There is no question that the Oakland A’s minor league system is weaker right now then it has been over the past several years. This isn’t a surprising development considering that the A’s have graduated seven of their top prospects to their major league team since 2003 (Rich Harden, Bobby Crosby, Huston Street, Nick Swisher, Joe Blanton, Justin Duchscherer and Dan Johnson) and have traded away a handful of others since 2001 (Jeremy Bonderman, Mark Teahen, Eric Hinske, Franklyn German, Angel Berroa, Jose Ortiz, Carlos Pena, etc.).
The strength of the system wasn’t helped last season when a number of the A’s top prospects lost a significant amount of development time to injuries in 2005. Many of those prospects should be back to full strength in 2006, and their progress this season could have a significant impact on the strength of the A’s system at the end of the year. Below are a few of the prospects whose recovery from injury could have a big impact on the system.
Dan Meyer, SP
Perhaps no injury had as big an impact on the A’s system as the shoulder injury of top prospect Dan Meyer. Acquired from the Atlanta Braves in December 2004 as the centerpiece of the Tim Hudson trade, Meyer was expected to join Joe Blanton and Dan Haren in the A’s revamped rotation. However, Meyer struggled from the outset of spring training and, although he wouldn’t be sidelined until early May, Meyer’s performance was clearly affected by the injury. He would miss roughly two months before returning in late June. Although he would make 12 more appearances (10 starts and two relief appearances) between June 23 and August 20, he would return to the disabled list for good with a sore shoulder at the end of August.
The uncertainty surrounding Meyer has had a definite effect on the A’s off-season this year. Had Meyer been the pitcher last season that he was with Atlanta in 2004, the A’s probably wouldn’t have needed to sign Esteban Loaiza to a long-term contract. They also may have moved Barry Zito for a hitter. Meyer’s performance in 2006 could have a similar impact to the A’s transaction-making decisions at the July trade deadline or next off-season. It is easy to forget after his struggles last season that when he was healthy, Meyer was one of the top left-handed prospects in baseball. If he pitches well during the first half of the season for Sacramento, he could force the A’s to move one of their starting five by mid-season.
Landon Powell, C
Perhaps it was an omen for what would happen to the A’s throughout the 2005 season. The February 3rd news that 2004 first round choice Landon Powell had suffered a knee injury was troublesome at the time. The news became even worse when it was learned that Powell would miss the entire year with a torn ACL. Powell was the first player chosen by the A’s in 2004 and big things were expected of the switch-hitting backstop in 2005. He had drawn comparisons to Jason Varitek in college and he was expected to be at the head of the class of A’s catching prospects. He was also 22 at the time he was drafted, so he didn’t have too many years to waste on the DL.
It is unclear where Powell stands in terms of his mobility at this time and a knee injury to a catcher is always a worry. However, if he is healthy, Powell will be a player to pay close attention to in 2006. He’ll be 24 in March and will probably start the season at High-A, so he’ll need to play well right away to maintain his status as a top prospect. Stockton should be a good place for him to put up good offensive numbers, especially from the left-side with the “home run porch” out to right at the Ports’ Banner Island Ballpark. Because of his age, the A’s will not hesitate to move Powell up in the organization if he plays well. He’ll probably need to have had some significant time in AA-Midland by the end of this season to remain a significant part of the A’s plans for the future.
Brian Snyder, 3B
As a third baseman, Brian Snyder may be blocked at the major league level by Eric Chavez, but that doesn’t mean that Snyder’s development isn’t very important to the A’s system. Snyder could become a tremendous trade chip for the A’s if he continues to post numbers similar to the ones he posted in 2004 for Kane County (905 OPS) before missing the entire 2005 season with leg injuries. The right-handed hitter has a career on-base percentage of .417 and slugged at .484 in the pitching-friendly Midwest League in 2004. He is also a good fielding third baseman.
Like Powell, Snyder will be 24 at the start of the 2006 campaign. However, unlike Powell, Snyder has had a full season in A-ball under his belt and should start in AA. Snyder has an advanced understanding of the strike zone, and told OaklandClubhouse.com that he is in the best shape of his career, which should prevent any lingering affects of his injury. If he gets off to a good start this season, he could easily see time at AAA by the end of the year and could be in the mix for a major league roster spot for some team during the 2007 season.
Jason Windsor and Dallas Braden, SP
Perhaps it is strange that we would include two pitchers who threw well enough in 2005 to advance from Single-A to Double-AA, but both hurlers ended the season on the DL, making it difficult to evaluate their adjustment to AA completely. Jason Windsor, a 2004 draftee and former star of the Cal-State Fullerton team who won the College World Series, made ten starts with the Stockton Ports and displayed jaw-dropping control.
