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5. Sonny Gray, RHP
|Fastball location was key for Gray in 2012.|
Expectations were sky-high for Gray's first full professional season after he allowed only one run in 20 innings in a late-season stint with Double-A Midland in 2011. The A's 2011 first-round pick returned to the Rockhounds for the 2012 season and didn't find his second tour of the Texas League as easy as the first.
In 26 starts with Midland, Gray posted a 4.14 ERA and a mediocre 97:57 K:BB ratio in 148 innings. He made a start for the River Cats during the final week of the regular season and allowed four runs in four innings. Gray had a strong start for Sacramento in the post-season, allowing three runs in six innings with five strike-outs and a walk.
"Sonny had a really good year. He made the mistake of setting the bar for himself really high with his half-season in 2011," A's Assistant GM David Forst said in September. "When he went to Midland straight out of the draft last season and did as well as he did, everyone – not just us, but the people in the game – thought ‘hey, this guy might move really quickly.' He went back to Double-A and struggled a little bit in the first half, the way really you'd expect anyone to struggle in their first full season."
"He did very well after the break. I think he finished with a three-and-a-half ERA and actually made a really good start in Sacramento during the playoffs. We feel like with as much time as Gil [Patterson, former A's minor league pitching coordinator] spent with him and the adjustments he made during the course of the season, Sonny had a really good full first year."
Gray's ERA and walk-rates were disappointing, but there were several positives to take out of Gray's season. His biggest struggles came at the start of the season when he was unable to locate his fastball regularly. Gray was adjusting to some minor mechanical adjustments the A's coaching staff made to the finish of his throwing motion. Once he grew comfortable with the changes, his fastball command improved and his walk- and strike-out-rates started trending the right direction.
In addition, Gray had a better than 50% groundball rate. Gray came into professional baseball with the reputation for being a groundball pitcher and that held true in his first full professional season. His ability to induce groundballs goes a long way towards making up for his mediocre strike-out rate.
"Obviously groundballs can make up for a lot of contact issues," Forst said. "Sonny's strike-out rates were good in college and they were good that first year [in Midland in 2011]. You don't worry about them as much when you get the ball on the ground as much as he does."
Gray has a four-seam fastball that sits in the 92-94 MPH range and can touch 96. He also has a two-seamer with cutting action that sits in the 90-92 MPH range. Gray's best secondary pitch is his power curveball. He also features a slider and a change-up.
While Gray did improve his fastball command in 2012, he will need to continue to refine that command before he reaches the big leagues. Gray also made strides with his change-up, but it is not yet a finished product.
"We are trying to get him to stick his landing better and not to spin off. I think that when he can do that in the game as well as he can on the side, it's going to get better and better," former A's minor league pitching coordinator Gil Patterson said during the season. "The major league breaking ball is still there. His change-up development has gotten better.
"He is making strides in commanding the fastball and throwing quality strikes from there. As much as people love numbers – and everyone loves numbers – I know that isn't what his game is going to revolve around this season. He is making strides in the right direction. We are happy with it and I know for a fact that he is happy with it, as well."
Because of his diminutive stature (Gray stands 5'11'') and his ability to induce groundballs, Gray has drawn comparisons to former A's ace Tim Hudson. Like Hudson, Gray has a very competitive nature and is a good athlete. For Gray to come close to achieving Hudson's success, however, Gray will need to locate better.
Coming out of Vanderbilt, scouts were split on whether Gray would be better served in the pros as a starter or as a reliever. The A's believe Gray has the pitch mix to be a starter. He proved in 2012 that he can take his turn every fifth day without an issue. Gray finished a season of 158 innings pitching his best baseball of the year and he never missed a turn.
Gray got a brief taste of Triple-A baseball late in the year and he will begin his 2013 season with the River Cats. The A's have a deep starting rotation going into the year, but it would only take a few injuries for Gray to be considered for a spot in Oakland's rotation if he is pitching well for Sacramento. If Gray's command continues to improve, his major league debut won't be far behind.
4. A.J. Cole, RHP
|Cole shook off a rough start with Stockton to finish strong with Burlington.|
Cole was arguably the highest ceiling prospect acquired by the A's in the Gio Gonzalez trade before the 2012 season. The 20-year-old right-hander struck-out 108 in 89 innings for Low-A Hagerstown in 2011 and came to the A's with "top of the rotation" upside.
