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State of the System: Oakland A’s

Puk, Puason help strike balance as club looks to remain contenders
A.J. Puk underwent shoulder surgery in September and should be on track to return for Spring Training. (Gregory Bull/AP)
December 18, 2020

Starting in October and running through the end of the year, MiLB.com's State of the System series will evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each Major League organization, highlights prospects who've made the biggest strides in 2020 and offers a peek at 2021. So much was different during the 60-game

Starting in October and running through the end of the year, MiLB.com's State of the System series will evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each Major League organization, highlights prospects who've made the biggest strides in 2020 and offers a peek at 2021.

So much was different during the 60-game Major League season, but the A’s once again maintained their status as a playoff frequent flyer in 2020.

Oakland qualified for its third consecutive postseason and claimed its third American League West title in the past decade. While the A’s have figured out the formula for getting there, they continue to fall short of a deep run.

The A’s latest playoff push included two players that graduated from MLB.com’s Top 100 prospects list during the season: left-hander Jesus Luzardo and catcher Sean Murphy . No. 53 overall prospect A.J. Puk would likely have made an impact in 2020 if not for a lingering shoulder issue.

Oakland possesses a sturdy balance of prospect talent at most every position, but it is mostly still a very young system. It might be difficult to rely on homegrown players to return to October baseball for a fourth consecutive year.

But a successful foundation is already in place. And the A’s, traditionally, have not been shy about making trades. So, this system could look a bit different in a year’s time.

System strengths: The most glaring aspect of the A’s Top 30 prospects list are the number of infielders – particularly shortstops – near the top of the rankings. Oakland's second-ranked prospect, Robert Puason, as well as Nick Allen (No. 4), Sheldon Neuse (No. 5) and Logan Davidson (No. 6) are all listed as potential shortstops.

Puason, MLB.com’s second-ranked international prospect in 2019, signed for a record $5.1 million last July. The 18-year-old missed his chance to play his first professional game in 2020 but got a valuable baseball education at the club’s alternate training site in San Jose.

“Obviously, he's very young and you're going to get a lot of inconsistencies, but his development of his routine and getting himself ready on a daily basis I thought in San Jose really improved,” director of player development Ed Sprague said.

Allen didn’t play after suffering a partially torn ligament and high ankle sprain in his left leg last June. But he healed up in time for Spring Training. Davidson batted .239/.345/.332 with four homers and 12 RBIs for Class A Short Season Vermont after being selected with the No. 29 overall pick last June. Both 22-year-old infielders worked at the alternate site this summer.

“I think they have a much better understanding of who they are as players. I thought they got to hone their craft a little bit as far as routine goes,” Sprague said. “Nick was probably a little bit further along defensively in terms of routine-based stuff. Davidson, I thought he was very, very consistent and he really improved with the bat a lot. … I think both of them matured with their offensive approach. Understanding strike zone recognition was improved. I think they both took another step defensively.”

Neuse batted .317/.389/.550 with 27 homers and 102 RBIs for Triple-A Las Vegas before making his Major League debut last year. He had 14 hits and seven RBIs in 56 at-bats with Oakland in 2019 but never made it out of San Jose this summer.

Semien, an MVP finalist in 2019, is a free agent this winter. Considering that Neuse is the only infielder among ranked A’s prospects to have played above the California League, it seems as though Semien’s replacement in 2021 – if he doesn’t re-sign – may not come from within the organization.

Areas for growth: The A’s Top 30 is backloaded with enough right-handed pitchers to even challenge their infield depth. But the clock may be ticking on some outfielders in the system.

Greg Deichmann (No. 14) and Austin Beck (No. 18) both had difficult regular seasons after moving up a level in 2019. Skye Bolt (No. 17) found his stroke in Las Vegas and debuted for Oakland in 2019, but couldn’t crack the Major League roster this summer.

But two of the most intriguing outfielders in the system are Lazaro Armenteros (No. 19) and Buddy Reed (No. 24).

