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 profile our top-50 prospect list in groups of five. Today, we continue the series with a review of prospects 15-11.

15. Fautino De Los Santos

De Los Santos will be on the comeback trail in 2009.
De Los Santos was one of the A's highest profile acquisitions before the 2008 season. He came over in the Nick Swisher deal from the Chicago White Sox organization after a 2007 season when he established himself as one of the top right-handed pitching prospects in baseball by striking out 153 batters in 122.1 innings.

The Dominican right-hander pitched as advertised during spring training, as he was one of the best pitchers in the A's minor league camp. He reported to the High-A Stockton Ports at the start of the season and things appeared to be moving along according to plan through his first three starts. He allowed seven runs in 16 innings with 20 strike-outs and six walks. However, in his fourth start he allowed seven runs in two innings and he walked four. In his final start of the season, De Los Santos allowed only a run in five innings, but he gave-up seven hits and struck-out only four.

After that start, De Los Santos was shut down with elbow soreness, which eventually resulted in De Los Santos undergoing Tommy John surgery. By spring training, he will be about 10 months into his recovery from the surgery, which generally requires about a 10-12 month recovery.

"He is still just in the early stages of throwing. By the time he comes to spring training, he will be throwing sides and stuff like that, but I do not think he will be ready to pitch in games by the start of the spring," Gil Patterson, A's minor league pitching coordinator, said in late November.

"It might not be long after [before he is throwing in games]."

Pitchers have generally had a good track record when returning from Tommy John surgery, but the A's won't know if De Los Santos' stuff has fully returned until probably mid-season at the earliest. Control, in particular, is the last thing that usually comes back for Tommy John patients.

When healthy, De Los Santos' fastball sits in the 93-97 range with movement. He also has a big breaking slider and a power curveball, as well as a developing change-up. He isn't a big guy – standing at a shade under six feet – but he hasn't had trouble maintaining his velocity late into his starts.

It took De Los Santos awhile to be noticed when he was in the Dominican Republic, so he is already 22 even though he has spent only two seasons in the US (he will be 23 all next season). De Los Santos has pitched only a handful of innings at the High-A level, and he is likely to start back in Stockton in 2009. Depending on how quickly his control comes back after the surgery, he might see significant time at Double-A Midland by the end of the year. Despite the injury, he still has the chance to be an above-average starter or a late-inning power reliever in the big leagues.

14. Corey Brown

Brown had 16 homers in less than 50 games for Stockton.
Brown established himself as one of the A's top outfield prospects when he had a strong professional debut season in 2007 with Low-A Vancouver. Despite playing in a rough environment for power hitters, Brown hit 11 homeruns and posted a 924 OPS in 59 games for the Canadians. The only negative aspect of Brown's season was that it ended a little early when he tore a tendon in his pinky finger on a head-first slide.

The injury didn't require surgery and Brown was back to full strength by the spring. He was sent to Low-A Kane County to start the season where he had to battle inclement weather and yet another difficult environment for hitters. Like he did in Vancouver, Brown handled the Midwest League well, hitting .270 with 14 homers and an 843 OPS in 85 games for the Kane County Cougars. He also stole 12 bases in 12 opportunities and played a solid defensive centerfield.

Shortly after appearing in the Midwest League All-Star game, Brown was promoted to High-A Stockton. It was his first opportunity to play in a hitter-friendly league, and he took advantage of the California League to hit 16 homeruns and post a .551 SLG in 49 games for the Ports. He also added another homerun and 12 RBIs in 12 post-season games for the Ports. Brown then competed in the Hawaiian Winter Baseball league. He struggled in the HWB, batting only .216 with four homers, but he was likely suffering from fatigue, as he had already played in 146 games before he went to Hawaii and he wound-up appearing in 28 more games in the winter league.

Brown does a lot of things very well. He hits for power, can take a walk, plays solid defense and runs the bases well. However, for him to reach his full potential, Brown will have to cut-down on his swings-and-misses. He struck-out 168 times during the regular season and another 56 times in the post- and winter seasons. Brown is aware of the problem and he has made it a priority to try to cut-down on his strike-outs, although it has been a problem for him since college. He will likely always be prone to the strike-out, but if he can cut them down even by 20 percent, Brown could see his batting average rise significantly because when he does hit the ball, he tends to hit it hard and on a line.

Because of his power-speed skills and his propensity to strike-out a lot, Brown has drawn frequent comparisons to Mike Cameron. Brown doesn't have Cameron's raw speed, although he does run well, especially once he is underway (Brown drew some collegiate interest as a wide receiver coming out of high school). Brown also isn't likely to be the elite defender that Cameron is in center, but Brown proved that he could hold his own at the position this season. His work in center was especially impressive given that he was mostly a right-fielder in college. He has an above-average throwing arm for a centerfielder.

