2008 MLB Draft: A's Areas Of Need, Part One

Although the MLB draft is about selecting players who will contribute to the big league club years down the road, an organization often takes into account its overall strengths and weaknesses when making a first-round selection. In this two-part series, we take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of the Oakland A's system to see what types of players the A's might target in the draft.

Although the MLB draft is almost always about a club's distant future, that doesn't mean that need never plays into the equation when teams look at the draft. The Atlanta Braves and the Boston Red Sox both took collegiate relievers in the 2005 draft in hopes of remedying immediate weaknesses in their major-league bullpens. In addition, a handful of draft picks have been able to fill their team's needs at the major-league level immediately by making the jump directly to the big leagues after being drafted, including John Olerud and Dave Winfield, while others, such as A's closer Huston Street, have spent less than a year in the minors before making their major-league debuts.

Those picks are the exceptions to the rule, however. Generally speaking, almost all selections in the MLB draft are made with an eye to a more distant future. Even the most highly touted draft picks spend at least a season-and-a-half in the minor leagues. Since a lot can change with the personnel in an organization in a season-and-a-half, teams usually look to strike a balance in the draft between filling organizational needs and taking the best talent available to strengthen the overall talent pool within the organization.

With that in mind, we are going position-by-position through the Oakland A's system to assess the A's biggest needs going into the June 5 MLB draft. In part one, we look at position players.

Note: Stats good through May 15, 2008

First Base

Power is definitely still a need within the A's organization. Although the team added some strong power prospects in the 2007 draft and in trades over the off-season, the A's are still lagging behind many organizations in terms of high-ceiling slugger prospects. And power is certainly a weakness of the A's at the major-league level. First base is a natural position to add power into the system, as most first baseman are homer-oriented.

The A's are not hurting for long-term solutions at first base, however. Daric Barton, who was one of the system's top prospects the past three years, is in his rookie season with the A's. While Barton is off to a slow start this year, the organization still believes in his long-term ability to be an offensive force in the major leagues.

In addition to Barton, the A's have two bona fide first base prospects in the minor leagues in Sean Doolittle and Chris Carter, both of whom are playing at the High-A level. Doolittle, the team's second pick in 2007, is off to a very fast start in 2008. Through 39 games, Doolittle is batting .355/.429/.671 for the Stockton Ports. His 44 strike-outs are the only blight on his otherwise red-hot start. In addition to his strong bat, Doolittle, a good athlete who was also a pitcher in college and who has handled right-field well when asked to play there, has above-average defensive skills at first base. Doolittle could be a candidate for a mid-season promotion to Double-A and may be ready for the major leagues as soon as mid-season 2009.

Carter, acquired in the off-season as part of the Dan Haren trade, has arguably the most raw power in the A's system. The right-handed hitter has been up-and-down with his play in the early part of the season, but he still sports good power numbers. He is tied with Doolittle for the organization-lead with 11 homeruns and he has a .530 SLG in 40 games for Stockton. Carter isn't as polished a player as Doolittle, however. Unlike Doolittle, who competed in college for three years, Carter was a high school draft selection by the Chicago White Sox in 2005. He is still refining his approach at the plate, which has been a bit all-or-nothing at times this season, and he has a lot of improving to do with the glove. That said, the power is for real. The A's won't rush Carter to the big leagues, but he could fill that first base or DH power role for Oakland as early as 2010.

Given Barton's presence in Oakland and the status of Doolittle and Carter in the minor leagues, first base wouldn't appear to be a big need for the A's. However, as the Milwaukee Brewers demonstrated in last season's draft, if there is a hitter on the board who a team thinks can be special, the fact that they currently play first base shouldn't be a hindrance when selecting that player. Last season, Milwaukee took University of Florida first baseman Matt LaPorta with the seventh overall pick despite having Prince Fielder firmly ensconced at first base in the major leagues. The Brewers believed in LaPorta's bat and believed that he had the work ethic to make the switch from first base to left field. Thus far, their faith in LaPorta has been rewarded, as the big right-hander is already killing the ball at Double-A and is handling the outfield just fine. The A's may take a similar flier on a first baseman with the 12th pick if they feel that that prospect could make a position switch (or if one of the A's current first base prospects could make that switch).

