2007 Year In Review: 10 Intriguing Storylines

Minor league baseball is filled with stories. Every player has a tale to tell about his journey to make the major leagues. We have picked 10 stories that were particularly intriguing to us from the 2007 season in the Oakland A's system.

1) Nick Blasi Named PCL Playoff MVP
Before the start of the season, it would have been a surprise to see that Blasi was even in the PCL by the end of the year, let alone the MVP of the PCL playoffs, given where Blasi began the year. Selected in the 12th round of the 2004 amateur draft out of Wichita State, Blasi appeared to be a forgotten man in the A's system at the start of the 2007 season. He began the year in High-A Stockton despite the fact that he hit .309 with an 848 OPS in 59 games for the Ports at the tail-end of the 2006 season. A month into the 2007 season, Blasi looked like he would be stuck in Stockton for awhile. In 28 games, Blasi batted only .239 with a 746 OPS for the Ports.

Blasi's fortunes began to change in early May, however. Faced with a rash of injuries to their outfield corps, the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats turned to Blasi to give them some depth in the outfield. He was expected to be in Sacramento only temporarily and wasn't expected to receive much playing time. However, the River Cats continued to lose more outfielders and Blasi was thrust into Sacramento's every day line-up. He responded by hitting .348 for the month of May. He tailed off a bit in June (.277 BA) and July (.255 BA). However, he perked back up again in August (.329 BA), despite being sent down to Double-A Midland for a short stay with the Rockhounds (.393 BA in seven games) in early August. Blasi finished the year batting .302 in 124 games at three levels and .316 in 89 games for Sacramento.

Blasi only got better in the post-season for Sacramento. Batting lead-off throughout both the divisional series and the championship round, Blasi batted .457 with 12 runs scored, two homers and three stolen bases in eight games. He led all PCL playoff participants in hits (16), doubles (3), stolen bases (3) and runs scored (12). In one short season, Blasi has transformed himself from being a player with the dreaded "organizational filler" tag into a legitimate prospect for the A's.

2) Mike Madsen Tabbed As A's Futures Game Representative
Like Blasi, Madsen made the leap from High-A Stockton to Triple-A Sacramento in one season. And, like Blasi, Madsen defied expectations to do so. The diminutive right-hander was selected by the A's in the 21st round as a senior out of Ohio State in 2005. Madsen had an outstanding first pro season with short-season Vancouver, and was a sleeper pick by many prospect publications to have a break-out season in 2006. That never happened, however, as Madsen posted a 6.68 ERA in 24 starts with Stockton and was pounded to the tune of an 18.41 ERA in two starts with Double-A Midland.

Sent back to Stockton to start the 2007 season, Madsen was looking to redeem himself. He did that and more. Madsen got off to a fast start with Stockton, posting a 3.75 ERA and striking out 20 in 24 innings for the Ports in four starts. That effort earned him a promotion to Midland, where he put his struggles from 2006 firmly behind him. Madsen was outstanding in Double-A, going 5-2 with a 2.76 ERA in 11 starts. He struck out 69 in 65.1 innings and held opposing batters to a .223 BAA. He was promoted to Triple-A Sacramento near the end of June and was named as the Oakland A's only representative at the Futures Game prospect showcase in July (last year, the A's sent Travis Buck to the Futures Game and in previous years, Daric Barton and Joe Blanton have appeared in the game for Oakland).

Madsen's ERA rose in Triple-A to 5.09 in 10 starts, but he still impressed scouts with his low-90s sinking fastball and his much improved breaking ball and change-up. His walks were up in Triple-A (30 in 58.1 innings), but he still held batters to a .245 BAA and allowed less than one hit per inning. He was impressive in the PCL playoffs, striking out 11 in 9.1 innings. Only one year removed from having to repeat at High-A, Madsen will more than likely start the 2008 season as one of the A's top pitching prospects in Triple-A.

3) A's Start First Round Pick In Double-A
The Oakland A's preference for drafting college pitchers has been well-documented. The A's have been noted for preferring college pitchers because they move more quickly through the minor leagues. However, until this season, the A's had shied away from starting their pitcher draft picks higher than Low-A Kane County. Even the polished Huston Street began his professional career in Kane County, although he finished his first (and only) minor league season in Triple-A. In fact, the A's hadn't placed a pitcher draft pick directly into a level higher than High-A in his first professional season since Mark Mulder began his pro career in Triple-A in 1999. And Mulder's debut came a season after he was drafted, as he was a late sign in the summer of 1998.

