-average speed and he is smart about when he attempts a steal (he was 21 for 27 on the season). He is a very hard-worker and his defense has improved a lot over the last two seasons. He'll probably never win a Gold Glove, but he will likely be at least an average second baseman once A's coach Ron Washington gets a hold of him. However, Melillo's real value as a prospect comes as a hitter, where he projects to be a plus-power player for his position (something the A's have little of in the system at the moment). He'll probably get some more time at AA to start the 2006 season, but with a good spring and a good start to his season, Melillo could get significant time at AAA-Sacramento and could warrant a September call-up by season's end.

7 – Richie Robnett, OF

Richie Robnett's position on this list has a lot more to do with his potential then his current performance level. Robnett was the rawest of the A's early round picks in 2004, and his game still needs a lot of refinement. However, the Fresno State alum has all of the tools to be a very special player if he can put it all together. Robnett has been described by some as a super-hero due to his amazing physique. That build and a quick set of hands allows Robnett to hit the ball with incredible force. He has an aggressive left-handed swing that causes him to strike out a lot, but also allows him to put on a show when he connects.

Robnett struggled with inconsistency and injuries during his first full pro season, which was spent in Stockton. He hit 20 homers and 30 doubles in only 115 games, but he also struck out 151 times and posted a .243 batting average. Robnett is a relative baseball novice, as he picked up the game late, so much of his season was spent learning about the game. He has above-average speed, but doesn't run a lot, although that may change as he learns more about reading the pitcher. He can cover a lot of ground in the outfield, but he doesn't get the best initial reads on balls, so he is probably better suited for a corner outfield spot at the moment.

Robnett just turned 22 in September, so he still has plenty of time to learn the game. Consequently, the A's will be in no hurry to rush him through the system. He may repeat at High-A Stockton to start the 2006 season, although a strong performance there would undoubtedly earn him a quick promotion. Robnett could flame out if he doesn't make the adjustments in his swing that will allow him to make more consistent contact. However, if he makes those adjustments, he could be exactly what the A's have been looking for in terms of a power-hitting outfielder. He is the type of player with skills that project to having him hit 30+ homeruns and who could have an All-Star Game Home Run Derby title in his future. For now, though, he'll need to put a lot of time into learning the nuisances of being a normal baseball player rather than a super-hero.

6 – Jairo Garcia, RP

A year after zooming through three levels of the A's minor league system and arriving at the big leagues as a 21 year-old, reliever Jairo Garcia had a much more normal season in 2005. After displaying control problems in the big leagues in 2004 and in spring training in 2005, Garcia was sent all the way down to AA to work on getting ahead of hitters and trusting his stuff. Garcia responded well to that demotion, striking out 30 and walking nine in 16.2 innings for the Rockhounds. He was promoted to AAA in May, where he would spend the rest of the season (save for two short appearances in Oakland).

Garcia had a good season for the River Cats, although his ERA sky-rocketed to 4.47. He saved a team-record 20 games and struck out 73 batters in 48.1 innings of work. He also reduced his walk rate per nine innings from 5.93 in 2004 at AAA to 3.72. His homerun rate jumped to 1.12 per nine innings and he allowed a lot more hits per nine innings (8.63) then he had in the past. Still, some of those increases can be blamed on the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League and a porous Sacramento defense, both of which caused Joe Blanton's hits and homers per nine innings to increase when he went from AA to AAA, as well, and he was able to recover nicely at the big league level.

Garcia has special stuff, which is clearly demonstrated by his ridiculous strike out totals (103 in 65 total innings). He is still very young (he'll turn 23 in March 2006) and he is still learning to trust his stuff. However, he has a high-90s fastball and a slider that reminds many people of former A's closer Octavio Dotel's. Garcia has probably lost out on his chance to be the A's future closer with the emergence of Huston Street, but he could still be an important cog in the A's bullpen as the top set-up man (similar to Dotel's role in Houston behind Billy Wagner). Garcia could also become trade-bait this winter if the A's decide to deal from an area of strength (pitching, specifically bullpen pitching) to acquire some offense. If the A's do hold onto Garcia, he'll enter spring training with a chance to earn the last spot in the A's bullpen.

Get caught up on all of the A's top prospects. Find the entire list thus far here.

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