Toolshed: A's Luzardo finds health, stability

Lefty has breakout potential in second season with second system

Jesus Luzardo averaged 9.6 strikeouts per walk over 43 1/3 innings last season across three levels. (Greg Bessette)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | January 19, 2018 10:00 AM ET

In just a two-year span, Jesus Luzardo has already been considered a lot of things. He was a potential first-round pick as a high-school senior. He was a Tommy John surgery patient. He was a third-round pick. He was a Washington Nationals prospect.

Now he is an Oakland Athletics prospect. He is healthy. And soon enough, he just might be one of the most exciting pitching prospects in the game.

The 20-year-old was named MLB.com's No. 8 left-handed pitching prospect earlier this week. The fact Luzardo has already ascended to that level despite all he's been through isn't lost on him, but he's not about to get caught up in rankings hubbub either.

"It's definitely an honor to be top 10 like that," he said. "But I wouldn't say it's anything I focus on because I don't want that getting in my head. I've got enough things to think about and improve on. All I can do is keep climbing in this organization, and let rankings like that go where they're going to go."

To understand Luzardo's road, jump back about three years to his junior year at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida -- about halfway between West Palm Beach and Miami near the Atlantic Coast. The southpaw was getting attention in the Sunshine State for his ability to throw strikes at a young age, but he didn't quite fit the dominant pitcher profile because of his size. That changed quickly.

"Honestly, I grew a lot my junior year of high school, something like 5 or 6 inches," he said. "After that, I started to work out a little bit more here in Jupiter and kinda focused on getting my whole body ready to handle that type of growth. I wanted to get stronger too, not just taller. And then when I got back to throwing, the velocity just came to me. At the time, I thought it was really cool. Now it's become normal, and I'm focusing more on hitting my spots. Velocity still isn't something I chase."

Offseason MiLB include

The summer after his junior year, Luzardo, who now stands 6-foot-1, was touching around 93 mph. The following spring, he was throwing more consistently in the mid-90s and even reportedly hit as high as 97. That left many salivating about his Major League prospects while a commitment to nearby Miami was also in his back pocket. That optimism lasted all of four starts. On March 1, 2016, he felt an issue in his left elbow, one that came with a big-time drop in velocity. Later that month, Dr. James Andrews performed Tommy John surgery on his torn ulnar collateral ligament. 

"It was definitely frustrating," Luzardo said. "I had to throw a lot into my faith to get over it, but I had no clue what was going to happen next. All I could do was focus on my rehab, and if I went in the Draft or to Miami, I was going to be in a good situation. As I got closer to the Draft, it kinda just happened. There wasn't a solid plan, one way or the other."

Because of the injury and expected rehab process, MLB.com ranked him as the No. 77 overall prospect heading into the 2016 Draft. The Nationals, who had taken Tommy John projects Lucas Giolito and Erick Fedde in 2012 and 2014 respectively, weren't scared off and came calling in the third round at No. 94 overall. They signed him 11 days later for $1.4 million, more than double the slot bonus of $635,800. That's roughly the same bonus to be expected of a player picked 50 spots earlier. But despite their strong financial interest in getting Luzardo into their system, the Nationals had showed no verbal interest in the player before that June, at least to his face.

"I had no idea," he said. "They hadn't spoken to me until the day I was taken, to be honest with you. I didn't do any research on them, expecting them to take me. ... But when I got drafted, they explained to me their process and told me they'd been through this before. Once I did my own research, I saw that they didn't only draft Tommy John guys, they developed them. They don't draft you and let you get hurt again. Once I figured that all out, I had my mind made up that this would be a good situation for me."

True to their promise, Washington got Luzardo back on the mound for his professional debut on June 28, almost 16 months after the initial procedure. The velocity came back with a vengeance and his effectiveness took off in his first taste of Minor League ball.

Then they traded him.

Luzardo only made three Rookie-level Gulf Coast League starts in the system, giving up two earned runs while striking out 15 without a walk in 13 2/3 innings, before he was dealt to the A's on July 16 with two others for Major League relievers Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson. Moving to a second organization so quickly would be an odd experience for any teenager. For one with a reconstructed elbow ligament who believed he was on a specific road to full recovery, it proved to be more than just a little confounding. 

Again Luzardo had to allow himself to be pleasantly surprised.

"At first, it was kinda scary," he said. "I didn't know how things would go or what was next. The Nats had a certain plan for me, and with the A's, I didn't know what would be different. But literally the first day, they sat me down with this very specific plan that was similar to the Nats in a lot of ways, and all my worries went away right then."

Oakland moved its new left-hander to a complex league, where he dominated. After four Arizona League starts, Luzardo was promoted to Class A Short Season Vermont on Aug. 10 and ended up making six starts in the New York-Penn League, including a playoff outing in which he allowed just one hit and a walk while striking out five over five scoreless frames. Across all three regular-season stops, Luzardo finished with a 1.66 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 48 strikeouts and only five walks over 43 1/3 innings.

It's that level of control that has been perhaps most shocking. Filling the zone with that level of regularity was Luzardo's calling card even in the earliest days of his high school career, but the return of his command -- not only against tougher competition but just one year after major surgery -- was a big reason why he jumped into the top 10 for his fellow southpaws despite his limited experience.

"Growing up, I never really threw hard," he said. "Command has always been the biggest focus no matter what. So when I was going through my rehab, I knew I couldn't throw hard anyways, but I could get right backing to hitting my spots. All those bullpens, sim games, everything I'd done, I felt it was all worth it because I could get that command back pretty quickly."

The Florida native, born to Venezuelan parents in Peru, reportedly got his velocity back up to the mid-90s, topping out as high as 98. His curveball still has room to grow, but the changeup has the chance to be a weapon already because of its movement. That's a big part of the reason why Luzardo was almost as tough to hit against for right-handers (.225 average) as he was for his fellow lefties (.190) at all three stops.

"Growing up, that was my go-to pitch," he said of the change. "Like I said, I couldn't throw hard, so I needed to mix things up, and that was the best pitch I had to do that with. The Nationals worked with me on it a lot in my bullpens, and by the time I got to Vermont, the pitching coach there and the [A's] pitching coordinator implemented a few little things, and it took off even more. I can throw it in any count now. Even if I know I shouldn't, I still have that confidence that I can use it whenever, and that's huge."

Luzardo will have more of a chance to showcase all three of his offerings in 2018. Currently working out with Eric Cressey -- a Jupiter-based trainer whose website boasts testimonials from the likes of Corey Kluber, Kevin Youkilis and Burke Badenhop -- near home, the left-hander has just begun his first bullpens of the offseason. He's up to two so far, which has already made this far different than 12 months ago.

Luzardo will head back to the A's Spring Training facility in Mesa in the middle of next month and, if all goes well, an assignment to Class A Beloit seems likely, making that his first trip to a full-season affiliate. Oakland hasn't quite given him any idea of innings or pitch limits, but at some point, he'll likely be asked to stretch his outings a little longer than his current career high of five. If he can maintain his stuff and impressive command from February to September, there's a good chance the southpaw isn't known for his surgery, Draft position or trade anymore. He'll be known as one of the game's most exciting pitching prospects.

"Back last spring, I just wanted to stay healthy at all," he said. "This offseason, I want to show up in Spring Training ready to go and ready to prove that I can be healthy for a full season. Not only that, but also that I can compete at a high level. I'm ready to get aggressive out there."

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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