45. B.A. Vollmuth
|Vollmuth had a strange season filled with ups and downs.|
The A's have expected big things from Vollmuth since he was selected with their second overall pick in the 2011 draft. The third baseman had a so-so first full professional season in 2012, posting a 741 OPS in a season split between the A's Low- and High-A squads. Vollmuth was expected to show dramatic improvement in 2013. Instead, he put together one of the most unusual seasons for any A's minor leaguer in recent memory.
The Southern Miss alum spent the entire campaign with the High-A Stockton Ports. The beginning of the year couldn't have gone more poorly for Vollmuth. He hit .155 in April and then bottomed out in May, posting an .090 BA by collecting just six hits in 67 at-bats. Vollmuth rebounded in a big way in June and July, putting together OPSs of 973 and 815, respectively. His season finished on a down-note, however, as he managed only a 617 OPS in August. For the year, Vollmuth finished with a .212/.301/.408 line.
So what kind of player is Vollmuth? Is he the guy that made Mario Mendoza look like Ty Cobb early in the season? Or is he the guy who looked like one of the better hitters in the Cal League during a 16-game hitting streak in June? The A's will be waiting to find out the answer to that question next year, in what will be a very pivotal season for the soon-to-be 24-year-old.
There is no question that Vollmuth is a talented hitter. He has power to all fields and that showed in 2013, as he hit 21 homers, enough to finish tied for eighth in the Cal League. Vollmuth was sometimes too focused on going deep, however, to the detriment of his overall hitting game. While his ISO was actually up more than 20 points from 2012, Vollmuth's outfield flyball and K rates were up significantly in 2013 and his groundball and line-drive rates fell. That resulted in a very poor BABIP of .267.
"He hit 21 homeruns and I think sometimes he was trying to go for it all," Stockton Ports' broadcaster Zack Bayrouty said. "I talked with [Ports' manager] Webster Garrison about that and Webby said, ‘look, he's a guy who needs to realize that he doesn't have to do that every time he's up. He needs to focus on making that consistent contact and everything else will follow.'
"I think B.A. was trying to figure out what type of hitter he was as the season went on."
Defensively, Vollmuth struggled with his footwork at third base. He committed a team-high 31 errors at the hot corner. Vollmuth played all over the infield in college, but the A's still believe he has the physical toolset to handle the position, so he isn't likely to make a position move just yet.
Vollmuth admitted at the start of the 2013 season that he didn't prepare for games as well as he should have in 2012, and he appeared to struggle with pre-game preparation in 2013, as well. There is a sense around the A's organization that Vollmuth hasn't allowed himself to realize his full potential just yet. With top prospect Renato Nunez set to make the jump from Low-A to High-A and Miles Head set to return to Double-A at the hot corner, Vollmuth will likely find himself in a position of having to fight for playing time at third base for the first time in his pro career. Perhaps that motivation will help him tap into his full potential in 2014.
44. Vicmal De La Cruz
|De La Cruz has struggled to translate his talent to production the past two seasons.|
De La Cruz is another prospect whose talent isn't matching his current performance. The native of the Dominican signed with the A's as an amateur free agent before the 2010 season. He made an immediate splash in 2011 by posting a 891 OPS in the Dominican Summer League, a notoriously difficult league for hitters.
Along with fellow 2010 international signee Renato Nunez, De La Cruz came over to the States for fall Instructs in 2011 and he continued to impress during that camp. Big things were expected of him in 2012, and the A's briefly considered sending him out to a full-season league. They elected to hold him back at extended spring training with the intention of having De La Cruz make his US regular season debut in the New York-Penn League. An injury late in the extended spring training schedule scuttled those plans, and De La Cruz spent the 2012 campaign with the AZL A's instead.
Unlike Nunez, who thrived in the Arizona Rookie League, De La Cruz struggled. He posted a 668 OPS and his K:BB was 43:11 after being an outstanding 27:37 in 2011. There was hope that De La Cruz would learn from his trying 2012 season and come back better prepared for 2013. Instead, he actually performed worse in a repeat of the AZL. In 33 games, De La Cruz hit .213/.267/.279 and his work ethic came into question during the year.
