Oakland A's Top-50 Prospects: 5-1

It's that time of the year when we take stock of the Oakland A's organization and analyze the top prospects. For the last few weeks, every Tuesday and Thursday was "Top Prospect List Day," as we profiled our top-50 prospect list in groups of five. Today, we conclude the series with a review of prospects 5-1.

5. Chris Carter

Carter is the Stockton all-time single season homer king.
It isn't often that a top prospect is traded twice in the same month. It also isn't often that one player is dealt for two different All-Stars, but both of those things happened to Carter last December. It began on December 3rd when Carter was dealt from Chicago to Arizona for slugger Carlos Quentin. It continued 11 days later when Carter was traded to Oakland as part of the package for Dan Haren.

Upon joining the A's, Carter instantly became the organization's best pure power prospect. Coming into the season, Carter had 31 homers in 147 career games. After an impressive stint in spring training, Carter was sent to High-A Stockton, where he began the season sharing time with Sean Doolittle at first base and DH. Given the offensive-friendly nature of the California League, big things were expected of Carter with Stockton. He did not disappoint.

Carter would spent the entire season with the Ports and he left a lasting legacy with Stockton, breaking the team record for homeruns and helping to lead the team to a California League championship. In 137 regular season games, Carter blasted 39 homers and drove home 104 runs despite the fact that teams stopped challenging the right-handed slugger fairly early in the season. Carter then followed that regular season with an even better post-season, hitting five homeruns and driving in 18 in 12 games.

As impressive as those numbers were, it was even more impressive to watch Carter compile those stats. His homeruns were often towering blasts that invoked memories of the drives of a certain redheaded former Oakland A's slugger. Carter was also remarkably consistent in terms of his power production. With the exception of a poor month of May during which he hit only three homers and posted a 630 OPS, Carter had at least eight homers and an OPS of at least 914 in every month. In the month of August, he homered 11 times in 107 at-bats. He was named the A's minor league player of the year by both the organization and Scout.com.

Carter was able to post these impressive offensive numbers despite the fact that he was never settled defensively throughout the season. The Stockton coaching staff moved him around from first to right to third in an effort to find the best place for Carter long-term. He showed flashes of ability at all three positions, but he is still a work in progress with the glove, especially at first base, where he tended to struggle on plays that developed more slowly. On reaction plays at all three positions, Carter seemed a lot more comfortable. He showed a strong arm at third and in the outfield. On the bases, Carter showed decent speed for a player of his size (6'4'', 230 pounds).

"As a player in general, Chris Carter is everything that we expected. I think he's even capable of more. He's got another notch or two to move up in terms of being the pure hitter that he is capable of," Billy Owens, A's director of player personnel, said.

"To me, he's not a designated hitter. We've got to find a way to get a home for him, a defensive destination, where he is the most comfortable and productive, but he runs better than you think and he throws better than you think, so his final tally will not be as a designated hitter. He's got some ability on the defensive side of the ball. The kid is a hard worker and he cares about his craft. We will get together with him and find a defensive position that he feels most comfortable with."

One area that Carter will need to work on next year when he is in Double-A is his strike-outs. He whiffed 156 times in 506 at-bats. Those strike-outs tended to come in bunches. He struck-out 38 times during his poor month of May and 42 times in August when he was clearly expanding his strike-zone in an effort to break the 40-homer barrier. In the months where Carter made more consistent contact, his batting average, not surprisingly, was higher. He did a decent job of taking walks (77 on the year), but given how much the Cal League pitchers were pitching around him after Doolittle was promoted to Double-A, Carter's walk total could have been even higher.

Carter is an equal opportunity masher when it comes to facing righties (924 OPS) and lefties (932 OPS). He seemed to hit best when he was playing a position he was comfortable in defensively. As a third baseman, Carter hit .301 with 13 homers in 153 at-bats, and as a right-fielder, he hit .404 with seven homers in 47 at-bats. When he was at first base (756 OPS), his offense wasn't quite as potent. This doesn't mean that Carter isn't a first baseman long-term, but it may show that he has a propensity to carry his defensive struggles to the plate with him.

