Trading away big league talent is never a cause for celebration. In an ideal world, teams would keep those players long term. But faced with the certainty that the A's would not be able to retain Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez as their price tags inevitably escalated, the A's dealt both.
The return from those trades has been a boon for the farm system, with four of the organization's top seven prospects entering the season coming from that crop. It's enough to make even the most veteran of farm directors nearly giddy, even though there are complexities that come with it.
"Any time you get such an infusion of top prospects, you get well-known players throughout the industry, to get to know the players, to see good talented guys is going to be fun," said Keith Lieppman, who has been the A's director of player development for the past two decades. "It can create challenges to get them to adapt to our system and in getting to know them. We're looking forward to it. I've seen video, read the reports. It's exciting to hear about the guys coming in."
Not only was there volume in the talent, but much of it is at the upper levels. Jarrod Parker, now the system's top prospect after coming in the Cahill deal with the D-backs, is just about ready to hit a big league rotation. So is Brad Peacock, who came over from the Nationals for Gonzalez. Tom Milone, also from the Nationals, is another upper-level guy who could be called upon in 2012. And while A.J. Cole (from the Nats) is further away, he might have more upside than any of the other arms.
"That's added along with what I thought was a pretty good Draft," Lieppman said, referring to a class headlined by another advanced arm, Sonny Gray. "The guys we had, then we add more to that, it's kind of a farm director's delight."
It certainly helped fill a void in a system that didn't have much coming in terms of immediate help at the big league level. Much of that hole was created by the fast advancement of young players like Cahill, Gonzalez and Brett Anderson.
"I think there was a gap, when we ran so many young guys to the big leagues," Lieppman said. "It left us with a gap between the next group of guys coming. This is the difference-maker, to get the people we got. That not only will help our Major League club, but it also fills the gap with pitchers who will be able to pitch in the big leagues in the next year or two.
"If they hadn't been so good, that group, they would've gone through the system [more slowly]. We didn't have enough behind them to support that. This combination will help us."
Top 20 prospects
The pitching may get most of the attention, especially with all those arms that came as a result of those two offseason trades, but the bats shouldn't be completely ignored. Eleven of the top 20 are position players and only one -- Derek Norris (the Gonzalez deal) -- came as a result of trade.
The top hitter in the system is Michael Choice, the 2010 first-round pick who had little trouble adjusting to pro ball and hit 30 homers in his first full season in the California League. Another homegrown bat, Grant Green, is next in the pecking order. He's made a good transition to the outfield, and many scouts still like his swing and think he'll be a productive big leaguer. Then comes Norris, followed by 2010 draftee Yordy Cabrera. But it's the final hitter in the Top 10 that Lieppman would ask people not to write off just yet, despite his big league struggles.
"The real potential of Chris Carter, when he puts it all together, he has the chance to be a spectacular player with the power potential," Lieppman said. "He's capable of doing these things. Put him in that group as someone who once they get accustomed to the big leagues, those three [Choice, Green and Carter] are the top three."
athletics' top prospects
Under the radar
Sean Doolittle, LHP: When Doolittle was at the University of Virginia, he was a two-way player. The A's drafted him as a hitter, and it initially looked like a fantastic move, as the lefty hit 22 homers, drove in 91 runs and made it to Double-A in his first full season. That was back in 2008. Because of injuries, he played in 28 games in 2009 and none after that. So Doolittle returned to the mound in 2011, appearing in one Arizona League game. During instructional league, the A's let him let loose and he was popping some 94 mph fastballs on the radar gun. Watching what he can do as a left-handed power reliever will be intriguing.
Josh Donaldson, C/1B: Donaldson was on the radar not long ago because of his bat potential, and he did make it to the big leagues briefly in 2010. He draws walks and has some power -- 35 homers in the last two years -- and has shown some versatility defensively. He's caught a fair amount, he's played first and he played a good amount of third in 2011 in Triple-A. While he may not have lived up to expectations since he came to the A's in a 2008 trade (Rich Harden) with the Cubs, and he's now 26, he still has the chance to be an offensive-minded utility type, if not more.
Hitter of the Year
Choice: He'll show that his power numbers were not California League-induced, once again finishing among the Minor League leaders in home runs. Sure, he'll strike out a bunch, but he'll show he's a better all-around hitter than some thought.
Pitcher of the Year
Cole: There are a number of more than viable candidates, but because many might see considerable time in Oakland, Cole gets the nod. He'll continue to turn his raw tools into performance, pitch at two levels and finish among the Minor League leaders in strikeouts.