That all changed this season when the A's selected James Simmons with the 26th overall pick in the 2007 amateur draft. Armed with arguably the best fastball control of any collegiate pitcher, Simmons was put on the fast-track by the A's after signing his pro contract, reporting directly to Double-A Midland. In an effort to limit his innings after a long collegiate season, the A's had Simmons come out of the bullpen to start his career. He got off to a great start with Midland, allowing only one run over his first 12.2 innings. He fell off after that, however, allowing 12 earned runs in his last 17 innings, including seven earned runs in seven innings in two truncated starts.

Despite his late season struggles, Simmons' debut at Double-A has to be considered a success. He demonstrated good control, striking out 23 and walking eight in 29.2 innings. He also showed good composure on the mound despite being the youngest player on the Midland roster (Simmons won't turn 21 until the end of September). The A's will continue to challenge Simmons this fall by having him compete in the Arizona Fall League prospect showcase, where he will once again be one of the younger participants. Despite his time in the bullpen this season, Simmons' ultimate future is in the starting rotation. He may begin the 2008 campaign back in Double-A to get some starts under his belt, but he is a good candidate to make his major league debut by the end of his first full pro season thanks to the accelerated timeline the A's have put him on.

4) A's Get Good Return For Jason Kendall
Coming into the 2007 season, if one was to ask most A's fans who was the least likely player to be traded, many would have ventured Jason Kendall's name. Kendall was often cited as untradeable not because of his plus-make-up and his work behind the plate with A's pitchers, but because of his big contract and sub-700 OPS. Despite those two constraints, the A's were able to unload Kendall on the Chicago Cubs in July (although they did have to pay some of his remaining salary). While Kendall has played better for the Cubs than he did in Oakland, the A's are still looking like winners in this deal thanks to the play of the players they received in return for Kendall: prospect Jerry Blevins and back-up catcher Rob Bowen.

Blevins, a hard-throwing lefty reliever, has had a similar season to Blasi and Madsen in that he began the year as somewhat of a forgotten prospect in the Cubs' system. The Dayton alum started the season as a 23-year-old repeating at High-A Daytona Beach. Blevins had a rough 2006 season, as he and the Cubs experimented with changing his throwing motion to a more sidearm motion. Going back to his natural arm slot, Blevins has taken off this season. He started the year red-hot for Daytona Beach, allowing only one run in 23.2 innings and posting a 32:5 K:BB ratio. He was promoted to Double-A Tennessee in mid-May, where he continued his torrid streak. In 29.1 innings for the Smokies, Blevins had a 1.53 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 29.1 innings.

It was at this point that Blevins was dealt to the A's in the Kendall trade. The gangly left-hander got off to a bit of a slow start for Midland, allowing five runs over his first 3.2 innings. However, after that, he got hot once again, allowing only five runs over his next 18 innings. He finished his stint with Midland with 29 strikeouts and five walks in 21.2 innings. Blevins was promoted to Triple-A Sacramento for the final week of the season and he threw 2.2 scoreless innings in his Triple-A debut. For the regular season, Blevins went 5-5 with a 1.63 ERA and an incredible 102:18 K:BB ratio in 77.1 innings.

It was the post-season that really raised Blevins' profile. With Sacramento losing numerous pitchers to major league promotions at the end of the regular season, Blevins became an important part of the Sacramento bullpen in the post-season. By the championship round, he was one of the go-to guys at the end of the game. Blevins worked 11 innings during the post-season, and he didn't allow a run and only gave up four hits and two walks. However, it was his strikeout totals that were simply incredible. Blevins whiffed 23 batters in the post-season to lead all PCL playoff pitchers. He was promoted to the major leagues the day after the River Cats' clinched the title and he worked a scoreless inning in his major league debut on Sunday (he struck out his first major league batter, naturally). Armed with a 93 MPH fastball and a plus-slider, Blevins could be a fixture in the A's bullpen for years to come.

Bowen has held up his end of the trade, as well. The switch-hitting catcher collected only three hits in 31 at-bats during his time in Chicago this season. However, he had hit .268 in 82 at-bats with the San Diego Padres earlier in the season and he has regained that form since coming over to the A's. Although he has played sparingly, Bowen has hit .324 with a 958 OPS in 19 games for Oakland this season. He has homered from both sides of the plate and has played well defensively. Bowen has the inside track on being the A's back-up catcher next season.

Something to ponder: in his two-and-a-half seasons in Oakland, Kendall had only three homeruns and a slugging percentage under .400. With Kurt Suzuki and Bowen taking Kendall's place behind the plate since mid-July, A's catchers have launched nine homers and have a slugging percentage of better than .460.

