|Cunningham tore through the PCL. b>|
Cunningham began his career in the Chicago White Sox organization as a sixth round pick in 2005. After two-plus strong seasons in the Sox farm system, Cunningham was dealt to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Danny Richar mid-season 2007. Cunningham continued to hit well for the D-Backs and became a valuable trade chip for Arizona, who dealt him to Oakland last December as part of the Dan Haren deal. Upon joining the A's, he became one of Oakland's top right-handed hitting prospects.
As he did with both Chicago and Arizona, Cunningham made a strong first impression with his new organization. He was invited as a non-roster player to the A's major league spring training camp and in eight at-bats, he collected three hits, including two doubles. Unfortunately, his spring was cut short when he suffered a fracture in his left wrist sliding head-first into second base. The wrist injury cost Cunningham the first month of the season.
When he was healthy, Cunningham reported to Double-A Midland. Wrist injuries can be tricky for hitters, but Cunningham didn't miss a beat. He hit .333 with an 869 OPS in May before slumping in June (679 OPS). Cunningham bounced back in July and August, however, posting an OPS above 1.000 before being promoted to Triple-A Sacramento after the first week of August. The Pacific Coast League treated Cunningham very kindly, as the outfielder collected 29 hits in 76 at-bats (.382 BA) with five homeruns, 11 walks and an 1105 OPS.
Just before the end of the minor league regular season, Cunningham earned his second promotion of the year, moving up to the major leagues. He got off to a fast start with the A's, hitting .333 with a 909 OPS over his first 54 at-bats. However, he would collect only two hits over his last 26 at-bats. Cunningham finished his first big league stint with a line of .250/.310/.400 over 80 at-bats.
Cunningham is a well-rounded hitter. He can do a little bit of everything at the plate – hit for average, hit for power and beat out a bunt single. His swing is very smooth and level and more than a quarter of the balls that he hit in the minor leagues this season were line-drives. Despite being under six feet tall, Cunningham generates good power to both alleys with his swing. In each of the past two minor league seasons, he has slugged better than .500. He hit 17 homers in 432 minor league at-bats in 2008. Cunningham has above-average speed, and although he isn't a pure burner, he has the speed to rack up double-digit stolen base totals.
"I would call him a precise-type hitter. He is really meticulous on his routine and his approach and he has an idea of what he wants to do when he gets up there," Sacramento River Cats' Todd Steverson said.
Cunningham is a little less polished defensively. He spent a significant portion of the minor league season in centerfield, but he struggled at times with his routes. Cunningham was better in the corners, although he struggled in left field in the major leagues. His arm is only average, so he will likely be a better left-fielder than right-fielder.
Although he has been a part of three organizations, Cunningham is still young. He will be 23 all of next season. He is probably capable of being a fourth outfielder in the major leagues right now, but with a little more polish at Triple-A, he could be a solid big league regular. People have always doubted Cunningham because of his size and his lack of one plus-plus tool, but he has consistently produced at every level. He was a bit too aggressive in his first big league stint and pitchers took advantage of that aggressiveness once the book on him got around the league. Cunningham will never lead the league in walks, but he has shown more patience in his minor league career than he did with the A's.
With the acquisition of Matt Holliday, the A's don't need to rush Cunningham to the major leagues at the start of next season. He will be given a legitimate chance to make the A's Opening Day roster this spring, but Cunningham could probably use a little more time at Triple-A to improve his plate discipline and his defense. Either way, Cunningham should spend significant time in the big leagues next season, health-permitting.
9. Vince Mazzaro
|Mazzaro's big season started with a strong spring. b>|
There was a buzz surrounding Mazzaro after he put together a strong performance during the A's 2007 Instructional League camp and that excitement intensified among A's coaches and front office personnel when the right-hander showed up at spring training in great shape and throwing a few miles per hour harder than he had the year before. Mazzaro had a strong showing at minor league spring training and the A's promoted him to Double-A Midland to start the season despite the fact that he had posted a 5.33 ERA for High-A Stockton the year before.
