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Young crop of talent has Oakland excited for future

MLB Pipeline checks in from Spring Training camp, unveils team's Top 20 Prospects @JimCallisMLB

PHOENIX -- As a low-revenue team, the A's have defied the odds by winning consecutive American League West titles. They've also bucked convention by making those postseason trips with a lack of both cash and a homegrown nucleus of talent.

The eight teams that advanced to the Division Series in 2013 originally signed and developed an average of nine members of their playoff roster. Oakland ranked last among that group with just four, acquiring the bulk of its roster (16 players) via trades.

The upper levels of the A's farm system aren't teeming with talent, so the composition of their big league club won't change significantly in the next couple of years. But Oakland is bullish on several promising youngsters in the lower levels, and they should give the club plenty of in-house options in 2016 and '17.

"I'm hoping it ends like the Detroit system of old, where the Alan Trammell-Lou Whitaker group of players moves through the system together," A's farm director Keith Lieppman said. "Addison Russell has gotten off to such a great start, but there are other guys not so far behind him. We have a very elite group of young position players under 21."

Russell, 20, was Oakland's first-round pick in 2012 and already has conquered high Class A. He's one of the game's top prospects and could make his big league debut later this season. Lieppman, who has been with the A's since 1971 -- and has served as their farm director since 1992 -- says he can't remember the last time the system had a position player as talented as Russell.

"Miguel Tejada had similar skills but not quite the speed and athleticism," Lieppman said. "It's hard to find infielders with that kind of tools and athleticism. He's a rare commodity."

Behind Russell, the A's are optimistic about shortstop Daniel Robertson, first baseman Matt Olson and third baseman Renato Nunez, who teamed together at low Class A Beloit in 2013 and will do so again at high Class A Stockton this year. They'll each play the entire season at age 20. Sweet-swinging outfielder Billy McKinney, their first-round pick last year, will spend this season at Beloit as a 19-year-old.

As for pitching, Oakland restocked with a promising 2013 Draft. Dillon Overton (second-round pick who had Tommy John surgery after signing), Dylan Covey (fourth), Bobby Wahl (fifth) and Dustin Driver (seventh) all looked like possible first-rounders at one point, but the A's got them in later rounds. All of them made's A's Top 20 Prospects list, as did third-rounder Chris Kohler.

Three questions with Wahl

After starring at Mississippi and with Team USA, Wahl projected as a likely first-round pick in the 2013 Draft. But there were concerns about his stuff -- which declined when he battled blister problems throughout his junior season -- and his signability. Though Wahl went 10-0 with a 2.03 ERA in 16 starts, he dropped all the way to the fifth round, where the A's signed him for $500,000. How trying were the blister issues last year?

Wahl: I wasn't as consistent as I wanted to be, that's for sure. In my second game, I looked down and my middle finger was all bloody, and I wondered what was going on. It never really got better and it hurt my command, especially late in games with my fastball. I tried everything -- homemade routines like soaking it in pickle juice, putting glue on it, blister ointment -- and it never really healed. I got here in mid-June and picked up the pro balls with the lower stitches and thought, "This is how it's supposed to feel." What's been the biggest difference between college and pro ball?

Wahl: The usage of the changeup. In college, not a lot of guys throw it. In the SEC especially, it's about power fastballs and power breaking balls. Since I've been here, they've harped on using it. I've been trying to throw it about 15 percent of the time, compared to maybe two or three times a game in college, if that. It's helped me tremendously. You're part of a talented crop of college pitchers from Oakland's 2013 Draft, along with Dillon Overton, Dylan Covey and Kyle Finnegan. Did you know any of those guys in college? And how well do you know them now?

Wahl: I never really met those guys. Finnegan was at Cotuit in the Cape Cod League the year after I was there. I knew who Overton and Covey were. Me and Kyle and Dylan have all hit it off really well, because we're college pitchers who are similar in stuff and how we attack hitters. We always pick each other up. The camaraderie has been good.

Camp standout: McKinney

Russell is already racing through the Minors. McKinney, the A's first-rounder a year after Russell, may join him on the fast track if his first Spring Training is any indication.

The 24th overall pick and the recipient of a $1.8 million bonus, McKinney was one of the best hitting prospects available in the 2013 Draft. He batted .326/.387/.437 in his pro debut and has looked right at home in Cactus League games. McKinney appeared in 12 of Oakland's first 23 contests, going 5-for-13 (.385) with a double.

McKinney shows everything scouts want to see at the plate, with a sweet left-handed stroke, bat speed, a knack for barreling balls and an advanced approach. He should develop power as he adds strength and experience, and his instincts help him play above his average speed on the bases and in the outfield. McKinney will man center field this season as a 19-year-old in low Class A.

"McKinney has really been impressive with his maturity," Lieppman said. "He came into his first Spring Training and wasn't intimidated playing in big league games. He's played good defense, too. He's the most exciting player to come in and make that kind of impression in big league camp in a number of years. He has raised the bar.

"He's had the stopwatch out so he could time big league pitchers, and he's been asking other outfielders about defense. He's a unique individual in how he approaches the game at a young age. He just needs experience."

Breakout candidate: Michael Ynoa

Ynoa has progressed at a glacial pace since signing for a then-international record $4.5 million out of the Dominican Republic in 2008. He missed his first season after coming down with elbow tendinitis and his third season after having Tommy John surgery. Ynoa has pitched just 115 1/3 innings in five years as a pro.

On the positive side, Ynoa is still just 22 and stayed healthy throughout 2013, when he pitched a career-best 75 2/3 innings. And there's nothing wrong with his stuff.

The A's will likely make Ynoa a reliever, both to expedite his development and to keep him on the mound. He worked at 92-94 mph as a starter in 2013, and he has shown more velocity in shorter stints this spring. Ynoa's 6-foot-7 frame creates difficult plane and angle for hitters to cope with, though he still needs innings to work on his secondary pitches and command.

"He's been throwing in the mid-90s regularly, with a very good breaking ball," Lieppman said. "Last year, it was kind of, 'Let's get him through this and make sure he's healthy.' Now it's about performance for him. He always has flashed the stuff, but he's never had the opportunity to really pitch in back-to-back years. He's very competitive, and relieving would have him more involved."

Jim Callis is a reporter for and writes a blog, Callis' Corner. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter.

Oakland Athletics