5. Matt Sulentic, OF
Drafted out of Hillcrest High School in Dallas, Texas this June, Sulentic was considered a gifted baseball player by most scouts, but fell in the draft due to concerns about his size and projectability. At 5'10'', 170 pounds, he looked like a great prep hitter whose skill set – the ability to hit and hit for power, average arm, average defense and average speed – would not translate to the big leagues. Those scouts may be right, but so far Sulentic has proven that his skills do translate to professional ball.
Now 19, Sulentic has added 10 pounds of muscle to his frame while delivering exploding line drives to all parts of the field. His 2006 numbers for Vancouver – .354/.409/.479 with 10 doubles, a triple, two homers and 14 walks in 144 ABs – got him selected as the third-best prospect in the Northwest League by Baseball America. He did strike out 30 times, which he'll need to improve on in the future, although many of those strikeouts came during the first two weeks of his career. He hit .235 in a short stint with low-A Kane County at the end of the season, but hit much better during the Cougars' playoff run.
What does that future hold for Sulentic? As much as I like what Sulentic showed in 2006, I'm not 100% sold on him as a prospect. There is no doubt that the hitting skill is there, but the rest of the package has room for improvement. At best, he profiles as a 20 homer guy at higher levels, but 10-15 is a more reasonable expectation. He isn't fast so he won't be a threat on the bases, and his defense and arm are adequate but probably won't ever be more than that. That makes him an undersized left-fielder with above-average plate patience who consistently hits the ball hard while striking out a fair share of the time. A position change to second base, something the A's were toying with during the Instructional Leagues, could improve his value tremendously.
Barring the position change, at this point Sulentic's best shot at regular playing time in a big league outfield will depend greatly on his ability to "do the little things." He'll likely start the year in Kane County, with an outside shot at Stockton. If he hustles (no problem so far), plays a smart game, makes all the routine plays and acts as a sparkplug, he'll be a valuable big leaguer. If not, he may top out as a AAAA-type player. We are a few years away from knowing what direction Sulentic's career might take at this point.
4. Kurt Suzuki, C
The 2006 season saw Suzuki made great strides addressing the question marks some scouts had about his game. Drafted in the second round out of Cal-State Fullerton in 2004, Suzuki came to the A's with a reputation for being a good defensive catcher with a bit of offensive upside and good plate patience. For some reason – perhaps fatigue and the adjustment to pro ball – Suzuki's defense took a noticeable step backward during the summer of 2004 and got even worse in 2005. Once known for his willingness to get dirty take a beating behind the plate, Suzuki misplaced his ability to block pitches and became known instead for being a bit of a hothead thanks to several ill-timed criticisms of umpires and teammates. His saving grace was that he always played hard.
Suzuki began 2006 with a solid showing in the A's big league camp during the spring and then spent the year at AA-Midland (save for a very strong stint with Team USA in August). He put up solid numbers there, hitting .285/.392/.415 in 376 at-bats, including 26 doubles, seven homers and 58 walks. This is in-line with his career norms – gap power, lots of walks and smart at-bats.
What made the season so successful for Suzuki was that he completely reversed his defensive decline from the previous two summers. He cut his passed ball total from 19 to six and settled down emotionally. His pitch-calling improved, though the A's want to see more improvement in that area. This is all great news because Suzuki wouldn't rate as much of a prospect for his bat alone.
Entering 2007, Suzuki is by far the top catcher in the A's farm system and, barring a trade or a major injury, will take over Oakland's catching duties once Jason Kendall's mammoth contract expires after 2007. He's ready to act as the primary catcher in Sacramento next season.
3. Daric Barton, 1B
After a season of bad news for Barton, things have begun to turn around in the last month or two for the talented hitter. Barton missed much of the season after being steamrolled after first base by Tony Womack in Sacramento, and sustaining a broken elbow in the process. In was in the midst of a slump when the injury occurred and never had the opportunity to improve his numbers. Things might be looking up for Barton, however, as he is currently hitting well in the Dominican Winter League. Through 16 games, he's batting .321 with a .449 on-base percentage for the Toros del Este.
