Oakland A's Top-50 Prospects: 15-11

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 15-11.

15. Fautino De Los Santos

De Los Santos has had two lost seasons thanks to injuries.
It might be hard to remember now, but back when the A's traded veterans Dan Haren and Nick Swisher to the Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago White Sox, respectively, many scouts believed that the best prospect the A's got in return for those players was De Los Santos. Since that time, all of the players involved in that deal have found some measure of success, with the exception of De Los Santos, who has been sidelined for much of the past two seasons with an elbow injury. Despite the lost seasons, however, De Los Santos still retains his lofty prospect status, a testament to the talent in his right arm.

De Los Santos was acquired by Oakland from the Chicago White Sox before the 2008 season in the Swisher trade. The Dominican native was coming off of a season with the White Sox's A-ball affiliates in which he struck-out 153 batters in only 121.2 innings. It was a monumental breakthrough season for De Los Santos, who hadn't even pitched in a regular season game in the US before 2007. During the A's spring training camp in 2008, De Los Santos was so impressive that he was called the team's best pitcher in minor league camp by one of the A's front office personnel. Unfortunately, he never got to show that form during the regular season. Perhaps already hurting, De Los Santos struggled through five starts with the High-A Stockton Ports, posting a 5.87 ERA, before the A's shut him down with the sore elbow that resulted in Tommy John surgery. De Los Santos had the surgery in late May and missed the rest of the season.

After a 2008 campaign that was ruined by elbow surgery, there was hope that De Los Santos would be able to pitch at least a half season in 2009. Unfortunately, minor injuries, including a strained hamstring, limited the right-hander to only 11.2 innings of Rookie League action in 2009. De Los Santos was then limited during the A's US Instructional League by elbow soreness, but he able to get back to regular throwing during the team's Dominican Instructional League and he looked good enough in that camp that the A's felt comfortable adding him to their 40-man roster in November.

When he is healthy, De Los Santos' stuff is rivaled by very few in the A's system. He possesses a mid-90s fastball with movement and an above-average slider that gets more than a few swings-and-misses. His curveball was also an improving pitch before he was injured, and he has a developing change-up. De Los Santos will be 24 years old throughout the 2010 season, but because of the injuries, he isn't really that close to being major league ready, at least as a starter. He has thrown fewer than 50 innings at the High-A level and has a lot of refinement to do with his secondary pitches before he can realistically compete every fifth day in the major leagues.

In many ways, the A's are in the same position with De Los Santos as they are with Pedro Figueroa. Both De Los Santos and Figueroa have elite stuff that could make them top-of-the-rotation starters. However, both will be old for their levels in 2010 and neither has pitched above A-ball. In both cases, the A's have three option years to evaluate their progress as starters, so the A's may decide to leave them in that role for the foreseeable future. If either pitcher starts to stall with his progress, however, look for him to be moved into the bullpen, where he will have a quicker path to the big leagues. Depending on how he looks in spring training, De Los Santos could join Figueroa at Double-A to start the year.

14. Henry Rodriguez

Rodriguez made it to Triple-A for the first time in 2009.
If De Los Santos doesn't have the best stuff in the A's system, that honor might fall on Rodriguez, who is one of the hardest throwers in minor league baseball. Signed by the A's out of Venezuela as a 16-year-old, Rodriguez debuted in the US in 2006 and he has been wowing scouts with his triple-digit radar gun readings and sharp breaking slider ever since. Despite the quality of his stuff, however, Rodriguez has seen his ERA sit north of 5 the past two seasons because of control problems reminiscent of "Wild Thing" from the Major League movies. In 308 career minor league innings, Rodriguez has walked 231 batters (a rate of nearly seven per nine innings) and has uncorked 57 wild pitches.

Rodriguez began his career with the A's in the starting rotation and had success in that role in 2007 with Low-A Kane County when he posted a career-best 3.07 ERA and struck-out 106 in 99.2 innings. The right-hander began the 2008 season in the starting rotation, but the A's moved him to the bullpen midway through that season when control problems at the Double-A level were sabotaging his effectiveness. Rodriguez became more difficult to hit as a reliever, but he still struggled with his walks, issuing 5.95 walks per nine innings in relief (he was issuing 6.35 free passes per nine innings as a starter).

