2010 Kane County Cougars Preview

All eyes will be on Max Stassi this season.

The Oakland A's 2009 draft class will be well-represented in Kane County this season. We take a closer look at the 2010 Kane County Cougars inside...

2009 In Review

The Kane County Cougars took the drama out of the playoff race early last season, clinching a post-season spot with a first-half division title. It was a good thing that the Cougars clinched early because Kane County struggled after the All-Star break thanks to a plethora of player promotions and injuries. The Cougars fell in the first round of the playoffs. Kane County's pitching staff finished fourth in the league in team ERA, but the offense finished in the lower half of the league in runs scored.

Offense

The 2010 Cougars position players are a mix of polished collegiate draft picks (mostly from the 2009 class) and young, raw prospects, some drafted out of high school or junior college and others developed through the A's Latin American program.

The headliner of this group is 19-year-old Max Stassi. Stassi was the A's fourth-round pick in 2009, but he was signed for an above-slot contract commiserate with being a first-round selection. Since signing with the A's, Stassi has done nothing but impress those who have seen him play, both at the plate and behind it. Stassi figures to handle the bulk of the catching duties with the Cougars this year, even though Kane County is carrying three catchers. Although expectations should always be tempered for young hitters tackling the pitching-friendly Midwest League, Stassi could still be in for a big year. He homered in one of his three at-bats in big league camp this spring and he hit .286 in 13 games in the Northwest League last season.

Stassi will be joined in the everyday line-up by fellow 19-year-olds Rashun Dixon and Nino Leyja. Dixon and Leyja were both selected out of high school by the A's in the 2008 draft. After excelling with the A's Rookie League team in Arizona in 2008, Dixon, an outfielder, spent the entire 2009 season with the short-season Vancouver Canadians, where he struggled to the tune of a .214 average in 57 games. Dixon redeemed himself during the A's fall Instructional League, winning the MVP of the camp. A five-tool talent, Dixon was a star football player, as well as a baseball player, in high school and he is arguably the most talented player in the A's system. He is relatively raw, however, having spent so much time on football in high school, so he could have his ups and downs this season with the Cougars.

Leyja, an infielder, actually spent much of the second half of last season with the Cougars. He was originally ticketed to spend the short-season with Vancouver like Dixon did, but when injuries ravaged the Cougars' infield, Leyja was promoted to Kane County for the remainder of the season. Unfortunately, Leyja suffered a freak injury of his own, getting spiked on a play at second base, so he played in only 33 games with the Cougars. He hit only .231, but he was by far the youngest player on the Cougars' roster last year and he should be more comfortable at the plate and in the field this time around.

Athleticism reigns supreme in the Cougars' outfield. Like Dixon, centerfielder Tyreace House was a high school football star before deciding to stick with baseball. The 22-year-old has above-average speed and a lead-off hitter's patience at the plate. He had a strong season for Vancouver in 2009, hitting .291 with a .365 OBP. Over the off-season, the A's sent House to the Dominican Republic to work on honing his lead-off hitting skills and improve on his base-running. House stole 19 bases last season and is a strong candidate to steal 20 or more this year.

Myrio Richard was the A's ninth-round selection last season. The younger brother of current Midland Rockhounds' infielder Michael Richard, Myrio hit .259 in 57 games for the A's two short-season affiliates last season. Like his brother, Myrio has a good eye at the plate. He has decent speed, but isn't the base-stealer that his brother is (Michael holds the Cougars' team record for stolen bases). However, Myrio has a lot more power than Michael and could reach double-digits in homeruns this season.

Kent Walton, the A's 23rd round pick last season, is coming off of a strong professional debut campaign with Vancouver. He hit .296 with 20 doubles in only 67 games for Vancouver. Most of those games came at the designated hitter position, as Walton was recovering from shoulder surgery that was performed during the fall of 2008. His arm should be 100 percent this season. Walton was actually selected by the A's in the 2008 draft, but elected to play his 2009 season at BYU before being re-drafted by Oakland. Walton has experience both in the outfield and at second base.

