Oakland A's Top-50 Prospects: 30-26

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 profile our top-50 prospect list in groups of five. Today, we continue the series with a review of prospects 30-26.

30. Nino Leyja

Leyja was one of the surprises of the 2008 draft. The middle infielder was selected by Oakland out of a Houston area high school in the 15th round. Despite being a high school pick, Leyja signed with the A's quickly and was sent to the team's Rookie League squad in Phoenix. Once there, he quickly established himself as one of the better players in the Arizona Rookie League.

Before joining the A's, Leyja led his high school to the private school Texas state title by hitting .440 with 40 stolen bases. He continued that strong performance in his first taste of professional baseball. In 43 games for the AZL A's, Leyja hit .315 with a .383 OBP, a .479 SLG and 10 stolen bases in 12 tries. He demonstrated a surprisingly mature approach at the plate despite being only 17 and plus speed. Leyja collected six triples and scored 42 runs. His numbers are even more impressive when one takes into account an early August slump that the A's attributed to fatigue. They gave Leyja a week off to shake the slump, and he responded by going seven-for-21 with four extra-base hits in the last week of the season.

"Nino Leyja is an excellent hitter. The numbers are definitely indicative of his abilities. He's got a smooth swing and an advanced approach for anyone in the Rookie League, much less a 17-year-old kid. His bat stays in the ‘zone a long time," Billy Owens, the A's Director of Player Personnel, said during the season.

Leyja stands at only 5'10'' and 170 pounds, but he has surprising strength for a player his size. He just turned 18 in October, so he has room to grow. Leyja, who hits from the right-side, has quick wrists and good balance at the plate. In the field, he has soft hands and quick feet. He will likely see time at both shortstop and second base down-the-road.

"He is an exceptional player. He is still not even 18 yet and he puts together a solid at-bat. Especially with as tired as he was at various points in the season. You can imagine a 17-year-old high school kid playing everyday. We don't typically like to do that to even the college kids, and he managed to persevere," Keith Lieppman, the A's Director of Player Development, said.

"He has a really good mental make-up and great tools physically. He is a really excellent player and will be a very good player down-the-road."

29. Craig Italiano

Italiano will probably be back with Stockton in 2008.
For the first time since his professional debut season in 2005, Italiano was able to put in a healthy full year of baseball. The 6'4'' right-hander missed most of the 2006 season with a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder and then missed most of the 2007 season after sustaining a serious skull fracture when he was struck by a line-drive. Going into the 2008 season, Italiano had made only 18 professional appearances, 10 of which had come in two abbreviated seasons with Kane County.

Italiano returned to Kane County to start the 2008 season and instead of finding pain, he found great success with the Cougars for the first time. The Texas native was the Cougars' ace for the first half of the season, going 7-0 with a 1.16 ERA and 79 strike-outs in 70 innings. He was named a starter in the Midwest League All-Star game, where he pitched a scoreless inning.

Shortly after the All-Star game, Italiano was promoted to High-A Stockton. By the time Italiano reached Stockton, he had already surpassed his career-high for innings pitched and the A's kept him on a short leash with the Ports. He made 14 appearances for Stockton over the final three months of the year, and only five of those appearances were starts. For the most part, Italiano struggled with the Ports. In 30 innings, he posted a 9.90 ERA and allowed 44 hits and 26 walks. He did strike-out 33, however. Italiano finished the regular season with exactly 100 innings pitched and he threw one scoreless inning in the post-season for Stockton.

There is no question that Italiano has the stuff to be a big league pitcher, and despite missing nearly two seasons, he is still young (he won't turn 23 until late July). Coming out of high school, his fastball was clocked as high as 98 MPH. Despite the shoulder surgery, Italiano can still touch 98 when he reaches back for something extra, but he most often works in the 91-94 range. He also has a hard curveball, which many people think is his best pitch. His change-up was very effective in the Midwest League, as well. Control has been an issue for Italiano throughout his professional career. In 153.2 professional innings, he has struck-out 186, but he has also walked 94.

Given all that Italiano has been through over the past few years, it is a fair assumption that a good portion of his struggles during the second half of the year came from fatigue. Like many pitchers of his height, Italiano has to work to repeat his delivery and any amount of fatigue can hinder his mechanics. Now that Italiano has reached the 100-inning plateau as a professional, he should be given a longer leash next season and will likely have the opportunity to start on a regular basis for High-A Stockton again next season. If he gets off to a good start with the Ports, the A's likely won't hesitate to move him up to Double-A. If he struggles, Italiano may be moved into the bullpen, where he could be a late-inning option for Oakland down-the-road.

28. Grant Desme

Desme was hurt for most of the year.
Big things have been expected of Desme since he was selected by the A's in the second round of the 2007 draft. Unfortunately, injuries have prevented the Cal Poly alum from showing his talent in the professional ranks thus far.

When Desme was taken with the 74th overall pick in 2007, many scouts thought the A's had gotten a steal. Desme starred for Cal Poly in 2007, but he broke his wrist with a month left in the collegiate season and that scared off many teams on draft day. He was able to recover from the wrist injury in time to appear in 12 games for short-season Vancouver in 2007, hitting .261 with six RBIs.

