The Midland Rockhounds came out of the gate strong last season and never looked back, winning the first and second half regular season division titles and then swarming through the playoffs. Some of the heroes of that 2006 squad are gone – Texas League MVP Andre Ethier was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers, Oakland A's Organizational Pitcher of the Year Dallas Braden is out for the year with a shoulder injury, late-season pitching star Shane Komine and steady RBI-man Brian Stavisky have been promoted to AAA-Sacramento – however, the Rockhounds have a number of returning stars, and they will be bolstered by some new talent up from A-Stockton.
The Rockhounds will once again be managed by former major leaguer Von Hayes, who is quickly turning into a hot managerial prospect. Hayes has won league championships in each of the past two seasons, in 2004 with A-Modesto and last year, and he was selected the Manager of the Year in 2004 and 2005 for the California League and the Texas League, respectively. Hayes will be joined on the bench once again by pitching coach Jim Coffman and hitting coach Webster Garrison.
In 2005, the Midland pitching staff was led by a strong bullpen. Some of that bullpen is returning this season. However, the starting rotation should be much improved with the addition of a few new arms. Brad Knox, Brad Ziegler, Ben Fritz, Jason Windsor and possibly Matt Lynch will comprise the starting rotation for Midland.
Knox was one of the A's most highly-regarded pitching prospects coming into last season. However, an early season arm injury kept him in extended spring training and eventually led to Knox playing in Stockton rather than Midland, as expected. Knox did not have the success he had in 2004 with Kane County, but he had a decent year for Stockton, giving up less than a hit per inning and winning eight games.
Ben Fritz returns to Midland after a year and a half hiatus. When he was last with the Rockhounds, Fritz suffered an elbow injury that caused him to have Tommy John surgery. He threw in six games last season for the A's Rookie League team and for Stockton. Fritz is a former 2002 first round pick and he has a live arm when healthy. His future may be in the bullpen long-term, but he will likely spend at least this season as a starter.
Jason Windsor spent more than half of the 2005 season with Midland after an outstanding first two months with Stockton. However, Windsor had arm problems throughout his stay with the Rockhounds and he struggled with a 5.72 ERA. He was eventually shut-down before the end of the year. This season, Windsor will be looking to prove that he can stay healthy and be as effective as he was in Stockton.
Brad Ziegler led the California League in strikeouts last season with 144, and he had a late-season cameo with the Rockhounds. Matt Lynch returns to Midland for his second season after a 2005 campaign that saw him start the year in the rotation and end it in the bullpen. Lynch, if he is a starter this season, will be the rotation's only lefty. He was more effective as a reliever last year, but he had an outstanding 2004 campaign as a starter, so he may get one more shot to start.
The Rockhounds bullpen will be headed up once again by the dynamic duo of Shawn Kohn and Alex Santos. Kohn used his deceptive delivery to strikeout 92 batters in only 84 innings. He was used both as a set-up man and as a long-reliever and was effective in both roles. Santos joined the Rockhounds in May and was instantly inserted as the team's closer. He did an excellent job, nailing down 19 saves and earning a non-roster invitation to major league camp this spring. He will likely resume his closer duties with Midland this season.
Up from Stockton are relievers Connor Robertson, Justin Crowder and Jared Burton, all three of whom were stalwarts in the Ports' bullpen last season. Robertson spent the first two months of 2005 in Kane County, but he made up for lost time in Stockton by racking up 68 strikeouts in only 42.1 innings. Crowder was the Ports' best left-handed reliever last year, compiling a 2.47 ERA in 54 innings of work. Burton spent some of the year as the Ports' closer, collecting 24 saves and helping Stockton win the second-half division championship. The 6'5'' Burton is the tallest man on the Rockhounds' roster.