The 2009 season will be a big one for Carter, who will turn 22 later this month. He will have to show that he can hit the more advanced breaking pitches at the higher levels and that he can be patient enough to force the pitchers to give him something to hit. Carter will likely start the year sharing time with Doolittle again at first and he may continue to see time at third and in the outfield, as well. Given the A's lack of right-handed power at the major league level, there could be a temptation to rush Carter through the system. However, the more time he gets at each level, the better chance he will have of developing into an all-around player, rather than a one-dimensional slugger.

4. Gio Gonzalez

Gonzalez had an up-and-down season.
It was an up-and-down season for Gonzalez, who entered the 2008 campaign as the A's top pitching prospect. Gonzalez was the headline prospect in the package that the A's received from the Chicago White Sox in the Nick Swisher trade in January.

Gonzalez came to Oakland as the reigning minor league strike-out king and one of the top left-handed pitching prospects in all of baseball. He also came to the A's with the distinction of having been traded – and acquired – by the Chicago White Sox three times. The first time came before the 2006 season, when Gonzalez was dealt to Philadelphia as part of the deal that sent Jim Thome to the southside. The second time came the next off-season, when Gonzalez and Gavin Floyd were traded to the Sox for Freddy Garcia. Gonzalez finally broke out of the Philadelphia-Chicago trade pipeline when he was dealt to Oakland.

The Miami native got off to a good start with the A's during major league spring training, but scuffled a bit down the stretch and finished camp with a 4.05 ERA and eight walks in 13.1 innings. After the spring was over, Gonzalez was sent to Triple-A Sacramento, where, at 22-years-old, he was the youngest player on the team. Excitable by nature, Gonzalez seemed at times to struggle to fit in with his new organization and his older teammates. He got off to a decent start, posting a 3.91 ERA in April, but then struggled in May (6.46 ERA) and June (5.03 ERA). By July, however, Gonzalez had developed a better rapport with the River Cats' catchers and he was trusting his change-up more. He breezed through July, posting a 2.30 ERA and had one outstanding start in August (eight shut-out innings) before he was promoted to the big leagues.

Gonzalez's big league promotion came out of necessity when the A's lost Justin Duchscherer and Sean Gallagher to injuries. In a perfect world, the A's would have preferred to keep Gonzalez in Sacramento for at least another month to build his confidence further and allow him to continue the development of his change-up and his fastball command. However, injuries created an opening that the A's needed Gonzalez to fill. It wasn't surprising that Gonzalez had a rough time in his first taste of the big leagues.

His big league stint started off decently, as he allowed five runs in his first 11 innings. However, he gave up seven runs in only 3.1 innings in his next start (which came against his old team, the White Sox), and he continued to struggle for most of the rest of the year. The A's removed him from the rotation in mid-September and he pitched well in three late-season relief outings, allowing only two hits and one walk and striking out six in six innings.

"Gio has a lot of energy. When he came up, there were a few things that he needed to do. Just disciplining him on how he prepares. He is a young guy who has great stuff," Ron Romanick, A's bullpen coach, said.

"Moving him into the bullpen allowed him to come out early and work on some of those things without the countdown to another start. We worked on a lot of his preparation stuff. We worked on getting his delivery to repeat and worked on the change-up and the command of the fastball. He was great. He did some things and then he took them out into the game eventually when he got the opportunities. It's tough to learn to do some of those things in the big leagues, so probably the best thing that happened to him was to go into the bullpen where the expectation was that he may pitch tonight or he may not, so we could come out and do some extra things without the extra pressure of having to take it all out there right away."

Despite the yo-yo nature of Gonzalez's 2008 season, expectations are still high for the left-hander. Gonzalez has a strong fastball-curveball combination that has allowed him to strike-out 678 batters in 582.2 career minor league innings. He showed that he had the stuff to get out major league hitters, as well, striking out 34 in 34 innings. His fastball sits anywhere from 87-93 and it gets good movement and his curveball is a slow bender with lots of break. Gonzalez utilizes a high leg kick which helps hide the ball from the hitters.

What plagued Gonzalez at the major league level and, to some extent, in the minor leagues was his command. He walked 25 in 34 big league innings and 61 in 123 minor league innings. Gonzalez had a tendency to fall behind in the count, which put him in a vulnerable position. In the minors, he held batters to a .147 average when he was ahead in the count, but hitters touched him for a .307 average when he fell behind. His control also drove-up his pitch count at times, limiting him early in the season to five or six innings even when he was throwing well.

