A lot was expected of the Midland Rockhounds before the start of the season. The A's Double-A affiliate featured several top prospects on their Opening Day roster, including the organization's top picks from the 2011, 2010 and 2007 drafts. Injuries and promotions impacted the Rockhounds all season, however, and the team finished a disappointing 10 games under the .500 mark at 64-74.
Two members of the Rockhounds' Opening Day starting rotation (A.J. Griffin and Dan Straily) ended spending a significant part of the season in the major leagues. However, Midland's overall pitching numbers for the season weren't particularly impressive. The team finished with an ERA of 4.38, which was second-highest in the league. Walks were a problem for the staff all season, and they allowed the second-most with 477 in 1218 innings pitched. Despite having the minor league's strike-out leader (Straily) for much of the first half, the Midland staff still finished third-to-last in strike-outs with 993. They did allow the second-fewest number of homeruns (98), however.
On offense, the Rockhounds were in the middle-of-the-pack. They were fourth in the league in runs scored with 652 and fifth in team OPS with a 721 mark. Midland didn't hit for much power (105 homeruns; second-lowest in the league), but they were third in the league in OBP with a .338 mark and first in the league in walks (554) by a wide margin. The Rockhounds were a station-to-station club, finishing last in the league in stolen bases with 66.
Note: only players with at least 60 at-bats were considered for this article
In 2011, Conner Crumbliss and Anthony Aliotti quietly teamed up to help lead the Stockton Ports to the California League finals. In 2012, the pair was at it again, driving opposing pitchers crazy with their patient approaches at the plate.
As he has done so frequently throughout his career, Crumbliss finished at the top of the league leaderboards in walks with 120. The next closest walk total to Crumbliss' was 88. His .414 OBP was good for second in the league and amongst Rockhounds' regulars, he finished second on the team in OPS with an 805 mark. Crumbliss hasn't received a lot of publicity since turning pro in 2009, but he has put together an impressive minor league career. Since his debut, he has drawn the most walks of any minor league player. He has also reached double-digits in stolen bases every season and is starting to add some power to his game. Crumbliss connected on a career-high 10 homeruns this season for Midland. The Kansas native is valuable defensively, as well, as he can play second base and all three outfield spots. He is candidate to be added to the A's 40-man roster this off-season to protect him from the Rule 5 draft.
Aliotti is another under-the-radar prospect who is starting to gain notice. The East Bay native and alum of St. Mary's College led the team with an 811 OPS. He posted his best season as a pro, putting up a .292/.385/.426 line in 123 games. Aliotti hit 10 homeruns and drove-in a team-high 76 runs. Strike-outs and left-handed pitching are still two areas where Aliotti needs to work to improve his game. He struck-out 129 times this season and posted only a 627 OPS against southpaws. Aliotti is the best defensive first-baseman in the A's chain. The A's have had a crowded first base situation in Sacramento the past two seasons, but with Chris Carter graduating to the major leagues and Kila Ka'aihue and Daric Barton candidates to move on this off-season, Aliotti could get an opportunity in Triple-A next year.
Michael Choice entered the season as the A's top prospect after he posted a 918 OPS and hit 30 homeruns for High-A Stockton in 2011. Choice, the 10th overall pick in 2010, struggled out of the gate with the Rockhounds. He posted an OPS of 722 in April and then saw that number dip to 680 for May and 666 for June. However, Choice made several in-season adjustments and he was seeing those adjustments pay off in a big way when his season was abruptly ended on July 21. Before being hit by a pitch and breaking his hand in that game, Choice was hitting .435/.493/.710 for the month of July. He hit four of his 10 homeruns in July and raised his overall line to .287/.356/.423. Although his overall numbers weren't at the level one would expect, Choice showed a lot during the month of July and should move up to Triple-A in 2013.
Infielder Josh Horton is still looking for that extended opportunity in Triple-A. The A's 2007 second-round pick has spent part or all of the past four seasons with the Rockhounds. The North Carolina alum had his best season to date for Midland this year. He hit .278/.346/.410 with a career-high 10 homeruns. Horton struck-out more often than normal in 2012 (113) and walked less frequently (47 for a .346 OBP), but he established career-bests in all power categories. Horton is a solid defender and has seen a lot of time in big league camp the past few seasons. If there is an opening in Sacramento's infield next year, Horton is a strong candidate to take a spot.
