Oakland A's Top-50 Prospects: 50-46

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, we will profile our top-50 prospect list in groups of five. Today, we kick-start the series with a review of prospects 50-46.

50. Michael Spina

Spina hit seven homers in his professional debut.
One of the more famous parts of the book Moneyball came at the end when A's GM Billy Beane briefly accepted the GM position with the Boston Red Sox. Michael Lewis noted that Paul DePodesta, who was to take over for Beane, was ready to negotiate a trade with Boston for Beane's rights, and the player he wanted in return for Beane was a third-baseman by the name of Kevin Youkilis. At the time, Youkilis was a relatively unknown Boston prospect, but he has since grown to become one of the AL's top corner infielders. Before reaching stardom with the Red Sox, Youkilis had to fight through the stigma associated with being drafted as a senior out of a relatively low-profile collegiate program (the University of Cincinnati) and beginning his professional career as a 22-year-old. Spina will be attempting to do the exact same thing as Youkilis. Spina, the A's 11th round pick in 2009, was generally over-looked by big league scouts despite a standout career at Cincinnati where he broke Youkilis' school homerun records and posted OPSs higher than 1100 in each of his last two seasons. While Spina probably doesn't have Youkilis' ceiling, his initial foray into professional baseball portends the possibility of a successful career in the big leagues.

After signing with Oakland after the draft, Spina made a quick pit stop in Arizona, appearing in two games with the A's Rookie League club, before skipping over short-season Vancouver and heading straight to Low-A Kane County. He got off to a fast start with the Cougars (two homers and four RBIs in his first four games) before he was struck in the face with a pitch. That injury kept Spina on the shelf for a month. Upon his return, it took Spina awhile to get back to feeling completely comfortable at the plate, but he regained his stroke during the season's final month and finished his stint with Kane County with a .255/.352/.424 line with seven homers in 184 at-bats.

According to the A's Director of Scouting, Eric Kubota, Oakland believed that when drafting Spina they were getting a "pretty polished collegiate player" with power that would translate from metal to wood bats.

"We think he has a chance to be a profile corner player in the major leagues," Kubota said after the draft.

In some ways, Spina profiles similarly to fellow Bearcat Youkilis. They are both right-handed hitters who have similar builds (six feet tall with muscular, stocky frames) and strengths (ability to hit for power and average and to take a walk). In fact, Spina has arguably more raw power than Youkilis did when he was drafted by Boston. Defensively, Spina doesn't match Youkilis' ability to play multiple positions nor does he have the same kind of range. However, the A's believe Spina can be an adequate defender at third base. Although he may not turn into a perennial .300 hitter like Youkilis has, Spina should hit for a higher average than he did in 2009. He struggled during his first few weeks back from the beaning, batting only .228 in 15 games in July. Taking those games out of his season tally, Spina hit .268, a solid average in the notoriously pitcher-friendly Midwest League.

Spina has received high marks from A's coaches and staff for his work ethic and he demonstrated good mental toughness in coming back strong from his beaning. He had an offense-first mentality coming out of college, but Spina should see improvements defensively as he spends more time with A's minor league infield instructor Juan Navarette. With 2008 draft pick Jason Christian ahead of him, Spina will likely start the season back at Low-A Kane County, but he should get a chance at Stockton at some point in 2010. The A's don't have a lot of prospects who play third base and hit for power, so Spina has an opportunity to fill an organizational need.

49. Graham Godfrey

Godfrey was a Texas League All-Star in 2009.
Coming off of a season in which he posted a disappointing 5.05 ERA (mostly for the High-A Stockton Ports), Godfrey had a lot to prove in 2009. The right-hander was acquired by the A's before the 2008 season in the Marco Scutaro deal with Toronto. Oakland liked his advanced pitch mix and believed that he had a chance to be a solid mid- to back-of-the-rotation starter in the big leagues someday. In 2008, Godfrey was entirely too hittable, allowing 163 hits in 140.2 innings. His K:BB rates were solid – 123 strike-outs and only 39 walks – but he gave up too many homeruns (15) for a sinkerball pitcher and struggled badly against left-handed hitters.

Godfrey showed marked improvement in a number of areas in 2009. Jumping up a level to Double-A Midland, he trimmed his ERA to 3.50, allowed significantly fewer hits per inning (153 in 159.1 innings) and gave-up only eight homeruns. Godfrey's K:BB rates dipped, but he still had a better than 2:1 ratio (110 strike-outs to 51 walks). He won 11 games for the Midland Rockhounds and helped to lead them to the Texas League championship. Godfrey was also named to the league's post-season All-Star team.

