A year after being the only Oakland A’s affiliate not to qualify for the playoffs, the Midland Rockhounds are the pace-setters for the entire Oakland organization. Led by a powerful offense and a shut-down bullpen, the Rockhounds have jumped out to a red-hot 27-12 record (.672 winning percentage). The team is hitting .285 and is averaging nearly five and a half runs per game. Midland features a star-studded line-up, led by early-season Texas League MVP candidate Andre Ethier, top middle infield prospect Omar Quintanilla, hitting machine Brant Colamarino, reigning California League MVP Brian Stavisky, former California League All-Star Jason Perry, and eagle-eyed catcher Jeremy Brown. The Rockhounds’ starting rotation was bolstered this past week by the addition of lefty starter Dallas Braden, who has been one of the best starters in the minor leagues during this early season action.
Biggest Movers and Shakers
The following players have improved their stock the most with their early season performances.
Matt Watson, Outfielder
Watson went from suffering the disappointment of being among the first cuts from major league spring training camp to receiving one of the first call-ups to Oakland with his outstanding start at AAA-Sacramento. The left-handed hitting outfielder was a line-drive machine in Sacramento, where he hit .345 with 12 extra-base hits and a 911 OPS for the River Cats. Watson was recalled to Oakland last Saturday with the hope that he could jump-start the A’s tepid offense. Since his arrival, the A’s have scored four runs or more in every game and Watson has chipped in with three RBIs, including the game-winner on Monday night.
Andre Ethier, Outfielder
Ethier has always been a good hitter, but his lack of power numbers had put him behind a few other outfielders on the A’s prospect depth chart. However, his blistering early start to the season has included a substantial increase in his power production, improving his stock as a top outfield prospect. The smooth-swinging Ethier finished last season on the disabled list with a balky back, but he is fully healthy this year. He finished April hitting above .400 and, while he has cooled off a little since then, Ethier is still hitting a robust .376. He has a .604 slugging percentage, including seven homeruns (good for second on the team), 11 doubles and a triple. He has an OPS of 1035 and has driven in a team-leading 31 runs in only 38 games played. Ethier currently leads the Texas League in batting average, is second in runs batted in and is fourth in homeruns. He also leads the league in total bases.
Brant Colamarino, First Base
Ethier’s teammate Colamarino has also improved his stock with a strong start to the season. The University of Pittsburgh product has played well since being drafted by Oakland in the 2002 “Moneyball” draft. However, Colamarino was in danger of being a forgotten man on the A’s minor league first base depth chart with Dan Johnson mashing the ball ahead of him in AAA-Sacramento and the highly touted prospect Daric Barton being moved in behind him at A-Stockton. Colamarino has not let the competition faze him, as he has been a force in the middle of the Rockhounds’ line-up all season. The burly left-hander is hitting .329 on the year, good for fifth in the Texas League. He has also hit 12 doubles (second in the league), five homeruns, three triples (second in the league and first among first baseman) and has driven in 30 runs. If Dan Johnson gets promoted to Oakland, look for Colamarino to move to AAA.
Dallas Braden, Starter
It’s hard to go from 24th round draft choice to top prospect in only one year, but Braden is giving it his best shot. After a promising stint in short-season Vancouver and low-A Kane County last year, Braden dominated the California League to begin the 2005 season. Mixing a screwball in with a mid-80s fastball, slider and change-up, Braden has a struck out a minor league best 69 batters in only 50.1 innings so far this season. The Texas Tech alum was promoted to AA-Midland this past week, making him only the second 2004 A’s draft choice to advance beyond A-ball (the first was Huston Street last season). Braden debuted in Midland on Tuesday and threw 6.2 shut-out innings. Left-handed starters are always in short-supply, so the A’s will be keeping a close eye on Braden throughout the season.
John Rheinecker, Starter
After two consecutive mediocre seasons, some experts had written off Rheinecker as yet another pitching prospect who failed to make that final leap into the big leagues. Rheinecker held his own this spring, pitching six effective innings out of the bullpen during big league camp. He then took that positive vibe with him down to Sacramento, where he began the season red-hot. His first start was an eight-inning, shut-out effort and his excellent pitching continued from there. Before being placed on the DL with an inflamed tendon in the middle finger of his pitching hand last week, Rheinecker was 4-0 with a 1.77 ERA in seven starts for the River Cats. He has allowed only 43 base-runners in 45.2 innings pitched and he hasn’t given up a home run yet (home runs were a big problem for Rheinecker last season). Assuming his hand injury isn’t too serious, Rheinecker could be on the A’s pitching staff either in the rotation or out of the bullpen by the end of the year. That’s saying a lot for someone whose career had appeared stalled coming into this season.
Justifying the Hype
These top prospects have been living up to their reputations so far this season.
Dan Johnson, First Base
Johnson has done pretty much everything he can to get to the major leagues and it appears that the time to make his debut is coming closer. After winning the PCL MVP award in 2004, Johnson didn’t rest on his laurels. He went to the Mexican Winter League to gain exposure to veteran breaking ball pitchers and held his own in that league. Then he arrived in major league spring training camp with a hot bat, hitting .395 with three homers and only one strikeout. Johnson had a brief rough stretch in mid-April but has otherwise been the model of consistency this season at the plate for the River Cats. He is hitting .318 with seven homers and 32 RBIs in only 39 games played. He has a 946 OPS and has walked 25 times against only 19 strikeouts. Johnson has also improved his game defensively and is continuing to push the A’s to bring him up to the major leagues with his outstanding play.