If Horton is looking for inspiration as he tries to move out of Midland, he need look no further than longtime teammate Shane Peterson. Peterson was working on his fourth season with the Rockhounds when he finally got an opportunity with the River Cats after the All-Star break. He hit well in limited time with Midland (missing nearly a month with a leg injury), posting a .274/.441/.420 line in 48 games. Peterson blew those numbers out of the water with Sacramento, however, hitting .389/.484/.618 in 38 games for the River Cats. The first baseman/outfielder is currently playing in the Dominican Winter League with Estrellas de Oriente.
Jeremy Barfield is also looking for a move up the ladder after spending his second straight season in Double-A. The right fielder improved all of his offensive numbers over his first season with the Rockhounds. In 2012, he hit .272/.322/.415 with 13 homeruns. Barfield cut down on his strike-outs and made the Texas League Mid-Season All-Star team. The right-handed hitter posted an 843 OPS against left-handed pitching, but had only a 698 OPS against right-handers. He collected 17 outfield assists. Over the past four seasons, Barfield has 80 outfield assists.
Tyler Ladendorf also repeated at the Double-A level in 2012. The utilityman had an 802 OPS before the All-Star break, but he struggled during the second half, posting only a .200 average and a 580 OPS. Ladendorf, a true shortstop, spent time at second, short, left, right and center this season. He is one of the most talented defensive players in the A's organization but will need to show more consistency offensively to get a spot in Triple-A.
The Rockhounds' roster received in-season boosts from the additions of Miles Head, Matt Rizzotti and David Freitas to the roster. Head joined the Rockhounds mid-season after he blew through the California League. The corner infielder hit .382/.433/.715 with the High-A Stockton Ports before his promotion to Midland. He got off to a slow start with the Rockhounds, but the 21-year-old finished with a respectable .272/.338/.404 line in 57 games with the ‘Hounds. Head had to fight off the after-effects of a concussion he sustained in July when he was beaned with a pitch. Each of the past two seasons Head has begun the year at one level and then moved up mid-season. It wouldn't be surprising to see Head return to Double-A at the start of the 2013 campaign and then move up to Sacramento mid-season.
Rizzotti was signed by the A's as a minor league free agent after Oakland released first baseman Michael Spina. Spina had starred for the Rockhounds in 2011, but he managed only a 573 OPS in 70 games for Midland in 2012 before his release. He was later picked-up by the Atlanta Braves organization and finished the year with High-A Lynchburg. Rizzotti began the season in the Minnesota chain but was released after struggling in both Triple-A and Double-A for the Twins. He turned around his season with Oakland, however, posting a .307/.350/.507 line in 40 games for the Rockhounds. Rizzotti hit five homeruns and drove-in 27.
Freitas was only with the club a short time. The catcher was acquired by the A's from the Washington Nationals organization in early August in exchange for Kurt Suzuki. Freitas had been in High-A while in the Nationals' chain, but the A's promoted him to Double-A after the trade. He handled the jump up in levels with ease, batting .333/.392/.524 in 20 games. Freitas connected on two homeruns and drove-in 11. With the trades of Suzuki and Anthony Recker and the transition of Josh Donaldson from catcher to third base, the A's are suddenly thin at the catcher position in the upper levels. Despite having only 20 games of Double-A experience, Freitas could make the jump to Triple-A in 2013. He will likely receive an invitation to major league spring training, where he will be able to audition for the A's coaching staff.
Beau Taylor is another catcher on the rise in the A's chain. Oakland's fifth-round pick in 2011, Taylor became the first position player from his draft class to reach the Double-A level when he earned a promotion to Midland in mid-July. Taylor hit .328 with an 858 OPS in 52 games with Stockton and started off hot with the ‘Hounds, batting .300 in 15 games in July. He slumped in August, however, and finished with a .233/.303/.275 line in 120 Double-A at-bats. At 22, Taylor was young for the level and should see a spike in those offensive numbers next year. The A's like what Taylor offers with the glove and he should also receive consideration for an invite to major league spring training.
