Oakland A's Top-50 Prospects: 35-31

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 continue the series with a review of prospects 35-31.

35. Brett Hunter

Hunter struggled with Kane County.
To say it was a disappointing season for Hunter would be an understatement. There were great expectations for Hunter coming into the 2009 campaign. The right-hander was an over-slot signing by the A's in 2008 when the team gave him first-round money (a $1.1 million signing bonus) after taking him in the seventh round out of Pepperdine. Hunter came to the A's with his share of question-marks. He had missed much of the 2008 season with Pepperdine with arm problems and it took a strong summer showing with Team USA by Hunter to convince the A's that he was healthy enough to invest a lot of money in. With the questions came a lot of upside, however. Hunter was regularly clocked in the upper-90s with his fastball while in college and he was considered – when healthy – to be one of the better college arms in the 2008 draft.

Because he signed late, Hunter threw only 2.2 innings for A's affiliates in 2008. He then competed in the now-defunct Hawaiian Winter Baseball league in the fall and pitched well there in a handful of outings. The A's started Hunter out in Kane County in 2009 and had him in a starter's tandem at the beginning of the year, meaning that he and another pitcher would be scheduled to throw every five days, with the pitchers taking turns starting or coming in after the "starter" had reached his pitch or inning limit. Hunter struggled with his mechanics right out of the gate, however, and after a time, he was moved into the bullpen where he could throw shorter outings more regularly in hopes that the consistent work would help him maintain his mechanics from outing-to-outing.

Unfortunately, Hunter was unable to find that consistency with Kane County. In 47.1 innings, he posted a 6.85 ERA and walked 59. On the plus-side, he did strike-out 55 and he held opposing batters to a .225 average, but for the most part, his time with Kane County was a struggle. Not only were his numbers disappointing, but he also was dealing with reduced velocity on his fastball for much of the first half of the season. In June, the A's sent Hunter back to Arizona where he worked closely with A's coaches on developing and maintaining a repeatable delivery without the pressure of having to compete with a full-season affiliate. Hunter did appear in four games with the A's Rookie League team, posting a 1.93 ERA and striking out five (while walking only one) in 4.2 innings. Hunter was sent to short-season Vancouver for the final week of the season and in five innings with the Canadians, he allowed 10 hits and four earned runs while walking three and striking out four.

After the season, Hunter returned to Arizona, where he participated in the A's Instructional League camp. During Instructs, Hunter received a lot of close attention from the A's pitching coaches, including minor league pitching coordinator Gil Patterson. Patterson worked with Hunter to clean up his delivery, lowering Hunter's release point, among other things. Patterson saw some positive progression with Hunter during camp and noted that Hunter was, at times, throwing in the 94-97 MPH range with a good slider in Instructional League game action.

"We revamped his whole delivery. When you change someone's arm angle, that is extremely difficult. You are talking about changing something that someone might have done for the last 20 years or, in his case, maybe 10 years. But he has really worked hard at it. It has been a very good work-in-progress…you see a good, strong light at the end of the tunnel," Patterson said.

2009 Kane County manager Steve Scarsone was also the manager of the A's Instructional League team and he also noted great progress with Hunter between when he was with the Cougars early in the season and in the fall.

"When I saw him again in Instructional League, it seemed like he was much cleaner and much more efficient in his mechanics and his release. He had some very good outings during Instructional League that made me think that he was definitely on the right path to have the opportunity to continue to move up," Scarsone said.

"He could possibly be that comeback-type guy where we go, ‘wow, I can't believe just a year ago or so we were just trying to figure out how to get him to throw a strike.'"

When the A's took Hunter, there was a debate about whether he would be a starting pitcher or a reliever, as he had done both in college. After his struggles this season, it seems likely that Hunter will remain as a reliever long-term, as pitching more regularly should help him repeat his delivery more easily. He has the stuff to be an impact reliever if he can find the strike-zone. In addition to his mid-90s fastball, Hunter has a hard slider and, at times, has shown a solid curveball. He has impressed A's coaches with his work ethic and determination throughout the ups-and-downs of the 2009 season, and while he struggled for much of the season, Hunter remained healthy, raising hope that better things are in store for Hunter in 2010.

Hunter's future remains very much up in the air. If he can continue the progress he made during Instructs into spring training and the regular season, he may quickly turn the 2009 season into a footnote to a long, successful career. However, if he loses the feel for his revamped mechanics during the off-season, it could make for a long 2010 campaign, as well. The A's went through a similar situation with 2003 first-round pick Brad Sullivan, who struggled with his mechanics throughout practically his entire minor league career, looking light's out on one day and then completely losing his rhythm the next. The A's are hopeful of a better outcome with Hunter. Hunter will turn 23 during the 2010 season.

