OaklandClubhouse Mailbag #8

In this week's edition of the OaklandClubhouse mailbag, Todd Morgan handles questions about potential trades, A's minor league pitching prospects and the overall depth of the A's system.

For the last 4/5 years, Oakland has been built on pitching. With Blanton already in the majors, who might be the next young arms we see coming out of the minors?

-Jeff Walker, Mountain View, CA

The easy answer here is lefty Dan Meyer, whom the A's acquired from Atlanta in the Tim Hudson trade. Unfortunately, Meyer has been slowed by a shoulder stain he suffered and subsequently hid from team trainers during spring training. He is on the shelf right now with no clear idea of when he will resume throwing. With the right breaks, Meyer, 24, will return at or around the All-Star break and use a healthy arm to put up solid numbers in July and August. If that happens a September call-up is all but guaranteed.

Beyond Meyer the discussion becomes much murkier. We've already seen Jairo Garcia in the big leagues for a few days, but I have a feeling you are referring more to starters than relievers. In that case, the AAA cupboard is pretty bare when it comes to prospects.

John Rheinecker started the year pounding the zone better than he had in any of his previous work since the A's drafted him in the first round (37th overall) of the 2001 draft, but he has been on the DL since the 13th of May with a sore middle finger on his pitching hand. Today is June 21st, so that must be one nasty finger injury. In any case, Rheinecker is 4-0 with a 1.77 ERA and 0.94 WHIP to date, all excellent figures. His K/BB ratio (24/14) and K/9 ratio (4.8) aren't all that impressive though, and his age (26) and lack of extended performance don't bode well for his potential big league impact. My guess is that he will be most effective as a one or two inning reliever in the Majors.

At the lower levels, the organization's best arms have attained that status through performance rather than projectable talent. Lefty Dallas Braden and righty Jason Windsor, currently pitching at AA Midland, lead the talent crop. Braden (6'1, 185 pounds, 21 years-old) was a 24th round pick in 2004 and has performed beyond expectations ever since. He added 5-7 mph between college and the pro ranks, and now his fastball consistently sits in the high 80s/low 90s. Nothing special, but when coupled with his devastating screwball it is sufficient. In seven starts in AA, Braden is 5-2 with a 2.61 ERA, a 37/14 K/BB and only 39 hits allowed in 48 innings. Prior to that, Braden excelled at Single-A Stockton, going 6-0 in seven starts with a 2.68 ERA and 64/11 K/BB.

Windsor (6'2, 220, 22 years-old), who was chosen by Oakland in the 3rd round of the 2004 draft, also started the season at Stockton, where he posted a 2-2 record and 3.58 ERA in ten starts, with an incredible 64/8 K/BB in 55 innings. He has followed a similar development curve to Braden's since his promotion to Midland, going 1-1 with a 2.41 ERA and 17/7 K/BB in 18 innings. In other words, his ERA has improved while his K/BB has declined slightly.

The K/BB isn't a huge concern, as the adjustment to better hitters often manifests in higher pitch counts and higher walk totals. The key is that neither has seen a decline in strikeouts per inning, meaning that stuff is still there. The walk totals will likely improve for both as they acclimate to the new talent level of the league.

But where do Braden and Windsor project as big leaguers? Very tough to say. Neither has the stuff that traditionally translates to a dominant big league career. It is possible that either or both could wind up as 4th or 5th starters in the big leagues, though my own opinion is that any big league impact they will have will be as relievers.

Beyond those two, the A's have a few projectable arms, but none who are currently coupling their tools with good performance. The names to watch for are RHPs Ryan Webb, Michael Rogers and Jared Trout, as well as all the high school righties selected early on in the 2005 draft (Craig Italiano, Jared Lansford, Vincent Mazzaro, Scott Deal and Kevin Bunch. Brad Knox, a 2002 draftee who began 2005 on the DL, is pitching well at Stockton, though he is a old for the level at age 23.

How does the A's minor league system rank among the other organizations in Major League Baseball? Doesn't it seem like the system has plenty of depth but lacks the clear-cut dynamite prospects that other teams have?

-Drew from San Rafael, CA

I'd say that the A's farm system ranks somewhere in the upper-third of the Majors, behind the Angels, Twins, Dodgers, and Brewers, and on par with the Rockies, Devil Rays, Braves and Indians.

Your take on the overall makeup of the system is spot on. They have depth from Sacramento to Kane County, with a lot of players who figure to see Major League action at some point in their careers. The number of potential impact players is negligible though, with only seven or eight players in the system who project as Major League regulars on well-rounded clubs.

This is simply a result of the team's draft and development strategy since the late 1990s when they began targeting college players almost exclusively. The theory is that not all clubs will be well-rounded, leaving many (like the Kansas City Royals) with holes to fill at the big league level and therefore interested in ML-ready prospects with relatively low ceilings (like Mark Teahen).

The success of the theory is easy to see. While the A's haven't developed many impact position players over the last few years, they have been able to turn that organizational depth into meaningful trades, such as Jose Ortiz and Mario Encarnacion (both free agents from Latin America) for Jermaine Dye, Teahen and Mike Wood for Octavio Dotel, Neal Cotts and Daylan Holt (along with Billy Koch) for Keith Foulke and Ben Grieve for Johnny Damon. From that perspective it is hard to argue with the club's methods.

One thing to note is that the A's have discovered and signed several Latin American players in recent years that provide high-impact upside while not costing as much as a similar player acquired through the draft. Anyone who saw Jairo Garcia hit 97-98 mph last Friday at the Coliseum will agree that he provides plenty of electricity and upside. Furthermore, Javier Herrera and Alexi Ogando are two of the team's most impressive and exciting prospects, offering five-tool talent along with excellent financial value. Both are raw and a long way from Oakland, but they are also young. Expect one or both to be mashing in the bigs by 2008.

There have been a million rumors about the A's trading veteran players like Barry Zito and Mark Kotsay for prospects. What area would the A's be looking to beef up if they do make a trade for prospects?

-Kevin, Philadelphia

The organization is definitely lacking in pitching prospects right now, which leads me to believe that any trade of Kotsay or Zito will bring a return of at least one premium arm each. Beyond that I don't think Billy Beane will look for anything in particular; blue chip talent will be sufficient.

Names that have been thrown around in connection to Kotsay and Zito are Mets pitching prospects Yusmeiro Petit and Gaby Hernandez, Yankees righthander Philip Hughes and Phillies righty Gavin Floyd. All of these players fit the profile of what Beane will seek – projectable pitchers with good track records who are very close to the Majors. I wouldn't be surprised, though, if the A's wound up with a very high-end and ML-ready hitter like Carlos Quentin.

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