A's phenom started late, but is rising fast

August 5th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Martín Gallegos’ A’s Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

In the midst of a flurry of promotions for several top prospects throughout the A’s Minor League system last month, one name was notably absent from the movement.

While top prospects such as Lawrence Butler, Brett Harris and Darell Hernaiz jumped up to Triple-A Las Vegas shortly after the All-Star break, Denzel Clarke, Oakland’s No. 9 prospect by MLB Pipeline, stayed at Double-A Midland.

The lack of advancement, however, was not an indictment on Clarke’s performance. Over 64 games with Midland this season, the 23-year-old outfielder is hitting .261/.381/.496 with 12 home runs, 11 doubles, four triples and 11 stolen bases. Clarke recently landed on the injured list with a left shoulder strain, though he is expected to return later this month.

“Denzel wasn’t part of the transaction frenzy but it is important to have the foresight to recognize and acknowledge his progress.” A's assistant GM and director of player personnel Billy Owens said. “It has been awesome to watch the progress he has made this season. Denzel has freaky tools and a statuesque frame.”

It has been a quick rise for Clarke, who is only in his second full year in the A’s organization after being selected in the fourth round of the 2021 MLB Draft out of Cal State Northridge. Clarke thriving at such a high level is quite remarkable when you consider his late start. He was involved in several sports while growing up in Toronto, but it wasn’t until Clarke was about 9 years old that he first picked up a baseball.

Clarke can thank his supreme athleticism for that. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Canadian-born player comes from an athletic family. His mother, Donna, competed as a heptathlete at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. His uncle, Kevin Smellie, was a Canadian Football League running back for the Toronto Argonauts. Clarke is also a cousin of the trio of Naylor brothers, which includes Josh and Bo, who both play for the Guardians, and Myles, whom the A’s selected 39th overall in this year’s MLB Draft.

But Clarke has not gotten by on just athleticism alone. Since joining the A’s organization, he has displayed a considerable amount of growth in all aspects of the game.

“It is remarkable to comprehend his OPS pushing .900 in Double-A,” Owens said. “The combination of his 2022 Minor League season, Arizona Fall League, MLB Spring Training and playing in the World Baseball Classic accelerated his development. It really gave him exposure to advanced levels of baseball and see what it takes, while measuring his enormous tool set and understanding he belongs.”

As far as the athleticism, that is a big part of the package of what the A’s believe makes Clarke such a special talent.

“He’s a freakishly phenomenal athlete,” Owens said. “It’s unique to have that size, blended with top-scale athleticism on the baseball field. Fun to watch those tools become skills on a daily basis. Couple that ability with tenaciousness and you have a potential monster package.”

So, while Tyler Soderstrom and Zack Gelof are now big leaguers, and prospects such as Butler, Hernaiz and Harris are knocking on the door at Triple-A, don’t forget about Clarke. Lurking at Double-A, the A’s view him as part of that next generation that will help bring the Major League club back to playoff-contending baseball.

“Denzel fits right in the middle of our next wave,” Owens said. “Luis Robert is a tremendous physical comparison. If you want to cross over to another sport, there are some [former NFL wide receiver] Calvin Johnson elements to Denzel’s game. … Sledgehammer power, track speed, gladiator defense and improved plate discipline. It is fun to dream on his insane ceiling.”