Every Spring Training, prospects get a chance to show what they can do as they prepare for the upcoming season. Some compete for jobs in big league camp, while others vie for spots on Minor League affiliates. MLB Pipeline will visit all 30 camps this spring, and today we check in on the Athletics.
MESA, Ariz. -- The Athletics farm system looks a lot different and better than it did a year ago at this time.
• Athletics' Top 30 Prospects list | Q&A with Jesus Luzardo
The makeover began in June with a strong Draft. It continued with a pair of trades in July that sent Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson to the Nationals and Sonny Gray and international bonus pool money to the Yankees, bringing back four past or present Top 100 Prospects.
Eleven of the first 19 members on MLB Pipeline's A's Top 30 Prospects list have joined the organization since last summer. That infusion of talent has bumped Oakland up to No. 7 in our system talent rankings. The system hasn't been this strong since the end of last decade, when future All-Stars Andrew Bailey, Trevor Cahill, Josh Donaldson, Doolittle, Giovany Gonzalez and Tyson Ross were on the rise.
:: MLB Pipeline Spring Training reports ::
"We've opened up a lot of opportunity for these guys," A's farm director Keith Lieppman said. "There will be an increase in the number of players we're fast-tracking through the system. When this whole thing comes together, when we're in contention in a year or two, these guys can lead the youth movement. All of our clubs have become more athletic through the trades and the Draft."
After loading up on college players with 14 of their first 15 picks in the 2016 Draft, Oakland went for a more diversified portfolio with its early selections last year. Tooled-up outfielder Austin Beck, the No. 6 overall choice, and slick-fielding shortstop Nick Allen, a third-rounder who received a well over-slot $2 million bonus, were both high school products. Speedy shortstop Kevin Merrell (supplemental first round), slugging outfielder Greg Deichmann (second) and polished third baseman Will Toffey (fourth) came from colleges.
At 5-foot-9 and 155 pounds, Allen was one of the smallest players in the 2017 Draft. But he plays above his size and many evaluators thought he was the best defender available last June.
"Allen has a very good sense of the game," Lieppman said. "I think he's an everyday big leaguer at shortstop. He's got a little pop in his bat. He plays with flair. We almost have to settle him down a little because he's so confident in his hands and feet. He's got a good attitude."
The A's also added shortstops in each of their summer blockbusters. For Doolittle and Madson, they picked up left-hander Jesus Luzardo (No. 60 on the Top 100) and shortstop/third baseman Sheldon Neuse along with big leaguer Blake Treinen. For Gray and the pool money, the return was shortstop Jorge Mateo (No. 72) with outfielder Dustin Fowler and right-hander James Kaprielian, both of whom were on the Top 100 before sustaining season-ending injuries in 2017.
Neuse is the only one of those five prospects acquired in those trades who has yet to make the Top 100, though he's talented enough to do so in the future. Shifted more to the hot corner after the deal, he has a strong arm and the ability to hit for some average and power. He led the Arizona Fall League with seven doubles, 12 extra-base hits and 23 RBIs.
"Neuse was fabulous," Lieppman said. "He'll experience different positions and probably be more of a second base/third base-type guy. He's very skillful. He has very good feel for the hand-eye part of the game, real feel for the bat. He's all about baseball. He's awesome at bringing out the best in himself and in others."
Deichmann and Merrell are non-roster invitees, but have taken advantage of their opportunities on the big league side. Deichmann has collected hits in each of this three at-bats, including a home run off the Cubs' Luke Farrell. Merrell has gone 3-for-7 with a triple, a homer off the Padres' Carter Capps and a stolen base.
Middle infielder Franklin Barreto, Oakland's top position prospect, is tied for the team lead with two homers and is batting .294/.350/.882 while getting regular playing time. Jed Lowrie has the A's second-base job locked up for now, but Barreto could take it from him in the near future.
Right-hander Nolan Blackwood has moved quickly since Oakland drafted him in the 14th round out of Memphis in 2016. A sidearmer, he saved 19 games in high Class A during his first full pro season, then pitched well in the Arizona Fall League. He has surrendered only an unearned run in three Cactus League appearances as opponents have gone 1-for-11 against him.
"He has better velocity than most sidewinders, 91-93 mph with heavy sink," Lieppman said. "He's a specialty guy with a little juice to him."