As a hitter, Brown starts with a high set-up and he has a long swing that contributes to his high strike-out totals, but it also allows him to generate big power. He was one of only two A's prospects to reach the 30-homer plateau in 2008, and the fact that he reached that plateau while playing two-thirds of his games in a poor hitting environment is a testament to his raw power. Brown could challenge the 40-homer plateau if he spends an entire season in a hitter-friendly league.

Brown got pull-happy while with Stockton and he also was less patient, as his walk total fell with the Ports. He is puts max effort into every swing, but he may benefit from employing a more controlled, opposite-field approach when he gets two strikes. Brown demonstrated good durability and that he can play through small injuries this past season.

Overall, 2008 was a very strong first full professional season for Brown, who just turned 23 in late November. He should get a chance to start 2009 at Double-A Midland.

13. Jemile Weeks

Weeks had a .422 OBP in limited time with Kane County.
Weeks was the A's first round draft selection in 2008, coming at pick 12, the highest slot the A's had picked at in nearly a decade. He came to the A's after a storied career at the University of Miami. The switch-hitting second baseman, who is the younger brother of Milwaukee second baseman Rickie Weeks, was targeted by Oakland for his athleticism and his collegiate pedigree.

"The easy thing to point out, first off, is his bloodlines with his brother. [Jemile] has also been a very good performer at a top-notch college program. He was also a Team USA member after his freshman year. He is very athletic and plays in the middle of the diamond, and he can run," Eric Kubota, A's director of scouting, said after the draft.

Because he was a polished player coming out of college, Weeks skipped over the short-season leagues and reported directly to Low-A Kane County. He got off to a slow start with the Cougars, collecting only four hits in his first 27 at-bats. However, he turned it on after that, collecting18 hits over his next 47 at-bats. Unfortunately, those would be his final 47 at-bats of the season, as Weeks tore his hip flexor muscle running out a groundball during the Cougars' game at Wrigley Field on July 29th. He would miss the rest of the season and the A's Instructional League with that injury. Weeks finished his pro debut campaign with a .297 average and an 828 OPS in 19 games.

The A's were aiming to bring more athletes into their system this season, and Weeks was one of the top athletes in the 2008 draft. He has above-average speed, quick wrists, good hand-eye coordination and a deceptive amount of strength despite being only 5'9''. Weeks also has a lot of experience playing in big games at the collegiate level and with Team USA.

Weeks has a smooth, line-drive stroke from both sides of the plate with good gap power and an advanced feel for the strike-zone. Defensively, Weeks has good range at second base and many scouts project him to be an above-average fielding second baseman. Like many young players, however, he still needs to work on not rushing plays and knowing when to pocket the baseball rather than making a difficult throw.

Unfortunately, there are some injury concerns for Weeks. In 2007, he missed much of the season with a groin strain and the torn hip flexor in 2008 makes it two years in a row that he has had to deal with leg injuries. Much of his value as a player is derived from his legs, so any limitations on his ability to run could affect his entire game. The A's learned the hard way with 2005 first pick Cliff Pennington what kind of damage a leg injury can do to a young player.

Many people when criticizing the A's selection of Weeks have compared him to Pennington, who hasn't put up spectacular minor league numbers. They are similar players in that they are both switch-hitting middle infielders with good speed and excellent control of the strike-zone. However, Weeks is much more athletic than Pennington and he has a lot more power, as well. Whereas Pennington never reached double-digits in homeruns even with medal bats in college, Weeks hit 13 homers in 63 games at Miami last season and projects to hit 10-15 homeruns a season with a wood bat.

Assuming Weeks is fully recovered from the hip problem at the start of spring training, he may get a chance at High-A Stockton right out of the gate, even though he didn't spend much time with the Cougars in the Midwest League. He is already a polished player, so he could move quickly.

12. Henry Rodriguez

Rodriguez's high-effort motion can get him in trouble at times.
It isn't often that a pitcher with a 5.20 ERA lands in the top-15 prospect list for an organization with the kind of depth of talent that the A's system has, but Rodriguez's talent is just that special. It also isn't often that a pitcher can carry an ERA that high when he strikes out 147 batters and allows only 108 hits in 116 innings, but that is the Rodriguez conundrum. He has the stuff to be one of the most dominating pitchers in the game, but his command is so erratic that he doesn't get the net results he should.

The buzz surrounding Rodriguez started this spring in major league camp when he flashed a 98 MPH fastball that had opposing hitters muttering. He was a late cut in camp despite never having played above Low-A and many predicted that Rodriguez would move quickly in 2008. Rodriguez started off the season as expected, posting a 1.59 ERA in three starts for High-A Stockton. At that point, the A's moved Rodriguez up to Double-A Midland. That is where his season went off kilter.

