Oakland A's Top-50 Prospects: 15-11

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 15-11.

15. Richie Robnett, OF:
Robnett had a solid season at Double-A.
A first round pick by the A's in 2004, Robnett has had a gradual climb through the A's organization. Despite being a collegiate draft choice, his baseball skills were raw when he turned pro, so it has taken some time for his considerable talent to translate into consistent results on the playing field. Robnett is still a work-in-progress, but he made significant steps forward in 2007.

Robnett began the season where he ended the 2006 campaign – in Double-A Midland. He played in only a handful of games at the end of the 2006 season at the Double-A level because he sustained a broken hamate bone that ended his season 10 weeks early. Robnett got off to a slow start with Midland in 2007. On May 22, he was batting only .234 with a 675 OPS. He collected at least one extra-base hit in four of the next five games and his season improved from there. He posted an 808 OPS with four homers in June and then improved on those numbers in July with an 864 OPS and five homers. He had an 852 OPS in August before being promoted to Triple-A Sacramento for the final two weeks of the season. Robnett finished his time with the Rockhounds with a .267/.316/.465 line and 18 homeruns.

Robnett struggled at Triple-A, although his playing time was irregular with the River Cats. He finished his stint with Sacramento with only a .152 average in 33 at-bats, but he did collect four hits in his final 13 at-bats of the regular season.

Strike outs have always been a big problem for Robnett. He has a picturesque swing, but he also has a tendency to guess early and be fooled often. Robnett seemed to improve his pitch recognition during the second half of the season with Midland, cutting his strike outs nearly in half. Those strike outs went back up again at Triple-A, which means he still has work to do in that area. He handled right-handed pitchers well in 2007, posting an 837 OPS versus righties. The left-hander struggled against lefties, however, posting only a 650 OPS.

Robnett is arguably the most physically imposing player in the A's system. Although he stands under six feet tall, he is built like a middle linebacker. Robnett puts on a show in batting practice, regularly hitting balls well over the bleachers in outfields around the minor leagues. Robnett has only passed the 20-homers-in-a-season barrier once during his minor league career, but he has the power to be a 30-homer hitter in the major leagues if he can improve his approach at the plate. He has above-average speed, which he has rarely been given a chance to use on the base-paths with the A's. However, he has used his speed well in the outfield. He played a lot of centerfield this season and has improved on his routes to the ball. Robnett has also played a lot of right-field, and he has the arm strength to play there, as well.

The A's could have an opening in centerfield at the end of the 2008 season when Mark Kotsay becomes a free agent. Robnett could solidify his status as a top contender for that spot with a strong campaign in 2008. He was added to the A's 40-man roster earlier this month, so he will have a chance to show his skills off to the A's major league staff this spring. He will likely start the season at Triple-A Sacramento.

14. Sam Demel, RP:
Demel was selected in the third round of the 2007 draft by the A's out of Texas Christian University. The Texas native began his collegiate career as a starter after a record-setting high school career as a starting pitcher. He broke Josh Beckett's Texas state high school strike out record, but wasn't drafted until the 35th round as a senior in high school because of worries about his size.

Demel spent his first two seasons at TCU as both a starter and a reliever. He continued to rack-up good strike out numbers as a freshman and sophomore, but he gave up a lot of hits and had ERAs above 4.00. For his junior season, TCU moved Demel into the closer role full-time, and he blossomed in that spot. He posted a 2.17 ERA and saved 13 games. Demel struck out an incredible 71 batters in 49.2 innings.

The A's took him in the third round and sent him right to High-A Stockton. The challenge of the hitter-friendly California League proved to be a little too much for Demel right off of the bat. He struggled badly with his command, walking 15 in 13 innings and posting a 7.07 ERA. The A's sent him back to Low-A Kane County for the final three weeks of the season, and Demel improved dramatically. He saved four games and allowed only three hits while striking out 10 in 9.1 innings. Demel did walk four, but his command was much better with the Cougars.

Demel features a high-effort delivery that uses all of his 6'0'', 185 pound frame. He has a hard, biting fastball that sits in the mid-90s and can touch 96. His secondary pitches are advanced for a collegiate reliever. Demel has a good change-up that has sink and a hard slider. Like many hard-throwing relievers, Demel has control issues at times. He will need to refine his command as he moves up the system and faces more selective hitters.

Despite his struggles in the California League in 2007, Demel has the stuff to compete at an advanced level right now. If he can show better command in spring training, Demel will likely be sent to Stockton and he could be sent as high as Double-A Midland to start the year. He has the potential to move quickly.

13. Josh Horton, SS:
Horton has an unusual set-up in the batter's box.
Horton was one of the better-known collegiate players selected in the 2007 draft thanks to his role as a catalyst for North Carolina during the last two College World Series tournaments. Horton played a big role on the Tar Heels in each of his three seasons at the school, batting .335 or better in all three seasons. He entered the draft as the player with arguably the best strike zone judgment, making him an Oakland A's kind of player.

The A's sent Horton to short-season Vancouver to start his professional career, but he didn't stay there long. Horton hit .268 with a .426 OBP and a homerun in 41 at-bats with the Canadians. He was then promoted to Low-A Kane County, where he was the Cougars starting shortstop down-the-stretch. Horton hit .279 with an impressive .417 OBP in 122 at-bats for Kane County. He didn't hit for much power during his pro debut season, posting a .362 SLG, although both the Northwest and Midwest Leagues are historically difficult leagues in which to hit for power.