They say that the jump from A-ball to Double-A is the toughest one in the minor leagues, but Mazzaro had no problems in the Texas League. In fact, he was dominant. Mazzaro posted a 2.79 ERA with a 2-2 record in April and that turned out to be his worst month of the season for Midland. He would lose only one more game all year for the Rockhounds and would go on to post monthly ERAs of 2.17, 1.65 and 1.17 in May, June and July, respectively. He finished his year with Midland at 12-3 with a 1.90 ERA in 137.1 innings. Mazzaro won the Texas League's ERA crown and was named the league's Pitcher of the Year. He was also named Scout.com's Oakland A's minor league pitcher of the year.
The A's promoted Mazzaro to Triple-A Sacramento for the final month of the season and things didn't go quite as smoothly for him at that level. He made six appearances for the River Cats and went at least five innings in all of them, but he allowed 49 hits in 33.2 innings and posted a 6.15 ERA. He did strike-out 27 in 33 innings, however. In the playoffs, Mazzaro posted a 3.97 ERA in two starts, although he did walk eight in 11.1 innings.
"The guy that I think took the biggest leap forward [in the system this season] was Vince Mazzaro, who is right there with Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill as guys that we see as at least mid-rotation or better pitchers in the big leagues," Farhan Zaidi, A's baseball operations analyst, said after the season.
"I think we always had that hope for him, but if you look at his numbers in the Cal League last year and you look at his numbers in the Texas League this year, that kind of improvement isn't something that you see very often."
Based on Mazzaro's track record with Stockton in 2007 and Kane County in 2006, some might be tempted to label Mazzaro's success this season as more of a fluke than a reflection that he has made a break-through from an inconsistent pitcher to a top prospect. While he will need to follow his 2008 season with a strong 2009 to prove himself beyond a doubt, there are many reasons to believe that the 2008 version of Mazzaro is the one that the A's are going to see from here on out.
The first reason is that Mazzaro has a plus sinking fastball that sits in the 92-94 range and can touch 96. He is a groundball machine, and more than half of all balls hit in play against him were on the ground. Mazzaro also has a tight, hard slider that was inconsistent going into the season but became a weapon for him in 2008, as well as an improving curveball and a change-up. He has great command and uses both sides of the plate well.
Mazzaro isn't a strike-out pitcher (he K'd 131 in 171 innings last season), but his ability to keep the ball on the ground and in the ballpark and the fact that he doesn't walk many people mitigates the lack of big strike-out totals, to some extent. Mazzaro has a similar repertoire to Yankees' starter Chien-Ming Wang, who has consistently posted solid numbers in the American League despite not being a strike-out pitcher because of his heavy sinker and good control. Mazzaro got in trouble when he was promoted to Sacramento because he was overthrowing his fastball, which limited some of the sink and made him a lot more hittable. When he is pitching at his best, he is almost always at the bottom of the strike-zone with his pitches.
Mazzaro will be 22 all of next season and he could probably benefit from a full season at Triple-A to improve his change-up and curveball. He is a good athlete and has demonstrated over his minor league career that he can handle heavy workloads (171 innings last season and 153.2 innings in 2007). Mazzaro has been healthy throughout his career. He will likely begin next year as part of a star-studded Sacramento rotation that could also include Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill and James Simmons.
8. Josh Donaldson
|The Ports had reason to smile when Donaldson was in the line-up. b>|
Donaldson began the 2008 season as one of the Cubs' top prospects after the 2007 supplemental first round pick hit .335 with nine homers and an eye-popping .460 OBP in his professional debut season in the Arizona and Northwest Leagues (all but four games came in the Northwest League). The Auburn alum was sent to Peoria of the Midwest League to start the 2008 campaign and big things were expected of the right-handed hitting back-stop. He never got on-track with the Chiefs, however, struggling through the cool Midwest weather in April and May. At the end of May, he was batting only .196 with a 599 OPS.
As the weather warmed in Illinois, so did Donaldson's batting average, however. From June 5th to July 6th, Donaldson was able to raise his average 19 points and his OPS climbed up to 625. Still not impressive numbers, but an improvement, nonetheless. It was at that point that the A's acquired Donaldson and they made the decision to get him out of the Midwest League and into the hitter-friendly California League. It was with the Stockton Ports that the Florida native thrived.
