1) The System Bears Fruit
The 2005 season will likely be remembered as a season that validated the quality of the Oakland A’s minor league system. The A’s have made it to the final two weeks of the season right in the thick of the playoff race in large part due to the play of four remarkable rookies. All four rookies – Joe Blanton, Nick Swisher, Dan Johnson and Huston Street – were drafted and raised by the A’s and all four have made an immediate impact in the major leagues.
Two of the rookies were expected to be important cogs when the season began. Swisher and Blanton were tasked with replacing important members of the A’s 2004 squad, Jermaine Dye and Mark Mulder, and both have done admirable jobs. Despite missing nearly a month with a shoulder injury, Swisher has nearly replaced all of Dye’s 2004 production (20 HR/71 RBI for Swisher in ’05; 23 HR/80 RBI for Dye in ’04) and his ability to play both right field and first base has given the A’s a new dimension of line-up flexibility.
As for Blanton, he has been better then anyone could have dreamed. After an inconsistent 2004 season at AAA, expectations for Blanton entering the 2005 season were relatively low. However, after a rough month of May, Blanton has been one of the top five pitchers in all of the American League. Blanton has a good shot at topping the 200 inning plateau (he is at 187.1 through last night’s start) and he has limited opposing batters to a 701 OPS (Mulder allowed a 751 OPS last year). Despite a slow start with strikeouts, Blanton is up to a respectable 5.14 K/9 and he has shown Mulder-like control. Blanton has taken on the Tim Hudson-mantle of living with no run support and, while he could easily have five more wins then he does, Blanton is still poised to break the A’s rookie record for wins with one more.
The A’s two other rookies were not being looked at as key cogs when the season began, but their excellent performance has pushed them into the limelight. Huston Street became the first member of the 2004 draft class to make the major leagues when the A’s broke camp, but he was expected to be a middle reliever when the season began. However, when Juan Cruz fell apart and Octavio Dotel and Kiko Calero were felled by injuries, Street was pushed into the late-innings of the bullpen rotation. And when Dotel was shelved for the season, Street was named the team’s closer despite having less than a year of professional baseball experience. Street has not disappointed. He has 21 saves, a WHIP under 1.00 and an ERA under 2.00. The only reliever in the American League with similar numbers is a guy named Mariano Rivera. Not bad company for a rookie.
Dan Johnson started camp as the forgotten man. Despite an MVP season at AAA in 2004, Johnson was passed over for a roster spot at the start of camp. However, after Erubiel Durazo went on the DL with what became a season-ending injury, Johnson stepped in and quickly secured his spot in the everyday line-up. Although Johnson has slumped lately, he has been one of the A’s most consistent hitters since June 1 and he has been one of the team’s best sources of power (especially on the road). He has done surprisingly well versus left-handed pitching and he has shown a veteran’s presence in the batter’s box.
2) Daric Barton Lives Up To Expectations
With all of the hype surrounding Daric Barton’s arrival into the organization this off-season, it was hard to imagine that the teenager could ever live up to those expectations. However, the precocious youngster was everything the A’s hoped he’d be when they made him the centerpiece of the Mark Mulder deal this off-season. Barton began the season at High-A Stockton and, after a slow start caused by two spring training ailments, Barton posted a 901 OPS and a .318 BA for the Ports. After a July 4 promotion to AA, Barton nearly duplicated those numbers by posting a 901 OPS and a .316 BA. Barton’s homerun power hasn’t completely developed yet, but the rest of his game is close to major league-ready. He is heading to the Arizona Fall League to show his stuff against the game’s best prospects. With Dan Haren and Kiko Calero already producing at the big league level for the A’s and Barton well on his way to the show, the Mark Mulder deal is looking more and more like a classic Billy Beane fleecing.
3) Kevin Melillo Comes Out Of Nowhere
When the season began, middle infielder Omar Quintanilla was firmly ensconced as the A’s top middle infield prospect. However, after a slow start to the season and the rise of second baseman Kevin Melillo, Quintanilla was deemed expendable. The Texas alum netted the A’s two valuable pitchers in Joe Kennedy and Jay Witasick and their middle infield depth didn’t miss a beat with the play of Melillo. Melillo, a 2004 draft pick, began the year at low-A Kane County. He, like many of the Cougars, struggled during a frigid month of May in the Midwest. However, when the weather warmed in June, so did Melillo’s bat. He was promoted to A-Stockton on July 4 after posting a 856 OPS for the Cougars. He then went on a month-long tear where he carried the Ports offensively. Melillo hit an even .400 with nine homeruns and a staggering .800 slugging percentage in only 22 games for the Ports. That performance earned him a promotion to AA-Midland, where his hot-hitting continued. In 35 games for the Rockhounds, Melillo hit seven homeruns and drove in 34. For the season, Melillo played in 135 games and hit .305 with 24 homeruns and 93 runs batted in. He also stole 21 bases in 27 chances.