34. Jeff Gray

NOTE: GRAY WAS TRADED TO THE CUBS ON DECEMBER 3RD

Gray will pitch for the Chicago Cubs in 2010.
For Gray, the 2009 season was a case of "what a difference a year makes." After a frustrating 2008 campaign during which Gray fought his mechanics for much of the year, the right-handed reliever found consistency in 2009, posting excellent numbers with Triple-A Sacramento and finishing the year with a solid six weeks with the A's.

Gray came into the 2009 season with a refined delivery that he developed under the close tutelage of A's bullpen coach and former minor league pitching coordinator Ron Romanick. Gray and Romanick worked on a number of mechanical adjustments during the fall of 2008 when Gray was participating in the Arizona Fall League. Gray had a strong showing at the AFL and pitched well in limited appearances during the A's big league spring training camp, as well.

That success carried over into the regular season. He began the year with Sacramento, marking his third season with the A's Triple-A affiliate. Gray got off to a fast start with the River Cats, posting a 1.17 ERA in April and he quickly became one of manager Tony DeFrancesco's go-to guys in the late innings. He would wind-up leading the River Cats in saves with 16 and finished the year with a 1.54 ERA in 41 innings. He allowed only six walks and two homers and he held opposing batters to a .200 average. In 2008, Gray posted a 4.39 ERA in 67.2 innings and he allowed nine homers and opponents batted .313 against him.

Gray was able to post these strong numbers despite being shuttled between Oakland and Sacramento on four separate occasions. In each of his first three call-ups, Gray made only one appearance with the A's before being sent back to Triple-A. Gray finally stuck with the A's for good in early August. He wound up posting a 3.76 ERA in 26.1 innings with Oakland. Gray allowed 30 hits, but he walked only four and struck-out 19.

Strike-outs were the only area of Gray's game to decline in 2009. Between Sacramento and Oakland, he struck-out 41 in 68.1 innings. But that decline didn't come from a drop in the quality of Gray's stuff. Instead, it came from a change in philosophy that saw Gray challenge more hitters early in the count to make contact. The result more often than not was a harmless groundball. He saw his groundball rate climb significantly. He also cut his walk rate nearly in half.

Gray has always had above-average stuff, but it has taken him some time to trust that that stuff is good enough to get hitters out without him trying to be too fine in the strike-zone. Gray's work with Romanick also netted him some additional movement on his low- to mid-90s fastball, making it harder for hitters to get underneath his pitches and drive them. In addition to the fastball, Gray features a slider and a curveball. He has been durable throughout his career. He was traded to the Chicago Cubs on December 3rd and is expected to be on the Cubs' Opening Day roster as a middle reliever. Gray will be 28 throughout the 2010 season.

33. Julio Ramos

Ramos was solid for Stockton in two late-season starts.
Ramos was one of the unheralded members of the A's system who emerged as legitimate prospects in 2009. The left-hander out of the Dominican Republic had a solid debut in the US with the A's Rookie League team in 2008 – posting a 1.41 ERA in 51 innings – but he was still mostly an unknown commodity heading into the 2009 season. He changed that in a hurry with short-season Vancouver, where he was the C's top starter and one of the top starters in all of the Northwest League.

In 13 starts with Vancouver in 2009, Ramos posted a 2.38 ERA, which was good for second in the Northwest League. He struck-out 64 and walked only 18 in 72 innings while giving up four homeruns. Ramos followed that performance with a two start audition with the High-A Stockton Ports at the end of the season. He allowed only five runs in 12 innings and he struck-out 11 while walking only three in his first taste of full-season affiliate baseball.

At only 6'1'', 160 pounds, Ramos doesn't cut an intimidating presence on the mound, but he has demonstrated a good feel for mixing his pitches despite being only 21 years old. He isn't a particularly hard thrower, but his fastball sat regularly in the 88-91 range and showed good sink. Ramos has room to add bulk to his frame, so he may see an up-tick in his velocity as he matures. He also features a good change-up that he has two different grips for and he isn't afraid to mix into any count.

"He's solid. People who move fast like that, they get results. It's not just the stuff. You have a lot of guys who have good stuff, but they don't know how to pitch. He's the other end of that. He knows how to get hitters out and change speeds," A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman said.

During the season, Ramos worked with Patterson and with Vancouver pitching coach Craig Lefferts on converting his curveball into a slider and he had good success with that pitch, as well. Patterson sees the pitch as being an even bigger weapon for Ramos in the future when he gets more comfortable with it.

"I think it was in July or so when we made the change and he has been very good at it since then. [T]hat has been the biggest thing we have been working on with him, that he can throw that slider for a strike and then expand it out of the strike-zone if he wants to," Patterson said.

Ramos held his own in two late season starts with Stockton, but he may begin the 2010 season with Low-A Kane County and then, if he is pitching well, make a mid-season jump to the High-A level. He will be 22 throughout the 2010 campaign.