Rodriguez walked six batters in four innings in his first start with Midland, and that quickly became the norm for him. In 33.2 innings, Rodriguez walked 36 batters and posted an 8.82 ERA. He returned to Stockton after those 33.2 innings and the struggles continued, as he walked six batters in 3.2 innings in his first outing. He watched his Stockton ERA climb from 1.59 to 3.90 in 10 starts before the A's decided to give Rodriguez a change of scenery and they moved him into the bullpen. In seven relief appearances with the Ports, he posted a 4.35 ERA and had a 13:5 K:BB ratio. He returned to Midland for the final few weeks of the season, posting a 1.23 ERA with a 7:8 K:BB ratio.

Midseason Rodriguez made headlines when he struck-out the side in a one-inning appearance at the MLB Futures game. The three strike-outs were impressive, but what was even more impressive was the triple digits he hit on the Yankee Stadium radar gun. He threw one pitch so hard that he fell down.

At the conclusion of the season, Rodriguez joined the Sacramento River Cats for the PCL playoffs. He allowed two runs in two innings, although he didn't walk a batter and he struck out four. As he does every winter, Rodriguez is pitching for Zuila in the Venezuelan Winter League. The control problems have returned this winter. He has struck-out 11 in 5.2 innings, but he has walked eight and allowed eight runs.

Rodriguez has easily the most arm strength in the A's system and his ceiling as a pitcher is quite high. In addition to his upper-90s fastball, Rodriguez has a hard slider that sits in the high-80s, low-90s, a change-up that sits in the mid-80s and a curveball. When Rodriguez is in the strike-zone, he is very difficult for even the best hitters to touch. However, he often falls in love with his own radar gun readings and his throwing motion gets out of control when he tries to throw as hard as he can. When that happens, he loses all control of where the ball is going.

"With Henry, it seems like the more he is challenged with a hitter, the better that he will do. With everything with him, he just needs to learn to control the throttle. He needs to know when too much is too much," Patterson said.

"When he gets going too quickly, he almost spins in a circle. He falls off everything. When he stays on-line and gets through pitchers, there aren't many people, if any, who can hit him."

Rodriguez has the pitch mix to be a starter, but his future is more likely in the bullpen because of his difficulty repeating his high-effort throwing motion. Barring injury, Rodriguez could be an elite major league reliever for a long time. However, until he learns to be a pitcher rather than a thrower, he will merely be a guy with lightening stuff and an inexplicably high ERA.

11. James Simmons

Simmons was one of the best pitchers in the Texas League in 2008.
After being sent directly to Double-A Midland to make his professional debut in 2007, Simmons spent the entire 2008 season with the Rockhounds. The right-hander was named a Texas League All-Star and he finished the year with a 9-6 record and a 3.51 ERA with 120 strike-outs and only 32 walks in 136 innings.

On a Midland staff that at times featured Texas League Pitcher of the Year Vince Mazzaro, Olympians Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill and flame-thrower Henry Rodriguez, Simmons could sometimes be overlooked, but he pitched as well as any of those guys at various points during the season. In April, he posted a 1.13 ERA and had 22 strike-outs and two walks in 24 innings. In July, Simmons had a 2.76 ERA and a remarkable 43 strike-outs against only four walks in 42.1 innings. He was also strong in August, when he had a 3.29 ERA in 35.2 innings.

Simmons' overall numbers would have been much better but for a poor stretch in May and June when he posted an ERA above 6.00 in eight starts as he was dealing with the effects of a sleep disorder called sleep apnea. The condition left Simmons fatigued and it compromised the crispness of his stuff. He is expected to have a procedure this off-season to correct the problem.

When at full strength, Simmons has arguably the best fastball command in the A's system. His fastball sits only in the low-90s, but he can place it wherever he wants to. Simmons compliments that fastball with a plus change-up that has improved greatly since he turned pro and a slider that he began throwing this season. He has a clean, over-the-top delivery that he repeats well and he is a good athlete. Batters hit .280 off of Simmons in 2008, and his BABIP was higher than average, which could be a sign that he suffered from some poor defense behind him at times. Although his fastball has some sink, he induces roughly the same number of groundballs as flyballs.

"The fastball command has always been there, but the change-up has greatly improved. This spring, he really started working with that slider that we gave him, and it has come on to be a good pitch for him now," Patterson said.

"He can throw it where it looks like a strike and when the batter goes to swing, it runs off of the plate."

With the exception of the sleep apnea disorder, Simmons has a good health track record and at 6'3'', 210 pounds, he has the build to handle a starter's workload. The A's had Simmons attend their Instructional League to throw enough innings to get his innings total up to roughly 160, which will allow him to get to 180 or 200 innings pitched next season, if need be. He should start the season with Triple-A Sacramento and even though he is less than two years removed from college, he will be one of the River Cats who are closely watched when there are openings in the A's rotation from mid-season on.

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