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Oakland A's Minor League Depth Chart: SP
Over the past seven years, the Oakland A's have been one of the best teams in baseball at churning out quality starting pitching from their minor league system. In recent years, the A's have developed Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, and Rich Harden. They have also developed and traded good starting pitching prospects who made the major leagues with other teams, including Jeremy Bonderman.
However, coming into the 2005 season, the A's were faced with an interesting dilemma: four of their five starting pitchers were up for free agency over the next two years. Complicating that dilemma further was the fact that Oakland really only had one starting pitching prospect who was close to being ready for the major leagues (Joe Blanton). In response to this situation, A's GM Billy Beane made a pre-emptive strike and traded away three of those four pitchers (Hudson, Mulder and Mark Redman) and got in return two young starting pitchers whom he could plug into his rotation as early as this season (Dan Haren and Dan Meyer). Almost over night, Beane managed to turn the A's long-term starting pitching outlook from dim to white hot with the infusion of some new, young talent. In addition, he has bought some time for the starting pitching talent in the lower levels of the A's minor league system to develop. Here is a look at the A's starting pitching prospects from Blanton and Meyer on down.
1) Joe Blanton, RHP, 6'3'', 225
The big right-hander Joe Blanton gets our nod for the A's top starting pitching prospect, earning the honor by a slight margin over the newly acquired Dan Meyer. Both Blanton and Meyer have a good chance to be special major league pitchers, but Blanton's full-season experience in AAA gives him a slight advantage over Meyer at this point. Blanton, a 2002 "Moneyball" draft pick out of the University of Kentucky, has been a master of the strike zone throughout his minor league career. In 365 minor league innings, Blanton has struck out 338 batters and has walked only 68. He has also allowed only 21 homeruns over that span.
Coming into the 2004 season, Blanton was considered one of the top starting pitching prospects in all of baseball. He was the starting pitcher for the United States Minor League All-Star team in the MLB All-Star Weekend Futures' Game. However, Blanton's perceived value dipped a little bit after he posted a 4.19 ERA at Sacramento last season, by far his highest full season ERA as a professional. His hits per nine innings ratio sky-rocketed up to 10.12 and he allowed a career-high 13 homeruns.
Looking at Blanton's season more closely, however, reveals that he wasn't nearly as bad as those numbers indicate. Blanton still exhibited his excellent strike zone management, as he struck out 143 batters and walked only 34 on the season. He also was a victim of a Sacramento defense which was porous at times and contributed to his inflated hits allowed total. So there is still reason to be optimistic that Blanton will be a top of the rotation starting pitcher in the major leagues.
Blanton is a powerful right-hander who is capable of eating a lot of innings. He features a low to mid-90s fastball with sinking action, a plus-slider, a curveball and he is developing a change-up. Blanton demonstrated good poise on the mound during his late-season call-up to Oakland last season. He is expected to be the A's fourth starter in their revamped 2005 starting rotation and could compete for the American League Rookie of the Year award. He projects to be a solid number two or three starter in the mold of a Brad Penny or a Bartolo Colon.
2) Dan Meyer, LHP, 6'3'', 190
Dan Meyer, the left-handed starting pitcher acquired from the Atlanta Braves organization in the Tim Hudson trade, has had a similar career to that of Joe Blanton. Like Blanton, Meyer was drafted in the first round of the 2002 draft. And like Blanton, Meyer has been a master of the strike zone throughout his career. In 352 innings pitched, Meyer has struck out 381 and has walked only 81 batters. Last season alone, Meyer struck out 146 in only 126.1 innings pitched.
The Braves chose to bring Meyer on a little slower than the A's developed Blanton. Consequently, Meyer only arrived in AAA mid-season 2004. The Braves also kept a tighter lid on Meyer's innings, generally limiting him to 5 or 6 innings pitched per start. Despite those limitations, however, the A's believe that Meyer is ready for the big leagues now. He is currently slated to be the A's fifth starter this season and only a bad spring performance at this point will force him to start the season in AAA.
Meyer's pitching repertoire is somewhat reminiscent of Mark Mulder's arsenal. Meyer's fastball sits in the low-90s and has good movement. He also features a change-up, a split-fingered fastball, a curveball and a tight slider. He projects to a top of the rotation starter in the mold of a Andy Pettitte or Mulder.
3) Brad Knox, RHP, 6'3'', 210
Right-hander Brad Knox is another alum of the 2002 draft, but he has received far less press than Meyer and Blanton. Knox was a 14th round pick out of Central Arizona Junior College, the same junior college that produced Rich Harden. Knox couldn't be more different than Harden, however. Unlike the fire-balling Harden, Knox relies on great control and a large arsenal of pitches to off-set his average velocity on his fastball. Knox features a high-80s fastball, a changeup, a slider, and a curveball. But what makes him most special is his pinpoint control.