Almost from the moment that Donaldson put on a Ports' uniform he became a completely different hitter. In 47 games with the Ports, he hit .330 with nine homeruns and a 955 OPS. He collected numerous big, late-inning hits for Stockton down-the-stretch, as the Ports clinched a post-season berth. Once in the post-season, Donaldson upped his offensive game even more, batting a blistering .413 with a .518 OBP, a 1322 OPS and four homers in 12 games. He was one of the main reasons that Stockton walked away with the California League championship.
After the season, Donaldson reported to the Arizona Fall League. At the AFL, Donaldson played at third base and first base because there were already a number of catchers on the Phoenix Desert Dogs' roster. Donaldson was inconsistent at the AFL, but he wound up with a .288 average with four homers and 21 RBIs in 29 regular season games. He continued to enhance his reputation as a big game hitter when he cracked a three-run homerun and drove-in four runs in the AFL title game, which was won by Phoenix. Between the regular season, post-season and the AFL, Donaldson played in 152 games and hit 24 homers.
Donaldson was a late convert to catching while with Auburn, so he is still learning the finer points of footwork behind the plate. He seemed to develop a report with the Stockton pitching staff and he has good arm strength and soft hands, as well as the body for catching, and he has a chance to be a solid defensive backstop over time. Donaldson was a third baseman at Auburn before becoming a catcher and he handled the corner infield positions well at the Arizona Fall League, so he has other options defensively if his footwork doesn't come around behind the plate. However, his value as a hitter will be a lot higher if he is a catcher, so look for the A's to give Donaldson plenty of time to improve his catching.
Offensively, Donaldson looks to pull the ball early in the count and has shown the ability to turn on hard pitches on the inner-half of the plate. Later in the count, he has also shown a willingness to go the other way. He has a slight upper-cut and has a one-hand finish. Donaldson has a good idea of the strike-zone, although he didn't walk much at the Arizona Fall League. He is an excellent athlete, having been a three-sport star in high school, and he has average speed for a catcher/corner infielder. Donaldson, who will be 23 all of next season, should start the 2009 campaign with Double-A Midland. His bat may be ready for the big leagues before his glove, but with Kurt Suzuki manning the catching position in Oakland, the A's don't have any reason to rush Donaldson to the big leagues.
7. Sean Doolittle
|Doolittle is smooth with the glove and the bat. b>|
Doolittle was the A's second pick in 2007 out of the University of Virginia. He had been a two-way player in college and many teams were undecided whether he fit best as a lefty starting pitcher or a position player in the pros. The A's chose Doolittle with the idea that he would be a position player.
Before the draft, Doolittle was seen as a hitter who could generate good batting averages but who may never hit for the kind of power that would be expected of a first baseman or corner outfielder. Determined to defy those expectations, Doolittle spent last off-season adding bulk to his 6'3'' frame, something that he couldn't do much of when he was pitching. The hard work paid off, and Doolittle quickly transformed himself into a power-hitter in 2008.
The New Jersey native began the year with High-A Stockton and he dominated the California League. In 86 games, he hit .305 with 25 doubles, 18 homers, 61 RBIs and he posted a 945 OPS despite the fact that many Cal League pitchers were pitching around Doolittle by mid-May. Soon after participating in the Cal League-Carolina League All-Star game, Doolittle was promoted to Double-A Midland.
Doolittle struggled to find his stroke with the Rockhounds. In 51 games, he batted .254 with only four homeruns and a 699 OPS. He did finish on a bit of an upswing, however, batting .303 with a 773 OPS over his last 26 games. Between Stockton and Midland, Doolittle hit .286 with 22 homers, 91 RBIs and an 854 OPS in 137 games. Doolittle made up for his struggles with Midland at the Arizona Fall League, batting .293 with eight homers, 26 RBIs and a 941 OPS in the prospect showcase.
