2014 Stockton Ports: Who to Watch

Oakland Athletics fans have the luxury of calling two farm teams – the Sacramento River Cats (Pacific Coast League) and Stockton Ports (California League) – neighbors in Northern California. As players received news this weekend of which city they’d be calling home, today we examine some of the top prospects to watch with the high Class-A affiliate. 

The Stockton Ports will open the 2014 with a re-tooled coaching staff, beginning with manager Ryan Christenson, who debuted with the Athletics as an outfielder in 1998 and enjoyed a six-year Major League career before settling into an instructional role. Christenson most recently managed the low Class-A Beloit Snappers in 2013. John Wasdin assumes the role of pitching coach after four years in the organization, and hitting coach Brian McArn will re-join the Ports after a season with the Double-A Midland RockHounds.

Who To Watch For

Offense looks to be the Ports’ strength in 2014, with a lineup that features top picks from the 2012 and 2013 First-Year Player Drafts top to bottom. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the Stockton spring was the decision to send 2013 first-round pick Billy McKinney to the Central Valley, bypassing the Midwest League. Only a few weeks removed from his senior prom, McKinney headed off to the Arizona League where he compiled 70 hits in 243 at-bats, 15 of them for extra bases. Touted as a complete ballplayer with solid speed, a strong arm and good instincts for the game, fans should expect to see huge strides in development over a full season in Stockton, if not major statistical contributions initially.

Third baseman Renato Nuñez makes his California League debut on the night before his 20th birthday. Signed out of Venezuela in 2010, Nuñez has shown incredible raw power in three pro seasons – and impatience characteristic of young hitters. In 508 at-bats with Class-A Beloit, he hit 19 home runs and drove in 85 runs, striking out 136 times. The organization will be looking for improved discipline in Nuñez, whose power will likely experience a boost from the hitter-friendly California League.

Shortstop Daniel Robertson has big shoes to fill after the promotion of Addison Russell, the organization’s top-ranked prospect, to Midland. Selected 23 picks after Russell in the 2012 draft, Robertson showed good selectivity and some pop in Beloit, batting .277 with 9 home runs and 21 doubles. With Russell quickly reaching Major League maturity, Robertson may see action at another position to avoid being stuck in a logjam at short.

After witnessing Max Muncy’s early 2013 tear, in which he earned a midseason promotion to Double-A with 21 home runs and 76 RBI in his first 351 at-bats, fans can look forward to more dynamics at first base when Matt Olson debuts. At 6’4” and 236 pounds, Olson already has the look of a baby Bash Brother, and with a 23-homer, 93-RBI season in Beloit, he’s certainly got the raw power. The 20-year-old is also a patient hitter (72 walks in 481 at-bats last season), and cutting down his strikeout rate will undoubtedly raise his average from his .225 Beloit rate.

On the whole, this year’s crop of Stockton pitchers lags behind position players as far as star potential. A phenom when he was signed in 2008 at age 16, right-hander Michael Ynoa looks to regain his luster in a new role in the Ports bullpen. Giant, lanky, and armed with mid-90s heat and an advanced changeup, Ynoa will assume a relief role in the hopes of changing the course of an injury-plagued career. Still just 22, he is quickly running out of options – 2014 may be a crossroads for Ynoa, whether we see the emergence of a dominant future closer or a flame-out.

The A’s have a history of converting struggling players to unfamiliar positions – with hard-throwing setup man Sean Doolittle as a shining example. A first base prospect who lost the greater part of two minor league seasons to knee surgery, Doolittle asked the team for a move to the mound, and the organization was celebrating his smooth transition and mid-90s fastball not long after. Jeremy Barfield is the latest experiment, as he kept Athletics fans entertained with his conversion from “baseclogger” to hard-throwing lefty on Twitter last season. Fans may find it irresistible to root for the affable Barfield, who will learn to train like a pitcher, think like a pitcher, and pitch like a pitcher (not as intuitive as it might sound) this season. His fastball velocity has been clocked at 93 MPH, and he will continue to build his off-speed repertoire and hone his control.

Only an hour east on I-580 from O.co Coliseum, storylines are shaping up even before the first pitch is thrown at Banner Island Ballpark in Stockton. Athletics fans who make their way to the Central Valley may well see the making of a future franchise player on the 2014 Ports.