5) 2006 Draft Picks Andrew Bailey And Trevor Cahill Emerge
Last season, the Oakland A's forfeited their rights to a first round pick when they signed free agent Esteban Loaiza during the winter of 2005. Despite not having a first round pick, the A's felt they selected some first round talent. Two pitchers, in particular, emerged in 2007 as potential stars in the making.

Cahill was the A's first selection in 2006, having been taken out of a San Diego-area high school in the second round. He didn't pitch much during his first professional season, appearing in only four games for the A's Rookie League team. Cahill went home in the off-season and developed an outstanding change-up to go along with his spike curveball and low-90s fastball. After spending the first month of the season in extended spring training, Cahill was sent to Low-A Kane County. He got off to a slow start with the Cougars, posting a 5.40 ERA in 13.1 innings in May. However, he improved his numbers every month subsequent to that, posting ERAs of 3.49, 3.33 and 0.74 in June, July and August, respectively.

Despite missing the first five weeks of the season, Cahill tied for the Cougar team-lead in wins with 11. He struck out more than a batter an inning (117 Ks in 105.1 innings) and allowed only three homeruns all season. He finished his season strong, posting a 7-1 record and a 2.03 ERA over his final 10 starts. For the year, Cahill had a 2.73 ERA. Cahill won't turn 20 until next March, but he may be only two full seasons away from the big leagues and is arguably the A's best pitching prospect at the moment.

Bailey, the A's sixth round pick in 2006, also spent the first five weeks of the season at extended spring training, but he, too, made up for lost time once he was sent to a full-season affiliate. He began his season at Low-A Kane County, where he had a 3.35 ERA in 11 appearances (10 starts) and he struck out 74 in only 51 innings of work. Bailey was promoted to High-A Stockton around the All-Star break and he continued his strong work with the Ports. The right-hander struck out 72 in 66 innings and held opposing batters to a .239 BAA despite pitching in a hitter-friendly league. Bailey finished his season with one start for Triple-A Sacramento, where he carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning versus Tucson. He wound-up allowing one run on three hits in eight innings in that appearance. Bailey led all A's minor leaguers with 150 strikeouts in only 125 innings pitched. He allowed only 101 hits and held opposing batters to a .223 BAA. His only blemishes were his 54 walks and his 14 homeruns allowed.

Armed with a mid-90s fastball, a good curveball and an improving change-up, Bailey will enter the 2008 season as one of the A's top pitching prospects. He will be 24 next May and with his collegiate experience, the A's likely won't be shy about moving Bailey along. Assuming that he stays healthy, Bailey could get a look in the big leagues next September and compete for a rotation spot as early as 2009.

6) Bobby Cramer Goes From Classroom To Triple-A
The A's signed a number of minor league free agents during the 2007 season, but none came with a more compelling back-story than Cramer. And none had more success than did Cramer. Originally signed by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays out of Long Beach State in 2003 (after undergoing Tommy John surgery during his final season at LBS in 2002), Cramer was cut by Tampa after only two seasons in their system, despite posting an ERA of 3.30 in 85.1 innings. Discouraged by his time with Tampa, Cramer walked away from baseball. He spent time working for Shell Oil and then as a substitute teacher and high school baseball coach. He kept his arm loose by pitching in beer league games, but he had all but let-go of his dream of playing major league baseball.

When injuries decimated the Stockton Ports' roster in late May, A's scout Craig Weissman (who had scouted Cramer for Tampa Bay back in 2003) called Cramer to see if he'd give baseball one more go. Cramer reported to Stockton and almost immediately began paying dividends for the A's. He struck out six in 2.2 innings in his debut for the Ports and never looked back. In nine outings (eight starts) for Stockton, Cramer went 4-1 with a 3.80 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 45 innings. He was then promoted to Double-A Midland, which was higher than he had ever progressed with the Devil Rays.

Cramer responded well to the promotion. He began his time in Midland in the bullpen, where he didn't allow a run in nine innings. He struck out 12 and didn't walk a batter during his time as a reliever. Cramer was then placed in the Midland rotation, where he found similar success. In seven starts, Cramer went 4-1 with a 2.28 ERA in 43.1 innings. He struck out 38 and walked nine as a starter. For the season, Cramer went 9-2 with a 2.77 ERA in 97.1 innings. He held opposing batters to a .239 BAA despite pitching in two hitter-friendly leagues, and he had a 91:20 K:BB ratio. Cramer was promoted to the Sacramento River Cats' roster for the PCL post-season. He was given the Game 5 starting assignment in the first round of the playoffs. Cramer showed some nerves in that outing, allowing two runs and walking three in two-plus innings. However, he did strike out four over those two frames.

