Oakland A's Top-50 Prospects: 20-16

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 20-16.

20. Matt Sulentic

Sulentic's hard work in the off-season paid off with a big 2008 campaign for Stockton.
There may not have been a prospect in the A's system who had a more disappointing 2007 campaign than Sulentic, who entered the season as one of the A's top hitting prospects, but managed only a .224 average in 127 games with Kane County and Vancouver. Going into spring training, it wasn't clear how the A's were going to handle their 2006 third-round pick. Sulentic came to camp in great shape and swinging the bat well, so Oakland took the chance that he could handle a higher level and sent him directly to High-A Stockton despite his struggles at Low-A Kane County the previous season. Sulentic rewarded the A's for their faith in him by batting .309 with an 849 OPS for Stockton in 2008.

Unlike in Kane County in 2007 where Sulentic was one of the biggest names on the roster, the Texas native was one of many big name prospects on the Ports' 2008 star-studded roster. Sulentic often batted ninth in the Ports' line-up. That low-pressure approach seemed to work for Sulentic, who swung the bat with more authority and generally carried himself with more confidence in 2008. He was consistently productive for Stockton, posting OPSs of 937, 808, 791 and 862 in April through July. The only thing that slowed him down was a fractured forearm that he suffered in late July that cost him the final month of the season. He finished the year with nine homers, 55 RBIs and a .481 SLG in 95 games.

"Kane County and Vancouver are very difficult ballparks to hit in. Progression through those two places sometimes is difficult for players like Sulentic," Keith Lieppman, A's director of player development, said.

"Stockton was an experiment for him to see if he could ‘up' his game in a different environment and take the pressure off of him by surrounding him with good hitters and a lower, non-pressure place in the lineup."

Coming out of high school in 2006, Sulentic was known as an advanced hitter with no defensive position. He had played both in the infield and in the outfield in high school, but he wasn't considered a strong fielder at either position. The A's briefly toyed with moving Sulentic to second base, but ultimately decided against it and left him in the outfield. Since that time, Sulentic has transformed himself into an above-average defensive corner outfielder by working hard on his footwork, routes and the accuracy of his throws. He has also improved his foot-speed, going from a below-average runner to being average- to slightly above-average on the bases.

Despite being only 5'10'', Sulentic is one of the more muscular players in the A's system, and he developed a workout program last off-season that incorporated boxing that allowed him to improve his strength and agility. He also used yoga and eye exercises to improve his physical fitness. The fractured forearm that sidelined Sulentic for the final month of the season happened when he was hit by a pitch. He is expected to be fully recovered at the start of spring training.

Historically, Sulentic has been a patient hitter who doesn't strike-out much, but he appeared to sacrifice some of his patience for better power numbers in 2008. He had a nearly 3:1 K:BB ratio and averaged nearly a strike-out a game. After the All-Star break, Sulentic walked only four times in 112 at-bats. However, he posted a .518 SLG and hit .330, so it is hard to quibble too much with his results. He hit righties and lefties equally well and excelled with runners in scoring position (.319/.405/.489).

Sulentic will be part of a group of talented outfielders competing for a spot on the Double-A Midland roster next season. Given that Sulentic is only 21 (and will be all of next season), he may be kept back at Stockton for at least the first few weeks of the year to give him a chance to make up for those games at the High-A level that he lost to injury at the end of this season. However, if he puts together a strong spring training, the A's may push him to Double-A to start the year. Either way, he figures to spend a decent amount of the season in his home state with Midland.

19. Tyson Ross

Ross is literally a home-grown prospect.
The selection of Ross by the A's in the second round was one of the feel-good stories of the 2008 draft. An Oakland native and star at Bishop O'Dowd and Cal, Ross grew up an A's fan and realized one of his dreams by inking with the green and gold. The selection of Ross was far from a PR move, however, as the 6'6'' right-hander was also considered one of the top collegiate pitching arms in this year's draft. Many experts had him going in the first or supplemental first round before the draft, but he slid to the A's in the second round on draft day because of a disappointing junior season at Cal that included whispers that Ross was pitching with an injury.