Even though Rodriguez's improvements from the starting rotation to the bullpen were relatively minimal in 2008, the A's kept him as a reliever in 2009. He began the season on the disabled list thanks to off-season surgery to correct a sports hernia he suffered while pitching in the Venezuelan Winter League. After three outings in late May with the High-A Stockton Ports (during which he struck-out 11 and walked only one in five innings), Rodriguez was promoted to Triple-A Sacramento, where he would spend the rest of the minor league season. He made 37 appearances for the River Cats and posted a 5.77 ERA in 43.2 innings. He struck-out an incredible 71 batters and held opposing hitters to a .228 average, but he walked 38 and allowed four homeruns. Rodriguez was particularly ineffective down-the-stretch, as he posted an 8.55 ERA after the All-Star break as opposed to a 3.42 ERA before the break.

Rodriguez allowed three runs in 1.1 innings during Sacramento's post-season run, but despite the late-season struggles, he was recalled at the end of Sacramento's season as a September call-up. He struggled in his major league debut, allowing two runs (one earned), two wild pitches, a walk, a hit and one hit-by-pitch. Rodriguez pitched better in two subsequent appearances for the A's, tossing two scoreless innings against Seattle (he didn't walk a batter and struck-out three) and another scoreless inning against the Angels (he allowed two hits and a walk, but got out of the jam).

Rodriguez's command problems have extended into his winter league season. He has walked seven in 4.1 innings in the Venezuelan Winter League through Thursday. Incidentally, Rodriguez was actually traded by his longtime Venezuelan Winter League team, Las Aguilas del Zulia, to the Leones del Caracas on Tuesday. He debuted on Wednesday and threw a scoreless inning. He had to pass a physical in order to complete the trade, so any thought that his control problems might be injury-related were put to rest.

Despite the control problems, Rodriguez likely has a long career ahead of him in the major leagues. Whether that career is one that sees him move from team-to-team while pitching in middle relief or carving out a long career as a dominant set-up man or closer will entirely depend on whether he can learn to rein in his dynamic fastball and slider. Rodriguez will only be 23 next season, but the clock is ticking on his long-term future with Oakland. The 2010 campaign will be his third season on the A's 40-man roster, meaning that he will be out of options starting in 2011. Look for the A's to give Rodriguez at least a long look during spring training and maybe even during the regular season in order to evaluate his future with the team.

13. Tyson Ross

Ross got better as the season wore on.
The selection of Ross with their second round pick was one of the A's feel good stories for 2008. The Oakland native and Cal star grew up an A's fan and realized a dream when he was drafted by his hometown team. Ross became more than a feel-good story in 2009, however. With a strong showing for High-A Stockton and Double-A Midland, Ross made himself into one of the A's top starting pitching prospects.

The season got off to a slow start for Ross. Through three starts for Stockton, he had a 4.40 ERA. He was then sidelined for three weeks with a sore right shoulder. The sore shoulder was a concern early in the season because Ross had experienced some arm discomfort with Kane County in 2008. He utilizes a very unorthodox throwing motion, and scouts had predicted that the motion would cause arm strain when Ross was coming out of college. As it would turn out, the shoulder soreness was only a minor blip in a season in which Ross would throw 136.1 innings, make 27 regular season starts and finish strong with two outstanding starts during the post-season.

Upon returning from the DL, Ross was eased back into Stockton's rotation. He was kept on a limited pitch count for the next month, but the reins were finally taken off in June. From June 6 through the rest of the season, Ross threw five or more innings in every start except one. As Ross' pitch count was extended, his comfort-level rose and, along with it, his effectiveness. After the All-Star break, Ross went 4-1 with a 3.19 ERA in six starts for Stockton. He struck-out 39 and held opposing batters to a .180 average over those six outings. He finished his time in Stockton with a 4.17 ERA and 82 strike-outs against 33 walks in 86.1 innings.

At the end of July, Ross was promoted to Double-A Midland, where he would immediately slot into the Rockhounds' rotation. He made nine starts with Midland, going 5-4 with a 3.96 ERA in 50 innings. He posted a mediocre K:BB ratio at Double-A (31:20), but he held opposing batters to a .225 average and allowed only three homeruns. Ross finished the season particularly strong. Over his final four regular season starts, he allowed only three runs in 23 innings. He carried that effectiveness into the post-season, when he allowed only two runs in 12.1 innings spread over two starts. Ross struck-out 19 and walked only three in those two outings.

Ross would finish the regular season with an ERA of 4.09, but he pitched better than that ERA would indicate for most of the year. Ross is a groundball pitcher and, especially early in the season, he was frequently hurt by a porous infield defense behind him. He battled through those issues, as well as the early-season pitch count limitations, and found a way to improve from start-to-start.

"He figured some things out. When he was struggling at the beginning of the year, he never really got down on himself. He stayed focused and he stayed positive," 2009 Stockton Ports manager Aaron Nieckula said.

