By The Numbers: Minor Leaguers To Watch

The regular season is about to begin, and all eyes will seemingly be on some of the Oakland A's most high-profile prospects. However, big-name prospects are not the only players in the A's system who could make some noise this year. Inside are 14 players at various levels of the system who appear primed for good seasons (health permitting, of course).


RHP Mike Benacka pitched well down the stretch in Stockton last year after being signed out of the independent Frontier League, posting a 2.39 ERA in 26.1 innings. Benacka struck out 37 batters for a rate of 12.65 K/9. While Benacka's luck on balls in play was average, his runners-stranded rate was 90.9%, which is unsustainable, and he did allow four homers in the 26.1 innings, a number that needs to come down. Benacka works largely off a changeup that is a plus-plus pitch when it's on. Of course, when a pitcher leaves a changeup up in the zone, it tends to get hit hard, and Benacka is no exception to that. However, given how offense-friendly the Cal League is, the homer rate looks slightly better. Benacka is already 26 and needs to move quickly, but his tricky delivery and that changeup give him a chance. He projects as a reliever who can rack up strikeouts against lefties and righties alike, but lives and dies with the changeup, and consequently allows quite a few homers. A good idea of his upside is Edwar Ramirez of the Yankees.

LHP Anthony Capra, like Benacka, uses a changeup as his out pitch, but Capra is lefthanded, has more velocity (his fastball goes 87-92 mph, to Benacka's 85-89), and does a much better job of keeping the ball down. Capra was the A's fourth round pick last season out of Wichita State, and he did a good job at Kane County after signing, allowing just three homers and 48 hits (he had exactly average BABIP luck) over 49 innings. The one note of concern for Capra is the 39-22 K/BB ratio, too low for a command-oriented pitcher in Low-A. Capra needs to reduce his walk rate (4.04/9 IP last year) by about 1 BB/9 to succeed with his skill set. Watch his walks closely—if Capra can keep the walks under 3/9 IP, he will continue on the path to be a #3-#5 big league starter. A's opening day starter Dallas Braden would be a reasonable projection for Capra's upside—if you disregard Braden's backstory with the screwball.

RHP Scott Deal was drafted in the fifth round in 2005 largely because of his excellent two-seam fastball, which runs between 87-92 mph while inducing a high amount of ground balls. After 3+ seasons, Deal still has the great two-seamer, and he still gets plenty of grounders, but his secondary pitches haven't developed particularly well, leaving the groundball abilities and good control as the only two areas the 6'4" righty has excelled in. Last season, Deal brought his K-rate above 5/9 IP for the first time. He was able to add nearly 2 K/9 IP from his 2007 performance. The increase in Ks would seem to be attributed to Deal pitching up in the zone more, but this came with the tradeoff of his normally stellar homer rate increasing to more than double its 2007 value. The dramatic homer increase more than offset the strikeout increase, so Deal's performance was worse in 2008 than 2007.

It is, however, important to realize that if Deal can find a way to keep the strikeouts while getting his walks and homers back to 2007 levels, he will remain a good prospect. He only turned 22 in the offseason, so he has plenty of time. For the big righty to make it to the big leagues, he'll likely need to switch full-time to relief, where his fastball sits in the low 90s more regularly. He also needs to sharpen his slider. If the slider improves, Deal could have a long career as a groundball-oriented, pitch-to-contact middle reliever. The Cal League will be a huge test.

LHP Justin Dowdy's appearance on this list may come as a surprise, given that he's already 25 and posted a 7.16 ERA at Midland last year. So why is he here? Because that 7.16 ERA is largely the product of an extremely high .373 BABIP that is sure to normalize. His ERA actually should have been in the 4.50 range. Dowdy's excellent homer (.73/9 IP) and strikeout (8.08/9 IP) rates confirm that he was much better than his ERA indicates, although his walk rate (6.24/9 IP) is a source of major concern.