The rest of Midland's bullpen will be filled out by off-season acquisitions Ray Aguilar, David Bradley and Tim Rall. The left-handed Aguilar spent 2005 in the Florida Marlins organization and was signed to a minor league contract in the off-season. Before 2005, Aguilar had been in the Atlanta Braves organization, and he has experience both starting and relieving. Fellow lefty Tim Rall was in the Seattle Mariners organization before the A's claimed him in the Minor League portion of the Rule 5 draft this off-season. Rall had three appearances with AAA-Tacoma last year, but spent the majority of the season in AA-San Antonio, where he had a 3.81 ERA in 44 games. Right-hander David Bradley signed a minor league deal with Oakland this off-season. Bradley spent 2005 in the Milwaukee Brewers chain and he is from Nick Swisher's hometown of Parkersburg, West Virginia.
Infield and Catchers
The Rockhounds should have a potent offense this season and their infield should play a large role in the team's offensive firepower. This group is highlighted by returning stars Kevin Melillo and Brant Colamarino. Melillo began last season in Kane County, but finished it as an important part of the Midland offense. The second baseman hit an organization-high 24 homers last year and also batted a combined .305. Colamarino began the year out-hitting league MVP Ethier, and he was promoted to Sacramento after 46 games. The A's have sent him to AA this season because Daric Barton is in AAA and they want Colamarino to get as many at-bats as possible. He will get the majority of the playing time at first base and he brings good power and a solid glove to the right-side of the infield.
Vasili Spanos will also see some time at first base, as well as at third and at designated hitter. Spanos spent some time with Midland last season, but struggled with a .235 BA. He hit .310 for Stockton and should hit better in AA the second time around. Brian Snyder makes his AA debut a year later then planned after missing all of the 2005 season (save one Rookie League at-bat) with leg injuries. Snyder is a 2003 first round pick. He had a 905 OPS for Kane County in 2004, and he has excellent on-base skills. He will see a lot of playing time at third.
Eddie Cornejo and Lloyd Turner will share time at shortstop for the Rockhounds. Cornejo had a break-out season with the Ports last year, hitting better than .300 for the first time in his career. Turner started the 2005 season in Midland and hit .250 before being sent down to Stockton to finish the year. He hit .282 for the Ports.
Behind the plate, the Ports will have some serious offensive firepower. Kurt Suzuki and Jed Morris are both good offensive catchers. Suzuki hit .277 with 12 homers in 114 games for Stockton last season. Morris was also in Stockton and hit .302 with 14 homers in only 75 games. Suzuki will see the majority of the playing time at catcher (he is only 22 and is considered the future of the A's organization behind the plate), but Morris should play a similar role to that of Midland's leading hitter last season, Casey Myers, playing some DH and pinch-hitting in addition to catching.
Midland returns almost everyone from the outfield it used during the Texas League playoffs. Jason Perry and Steve Stanley were important contributors to the Rockhounds throughout the season and they will return in 2006. Perry led the team in homers with 22. Stanley was the team's lead-off hitter for most of the season and he hit .290 with 87 runs scored. Perry will likely play right-field and Stanley will be the team's primary centerfielder.
Danny Putnam was in Stockton throughout the regular season, but he joined the Rockhounds for the playoffs and made an instant contribution, hitting a homer in his first playoff game. He had an outstanding spring in major league camp and seems poised for a big season at the plate. The left-handed hitter was the only A's farmhand to drive in 100 runs last season. He also started a triple-play with an outstanding catch during the A's-River Cats exhibition last Thursday.
The Rockhounds' fourth outfielder will be newcomer Cameron Coughlan, who was signed to a minor league free agent deal this off-season. The switch-hitter can play all three outfield positions. He split his time last season between AA-Frisco and A-Clinton and stole 37 bases. Coughlan established a career-high in stolen bases in 2003 with 47. The Rockhounds did not do a lot of running last season. Despite only being with the team for a few months, Kevin Melillo tied for the team lead in stolen bases with nine. Melillo and Coughlan will likely be the team's best base stealers in 2006.
Roster Preview: Midland Rockhounds
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