This offseason, MiLB.com will be honoring the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organizations. We're taking a look at each team to determine the outstanding seasons in Minor League baseball. Select a team from the dropdown below.
The Athletics farm system had an excellent season at the team level in 2011. Triple-A Sacramento posted the best record in the Pacific Coast League, winning its fifth consecutive division title (and 10th in 12 years) before being swept by Omaha in the PCL Finals. Double-A Midland finished 14 games under .500, but Class A Advanced Stockton, Class A Burlington and Class A Short-Season Vermont each advanced to the postseason in their respective leagues -- Vermont for the first time since 1996.
More importantly for the future of the big league club, the organization had a number of prospects get ever closer to the Majors. First-round Draft picks Grant Green (2009) and Michael Choice (2010) were named Topps All-Stars at the Double-A and Class A level respectively, while veteran outfielder Jermaine Mitchell had a breakthrough year that will put him in the running for a job in Oakland in 2012. They were just a few of the A's top performers this year.
A's Organization All-Stars
Catcher -- Anthony Recker, Sacramento (99 games), Oakland (five games): Recker's seventh professional season was a big one for Recker, who set career marks in batting (.287), on-base percentage (.388) and slugging (.501). An 18th-round pick in the 2005 Draft, Recker made his Major League debut in a wild game in New York on Aug. 25 that saw the Yankees hit a Major League-record three grand slams in a 21-9 win over the A's.
"It was a day I will never forget," Recker told his hometown Lehigh Valley (Pa.) Morning Call. "It was an awesome feeling to get my first start in the big leagues and it was exciting to get out to a 7-1 lead. Unfortunately, it couldn't continue.
"I just wish I could have contributed offensively," said Recker, who went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and a walk.
Four days later -- on his 28th birthday -- Recker was named to the Pacific Coast League's postseason All-Star team.
Recker led Sacramento in on-base percentage and drew a career-high 56 walks while playing 61 games behind the plate (where he threw out 25 percent of attempted base stealers), 25 at first base and 14 as designated hitter. Between May 21 and June 7, Recker batted .403 with seven homers and 17 RBIs during a 17-game hitting streak.
First base -- Josh Whitaker, Burlington (113 games): A 25th-round pick out of Kennesaw (Ga.) State in the 2010 Draft, Whitaker surpassed all expectations in his first full season as a pro. The 6-foot-3, 235-pounder led the Midwest League with a .326 average, .556 slugging percentage and .957 OPS (his .402 on-base percentage ranked third).
"We actually didn't send him out to Burlington for a week or two when the season started," A's director of player development Keith Lieppman said. "We just wanted to see where he was in extended spring training and make sure he was ready. He was ready."
Whitaker spent most of his time (55 games) at first base, but also played 11 games in right field and served as Burlington's designated hitter in 44 games. He was named to the Midwest League All-Star squad as a designated hitter and to the Topps Class A All-Star team as a first baseman. After hitting 17 homers -- fifth-most in the Oakland system -- in the Midwest League, Whitaker should be a force to be reckoned with in the California League next season.
Second base -- Wes Timmons, Midland (39 games), Sacramento (56 games): In his first nine professional seasons -- all in the Braves organization -- Timmons had never hit better than .293 in any campaign. In his first year in the A's system, the 32-year-old infielder bettered that mark by nearly 50 points, batting .341 to lead all Oakland full-season hitters. His .420 on-base percentage was second in the organization and he delivered a career-best eight homers and 62 RBIs in 95 games.
The Braves' 12th-round pick in 2002, Timmons has always been a tough out, but never more than this year, when he struck out just 21 times in 401 plate appearances. The West Virginia native had Double-A Midland's longest hitting streak -- he batted .484 over 15 games between July 24 and Aug. 7 -- as well as Triple-A Sacramento's longest such streak (18 games between June 23 and Sept. 4).
The only place Timmons struggled was on the mound. He made his career pitching debut at Colorado Springs on Sept. 5, allowing one run on two hits in a third of an inning and suffering the loss.
Third base -- Stephen Parker, Midland (132 games), Sacramento (five games): After a magnificent 2010 campaign that saw him hit 21 homers and drive in 98 runs for Stockton in the California League, Parker's slugging percentage dropped 100 points this season. But he still had a fine year, batting .287/.373./.408 with 10 homers and 76 RBIs, fifth-most in the Oakland organization.