The A’s went above their international spending limit to sign Armenteros for $3 million in 2016. The 21-year-old defected from Cuba with much fanfare and ranked No. 10 in the 2016 international class with plus grades for his power, speed and arm strength. Since then Armenteros has been a .250 hitter with 29 total homers in 252 Minor League games. He led the California League with 227 strikeouts in 2019, which was 50 more than the next name on the list.

“Off-speed recognition has been an issue for him. … The tool set is there, and he's obviously a tremendously built athlete. It's just a matter of how far forward he can continue to come with the recognition,” Sprague said. “With all the information that's out there, he's going to have to make adjustments. Some of them will be mechanical, but mostly it's going to come down to a solid approach at the plate.”

Reed was the player to be named in the deal that sent Jurickson Profar to the Padres last December. He’s a career .249/.311/.399 hitter with 33 homers and 160 RBIs in four Minor League seasons. He played in the All-Star Futures Game in 2018 and can go on stretches where he’s the hottest hitter in the Minors. But, like Armenteros, the strikeout numbers leave much to be desired.

“He's a plus defender. He's got a plus, plus arm. He can really run. He's got some power in there, and he had a great year in 2018 in A ball. Now it's just time to put it together at the next levels,” Sprague said. “When he's playing good, he's fun to watch. … I think he's just got to go out and find who he is as a player. Is he going to try and swing for the fences? Or is he going to be a gap-to-gap guy and be a burner on the bases and a plus defender? So, I think it's how he wants to shape his game.”

Junior Perez (No. 11), who was the player to be named in the June trade that sent Jorge Mateo to San Diego, and Brayan Buelvas (No. 14) have yet to appear above the Rookie level.

With an already rock-steady Luis Barrera (No. 8) as their best outfielder, a breakout season from any of those seven players could strengthen the balance of talent in the system.

What changed in 2020: Sprague joked that the true strength of the system is left-handed, power-hitting catchers. In addition to ninth-ranked Jonah Heim, who had 38 at-bats in Oakland this season, first-round pick Tyler Soderstrom also (No. 3) fits this description.

The A’s landed the 19-year-old backstop with the No. 26 overall pick and had to go above slot to sign him. A local player from Turlock, California, the A’s knew Soderstrom’s personality and family very well.

“He was much better all-around than I thought. He's definitely beyond his years in terms of his approach at the plate hitting-wise.” Sprague said. “His catching was better than I'd seen on video. … He improved quite a bit over the course of the summer. He's got plus power, and he's got hit-ability too. He uses the whole field. He takes pitches, he fouls them off, he sees the ball really well.”

Sprague said Soderstrom played some first base and left field at San Jose, and he’s athletic enough to play on the left side of the infield.

Along with Soderstrom, second-rounder Jeff Criswell positions himself well among the right-handed pitchers in the A’s system. Criswell gained experience as both a starter and reliever at the University of Michigan, but Sprague believes his three-pitch mix of a fastball, slider and changeup gives him a chance in Oakland’s future rotation.

Perhaps the biggest changes in 2020, however, were the Major League debuts of right-handers Daulton Jefferies (No. 7) and James Kaprielian (No. 12).

“They both came in to San Jose healthy, ready to rock and roll. I think they would have gotten their full compliment of innings in,” Sprague said. “We're certainly happy for those guys. They both worked really hard. They both had kind of double setbacks in terms of their injuries. ... We have a little bit of a gap between the next group of pitchers coming. So, it was nice to get those guys up there.”

Jefferies was limited to 20 1/3 professional innings after being drafted in 2016. But he held a 3.42 ERA with 93 strikeouts over 79 innings between Class A Advanced Stockton and Double-A Midland in 2019 and overcame a biceps strain this spring.

Kaprielian, a 2015 first-rounder who was part of the Sonny Gray deal with the Yankees in 2017, had 29 1/3 innings under his belt before throwing 68 frames across three levels with a 3.18 ERA in 2019.

