I keep going back and forth as to how close or far away the Oakland A’s are from competing for a playoff spot in the American League. Sometimes I look at the Major League lineup and I go, “Oh okay, we’re working with something here.” Or are the expectations just set low at this point? Meanwhile, the pitching just isn’t that good yet at the upper levels. But there are plenty of exciting prospects in the system. You see what I mean?
I guess you would have to say that the brightest rays of hope on the MLB roster are the Matt’s: both Chapman and Olson. The latter got to way more of his power against his first sizable taste of major league pitching than most prognosticators thought. Even with a small regression at the plate, Olson figures to carry OPS’s north of .800 due to his power/patience profile. While Chapman also showed good pop in his debut, he doesn’t have the ability to draw walks that Olson does. However, Chapman should be worth a couple of defensive wins alone, as his 80-grade glove at the hot corner is that good. He is off to a fast start at the plate, and things are looking quite bright at the infield corners.
Going up the middle, it’s nothing but place-holders, with Marcus Semien and his sub-par range at short, Jed Lowrie and his doubles-bat at the keystone position, and Jonathon Lucroy on a one year value rental behind the dish. All figure to be gone by the time the A’s are good in a few years, with only Semien under contract beyond this year. Fortunately, up-the-middle offensive talent is the strength of the farm system, and almost fully baked.
In the outfield, Bill Beane and Co. are hoping that Stephen Piscotty returns to his 2016 form, but Piscotty might have a difficult time providing enough power to profile at a corner outfield position, especially playing his home games at the spacious Oakland Coliseum. Jake Smolinski and Boog Powell are keeping center field warm for Dustin Fowler until the former Yankees farmhand shows he’s ready for everyday duties. So….yeah. Dustin, get crackin’, cause despite Boog’s 80-grade name, there ain’t much to see there.
Khrush Davis takes his noodle-arm and $10 million arb salary to the DH, where he belongs. That leaves everyday left field duties to Matt Joyce. See what I mean? Where the Matt’s giveth on this team (see above), this Matt just takes away. Alright, on to the pitching. take a deep breath, it’s a doosy (doozie?, is that real word?).
On Opening Day, the A’s sent Kendall Graveman to the mound. Let me repeat that again. Okay, just read that again. Kendall Graveman, Opening Day starter. Probably the one phrase A’s fans hope most to never, ever hear again. Alright, take your “meh”, and keep it moving.
Sean Maneae, if we remember came over as the reward for half a season of Ben Zobrist, has already demonstrated his shoulder to be healthy, and has flashed the ability to be a solid #3 starter. Daniel Mengden and his Vaudeville era mustache at least carries some potential upside, but the same is hard to find in other rotation fillers, Paul Blackburn, Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, and Andrew Triggs. Granted, I’d be worlds more excited to be thinking about A.J. Puk and Jharel Cotton in the MLB rotation right now, but our old friend Tommy John felt differently about both pitchers earlier this Spring. We’ll have to monitor both pitcher’s recoveries next summer. Okay, on to the minor leagues, where the majority of this team’s future still lies.
Minor League System
As previously alluded, the A’s strength in the minor leagues is high-end positional talent, particularly those with the potential to stick up the middle defensively. Before you go patting the amateur scouting department on the back, realize that the majority of the top talent here has been acquired through trades of veterans. For instance, Franklin Barreto, still only 21 years old, is the last hope to salvage the Josh Donaldson trade. Barreto is still working through taming an aggressive approach and not getting himself out by chasing breaking pitches out of the zone, but otherwise, he has everything you ask for in a SS/2B prospect: bat speed, bat control, raw pull power, and above average foot speed. Most of the industry believes Barreto fits best defensively at second base, especially with Jorge Mateo ready to man shortstop. Speaking of Mateo, the 80-grade speed demon is also not a natural at shortstop, but generally is more appealing there than Barreto. Mateo uses his elite speed tool to take extra bases wherever and whenever, and has enough wiry strength to project for major league average power as well. The hit tool and approach is not above average, but Mateo made good strides last year in a season he split between Yankees and A’s double-A affiliates after being obtained in the Sonny Gray deal. Again, throw him in the camp with Barreto as a major league ready up-the-middle regular.
Sticking with up-the-middle viability and the Sonny Gray deal, the A’s are also hopeful that Dustin Fowler can take over where he left off before a gruesome collision with the center field wall right after his major league call-up with the Yankees ended his season last year. To that point, Fowler offers major league average power that he gets to consistently with a solid approach that includes good pitch recognition and an ability to draw walks. Fowler also runs well enough to play a solid center field, though he is not a traditional burner. Fowler has a chance to play center field for the A’s everyday later this season if he progresses well from injury.
