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Down on the farm

I caught up with Keith Lieppman, the A’s director of player development, and picked his brain about many of the organization’s top prospects. Some are knocking on the big league door, others still have a long road ahead, and some just want to get healthy. Here’s a progress report on some of the top names …

Chris Carter, 1B: You might have noticed in Triple-A Sacramento’s box scores that Carter, the A’s No. 1 prospect, is getting time in right field. Rest assured the A’s still see Carter as a first baseman, but they want him to continue to play left and right field to expand his versatility. Carter, 23, hit his 10th homer last night, but he’s batting .242 with 52 strikeouts in 43 games. Lieppman pointed out that Carter has lost some protection in the lineup with Jack Cust getting called up and Michael Taylor sidelined with a calf injury. “Right now he’s getting a dose of the Triple-A cutter. That’s the pitch of preference there, and probably more so in the big leagues,” Lieppman said. Carter is likely to get promoted at some point this season, but don’t expect it to happen soon. “You get to the big leagues either by dominating the league you play in, and he hasn’t done that yet, or a situation where there’s an injury or opportunity,” Lieppman added. “At this stage, I’m not sure there’s an opportunity to play first base every day.”

Michael Taylor, OF: Ranked by Baseball America as the A’s No. 2 prospect, Taylor, 24, is still sidelined by a calf injury suffered earlier this month. He’s been able to do little except rest, and the A’s won’t rush him back. Calf injuries can take a long time to heal, as we saw when Mark Ellis was sidelined for two months last season. “In most cases you have to let it heal completely and be conservative, or you’re going to be dealing with it the rest of the year,” Lieppman said. This figures to delay Taylor’s ticket to Oakland. He had just 30 games of Triple-A experience coming into this season, and like Carter, he needs the seasoning.

Jemile Weeks, 2B: As you can see, the A’s injury woes aren’t relegated to the majors. Weeks, 23, was playing well for Double-A Midland before re-injuring his left hip flexor while trying to beat out a grounder. A similar injury sidelined Weeks for the end of the 2008 season and the early part of 2009. Lieppman described this injury as a partial tear in the hip flexor, and the A’s are hopeful of getting him back by mid-June. After Weeks was drafted in ’08, there was talk that center field might be his future position, but the A’s like him as a second baseman and he was showing improvement defensively until this latest setback.

Grant Green, SS: Green, 22, — the A’s first-round pick last June — received lots of individual instruction from the big league staff during spring training. He’s hitting .267 with two homers and nine doubles in 45 games with Single-A Stockton. After Green signed in August, the A’s shut him down following his long collegiate season, so he appeared in just five minor league games in 2009. More than anything, the A’s want him to adapt to playing everyday in his first full pro season. “He’s showing some gap-to-gap power,” Lieppman said. “Defensively, he’s caught the ball pretty well. He’s got a few errors at this stage, but he’s made some nice adjustments.”

Max Stassi, C: After he impressed everyone this spring with his maturity in major league camp, there’s a tendency to assume Stassi, 19, will shoot rapidly through the farm system. Young catchers have a lot to digest, however. Stassi is playing regularly for low Single-A Kane County (Ill.), a big jump considering he was in high school at this time last year. He has six homers in 38 games but is hitting .240 with 55 strikeouts. Importantly, Stassi gets high marks for his handling of pitchers. Lieppman keeps a long-range view in mind regarding Stassi. “I looked at numbers for how long (some of the top big league catchers) spent in the minor leagues. Most of them spent three to four years in the minor leagues. He’s (19). You’re looking at 21, 22, when you want to have him ready.”

Corey Wimberly, IF/OF: Wimberly was acquired from Colorado before the 2009 season, and two things stood out about him that spring: 1) His breathtaking speed, and 2) The standing back-flips he did as part of his pre-game routine. But now he’s turning heads with his play for Triple-A Sacramento. Wimberly is hitting .287 and leads the Pacific Coast League with 19 stolen bases. At age 26, he’s hardly a can’t-miss prospect, but Oakland’s roster includes another speedster – Rajai Davis – who was a late bloomer. Wimberly can play the middle infield and outfield, and his versatility prompts Lieppman to call him “the Chone Figgins of the minor leagues.” But the A’s aren’t hurting for utility players at the big league level, so Wimberly’s first call-up doesn’t appear in the near future.

Michael Ynoa, RHP: It’s been a strange season so far for the highly touted prospect from the Dominican Republic. After being slowed by an oblique injury, Ynoa needed to have his wisdom teeth pulled and suffered complications from that. But he’s back on the mound now, and Lieppman anticipates Ynoa, 18, will be in the rotation when the A’s Phoenix-based rookie league team begins play June 22. Ynoa was sidelined by an elbow injury for much of 2009, and he has yet to appear in a regular-season professional game since signing in July 2008.