Javier Herrera, Outfielder
Ten days ago, it would have been a big stretch to include the five-tool Herrera on this list. He had one of the worst starts to a season anyone could imagine. On the eve of Opening Day, it was discovered that Herrera had tested positive for a performance-enhancing substance. After serving his 15-game suspension, Herrera struggled out of the gate, hitting .184 through his first two weeks with the Kane County Cougars. However, he has been on an absolute tear over the past 12 days and is reminding everyone why he was so highly touted coming into this season. Over a 12-day span, Herrera has raised his batting average nearly 100 points to .280. He has also hit five extra-base hits and has stolen five bases. In total for the season, Herrera is seven for seven in the steals category and has three homers, five doubles and a triple in 82 at-bats. He has driven in 18 runs and has jump-started a Kane County offense that had struggled for much of the season until his recent hot streak. Although his cannon right-arm might be better suited long-term for right-field, Herrera has recently been showing off his fleet feet in center for the Cougars. He is arguably the A’s best five-tool prospect and one of the A’s best right-handed hitting prospects.
Jairo Garcia, Reliever
Despite his struggles at the end of the 2004 season, the A’s still had high expectations for the hard-throwing Garcia. In 2004, Garcia came out of nowhere to establish himself as one of the A’s top prospects, moving from low-A Kane County all the way to the big leagues. He features a high-90s fastball and a nasty slider that the A’s hope will make him a dominant set-up man or closer at the major league level in the near future. Garcia has been both of those things so far this season in the minors, first for AA-Midland and lately for AAA-Sacramento. For Midland, Garcia made 10 appearances and allowed only two earned runs in 16.2 innings pitched. He struck out 30 hitters over that stretch and converted six saves. He was promoted to AAA-Sacramento on May 10 and has converted three of four save opportunities for the River Cats (the one blown save came in an inning with two errors). Garcia has continued to strikeout AAA hitters at an impressive rate, racking up six in five innings pitched. If one of the A’s walking wounded in their bullpen has to go on the DL, Garcia could be a candidate to return to Oakland.
Jason Windsor, Starter
His ERA might be a little higher than he would like right now (4.15), but Windsor is living up to his reputation as a strike machine and a bulldog on the mound. Last year was a dream season for Windsor, who led his Cal-State Fullerton squad to the College World Series title with his gutsy pitching performance. He threw a ton of pitches for Fullerton during the CWS, so the A’s were cautious with Windsor after signing him last season. He appears no worse for wear in 2005, as he is blowing away California League hitters at an impressive rate. The rangy right-hander has struck out 54 batters and has walked only six in 43.1 innings pitched for the Stockton Ports this season. He’s had a little trouble keeping the ball in the park (five homers allowed), but has otherwise been pitching better than his ERA would indicate and he should see that number fall as the year goes on.
Best New Additions to the A’s System
These players were picked up as minor league free agents this off-season and have been big producers for the A’s system so far this year.
Jack Cust, Outfielder/First Base
Cust has always been a prototypical “Moneyball” hitter. He sees a lot of pitches, hits for a ton of power and walks a lot. However, seeing all of those pitches has also led to Cust striking out a lot, something that has prevented him from becoming a major league regular for a number of organizations. The A’s have never been afraid of strikeout totals if the rest of a player’s production numbers are good, so it seemed only logical that Cust would wind up in the A’s system when he became a minor league free agent this off-season. Cust missed most of major league spring training camp with a strained calf, so the A’s didn’t get to see him perform. However, he is making them take notice with a strong start to his season at AAA-Sacramento. He has combined with Dan Johnson to make a lethal middle of the order combination for the River Cats. Cust has a 977 OPS and is hitting .307 with a team-leading eight homeruns. He has struck out a lot (51 times), but is getting on-base at a .413 clip. Cust could be inserted into the A’s line-up later in the season if Erubiel Durazo is traded.
Shawn Garrett, Outfielder
After a productive minor league career in the Colorado Rockies, Pittsburgh Pirates and San Diego Padres chains, Garrett was signed by the A’s this off-season to a minor league contract. The A’s saw a lot of him in spring training and then assigned him to AAA-Sacramento, where he has been a steady force in the top of half of the River Cats line-up all season. Garrett is a switch-hitter who can play all three outfield positions. So far this season, he is hitting .308 with four homers and six doubles. He doesn’t walk a lot, but makes a lot of solid contact.
Andrew Beattie, Utility
After a million years (okay, only seven) in the Cincinnati Reds organization, Beattie was a free agent for the first time this off-season and he signed with the A’s. He was originally assigned to AA-Midland, where he played mostly second and third base. Beattie was a solid performer for the Rockhounds, posting a .293 batting average and an 890 OPS for Midland in 22 games. He was promoted to AAA-Sacramento at the start of May and has been a steady influence in the lead-off spot for the River Cats since his arrival. He is hitting .296 and has a .393 OBP for Sacramento in 16 games. His versatility has also helped the injury ravaged River Cats, as he has played in both the infield and the outfield for Sacramento.