To finish with the high-upside, up-the-middle potential bats in this system, as if there weren’t enough, the A’s domestic and international amateur scouts did lay their eyes on some raw talent in the last year plus. Domestically, the A’s took a big risk with the 5th overall pick in the 2017 draft when they selected OF Austin Beck out of high school in North Carolina. Beck oozes raw tools, but the approach is extremely raw. If Beck, 19, refines his approach with pro coaching and consistent reps, his 60-grade power will play along with his 60-grade speed and 60-grade arm. Beck struggled in his first taste of rookie ball after signing last summer, but he has plenty of time, and if everything clicks, the A’s have found themselves the type of all-star talent that they cannot be in play for in free agency.
The A’s amateur scouts laid eyes on a whole slew of other positional players in the last draft. Greg Deichmann, an second round collegiate corner outfield pick in 2017, exhibits top-notch power and exit velocities, but some scouts have questions about some stiffness in his swing. Kevin Merrell, selected in the compensation round last year out of college as well, can play shortstop and uses his elite speed to steal bases in bunches. He has very marginal power, and will need his hit tool to max out in order to play everyday. Nick Allen, meanwhile, was drafted in the 3rd round last June out of high school in California, but he offers plus defense at short, whereas Merrell’s arm there is fringey. Allen is a 5’9, 160 lb hustler in the David Eckstein mold, and will go as far as his bat will allow him. Another highly-regarded domestic product in this system is 2016 3rd rounder Sean Murphy, a possible steal out of Washington State University. Murphy draws rave reviews for his defense behind the plate and is considered an excellent pitch framer with a strong arm. Murphy is likely to be more power than pure hitter, but with the plus defense, he has a good chance at playing everyday behind the dish.
Meanwhile, the A’s made a big splash on the international market two winters ago when they handed $3 million to sign “Lazarito”. That is, Lazaro Armenteros, 18, signed with the A’s out of Cuba and put up a solid debut in rookie ball last season. Armenteros showed better than expected polish at the plate in terms of pitch recognition, but the swing could need tweaks to work against pro pitching. Armenteros has the raw speed to play center field, and there’s at least major league average power in his frame as well. Armenteros is raw and young, but there is indeed upside for an everyday regular.
Last but not least in this collection of young bats belong Sheldon Neuse, obtained last summer as part of the return package for the Madson/Doolittle duo. In this case “Doo-little” did a lot, as he helped bring back the Nats 2016 2nd round pick. Neuse is a third baseman by trade, with sufficient hands and a strong arm to stick at the hot corner, but with Matt Chapman around, the A’s might have to think about exploring his defensive versatility. Neuse offers plus power in his right handed stroke, and figures to get to it enough for him to project as an everyday bat. How many times have I written that sentence? Kind of scary. Just get some pitching, A’s!
Okay, on to the pitching. As mentioned previously, a torn UCL ended the tall lanky lefty A.J. Puk’s 2018 season before it ever got underway. The former 6th overall pick in the 2016 draft out of Florida had been turning heads last fall and early this spring with a diverse repertoire of plus pitches, including a mid-90’s four-seamer, and new two-seamer with sink, a plus slider to devastate lefties and back-foot to righties, and a change-up that flashes plus. Durability had been a concern due to back problems, but now those concerns will really linger.
Jharel Cotton had a rough first full season in 2017 for the A’s, but the former top Dodgers prospect throws a consistently plus-plus change and has gotten into the mid-90’s with his heater in the past. But he will also be on the back burner for the next 18 months. Speaking of torn UCL’s, Daulton Jeffries and James Kaprelian were two hard throwing collegiate right-handers on the fast track until their own elbow ligaments blew. They are both due back to pitch this summer.
With all of the uncertainty in the young pitching due to injury, there are a few bright arms that are not currently in convalescence, none brighter than the left arm of Jesus Luzardo. The young lefty was the Nationals 3rd round pick out of high school in Parkland, Fl. and was obtained along with Neuse in the aforementioned deadline deal. The 20 year old has better than average command of his pitches, especially for a recently drafted prep arm. His fastball sits in the low-mid 90s, and gets good grades on both his change and curve. Luzardo will move quickly. Meanwhile, changeup specialist Logan Shore, the A’s 2nd round pick in 2016 out of Florida, has been slowed by a lat injury as well, but offers backend rotation potential. Grant Holmes, obtained with Cotton in the Josh Reddick/Rich Hill deadline deal, throws hard and flashes a plus curveball, but has struggled with command and consistency from start to start. His profile could best be served as a reliever in the long run.
So with a couple of core offensive pieces in the big leagues, but not much pitching, and a farm system rich in offensive talent, the future of the A’s seems inevitably to rest on the health of their high upside young pitchers: Puk, Cotton, Manaea, Luzardo, Jeffries, and Kaprelian. If the A’s can get three of that bunch healthy and pitching close to the ceiling their stuff indicates, likely not until 2020 at this point, the future can indeed be very bright. But if too many of these arms flame out, the A’s ability to compete with the best of the American League will remain a daunting task. The mix of talent here still puts their future at 20th out of 30 MLB organizations.