The A's sent Cole to High-A Stockton to start the 2012 season with the hope that he would find similar success in the league at the same age as Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill did in 2008. Things didn't go as well for Cole with the Ports, however. In eight starts, Cole was hung with seven losses and an unsightly 7.82 ERA. His K:BB ratio was solid (31:10), but he uncharacteristically allowed seven homeruns and his BABIP was .411.
Chances are that Cole's numbers with Stockton would have eventually improved, but the A's were concerned after those eight starts that leaving Cole in the Cal League could damage his confidence. In mid-May, the A's sent Cole back to Low-A, where he would spend the rest of the season. Cole quickly got his season back on-track with the Bees. Despite a poor first start with Burlington, Cole had a 2.07 ERA and a 102:19 K:BB ratio. In 95.2 innings, Cole allowed the same number of homeruns as he did in 38 innings with the Ports (seven).
"You never want to make excuses and he's not an excuse-maker," former A's minor league coordinator Gil Patterson said. "He would never come in the next day and say, ‘you know those four runs in the third or the fourth last night [were because of bad luck]', because in the other four or five innings, they often didn't score. It seemed like with Stockton one inning was often his Achilles heel.
"He has raised his arm angle a little bit higher [with Burlington] than it was in Stockton, but the pitches were always there. He didn't always pitch as badly as his linescore looked and his stats looked [in Stockton]. It still wasn't as bad as everyone thought, but what he has done in Burlington we are very happy with."
Cole impressed the A's front office with the way he handled the mid-season demotion.
"We are definitely encouraged with what he did when he was sent back to Burlington," A's Assistant GM David Forst said. "It is never an easy thing for a player to have to go backwards in the middle of the season. For a player of A.J.'s age and experience, he handled it incredibly well.
"He went down there and, from a performance perspective, you couldn't have asked for anything more. From his walks and his strikeout numbers and he helped that team out and helped get them into playoff contention."
Cole is a lanky right-hander with a long frame (6'5'') that still has room to fill out. Despite being only 180 pounds, Cole already touches 95 MPH with his fastball. He also features a hard breaking ball and a change-up that improved as the season went on. Cole experienced some bad luck with Stockton, but some of his struggles could be attributed to his location, which wasn't as precise as it was with Burlington. Cole is a flyball pitcher, so in a hitter's league like the Cal League, he would be hurt if he missed his location.
The A's toyed with sending Cole back to Stockton during the season, but, in the end, they decided to leave him where he was experiencing success. Depending on how he pitches during spring training and how the cards fall in the rest of the organization, Cole could either return to Stockton in 2013 or skip the level entirely and head straight to Double-A.
Although Cole repeated at the Low-A level, he was still younger than many of his Midwest League compatriots. He recently turned 21 and will be young for his level once again in 2013, regardless of whether he plays at High-A or Double-A.
3. Michael Choice, CF
|A hand injury came at a bad time for Choice.|
Choice entered the season as the A's top prospect after he hit 30 homers for High-A Stockton in 2011. The A's top pick in 2010 had a star-crossed season in 2012. A notorious slow-starter, Choice hit only six homeruns and posted a 693 OPS before the All-Star break for Double-A Midland. However, he turned his season around after the break, only to see a fluke injury cut short his season.
Choice played 91 games for Double-A Midland in 2012. In 359 at-bats, Choice posted a .287/.356/.423 line with 10 homers. Those numbers are fairly pedestrian considering Choice's talent, however, it's easy to imagine that that final slash-line would have been significantly better if Choice hadn't had his hand broken by an errant pitch on July 21st. Choice was red-hot at the time of the injury. Over his last 23 games, he was batting .367/.420/.578 with four of his 10 homers. In his last 10 games before the injury, he hit .486 and had seven multi-hit games. The hand injury would keep him on the DL for the rest of the season.
"It was really a tough break, almost literally, to go out when he did. He was hitting over .400 in the second half and he was really swinging the bat well," A's Assistant GM David Forst. "His track record is a little bit that it takes him awhile to get settled. You look at his numbers in Stockton last year, especially in the second half, and he was right on track to finish up strong [in 2012, like he did in 2011]."
"I think Michael learned a lot this season in Double-A and certainly made the necessary adjustments based on how he finished up there."
When talking to members of the A's organization about Choice's 2012 season, the first word that comes up is "adjustment." Choice made several adjustments during the season, both to his swing mechanics and to his approach to how higher-level pitchers were attacking him.