James Simmons, RHP/Sean Doolittle, 1B: We lump these two together because both were high picks in the 2007 draft and both are sidelined indefinitely with injuries. Simmons is home recovering from a shoulder ailment that limited him to 22 starts last season. He’s gotten several different medical opinions and won’t report this season until there’s a clear diagnosis on his shoulder. “There’s something he feels in his shoulder that doesn’t seem able to heal through physical therapy,” Lieppman said. … Doolittle, who shows good potential at both first base and the outfield, has recovered slowly from October knee surgery. He’s just coming off physical therapy and is trying to work his way back to the diamond.

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Sunday’s lineup vs. the Giants

Carl Steward, subbing for Joe Stiglich. Late lineup post today by the A’s …

CF Davis
1B Barton
C Suzuki
3B Kouzmanoff
LF Rosales
2B Ellis
DH Fox
RF Gross
SS Pennington

P Sheets

Giants are shaking up their order …

RF Torres
2B FSanchez
3B Sandoval
1B Huff
DH Uribe
CF Rowand
SS Renteria
LF Bowker
C Whiteside

P JSanchez

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Eric Chavez goes on DL with neck spasms, his return unknown

A quick update here before Game 2 of the Bay Bridge Series …

The A’s activated Mark Ellis from the DL and placed Eric Chavez on the DL with neck spasms. Here’s the essentials on Chavez:

He’s been told he has two bulging discs in his neck, and he gets pain on both sides. The injury dates back to spring training, when he collided with a teammate during a drill. He’s dealt with pain all season but kept it pretty quiet, even as he was getting regular treatment from trainers and chiropractors. “I knew I was dealing with something,” Chavez said. “I just didn’t know exactly what it was. But I didn’t want to know, to be honest with you. I never wanted to know. That’s why I never went to go see a doctor.”

He’s going home to Phoenix to rehab and there’s no timeframe for his return. We haven’t gotten a chance to talk to the A’s training staff yet (not sure if we will today). Manager Bob Geren said he didn’t know if this injury was potentially season-ending. But Chavez said during the winter that he’d retire if he suffered another major injury. Could this be that serious? “It might be,” Chavez said.

It’s definitely affected his hitting. Chavez said he often had trouble stopping his swing once he started. That might help explain why he’s looked so fooled on off-speed pitches at times.

This is only the latest in a string of well-chronicled injuries for Chavez, who hasn’t played a full season since 2006. He’s had five surgeries (two on his back, two on his right shoulder and one on his left shoulder). He said his spirits are OK, but he acknowledged it’s discouraging dealing with yet another physical setback.
“I almost wish I could say it was my back or it was my shoulder,” he said. “But when it’s something new, it’s just like, ‘What are you gonna do?’ But my spirits, I’m fine.”

Geren said Jack Cust would assume the regular DH duties, though Jake Fox, Kurt Suzuki (when he’s not catching) or a backup outfielder could see action there. … Ellis is playing second base and hitting sixth, by the way …

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A little on Cahill’s outing, and Crisp’s impact

Most of my game story from the A’s 6-1 victory over the Giants focuses on Coco Crisp and what his addition means to the team. Trevor Cahill’s fine outing definitely deserved more space. The right-hander went 6 2/3 innings, allowing one run on six hits with four strikeouts and one walk. He’s now given up three runs or less in his past four outings, after he was hit hard in Toronto in his first start after his call-up. After tonight’s game, manager Bob Geren mentioned that Cahill was popping the glove with his four-seam fastball, which was clocking in the mid 90′s at times. The A’s want Cahill to use his four-seamer more. Typically, Cahill leans heavily on his two-seamer (sinker), which he said was also working well for him. “I thought my sinker was good,” he said. “I mixed in some breaking balls and change-ups and it worked out for me.”

–Not that we should make too much out of one game, but a healthy Coco Crisp makes this a much more flexible and effective lineup, wouldn’t you say? I like Rajai Davis and Cliff Pennington hitting at the bottom of the order. Even if they’re not hitting, they provide some speed at the bottom of the lineup. And if they’re struggling, it’s not quite as glaring as if they’re hitting up top.