The A’s, no stranger to the trade market, have been dealing from a position of depth since the Profar trade last December. Mateo, another key figure in the Gray deal, was also dealt away in June. And infielder Franklin Barreto , the club’s former No. 1 prospect, was spun off at the August deadline for impending free agent Tommy La Stella .

Alternate site standouts: After stringing together a couple strong seasons in the Minors, Barrera’s performance in San Jose distinguished himself from the rest of the A’s outfield crop.

The 25-year-old was limited by surgery on his right shoulder in 2019 and played just 54 games with Midland. He batted .321/.357/.513 with four homers, 11 triples, nine doubles and 24 RBIs in the Texas League.

With one summer in San Jose, Barrera made it clear that he’s ready for his next opportunity.

“He played outstanding in San Jose. … Obviously, we wanted to see him get some more at-bats at the Triple-A level and go from there, but he's a fun, exciting player,” Sprague said. “Slashes the ball all around the yard. He can really run. He gets something going. He's a triples machine. He plays above-average defense in the outfield. He's just a fun guy to watch play.”

Barrera was signed for $450,000 in 2012 and needed a few years to find his footing in the professional ranks. But his performance this summer should put him on the big-league radar in 2021.

Impact rookies: In 2018, Ramón Laureano came in and took over the center field role as Oakland snapped its three-year streak at the bottom of the AL West standings. Last season, Murphy came in and took over the full-time catching role, even starting the AL Wild Card Game against Tampa Bay.

This year, it was Luzardo’s turn. The 22-year-old pitched to a 4.12 ERA with 59 strikeouts in as many innings, making nine starts over 12 appearances. The left-hander debuted for Oakland in 2019 and entered the season as the club’s top prospect after posting a 2.53 ERA with a 10.76 K/9 over three Minor League seasons.

“I think he had some outstanding games,” Sprague said. “I think he's done a good job, and I think he can do better. I think he gets in spots during the game, that he starts trying to overthrow the ball and has a tendency to run his pitch count up a little bit. ... He got to pitch in a lot of big games. And he's another competitor, and he's very mature beyond his years. So I think he'll just continue to get better and better.”

Sprague said Luzardo’s tendency to overthrow comes from his ability to nearly reach triple-digits with his fastball, but he can do a better job of extending over his front side to show better command.

“I think it's just needing a comfort level,” Sprague said. “The older you get, the more you have an understanding of how your stuff plays with different hitters in different situations. He has three plus pitches so it's not a matter of ability. It's just a matter of him continuing to utilize how he wants to use those pitches in each outing and be a little more economical in how he does it.”

Next big thing: If all had gone according to plan, Puk would be seen in the same light as Luzardo – a young, impact power lefty who contributed to the A’s postseason push in 2020. But the latest in a string of injuries, which was listed as a shoulder issue before he eventually underwent surgery in September, kept him out of action all year.

Sprague said Puk began a throwing program in December and, if all goes well, the 25-year-old should be on track to return for Spring Training. The southpaw also debuted for the A’s in 2019, yielding four runs over 11 1/3 innings (3.18 ERA) with 13 strikeouts out of the bullpen.

“He was a little bit hindered. He couldn't really throw his changeup. That was the one pitch that was still kind of bothering him,” Sprague said. “He was able to start throwing that again this year before he got hurt, and that was kind of a setback. Obviously, getting back to the three complement of pitches for him, I think, is important. And then just establishing the ability to be healthy and whether he's in a starter role or reliever role, being able to bounce back on a consistent basis.”

When he’s healthy, Puk is among the best pitchers in the Minors. He averaged 12.88 strikeouts per nine innings with a 1.21 WHIP and .220 opponent’s batting average over 183 innings across three Minor League seasons.

Barrera, Neuse or Jefferies could help the Major League squad next year, but Puk is the most capable player in the A’s system to make a major impact in 2021.

Gerard Gilberto is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @Gerard_Gilberto.