Godfrey features a classic four-pitch mix: two-seam and four-seam fastball, slider, change-up and curveball. He throws his fastball in the 88-92 range and can reach back and hit 94 on occasion. He gets good movement on all of his pitches, especially the fastball and the slider, and his deceptive throwing motion can create the illusion for the hitters that he is throwing harder than he really is.

In addition to having a solid pitching repertoire, Godfrey receives high marks from the A's minor league coaching staff for his mental make-up. He has been a work-horse since joining the A's organization, rarely missing an outing, tossing 300 innings over the last two regular seasons and starting four post-season games (his team has won all four of his post-season starts, and he has 2.50 post-season ERA). A's minor league rehab coordinator and 2008 Stockton pitching coach Garvin Alston praised Godfrey for his preparation.

"Graham is so meticulous with how he goes about his business. He tries to be a perfectionist. That is something that you find in baseball, but not too much in young guys. Young guys often try to perfect a lot of stuff over a big period of time, whereas he just focuses on perfecting one thing at a time, so he can be a well-rounded pitcher," Alston said.

Godfrey, who will be 25 for most of next season, will likely get his first extended look at the Triple-A level in 2010. Although he doesn't have frontline starter stuff, Godfrey does have the pitch-mix and mental make-up to fit into the back-end of a big league rotation. He may not get that opportunity at the major league level with the A's given their depth of young starting pitching talent, but a fast start with Sacramento could put him in a good position should the A's suffer from a multitude of injuries.

48. Tyreace House

House is one of the fastest players in the A's system.
Despite being a sixth-round pick in 2008 out of a Southern California junior college (College of the Canyons), House has maintained a relatively low profile in the A's system. That has started to change and he may be poised to become more of a household name in 2010. The speedy outfielder spent his 2009 season with the short-season Vancouver Canadians, where he hit .291 with a .365 OBP and 19 stolen bases. The 21-year-old posted these numbers despite going three-for-his-first-32 with Vancouver. The numbers weren't all good for House in 2009, however. He managed only three extra-base hits (all doubles) and was caught stealing in more than a third of his attempts (10 in 29 attempts). Still, the A's see a lot of potential in House, so much so that he was one of only two US-born prospects to participate in the A's Dominican Instructional League.

The A's sent House to the DR to have him hone his lead-off skills. House has a strong understanding of the strike-zone and good contact abilities, but he doesn't use his natural speed to enhance his offensive game, according to A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman. The A's had him work extensively on his bunting and base-stealing during the fall instructional camp. In the Dominican, he got special attention from Navarette, who is one of the Mexican League's all-time leaders in stolen bases.

"His speed and his raw tools have not been defined yet," Lieppman said.

"He does have lead-off abilities. He has a good on-base percentage and a good feeling for the strike-zone, but once he gets [on-base], he needs to learn to use those skills better."

There is no question about House's raw athleticism, however. In addition to starring in baseball, House was an accomplished running back and track and field participant in high school. Although under six-feet tall, House has a solid, muscular build and he is one of the fastest runners in the A's organization. He doesn't project to hit for much power, but his anemic .306 slugging percentage should take a jump up when he gets out of Vancouver. House is a gifted defensive player, as he has already learned how to use his speed to his advantage in that aspect of the game. He projects to be a traditional centerfielder type, one who plays outstanding defense, gets on-base at a good clip and steals a lot of bases. House should make the jump to full-season ball and Low-A Kane County next season. He will be 22 for all of the 2010 campaign.

47. Kenneth Smalley

Smalley finished second in the Midwest League in ERA.
Although not a high-profile name, Smalley is a player who has been on the radar of major league scouts for quite some time. He was drafted three times before finally signing with the A's in 2008. The first time was by Cincinnati in the 27th round in 2005 when he was coming out of high school. He was taken again in 2007 in the 48th round by the Minnesota Twins and finally by the A's in the 24th round in 2008, when he actually signed on the dotted line. Smalley had a solid, if unspectacular, professional debut with Vancouver in 2008, posting a 3.07 ERA and striking out 34 in 20 innings.

At the start of 2009, it appeared that Smalley would fill a similar role with Kane County to the one that he was in with Vancouver. He spent all of April and the first two weeks of May in the Cougars bullpen, where he was 3-1 with a 2.65 ERA in 17 innings. Smalley moved into the starting rotation in mid-May and he quickly became the Cougars' top starter. For much of the season, he was arguably the top starter in the Midwest League, as he led the league in ERA until a poor stretch in August dropped him to second in the league. He still finished with a 2.73 ERA in 131.2 innings. Smalley started the Midwest League All-Star game for the Western Division and was named to the league's post-season all-star team.