Despite being a collegiate draft pick, Doolittle is still somewhat of a raw player in that this season was his first in which he could concentrate solely on his hitting. He has a pretty swing with loft that allows him to get a lot of balls in the air. The added strength from the off-season turned what were just flyballs for Doolittle in 2007 into long homeruns in 2008. Doolittle's line-drive rate was actually higher with Midland than it was with Stockton, which may be an indication that he suffered from a little bit of bad luck with the Rockhounds.
The biggest red flag for Doolittle offensively in 2008 was his strike-out total, which was at 153. In college, he showed better plate discipline than he did this season. Many of Doolittle's walks with Stockton came on obvious pitch-arounds. Doolittle's aggressiveness was beneficial in the Cal League, where he could go out of the strike-zone against lower level pitchers and still drive the ball. Against higher-level pitchers in Double-A, it was a little more difficult for him to hit bad balls. Doolittle will need better plate recognition as he moves up the ladder.
Defensively, Doolittle shines. At first base, he has been compared to Wally Joyner for his smooth actions around the bag. Doolittle also got to see significant time in the outfield during the regular and AFL seasons and showed a good arm and solid instincts in the corner position. The added versatility should help Doolittle continue to move up the A's system quickly. He is likely to begin next season back at Double-A, but if he can show early in the season that he has adjusted to that level, the A's won't hesitate to move him up to Triple-A. He will be 23 all of next season.
6. Adrian Cardenas
|Cardenas' stay with Stockton was a short one. b>|
The Phillies selected Cardenas with the 37th overall pick out of Monsignor Pace High School in 2006. He hit .318 in his pro debut season at the Rookie League level in 2006. In 2007, he was sent to Low-A, where he batted .295. The Phillies started Cardenas off at High-A Clearwater in 2008 and he was in the middle of a fine season when he was acquired by Oakland. In 68 games with Clearwater, Cardenas hit .307 with an 812 OPS in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League.
After the trade, the A's first had Cardenas report to High-A Stockton. However, after only 15 games (during which he hit .278), Cardenas was promoted to Double-A Midland, where he would spend the rest of the season. At age 20, Cardenas was one of the youngest position players in the Texas League, but he held his own, batting .279 with a .392 OBP. He showed excellent bat control with the Rockhounds, walking 15 times and striking out only 10 times in 86 at-bats. Cardenas didn't show any power with the Rockhounds, however, collecting only four doubles and no homers. After the season, Cardenas was sent to the Arizona Fall League. His playing time was inconsistent in the AFL and he was streaky throughout. He finished the AFL season with only a .239 average and no homers, but he did walk nine times.
Despite his struggles at the AFL and his power outage this season, Cardenas still has the confidence of the A's staff.
"Adrian Cardenas was born to hit. He is a smart kid who is capable of using the whole field. He is going to be a Jose Vidro-caliber second baseman and maybe even possibly a third baseman," Billy Owens, A's director of player personnel, said.
Although his power numbers are low, Cardenas doesn't project to be a slap-hitting middle infielder. He is a line-drive hitter right now, but he has the size and the swing to reach the double-digits in homeruns. Cardenas has an excellent idea of the strike-zone, especially for a player of his age, and he already uses the opposite field well. Before joining the A's, Cardenas had stolen 16 bases in 16 opportunities with Clearwater. He only attempted two stolen bases (he was successful once) after the trade, but if the A's let him run, he should be in double-digits in that category, as well.
Cardenas played almost exclusively at shortstop after the trade and he was a shortstop in high school, but most scouts see him fitting best at second or third base long-term. He has an above-average arm for a second baseman and can handle the long throws from third, as well. Cardenas still needs to work on his footwork and lateral movements, however.
In some ways, Cardenas is taking a similar career path to A's outfielder Ryan Sweeney, who was in the big leagues at age 21, only three years after being drafted out of high school by the Chicago White Sox. Like Sweeney, Cardenas has been young for every level that he has played at, and while his numbers haven't been spectacular, they are impressive when one considers his age. The A's believe that Cardenas will develop more power as his body matures.
Cardenas will enter next season as the A's top middle infield prospect. He should return to Midland to start the 2009 season, but if he is hitting well for the Rockhounds, the A's will make a path for him at Triple-A. He is a long-shot to reach the majors by the end of next season, but 2010 is a realistic target for Cardenas.