Gonzalez's final 10 starts in Sacramento were an illustration of the type of pitcher he could be when he has everything working. Over that stretch, Gonzalez struck-out at least seven on all but three occasions (and one of those two outings was a rain-shortened affair). He had two brilliant outings against Fresno when he pitched eight shut-out innings with 12 strike-outs and a complete game, one-hitter with 13 strike-outs. During those starts, Gonzalez was using his change-up liberally, getting first-pitch strikes with his fastball and working within himself. When he struggled, he tended to rely only on his curveball and had trouble locating his fastball.

"Ricky Rod [Rick Rodriguez, Sacramento pitching coach] did a really nice job with him in that he was able to get Gio to finish his pitches better and to use all of his pitches and to recognize that throwing the ball max-effort isn't the key to pitching," Gil Patterson, A's minor league pitching coordinator, said.

"There is a certain RPM level that you need to pitch at. One of Gio's favorite pitchers is Johan Santana and Santana doesn't just go out there and throw fastball after fastball after fastball as hard as he can. With that being said, I think that Gio has recognized that everything doesn't have to be max-effort and that there is a certain way to pitch. The key to pitching is really to break-up the hitter's rhythm. If you can do that, you have a chance to get hitters out by making soft contact. Gio did that during his last eight or nine starts [with Sacramento] extremely well."

Gonzalez will enter spring training with an opportunity to be in the A's Opening Day starting rotation. To win that spot, Gonzalez will need to demonstrate that he can better control his emotions on the mound and that he can repeat his delivery and use all of his pitches effectively. He will be 23 for most of all of next season, so it may take Gonzalez some time for everything to come together. Even if he has to spend a month or two more in Triple-A, he still has a bright future ahead of him. There is no question that he has the best power projection of any A's prospect for the last several years.

3. Michael Inoa

Inoa is a very unusual 16-year-old.
The Oakland A's front office isn't generally predictable, but it was still a huge surprise when the A's emerged as a top suitor for the most high-profile free agent in the Latin American market. It was an even bigger surprise when the A's actually signed Michael Inoa to the largest signing bonus in the history of Latin American international free agent signings.

"We also thought as far as the Michael Inoa situation, investing $4.25 million in the most talented 16-year-old kid out there, maybe in the world, we figured that that was a better investment than giving that money to a major league free agent in the downside of his career," Billy Owens, A's director of player personnel, said.

Inoa is the first player we have ever ranked that we haven't seen play either in person or on film. However, the reports on him have been so glowing and so consistent that we couldn't leave him off of the list. The general consensus from the scouting reports on Inoa before the July 2nd international signing date was that he was one of the most exciting, and unusual, 16-year-old prospects that the scouts had ever seen. Scouts were also impressed with his maturity, which seemed well beyond his years.

A's minor league pitching coordinator Gil Patterson has already been a first-hand witness to Inoa's maturity. Patterson has traveled down to the Dominican twice to work with Inoa since he signed.

"I met his parents and you can tell when you meet him why he is like he is because when you meet the parents, you know exactly why he is the way that he is. I even told them, ‘you know something, you guys didn't have a lot to do with how good he is, God did, but you had a lot to do with how you raised him and you did a tremendous job,'" Patterson said.

"He is such a fine young man. I told them how happy that we are that he is with us. He is just a special kid, a special athlete and a special player."

Built like an NBA small forward, Inoa stands at 6'7''. He comes from a family of athletes and, according to Patterson, he already repeats his delivery with ease. Inoa reportedly can touch 94 miles per hour with his fastball. He also has a 78 mile per hour curveball, an 81 mile per hour slider and a 79 mile per hour change-up, according to the A's internal reports.

"The first thing that you notice about the kid is that there is a very self-confident presence about him that is really unique," Billy Beane, A's general manager, said at the press conference announcing Inoa's signing.

"Then when he gets on the mound, what you see is … a guy who is an outstanding athlete at that size and at that age. He's a guy who already has outstanding velocity and a good feel for his breaking ball and a good feel for pitching."

As much as any organization in baseball, the A's have made it a habit not to invest large amounts of money in seemingly risky ventures and there is nothing more risky than the development of a young pitcher. The A's felt Inoa was well worth the risk, however. The A's brass have done a lot of research on the development of the top young Latin American pitchers, such as Felix Hernandez, to develop a specialized program for him.