Ross signed with the A's quickly and was assigned to Low-A Kane County. He made three appearances for the Cougars – allowing three runs and striking out seven in 7.2 innings – before being shut-down for nearly six weeks with shoulder tightness. He returned to the mound in time to make three more appearances for the Cougars and he finished the regular season with a 4.66 ERA and 16 strike-outs in 19.1 innings. Ross was promoted to High-A Stockton for the post-season, and he was outstanding in his two starts for the Ports, allowing only one earned run in 10 innings. He struck-out eight and walked only two.

At 6'6'', Ross is one of the tallest pitchers in the A's system. He employs an unusual pitching motion that has caused some anxiety for scouts over the years who think that it will lead to injury. Given that Ross was sidelined with the shoulder problem this season, there may be some validity to those concerns. The A's didn't want to tinker with Ross' motion much given the success that he has had with it, but they have worked with him to make some minor adjustments with his stride and his finish. Ross pitched very well with the modifications to his delivery during the A's Instructional League camp.

Ross has a starter's build and a starter's stable of pitches. He throws a two-seam fastball, a four-seam fastball, a slider, a change-up and a cutter. The cutter is his newest pitch. Ross' fastball sits anywhere from 91-94 MPH, but it is his slider that is his best pitch. He also has a good feel for his change-up. Ross was a star hitter in high school and is a good natural athlete. He has historically had pretty good command for a pitcher of his height.

Ross came to the A's as a polished prospect given his experience in a Pac-10 program and as a member of Team USA. He pitched well in his first taste of the High-A level this September and should get a chance to start in Stockton again next season with a strong spring.

18. Arnold Leon

Leon will be with Oakland full-time in 2009.
The A's first splash on the international market this past year came last November when Oakland purchased the rights to Leon from Saltillo of the Mexican Summer League. He was given a bonus of $400,000. The right-hander was only 19 at the time of his signing, but he had already pitched a full season in the Mexican Summer and Winter Leagues (which are considered roughly Triple-A level). He had a 1.94 ERA in 41.2 innings in the Mexican Summer League and a 3.49 ERA in 28.1 innings in the Mexican Winter League last season.

Leon was given a non-roster invitation to the A's major league spring training camp so that the Oakland coaching staff could get a closer look at the right-hander. As part of the A's agreement with Saltillo, Leon was shared between Oakland and Saltillo in 2008, meaning that he spent the first half of the season with the A's and the second half back in Mexico. He will be with the A's full time in 2009.

At the conclusion of spring training, Leon was sent to High-A Stockton, where he remained until returning to Mexico. Leon worked exclusively in relief with the Ports and in Mexico. For Stockton, he posted a 2.86 ERA and he struck-out 28 in 28.1 innings. He then posted a 4.30 ERA with 21 strike-outs and only two walks in 14.2 innings for Saltillo. Leon allowed only one homerun over those 43 innings. Since the start of the winter season, Leon has been pitching for Culiacan, where he currently has a 2.77 ERA with 10 strike-outs in 13 innings.

Because Leon has been pitching essentially non-stop for the past two years, he was kept on a tight leash innings-wise during the A's Instructional League.

"Our purpose in bringing him [to the Instructional League] was really mechanical work. We had him throw only twice a week, an inning each time, to give him the opportunity to work with the staff to continue to develop him," Lieppman said.

"We are taking every opportunity to make sure that he gets a little bit of a break with his arm when we can."

At the time he was acquired, Leon – who has been a reliever exclusively in Mexico – was considered a good candidate to try starting pitching with the A's. However, the A's elected to keep him in the bullpen in 2008, perhaps to keep the innings down given his unusual schedule. It wouldn't be a shock to see the A's try-out Leon in a starting role at some point next season.

Leon's build may make him best suited for the bullpen, anyway. He stands at only 5'11'' and is about 185-190 pounds. His fastball sits in the low-90s and he has a sharp breaking slider and a change-up. He has a clean, over-the-top delivery that he repeats well. If Leon remains in the bullpen, he is likely to start the season in Double-A. However, if the A's move him into the rotation, he will probably return to Stockton to start the year.

17. Andrew Carignan

Carignan saved 34 games between Stockton, Midland and the AFL this season.
Carignan was a fifth-round selection by Oakland in 2007 out of the University of North Carolina. He came to the A's as one of the most decorated closers in NCAA history. The right-hander made only 12 appearances in 2007 (all for Low-A Kane County) and he had a 2.03 ERA in 13.1 innings. He was tough to hit (six hits allowed) and he struck-out a lot of batters (19 Ks), but his control was a problem (11 walks). Still, he was able to keep the ball in the park and generally got good results despite the walks.