Knox was arguably the best pitcher in the Midwest League last season, as he posted an incredible 174/24 K:BB ratio in only 154.1 innings pitched. He also had a 14-5 record and a 2.59 ERA for the Kane County Cougars. Knox was a little old for the low-A competition and it remains to be seen whether his off-speed arsenal will fare well at a higher level of competition. He should start the year in AA, although he is expected to be side-lined for part of the beginning of the season with back troubles. Assuming his back holds up, Knox should garner a lot of attention from the A's this season. He projects to be a solid third or fourth starter in the mold of a Paul Byrd or Steve Trachsel.
4) Jason Windsor, RHP, 6'2'', 220
It isn't often that a pitcher who has yet to make a starting appearance as a professional can make a top prospect list as a starting pitcher, but Jason Windsor is a special case. The 2004 season was a special one for Windsor, as he led his Cal-State Fullerton team to a College World Series championship. In Windsor's dream 2004 season for Fullerton, he went 13-4 with a 1.72 ERA and an amazing 11 complete games. He struck out 148 batters in 162.2 innings. He also displayed a bulldog tenacity on the mound that has reminded some of Tim Hudson.
The A's took Windsor in the third round of the draft. Once he signed, Windsor's innings were severely limited by the A's, who were worried about the effect of the heavy workload Windsor endured at Fullerton (he threw 322 pitches alone during the College World Series, including a 145-pitch complete game). Despite his limited appearances, Windsor still managed to impress in his first professional season. In 18 innings split between short-season Vancouver and low-A Kane County, Windsor posted a 1-0 record with a 2.00 ERA. He struck out 18 and walked five over that span. He also posted a 1.11 WHIP. Windsor features a high-80s-low-90s fastball with a strong change-up and an effective slider. He is a "thinking-man's" pitcher and a first-rate competitor. His mental make-up may allow him to be moved through the A's system quickly. He projects to be a mid-rotation pitcher in the Javier Vazquez mold.
5) Steven Bondurant, LHP, 6'0'', 190
Steven Bondurant had a schizophrenic season in 2004. In the first two-thirds of the season, Bondurant was part of an outstanding tandem at Kane County, teaming with Brad Knox to lead the Cougars' staff. Bondurant went 14-5 with a 2.08 ERA for the Cougars in 125 innings. He struck out 132 over that span and posted a 0.95 WHIP. That performance earned the 2003 15th round draft pick a promotion to AA-Midland. Unfortunately for Bondurant, he didn't fare as well at Midland. In six starts, Bondurant posted a 2-3 record and a 6.39 ERA. He struggled with his command and he saw his hits per nine innings practically doubled.
Bondurant should get another chance at mastering AA hitters in 2005. Although he'll never be a number one or two starter, Bondurant has a chance to be a nice back-end of the rotation starter. He is a classic off-speed lefty who has good control and uses his off-speed pitches to keep hitters off-balance. He projects to be a Jamie Moyer, Kirk Rueter-type and he may get better as he gains more experience against more advanced competition and learns the ins and outs of being a professional pitcher.
Others to watch:
Kirk Saarloos: Saarloos, who was acquired from the Houston Astros organization last season, has a decent amount of major league experience under his belt, mostly as a reliever. He did make five starts for the A's in 2004 and acquitted himself well. Saarloos is an off-speed specialist who induces a lot of groundballs. Saarloos was the first 2001 draft pick to make the major leagues and his minor league numbers have been out of this world. If his elbow can stay healthy, Saarloos could be a contributor at the back of the A's rotation in 2005 or 2006.
John Rheinecker: In 2002, Rheinecker was one of the A's top pitching prospects. However, the big lefty has posted two mediocre seasons at Sacramento since that time and his status within the organization has stalled. He'll enter the 2005 season as a member of the River Cats rotation. This season will likely be his last chance to show the stuff that made him a top prospect in 2002.
Dallas Braden: Braden, a 24th round pick from the 2004 draft, opened a lot of eyes during his first professional season. The left-hander used his screwball pitch to rack up strike outs at an impressive rate, striking out 59 in only 40 innings pitched. He may project better as a reliever long-term, but Braden will get a chance to show his stuff as a starter in 2005. He could be a good sleeper in the A's system.
Michael Rogers: The A's 2004 first round pick got off to a slow start in his professional career, posting a 4.87 ERA in eight starts (12 appearances). Rogers appeared to be tired at the end of the season and his velocity was down. However, the A's are still very high on the North Carolina State alum and expect him to be much more effective after an off-season of rest.
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