Cramer features a very effective cut fastball in the mid- to high-80s (think Justin Duchscherer but left-handed), with a two-seam and four-seam fastball and a curveball. He plans to add a change-up and work on his two-seam and four-seam fastballs this off-season. Cramer will be a minor league free agent again after this season. Assuming he re-signs with the A's, Cramer will likely start his season in Triple-A. Cramer could be looking at a Hollywood ending to his story next season if he gets a call to the major leagues.

7) Danny Hamblin And Corey Brown Power Vancouver Offense
Not since the 2004 season had a player reach double-digits in homeruns for the short-season Vancouver Canadians. That season, it was Javier Herrera who blasted 12 in 65 games for the Canadians. It had also been since 2001 that Vancouver had had two double-digit homerun hitters in their line-up (Dan Johnson and Matt Allegra). 2007 draft picks Danny Hamblin and Corey Brown reset the clock on both milestones this season by both hitting 11 homeruns for the Canadians.

Hamblin is a player that the A's liked so much coming out of college that they selected him two years in a row. In 2006, the A's took Hamblin in the ninth round. He elected to return to Arkansas for his senior season, and was selected again by the A's in 2007, this time in the 10th round. He signed quickly and joined the Canadians by Opening Day of the Northwest League schedule. The corner infielder played in 68 of the team's 75 games, and he hit .275 with 11 homers and 62 RBI. For his efforts, Hamblin was named to the post-season All-Star team for the Northwest League. Hamblin played 51 games at first base, but he did appear in seven games at third. He was originally a third baseman in college before he injured his shoulder sliding head first. He hasn't yet rebuilt the arm strength in that right shoulder to make those long throws across the diamond. However, if Hamblin can continue to improve his arm strength, he could be a very intriguing power prospect at third base.

Hamblin's partner in the middle of Vancouver's line-up for much of the season was Brown, whom the A's selected in the supplemental first round of the 2007 draft out of Oklahoma State. Brown came to the A's with the reputation as a five-tool prospect, and he did not disappoint. In 59 games for Vancouver, he hit .268 with 11 homers and 48 RBI. He also had 18 doubles, four triples and a 924 OPS. He played 53 of his 59 games in centerfield. Unfortunately for Brown, he finished the season on the DL after tearing ligaments in his hand sliding head-first into a base. He will miss the A's Instructional League, but should be ready for spring training. He'll enter the spring as one of the A's top prospects in the lower levels of their system.

8) Kane County's Youthful Rotation Finds Success
Last season, the Kane County Cougars' Opening Day starting rotation was highlighted by a trio of 19-year-old starting pitchers (Jared Lansford, Craig Italiano and Vince Mazzaro). While the Cougars' top pitchers were a little older in 2007, they still featured a youthful staff. Starters Trevor Cahill (19), Scott Deal (20) and Henry Rodriguez (20) all played the entire 2007 season at 20 years old or younger. And late season additions Travis Banwart (21), Andrew Carignan (21) and Nick Walters (21) were also youthful.

Despite a young pitching staff, Kane County finished the year with a solid 3.73 team ERA. Cahill and 22-year-old Jason Fernandez led the Cougars' starting rotation with 2.73 and 2.77 ERAs, respectively. Cahill was one of the top pitchers in the entire Midwest League, going 11-4 with 117 strikeouts and 40 walks in 105.1 innings. Fernandez made the smooth transition from starter to reliever during the 2007 season, going 4-0 with a 3.45 ERA in 47 relief innings and then going 4-2 with a 2.26 ERA in 63.2 innings as a starting pitcher (11 starts). Rodriguez wowed scouts with his high-90s heat and struck out 106 in 99.2 innings while posting a 3.07 ERA. Twenty-three year old James Heuser led the staff with 155 innings and went 11-8 with a 4.12 ERA. He struck out 147 and walked only 41 on the season. Deal was a workhorse, as well, throwing a career-high 149 innings. The control specialist walked only 38 on the season.

Late in the season, the Cougars received an influx of talent from the A's 2007 draft class. Fourth round pick Travis Banwart joined the Cougars' staff directly after signing his pro contract. The right-hander began in the bullpen, going 1-0 with a 2.51 ERA in 14.1 relief innings. He then transitioned into what will be his role next season as a starting pitcher, going 1-1 with a 2.64 ERA in 30.2 innings. Banwart showed excellent command during his first pro season, walking only 10 in 45 innings and striking out 41. Andrew Carignan, the A's fifth round selection this season, joined the Cougars' bullpen in late July and posted a 2.03 ERA in 12 appearances. The all-time College World Series saves leader struck out 19 in 13.1 innings and saved four games. Sam Demel, the A's third round pick, began his pro career in High-A Stockton. After struggling for the Ports to the tune of a 7.07 ERA in 14 innings, Demel was sent down to Kane County, where he regained his form from his college days. Demel allowed one earned run in 9.1 innings, striking out 10 and collecting four saves in a month's worth of work for the Cougars.

