After the completion of the regular season and alternate training sites, most player development staffs have turned their attention to instructional league play. In the past, instructional leagues have been populated by new draftees, recent international signings and players at the bottom rungs of their organizational ladder. This year, in an attempt to make up for lost time due to the pandemic, it’s been expanded to include many more players. MLB Pipeline will be providing position-by-position reports from instructional league camps in Florida and Arizona.
Dane Acker, RHP; Tyler Baum, RHP (No. 19 prospect); Reid Birlingmair, RHP; Marshall Cantillo, RHP; Alexis Cedano, RHP; Wandisson Charles, RHP; Bryce Conley, RHP; Jeff Criswell, RHP (No. 10); Parker Dunshee, RHP (No. 26); Stevie Emanuels, RHP (No. 30); Brady Feigl, RHP (No. 28); Gerald Garcia, LHP; James Gonzalez, LHP; Diego Granado, RHP; Richard Guasch, RHP; Brian Howard, RHP (No. 24); Jared Koenig, LHP; Aiden McIntyre, RHP; Colin Peluse, RHP; Leudeny Pineda, RHP; Yehizon Sánchez, Pedro Santos, Gus Varland, RHP (No. 27); Jake Walkinshaw, RHP, Jack Weisenburger, RHP
A’s farm director Ed Sprague has been with the organization for five seasons, and he can’t remember being this excited about a pitching crop after an instructs that wrapped up on Friday.
“It’s the best group I’ve seen us have in terms of velocity and stuff in the years I’ve been here,” Sprague said.
Jeff Criswell was added via the 2020 Draft. The second-rounder out of Michigan had shown the ability to both start and relieve while with the Wolverines, but obviously didn’t get the chance to show what he could do after signing until this instructs experience. More than anything, the player development staff was simply happy to interact with the right-hander in person.
“I had only watched him on video before,” Sprague said. “He looks leaner and his delivery is a little cleaner than what I saw on video. He was up to 97 [mph] with a hard slider, and he’s thrown some very good changeups here. He’s more strikes over command, but he’s around the zone. Worst case, he falls back to the 'pen, but I think we try to develop him as a starter.”
A pair of arms not on the Top 30 have certainly made claims to at least be considered for it in the future. The first is reliever Wandisson Charles, who made it to Double-A in 2019 and struck out 13.4 per nine innings in the process (though he also walked 6.2 per nine). In a normal season, he could have worked his way up to the big leagues with more reps in the Minors. Instead, he made strides at the club’s alternate site and continued to do well at instructs, lining him up to be protected from the Rule 5 Draft this offseason.
“He has the highest average velocity in the organization, around 96-97 mph,” Sprague said. “His whole thing was about command and being athletic in his delivery. His slider has improved in terms of break and consistency in the zone with it. He has the chance to be on the roster and make a move.”
Colin Peluse, on the other hand, has the chance to start. The A’s ninth-rounder out of Wake Forest in 2019, he might have been the biggest surprise at instructs.
“He was more of a 92-mph guy, he’s now 97 -- touched 98 since he’s been here,” Sprague said. “He hit the weight room hard on his legs. Sometimes the break is good for these college guys because they’ve been pitching year round since they were 10. His secondary stuff looks pretty good and he has a starter look with a repeatable delivery.”
When Kyle McCann first joined the A’s as their fourth-round pick in 2019, he was primarily a power-hitting catcher with fringy defensive skills at best. His left-handed pop (and swing-and-miss), which reminds many of Chris Davis, was very much on display at the alternate site and at instructional league, with the potential to hit 30 homers annually, albeit with a low batting average. But the A’s were really pleased to see not only how much better he’s gotten defensively, but how much he cares about that side of his game.
“His flexibility, receiving and blocking have really improved from a year ago,” Sprague said. “He’s really taken to the importance of catching. He learned a lot from the veteran guys at the alternate site on how to prep his body, how to prepare himself every day. It’s been night and day in terms of his overall approach to prepare.”
Jeremy Eierman and Jonah Bride, both taken in the 2018 Draft (Eierman in the second round, Bride in Round 23), spent most of the 2019 season playing together on the left side of Stockton’s infield in the Class A Advanced California League. Bride had a solid, albeit unspectacular year, while Eierman really struggled offensively. Both looked ready to take a step forward at instructs, even without a full season of reps.
“Eierman’s still a plus defender and he’s shown some improvements with the bat, especially with pitch recognition, which was key for him going into this year,” Sprague said, referring to Eierman’s 32 percent strikeout rate in 2019. “He’s put together better at-bats as camp went on here. It would’ve been a good year for him to get 500 plate appearances, but we’re happy with his strides.”
Bride is more the type of player who sneaks up on you, and he can do a lot of things well without anything necessarily jumping off the page.
“Bride quietly had a really good camp,” Sprague said. “He played well at third, played a little second, and led the club in homers here. He’s put himself on the map with this camp. He doesn’t have a carrying tool, he’s just kind of a baseball player.”
Michael Guldberg, the club’s third-round pick out of Georgia Tech in the 2020 Draft, is the kind of advanced college hitter who likely would’ve gone to Class A Short-Season Vermont to start his pro career and very easily could’ve hit his way to full-season ball during his first summer. Instead, he headed to instructs and even though his time was cut short by a hamstring pull, he made a very good first impression.
“He really played well and showed a lot of skills,” Sprague said. “He’s got some fast twitch, he’s a good defender with good bat-to-ball skills and a little power, maybe like a Chris Taylor type. He knows the game well.”
Keep an eye on Danny Bautista, who hurt his shoulder last year while playing for Vermont. The son of former big league outfielder of the same name, the 20-year-old came to instructs with a lot of added strength and had consistently good at-bats.
The A’s were also pleased with the improved quality of Austin Beck’s at-bats. The 2017 first-round pick had a 126/24 K/BB ratio in Stockton in 2019 and without any of the raw power that made him so intriguing as a Draft prospect.
“He’s made some strides in terms of recognition,” Sprague said. His BPs are starting to improve. His power is starting to come back, the ball is coming off the bat better and he hit a couple of homers here.”