No one has any idea of what the 2020 shutdown will do long-term in terms of impacting player development. How will players deal with a full season of Minor League games after a year off? Will there be more injuries and fatigue? How will teams work to offset any of those potential issues?
Answers to all of those questions will come to the fore as the 2021 season wears on. In the short term, one thing that does seem to be happening across Minor League camps this spring is that pitchers are throwing harder.
Perhaps the time off means arms are fresher. Perhaps there will be a net positive from pitchers having a year to work almost exclusively on conditioning and delivery fixes. It’s something that’s definitely been noticed in A’s camp as Minor League Spring Training is close to finishing up.
“There’s an uptick in velocities among all pitchers because of the rest,” A’s farm director Ed Sprague said. “We’ll see if that holds as the work load increases.”
Sprague could tick off a number of pitching prospects who are lighting up the radar gun more than they have in the past, but here are two examples of slightly off-the-radar types whose uptick in velocity could make them more interesting in 2021 and beyond.
Chase Cohen was a ninth-round pick of the A’s in 2018 out of Georgia Southern, one who had a relatively pedestrian first full season in Low-A (4.64 ERA, 1.48 WHIP. .260 batting average against). A 6-foot-1 right-hander, Cohen could always throw hard, touching 97 mph occasionally when he was coming out of school. This spring, however, he’s been sitting 96-97 mph with his fastball and touching triple digits. He started and relieved in 2019, but he’ll focus on using that premium fastball out of the bullpen moving forward.
Meanwhile, Brady Basso’s role is changing. A lefty who signed for just $75,000 as a 16th-round pick in the 2019 Draft out of Oklahoma State, Basso pitched almost exclusively in relief in college and threw well in that role in the Rookie-level Arizona League in 2019. Now that he’s up to 95-96 mph with his fastball to go along with a curve that flashes plus and a work-in-progress changeup, he’s going to get the chance to start.
Two players responsible for catching all this improved velocity have certainly made strong impressions this spring.
Top prospect Tyler Soderstrom, the club’s first-round pick in 2020, has continued to impress wherever he is. The high school product didn’t look out of place at the A’s alternate training site last year, during instructional league play and then during big league camp earlier this spring.
There are no questions about the bat. The son of former big leaguer Steve Soderstrom was one of the most advanced hitters, especially among the high school set, in the 2020 Draft class and he has the chance to be a plus hitter with plenty of power. He even went 4-for-10 in big league camp, but as much as his offensive profile has impressed, it’s how much he’s gotten better behind the plate that’s caught the A’s attention.
“The catching has really improved,” Sprague said, adding that he impressed big league manager, and former catcher, Bob Melvin. “He’s throwing better than he did last year. He’s really taken to blocking, so that’s good. He really bought in. Just being young and impressionable, he’s gotten better really fast.”
In many ways, the A’s are getting their first real look at No. 30 prospect Drew Millas. The team’s seventh-round selection in 2019 out of Missouri State didn’t play after signing because of an elbow issue and then what eventually was diagnosed as deep vein thrombosis. He wasn’t at Spring Training a year ago and then the shutdown happened, so his first interaction was during instructs last fall. He’s kind of the flip side of the coin from Soderstrom as a catcher known for his defense coming out of the Draft who’s actually opened some eyes with how well he’s swing the bat from both sides of the plate.
“He’s been a big surprise,” Sprague said. “There’s a little power and a nice swing. I honestly didn’t know much about him, but he’s a good player.”
Alternate training site update
If you want to see some of the best middle infielders the A’s system has to offer, head to Double-A Midland once the Minor League season starts. The A’s plan to have three shortstops from their Top 30 on the roster sharing time, with Jeremy Eierman joining top 10 prospects Nick Allen and Logan Davidson there to begin the year. Those two have been playing extremely well in preparation at the alternate site, even if the numbers they’re putting up in games against the nearby Giants’ alternate site participants don’t speak to that.
“They struggled early,” Sprague said. “They’re playing the Giants every day and I guess their Triple-A pitching staff is good. Numbers-wise, they weren’t great, but the at-bats were very competitive and they were hitting the ball hard. And the defense has been really great.”
One player who has been hitting, not surprisingly, is Luis Barrera. The A’s No. 7 prospect has hit pretty much wherever he goes, including hitting .321 in an injury-shortened Double-A season in 2019.
“He’s swinging the bat really well,” Sprague said. “He just has a knack for hitting. If he gets an opportunity, he’s going to hit.”
Prospect we’ll be talking about in 2022
In late June last year, the A’s sent Jorge Mateo to the San Diego Padres for a player to be named later. In November, it turned out that Junior Perez was that player. He’s now the organization’s No. 11 prospect and the A’s are getting their first true look at him this spring, seeing that the power he showed in the Arizona League in 2019 (11 homers) might be for real.
“It’s a small sample, but it comes off his bat with a different sound, especially given his age,” Sprague said. “We’re excited to see him go out and play.”
Something to prove
Austin Beck was the No. 6 overall pick in the 2017 Draft as a high school bat with a ton of upside potential. He’s shown some glimpses of that ability in his pro career, but has largely struggled to produce consistently because of a lack of an approach at the plate. He’s struck out in more than 27 percent of his plate appearances heading into 2021 (a rate that jumped to 34.3 percent in 2019), while walking just 6.6 percent of the time. Still only 22, he’ll be up for 40-man roster protection this offseason. Sprague thinks it’s a matter of him not missing his pitch to hit more than anything he’s missing from a tools standpoint.
“He just fouls his pitch back,” Sprague said. “He has elite bat speed, elite rotational acceleration. It’s there. He just gets too big when he gets his pitch. He gets behind and is susceptible to the slider. He gets in tough counts because the pitch he should get, he misses. Managing the energy and excitement level when that pitch comes, that’s the biggest thing.”