Translating his statline, we find that 10 of the hits off Dowdy should have been outs, so those rates go down to .68 HR/9, 5.84 BB/9, and 7.57 K/9. At this level, the walks are slightly more tolerable, but the strikeouts are less impressive. Either way, Dowdy's a lefty who can strike out a decent amount of batters and keep the ball in the park. He needs to show improved control to get much of a major league look, but if he can improve the walk rate, he could be a valuable swingman or lefty reliever.

RHP Chad Kerfoot has dominated in Vancouver and Kane County since being a 30th-round draft pick in 2007. He doesn't get many scouting plaudits as a short finesse righty, but he has been extremely impressive, striking out more than 9 batters/9 IP and walking less than two, for an incredible 4.79 career K/BB ratio. He hasn't been hit-lucky at all, so his 2.35 ERA last year was more or less what he deserved. Kerfoot is a major sleeper in the system who has put up excellent peripherals thus far. If he can keep his peripherals anywhere near their 2008 levels as he advances, he'll be an excellent big league reliever. Having only been tested through Low-A so far, he has a long way to go, but he's done nothing but succeed so far.

RHP Mike Madsen and his huge 12-to-6 curve drew a lot of attention in 2007 as he went from the back of Stockton's rotation to the middle of Sacramento's. However, he missed nearly all of 2008 due to arm problems. Given the advances of medical technology in the last decade, it is fairly likely that Madsen will eventually get his stuff back and be the dominating minor league hurler he once was. Madsen throws low-90s heat in addition to his knee-buckling curve, and when he returns (probably in late spring or early summer) he may join James Simmons and Vince Mazzaro in a nearly MLB-ready group of Sacramento starters.

Sidearming LHP Jay Marshall followed up his 2007 MLB season with a year split between Midland and Sacramento, with drastically different results at the two levels. In Midland, Marshall posted a stellar ERA of 0.84, while he was hit hard as a River Cat, seeing his ERA balloon to 6.16. While he undoubtedly pitched better in Double-A than in the PCL, the huge ERA difference is largely attributable to a BABIP split (.239 in Midland, .376 in Sacramento) and strand percentage split (91.2% and 69.2%). In reality, his ERA should have been around 3.00 in Midland and 4.70 in Sacramento (those numbers coming from Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)). Marshall likely won't ever be more than a situational reliever, but his pitches are almost impossible to lift, and his control is just good enough to get by. He won't take Oakland by storm the way Brad Ziegler did, but he should be an effective lefty specialist in the majors by September.

RHP Ronny Morla has done very well in two years of short-season ball on the strength of a power sinker that touches 94 mph. Morla has the rare combination of strikeout ability and groundball ability, and he has good control for a 20-year-old as well. While his ERA took a large step back from 2007 to 2008, Morla actually saw his defense-independent stats improve slightly. His BABIP was an astronomical .378 last season, which is why his ERA jumped. Morla needs to watch his walks: at 3.93 BB/9 last year, he is near the top of the "acceptable" range. However, most pitchers from the Dominican typically have higher walk rates at the same age, so his moderate level of polish is a big plus. Morla is more than ready for Low-A, and continues to stay on track to be a mid-to-back-of-the-rotation starter or a setup man in the majors by late 2011.

LHP Lance Sewell baffled Low-A hitters at Kane County last year, striking out 78 batters in 78 innings while walking only 28 and allowing seven home runs. Sewell's success is predicated on his deceptive delivery, which features a high leg kick, big bend and straight overhand throwing motion. Scouts tend to think that better hitters will figure Sewell out, and in order to do that, the San Diego State product needs to refine his big curveball, which can be a swing-and-miss pitch when it's on. Sewell needs to command the curve better to complement his 86-89 mph fastball, which jumps on hitters because of his delivery. Sewell's upside is something along the lines of Barry Zito (the San Francisco version), if Zito was a reliever.