4) Outfielders Perform
With the exception of Nick Swisher, the A’s have had trouble developing outfielders over the past decade. That trend might be turning based on the play of a number of the A’s outfield prospects this season. Andre Ethier and Danny Putnam were particularly impressive. Ethier, a 2003 draft pick, began the season as a question mark after off-season back surgery. However, he returned to the field healthy and he took off at the plate. The smooth-swinging lefty captured the Texas League MVP award after a season that saw him hit .319 with 18 homers and 80 runs batted in. Ethier was promoted to AAA for the playoffs and will be participating in the Arizona Fall League in October.
Putnam had a similar season one level behind Ethier. The Stanford alum played the regular season with the Stockton Ports. He hit an even .300 and was the only A’s minor leaguer to reach the 100 RBI plateau. He also showed improvement with his footwork and throwing in the outfield. Putnam was promoted to AA for the playoffs and had a couple of key hits during Midland’s title run. Midland outfielders Jason Perry and Brian Stavisky also had good seasons. Perry was a post-season Texas League All-Star, and he led the Rockhounds with 22 homeruns. Stavisky, the 2004 California League MVP, posted his second consecutive .300 season with a .318 batting average. He also drove in a team-high 88 runs and had a .398 OBP. At Sacramento, outfielders Matt Watson and Jack Cust were the team’s best hitters and both could challenge for a fourth outfielder spot with the A’s next season if they are still with the organization. Outfielder Javier Herrera had his campaign marred by a suspension and a late-season wrist injury, but he still managed to flash all five of his tools and earn post-season Midwest League All-Star honors.
5) Relief Pitching Shines
As the A’s learned in 2004, a team can never have too much relief pitching. Fortunately for the A’s, it looks like they will have a bumper crop of relievers over the next few seasons. A number of relief pitchers had outstanding seasons in the A’s system. The entire Midland bullpen was outstanding and was the key element in the Rockhounds’ title run. Jairo Garcia began the season as the A’s top relief prospect (not named Huston Street, of course) and he had a solid campaign. Garcia began the season dominating hitters at AA, and he was quickly promoted to AAA-Sacramento. While with the River Cats, Garcia set a franchise record for games saved with 20. His ERA was inflated in Sacramento (4.47), but he struck out a remarkable 73 batters in 48.1 innings and whittled his walk total down to 20.
Fellow River Cat reliever Ron Flores also had a solid campaign. The lefty was a PCL All-Star for the River Cats in 2004, but wasn’t in the mix for a 2005 roster spot with the A’s. He returned to Sacramento and pitched his way into the A’s consciousness. Flores posted a 2.39 ERA in 60.1 innings for Sacramento. He struck out 66 batters over that stretch. That performance earned him a pair of mid-season call-ups, and he was impressive in most of his outings, allowing only one run in seven big league innings. Flores could replace Ricardo Rincon in the A’s bullpen next season if Rincon does not return.
Midland’s Shawn Kohn should probably receive the Ironman Award for A’s minor league relievers after a season that saw him log 84 innings in 55 appearances. Kohn filled a variety of roles for the Rockhounds, working at times as a middle reliever, a set-up man and a closer. He was effective in all three roles, posting a 2.89 ERA and striking out 92 batters. Perhaps most impressive was his control, as Kohn walked only 20. Stockton closer Jared Burton also had a good season. Burton was named the Ports’ closer mid-season, and he responded by setting the Cal League record for most saves in a month. He finished the year with 24 saves and 67 strike outs in 55.1 innings.
In Vancouver, a trio of 2005 late-round picks made their marks out of the Canadians’ bullpen. Brad Davis was practically unhittable for the C’s, posting a microscopic 0.53 ERA in 23 appearances. He struck out 44 batters in 34.1 innings and walked only nine. Closer Brad Kilby saved 14 games for the C’s while posting a 1.95 ERA. And set-up man Jason Ray struck out 56 batters in only 29.2 innings.
