Down on the farm

A’s director of player personnel Billy Owens was kind enough to share his thoughts on some of the team’s top prospects recently. Owens’ duties take him to every corner of the globe looking for players for the A’s to sign. During the offseason, he spends much of his time evaluating A’s minor leaguers playing in winter league and instructional league ball. For this blog, we stuck to prospects who saw action this offseason, so no updates on blue-chippers like Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill and Vin Mazzaro, who took the winter off. … ESPN’s Keith Law ranks Oakland’s farm system as third-best in the majors. Baseball America’s list of the A’s top 10 prospects can be found here. If a player has an (*) by his name, it means the A’s have invited him to major league spring training, which begins two weeks from today, by the way:

*Andrew Carignan, RHP: A closer who led the Arizona Fall League with six saves, it’s conceivable Carignan, 22, reaches Oakland’s bullpen this season. He spent most of 2008 with Double-A Midland, and the A’s wanted him to use the AFL season to concentrate on throwing first-pitch strikes. His fastball reaches 96 mph and he’s added a rapidly improving curve ball. “He’s a good kid, but on the mound he has a nasty streak – in a good way,” Owens said.

*Chris Carter, 1B: You’ve probably heard about Carter’s power – he led the Single-A California League with 39 homers and 104 RBI last season. Owens describes him as a “pretty good athlete looking for a defensive home.” Carter, 22, played first base in the Hawaii Winter League, but Owens thinks he has the tools to also be a corner outfielder, an idea echoed by A’s farm director Keith Lieppman in this story from September.

Michael Inoa, RHP: The A’s handed this 17-year-old Dominican phenom a record-breaking $4.25 million signing bonus, and they’ll take their time nurturing him. Inoa spent much of the winter at the team’s academy in the Dominican Republic, attending instructional league and preparing for the cultural adjustment to the United States. Several top A’s officials traveled to the Dominican this winter to watch the 6-foot-7 Inoa. “You forget how big of a man he is until you stand next to him,” Owens said. “But he has the athleticism of someone five or six inches shorter. The ball comes out of his hand easy.” Inoa is slated to arrive in Phoenix in April to take part in extended spring training.

*Adrian Cardenas, 2B/SS: Cardenas, 21, played second base in the Phillies’ organization, but he’s played shortstop primarily for the A’s since his arrival via trade in July. He finished last season at Double-A. The A’s like his ability to hit all fields, and they think he can develop power. Second base may be his best fit, but the team likes its middle infielders to be versatile. “We’ll re-assess it going into spring training,” Owens said of Cardenas’ position.

*Josh Donaldson, C: The A’s appear to have a long-term major league starter in Kurt Suzuki, but they need to develop depth behind him. Donaldson, 23, was one of four players acquired from the Cubs in the Rich Harden/Chad Gaudin deal, and he hit .330 with nine homers and 39 RBI in 47 games with Single-A Stockton. He had four RBI in the Arizona Fall League title game and launched a mammoth homer. “If you look out your window, it still might be going,” Owens said. Donaldson didn’t start catching until his junior season at Auburn, but he’s shown a strong arm.

–*Sean Doolittle, 1B: The A’s think he has Gold Glove potential at first base. But Doolittle, 22, was needed in the outfield during the AFL season and handled it very well, Owens said. He combined for 22 homers and 91 RBI in 2008 between Single-A and Double-A. “He was known as more of a line-drive hitter in college,” Owens said. “His power has developed in the pros, but his strikeouts have increased too. Hopefully he’ll balance the two.”

–*Brett Hunter, RHP: Don’t forget about Hunter, 21, who was projected as a first-round pick last June but fell to the A’s in the seventh round because of an elbow injury last season with Pepperdine. The A’s gave him a reported $1.1 million signing bonus, the highest ever given to a seventh rounder. Owens didn’t see him in the Hawaii Winter League, but says Hunter has a fastball that reaches 96-97 and a curve ball that hitters swing through. In seven appearances in Hawaii, he rang up 18 strikeouts in just 9 2/3 innings.

Joe Stiglich

  • Jan K Oski

    Great breakdown, Joe! Wasn’t it just last year that Beane said he was concerned with the lack of quality in the minors. Looks like the dumping of MLB players was the right call for a small market team, especially with the current downturn in the economy. Beane is smarter than most of his critics combined.

  • Their farm system has certainly done a “180,” that’s for sure. Now I guess the biggest key is knowing when some of these elite prospects might be ready to contribute for the big club. And that’s what should make this spring camp so interesting to watch. Most of the top studs will be there, and even if pitchers like Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill and Vin Mazzaro don’t break camp w/Oakland, we’ll get to see how they respond under the spotlight …