Name: Richie Robnett
How Acquired: Selected in the first round of the 2004 draft out of Fresno State.
Since they drafted Robnett back in 2004, the Oakland A's have been waiting for the moment that the outfielder puts it all together. Blessed with a muscular build and above-average tools in nearly every category, Robnett has been projected to be a 30 homerun hitter at the major league level. Considered a raw talent when he was selected at age 20 out of Fresno State, Robnett has been inconsistent throughout his brief minor league career. However, towards the tail-end of his 2006 campaign, the left-handed slugger appeared to be inching closer to reaching his tremendous potential. Unfortunately, injuries ended Robnett's season two months early, stalling that progress until at least 2007.
The A's surprised a number of experts when they chose to have Robnett repeat at High-A Stockton at the start of the 2006 season. Robnett spent the entire 2005 season with the Ports, appearing in 115 games. He showed good power, belting 20 homers and 30 doubles, but he struggled at times to make contact, whiffing 151 times. The A's decided that Robnett could use more time with the Ports' coaching staff to see if they could get him to be more selective at the plate.
Robnett, like many of his Ports' teammates, got off to a very slow start to the season in 2006. He managed only a .370 slugging percentage for the month of April. However, he recovered strongly in May, belting seven homeruns and raising his slugging percentage to .544. He still struck out 34 times in 103 at-bats, but he walked 15 times, up from seven in April. His homeruns trailed off a bit in June, but he improved his patience, walking 13 times against 18 strikeouts in 75 at-bats for the Ports.
His play in May and early June earned Robnett a promotion to Double-A Midland. Before reporting to Midland, however, he made a brief three game appearance for the injury-depleted Sacramento River Cats, collecting one hit in 11 at-bats. Robnett then headed for Midland, where he got off to a fast start, only to see his season derailed by a strained hamstring and a broken hamate bone. In 14 at-bats for Midland, Robnett collected five hits, walked four times and homered. The homer came off of Kansas City Royals pitching phenom Zack Greinke.
Unfortunately for Robnett, he would have to wait until the last week of the Arizona Fall League season to build off of those 14 Double-A at-bats and the progress he had made in Stockton. Robnett was not originally a member of the AFL's Phoenix Desert Dogs roster, but when fellow A's prospect Travis Buck had to withdraw from the league with an injury, Robnett was called on to replace him. Robnett had 14 at-bats at the AFL and he was red-hot during that stretch, collecting six hits. Five of those six hits were for extra-bases, including a homer, two triples and two doubles. He struck out five times, but walked three times. Scouts at the AFL were wowed by the loud sound the ball made coming off of Robnett's bat.
After his stint in the AFL, Robnett headed south to Mexico to collect a few more at-bats. Unfortunately, he didn't find as much success in the pitcher-friendly Mexican Winter League as he did in Arizona. Robnett managed only seven hits in 39 at-bats and he struck out 14 times, including seven in his final two games for Mazatlan. The Mexican Winter League is notorious for featuring pitchers with great off-speed stuff, and Robnett struggled against the onslaught of breaking pitches.
That stint in Mexico aside, there is a lot to like about the last 10 weeks of Robnett's 2006 season. Although he still struck-out too much, Robnett did increase his walk rate and his batting average. He also improved against left-handed pitchers, posting a 971 OPS against lefties in 75 at-bats, impressive for a left-handed hitter. Robnett's numbers in Stockton were dramatically better on the road than at home. He hit .315 with a 953 OPS on the road and hit only .219 with a 639 OPS at Banner Island Ballpark.
Darren Bush, Robnett's hitting coach at Stockton in 2005 and 2006, noted that Robnett made dramatic improvements with the mechanics of his swing during the 2006 season. Bush indicated that Robnett was trusting his hands more and swinging more freely than he had in 2005.
Robnett should start the season in Double-A Midland, where he would be reunited with his Stockton manager from the past two seasons, Todd Steverson, who is taking over the reigns for the Rockhounds. Midland's Citibank Field is not homer-friendly for left-handed hitters, but much of the rest of the Texas League is a good hitting environment. In addition, Robnett's numbers at Banner Island Ballpark were so poor that it seems likely he will hit better at Citibank Field than he did at Banner Island.
Robnett will not turn 24 until September, so he still has some time to mature as a player. He will likely always be a high strikeout hitter, but the A's are hoping that if he can continue to increase his walk total that he could develop into a Nick Swisher-type power hitter: a high on-base percentage/ 30+ homer hitter. If he is healthy in 2007, look for Robnett to approach the 30-homer mark for the first time in his minor league career.