Ryan Lipkin and Ryan Ortiz were the other two catchers on the Midland roster in 2012. Lipkin spent the entire season with the Rockhounds before receiving a call-up to Sacramento during the final weeks of the season. The Bay Area native appeared in 53 games for Midland, posting a .204/.227/.314 line in 191 at-bats. Lipkin struggled with his plate discipline (four walks and 42 strike-outs), but he played well defensively.
Ortiz had a disappointing 2012 season. The Oregon State alum was expected to have a big season after he posted a 970 OPS for Stockton in 2011 and hit well during the Arizona Fall League. Instead, he struggled to get on track all season. With Midland, he hit only .167/.284/.257 in 44 games (144 at-bats). Ortiz was demoted mid-season when the A's promoted Taylor. Although Ortiz hit better with Stockton after the demotion, his numbers were still down from his 2011 form (794 OPS with the Ports).
Dusty Coleman was a teammate of Ortiz's during the 2011 Arizona Fall League season. The shortstop led the Rockhounds with 15 homeruns in 2012, but he struggled to make consistent contact. In 427 at-bats, Coleman struck-out 182 times and finished with a 647 OPS. Contact issues have plagued Coleman throughout his minor league career. He has the tools to be a top prospect, but the Wichita State alum will need to overhaul his strike-zone judgment to get a chance at the Triple-A level.
With the exception of a week spent with Stockton, Leonardo Gil was on the Midland roster all season. The infielder hit for average (.280), but didn't manage to hit for any power (.341 SLG). He finished the season with a 690 OPS and one homerun in 211 at-bats. Gil did increase his walk rate (21 walks in 211 at-bats in 2012 as opposed to 25 in 325 at-bats in 2011) and posted his best OBP (.349) since his first professional season in 2006 when he was in the Dominican Summer League.
Note: Only pitchers with at least 40 innings pitched were considered for this article.
Coming into the season, A's 2011 top pick Sonny Gray was the biggest name in the Midland rotation. However, A.J. Griffin and Dan Straily quickly moved into the spotlight with strong starts to their 2012 seasons.
Griffin was the Midland Opening Day starter and he flirted with a no-hitter that night. He would dominate in seven starts with the Rockhounds before forcing the A's to move him up to Triple-A. Griffin would eventually become an important part of the A's rotation and would make a start in the American League Division Series for Oakland. With Midland, Griffin posted a 2.49 ERA in 43.1 innings. He struck-out 44 and walked only seven, while holding opposing batters to a .201 average.
Straily, Griffin's roommate in Midland, took over the mantle as the team's ace once Griffin was promoted. Straily made 14 starts for the Rockhounds, posting a 3.38 ERA in 85.1 innings. Opposing batters hit only .224 against him and he walked only 23 over that span. However, it was his strike-out numbers that made Straily stand out. The right-hander struck-out 108 in just those 85.1 innings. After his promotion to Triple-A, Straily would strike-out another 82 in 66.2 innings, finishing with a minor league-best 190 strike-outs in 152 innings. Straily also made seven starts for the A's, posting a 3.89 ERA and striking out 32 in 39.1 innings. In total, the Oregon native struck-out 222 batters in 191.1 innings this season.
Gray's numbers weren't as strong, but he still put together a solid first full professional season. The 22-year-old threw a team-high 148 innings. He posted a 4.14 ERA and had a mediocre K:BB of 97:57, but Gray showed considerable improvement as the season wore on. Although his strike-out totals weren't high, Gray cut down on his walks significantly as the season progressed and improved his mechanics. He was also an extreme groundball pitcher, allowing only eight homeruns all season. Gray got a taste of Triple-A at the end of the season, making one regular season and one post-season start at that level. He is likely to start his 2013 season with Sacramento.
Murphy Smith and Shawn Haviland were the only other two starters to make at least 20 starts for Midland in 2012. Smith tossed 140 innings, making it the third straight year that he has thrown at least 137 innings. The right-hander had an inconsistent first season at the Double-A level. He started off the season well, posting ERAs under 3.30 in April and May. However, his walk totals climbed considerably in June, July and August and he finished the year with an 83:57 K:BB ratio. He also became more hittable and allowed a .311 opponents batting average. Like Gray, Smith was a groundball pitcher and he did an excellent job keeping the ball in the park (eight homeruns allowed). If Smith can improve his command, his groundball tendencies should allow him to see significant improvements with his numbers in 2013.