Franklin Hernandez is one of the few returning members of the Cougars' 2009 squad. The left-fielder was the team leader in games played last year, appearing in 122 contests. Hernandez struggled, batting only .225. Plate patience was a major problem for Hernandez, as he struck-out 115 times and walked only 23 times. He has a powerful bat, but needs to be more selective in terms of what he swings at to improve on his 2009 showing. Hernandez can play first base, as well as the corner outfield positions.

Like Walton and Hernandez, Conner Crumbliss can play in the outfield and in the infield. Crumbliss may get the majority of his playing time this season at second base, but he should also see some starts in center, as well. Crumbliss was a standout performer last season after being selected by the A's in the 28th round of the June draft. In 57 games for Vancouver, Crumbliss hit .293 with a .425 OBP and an 830 OPS. He won the Canadians' MVP award. Crumbliss was promoted to Kane County for the final two weeks of the season and he continued to perform well, batting .280 with an 838 OPS in 50 at-bats. He should hit at or near the top of the Cougars' batting order throughout the season.

Leonardo Gil returns to Kane County after appearing in 53 games with the Cougars last season. The middle infielder hit .263 in 217 at-bats. Gil can play all over the infield. He has decent speed, but is still learning the correct running situations. Gil was successful only nine out of 17 stolen base attempts last season.

Shortstop Michael Gilmartin rounds out the infield. The A's 27th round pick last season appeared in 60 games for Vancouver in 2009. He hit .232 with three homers in 228 at-bats. In college, Gilmartin showed good power. He has a strong arm and was a two-way player, also serving as the Wofford closer at times.

Anthony Aliotti is the only true first baseman on the Cougars' roster. The Saint Mary's College alum drew raves from the A's minor league coaching staff for his work defensively last season. Aliotti spent all of his 2009 professional debut season with Vancouver, and he hit .239 with a .351 OBP in 60 games for the Canadians.

Joining Stassi behind the plate this season in Kane County will be Chris Affinito and Juan Nunez. Affinito was a feel-good story last season. Undrafted out of Seton Hall, Affinito opened some eyes by hitting an even .300 with an 823 OPS in 180 at-bats for the A's Rookie League team. Nunez will be with Kane County once again after spending all of the 2009 season with the Cougars. He also spent part of the 2008 campaign with Kane County. Nunez hit .224 in 51 games for Kane County in 2009.

Pitching

The Cougars' 2010 opener was delayed a day by snow, but when Kane County finally takes the field for the first time, right-hander Jonathan Joseph is expected to get the start. Joseph is a 20-year-old right-hander from the Dominican Republic. He made 16 appearances for the Vancouver Canadians last season, posting a 4.94 ERA in 54.2 innings. Joseph has a low-90s fastball that he can ramp up to 95 MPH at times. He also has an above-average curveball. Consistency has been a big issue for Joseph in his young career, but he showed improvement this spring.

Following Joseph will be right-hander Robert Gilliam, who was the A's eighth-round pick last season. Gilliam made only eight appearances as a pro in 2009, thanks to some arm soreness. He posted a 3.86 ERA in 11.2 innings with 13 strike-outs for the A's two short-season affiliates. Gilliam is a three-pitch pitcher, with a low-90s fastball, curveball and change-up.

Two of the most high-profile draft picks made by the A's last season will join Gilliam and Joseph in the rotation: left-handers Justin Marks and Ian Krol. Marks was the A's second pick in last year's draft (third round). The southpaw out of Louisville was considered a polished pitcher coming out of college, but his progression through the A's system was side-tracked briefly when he suffered a leg injury during his first professional outing. He missed the rest of the season and the Instructional League. If healthy, Marks could have a big season for Kane County and could be up in High-A Stockton by mid-season.