De La Cruz spent the fall at the A's Dominican Instructs, where he worked on getting in better shape and improving his all around approach at the plate. He hasn't always listened to his coaches, but his struggles over the past two seasons appear to have humbled him.
"You just hope that he is able to translate his talent – improve his plate discipline, hit for the power that he is capable of doing, control the ‘zone and really run around that outfield like he did initially in his career," A's Director of Player Development Billy Owens said. "There is nothing from a player development or scouting standpoint. You just want to keep on being positive, work hard and put all of the players in a position to succeed. At some point, they have to bang the door down themselves."
Fortunately for De La Cruz, he is still young enough to turn around his career. He just turned 20 in late November. The left-handed hitter and thrower has plus tools in several categories, including his hit tool, his raw power and his throwing arm. He can cover a good amount of ground in the outfield. De La Cruz projects to be the kind of player who competes for batting titles while adding value defensively and on the bases. But he will have to become more coachable for that to happen.
Given that he hasn't produced in two stints in the AZL, De La Cruz could be ticketed to return to that league next season. However, if he comes into spring training prepared and in good physical condition, it wouldn't be surprising to see the A's challenge him with an assignment to the New York-Penn League.
43. Sam Bragg
|Bragg has a live arm and plenty of velocity.|
The new draft rules were supposed to make it harder for teams to sign players in the later rounds of the draft who had projected to go much earlier. The A's were able to sign several players who slid in the draft in 2013, however. Bragg was one of those signees.
The 20-year-old right-hander was thought to be a top-10 round talent going into the draft. The A's took him in round 18 and were able to sign him away from a commitment to pitch at Auburn. It was the second time that Bragg turned down an opportunity to pitch in the SEC. He had a scholarship offer to play for Georgia coming out of high school, but he chose to go the junior college route instead so he could be eligible for the 2013 draft. The A's were happy to get him where they did this season.
Bragg pitched at three levels in his pro debut campaign. A starter in high school and junior college, Bragg was used out of the bullpen during his pro debut because he was nearing his innings-limit for the season at the time he signed with the A's. Although he threw only 29 innings between the Arizona Rookie Leauge, the New York-Penn League and the Midwest League, Bragg opened plenty of eyes. He posted a 1.24 ERA and had a 37:11 K:BB. Four of those 11 walks came in one rough outing while with the Vermont Lake Monsters. For the rest of his season, Bragg's command was a plus asset. He allowed just one homerun and batters hit .175 against him.
Bragg joined the Beloit Snappers during the final week of the season, and he made a strong impression on 2013 Snappers' manager Ryan Christenson.
"He reminds me a little bit of [fellow minor-league reliever] Ryan Dull, in that he throws a lot of strikes which is what I really like about him," Christenson said towards the end of the season.
"He threw all of his pitches for strikes through one inning each time out. I'm not sure if he even threw 10 pitches in either of his outings, so that tells me he's challenging hitters. He's telling them ‘here it is - I'm going to come right after you in the strike zone.' I love the aggressive mindset and the fact he can get it in the 'zone."
Bragg has a two- and a four-seam fastball and he throws hard, occasionally ticking 96 MPH on the gun. He also has a circle change-up and a curveball. Although the A's used him as a reliever in 2013, Bragg has the stuff and the size (6'3'', 190) to be a starter. Whether he moves into the rotation next year will likely depend on how the A's spread out their starters between their two A-ball affiliates.
"He did a great job for us and he is someone that I would like to see get more extended innings in and get more of a look," A's minor league pitching coordinator Scott Emerson said just after the A's completed their fall Instructs. "The unfortunate thing is that you only get five starters per club. We want to get all of the best arms out and pitching for ball clubs, so if there is not a spot for him as a starter [at the beginning of the 2014 season], hopefully there is a spot for him as a reliever where he can get some extended innings."
42. Kyle Finnegan
|Finnegan improved his secondary pitches this fall.|
Finnegan was the A's sixth-round pick in 2013, and he got his pro career off to a solid start pitching in the rotations for the Vermont Lake Monsters and the Beloit Snappers. The right-hander used a hard, sinking fastball to post a 2.70 ERA in 50 innings with the Lake Monsters. That earned him a cameo with Beloit at the end of the season.