Walters, a minor league free agent signing, was impressive during his time with the Cougars, as well. The lefty had a 1.78 ERA in 25.1 relief innings, striking out 23 and walking four for Kane County. Lefty Derrick Gordon was similarly impressive. The 23-year-old had a 2.10 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 51.1 innings. Righty Scott Moore, also 23, saved a team-high 11 games for the Cougars and was a mid-season Midwest League All-Star.

9) Appert Finally Reaches Double-A
Appert began the season with the distinction of being the only position player on the Ports' 2007 roster to have also been on the Opening Day roster for the Ports in 2005, Stockton's first season as an Oakland A's affiliate. In fact, Appert was the first Ports' hitter to bat in Stockton's Banner Island Ballpark, which debuted in 2005. For awhile this season, it looked like Appert might be stuck in Stockton for good. Appert, who was selected by the A's out of the University of Minnesota in 2003, has been one of the best on-base percentage hitters in the A's organization since he was drafted. He has never had a season in which he has struck out more than he has walked since debuting with Vancouver in 2003, and his career OBP is .396.

Unfortunately for Appert, those numbers have not translated into a quick rise through the organization, despite the A's affection for players who get on-base frequently. He played for Kane County in 2004, and then appeared in 113 games for Stockton in 2005. Appert put up decent numbers for the Ports that season, batting .251 with 12 homers and 72 RBI and a .363 OBP. However, the A's returned him to Stockton in 2006. Appert was in the midst of his best professional season when he broke his ankle severely. At the time of his injury, Appert was hitting .289 with a .439 OBP.

Appert recovered from that broken ankle in time for spring training in 2007. At the start of the season, he found himself back in familiar surroundings, playing for the Ports. Despite the disappointment of repeating in High-A once again, Appert got off to a red-hot start for the Ports. He finished the month of April with a .423 BA and a 1117 OPS. Despite those numbers, the A's didn't immediately move Appert to Double-A. However, after injuries opened a spot on the Rockhounds' roster in late May, Appert was finally given that long-awaited promotion to Double-A. He left Stockton having batted .352 with a 998 OPS in 162 at-bats for the Ports. Appert proved he was up to the task at Double-A, batting .307 with an 846 OPS during his first two months at Double-A. He fell off in August, batting only .220 with a 636 OPS, but he still finished his time in Midland with a .276 BA and a .384 OBP. On the season, Appert hit .304 with 10 homers and 83 RBI and an 865 OPS in 125 games, his best full year as a pro.

10) Tom Everidge Saves His Season With Big Second Half
After hitting 20 homers and driving-in 83 runs last season for High-A Stockton, Everidge entered the 2007 campaign as one of the A's better power prospects. Thanks to a back-up of talent at the first base position in the higher levels, Everidge was forced to repeat at Stockton to start this season. Given that he had had a full year in the California League in 2006, it seemed likely that Everidge would get off to a good start for the Ports in 2007. It wasn't to be. Pressing to hit too many homeruns, Everidge struggled to start the season. At the All-Star break, Everidge was hitting only .209 with a 710 OPS.

Everidge continued to struggle through the end of June. However, Everidge began to look more up the middle and to take more pitches in July and the numbers immediately reflected his new approach at the plate. He hit .284 with nine homers and a 928 OPS during the month of July. He also drove-in 25 runs in 28 games. Everidge continued that performance into August, when he hit .372 with a .455 OBP and a 1002 OPS in 24 games. After hitting near .200 for the first three months of the season, Everidge finished his time in Stockton with a .258 BA and a Cal League-leading 26 homers. He also drove-in 90 runs and had an 823 OPS in 124 games for the Ports.

Those numbers earned Everidge his long-awaited promotion to Double-A, where he picked up where he left off in Single-A. In 10 games for the Rockhounds, Everidge hit .361 with four doubles and an 867 OPS. He was added to the Sacramento River Cats' roster for the final game of the PCL Championship series as an extra right-handed power bat off of the bench. He didn't appear in the game, but it was a nice reward for a strong season for the first baseman. It was a tale of two seasons for Everidge, but that second half may have saved his career. Going into the All-Star break, Everidge was being faced with the real possibility of returning to Stockton for a third season in 2008. Now, thanks to his productive second half, Everidge should start next season no lower than Double-A.

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