Haviland returned to Midland after struggling with the Rockhounds in 2011. The Harvard alum had a 7.08 ERA for the Rockhounds last season, but he improved that number to 4.80 in 120 innings in 2012. Haviland also improved his K:9 from 6.9 in 2011 to 7.8, although his walk totals jumped by nearly a walk per nine innings pitched. A flyball pitcher, Haviland did a much better job keeping the ball in the park this season and batters hit 62 points less against him in 2012 than they did in 2011. He is currently in the starting rotation for the Phoenix Desert Dogs in the Arizona Fall League.
Rockhound teammate Gary Daley, Jr. is also on that Phoenix staff this fall. Daley, Jr. split his season between the starting rotation and the bullpen, making 18 starts and 16 relief appearances. The right-hander posted a 5.11 ERA and struggled with his command, walking 71 while striking out 79. Command issues have been a problem for Daley, Jr. since he was drafted by the Cardinals in the third round in 2006. He has good stuff, however, and he will continue to work on harnessing it this fall in Arizona.
Relievers Brett Hunter and James Simmons are the other two Midland pitchers on the Desert Dogs' staff this fall. Hunter made 42 appearances for Midland this season, tossing 56 innings. The 42 appearances were a career-high for the right-hander, who has battled shoulder problems throughout his career. Hunter struck-out more than a batter an inning for the Rockhounds this season (60), but his lack of command hurt him at times. He walked 31 and allowed seven homeruns, leading to a 4.50 ERA.
Simmons, the A's top pick in 2007, was able to pitch a full season for the first time since the 2009 campaign. The right-hander made 30 appearances for the Rockhounds before earning a promotion to Triple-A. Simmons posted a 3.35 ERA for Midland and had a 37:14 K:BB ratio in 48.1 innings. He allowed only three homeruns and opponents batted .229 against him.
Carlos Hernandez will also be busy this fall, although he won't be in Arizona. The left-hander is currently in Venezuela, pitching for Tigres de Aragua of the VWL. Hernandez split his regular season between Midland and Triple-A Sacramento. With the Rockhounds, the South Bay native made 25 appearances (10 starts and 15 relief appearances). He got off to a poor start with Midland and finished with a 5.36 ERA and a 65:26 K:BB ratio in 80.2 innings. However, he pitched much better for the Rockhounds as his season wore on and pitched well for Sacramento. Hernandez has bounced back-and-forth between the rotation and the bullpen throughout his minor league career, but his future most likely lies in the bullpen. He is pitching in relief in Venezuela.
Fabio Castro also spent time with both Midland and Sacramento this season. Signed as a minor league free agent during the off-season, Castro posted an ERA close to 7.00 with Sacramento before being demoted to Midland. He pitched better with the Rockhounds (4.63 ERA in 72 innings), although still not as well as expected given his veteran status. He struck-out 58 and walked 37 for the Rockhounds. Castro will be a minor league free agent again this off-season.
In addition to Hunter and Simmons, Paul Smyth, Jonathan Ortiz and Jose Guzman were all iron men in the Midland bullpen this season. The sidearmer Smyth tossed a bullpen-high 69.1 innings. He posted a 4.02 ERA and had a 53:24 K:BB ratio. Smyth didn't generate as many groundballs as he normally does, however, and he allowed eight homeruns. It was Smyth's second season at the Double-A level.
Ortiz was the team's closer for much of the season and he finished with a team-best 15 saves. The right-hander had a 3.75 ERA and a 50:18 K:BB ratio in 62.1 innings. Ortiz was a Texas League Mid-Season All-Star, marking the third time in his career he has made a mid-season All-Star team.
Guzman was the Ports' closer in 2011 and he began the season back with Stockton thanks to a roster crunch. However, as soon as there was an opening for Guzman in the Midland bullpen, the A's promoted the right-hander. He made 34 appearances for Midland and posted a 4.50 ERA in 54 innings. Guzman struck-out 49, walked 20 and allowed three homeruns. His 76.1 innings pitched between Midland and Stockton were the most he had pitched since 2007, when he was a starter.