There are a number of intriguing first base prospects in this year's amateur draft, including former A's draft pick Justin Smoak, University of Miami slugger Yonder Alzono, prep star Eric Hosmer, Wake Forest's Allan Dykstra, Howie Long's son and Virginia prep star Kyle Long, etc. Although a few of those first basemen are likely to be selected before the A's take their turn with the 12th pick, it appears likely that Oakland will have a few top first base prospects to choose from with their first pick if they want to go in that direction.

Middle Infielders

Before the 2005 draft, it appeared that the middle infield was an area of strength for the A's. Bobby Crosby was coming off of a Rookie of the Year campaign, Mark Ellis was proving that he had recovered completely from a separated shoulder that cost him the 2004 season and Marco Scutaro had demonstrated that he could be a quality major league back-up infielder. In the minor leagues, Kevin Melillo was emerging as a top second base prospect, and players such as Mike Rouse, Freddie Bynum and Mark Kiger looked capable of filling utility roles in the big leagues. Despite that relative depth, the A's took shortstop Cliff Pennington with their first pick that season. The Texas A&M alum was considered a polished collegiate player coming into the draft and many pundits expected him to move quickly through the minor leagues.

Things haven't exactly panned out the way that it seemed they would back in 2005 in terms of the middle infield for the A's. Crosby has struggled to stay on the field over the past three seasons, and when he has been healthy, he hasn't performed to expectations. Ellis has been excellent, but he is entering his final year under contract with the A's. Scutaro is gone, as are Rouse, Bynum and Kiger. Donnie Murphy, Melillo, Brooks Conrad and Gregorio Petit are all candidates to challenge for big league starting jobs this year or next, but behind those four, it is relatively thin for the A's in the middle infield in the minor league system.

Pennington had a disappointing 2006 season that was cut short by hamstring problems. He played a full season in 2007, but managed only a .253 average in 138 games for High-A Stockton and Double-A Midland. Pennington followed that performance with an up-and-down stint in the Arizona Fall League. This year, Pennington is back with Midland, where he has been hitting at or near the top of the Rockhounds' order all season. The switch-hitter is doing a good job getting on-base (.389 OBP) and stealing bases (18 in 19 chances), but he hasn't shown any power (.315 SLG). He has demonstrated that he can play both shortstop and second base.

Josh Horton and Justin Sellers are the A's other two top middle infield prospects. Horton was selected in the third round by the A's last season out of UNC. Like Pennington, Horton was considered a polished collegiate player coming into the draft. Some scouts questioned his unorthodox set-up at the plate and wondered if it would translate well with wood bats. Horton appears to be answering those critics, however, as he is off to a strong start in 2008, batting .318/.438/.411 for Stockton in 36 games. There are questions as to whether he'll stick at shortstop or move to second base down the line, but he has handled short well thus far this season.

Sellers, a natural shortstop who can also play a strong second base, is known more for his glove than his bat. He is an above-average athlete with a strong arm and great range at both second and short. His bat hasn't developed the way the A's had hoped it would as of yet, but he is still young (22 years old) and is playing at an advanced level (Double-A).

Middle infielders, like centerfielders, tend to be great athletes, and the A's have increasingly been targeting more athletic players in the draft over the past few seasons. Most of those athletes have been outfielders (Jermaine Mitchell, Corey Brown and Grant Desme are five-tool players the team has taken in recent drafts), but the A's could target an athletic middle infielder in this draft. Top high school position talent Tim Beckham, rising collegiate prospect Gordon Beckham, Florida high schooler Casey Kelly, UCLA product Brandon Crawford, Richie Weeks' younger brother Jemile Weeks and Miami high schooler Harold Martinez – all shortstops – are all prospects who could fit the mold should the A's go in this direction. The two Beckhams (no relation) are not likely to be available when the A's pick, but Oakland could have their pick of the rest of the above list with their first or second selections.