Despite the terrific ERA, Smalley remains a relatively unknown prospect in the A's system. The right-hander had a strange journey to the pros after high school. When he was drafted by Cincinnati in 2005, he was a "draft-and-follow" candidate and he eschewed a scholarship to Clemson to go the junior college route in an attempt to sign with the Reds on favorable terms. The Cincinnati scout who was following him was fired during the year, however, and Smalley was suddenly off of the Reds' priority list. He transferred to another junior college for the 2006 and 2007 seasons and then spent the 2008 campaign at Delta State University. All of that moving around not only lowered his profile as a prospect, but it also meant that he was a year older than many of his 2008 draft class peers.

Still, despite the unusual back-story, Smalley is a prospect worth remembering. He doesn't have overpowering stuff, but he has an innate understanding of how to pitch. He is also an above-average athlete for being a pitcher.

"He is one of those guys who you watch him pitch and maybe nothing sticks out," A's minor league pitching coordinator Gil Patterson said.

"[But] he locates well, and he can change speeds. He has a very, very good change-up."

Smalley's fastball sits in the 88-91 range as a starter, although he has been clocked as high as 93 out of the bullpen. In addition to the change-up and fastball, Smalley has a solid curveball. He has also gone back-and-forth between throwing a slider and a cut-fastball. The change-up is his out-pitch. Smalley does a good job pitching to contact and getting outs early in counts. He held opposing batters to a .228 average in 2009 and he allowed only six homeruns. His only blemish in 2009 was his walk total (he allowed 60 walks in 131.2 innings).

Whether Smalley can continue to succeed in a starter's role will depend a lot on his development of that fourth pitch – the slider or the cut-fastball. However, should he be unable to develop that fourth pitch, Smalley should still have a future in the bullpen, especially given his increased velocity in that role. He will be tested next season in the hitter-friendly California League.

46. Justin Friend

Friend had 78 strike-outs in 70.1 innings this season.
One of the biggest strengths in a deep Oakland A's system is their stable of relief prospects. Friend is one in a line of solid relievers making their way through the A's system right now. A 2007 13th round pick out of Oklahoma State University (by way of Chabot Junior College), Friend made a big leap forward in 2009, following a solid season with High-A Stockton with a good showing at the prospect showcase Arizona Fall League.

Friend spent most of the 2009 season with the Ports, for whom he made 43 appearances, posting a 2.87 ERA with 64 strike-outs and a .213 BAA in 59.2 innings. He had a one game appearance with the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats (two runs allowed and three strike-outs in 1.1 innings) and finished the year with Double-A Midland. He struggled with his command with the Rockhounds, walking seven in 9.1 innings. That led to a 7.71 ERA, but he did strike-out 11 in those 9.1 innings. On the season, Friend had 78 strike-outs and 38 walks in 70.1 innings.

The right-hander made his biggest progress after the regular season, however. Friend was probably the lowest profile member of the A's Arizona Fall League contingent, but he held his own. Friend made nine appearances for the Phoenix Desert Dogs, and he allowed five runs over 11.1 innings, although three of those came in one poor appearance that lasted only two-thirds of an inning. He didn't allow a run over his final four innings and then tossed a scoreless frame in the AFL Championship game.

Friend's success at the AFL came from his improvement with his fastball, according to Lieppman.

"He has really improved the effectiveness of his two-seamer and of his sinker [at the AFL]. He's throwing a lot more strikes. Every report I get talks about him beating up the bottom of the strike-zone," Lieppman said.

"The other thing that he brought to the table is that he has learned to elevate his fastball when he wants to, which is not an easy thing to do. That might be one of the harder things, especially for a sinkerball pitcher. To go down, down [in the strike-zone] and then change eye levels to where he can effectively make a pitch up in the strike-zone, it's another added dimension to his game with that."

Friend isn't a pure power arm, but his fastball sits in the low 90s, while his sinker rests at 88. He also has a sharp slider that sits in the low 80s. The slider acted as his out-pitch during the regular season.

The A's love relievers who can induce a lot of groundballs while also totaling a lot of strike-outs and Friend fits both of those criteria. He will have a lot of competition as he moves up the A's chain, but if his improvements at the AFL hold, he should handle that competition just fine. Friend is likely to start next season back with Midland.

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