Time to head home, check in w/you before tomorrow’s game …

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Coco Crisp makes A’s debut; Duchscherer heading to Arizona, hopes to return without surgery

There’s a surprise addition to the A’s lineup tonight: Coco Crisp, playing center field and batting leadoff. Just yesterday, manager Bob Geren said Crisp and second baseman Mark Ellis would both play rehab games for Triple-A Sacramento. Crisp wound up skipping that step, so tonight marks his A’s debut after he was sidelined the first 42 games with a fractured left pinkie. “I didn’t want to go to Sacramento,” Crisp said, before adding with a smile. “Ellie didn’t want to go either … heh heh.”

Crisp mentioned more than once that he expects Ellis to rejoin the A’s on Saturday. But Geren hedged his bet, saying that Ellis needed to show his strained left hamstring is healed by playing a full nine innings in a minor league game. “He could be back shortly, or it could be a few days,” Geren said. Geren was also asked if Crisp lobbied hard to be activated tonight, considering that just yesterday the plan was for him to play at least one game at Triple-A. “Lobbying had nothing to do with it,” the manager said. “The positive thing is he’s healthy and ready to play. Being that his timing is (good), and he has no pain swinging the bat, that’s how I made the decision.”

This offense could sure use a shot in the arm. Will Crisp have an immediate impact? He had a four-hit game in Single-A action on Tuesday. We’ll see how he reacts to big league pitching. Defensively, Crisp’s extended DL stint probably benefited him, just because it gave more time for both of his shoulders to heal. Remember, he had surgery on both shoulders last summer.

As for the trickle-down effect, catcher Landon Powell was sent to the minors to make room for Crisp, so the A’s have six outfielders now. Geren has a juggling act at the DH/left field spot between Jack Cust, Eric Chavez and Rajai Davis. Geren said Chavez would still be his DH against right-handers. I’d expect the left-handed hitting Cust to play left field over Davis in that situation, unless Davis catches fire with the bat. Against lefties, I see the right-handed hitting Davis playing left field and Cust DH’ing over Chavez, just because I think Cust is more likely to deliver offensively. That’s the setup tonight against Giants lefty Barry Zito.

At some point, you figure another roster move will force the A’s to make a tough call w/their outfield logjam. Davis and Eric Patterson are both out of options, so it’s a risk sending either of them through waivers. Could the A’s cut ties with Gabe Gross at some point? I could see it happening.

–Justin Duchscherer is not conceding he’ll need hip surgery just yet. He told me before the game that he’s heading to Phoenix on Sunday to throw some bullpen sessions. If he feels good, he said the plan would be to make two rehab starts and then see if he can return to the A’s rotation. Is this extreme optimism? Yes. But I don’t blame the guy for exhausting every option before undergoing season-ending surgery. As he put it: “I wish I was 20 years old, but I’m not.”

Finally, tonight’s lineups:

A’s
Crisp CF, Barton 1B, Sweeney RF, Suzuki C, Kouzmanoff 3B, Cust DH, Rosales 2B, Pennington SS, Davis LF; Cahill RHP.

Giants: Rowand CF, Sanchez 2B, Sandoval 3B, Huff 1B, Molina DH, Uribe SS, Bowker LF, Torres RF, Whiteside C; Zito LHP.

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Ellis visits, stays? Mazzaro called up, Duchscherer visits doctor

It’s shaping up to be a very nice day for baseball at the Coliseum as the A’s and Tigers conclude their short series. Mark Ellis (strained left hamstring) was in the A’s clubhouse this morning and said he’s feeling great. The plan for he and Coco Crisp as of now is to play in Sacramento Friday night, but Ellis said he would like to avoid that if possible and be back on the A’s roster by then.

Vin Mazzaro was called up from the River Cats this morning, with Henry Rodriguez optioned back to Triple-A. Mazzaro will be used in the bullpen today for long relief purposes, considering Tyson Ross will probably only throw 70-75 pitches. A’s manager Bob Geren said the plan remains for Brett Anderson to pitch in Sacramento on Monday, throwing between 50-60 pitches. Justin Duchscherer is visiting a Bay Area doctor today. We may get an update on how that went after the game, but there are no real details as of now.

 The lineups

A’s – Pennington SS, Barton 1B, Sweeney RF, Suzuki C, Cust LF, Kouzmanoff 3B, Chavez DH, Rosales 2B, Davis CF, Ross P.

Tigers – Jackson CF, Damon LF, Ordonez DH, Cabrera 1B, Boesch RF, Inge 3B, Avila C, Santiago SS, Worth 2B, Bonderman P.

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A’s pregame notes — Braden’s odd gift, Sweeney’s highlight play and Brett Anderson update

You never know what you’ll see at the ballpark … There’s a large table in the middle of the A’s clubhouse where players congregate. Typically, the table is filled with snacks for guys to enjoy before the game. Before BP today, there was a samurai sword sitting on it. Yes, a real sword, with a blade extending about three feet. Dallas Braden received the gift from Mizuno, his shoe and glove company, in recognition of his perfect game. Sounds dangerous, I know. But the sword was in a protective sleeve, and it’s not like players were picking the thing up and swinging it like “Clash of the Titans” or anything.