Desme was unable to build off of his 2007 season, however. He injured his shoulder during spring training and wasn't able to get back into a game until July 29th with the A's Rookie League team. He lasted only two games with the AZL A's (homering in three at-bats) before shoulder pain sidelined him for the rest of the year.

When healthy, Desme is an athletic outfielder with power to both alleys and decent speed. He doesn't likely have the raw foot speed to play centerfield, but he can cover a lot of ground in right. A former high school shortstop, Desme has a strong throwing arm and he projects to be an above-average defensive right-fielder. Desme still has the talent to be a major league regular, but he will be 23 at the start of next season with only 14 professional games under his belt, so he needs a breakthrough season in 2009 to remain in the A's long-term plans.

27. Jason Christian

Christian shined for Vancouver.
The A's 2008 draft class may be remembered down the road as the class of shortstops, as Oakland took three legitimate shortstop prospects in the draft (Christian, Leyja and Dusty Coleman). Christian had an impressive professional debut season with short-season Vancouver and Low-A Kane County after being taken in the 5th round out of the University of Michigan.

The left-handed hitting shortstop was arguably Vancouver's offensive MVP in 2008. He hit .291 with four homers, 16 doubles, one triple and 39 walks in 62 games for the Canadians. Christian also stole 13 bases and played excellent defense for the C's. He was promoted to Low-A Kane County for the final week of the season and he held his own in that league, as well, collecting eight hits in 25 at-bats (.320 BA).

Christian has a tall and lanky build that A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman compared to the build of current A's shortstop Bobby Crosby. Unlike Crosby, Christian is a left-handed hitter. He has a smooth swing and quick hands, but the swing can get long at times. He sees a lot of pitches, but he struck-out 73 times in 68 games. Defensively, Christian has great range and an above-average arm. He was tried in a number of different defensive infield positions during the A's Instructional League, which should lead to added versatility for Christian down the road.

"We've used him in a number of areas. He's got plenty of arm and he's got range," Lieppman said during the A's Instructional League season.

"What you have, though, is a situation where you start to have a lot of guys in the system [at one position]. You have him and Coleman and you have Michael Richard and Josh Horton and Justin Sellers, etc. Guys start to back-up a little bit, so you have to start moving some guys around the diamond to make sure they get at-bats."

26. Josh Outman

Outman made his big league debut with the A's.
In late June, Outman was toiling as a Double-A reliever in the Philadelphia Phillies organization. By September, he was starting in the major leagues for the Oakland A's. It is amazing what a difference a trade makes.

The Missouri native was dealt to Oakland in July as part of the Joe Blanton deal. The A's sent Outman to Double-A Midland after the trade, and he was immediately put into the Rockhounds' starting rotation. After posting a 4.26 ERA in 12.2 innings for Midland, Outman was promoted to Triple-A Sacramento, where he would split time between the starting rotation and the bullpen. In 15.1 innings for the River Cats, Outman had a 1.76 ERA and he struck-out 15. In 98.1 total minor league innings between the A's and Phillies' organizations, Outman went 7-4 with a 3.11 ERA and 86 strike-outs.

Outman is one of the rarest commodities in baseball, a hard-throwing left-handed pitcher. He was clocked as high as 97 at points this season, and he sat comfortably in the 90-94 range during his big league starts. The 6'1'' southpaw also has a hard slider and a curveball. Since being drafted by the Phillies in the 10th round in 2005, Outman has put up good numbers and he has racked up the strike-outs. However, he has struggled with walks, although those numbers improved quite a bit when he moved over into the A's organization.

Outman has an interesting history. In high school, he was renowned for his pitching motion, an extremely unorthodox delivery that was developed by his father. The delivery involved Outman starting with the elbow of his throwing arm in a vertical position and the ball behind his head, with the glove elbow also up near his head to conceal the baseball. He would then use a walking step rather than a leg kick to deliver the baseball. Outman's father developed the motion to reduce the stress on his son's pitching shoulder and on his legs. The younger Outman kept with the motion into college, but when he started to be talked about for the draft, it became clear that teams were going to shy away from Outman if he didn't revert back to a more conventional style. He basically had to relearn to pitch in the season before he was drafted, and is now only four into using his current throwing motion.

Outman has described the transition to the current throwing motion as a difficult one and he attributes the control problems he has had as a pro to that learning process. The A's have never been shy about allowing pitchers to try different throwing motions if it will keep them healthy and effective, so it will be interesting to see whether the A's let him try his old motion at any point.

Regardless of the throwing motion, Outman, who turned 24 in September, should be a valuable asset for Oakland given his velocity. Whether he ultimately makes an impact for Oakland in the starting rotation or the bullpen remains to be seen. He dominated left-handed batters in 2008 and could be an effective lefty specialist. However, he has three pitches and has shown that he can have success as a starter. Outman will enter spring training in competition for one of the A's final spots in the rotation and in the bullpen. Even if he doesn't make the team out of spring training, he is likely to spend time with the A's during the season, health-permitting.

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