The work Finnegan did after the regular season was even better, however. Tasked with improving his secondary offerings during fall Instructs, Finnegan made significant progress with his breaking ball and his change-up. Now going into next season, Finnegan has three legitimate weapons at his disposal.
Finnegan was able to improve his secondary pitches by making a mechanical change that shortened up his stride and allowed him to get over his front leg more effectively. The long stride had limited the movement of his breaking ball. By the end of camp, his breaking ball had significant bite. He also had a better handle on his change-up.
"He came to us without having a change-up. He had an okay breaking ball," A's minor league pitching coordinator Scott Emerson said. "When he left Instructional League, he was a guy I said, ‘this guy has three average to above-average major league pitches now.' He's got a short, tight curveball. He's got a very good change-up and he was able to spot his fastball much better, getting over his front leg. He repeated his delivery."
Finnegan's fastball sits in the 92-95 range as a starter. In shorter outings, his fastball has been clocked as high as 97. Should he struggle as a starter down-the-road, Finnegan could be moved to the bullpen, where his sinker would play well in the late innings.
Snappers' manager Ryan Christenson likened Finnegan to former A's ace (and a former teammate of Christenson's) Tim Hudson. Finnegan is taller than Hudson, but Finnegan is an excellent athlete like Hudson and he uses his heavy sinker to get hitters to pound the ball into the dirt. Finnegan has an aggressive demeanor on the mound and he wasn't intimidated by the professional game.
Finnegan should be part of the Snappers' rotation at the start of the 2014 season. He turned 22 in September.
41. Josh Whitaker
|Whitaker had bad luck with injuries again in 2013.|
Luck hasn't been on Whitaker's side since he was drafted by the A's in 2010. Although Whitaker has out-performed pre-draft expectations, he hasn't moved up the organizational ladder that quickly, in large part because of injuries.
In 2011, a back injury kept Whitaker off of the field at the start of the season. He returned in time to dominate for the Low-A Burlington Bees (957 OPS), but he hadn't played in enough games before the All-Star break to get that much coveted mid-season promotion. In 2012, Whitaker was putting together an outstanding season for the Stockton Ports when he suffered an ankle injury in mid-July. He tried to play through the injury, but he struggled. His OPS fell from the mid-800s to 796 before he was shut-down for the year.
This season, Whitaker was sent back to Stockton because of a backlog in outfielders at the higher levels of the A's system. In mid-May, the backlog eased a bit and the A's moved Whitaker up to Double-A for the first time. Five games into his stint with the RockHounds, Whitaker broke his hand, and once again his progressed was stalled by an injury. He missed two months with the injury. When he was healthy enough to return to a full-season affiliate, there wasn't room for him in Double-A, so he had to go back to Stockton until finally getting a chance to play for an extended period with the RockHounds in August.
When it was all said and done, Whitaker appeared in 86 games in 2013 for the AZL A's, Ports and RockHounds. He posted a .256/.333/.446 line with 12 homers in 332 at-bats. Whitaker also swiped eight bases in 11 chances.
"I think what was most impressive about Josh was that he came back to Stockton basically because they didn't have a place to put him in Double-A," Stockton Ports' broadcaster Zack Bayrouty said. "As soon as they had a spot, they were going to put him up there, so he had to bide his time in Stockton. That can be a tough thing for a player to deal with, but he still hit .270. It's not like his heart wasn't in it when he came back to Stockton. He produced and he performed. He still swung the bat really well. He's a guy with a lot of natural power."
Whitaker, who will turn 25 just before the start of spring training, isn't the kind of player that catches a scout's eye in one viewing. At 6'4'', 230, Whitaker looks the part of a lumbering corner outfielder/first baseman/DH-type, but he is actually a much better athlete than it would initially appear. He runs well and has an above-average throwing arm. Whitaker can handle both corner outfield spots and first base.
At the plate, Whitaker employs an aggressive approach and he has above-average power to all fields. He doesn't have great plate discipline, however, and that has hurt his ascension through the system along with the injuries. Whitaker has always been on the older side for his level, so next season will be key for him if he is going to reach the big leagues. He is likely to start the season in Double-A, and a good first half could earn him a spot in Triple-A and a chance to show the A's up close what he can offer.