Braden’s start tonight is his first at the Coliseum since his May 9 perfecto. It’ll be fun to hear his thoughts after the game about owning a sword. … Pregame stat of the day: Braden has a 7.34 ERA in six career starts against the Tigers.

–Ryan Sweeney had a big offensive night Tuesday with four hits, but I was shaking my head at the play he made in right field in the sixth. Seattle’s Casey Kotchman drilled a ball off the out-of-town scoreboard, and Sweeney caught the ball on the deflection (bare-handed) and threw to second to nail Kotchman, who tried for a double. Sweeney said the ball kicked back to him harder than if it had hit the padded outfield wall. “If I didn’t (bare-hand) it, it would have hit me in the face,” he said. “The wall is soft, but (the scoreboard) is like steel out there.”

Believe it or not, manager Bob Geren said the A’s did a pregame outfield drill yesterday working on balls that hit off the wall. “It’s funny how you work on something and it comes into play,” Geren said.

–Brett Anderson (strained forearm) threw a 41-pitch side session today in Phoenix with a hitter standing in. All went well, and pitching coach Curt Young told me Anderson could pitch in a minor league game Sunday if there are no complications from today.

–Coco Crisp (fractured pinkie) went 4-for-4 with a homer and three RBIs in his first rehab game with Single-A Stockton last night. Mark Ellis (strained hamstring) went 0-for-2 with a walk and RBI. Both should join Triple-A Sacramento in the next couple of days, and you would think they’d be activated a few days after that if they’re healthy. Geren was asked what Crisp’s addition would mean for Rajai Davis and/or Jack Cust in the outfield rotation. Geren basically said they’d cross that bridge when they come to it. … Davis has rebounded at the plate over the past couple days, but the A’s could use Cust’s power too. First thing’s first — Crisp has to prove he’s healthy. But I’d expect him to take over the leadoff spot when he returns.

Tonight’s lineups:

A’s: Pennington SS, Barton 1B, Sweeney RF, Suzuki C, Cust LF, Kouzmanoff 3B, Chavez DH, Rosales 2B, Davis CF; Braden LHP.

Tigers: Jackson CF, Damon DH, Wells LF, Cabrera 1B, Boesch RF, Inge 3B, Laird C, Worth 2B, Everett SS; Verlander RHP.

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Tyson Ross looking like the guy for Thursday; other A’s tidbits

Quick update for you before Ben Sheets and Felix Hernandez square off here at the Coliseum. We’ve got some clouds overhead, but it’s much better weather than last night.

Here’s the lineups:

A’s: Pennington SS, Barton 1B, Sweeney RF, Suzuki C, Kouzmanoff 3B, Cust LF, Chavez DH, Rosales 2B, Davis CF; Sheets RHP.

Mariners: Ichiro RF, Figgins 2B, Gutierrez CF, Lopez 3B, Griffey Jr. DH, Kotchman 1B, Wilson SS, Johnson C, Saunders LF; Hernandez RHP.

–Bob Geren said he’d announce Thursday’s starter after the game, but I’ll be very surprised if Tyson Ross isn’t the guy. Ross said before batting practice that he hadn’t been told anything, but he threw a short side session as the A’s were hitting, much as a starter would do two days before he pitches. Unless Ross is needed tonight — and the A’s have an eight-man bullpen, so they could probably avoid that — I expect him to take the ball Thursday against the Tigers.

This is a change in direction from Saturday, when Geren said he liked Ross in the bullpen and all but ruled out Ross making more starts. But starting Ross would save the A’s from having to make a roster move to promote a guy such as Vin Mazzaro.

–Dallas Braden was sent home sick but Geren expects him to make tomorrow night’s start, which will be his first outing at the Coliseum since his perfect game.

–Justin Duchscherer still doesn’t have a doctor’s appointment scheduled, but he’s expected to have his left hip examined sometime this week. He’ll play catch to keep his arm in shape until that happens.

That’s all for now …

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Duchscherer holds out hope; Cust playing LF

Justin Duchscherer said season-ending left hip surgery will be his last resort and that his goal is to do whatever he can to get healthy, stay healthy and pitch again this season. But Duchscherer won’t completely understand his options until after he sees Dr. Thomas Byrd in Nashville, probably later this week.

As of Monday afternoon, Duchscherer had not scheduled an appointment with Byrd, as trainer Steve Sayles hadn’t been able to get in touch with the surgeon’s office.