"One of the key things for him is that he has great preparation and work habits in-between starts. He works hard and he is focused and he wants to get better. Obviously, he figured out some things mechanically and he figured some things out mentally and he really took off and started winning some games for us. Not only that, he pitched deep into games and got outs."

In addition to having a strong mental make-up and good work ethic, Ross has excellent stuff. Ross stands at 6'5'' and he gets a lot of downward movement on his 91-93 MPH fastball, which helps him generate a ton of groundballs. He also has a solid cut-fastball and slider and he made improvements during the year with his change-up.

Since becoming a top collegiate prospect at Cal, Ross has been dogged by questions about his unorthodox throwing motion. He uses a short step towards home-plate and almost appears to be short-arming the baseball, which has led to fears that he is putting strain on his shoulder and elbow. Ross insists it is the most comfortable throwing position for him, and while the A's have tinkered with his motion slightly since he was drafted, they have mostly left him alone. In fact, the A's coaching staff believes that Ross benefits to some degree from the motion, which creates deception and gives him a lot of movement on his pitches. Ross can occasionally battle command issues when his mechanics get out of whack (not an uncommon issue for pitchers of his height), but, for the most part, he is around the strike-zone.

Only a year-and-a-half removed from college baseball, Ross is progressing towards the big leagues at a steady pace, having already put in more than 60 innings at the Double-A level (including the playoffs). He was invited to big league spring training camp for the second straight year and could start the 2010 season at Triple-A if the A's have openings at that level. More likely than not, the A's will start Ross back at Double-A to begin the season, as they are already looking at a crowded Triple-A rotation. Assuming he pitches like he did with Midland in 2009, Ross should get an extended look at Triple-A by the end of the season and could conceivably be pushing for a rotation spot in Oakland by 2011.

12. Aaron Cunningham

Cunningham didn't see much time with the A's in 2009.
If the 2008 season was a year to remember for Cunningham, the 2009 season was probably one he'd rather forget. It was forgettable not because he didn't perform up to expectations, but because he never really got an extended shot at the big league level and he was stuck watching in Triple-A as the A's acquired other outfielders to play his position. Still, despite the disappointment, Cunningham will enter the 2010 season with a chance to land a regular job in the big leagues.

The A's acquired Cunningham before the 2008 season in the Dan Haren trade. The outfielder immediately impressed the A's coaching staff with a strong performance at major league spring training. Unfortunately for Cunningham, that performance was cut short by a broken wrist he suffered during the final month of camp. The wrist injury cost him five weeks of the regular season, but once he was healthy, he was one of the most productive offensive players in the A's system. In 107 games between Double-A and Triple-A, Cunningham hit .329 with 17 homers and a 932 OPS. He got an audition with the A's in late-August and September and hit .250 with a homer and 14 RBIs over 22 games.

Coming into the 2009 season, it was assumed that Cunningham would see significant time in the big leagues, even if he didn't start the season with Oakland. His early season progress would be derailed by injury for a second consecutive season, however, as he dislocated his shoulder crashing into homeplate in Sacramento during the season's first week and missed a month. When Cunningham returned, he was with the River Cats for only two weeks before getting the call to Oakland. Cunningham would spend three-and-a-half weeks with the A's, but his playing time was sporadic, as collected only 46 at-bats in 12 games. He didn't fare well, batting only .152 with a homer. He would get only seven more at-bats with the A's the rest of the season.

Back with Sacramento, Cunningham was in the line-up everyday and that regular playing time was reflected in his numbers. He had an OPS of 816 or better in every month with Sacramento except for September, when he collected only four hits in 23 at-bats. He finished his season with the River Cats with a .302 average, 11 homers and an 851 OPS in 334 at-bats.

Throughout his minor league career, Cunningham has been a consistent producer offensively. In five minor league seasons, he is a career .309 hitter with an 875 OPS. Cunningham zoomed through the lower levels of the minors, reaching the big leagues by age 22. He has succeeded at every minor league level and doesn't have much left to prove at Triple-A. Cunningham does everything pretty well at the plate: he hits for average, has some power and he can steal the occasional base. If there is a weakness in his offensive approach, it is with his plate discipline. In his career, he has walked only 186 times in 478 games. His aggressive approach at the plate has been exposed in his limited time in the big leagues, where he has struck-out 40 times and he has walked only nine times. He has some work to do defensively, as well. Cunningham's routes to the ball have sometimes been suspect and he has committed five errors in 55 major league games.