32. Andrew Carignan

Carignan missed most of the season with injury.
The 2009 season was a wash for Carignan who missed all but two games with elbow and forearm soreness. Before the injury, Carignan looked poised to make a push to the major leagues in 2009. He was a non-roster invitee to major league spring training after putting together an outstanding 2008 season that saw him post a 2.01 ERA and save 28 games for High-A Stockton and Double-A Midland. The 2007 fifth round pick had 84 strike-outs in only 62.2 innings. He also participated in the Arizona Fall League.

Carignan was able to escape surgery on his elbow, but he had several set-backs while rehabbing his arm during the season. He briefly joined the Stockton Ports in mid-June, but was shut down after only two innings. Carignan recently spent three weeks at the A's Dominican Instructional League camp where he was throwing off of the mound. The A's were pleased with his velocity and movement, although he didn't have the same feel for his pitches after such a long layoff. He is not expected to throw again in a competitive environment until spring training.

When healthy, Carignan lights up the radar gun with his fastball, which touched as high as 97 MPH in 2008. He also has a curveball, slider and change-up. Carignan has been a dominant closer throughout his collegiate and minor league career, starting first with the University of North Carolina and extending to his work with Stockton and Midland in 2008. The biggest bugaboo for Carignan has been his ability to throw strikes consistently. He held opposing batters to a .188 average in 2008 but he walked 44 in only 62.2 innings. If he is going to be a successful late-inning reliever in the big leagues, he'll need to refine his command.

Carignan will be a question-mark heading into spring training. If he is healthy, he should start the year at Triple-A Sacramento and he could make his big league debut as soon as next season if he is pitching well. Carignan will turn 24 during the 2010 campaign.

31. Nino Leyja

Leyja was forced to play up a level because of injuries.
Leyja made a big first impression on the A's in 2008 when he batted .315 with an 862 OPS for the A's Rookie League club and made the Arizona Rookie League's post-season all-star team. The 2008 15th round pick was a relatively unknown prospect coming out of a Houston-area high school, but he quickly became one of the A's prospects to watch with his strong rookie ball performance. Leyja didn't find the same level of success in an injury-marred second season, but he still gave the organization plenty of reasons to be optimistic about his future.

Like fellow 2008 high school draft pick Rashun Dixon, Leyja began the year at extended spring training, where he worked with the A's instructional staff until the start of the Northwest League season in June. He was on the Vancouver Canadians' Opening Day roster and was expected to be the team's fixture at shortstop and at the top of the line-up. However, a rash of injuries in the Low-A Kane County infield necessitated a move by Leyja to the Cougars after only 16 games with Vancouver. Leyja hit .269 with a 658 OPS in 67 at-bats with Vancouver.

Leyja was thrust into the Kane County starting line-up almost immediately despite being the youngest player on the team at only 19 years old. It wasn't long, however, before he was also felled by injury. An opponent sliding into second base caught him on the arm with his spikes, leaving a deep gash in Leyja's arm that required stitches. He missed a few weeks with the injury. When he came back, his playing time wasn't quite as regular as it had been before the injury. He still managed to appear in 33 games with the Cougars, batting .231 with a 653 OPS. Leyja also endured ups-and-downs defensively, as he committed 11 errors in those 33 games.

Although the numbers weren't pretty, Leyja still left a positive impression on the Kane County coaching staff. Cougars manager Steve Scarsone described Leyja as being mature beyond his years.

"You'd have to remind yourself that he is only 19. He's got so much time to learn this stuff, and yet because he shows some great promise and ability, you get to where you have to catch yourself because you expect more from him because of the way he has proved himself up to this point," Scarsone said.

"You have to remind yourself that he is young and has time to learn it. He's a guy who will be given plenty of opportunities to grow and progress."

Leyja had some interesting splits with Kane County that may be indications that he will be ready for a breakthrough in 2010. With the bases empty, Leyja hit .292 with an 807 OPS. However, he batted only .143 with runners on-base and .094 with runners in scoring position, both signs that, as a young player, he was putting too much pressure on himself in run-scoring situations. Scarsone noted that Leyja appeared much more comfortable when he was competing with players more his own age at the A's Instructional League later in the fall.

Leyja has all of the tools to be a major league middle infielder. He stands at only 5'10'', 180 pounds, but he has a well-built frame and is very athletic. He has good hands, a strong arm and a natural feel for both the shortstop and second base positions. At the plate, Leyja has a smooth, level swing that produces a surprising amount of gap power for someone his size. He has good speed and managed to swipe 10 bases in 12 opportunities. Leyja's plate discipline dipped in 2009 from where it was in 2008, but he generally has a good sense of the strike-zone, especially for such a young player.

Being such a young player, Leyja has plenty of time to improve on what he accomplished in 2009. He will most likely return to Kane County in 2010, where he will get a chance to be an everyday player and will be competing with players closer to his own age. A fast start could earn him a mid-season promotion to High-A Stockton, but with Grant Green, Dusty Coleman and Jason Christian ahead of Leyja, he is more likely to spend the entire year in Kane County. He will be 19 throughout the 2010 season.


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