"He really made some nice adjustments with his set-up, with his stance, with his hand position," A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman said after the season. "He was up to about .287 before he got hit by the pitch and was confident and was really working on a number of areas. It put him in a position where he really didn't have to think about it anymore.
"Every time you learn new things, there is a learning curve. Part of that process, you are just uncomfortable with it. But he stuck with it and he looked really good."
The University of Texas, Arlington alum has always had complicated swing mechanics. Choice utilizes a leg kick to get his swing going and he has a number of moving parts to his swing. When Choice struggled early in the season, he spent a lot of time watching video of his swing to figure out how to get back on track.
"The knowledge of what you do tends to be king. If you don't understand what you do and why you do it, then it is tough to fix it when it goes wrong," A's minor league hitting coordinator Todd Steverson said. "I think that is a lot of what Michael went through this year. Not that he didn't understand his swing from last year. It was that the competition and the way they attacked him changed. Really, his moving parts didn't change or his approach didn't change that much, but it was more about how to use the moving parts based upon the new way of being attacked.
"That is purely a mental state of the game. Because every player should be able to control his body. There are things that players do that they don't even know that they do. But once you understand what you do and you see it on a video or you see how you approach it, now you know ‘this is me.' Michael really got in-depth this year on watching video of last year and of the Arizona Fall League and how to really piece together his swing and his approach with what he thought was positive from his approaches from the year before. Then he began to take off."
Steverson believes that the ups and downs of Choice's season will help him when he reaches the big leagues.
"Even during the months when he wasn't feeling like he was at his best, he was still able to compete and have some success to the point that when he found it, he started up and the upwards was getting close to that .295-.300 area with some damage coming and being the guy he knows he can be," Steverson said.
"That was probably one of the better teaching tools for him this year was the realization that ‘I'm able to survive like this, but if I want to be better than what this is, I finally have to really understand what I really do.' I think he found that and he has a good grasp on what he wants to do. I'm not saying that he is done. It's not like ‘this is it and he's on his way' kind of thing because baseball has a way of bringing you back to make sure that you don't forget what got you there."
Now that Chris Carter has graduated to the big leagues, Choice has unquestionably the most pure power of any player in the A's minor league system. Choice has power to all fields and he isn't afraid to go the opposite way.
"Michael did such a good job spreading the ball around and has such good power to right-center that it probably was difficult for him to put up power numbers in [Midland's Citibank Ballpark]," Forst said. "He can be treated sometimes as a left-handed pull-hitter because he hits the ball so well that way.
"I think he made those necessary adjustments and I think it's not a bad thing for a guy to have to learn to change on the fly. At the same time, when you are facing good pitching, it's always an adjustment when you get to Double-A."
Despite being prone to the strike-out, Choice has been able to hit for average during his short minor league career. In 2012, he cut down on his strike-outs slightly (24.7% K-rate in 2011 down to 21.9% K-rate in 2012), although his walk rate fell by almost the same percentage. He is an excellent athlete with above-average speed, although he has yet to translate that speed to stolen bases as a pro. His routes in centerfield improved significantly while with Midland.
Choice's ceiling is a high one. If he reaches his potential in the big leagues, he will be a middle-of-the-order force. However, Choice will have to remain vigilant on maintaining the swing mechanics that were working for him before the injury. Choice was unable to get any swings in during the A's Instructional League camp because a family emergency cut his time in camp short.
The A's had hoped that Choice would be able to play winter ball, and he was set to go to the Dominican Winter League, but that assignment fell through. Consequently, Choice will be dealing with a significant lay-off from in-game action when spring training starts. If he can shake off the rust quickly and get back to the swing he had at the time of the injury, Choice should be in for a big season. The A's are likely to send Choice to Triple-A to start the year, where he will have to make another series of adjustments to more advanced competition and to a league that emphasizes off-speed pitches.
Given the layoff and the potential jump in levels, it wouldn't be shocking to see Choice get off to a slow start again in 2013. If that does happen, he should be well equipped to get himself back on-track after his experience this past season.
2. Dan Straily, RHP
|Straily led all minor leaguers in strike-outs.|
Straily's rise as a prospect has been dramatic. A 24th-round pick in 2009, Straily was well regarded among A's coaches and front office personnel coming into the 2012 season. Other teams had spoken to the A's about including Straily in deals during the off-season, but the A's held onto him. Still, among baseball fans and prospect watchers, Straily wasn't a household name going into the 2012 season.
