By The Numbers: Unheralded Pitching Prospects

The Oakland A's minor league system has always been known for its pitching depth and 2009 is no exception. In this edition of By the Numbers, Nathaniel Stoltz takes a look at seven lower profile pitching prospects in the A's system who deserve some closer attention.

Stats as of Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Oakland A's system has seemingly no shortage of highly touted pitchers. There are many pitchers the A's have drafted high (such as James Simmons, Anthony Capra, Tyson Ross and Sam Demel) and many other high-profile international signings (such as Michael Ynoa, Henry Rodriguez and Arnold Leon).

Equally impressive, however, is the A's organization's ability to find lower-profile pitchers who shine once in the Oakland organization.

Here, I'll take a look at seven of those: three independent league signings and four low 2008 draftees.

Kyle Middleton was recently signed out of the independent American Association, and has dominated in four starts with Midland. The biggest key to the 29-year-old righty's success has been throwing strikes down in the 'zone. This has kept the ball in the park (no homers allowed) and kept his walks to a minimum (just six in 29 innings).

Middleton did a decent job in a swing role with the Astros' Triple-A affiliate last year, and it could be that he discovered something in independent ball that could allow him to succeed even more if given another look at the PCL. Expecting him to be the next Mark DiFelice (who signed with the Brewers out of independent ball and has emerged as an excellent setup man) is probably a bit much, but if Middleton can continue to stifle walks and homers, he still has a chance to be a swingman similar to former A's pitcher Kirk Saarloos.

Michael Benacka was also signed out of independent ball. He joined Stockton late last year and dominated, and it's been more of the same in Midland in 2009. Benacka's control is spottier than Middleton's, but he's improved it since signing. Like Middleton, Benacka has yet to allow a homer with the Rockhounds this season, but his feat is even more impressive because he's thrown 64 innings to Middleton's 29. Benacka has struck out 109 batters in 101 innings since signing, courtesy of a devastating changeup and confusing, deceptive delivery.

Benacka just turned 27, so he's younger than Middleton. I'm a big believer in the former Frontier League closer, and think he will be a nice major league reliever someday if the A's (or another team) gives him a major league opportunity. He was promoted to Triple-A Sacramento this week, so he'll get a little time to show what he can do at that level the rest of this season.

Jonathan Hunton was once a decently touted prospect, mainly because of his massive 6'9" body. He was picked in the 10th round of the 2004 draft by the Cubs. After three years of decent but unexceptional pitching, Hunton was released by Chicago and spent two years journeying through four teams across three independent leagues.

Finally signed by Oakland prior to 2009, Hunton has spent his age-26 season pitching very well between Stockton and Midland. He's got a 59/13 K/BB ratio across the two levels in 57.2 innings, and has only allowed three homers all season. With that sort of success, four usable pitches, and a physically imposing frame, Hunton, like Benacka and Middleton, is slowly putting himself in line to be a future major leaguer.

Kenneth Smalley was picked in the 24th round of last season's draft, mainly because his fastball only sat in the low-80s and his slider was often flat. Since signing, Smalley has gotten his fastball closer to 90 mph consistently and has picked up a curveball that has a chance to be an average pitch down the line. He uses the fastball and curve to set up a devastating changeup that has left Low-A hitters scratching their heads.

Smalley's fastball has good sink, which keeps the ball on the ground and in the park. He's only allowed four home runs this season. His changeup has gotten plenty of swings and misses, and has been a major part of Smalley's 102 strikeouts this season.

Smalley started the Midwest League All-Star game and has a 2.34 ERA this year. In an organization with less pitching depth, the 22-year-old would almost certainly be in High-A by now, but there are so many good pitchers ahead of him that he may stay in Kane County for the rest of 2009.

Mickey Storey was drafted in the 31st round last season, but has shot to Triple-A in just 14 months. Across three levels (Low-A, High-A, Triple-A) this year, Storey has struck out 51 batters and walked just 4 in 37 innings. He's also allowed only two homers.

Storey's 1.22 ERA for the season isn't particularly out of line, and he could be the next out-of-nowhere dominant A's reliever, like Brad Ziegler in 2008 and Andrew Bailey in 2009. With an absolutely devastating low-70s curveball that both lefties and righties can't hit, and pinpoint control of a decent fastball and changeup, the 23-year-old Florida Atlantic alum is truly a player to watch. For more on Storey, please click here.

Ben Hornbeck has performed so well in his first year since being drafted one round after Storey last year that he actually made my Top 100 Prospects list, checking in at #89. Like Smalley, Hornbeck was just throwing around 80 mph with a mediocre breaking ball in college, which knocked him down to the 32nd round last year. Also like Smalley, Hornbeck owns a devastating changeup, which is the main reason he was drafted at all.

The Smalley-Hornbeck comparison continues, as some arm-slot adjustments by minor league pitching coordinator Gil Patterson got Hornbeck's fastball in the 87-90 range. He's absolutely taken off this year, striking out 131 batters in just 99 innings, mainly between Kane County and Stockton. With his lowered arm slot, Hornbeck's fastball has also gained movement, which helps him induce a good amount of ground balls as well. He's only allowed four homers this season in those 99 innings, which is stellar.

The 22-year-old lefty seems to be poised for a rise to prominence like A's starter Dallas Braden, whose excellent changeup propelled him to a meteoric rise through the system and to the front of the A's rotation. Braden, like Hornbeck, was also a low draft pick (24th round).

Shawn Haviland was drafted in the 33rd round last year. Storey, Hornbeck and Haviland, the A's 31st, 32nd and 33rd round picks last season, have provided unbelievable value to Oakland given their very low draft spots. Haviland hasn't had as much success as the two pitchers picked before him, but he's been a very good starter for Kane County this year.

Haviland's 4.33 ERA looks mediocre, but it's more bad luck than bad performance, as a .330 BABIP has hurt the former Harvard right-hander. His FIP stands at an excellent 3.45, a much better indication of where his ERA should be.
br> Haviland has a nice fastball that tops out around 92-93 and complements it with a curve and splitter. He has good command and—not surprisingly for a Harvard alum—good pitching smarts. The righty has also proven to be durable this season, pitching 126.1 innings for Kane County.

Haviland's best attribute, other than his smarts, is probably his groundball ability. He's allowed only six homers all season thanks to the good downward movement on his pitches and his good location down in the strike zone.

Haviland is 23 and still in Low-A, so he'll need to move quickly to get to the majors. However, he could be a durable back-of-the-rotation starter who almost always keeps his team in games.

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