Horton tends to create a lot of disagreement among scouts. Some scouts see his advanced approach at the plate and his ability to hit to all fields and predict that he will be a major league regular down-the-road. Others see his unorthodox set-up at the plate and see a player who will be a fringe major leaguer or a "4-A" player. Horton struggled at the plate in the wooden bat Cape Cod League before his junior year at UNC, but he quieted many of the concerns about whether he will be able to hit with a wooden bat during his pro debut season. The A's believe strongly in Horton's offensive skills and they think he has the defensive ability to play shortstop at the major league level.

Horton's swing isn't going to make any coaching manuals, but he does a good job of squaring up the ball and using the whole field. His plate patience is off-the-charts. The biggest question offensively with Horton is whether he will be able to add some power to his game. Defensively, he has a strong arm, although he has struggled with accuracy at times. Horton has average range at short and he could be moved to second base down-the-road, although the A's like him at shortstop right now. Scouts have praised his leadership skills.

Given his collegiate experience and his success at Kane County in 2007, Horton has a good shot at starting the 2008 season at High-A Stockton. The A's have above-average defensive shortstops in Gregorio Petit, Cliff Pennington and Justin Sellers ahead of Horton in the system, but if Horton can break-out offensively, he could move up quickly regardless.

12. Jerry Blevins, RP:
Blevins transformed himself into a major league pitcher this season.
Blevins had a whirlwind season in 2007. He began the year buried in the Chicago Cubs organization, having struggled through a down 2006 campaign during which he was experimenting lower arm angles. He went back to throwing over-the-top in 2007 and his fortunes changed dramatically. By the end of the season, he had moved through three minor league levels, was traded for a former major league All-Star, recorded the final out of the PCL championship game, made his major league debut and pitched for Team USA in the IABF World Cup.

Blevins began the year in the Florida State League (High-A) with Daytona Beach, where he posted an 0.38 ERA in with a 32:5 K:BB ratio in 23.2 innings. He was promoted to Double-A by the Cubs, where his success continued. In 29.1 innings, he posted a 1.53 ERA and he struck out 37 and walked only eight. He was traded to Oakland in July, and the A's sent him to Double-A Midland. He spent most of the final six weeks of the season with the Rockhounds, where he posted a 3.32 ERA and 29 strike outs in 21.1 innings. The A's promoted Blevins to Triple-A for the final week of the season, and he threw 2.2 scoreless innings for the River Cats in the regular season. In total, Blevins had a 1.63 ERA and a 102:18 K:BB ratio in 77.1 innings in 2007.

Blevins shined in the post-season for Sacramento. He didn't allow a run in 11 post-season innings for the River Cats, striking out 20 of the 33 batters he faced. Blevins was promoted to the big leagues for the final three weeks of the season. He had a scoreless outing in his first appearance, but he allowed four earned runs in his final 1.1 innings of the major league season to leave him with a 9.64 ERA in 4.2 major league innings.

Blevins stands at 6'6'' and he gets a lot of downward action on his low-90s fastball, a plus fastball for a lefty. He also has a good curveball and a change-up that he can throw to keep right-handers off of his fastball. Blevins had exceptional command in the minor leagues in 2007. He was a little erratic with his command in the major leagues, but that can probably be chalked up to nerves. Blevins retired some tough major league hitters during his stint, so he has the stuff to be effective at that level.

"Everybody really likes him. I think they are going to work on his breaking ball a little bit, but it looks like he is going to be a good pitcher for us," Keith Lieppman, Oakland A's Director of Player Development, told OaklandClubhouse.com in early October.

Blevins will be at major league camp this spring and he will likely be competing with lefties Dan Meyer and Dallas Braden for the second lefty relief spot in the A's bullpen.

11. Vince Mazzaro, SP:
Mazzaro has plus stuff, but he needs to be more consistent.
Mazzaro has been better known as one part of a trio of high school pitchers that the A's selected in the high rounds in 2005. Unlike his "trio" partners Jared Lansford and Craig Italiano, Mazzaro has been blessed with excellent health since he joined the A's organization. He threw 119.1 innings for Low-A Kane County in 2006 as a 19-year-old and then threw 153.2 innings as a 20-year-old for High-A Stockton in 2007.

Mazzaro has taken his lumps since turning pro, posting ERAs above 5.00 in each of his first two seasons. However, it seems like it is only a matter of time before he puts it all together. Mazzaro was very up-and-down for Stockton in 2007. At times, he appeared unhittable. In other games, he struggled with his command and was hit hard. Case-in-point, in his final five starts Mazzaro allowed six runs, two runs, one run, six runs and one run, respectively. Every time he seemed to be in a groove, he'd hit a speed bump. Mazzaro finished the season with a 5.33 ERA and 115 strike outs against 71 walks.

Mazzaro has an above-average fastball that he throws in the low-90s with heavy sink. He also has a hard breaking ball and an inconsistent change-up. Like many young pitchers, Mazzaro has a tendency to get flustered when things don't go well, leading to some big innings.

"Vinny has great movement on his fastball. My issue with him is that he needs to throw more quality strikes with that fastball. He has a ton of swing-and-miss in his games, but his fastball percentages needed to come up, just the strikes. He needs to use that change-up a little bit more and perhaps use some subtraction off of that fastball. That will get his pitch count down a little bit because he has a lot of swing-and-miss in his game already," Ron Romanick, Oakland A's Minor League Pitching Coordinator, told OaklandClubhouse.com in October.

Mazzaro will be 21 throughout the 2008 season, so he has plenty of time to work on refining his game. The A's may not have room for Mazzaro at Double-A to start the season, but he should have a chance to move up during the season if he is pitching well.

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