Parker also drew 71 walks, good for fourth in the A's system, and was tied for fifth with 76 runs scored. After batting .265 in the first half of the season, the Brigham Young product hit .313 after the Texas League All-Star break and dramatically reduced his strikeouts while bolstering his walk rate.
The 2009 fifth-round pick made his Triple-A debut with Sacramento on Sept. 1, going 0-for-4 against Las Vegas, but collected four hits in seven at-bats at Colorado Springs the following night. In five playoff games with the River Cats, Parker went 0-for-12 with six strikeouts and five walks.
Shortstop -- Grant Green, Midland (127 games): This selection is a bit of a misnomer, because Green spent the second half of the regular season and all of the Arizona Fall League campaign working on a transition to the outfield. Nevertheless, the 13th overall pick in the 2009 Draft was named to the Texas League All-Star team as a utility player and the Topps Double-A All-Star squad as a shortstop.
Playing in the outfield is "kind of boring" Green told the Odessa American.
"They said that the whole thing is just to get to the Major Leagues," Green said. "If they say this is the best way for me to get there, the fastest way, I might as well do it."
At the plate, Green hit .291/.343/.408 and ranked second in the A's system with 154 hits. The University of Southern California product, who turned 24 in late September, was also second in the Texas League in hits and third with 33 doubles. He was named XM All-Star Futures Game MVP in July after leading the U.S. team to a 6-4 win with two doubles and an RBI.
"For him to make that adjustment to the outfield in the middle of the season was tough," said Lieppman. "But he really improved as the season went along, and by the end of the [Arizona] Fall League, he was making some great plays out there. And as he settled in, it allowed him to focus more on his hitting."
Designated hitter -- Adrian Cardenas, Sacramento (127 games): Though possessed of less power than one might want from a designated hitter, Cardenas is a tough player to pin down to just one position. Apart from 34 games at DH, he played 44 contests in left field, 35 at second base, 13 at third and three at shortstop. The Florida native also batted in eight different slots in the order -- all but cleanup -- for Sacramento.
Cardenas hit no matter his position in the field or at the plate. His .314 batting average ranked fourth among full-season hitters in the A's system and he tied Green for second in the organization with 154 hits. Cardenas, who turned 24 in October, struck out just 56 times while drawing 47 walks.
A first-round pick by the Phillies in 2006, the A's acquired Cardenas in a deal for pitcher Joe Blanton in 2008. Though his natural position -- second base -- appears to be blocked in Oakland by Jemile Weeks, there should be room somewhere in the Majors for such a versatile player.
Michael Choice, Stockton (118 games): The A's made Choice their first-round pick -- 10th overall -- in the 2010 Draft. In his first full season in 2011, the University of Texas product more than earned that high regard.
Playing center field for Class A Advanced Stockton, Choice led the Cal League with 30 home runs and ranked ninth in all of Class A with a .542 slugging percentage. His 30 homers and 82 RBIs were second-most in the Oakland system, while his 61 walks ranked sixth. Choice's 134 strikeouts were fourth in the organization.
Choice batted .285 overall but hit .332 in the second half of the season, bolstered by a performance that saw him named Topps Cal League Player of the Month for July. Choice hit .416/.475/.820 with 10 home runs in 22 games during that month. He started it off with a team-high 17-game hitting streak between July 1-18 and matched Inland Empire's Kole Calhoun for the Cal League's longest on-base streak of the season: 47 straight games between June 5 and Aug. 11.
The slugger, who turned 22 in November, worked with the Ports coaching staff to shorten his swing and make more contact as the season went along. He fanned 82 times in his first 65 games, but just 52 times in his final 53 contests.
"I'm just looking for hard contact," he said. "You can't try to hit home runs; it doesn't work that way."
The work paid off as Choice received Cal League All-Star and Topps Class A All-Star honors.
Jai Miller, Sacramento (110 games), Oakland (seven games): The 26-year-old had a breakthrough season at the plate in his ninth professional campaign. Miller, who was set to play wide receiver and point guard at Stanford before signing with the Marlins in 2003, led the A's organization with 32 homers, 88 RBIs and a .588 slugging percentage. He also ranked second in the system with 179 strikeouts, but stole 16 bases without being caught once.
Only Graham Koonce, who hit 34 long balls in 2003, had more homers in one season for the River Cats.