Position Players

1B/3B Tom Everidge is, in my opinion, the most overlooked player in the entire system. He has hit 20+ homers the last three seasons and offers decent contact ability for a slugger. He was a Texas League All-Star last year, hitting .279/.346/.467. While Everidge doesn't bring much speed or defense to a team, he can crush lefthanders (career .307/.388/.592; last season .364/.403/.727) while playing first, third or DH. He and Joe Dillon make the Nomar Garciaparra signing redundant, as they are younger, cheaper, more durable, and could be as good. Expect Everidge to continue to hit at Triple-A. While some may view him as a Quad-A player, don't make that mistake; he could be an amazing platoon DH/1B/3B in the majors, sort of like the Tigers' Mike Hessman with more contact ability.

SS Nino Leyja was one of the youngest players in the Oakland system last year, but that didn't stop him from tearing up the Arizona League, hitting .315/.383/.479. Leyja is a legitimate middle infielder who shows true five-tool ability. His .164 ISO is excellent for a shortstop, and he actually handled righties better than lefties, although he hit better than .300 against both. He also stole 10 bases in 12 attempts and only grounded into two double plays, showing good speed and athleticism. In all, he dominated the league, posting a .546 UVI at age 17. Leyja is a sleeper who has plenty of time to develop and is already well ahead of schedule, as he may begin 2009 at Kane County. If he continues to show ability in all facets of the game, he will rocket up prospect lists.

C Petey Paramore showed excellent on-base ability in Kane County very soon after being drafted, putting up a .368 OBP at the level while showcasing his excellent defense. In a draft class with Leyja, Rashun Dixon, Jemile Weeks, Tyson Ross, Brett Hunter and others, Paramore was overshadowed—Baseball America's Prospect Handbook 2009 doesn't even mention him—but he could be an everyday catcher in the majors if he can improve his contact ability. His strikeouts—30 in 102 AB (29.4%)—need to be reduced for his batting average to improve sizeably on the .225 mark of last year. A full season from Paramore should give a better idea of his offensive potential, and it will be interesting to see how he takes to the Cal League. At the very least, he will be a solid MLB backup catcher, featuring excellent defense and a competent bat from both sides of the plate. Whether he'll be more than that depends on the development of his contact and power.

OF J.D. Pruitt came into 2008 known as the player who was hit by 34 pitches in just 61 games in Vancouver in 2007. He now enters 2009 as a player who has demonstrated the ability to do more than just get hit by pitches. Pruitt's most outstanding attribute is his on-base ability; he has an impossibly high .470 OBP for his career. His overall game took a huge step forward in 2008, when he walked more (39) than he struck out (33) and increased his isolated power by 61%. Pruitt also doubled his stolen base output and increased his batting average from .211 to .282. The biggest strike against Pruitt is his age, as he just turned 24 last month and will only now be making his full-season debut. He needs to continue his offensive improvement to be more than an HBP curiosity as he moves up the ladder. It's a make or break year for Pruitt.

SS Michael Richard has impressed in Vancouver and Kane County since being drafted in 2007. He doesn't offer much power, but the Prairie View alum has excellent speed and plate discipline. He owns a career 76-70 K/BB ratio and is 60-for-73 in stolen base attempts over his career. He also owns a career .384 OBP, which is extremely helpful because the more he is on base, the more opportunities he has to show off his speed. Richard needs to show more extra-base power, as his career isolated power is an anemic .054; he also is 24 years old and is just now reaching High-A. He has an interesting skill set and could be a nice utility option at some point, but he needs to show at least a semblance of doubles power to get there. He also needs to show more defensive consistency, and can't afford to lose much OBP. Given his advanced age, Richard, like Pruitt, can't afford a misstep, but he hasn't made any missteps yet, so don't count him out.

About The Author: Nathaniel Stoltz is a statistics minor at James Madison University in Virginia. He is the creator of the "Ultimate Value Index" or "UVI" baseball statistic. He hopes to some day work in the front office of a major league team. You can e-mail him with questions or comments by clicking here.

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