Duchscherer said he only felt discomfort when he pitched, not in everyday activities. He believes what might be going on is a Femoralacetabular Impingement (FAI), where, as Duchscherer said, “The head of the femur is large, so it bangs into the socket and tears the cartilage. Over years and years of pitching on it, I guess over time it’s worn it away.”

According to Duchscherer, Byrd said he’ll have to perform surgery at some point to fully understand what’s going on, but Duchscherer is hoping to put that off until the end of the season. Regardless, Duchscherer said surgery, if it happens during the season or after, won’t mean his career is over. Either way, he wants to come back and pitch either way.  

Jack Cust is playing left field tonight, with Rajai Davis in center and Ryan Sweeney in right. Cust was mainly a DH with Sacramento but said he played about eight games in the outfield.

Coco Crisp and Mark Ellis will both join Single-A Stockton and play tomorrow night in Lake Elsinore, A’s manager Bob Geren said. Crisp played today in Phoenix, but Geren said he hadn’t received a report on how that went. 

The lineups –

A’s — Pennington SS, Barton 1B, Suzuki C, Kouzmanoff 3B, Sweeney RF, Fox DH, Cust LF, Rosales 2B, Davis CF, Gonzalez P.

Mariners — Suzuki RF, Figgins 2B, Gutierrez CF, Lopez 3B, Griffey Jr. DH, Tuiasosopo LF, Kotchman 1B, Wilson SS, Bard C, Rowland-Smith P.

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Busy day for A’s transactions — Suzuki back from DL, Duchscherer returns to DL, and Gaudin designated for assignment

It was one of those pregame scenes we’ve seen so often in the A’s clubhouse over the past couple of seasons — some players packing their things and heading out, while others are just showing up and getting settled in.

The A’s made six transactions on a very active Sunday morning:

–Catcher Kurt Suzuki was activated from the DL, while catcher Josh Donaldson was optioned to Triple-A Sacramento. Suzuki, who had a strained rib cage muscle, played each of the past two days for Sacramento — 7 innings Friday night and 4 innings yesterday. He’s in the A’s lineup and batting cleanup today.

–Right-hander Justin Duchscherer, as expected, went back to the DL with a left hip injury, and reliever Henry Rodriguez was recalled. Yes, Rodriguez was just optioned yesterday when Duchscherer was activated from the DL. Rodriguez was scheduled to fly out this morning, but when Duchscherer got hurt again, the A’s added Rodriguez back to the roster. Players normally have to stay in the minors at least 10 days after being optioned, but they can come back sooner if they replace an injured player. That must be pretty nice when you can get sent to the minors and never have to leave the big league clubhouse …

–Reliever Cedrick Bowers was called up from Sacramento, and fellow reliever Chad Gaudin was designated for assignment to make room on the 40-man roster for Bowers. Not too shocking to see the Gaudin move. He was hit hard the past two outings and was being used sparingly. As with Edwar Ramirez (who was designated Saturday), the A’s have 10 days to trade or release Gaudin, or send him to the minors if he clears waivers.

How about this story for Bowers? He was drafted in 1996 by Tampa Bay, but in 14 professional seasons has spent just FIVE GAMES in the majors. That came in 2008 with Colorado. He also spent time pitching in Japan and Korea. Talk about perseverance. … Manager Bob Geren said the lefty is a 1-2 inning guy out of the bullpen, and he’s available today.

Quick story on Bowers from spring training: On the first day I arrived at camp, he actually introduced himself and struck up a conversation with me. That was pretty cool … normally beat writers spend the first few days hunting players down and making sure we say hi to everybody. Bowers flipped the script on me. Impressive …

–Vin Mazzaro is a strong bet to return to the bigs and take Duchscherer’s start Thursday against Detroit. Geren said that would be Mazzaro’s day to pitch for Sacramento anyway. “That’s definitely a good option. We still haven’t decided on that,” Geren said.

Duchscherer doesn’t have a doctor’s appointment scheduled yet, but he’ll see somebody to get more clarity on his left hip. Right now the A’s are calling it left hip inflammation, but we’ll know in a few days how serious it is.

Whew … and finally, the lineups:

A’s: Pennington SS, Barton 1B, Sweeney RF, Suzuki C, Kouzmanoff 3B, Chavez DH, Cust LF, Rosales 2B, Patterson CF; Cahill RHP.

Angels: Aybar SS, Kendrick 2B, Abreu RF, Hunter CF, Morales 1B, Matsui DH, Ryan LF, Napoli C, Wood 3B; Pineiro RHP.