That quickly changed when Straily got off to a red-hot start with Double-A Midland. He struck-out 33 over his first 22.1 innings (four starts) and never looked back. Straily sailed through the Texas League. In 14 starts with the Rockhounds, the Oregon native posted a 3.38 ERA. He struck-out 108 in 85.1 innings, while walking 23 and allowing six homers.
The A's then gave Straily a promotion to Triple-A, and he got even better. Straily made 11 starts for the River Cats. In 66.2 innings, he posted a 2.03 ERA and struck-out 82 while walking 19. Straily allowed only three homeruns.
When injuries piled up in the A's starting rotation, Straily was recalled to make his major league debut. Straily would have two stints with the A's and was a part of their rotation down-the-stretch. Straily was inconsistent in his seven major league starts. He was uncharacteristically prone to homeruns at the big league level, allowing 11 in 39.1 innings. Straily also walked 16, but still managed to strike-out 31. The A's won five of Straily's seven starts.
Reaching the 200-K plateau in the minor leagues is a rare feat because of the length of the minor league season. Straily would have cruised past the 200 number had he remained in the minor leagues all season. Instead, he would have to settle for a minor league-leading 190 strike-outs in 152 innings. He walked 42, allowed only 110 hits and coughed up just nine homeruns. Taking into account his major league numbers, Straily struck out 222 batters in 191.1 innings. Justin Verlander led all professional pitchers with 239 strike-outs in 238.1 innings.
While Straily's strike-out numbers jumped to a new level in 2012, he has always been a strike-out pitcher as a pro. Going into the 2012 season, he was averaging more than a strike-out per inning for his career. Unlike many strike-out pitchers, Straily isn't a flame-thrower, however. His four-seam fastball rarely comes in faster than 93 MPH, but he locates the pitch well and it is one of his best pitches. Straily also has a swing-and-miss slider that he can throw for strikes or bounce to get hitters to chase. His other "wrinkle" pitches are his two-seam fastball and his curveball. Both are still improving but they help to change the hitter's sight-line.
What has made Straily progress as a prospect is his change-up, which went from nearly non-existent at the start of the 2011 season to one of his best pitches in 2012. Straily worked on several different grips for the pitch before finding one that worked for him while with Stockton in 2011. He got a number of his strike-outs on the change-up in 2012.
"There have been times when he's had 15 change-ups in a game and 10 were swing-and-misses. That's how much it has improved," former A's minor league coordinator Gil Patterson said.
Straily has a solid delivery and the build (6'2'', 215) to be a workhorse. In his three full professional seasons, Straily has made at least 26 starts.
"I think the thing with Dan is that he has a very repeatable delivery," 2012 Sacramento River Cats' pitching coach and current A's minor league pitching coordinator Scott Emerson. "When you can repeat your pitching mechanics, it makes your pitches that much better. He made changes to get a sound pitching delivery this year, and his ability to throw any pitch at any time was remarkable.
"He's got above-average major league stuff. His pitches move. He can change speeds on his pitches. Ultimately, at the big league level, he's probably got to improve his fastball command a little bit, but he has all of the weapons to be a very good major league starter."
It isn't dumb luck that has allowed Straily to rise from 24th-round pick to top prospect in three years. Coaches and teammates rave about Straily's mental make-up and his work ethic. His commitment to training and to learning about the game have allowed Straily to maximize his talents. A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman praised the work that Straily put in at the A's minor league complex while the A's were playing in the ALDS. Straily was at Papago preparing in case the A's needed him in the ALCS, and Lieppman said that through tape study, Straily had made adjustments that Lieppman believed would help Straily be a more effective major league starter.
"He certainly had a belief system that came to fruition with the confidence and understanding of his game and not trying to do too much," Lieppman said. "Once he got to Double-A and realized that he could have success, I don't think his pitches became any sharper or that he was able to throw that much harder. It was about his mental game coming together for him. He was able to execute pitches. He is a student of the game.
"Once you saw him make the leap from Double-A to Triple-A, with the strike-outs it's obvious that his stuff is really good, but there is a certain element that he took off mentally."