In some ways, Carignan's 2008 season went much like his 2007 one did. He began the year in High-A Stockton, where he was part of a closer tandem with Sam Demel. In nine appearances for the Ports, Carignan saved four games and allowed only one run on five hits. He struck-out 17 and walked five. He was promoted to Double-A Midland by late April and he would spend the rest of the season as the Rockhounds' closer. In 52.2 innings with Midland, Carignan posted a 2.22 ERA with 24 saves. He struck-out 67 and walked 39 while holding opposing batters to a .196 average.

After the regular season was over, Carignan was sent to the Arizona Fall League, where he was one of the standout relievers in the prospect showcase. In 12 AFL innings, Carignan allowed only two runs on nine hits. He struck-out 18 and walked four while saving six games. He also worked a scoreless ninth inning in the AFL Championship Game.
Carignan has the velocity and mental toughness to be a closer at the next level. Whether he is able to reach that ceiling will be tied to whether or not he can improve his fastball command. Despite being under 6'0'' tall, Carignan can reach 97 with his fastball and he sits comfortably in the 92-95 range. His motion involves a lot of arms and legs, making it difficult for hitters to pick up on his release point. Carignan compliments his fastball with a curveball that he added this past season with good success, a slider and a change-up.

The improvement with Carignan's command during the Arizona Fall League is encouraging. Given his collegiate background and experience pitching in big games, Carignan could be a factor for the A's at the major league level soon.

"Yeah, he is definitely a guy who could help us at the big league level next year. He is a guy that we felt all along that he could move quickly," Farhan Zaidi, A's baseball operations analyst, said.

"A few of us saw him in Stockton earlier in the year and I actually thought that he might get all of the way up to Triple-A by the end of the season. He didn't quite get there because of some of the command issues, but if he throws strikes like he [did] in the Fall League, he could be someone who could contribute to the major league bullpen next year."

16. Brett Hunter

Hunter was a first-round talent selected in the seventh round by the A's.
Before the start of the 2008 collegiate season, Hunter was a consensus first round pick coming out of Pepperdine. However, the hard-throwing right-hander experienced elbow soreness that cost him nearly three months of his junior season. Hunter didn't require surgery for the arm injury, but teams backed off of him on draft day and he fell to the A's in the seventh round.

The A's didn't sign Hunter immediately after the draft and instead took the summer to evaluate his health while he pitched for the collegiate Team USA squad. Hunter flashed a low-90s fastball with Team USA – not as hard as his 98 MPH fastball when fully healthy, but still strong enough to convince Oakland to try to sign Hunter. It took first round money to bring Hunter on-board, but the A's bucked their history and went over-slot to sign him for a seventh-round record $1.1 million. Given Hunter's talent, he was essentially an extra first-round pick for the A's.

Because Hunter signed late, he made only three appearances in his pro debut season (one for the A's Rookie League team and two for Low-A Kane County). After the season, Hunter reported to Phoenix for the A's Instructional League camp. He impressed the A's staff with a fastball that reached 96 MPH and a sharp curveball. Encouraged by Hunter's good health, the A's sent him to Hawaii to compete in the Hawaiian Winter Baseball league. There, Hunter struck-out 18 in 9.2 innings. He did walk six, although three of those came in one disastrous outing in which he allowed five runs in a third of an inning. In the other 9.1 innings, Hunter allowed only one earned run on two hits with 17 strike-outs and three walks.

Hunter has electric stuff. When healthy, his fastball sits in the 92-96 MPH range and it has reportedly hit as high as 100. He also has a hard curveball that is very effective and a change-up. Hunter uses a violent, twisting delivery that has caused some scouts to predict that he will have continuing arm problems down-the-line. The A's have already begun working with him to smooth out those mechanics, however.

Hunter has experience both as a starter and as a reliever. Because of his unusual mechanics, many pundits believe that he will ultimately be most effective (and healthiest) as a reliever. At 6'4'' and 220 pounds, Hunter has the build to be a starting pitcher, however. A starter with the kind of velocity that Hunter possesses is a very valuable commodity, so it is likely that the A's will give Hunter ample time to prove that he can be a starting pitcher.

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