Oakland A's Top-50 Prospects: 35-31

It's that time of the year when we take stock of the Oakland A's organization and analyze the top prospects. For the next few weeks, every Tuesday and Thursday will be "Top Prospect List Day," as we will release our top-50 prospect list in groups of five. Today, we continue the series with prospects 35-31.

35. Jeff Gray, RP:
Gray led the River Cats in saves.
After moving gradually through the A's system as a starting pitcher, Gray has zoomed up through the organization over the past two seasons as a late-inning reliever. He split the 2006 season between Low-A Kane County and High-A Stockton, and then began the 2007 campaign with Double-A Midland. Gray was dominant at that level, not allowing a run in 12.1 innings spread-out over eight appearances. He allowed only nine base-runners and he struck out 12.

Gray was quickly promoted to Triple-A Sacramento, where he spent the rest of the season. He got off to a poor start with the River Cats, posting an 8.22 ERA in 15.1 innings during the month of May. He turned it around after that, however, posting ERAs of 3.21 and 3.27 in June and July. Gray was at his best in August, when he had a 1.42 ERA and six saves. Overall, Gray finished as the River Cats' team leader in saves with 12 on the season. He had 15 overall in 2007.

As a starter, Gray's fastball sat in the high-80s/ low-90s. However, since he moved to the bullpen, he has had a marked increase in velocity. He now throws a sinking fastball that sits in the mid-90s and is very hard to square up. His secondary stuff is still a work in progress. He has a decent change-up. His slider was inconsistent this season, although it was very effective at times, and he has a developing curveball.

Command was an issue at times for Gray in 2007. He walked 24 in 67.1 innings during the regular season. He has struggled with his command during the Arizona Fall League, as well. In 12.2 innings, he has walked seven and has allowed 16 hits. His ERA is at 5.68 for the AFL season through November 14.

The 2007 season was Gray's first as a regular closer and he handled the new job well. He has said that he enjoys the pressure of late-inning situations. Gray has the stuff to be a late-inning reliever in the major leagues if he can improve his command. He will likely begin the 2008 season at Triple-A and he could be a candidate for a mid-season role in the A's bullpen if he pitches well with Sacramento.

34. Jason Windsor, SP:
Windsor missed much of the season with shoulder problems.
After a break-through 2006 campaign during which he made his major league debut and led the minor leagues with 17 victories, Windsor had a disappointing 2007 season. The disappointment began in spring training when Windsor failed to win the fifth starter's job during camp with a poor spring performance. Windsor then got off to a slow start with Sacramento, posting a 5.40 ERA in 10 starts through the end of May.

On May 23, Windsor allowed 10 hits and six runs in six innings versus Salt Lake. That start would be his final outing of the season, as he would go on the DL with a sore shoulder. Windsor attempted to come back from that injury with rehab, but those efforts failed to heal his shoulder and he had season-ending surgery in July. Barring any significant set-backs, Windsor should be ready for spring training.

This is the second shoulder injury that Windsor has endured since joining the A's organization in 2004. He missed a good portion of the second half of the 2005 season with a shoulder injury that didn't (at the time) require surgery. He recovered from that injury to post great numbers in 2006, but the injury history is definitely a concern for Windsor.

When healthy, Windsor profiles similarly to A's right-hander Justin Duchscherer. Windsor doesn't throw particularly hard, sitting mostly in the high-80s. His best pitch is his change-up, which he can throw in fastball counts and has allowed Windsor to pile-up good strike out numbers throughout his minor league career (in 338 minor league innings, Windsor has 320 strike outs). He also features a good 12-6 curveball and a decent slider.

Windsor has demonstrated excellent control throughout his minor league career when he has been healthy. However, his command was shaky during his stint in the major leagues in 2006. It wasn't so much that he was walking batters as he was having trouble spotting his pitches in locations where the batters couldn't hurt him. Windsor's stuff isn't overpowering enough that he will be able to get away with location mistakes in the major leagues. Throughout his career, Windsor has overcome questions about his stuff to post strong numbers and pile up the wins. Scouts love his mental toughness on the mound and he has earned praise for being a hard worker.

While Windsor was out this season, he watched Dallas Braden and Dan Meyer get their opportunities to win spots in the A's rotation. Neither took full advantage of their opportunities, so Windsor could find himself in the mix this spring once again for a spot either in the back of the A's rotation or as a longman in the bullpen if he is healthy. Windsor was dropped from the 40-man roster this October, so he will need to be invited to major league camp as a non-roster player.

33. Cliff Pennington, IF:
Pennington was finally healthy in 2007.
When Pennington was selected by the A's with their first pick in 2005, many predicted that he would have a relatively short trip through the minor leagues. It hasn't worked out that way thus far for the former Texas A&M star. He got his pro career off to a good start in 2005, when he hit .276 with 25 stolen bases in 69 games for Low-A Kane County. However, he hit a major stumbling block in 2006 in High-A Stockton, getting off to a horrible start with the Ports and then losing much of the final two-thirds of the season with hamstring problems. He hit only .209 for the Ports in 177 at-bats in 2006.

The 2007 season was a better one for Pennington, although it still wasn't the kind of season many would have predicted for him. Most importantly, Pennington was healthy, and he was able to play in 138 games. He also made it to the Double-A level for the first time, playing in 70 games with the Midland Rockhounds during the second half of the season. Pennington added some defensive versatility in 2007, as well, playing some second base in addition to his natural shortstop position, and he got good marks for his work at second.

On the downside, Pennington put up fairly pedestrian offensive numbers. Playing in a hitter's league with Stockton, Pennington managed only a 747 OPS in 68 games. He had a very solid month of May, batting .279 with an 832 OPS, but he had OPSs under 700 in both April (104 at-bats) and June (71 at-bats) for Stockton. Overall, Pennington posted a .255/.348/.399 line for the Ports.

