Kane County Cougars Roster Preview

In past seasons, the Oakland A's have given the Kane County Cougars a decidedly veteran look. Most of the Cougars on last year's roster were former college players who had spent time at short-season Vancouver the year before. This season, however, the Cougars roster has a younger feel to it and is highlighted by a group of players who haven't even reached legal drinking age. We have a rundown of the Cougars roster inside…


Prospect watchers were eagerly anticipating the release of the Kane County roster ever since Baseball America profiled the potential Cougars pitching rotation this off-season. The magazine opined that Kane County's rotation would have at least three and as many as five pitchers drafted out of high school in the starting rotation. When the final rosters were announced, the actual number of high school pitchers was two, but the roster still has a youthful feel to it.

At the helm for the Cougars this season is first year manager Aaron Nieckula who served as the team's hitting coach last season. Nieckula is a former minor league catcher who brings a lot of enthusiasm for the game to the managerial position. He is joined on the bench by hitting coach Tim Garland, who is in his first season as a minor league coach, and pitching coach Garvin Alston, who returns to Kane County for a second season. Kane County generally draws some of the largest crowds in the Midwest League once the weather warms in the Chicagoland area, and the Cougars are expecting similar success at the gate this season.

Pitching Staff

The two most recognizable names on the Cougars pitching staff at the start of this season are Vince Mazzaro and Craig Italiano, both of whom were taken out of high school in the 2005 draft. Mazzaro signed too late to participate in Rookie League action, but he impressed the A's coaching staff with his knowledge of pitching and his command during the team's Instructional League camp.

Italiano was one of the hardest throwers in the 2005 draft and he immediately made an impression in Rookie League action by striking out 27 in only 18.2 innings of work. Italiano is a raw talent, but he has a major league quality heater which is regularly clocked in the mid- to high-90s and a plus slider. He will be working on his change-up during the season.

Both Italiano and Mazzaro were expected to have their innings limited during the season, but both have received as much work as any other starter to begin the season. For now, Italiano and Mazzaro are the only representatives from the A's 2005 class of high school pitchers on the Cougars roster, but fellow high school draftee Jared Lansford could join the team in a few weeks. He is currently in extended spring training.

The compact but strongly-built Jason Ray is another promising arm in the Cougars rotation. The 22 year old was picked out of Azuza Pacific University in the eighth round of the June draft last season. He was strictly a relief pitcher for the Vancouver Canadians, but he has begun the year in the Kane County rotation. Ray struggled at times with his control with Vancouver, but he was otherwise unhittable. In 29.2 innings of work, he allowed only 17 hits and struck out 56 batters. Ray sports a fastball that is consistently in the low- to mid-90s with good sink and a devastating change-up. He will be working to add secondary pitches to his repertoire and to improve his control over last season when he walked 23 in 29.2 innings.

Opening Day starter Trey Shields literally towers over the rest of the staff. At 6'7'', Shields is the tallest pitcher in the A's organization and the tallest member of the Cougars roster. Shields profiles as a workhorse-type starter. Despite being 6'7'', Shields has a solid build and a fastball with good life to it. He throws his curveball at two different speeds and he isn't afraid to use it in any count. Like many pitchers, Shields gets in trouble when he falls behind hitters and tries to be too fine. When he is aggressive, Shields is hard to hit.

Jeff Gray rounds out the rotation. A 32 round pick in 2004, Gray spent his first season on the A's Rookie League team and was part of the Vancouver pitching staff last year. At age 24, he is one of the oldest players on the team.

The Cougars bullpen features four lefties (Brad Davis, Brad Kilby, Ronald Madej and Joe Piekarz) and three righties (Steven Sharpe, Dan Fyvie and John Herrera). Davis was the star of the Vancouver bullpen in 2005, allowing only two earned runs in 34.2 innings and striking out 44. He has a good fastball with a lot of movement. Kilby served as the Canadians closer for much of the season, racking up 14 saves and posting a 1.95 ERA. Madej was one of the top junior college prospects to be drafted in the 2005 draft. The soon-to-be 23 year old lefty is another hard thrower who struck out 28 in 25 innings of relief for Vancouver last season. Piekarz is an Illinois native who used to watch games at Elfstrom Stadium as a kid. He was a member of the Canadians rotation for much of last season, making 12 starts and throwing 77 innings.

From the right-side, veteran Steven Sharpe returns to Kane County after a season that saw him pitch for Stockton, Kane County and the A's Rookie League team. Sharpe has been filling the Cougars' closer role at the start of the season and he has converted his first two save chances. Herrera worked out of the Vancouver bullpen last season, making 16 appearances. Fyvie struck out 22 in 22 innings for the Cougars last season, but missed significant time due to injury (a torn ACL). When healthy, Fyvie is a good control pitcher who is capable of racking up big strikeout numbers.

Position Players

Another high school draft pick highlights the Cougars batting line-up. Shortstop Justin Sellers, son of former major leaguer Jeff Sellers, eschewed a scholarship offer from Cal-State Fullerton to sign with the A's. The defensive wiz had a .369 OBP for Vancouver last season and held his own against mostly older competition. Sellers, who turned 20 in February, is the youngest position player on the team. He is a spark-plug type who won't hit for much power, but he will spray line-drives around the park and will see a lot of pitches at the plate.

Joining him on the left-side of the infield is third baseman Jeff Baisley. Like Sellers, Baisley comes from a baseball family, as he is one of three brothers who played baseball at least at the collegiate level. His older brother was a minor league pitcher and he and his twin brother both played for South Florida. Baisley struggled at home for Vancouver last season, but he hit better than .300 on the road and was the MVP of the A's Instructional Leagues. He should provide some middle-of-the-order presence to the Cougars line-up.

Infielders Wilber Perez, Wes Long and Frank Martinez will all see time at second base and around the infield. Martinez, a 20 year old from the Dominican Republic, is off to a red-hot start at the plate for Kane County. In seven games, Martinez is hitting .346 with a team-leading two homeruns and nine runs batted in. Long spent some of last season in Kane County and also saw time in Vancouver and on the A's Rookie League team. Perez is a speed-burner who swiped 10 bags in 39 games for the Canadians last season.

First base will be manned primarily by Steve Kleen, a draft pick out of Pepperdine. Kleen was a two-way player in college, but the A's are using him strictly as a position player for now. Kleen has good power potential, and he had 12 extra-base hits in short-season ball last year.

In the outfield, the Cougars will have two familiar faces – Jose Pineda and Nick Blasi – and two newcomers – Mike Massaro and Jeff Bieker. Pineda and Blasi both had good seasons for Kane County last year. Blasi was the team's most efficient base-stealer, going 19-20 in base-stealing attempts. Pineda hit six homers in 73 games for Kane County in 2005.

Massaro is currently hitting at a .379 clip and has been providing a lot of spark at the top of the Cougars batting order. The left-handed centerfielder from Colorado State hit in the lead-off spot for much of the year for Vancouver in 2005. He stole five bases and hit .251. Bieker also played for Vancouver, hitting .239 in 34 games.

Kane County is currently carrying two catchers, holdover Raul Padron and newcomer Anthony Recker. Padron was one of the Cougars primary catchers in 2005, hitting six homers and driving in 57 runs. The left-handed hitting Padron will compliment the right-handed Recker. Recker played with Vancouver last season and has tremendous power potential. He is the only Cougars besides Martinez to homer in the early going this season. Recker will be 22 for most of the season and is a big body behind the plate at 6'2'', 230.

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