"Unfortunately, you look throughout the game and pitchers get injured no matter where they come from – international free agents, high school pitchers, college pitchers – we understand that this is a risk of the game," David Forst, A's assistant GM, said.

"We've already [laid] out a plan to give Michael the absolute best opportunity to stay healthy and to perform."

Inoa hasn't pitched in many official games yet, but he did get some innings in during the A's Dominican Instructional League camp. Although the plan may change, it is expected that Inoa will come to the US for spring training and then may participate in the short-season Rookie League in Arizona if the A's think he is ready.

"I am looking forward to getting him over here and working with him some more, although there isn't a whole lot of work to be done. The mound is in the same part of the field here as it is in the Dominican. All I have to do is show him the mound," Patterson said.

2. Trevor Cahill

Cahill was an all-star for Stockton.
Since being selected with the A's top pick (second round) out of a San Diego area high school in 2006, Cahill has made a meteoric rise through the A's system. The right-hander wasn't even a pitcher his first two high school seasons, but talent and a great work ethic have quickly transformed Cahill into a polished prospect.

Cahill has been defying expectations since he was drafted. He signed late in 2006 and only threw nine innings in his first pro season, but he made them count. In his last appearance of the year, he combined with Henry Rodriguez to throw a no-hitter. Because of his limited experience in 2006, Cahill was a candidate to start 2007 at extended spring training and then pitch in short-season Vancouver. However, he came into camp having developed a circle change-up and the A's decided to move up his timetable. He spent the first month of the season back at extended spring training because the A's didn't want Cahill pitching in the cold weather in Kane County, but he was sent to the Cougars in May. After a rough first month, Cahill dominated the Midwest League. He finished the year 11-4 with a 2.73 ERA and 117 strike-outs in 105.1 innings pitched and was named the team's Organizational Pitcher of the Year.

At the start of the 2008 season, Cahill was sent to High-A Stockton, where he was part of a staff that some scouts tapped as the most talented in minor league baseball. He threw seven shut-out innings in his first start with the Ports and never looked back. In 14 outings, he posted a 2.78 ERA and struck-out 103 while allowing only 52 hits in 87.1 innings. He never had an outing of less than five innings with Stockton and he allowed more than three runs only twice. Cahill also struck-out 12 on two occasions. He was particularly good away from the Ports' Banner Island Ballpark, where he had an 0.89 ERA and he struck-out 68 in 50.1 innings.

Cahill was promoted to Double-A Midland just before the All-Star break, but he was named a California League mid-season All-Star even though he had already been promoted. He made his debut with the Rockhounds on June 20 and he allowed only a run on two hits over six innings. Two starts later (on July 4th), Cahill had his best start of the year at any level, tossing eight shut-out innings. He struck-out 10 and walked only one in that outing. Cahill was then named to the MLB Futures Game, and he threw an impressive scoreless inning at Yankee Stadium. A few weeks later, Cahill was named to the Team USA squad for the Olympics, teaming with fellow A's farmhand Brett Anderson. In 37 innings for Midland, Cahill went 6-1 with a 2.19 ERA and 33 strike-outs in 37 innings.

Cahill was one of the US squad's top pitchers in the Olympic Games and he allowed only two runs in eight innings despite struggling with a sore oblique muscle that would sideline him the rest of the season at the conclusion of the Games. He allowed two runs in five innings to a tough Team Cuba squad in his first outing, before holding Team Japan hitless in three innings in his final outing.

Although Cahill's oblique injury wasn't considered serious, the A's were cautious with the 20-year-old and shut him down for the year after the Olympics were over. He finished the regular season with an 11-5 record and a 2.61 ERA in 124.1 innings for Stockton and Midland. He struck-out 136 and allowed only 76 hits and five homeruns. He was named the organization's pitcher of the year for a second consecutive season. Cahill's only weakness last season was his occasional control problems. He walked 50 in those 124.1 innings and he also threw 12 wild pitches. Still, that criticism is merely nitpicking at this point.

Cahill has a four pitch mix that he uses to keep batters on their heels. His best pitch is his sinking fastball, which sits in the low-90s and bores into the bottom half of the strike-zone. More than 60 percent of the balls that were hit into play against Cahill last season were hit on the ground and less than 10 percent were line-drives.