6) A Few Starting Pitching Surprises
In what was a down year generally for A’s minor league starting pitchers, there were a few surprise gems. Left-hander Dallas Braden was the system’s biggest surprise, as the 2004 low-round draft pick burst onto the scene with a big season. He began the year at A-Stockton, where he dominated California League pitching to the tune of a 6-0 record with a 2.68 ERA and 64 strike outs in 43.1 innings pitched. Braden was promoted to Midland in mid-May and he won nine more games for the Rockhounds, going 9-5 with a 3.90 ERA before a tired arm shut him down in August.
Starter Shane Komine made a surprisingly strong return from Tommy John surgery. Although he missed most of the season, Komine made an impact at the end of the year, as he was the Rockhounds’ best pitcher in August and September. He struck out 55 batters in 48.1 innings this season and was very effective in the Texas League playoffs. Komine will be competing in the Arizona Fall League this October. He was one of the A’s top pitching prospects before getting hurt in 2004, so his strong return bodes well for the A’s.
Mike Madsen, another low-round 2005 draft choice, had an eye-opening year for the short-season Canadians. The Ohio State product went 6-1 with a 1.69 ERA in 12 starts (15 appearances). He allowed only 56 hits in 80 innings of work and gave up only two homeruns. Madsen also sported a nifty 68:14 K:BB ratio.
7) 2005 Draft Class Off To Fast Start
In addition to the pitchers mentioned earlier in this article, the 2005 draft class has already seen big dividends in a number of areas. Although this class doesn’t contain any near-major league ready prospects like the 2004 class did with Street, the 2005 class does have some advanced prospects. Top picks Cliff Pennington and Travis Buck spent the bulk of their seasons in low-A Kane County rather than the short-season or rookie league. Both players acquitted themselves well at that level. Pennington showed good instincts at the top of the batting order and tremendous speed, and Buck hit over .340 and drove in 22 runs in 32 games.
High school draftees Craig Italiano and Jared Lansford were also impressive in their professional debuts. Scouts deemed Italiano’s fastball as one of the best in the Arizona Rookie League. He threw in the high-90s without much effort for much of the summer. Lansford was classified as the most advanced high school pitcher in the Arizona Rookie League and his stats reflected that. Lansford posted a 1.27 ERA in 21.1 innings, and he struck out 20 batters. He should move quickly through the A’s system. The third high draft pick, high school pitcher chosen by the A’s, Vincent Mazzaro, was signed late and never made an appearance this season. However, the fact he signed at all is a victory, as he was close to enrolling in college.
8) 2004 Draft Class Still Going Strong
The A’s 2004 draft class was highly regarded by many baseball pundits, and the 2004 draftees are continuing to show why in 2005. Huston Street led the way for the 2004 class by making it to the big leagues in less than a year. Kevin Melillo impressed at three levels this season. Danny Putnam was a star for Stockton and played well for the AA-Rockhounds in the playoffs. Catcher Kurt Suzuki had an excellent spring training with the big league club and a solid campaign for Stockton. He will be heading to Arizona for the Fall League. Outfielder Richie Robnett struggled with consistency, but showed tremendous power. He hit 20 homeruns and drove in 74 in only 115 games. Youngster Ryan Webb showed flashes of great promise as a starting pitcher at low-A Kane County despite being only 19 years old. First baseman Tom Everidge finished second on the Cougars with 66 RBIs despite missing time with injury, and he posted an 852 OPS.
9) Speed Makes An Appearance
The A’s have not done much base-stealing at a major league level and their minor league teams have typically followed suit. In 2005, however, the running returned to the A’s system in a big way. Oakland had a number of minor league players with more than 15 stolen bases, including Melillo (21), Pennington (25), Herrera (26), Nick Blasi (19 in 20 chances), Freddie Bynum (23), Andre Piper-Jordan (20) and Charles Thomas (16). This added speed could give the A’s offensive approach a slightly different look in a few years.
10) The Winning Ways Continued
Once again, the A’s managed to have winning ballclubs at every level this season. Every club went to the playoffs, with the exception of the Kane County Cougars, who finished one game out. The Midland Rockhounds won both halves of their division title and won the Texas League championship for the first time in 30 years. Sacramento won its third straight division title and have now made the playoffs in every season save one of their existence. Stockton won their second-half division title, and Vancouver rode a strong pitching staff to secure their division crown. The A’s Rookie League team had one of the best offenses in the desert, as well. The A’s are in the running to lead baseball in organizational winning percentage (including the big league club) for the second year in a row.