Third Base

Third base is an area of uncertainly for the A's right now. On the one hand, Oakland has Eric Chavez locked up to a long-term deal for the next several years. On the other hand, Chavez is coming off of an off-season during which he endured three major surgeries. It is hard to know whether Chavez will ever fully recover his form from 1999-2005, when he was one of the better all-around third basemen in baseball.

Behind Chavez, the A's are relatively thin on third base prospects. Their top hot corner prospect is Jeff Baisley, who is making his Triple-A debut this season. Baisley was a senior draft selection in 2005, so he is already 25 despite being in his first season at Triple-A. That being said, Baisley has a strong set of all-around skills that make him an appealing prospect. He is a right-handed hitter with good power, something the A's don't have a lot of in the major leagues or in their system. In addition, he has a strong arm and soft hands at third. Baisley currently has an 804 OPS in 31 games for the River Cats.

Minor league free agent signing Jesus Guzman (who can play third, short and second) has gotten off to a fast start for Double-A Midland after hitting 25 homers in High-A last season while in the Mariners' chain. Guzman has had an up-and-down minor league career, but he has good offensive skills and is still only 23 years old.

Trailing Baisley and Guzman on the prospect charts are a handful of players with promise, but none have posted eye-popping numbers as of yet. Frank Martinez is a switch-hitter with some power who is repeating High-A with the Stockton Ports this season. He hit 12 homers for Stockton last season, but is off to a slow start this year. Christian Vitters was the WAC's MVP in 2006 at Fresno State, but he has yet to hit like that with Low-A Kane County in 2007 or 2008.

Dan Hamblin was taken in last year's draft after a strong collegiate career and he hit 11 homers in short-season for Vancouver in 2007. A natural third baseman, he has played mostly first base over the past few years thanks to a shoulder injury that he sustained in college. He has also missed the early part of this season with an injury. If Hamblin can recover from his injury problems and make the move back to third, his power could be intriguing at that position.Third baseman Alex Valdez also looked like an intriguing prospect last season when he hit .264 with 10 homers for Low-A Kane County. Unfortunately, Valdez has been stuck in his native Dominican Republic this season thanks to visa issues.

Should the A's choose to select a third baseman with their first pick, they could have some premium talent to choose from. Arguably the best player in this year's draft is a third baseman: Vanderbilt's Pedro Alvarez. Alvarez almost assuredly will be off of the board by the time the A's pick, but he could fall because of signability issues (Scott Boras is his advisor). The A's haven't been known to draft difficult signs, but Alvarez could be hard to pass up if he is available. A more realistic option could be third baseman Brett Wallace. Wallace is a product of Arizona State, a program known for producing polished hitters that translate their games well to the pros (Travis Buck and Dustin Pedroia are two recent alums). Wallace has good patience and power and would be a classic A's pick.

Catcher

Just three years ago, the A's were flush with catching prospects. Landon Powell, Kurt Suzuki, Jeremy Brown and John Baker all looked like potential major-league back-stops. Three years later, Suzuki is in the majors as the A's catcher, but Brown is retired, Baker is in the Florida chain and Powell has been sidetracked by two major knee injuries.

Despite the injury set-backs, Powell is still the A's top prospect behind the plate. He is being eased back into everyday duties at catcher this season with Triple-A Sacramento after tearing his ACL in July of last year. Thus far, Powell has played in 22 games for Sacramento. His batting average is only .208 at the moment, but he has a solid K:BB (18:12) and his power numbers have been outstanding (seven homers in 72 at-bats). Powell is a switch-hitter with power from both sides of the plate and he has above-average defensive skills behind the plate. If his knees hold-up, Powell should find himself sharing time with Suzuki in Oakland either late this season or next year.