"Cahill has got a sinker that is just – it's probably too much, I don't want to say pressure, but you can talk about a sinker like Brandon Webb's and, of course, I had Roy Halladay for the three or four years that I was in Toronto in the big leagues. I'm not sure that Cahill would have to take much of a back seat to those sinkers," Gil Patterson, A's minor league pitching coordinator, said during the season.

What differentiates Cahill from many sinkerball pitchers is his ability to rack up high strike-out totals. Over his brief professional career, Cahill has 264 strike-outs in 238.2 innings. He has a couple of different out pitches, the sinker, a big, bending knuckle-curveball and a hard slider. He can reach 94 with his four-seam fastball and the change-up has also continued to improve.

"At this stage in his career, to have [those pitches] all ready and available is unusual. You see a guy like Gio [Gonzalez] that got to the big leagues with two pitches; Trevor, on the other hand, is able to locate all of his pitches," Keith Lieppman, A's director of player development, said.

"He pounds the lower half of the strike-zone and generates a ton of groundballs. He is also fearless on the mound."

Patterson also gives Cahill high marks for his mound presence, saying that "he's just a tremendous competitor and warrior." Cahill has shown himself to be very coachable since turning pro and he has made improvements over each of the last two off-seasons, demonstrating a good work ethic even when he is working on his own schedule. Before signing with the A's, Cahill had committed to play baseball at Dartmouth, so it is not a surprise that he is an intelligent pitcher who seems to approach each at-bat with a strategy in mind.

For his first two years of high school, Cahill was a shortstop and he is an excellent fielder at the pitcher position, something that is a great benefit to him given how many groundballs he induces. He has a clean, over-the-top delivery and he hides the ball well. The oblique injury that he sustained in August was his first injury as a pro. At 6'3'', 210 pounds, Cahill has the size to be a front-line starter.

Being compared to pitchers like Webb and Halladay is heady stuff, but Cahill has the chance to be a special pitcher in the big leagues. He needs to refine his command a bit more and continue to work on the consistency of his secondary pitches, but these are just polishing tasks. Cahill will turn 21 on March 1st. He will begin the year at Triple-A and could be considered for a call-up as soon as mid-season.

1. Brett Anderson

Anderson has great command of four pitches.
There is very little to separate our picks for the A's number one and number two prospects this season. Anderson and Cahill have seen their careers take almost identical arcs and both can be described as precocious, as they will be on the verge of the big leagues at age 21. Anderson gets our nod for the A's top pick by the narrowest of margins, in large part because 1) he's left-handed and top left-handed starting pitching can be the hardest thing to find in baseball, and 2) he has a little bit better command of all of his pitches than does Cahill at this stage in his career. Both pitchers should find themselves in the top half of a major league rotation for years to come, however.

Anderson came to the A's from the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Dan Haren trade in December 2007. The left-hander was a 2006 second round pick of the Diamondbacks out of an Oklahoma high school. The son of a well-respected collegiate coach, Anderson was considered a fairly polished pitcher even though he was taken out of high school. He signed too late to pitch in 2006, but he showed enough polish that the D-Backs sent him directly to a full-season affiliate in 2007. He dominated the Midwest League, posting a 2.21 ERA and striking-out 85 while walking only 10 in 81.1 innings for South Bend. Anderson was promoted mid-season to High-A Visalia of the California League, but his time with the Oaks was limited when he missed time with a concussion that he sustained in a car accident. He held his own in his first taste of the Cal League, striking out 40 in 39 innings.

The A's sent Anderson back to the Cal League to begin the 2008 season. He spent a little more than half of the season with the Stockton Ports. In 74 innings, Anderson struck-out 80 and walked 18 while allowing only 68 hits. His ERA was 4.14, but that number was inflated by two poor starts he made in mid-May when he was battling a sprained thumb that made it difficult for Anderson to grip the ball properly. In those two starts, Anderson allowed 13 runs in five innings. In the rest of his 11 appearances for Stockton, Anderson allowed 22 runs in 69 innings (2.87 ERA).