He put up comparable numbers with Midland, posting a .251/.343/.336 line, although he hit for considerably less power in Double-A. The offensive disappointments have continued this off-season at the Arizona Fall League. He has been much better over the 10 days of the AFL season, but through 22 games, Pennington is batting only .218 with four extra-base hits in 55 at-bats. He has done a good job of talking his walks at the AFL (16 versus nine strike outs, which has led to a .384 OBP), but the hits just haven't been there for Pennington until his last six games, when he has gone seven-for-23 with three of his four extra-base hits.

Defensively and on the base-paths, Pennington has been pretty much what the A's were expecting when he was drafted. He has above-average range and a very strong arm at shortstop and he has shown that he can handle second base, as well. He still gets himself in trouble on occasion when he attempts to make the spectacular play when it is an impossible play. Pennington has above-average speed and he is a very efficient base-stealer. He is eight-for-eight in stolen bases at the AFL and he was 17-for-21 during the regular season. He has also done a good job drawing walks during his pro career. Pennington walked 81 times in 2007 and 67 times in 127 games in 2005 and 2006. However, he hasn't been able to find many hits when he has made contact and he has hit for very little power since turning pro. He is a full-effort player and a grinder, but he has a tendency to get down on himself quickly if things don't go right on the field.

Pennington has a lot of talent, but since he doesn't hit for power, he will only be useful offensively if he is reaching base at close to 40 percent of the time (he had a .346 OBP in 2007). With Justin Sellers and Josh Horton coming up behind Pennington in the system and Gregorio Petit and Kevin Melillo ahead of him, Pennington will need a break-out year in 2008 to re-establish himself as the heir apparent in Oakland's middle infield.

32. Ronny Morla, SP:
The A's haven't gotten a lot out of their Dominican program over the past few seasons, but Morla could help change those fortunes. The lanky right-hander began the season playing for the A's Dominican Summer League team. After starting two games and allowing only two runs on eight hits in 8.2 innings, the A's sent Morla to the States for the first time.

The 19-year-old put together a fine season for the A's Rookie League team in Arizona, going 4-2 with a 3.70 ERA in 58.1 innings. He had an impressive 52:17 K:BB ratio and he held opposing batters to a .240 BAA. The Dominican native was particularly successful as a reliever, as he allowed only 14 base-runners in 21 innings in relief.

According to A's Minor League Pitching Coordinator Ron Romanick, Morla has the highest strike percentage of any Latin American program pitcher the A's have had since Romanick joined the organization 10 years ago. "He just filled up the strike zone with quality," Romanick said.

Morla stands at 6'4'', but weighs only 180 pounds, so he has plenty of room to fill out. He features a nice, easy delivery and his fastball sits in the low-90s. Morla has good command of his fastball and of his off-speed pitches. Although Morla threw better as a reliever in 2007, he has the size and stuff to be a starting pitcher.

With his advanced command, Morla could be a candidate to skip the Northwest League and go straight to Low-A Kane County in 2008, just as Henry Rodriguez and Trevor Cahill did in 2007. However, the Cougars' rotation could be stacked with 2007 A's draft picks next season, so Oakland may choose to keep him in extended spring training to continue working on his change-up and then send him to short-season Vancouver. Morla won't turn 20 until mid-May next season, so he has plenty of time to develop.

31. Danny Hamblin, IF:
Hamblin was a big slugger for Vancouver.
Hamblin was a re-draft for the A's in 2007 after he spurned their efforts to sign him in 2006 and returned for his senior season at Arkansas. The athletic corner infielder had a strong senior year for the Hogs, hitting 22 homeruns. He left Arkansas as the team's all-time career leader in homeruns with 57.

Hamblin signed quickly after being selected by the A's in the 10th round this season and he was immediately assigned to short-season Vancouver. He got off to a slow start in June, posting only a 736 OPS in 44 at-bats. However, he heated up in July and August, posting 907 and 871 OPSs, respectively. Hamblin teamed with outfielder Corey Brown to give the Canadians a formidable power presence in the middle of their line-up. Hamblin tied Brown for the team lead in homeruns with 11. They were the first Vancouver hitters to reach double-digits in homeruns since Javier Herrera in 2004. Hamblin finished the year with a .275/.365/.494 line and was named to the Northwest League's post-season All-Star team.

The Texas native employs a classic slugger's approach at the plate. He rarely gets cheated when he swings the bat. That approach resulted in a high number of strike outs (93 in 68 games), but also in very good power numbers in a pitcher-friendly league. His walk total was decent (36), but he'll need to cut down on the strike outs at the higher levels if he wants to maintain a good batting average. Hamblin's swing is reminiscent of Alex Rodriguez's swing with his front leg lift and smooth swing path. He has strong wrists and good lower body strength.

Hamblin came to college as a third baseman, but was shifted over to first base after he injured his throwing shoulder sliding as a freshman. That arm strength took awhile to recover and he played mostly first base in college. Hamblin was primarily a first baseman with Vancouver, as well, playing 51 games at first. He did appear in seven games at third, and it seems likely that the A's will try to move Hamblin there full time at some point soon, as Oakland has fewer high level prospects who play third than they do playing first.

Although he didn't have a stolen base with Vancouver this season, Hamblin has above-average speed for a man of his size and he should be good for 10-15 stolen bases if he is allowed to run. He will turn 23 before the start of next season, which will make him old for the Midwest League. If he is moved to third base, Hamblin could start next season at High-A Stockton, where his age would be more in-line with the league. He may also get a look in the outfield. He could put up huge power numbers in the hitter-friendly California League.

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