Behind Powell on the A's depth chart are Anthony Recker and Justin Knoedler. Recker burst onto the prospect scene in 2006 when he hit .287 with 14 homeruns for Low-A Kane County. He followed that performance by batting .319 with 13 homers in 56 games for High-A Stockton during the first half of last season. Recker struggled after a mid-season promotion to Double-A, however, and a broken hamate bone prevented him from participating in the Arizona Fall League. Recker got off to a slow start with Midland again this season, but he has picked it up in May (811 OPS in 49 May at-bats). Knoedler was a minor league free agent signing by the A's this off-season. He is a strong defensive catcher who already has some major league experience. Beyond Powell, Recker and Knoedler, the A's have a number of other catchers in the system with some promise, but none has yet to emerge as a top prospect.

With Suzuki in his first full season in the major leagues, his back-up Rob Bowen under the A's control for at least three more years and Powell, Recker and Knoedler providing some depth in the minor leagues, the catcher position isn't an area of major need in the A's system right now. However, there are some intriguing catching prospects such as high schooler Kyle Skipworth and collegiate star Buster Posey who the A's could take a flier on if they fell to the 12th spot in the draft.

Outfield

It has been a long time since the A's have had this much young outfield talent in their system. The A's 40-man roster features Carlos Gonzalez, Travis Buck and Ryan Sweeney, all of whom were considered their original organization's top prospect at some point over the past three years. Beyond that trio are Aaron Cunningham, Corey Brown, Jermaine Mitchell, Grant Desme, Javier Herrera, Richie Robnett, Jeff Fiorentino, Matt Sulentic and Danny Putnam, all of whom are legitimate prospects.

If there is a saying in baseball that you can never have too much pitching in your system, the same could probably be said for never having too many talented outfielders. Young outfielders, especially centerfielders, make great trade chips, as the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Tampa Bay Rays found out this winter. In addition, although the A's have a lot of talented outfielders in the organization at the moment, none of them have established themselves as major league regulars as of yet. Buck has the most major league time of any on the aforementioned list, and he is back in Triple-A trying to regain his stroke after a tough start to the 2008 season. Sweeney has shown the ability to hit for average with the A's thus far this season, but has hit for little power. Gonzalez looks poised to make his major-league debut by the end of the year, but it is likely that his time with Oakland will come after the draft.

After a strong spring in big league camp, Fiorentino has been sidelined for much of the season after breaking his nose during the first week of the Triple-A season. Cunningham just returned to active play after missing the first four weeks of the season with a broken wrist. He has hit well for Double-A Midland since recovering from the injury. Mitchell and Sulentic are both off to good starts with High-A Stockton, while Putnam is hitting well for Sacramento. Brown leads Low-A Kane County in homeruns after hitting 11 homers for short-season Vancouver in 2007. Herrera, Robnett and Desme, however, have missed virtually the entire season to date with injuries. In other words, even with the talent the A's have in their system right now, the future outlook of the A's outfield remains an open question.

Like with first basemen, drafting outfielders is usually a great way to add power to a system. It is also a great place to find speed, something that the A's have been quietly adding into their system over the past few years after a decade of targeting players more proficient at jogging around the bases than sprinting around them. Oakland took two high-ceiling outfielders with their third and fourth picks last year (Brown and Desme) and one with their fifth pick the year before (Mitchell).

This may not be the best year for the A's to add outfield talent through the draft, especially in the first round. The 2008 draft doesn't appear to feature many sure-fire outfield prospects. Prepster Aaron Hicks is arguably the highest rated outfielder in this year's draft, and many scouts see him as a pitcher more than as an outfielder. Arizona State's Ike Davis and Texas Tech's Roger Kieschnick could be a solid picks in the second round for Oakland if they are still on the board.

Stay tuned later this week for part two of this series, in which we will examine the A's pitching needs going into the draft.


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