The right-hander struck out 64 in 55.1 innings and walked only eight. He had one game where he struck out 13 and walked one and another where he struck out 11 and walked none. However, after three starts with the Midland Rockhounds, he was shut down for three weeks. He returned in early July and made eight more starts before being shut down for good in late August. Windsor’s control was never the same after he developed the arm soreness, so it is hard to say whether his 5.72 ERA and 39:23 K:BB in AA were a result of the arm soreness or a difficult transition to AA. He’ll probably get another chance at AA to start the 2006 season.
Dallas Braden had a similar season to Windsor. He also began the year in Stockton and was so outstanding he earned an early promotion to AA. Braden struck out 64 in 43.2 innings for the Ports. He was promoted to AA in mid-May and continued to pitch well for awhile. He posted a 2.61 ERA in May and a 3.23 ERA in June. However, his ERA jumped to 4.98 in July and he had one poor start in August before being shut down with arm soreness. Like Windsor, it is hard to judge whether Braden’s struggles in July had to do with AA hitters learning to hit him better or whether those struggles were strictly injury-related. Although neither Windsor nor Braden project to be top of the rotation starters, they could compete for a fifth starter or bullpen spot at the major league level as soon as 2007 if they pitch well in 2006. They could also be attractive to teams without a lot of pitching depth, similar to how Mario Ramos was attractive to the Texas Rangers in 2002.
Brad Knox, SP
Brad Knox, like Braden and Windsor, actually pitched for most of the season. However, he pitched at one level lower then he was expected to because of a bout of arm soreness that kept him at extended spring training until mid-May. Knox was one of the best pitchers in the Midwest League in 2004 and was expected to be an important part of the Midland rotation in 2005. Instead, he pitched in high-A Stockton and is now one level behind where we expected him to be at the start of the season. Knox also has a back condition which he will have to manage for the rest of his career. However, he made it through 20 starts in 2005 without injury and expects to be at 100% to start the 2006 season. Knox had a 1.06 WHIP and a 174:24 K:BB ratio in 2004 for the Cougars. If he can get close to those numbers for Midland in 2006, he could shoot up the prospect lists.
John Rheinecker, SP
It seems that John Rheinecker has been on the verge of making the major leagues for three seasons now. 2005 presented his best opportunity to make that leap, but an unfortunate injury to a tendon in his pitching hand forced him to miss out on a golden chance to get that big league call-up. Rheinecker began the year 4-0 with a 1.77 ERA in seven starts before injuring that finger. While he was on the sidelines, Rheinecker had to watch as guys like Ryan Glynn and Seth Etherton were given starts with the A’s due an injury to Rich Harden. Rheinecker missed the entire rest of the season with the finger injury and had to sit out the winter league season, so it is hard to determine whether those seven starts were for real or a result of a freakishly low amount of hits allowed per nine innings.
It is not clear whether Rheinecker will be 100% by spring training. Even if he is, Rheinecker will likely return to Sacramento for a fourth season. If he pitches well, he could still be considered during the season for a spot on the A’s pitching roster if someone gets hurt. However, he’ll have more competition for that role this year (Kirk Saarloos, Joe Kennedy, Juan Cruz, Chad Gaudin, Shane Komine and Matt Roney will all be in the running), so it remains to be seen if Rheinecker’s best chance at a big league spot has passed him by.
Shane Komine, SP
Right-hander Shane Komine could have been on this list last season, as he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2004. The surgery caused him to miss the first three months of the 2005 season and he didn’t return to AA (where he had been before the surgery) until early August. What puts Komine on this list is his performance from early August through the end of the season. The right-hander tossed 31.1 regular season innings for the Rockhounds, striking out 33 and walking only seven. He then pitched well in the playoffs for the Rockhounds, helping them win a championship. His strong late-season performance earned him a trip to the prospect-showcase Arizona Fall League. He pitched well for the Phoenix Desert Dogs, posting an ERA of 1.14 in 23.2 innings in a league where most of the pitchers sported ERAs in the 5.00s or 6.00s.
Komine’s performance at the end of the season was extremely positive. However, it makes one wonder where he could have been had he not needed surgery in 2004. As it is, Komine should be one-step from the big leagues at AAA-Sacramento in 2006 and he could position himself to compete for a spot in the back of the A’s rotation or in the bullpen by 2007.