Prospect #1: RHP A.J. Cole
Background with Player: Industry Sources
Who: He’s a prototypical starter drafted in the fourth round of the 2010 draft by the Washington Nationals. Cole was traded to the Athletics in the Gio Gonzalez deal, and has everything you want in a future major-league starter: size, stuff, and feel for the mound. In his full-season debut in 2011, Cole showed off his combination of polish and power, striking out 108 Sally League hitters while walking only 24.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: As with any young pitcher climbing the ladder, each step will bring new challenges and adjustments. In 2012, Cole will need to continue his sharp command while focusing more attention on the development of his changeup. With good arm action and precocious command, Cole isn’t likely to fall apart by throwing more changeups. But the changeup is a feel pitch, and it takes time to gain command of the nuances of its utility and execution.

I doubt the plus (to plus-plus) fastball is going away anytime soon, and even though his slider can get a bit slurvy, it is still ahead of the developmental curve. However, offenses could exploit Cole’s changeup in 2012. Left-handed hitters tuned him up pretty good in 2011, and could be especially adept at taking advantage of Cole’s changeup until it shows more deception.

In the end, I think a few bumps in the road will be a very good thing for the soon-to-be 20-year-old, as failure and adjustment to failure are what separate guys with a legit future and guys who once had potential. Cole has a very bright future, and I think he’s the top prospect in a system that looks like one of the game’s 10 best farms.

Prospect #2: OF Michael Choice
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources
Who: Choice, the 10th overall pick in the 2010 draft and a Texas native, has light-tower power and projects to be a first-division starter in right field. His 2011 full-season debut was very successful; he took advantage of the hitter-friendly California League by slugging .542 and reached base over 37 percent of the time.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: His contact ability. Choice has well above-average bat speed and can barrel elite-level velocity. (I saw him turn on an inside 99 mph fastball from Neftali Feliz during spring training 2011. However, given Feliz’s arsenal, Choice did cheat a bit on the offering and jumped into the zone anticipating a fastball). He has a mature approach and good pitch-recognition skills, which allow him to create favorable hitting environments or reach base if he doesn’t get his choice offering.

Choice’s swing does have some miss in it, and the path he takes to the ball isn’t always conducive for contact. Despite his pitch-recognition skills, Choice struggles to alter the barrel within the hitting zone when he guesses incorrectly. This led to high strikeout totals in the California League, and could lead to even higher strikeout totals against superior pitching in the Texas League.

Choice has at least 70-grade raw power, and some scouts aren’t afraid to throw 80s on its future, meaning Choice has the potential to hit 40 home runs at the major-league level. What could go wrong is his swing and his swing path. His noisy pre-trigger, combined with an aggressive plane and some length to his swing creates windows of opportunity for pitchers to exploit. If Choice can quiet down, shorten up, and keep his bat in the hitting zone longer, his contact rates should improve, though he might run the risk of sacrificing some power.

Prospect #3: RHP Sonny Gray
Background with Player: Industry Sources
Who: This diminutive righty was taken 18th overall by the A’s in the 2011 draft. As Vanderbilt’s Friday starter, Gray was one of the more dominant collegiate pitchers; he flashed two plus-plus major-league pitches and showed good overall feel for the mound. After signing, Gray made five starts at Double-A and looked like a candidate to pitch in the majors at some point in 2012.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Some view the generously-listed 5-foot-11 righty as a future bullpen arm, mostly due to height discrimination and two potentially monstrous pitches: a mid- to upper-90s fastball and wipeout curve. While shorter pitchers don’t have the same ability to create steep planes to the plate or the arm length for advantageous extension, they often have an advantage in mechanics because they have less body to control. Thus, they often have better command.

Gray’s athletic ability and height will probably aid him in making adjustments and solidifying his command. However, there are questions surrounding his command projection, stemming from his short arm action and inconsistent delivery movements, like ball pickup, follow through, etc. If this occurs, Gray could struggle in 2012, and his ability to throw quality strikes could lead to higher walk totals and more hard contact.

Honestly, I don’t think his mechanics are a long-term concern because of his athleticism, which can be underrated when it comes to command projection. Gray might struggle with his command as he transforms from two-pitch fireballer to a more nuanced and complete pitcher, one who must use pacing and sequencing against more advanced hitters. If his command and his changeup—which projects to be average—improve, Gray should develop into a very good starter.

Gray will never be tall, and he will always give hitters a better look at the ball than pitchers with a higher release, but his stuff is good enough to keep that deficiency from destroying his chances as a starter. If questions about his mechanics prove to be incorrect or minor, Gray could face big-league hitters at some point in 2012.