"Cunningham just needs his at-bats. When he drives the ball to the opposite field, it seems like it gets him going. He has shown some power and better consistency, but he still needs to cut back on his strike-outs and his defense is still improving. His arm strength needs to continue to improve, but it looks like he has a bright future in front of him," Sacramento manager Tony DeFrancesco said during the season.

Going into 2010, Cunningham will technically no longer be a rookie (he misses the cut-off for rookie eligibility by a few days of service time, but since it was so close, we decided to keep him on this list), but he really hasn't had a chance to show what he can do at the major league level. The A's haven't created a clear path for him to the big leagues, either. Since last off-season, Oakland has acquired two major league starting corner outfielders (Matt Holliday and Scott Hairston) and one top minor league corner outfield prospect (Michael Taylor). Holliday is no longer with the team, but Hairston and Taylor are still very much in the corner outfield mix, along with incumbent starter Ryan Sweeney and Eric Patterson and Travis Buck, who had similar experiences to Cunningham riding the shuttle between Sacramento and Oakland in 2009. The A's also have corner outfield prospects moving up the chain, so they need to evaluate Cunningham's future with the team sooner rather than later.

11. Corey Brown

Brown struggled with injuries.
It was an injury-plagued season for Brown, who fought knee and shoulder problems throughout the 2009 campaign. Those injuries limited the centerfielder to only 66 regular season games. He was healthy by the fall, however, and put together an impressive showing at the Arizona Fall League.

After hitting 30 homeruns for the A's two A-ball affiliates in 2008, Brown was promoted to Double-A in 2009. He spent the entire year with Midland, but managed only 250 at-bats, as he was shelved with knee and shoulder problems at various points in the season. Brown was productive in his first stint at Double-A. He hit .268 with nine homers and 43 RBIs in 66 games and he posted an 837 OPS.

Brown got off to a terrific start, batting .345 in April and .330 in May. However, he appeared in only eight games in June and July and that took a toll on him in August and September when he hit under .200 and struck-out 29 times in 91 at-bats. Brown then batted only .208 in the playoffs, but he hit arguably the most important homerun of the season for Midland when he blasted a two-run homer in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the Texas League Championship Series. That homer sent the game into extra-innings and Midland would eventually win the game and clinch the championship.

The Oklahoma State alum looked like a different player during the Arizona Fall League. Finally healthy, Brown batted .333 with six homers, 28 RBIs and a 1016 OPS in 105 at-bats for the Phoenix Desert Dogs. If it weren't for the offensive explosion of fellow A's prospect and Phoenix teammate Grant Desme, Brown may have earned serious consideration for the AFL's MVP award.

Brown was the A's 2007 supplemental first-round pick. Since turning pro, he has been consistently productive, posting an 866 OPS in 259 games. Brown has hit for power (.512 career SLG), shown good speed and instincts on the base-paths (26 stolen bases in 32 chances) and has played excellent defense in all three spots in the outfield. The biggest weakness in Brown's game has been his strike-out totals, however. Over his career, he has whiffed in nearly a third of all of his at-bats. The strike-outs have curtailed his ability to hit for high average (he has a .267 career average) and have raised questions as to whether he will be able to make consistent enough contact to be a major league starter.

After striking out 168 times in 2008, Brown came into the 2009 season determined to whittle down that total. Early in the season, Brown was showing some improvement in cutting down his strike-outs. However, after returning from injuries, his strike-out totals were once again sky-high and Brown struck-out 29 times in 105 at-bats during the AFL. Because of the strike-outs and his ability to hit for power while playing centerfield, Brown has often been compared to Mike Cameron. In some ways, the players are very similar, although Cameron has better pure speed and he draws more walks. Cameron is also an elite defensive centerfielder and while Brown has a strong glove, it would be unrealistic to think that he could match Cameron's defense in center.

Even if Brown is able to cut-down on his strike-outs some in 2010, he is still likely to have high strike-out totals throughout his career. He tends to see a lot of pitches and work deep into counts, so he is often hitting with two-strikes. If Brown can improve his two-strike approach at all, he should see a significant improvement in his batting average because when he makes contact, it tends to be hard contact. The A's will be able to live with Brown's strike-outs if he can hit for a higher average or draw more walks while maintaining his power. Brown will be 24 throughout the 2010 season and he is one of several promising power prospects in the upper levels of the A's system. Based on his limited time with Midland and in the AFL, Brown is likely ready for Triple-A, but whether he starts the season there or not will likely come down to which players ahead of him on the A's depth chart make the A's Opening Day roster.

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