The A's re-signed veteran Bartolo Colon in part so they don't have to rush Straily into the major league rotation at the start of the season. However, if Straily can tighten up his fastball location against major league competition this spring, the A's won't hold Straily back. He is likely to be a factor for the A's this season, even if he isn't in the Opening Day rotation.
1. Addison Russell, SS
|Russell has the tools to stay at shortstop.|
It was a milestone year for the A's in the draft. Going into the draft, it had been 16 years since the A's had used their top pick on a high school position player. The A's broke that streak when they took Russell out of a high school in Pace, Florida. After an outstanding professional debut season, Russell has many around the A's organization dreaming that he will have a similar impact as that 1996 first-round selection: Eric Chavez.
Russell did it all in his first taste of pro ball. He hit for average (.369). He hit for power (26 extra-base hits in 217 at-bats, equaling a .594 SLG). He ran the bases well (16 stolen bases in 18 chances). And he flashed impressive skills with the glove at shortstop.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Russell's pro debut was that he starred at three different levels. The A's began Russell's pro career in Rookie ball, but after 26 games of domination there, he was moved up to short-season Vermont. The original plan was to keep Russell in Vermont the rest of the season, but after he hit .340 in 13 games with the Lake Monsters, the A's couldn't justify keeping Russell in the NY-Penn League any longer. He spent the final three weeks of the regular season and the post-season in Low-A Burlington, where he hit .310 with an 818 OPS in a league known for pitching.
Although Russell was only on the team for a short period of time, he made a strong impression on Vermont manager Rick Magnante.
"He … made a tremendous impact on the team and he is a very, very special young player, a special athlete with special tools and certainly special skills," Magnante said. "I look for him to be a big leaguer very soon."
Russell continued to impress during the A's fall Instructional League camp. Although the organization didn't name an official Instructs MVP, A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman indicated Russell would have won the award had it been given out.
"He was far and above the best [in camp]," Lieppman said.
Russell is a premier athlete who has quick hands, excellent speed and is well built physically. He has above-average hand-eye coordination and powerful wrists. Russell is the kind of athlete who could either bulk up and become a traditional power hitter at third base or stay in "shortstop-shape" and hit .300 with double-digit homerun power and double-digit stolen bases.
Russell has the arm strength and footwork to play the shortstop position. Whether he is able to stay at the position long-term will come down to how much bulk he puts on his 6'0'', 185-pound frame. During his junior year of high school, Russell bulked up above 200 pounds and he lost some of the flexibility needed to be a shortstop. However, he shed some of that muscle his senior year and regained that speed and agility. A's Scouting Director Eric Kubota compared Russell's skill-set to former Hall of Famer Barry Larkin.
Russell's physical gifts have those around the A's organization excited about his future, but when asked about Russell, it is his attitude on the field and in practice that elicits the most enthusiasm among A's coaches and front office personnel.
"He is really fun to watch based on his on-field demeanor, as well. He really plays the game with a joyful intensity. He's a joy to watch and scout," Kubota said.
It was Russell's maturity and his work ethic that allowed the A's to promote him aggressively in 2012 and have them toying with the idea of starting Russell in High-A as a 19-year-old in 2013.
"… I think what our scouting staff knew was there is a presence and a personality that comes with Addison that goes beyond his physical skills on the field," A's Assistant GM David Forst said. "We would never have moved him as aggressively as we did if we didn't think he was mature enough and ready enough to handle it.
"That kind of thing jumps out at you. He's 18-years-old, but he's not fazed by anything. He is so relaxed on the field and it allows those physical gifts to come through. He's exciting to watch and he's fun to be around. Our entire staff has been able to see that in just a short time."
A's minor league hitting coordinator Todd Steverson has described Russell as a baseball rat and sponge for knowledge about the nuances of the game.
"He's a very eager kid. He is very eager to learn. He seems to love the game and come out and get his work done. He is a very fun kid to watch as a first-year player," Steverson said.
Chavez made his professional debut as a 19-year-old in the California League. Circumstances were a little different in 1997 when Chavez debuted, as the A's had two affiliates in the California League and none at the Low-A level. Still, it takes a special player like Chavez to compete against 22- and 23-year-olds as a teenager in the Cal League. Russell may also be that player.
If Russell does begin the year with Stockton, it will mean that he is on a fast-track and could be major league ready as soon as 2015. Given the A's needs at shortstop, Russell should have a clear path to the big leagues as long as he is able to continue to be productive.