Miller got off to a strong start, batting .339 with six homers and 22 RBIs in 18 April games, and had a monumental July that saw him hit 12 homers and drive in 24 runs in 27 games, highlighted by a three-homer game at Las Vegas on July 8.
The Alabama native, who led all Triple-A hitters in slugging, was named to the Pacific Coast League All-Star team as well as the Topps Triple-A All-Star squad.
Jermaine Mitchell, Midland (74 games), Sacramento (56 games): Mitchell, a fifth-round pick out of North Carolina-Greensboro in 2006, was one of the great stories of the 2011 Minor League season.
What Mitchell, who turned 27 earlier this month, accomplished was more than a mere power surge -- he improved vastly in nearly every facet of his game, with results that proved terrifying to opposing pitchers.
Mitchell was among the Oakland organization's offensive leaders in nearly every category: He batted .332 (second among full-season farmhands), had a .430 on-base percentage (first), 178 hits (first), 16 triples (first), 115 runs (first), 93 walks (second), 27 stolen bases (second) and 78 RBIs (fourth). He was tied for sixth in the Minor Leagues in runs scored, fourth in hits and third in triples.
Each of those stats represents a career mark for Mitchell, who batted .282 last season. The A's added him to their 40-man roster on Nov. 18.
"He had a remarkable season," said Lieppman. "It's tremendous when a guy who's a little older just has everything come together. Unfortunately, he's recovering from knee surgery that may keep him out through Spring Training, but certainly he'll have every chance to find a role in Oakland. He has game-changing speed."
Right-handed starting pitcher -- Graham Godfrey, Midland (one game), Sacramento (19 games), Oakland (five games): After a tough 2010 season in which he went 4-8 with a 5.33 ERA and a career-high 62 walks in 125 innings, Godfrey rebounded with a sterling 2011 campaign.
The 27-year-old College of Charleston product was 14-3 with a 2.59 ERA in the Minors and made his Major League debut on June 10, ultimately going 1-2 with a 3.96 mark in five appearances for Oakland. Godfrey led the A's organization in victories and fell just shy of qualifying for the system's ERA crown.
"Graham's been outstanding [with] 14 wins in a season after being up and down," Sacramento manager Darren Bush said as the River Cats prepared for the playoffs. "To be able to go up there [to Oakland] and be able to pick up where he left off every time he comes back has been huge for us."
Though lacking overwhelming strikeout numbers, Godfrey has found success by keeping the ball in the park. He allowed six home runs in 107 1/3 innings in the homer-happy Pacific Coast League, but was victimized by three long balls over 25 frames in the Majors.
Honorable mention: Blake Hassebrock
Left-handed starting pitcher -- Jacob Brown, Burlington (eight games), Stockton (20 games): A 26th-round pick out of Georgia Southern in the 2010 Draft, Brown opened 2011 with Burlington, where he proved dominant in his full-season debut.
In eight outings -- seven of which were starts -- for the Bees, Brown went 4-0 with a 1.62 ERA while holding Midwest League hitters to a .198 average.
Things did not go as smoothly for Brown after his promotion to Stockton on May 25. The southpaw yielded nine earned runs over 2 2/3 innings in his Cal League debut and dropped four of his first five decisions before holding host Bakersfield scoreless over six frames on July 13.
Brown's second-half performance was much more solid than his first six outings with the Ports, but he continued to struggle with the long ball, allowing 16 homers in 99 Cal League innings after surrendering just one in 50 Midwest League frames.
Relief pitcher -- Anthony Huttenlocker, Stockton (41 games): Relievers come in all shapes, sizes and styles, and the A's system had several that stood out in different ways. Though he lacked overwhelming strikeout numbers and his WHIP (1.07) was not the lowest, the left-handed Huttenlocker led the group with a 4-0 record and a 1.83 ERA over 69 innings for Stockton.
"He's a soft-toss lefty that has had to overcome doubts about his velocity," said Lieppman. "But he has a plus-plus change-up and is a real bulldog on the mound -- he's proved a lot of people wrong in the three seasons he's been with us. He reminds me a little bit of Wade LeBlanc."
In his three seasons as a pro, Huttenlocker has allowed just six home runs over 159 1/3 innings -- more than half of which were pitched in the Cal League. Those are numbers that will have scouts looking past the numbers on the radar gun.
Honorable mention: Josh Lansford, Zach Thornton, Jeff Urlaub, Pedro Vidal