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If Nick Rickles' first professional season is any indication, the Oakland A's 2011 14th-round pick could add to the already crowded situation at catcher in Oakland's system with another solid year in 2012. After being drafted last June, Rickles went on post solid numbers across the board.
In a quick six-game stint with the club's rookie league team in Arizona, the Loxahatchee, Fla., native had seven hits and a 973 OPS. After a brief pit-stop with Triple-A Sacramento, where he served as the team's emergency catcher (although he didn't appear in a game), Rickles spent the rest of the season with short-season Vermont. With the Lake Monsters, Rickles' line of .310/.364/.441 with 33 RBIs in 41 games cemented a solid first impression. He also showed some athleticism by stealing six bases and only getting caught once.
"In college you'd face a No. 1 guy every Friday night. What I saw last year, every guy that runs out there has that Friday night-kind of stuff. They wouldn't be in pro ball if they didn't," Rickles said over the phone from Phoenix, where he is participating in the A's minor league spring mini-camp.
While at Stetson University, Rickles put up relatively pedestrian numbers during his first two seasons. In his junior year, he became one of the best hitters in the Atlantic Sun Conference. He walked 25 times to just 10 strikeouts, while generating far more power with 12 home runs compared to just three his previous season. His OPS ballooned from 722 to 1008 with an ISO of .253.
For many players, adjusting to wood from metal bats can be a challenge during their first professional seasons. But with Rickles was already comfortable with wood bats at the time he was drafted.
"I loved hitting with wood [before getting drafted]," Rickles said. "So that was relaxing for me."
The A's also saw a maturity in Rickles' game that gave them the confidence to send him to Triple-A before he had even recorded an inning of work above Rookie ball. He didn't get any at-bats or innings behind the plate with the River Cats, but he did find plenty of value in just being there.
"It kind of helped me mature and humble out a little bit," Rickles said. "Going up there and seeing the maturity of the catchers that were already there. Anthony Recker was there before he got called up and gave me some advice. I got to sit in the bullpen in the game and I took advantage of that time, picking the pitchers brains and asking them questions."
With a fresh start in 2012, he will be using that advice to further develop as a player and improve his standing with the organization.
Coming into his first spring training as a pro, Rickles didn't change his routine. He went back to Stetson to work out with his former teammates and utilize their facilities. On February 28, Rickles reported with 30 other minor leaguers to Oakland's mini-camp to get a head start on spring training and familiarize himself with his surroundings in Arizona.
The A's haven't told Rickles where he'll start the year. It's likely he'll go to Low-A Burlington with a chance at making it to High-A Stockton. Hitting in the California League could bode well for the progress of his Rickles' bat, but the A's will have to juggle playing time at the two full-season A-levels between Beau Taylor, Max Stassi and Rickles, as well as 2011 Burlington catcher John Nester and 2011 Stockton catcher Ryan Lipkin.
As far as the competition for playing time, Rickles feels like he's been there before.
"I love competition. I don't want to say underdog, but I have to make a name for myself as any new guy does," Rickles said. "It's like finding a college where you're competing with guys to go there. It's almost the same thing. You're competing in the minors to impress the organization."
"I just love it. I wouldn't trade this for anything."
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