By mid-June, it was clear that Anderson was too advanced for the Cal League. In his final five starts for the Ports, he allowed only six runs in 29.2 innings with 35 strike-outs and only four walks. He was promoted to Double-A Midland at that point, and it didn't take him long to establish himself at that level, as well. In Anderson's first start with the Rockhounds, he struck-out 12 and walked none in six brilliant innings. He was limited in his innings over his next two starts, however, as Anderson was tapped for the MLB All-Star Futures Game, and the A's didn't want to over-extend him before the prospect showcase game. He pitched a scoreless inning in that game (picking off two runners) and was later chosen along with Cahill to represent the US in the Beijing Olympics. Anderson returned to Midland for two starts before heading to the Far East, and he allowed three runs in 14 innings with 13 strike-outs and four walks.

Anderson made two starts for the Stars and Stripes during the Olympic Games, going 1-0 with 10 strike-outs, three walks and seven earned runs allowed in 12.2 innings. He was the winning pitcher in the bronze medal game, going seven innings against a strong Team Japan to help the US bring home hardware from the Games. He would make only one more regular season start at the conclusion of the Olympics and he finished his first taste of Double-A baseball with a 2.61 ERA and a 38:9 K:BB ratio in 31 innings. Between Stockton and Midland, Anderson had an 11-5 record and a 3.69 ERA in 105 innings. He allowed only 95 hits and he struck-out 118 while walking only 27 and giving up only eight homeruns.

Anderson's season did not end at the conclusion of the regular season, however. He was promoted to Triple-A and inserted into the River Cats' starting rotation for the Pacific Coast League playoffs. Despite being the youngest player on the team, Anderson more than held his own. In three appearances, he went 2-0 with a 3.94 ERA. He allowed two runs in seven innings in the PCL series clinching game.

Although he was a fairly polished product before the season, Anderson made some important improvements during the season. In particular, he continued the development of his change-up, which became a weapon for Anderson, especially as he moved up to the higher levels. He also saw his fastball clocked regularly at 90-93 and even touch 94, a few ticks higher than it was in 2007. His slider and curveball continued to be plus pitches, as well.

"He commands the ‘zone with all of his pitches. He has four pitches and the capability of using them in different counts. He's fearless on the mound," Keith Lieppman, A's director of player development, said.

"He is pretty much to the point where he uses all of his pitches. He can throw his off-speed behind in the count and he knows how to pitch inside. His change-up is good and right now it is just a matter of experiencing it at the next level at Triple-A."

A's minor league pitching coordinator Gil Patterson agrees.

"Anderson … just knows what he is doing. He can sink the ball. He's got a good change-up and a curveball and he's got a slider. He can get his pitches in on the hitters and he does all of the things that you would want a pitcher to do," Patterson said during the season.

In addition to his physical gifts, Anderson receives high marks for his mental make-up.

"His competitiveness is just so off-the-charts, and that fuels a lot of what he does out there. His make-up and presence on the mound really keep him active all of the time and that really says a lot about him," Lieppman said.

Although Anderson has made trips to the disabled list in each of his first two professional seasons, both injuries (a concussion from a car accident and a thumb injury caused when it was stepped on while Anderson was covering home-plate) were of the fluke variety and shouldn't be an indication of his ability to stay healthy long-term. He has clean mechanics and a seemingly effortless over-the-top delivery. Anderson has been well-coached his entire life and he repeats his delivery with ease. He has a decent pick-off move to first and he made improvements in the area of fielding his position. Anderson demonstrated that big moments don't intimidate him, as he pitched well in two title clinching games on big stages (the Olympics and the PCL playoffs, where he was pitching in front of family and friends) and in the Futures Game on ESPN.

Anderson won't turn 21 until roughly three weeks before he reports to his first big league spring training with the A's, but it is likely that he won't yet be 22 when he makes his major league debut with Oakland, health-permitting. He will start the season with Sacramento, but if Anderson is effective during the first half of the season with the River Cats, it will be hard for the A's to keep him in Triple-A much beyond that. He is the type of pitcher who could find early success in the big leagues given his advanced feel for pitching and his ability to throw his off-speed pitches in any count. In some ways, he is similar to former A's left-hander Mark Mulder. He isn't quite as athletic as Mulder, but Anderson is more advanced with the command of all of his pitches than Mulder was when he made his big league debut. Anderson has all of the tools to put up the kind of numbers that Mulder did for the A's in 2001-2004.

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