No surprises here – we know that he can hit and has elite plate discipline. The glaring problem from his minor league season – aside from the broken elbow – was the questions surrounding his work ethic. He'll need to improve his work ethic now that he has sustained two serious elbow injuries during his career, one to each elbow. Barton is getting a lot of playing time at first base in the DWL and the A's will be looking for improvement with the glove from him this spring.
So why the up-tick in Barton talk? I haven't heard anything specific, but maybe his injury humbled him a bit. To be honest, that's what I'm hoping. New elbow, new season, new opportunity to take the next step. He remains one of the best hitting prospects in the minor leagues. If he can continue hitting .300 with a .400+ on-base percentage, there is no doubt he'll make it to the majors leagues and have an impact. The degree of that impact is up to Barton himself. If he works hard and takes his conditioning and practice seriously, he could have a 15-20 year career. He'll enter 2007 with a shot at a big league job, but I think he'll wind up starting the year as Sacramento's first basemen.
2. Javier Herrera, OF
The biggest disappointment of 2006 was, for me, the loss of Herrera to a right elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. This was troubling on several levels. First and most obvious, it cost the 21 year-old an entire season of development. It also killed the momentum Herrera had built up with a solid 2005 season and a subsequent strong performance during winter ball. Finally, it casts uncertainty on Herrera's most impressive tool – his cannon-like right arm.
All reports on the elbow have been positive, but there will be a lot people in the A's organization holding their breath when he makes his first few throws in Phoenix next spring. If the arm is sound, Herrera has the best package of tools the A's have seen in ages. Prior to the injury, he had improved his routes in the outfield and had started giving the organization hope that he could stick in centerfield. My guess is that he'll wind up in right field – especially if his arm gets back to its pre-injury form. His throwing accuracy needs to improve. If it does, he will prevent a number of runs based on reputation alone.
His speed is excellent – not so much from home to first, but first to third he is really fun to watch. At the plate he strikes out a lot and has developing discipline (read: getting there, but not there yet), but his power is prodigious. Based on the sound the bat makes when he really connects one would expect it to land looking lopsided or missing its cover. Overall, he reminds me of Miguel Tejada in terms of his size and pop, and a bit of Raul Mondesi before he fell in love with the buffet line.
I can't wait to see him next spring. Hopefully his time in Stockton will be short-lived and he'll find his way to Midland early in the season.
1. Travis Buck, OF
Buck had surgery in early November to repair a sports hernia that cost him the final two months of the 2006 regular season. He is expected to fully recover by spring training. Prior to the injury, Buck was in the midst of a stand-out season. He performed well at high-A Stockton, hitting .349/.400/.603 with 17 doubles, three triples, three homers and 14 walks in 126 at-bats. That got him a promotion to AA-Midland, where his numbers came back to earth a bit but were still plenty good: .302/.376/.472, 22 doubles, a triple, four homers and 22 walks in 212 at-bats. He was among the minor league leaders in extra-base hits before his injury.
The word on Buck around the organization was that everybody loves him. He works hard. He gets it. He stings the ball, he is constantly looking for and implementing advice on how to improve. His defense is above-average, as is his arm. His speed will never be much of a weapon, but it won't be a liability either. I'm not as sold on him becoming a star because I see a physically gifted athlete (6'3'', 210) who rarely hits balls over the fence. There's something missing in my eyes, but based on what I hear from the A's I have to believe that they know something I don't.
The word on Buck's power, incidentally, is that it will develop in time. The hernia and subsequent surgery made it difficult for him to make strides in that area this year, but with a full off-season to heal he should hit the ground running next spring. Even with the injury, he homered in his first at-bat during his aborted Arizona Fall League appearance this October. He'll probably get more time in Midland early in the season, but it wouldn't surprise me at all if the A's were aggressive in promoting him to Sacramento, particularly if he shows he's healed and plays well during spring training.