Prospect #4: RHP Jarrod Parker
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources
Who: The ninth overall pick in the 2007 draft has been considered a top-tier prospect since his first professional pitch. The 23-year-old righty missed the entire 2010 season recovering from Tommy John surgery. Pre-surgery, Parker showed a hot fastball with velocity and movement, a legit plus-plus slider with sharp action, a curve, and a changeup. He held top-of-the-rotation projections and was considered a prospect with a high floor to match his ceiling.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Parker appeared to be back in top form in 2011. However, depending on when you saw him, the slider that was once an easy 70 pitch was either flat or out of the repertoire. Instead, Parker gave his improved changeup more reps, and used a slow curve with lots of vertical movement as a change-of-pace pitch. Arsenal command is usually late to arrive home after going on a date with Tommy John; as such, Parker’s command wasn’t as sharp as it projects to be.

Arizona dealt Parker to Oakland in the Trevor Cahill deal, and he will get every opportunity to carve out his name every fifth day in the starting rotation. However, Parker’s injury history, mechanics, and arsenal inefficiency could eventually put him in a late-innings relief role. I think he will be able to stick in a rotation because Parker’s overall athleticism should allow for mechanical adjustments when necessary, and his arsenal is deep enough to find success multiple times through the order.

But there is a chance that he isn’t capable of sticking in a rotation, and signs of that reality are what could go wrong in 2012. Parker could struggle with advanced sequencing, needing to use his changeup and curve more later on in games and later on in deep counts, with each pitch showing promise but lacking the true intensity of his fastball/slider combo. Parker could struggle finding a good mechanical rhythm, needing to create angle and plane on his fastball coming from a somewhat limited height. The inability to do so would create more flat-plane opportunities for hitters who would relish those chances, which would diminish the fastball, and subsequently, the rest of the arsenal.

Prospect #5: C Derek Norris
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources
Who: This fourth-round selection in the 2007 draft by the Washington Nationals was sent to the A’s in the Gonzalez deal. While not exactly known for his contact rates, Norris is a good hitter with well above-average on-base ability, a solid backstop with catch-and-throw skills, and improving glove work.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Hand/wrist injuries can wreak havoc on hitters, and often get lost when positive production blinds the eyes to the limitations caused by the injury. Norris suffered a broken hamate bone before the 2010 season, which has certainly affected his ability to control the bat, especially when forced to maneuver the bat in the hitting zone. Now you see his numbers from 2011, and you suggest that he was still able to hit for power despite claims that hamate bone fractures can sap power for long durations of time. Well, Norris is very strong and has a good swing, so he was able to drive the ball when given pitches he could work with. His overall approach puts him in the favorable counts, in which he can either look fastball and drive the pitch or show patience and take a walk, something he did 77 times in only 104 games last season. But the injury has sapped his power, as the fundamental characteristics of his swing and his strength point to plus power when healthy.

 Here’s what could go wrong for Norris in 2012: The hamate bone fracture suffered in fall 2009 is no longer an issue of any kind, but his contact rates diminish to the point where his offensive projections are insufficient for a big-league starter. While dealing with the repercussions of the injury, it’s easy to see how making barrel adjustments in the zone is difficult, and leads to poor contact rates and high-strikeout totals. As I mentioned, Norris’ swing is relatively sound, as he gets into the zone efficiently, and he shows good overall strength. But I noticed the maneuverability of the bat once Norris triggers his swing has been an issue in the past, and if the problem still exists despite a clean bill of health, upper-level pitching is going to keep those contact rates on the decline. That will push his prospect status in the same direction. Norris can make it the majors as a catch-and-throw backstop with power potential and an approach that will allow for on-base ability. But he could be a first-division player if he could manage only average contact ability, which would allow the power to shine and the value to climb. If the contact rates point to a .200 hitter with strikeout totals that make Mark Reynolds jealous, Norris will struggle to find a home at the level. He’s not a boom or bust prospect per se, but the ability to make contact will be paramount to his future, which gives his projection a wide variance, from a 40-grade backup to a 60-grade potential all-star.   



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Great stuff, as always. I have a better feel for all of these guys than I did before I read this.
Great stuff Jason.

I've seen Choice play multiple times during Spring Training and then in the AFL. Particularly in the AFL, I didn't see a lot of #want in his play, for instance, I never really saw him bust it out of the box or really go after a fly ball with a lot of energy. There's also the excuse that he was tired after a long season.

Did anyone else mention this? Has there been any concern about his make-up?
After a full-season of work, starting in the early spring and continuing through a very warm full-season environment, spending your fall days playing in 110 degree heat in Arizona isn't always conducive for #want.

I haven't heard bad reports on his makeup. That doesn't mean they don't exist. I just haven't heard anything to suggest he has makeup issues that will deter his development.
Very good stuff--I love this way of looking at players. Picked up a nugget that I hadn't focused on before, namely that "athleticism...can be underrated when it comes to command projection". I'll try to take that into account from now on.

And, truly classic stuff: "Arsenal command is usually late to arrive home after going on a date with Tommy John". I would try to make a snarky comment, but there's no way that I could improve on THAT.
Many thanks! Up next: The Rangers