Krol is the youngest player on the Cougars' roster, as he won't turn 19 until May. The left-hander will be pitching very close to home (Naperville, Illinois). Krol was a seventh-round selection by the A's, but the team went over-slot and signed him to late-first round money. Krol already has three pitches, a fastball, change-up and curveball. The A's will likely be careful with Krol's innings total this season and they may pair him with another starter to "piggy-back" starts (meaning that both pitchers would be scheduled to throw four or five innings in the game).

One of the candidates to share starts with Krol will be right-hander Connor Hoehn, who was the A's 12th-round pick last season. Hoehn pitched mostly in relief in 2009 for the A's two short-season affiliates and he was dominant, posting a 1.35 ERA and saving seven games. He struck-out 28 in 20 innings. Hoehn has a starter's pitch-mix, which includes a lively fastball and an above-average change-up and breaking ball.

Daniel Straily should also be in the starting rotation. The A's 2009 24th-round pick made 11 starts and five relief appearances for Vancouver last season. He went 5-3 and posted a 4.12 ERA. Straily struck-out 66 batters and walked only 18 in 59 innings for the Canadians last season.

Hector Garcia is another candidate to start games for the Cougars this season. The rangy Dominican right-hander pitched for Arizona, Vancouver and Stockton last season, posting a 7.62 ERA in 41.2 innings. He started 10 games and relieved in five. Garcia has a strong arm, but he has struggled with his control at times.

Right-hander Jose Guzman figures to get a lot of the save chances for Kane County this season. The right-hander spent much of last season with the Cougars and he had a 5.01 ERA and four saves. He also had a 2.61 ERA and six saves for Vancouver. Guzman has good stuff and he struck-out 45 in 42.2 innings last season. He was a Northwest League post-season All-Star in 2008.

A.J. Huttenlocker, another standout performer among last year's draft class, returns to Kane County after he posted a 2.74 ERA in 23 innings for the Cougars last season. Huttenlocker also had a 2.70 ERA in 13.1 innings for the Arizona A's. The only lefty in the Cougars' bullpen, Huttenlocker demonstrated impeccable command last season, walking only four and striking out 45 in 36.1 innings. He also allowed only 27 hits.

Right-hander Chris Mederos, the A's 25th round pick last season, is also a control artist. In 21 innings for the A's Rookie League team in 2009, Mederos had a 2.14 ERA and a 26:2 K:BB ratio. Mederos features an above-average cut-fastball.

Bo Schultz will make his full-season affiliate debut with the Cougars this season. An undrafted free agent out of Northwestern in 2008, Schultz worked his way onto a full-season affiliate roster by posting a 2.66 ERA in 44 innings for Vancouver last season. Schultz is a side-armer. He allowed only 29 hits last season and he struck-out 48.

Josh Lansford rounds out the Cougars' bullpen. Signed by the A's at the tail-end of spring training, Lansford is in his second full year as a pitcher after beginning his career as a third baseman. He is the second member of his family to pitch for the Cougars. His younger brother Jared was a starter for Kane County in 2006.

Coaching Staff

The Cougars will have a different manager in 2010 than they did in 2009, but he is hardly new to Cougars' fans. Aaron Nieckula returns to Kane County after he spent the 2009 season as the manager of the Stockton Ports. Nieckula was the skipper for the Cougars in 2007 and 2008. He has a career managerial record of 196-221. The former minor league catcher is from the Chicagoland area and he attended the University of Illinois.

Haas Pratt is returning for his third season as a hitting coach after he was a player in the A's system for three seasons. Pratt was a 30th round pick of the A's in 2004. Last season, four Cougars hitters were named to the Midwest League All-Star team.

Jimmy Escalante will be the Cougars' pitching coach for a second consecutive season. Escalante previously served as a pitching coach for Vancouver in 2008 and the A's Rookie League team in 2007. He was a player in the Baltimore Orioles organization from 1996 through 1999.

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