The Athletics are coming off consecutive 97-win seasons, their best back-to-back years since 2002-03, and could get even stronger in 2020. Their system has three legitimate American League Rookie of the Year candidates, all of whom gave a glimpse of their talents as late-season callups a year ago.
Left-hander Jesus Luzardo gave up just two runs while striking out 20 in 15 innings, including three dominant frames in the AL Wild Card Game. Catcher Sean Murphy homered four times in 60 plate appearances and provided quality work behind the plate. Southpaw A.J. Puk surrendered four runs while fanning 13 in 11 1/3 innings.
Luzardo (No. 12), Murphy (No. 33) and Puk (No. 60) all rank among MLB Pipeline's Top 100 Prospects and feature some of the best tools on that list. Luzardo has the most deceptive changeup and Puk possesses the nastiest slider, while Murphy drew an honorable mention as one of the top defenders. They could give Oakland its best rookie class since Huston Street, Joe Blanton, Nick Swisher and Dan Johnson came up together in 2005.
Luzardo was supposed to join the A's rotation in 2019, but rotator-cuff and lat strains limited him to 55 innings between four stops. He also had Tommy John surgery as a high school senior in 2016 before going in the third round of the Draft to the Nationals, who traded him a year later as part of a package for Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson. Healthy again, he's still just 22 and has a mid-90s fastball, a solid hybrid breaking ball and pitchability well beyond his years to go with his devastating changeup.
"The first time I saw him I thought he looked like Johan Santana," Oakland farm director Ed Sprague said. "If this guy stays healthy, he's got a chance to win Cy Young Awards -- that was my first thought. He was competitive with a plus heater, a plus changeup and his breaking ball was good -- and it's better now. He had the whole deal at a young age."
Puk, 24, might have cracked the A's rotation two years ago if he hadn't injured his elbow in Spring Training and required Tommy John surgery in April 2018. He returned to the mound last June, helped Oakland out of the bullpen two months later and should resume starting this season despite being slowed by a minor shoulder strain during Spring Training. The No. 6 overall pick in the 2016 Draft out of Florida, he can push his fastball into triple digits and his dastardly slider into the low 90s.
"Pitching out of the bullpen last year really limited him to two pitches," Sprague said. "He didn't throw many changeups and it's probably his second-best pitch. If he's starting, the three-pitch mix will obviously be important."
Murphy didn't have quite the same Draft pedigree as Luzardo, who signed for $1.4 million and would have been a first-rounder if he hadn't gotten hurt, or Puk, whose $4,069,200 bonus is a franchise record for a drafted pitcher. A 2016 third-rounder out of Wright State, where he began his career as a preferred walk-on, he has blossomed into one of the best catching prospects in baseball. The 25-year-old Murphy's cannon arm and sterling receiving skills draw the most attention, but he also owns plus raw power and makes consistent contact.
"We've always looked at him as a premium defensive player," Sprague said. "His ability to hit came on and his power really came on. He's been pretty impressive. He's worked hard on his hitting and approach, and we've seen a lot of gains there."
Luzardo overmatched opponents in big league camp, permitting just one run and five baserunners in 8 1/3 innings while striking out 13 of the 29 batters he faced. Outfielder Seth Brown stood out most among the hitting prospects, following up on a breakout 2019 season by batting .343/.361/.629.
On the Minor League side, catcher Kyle McCann made an impression with his bat. The 22-year-old hit five homers in simulated games, showing the power that got him drafted in the fourth round out of Georgia Tech last June. He homered nine times in his 60-game pro debut but also hit .211/.312/.404 while spending most of the summer at short-season Vermont.
"McCann made some big strides," Sprague said. "He hit some monster shots to the opposite field as far as I can remember a left-handed hitter hitting to the opposite field. It reminded me a little of Carlos Delgado's power when he first came up.
"I think he made some strides with his catching too. He has a good arm but didn't show it off last summer, and he wasn't great blocking. He has worked on his footwork and framing and improved."
Prospect we'll be talking about in 2021
Brayan Buelvas signed for $100,000 out of Colombia in 2018 and required less than a month in the Dominican Summer League last year before he was ready to make his U.S. debut in the Arizona League at age 17. He batted .282/.372/.450 with 26 extra-base hits and 16 steals in 67 games between the two Rookie levels, displaying solid hitting ability, speed and center-field potential.
"He came over to the AZL three weeks after he turned 17 and was the youngest player in the league," Sprague said. "He's a young kid who has been pretty impressive. He had an outside chance to make our low [Class] A team but I'm not sure what will happen now that we didn't have Minor League camp."
Something to prove
The A's have invested a lot in outfielders Austin Beck (a franchise-record $5,303,000 as the No. 6 overall pick in the 2017 Draft) and Lazaro Armenteros ($3 million out of Cuba in 2016). They're tooled up but have struggled to make consistent contact in pro ball.
As 20-year-olds in Class A Advanced last year, Beck had a 34 percent strikeout rate and Armenteros had a 42 percent strikeout rate, with the latter setting a California League record and topping the Minors with 227 whiffs. Armenteros draws more walks than Beck, but both need to make better swing decisions.
"That's definitely easier said than done," Sprague said of instilling plate discipline. "It's a priority, especially in Oakland, where it has been for a number of years. It's not just that we want walks, we want them swinging at better pitches.
"We do try to hold them accountable, even in batting practice and soft toss, to not chase and to try to hone in on the pitches they hit best. It's a back and forth from the physical, mental and analytical sides of the game."