A's banking on health from replenished farm system

March 10th, 2023

MESA, Ariz. -- Spring Training can always be a bit of a frenzied time on the player development side as the staff has to sort out hundreds of players and figure out where they are going to play, with newer players like last year’s Draft class trying to get their bearings in their first camp. The A’s 2022 Spring Training? Well, that was some next-level stuff.

When the lockout ended last spring, the A’s made a series of trades that brought in a bushel of prospects. The Matt Olson and Matt Chapman trades netted eight new members of the A’s Top 30 and nine prospects total, and farm director Ed Sprague and company had to figure out who was who in a hurry.

“We’re happy with all of them, but we didn’t get a chance to know these kids,” said Sprague, who added that they also received two more prospects in the Sean Manaea deal in early April. “I reflect back to getting traded as a 30-year-old big leaguer and I thought it was hard. I can’t imagine being a 21-, 22-year-old person that hasn’t gotten there yet. You drive to Spring Training and then two days later, you get flipped to another team.”

It didn’t help that some of the acquisitions weren’t healthy. Gunnar Hogland (No. 15) was finishing up his Tommy John rehab when he arrived. J.T. Ginn (No. 17) wasn’t that far removed from his own elbow surgery (and ended up having a forearm strain that shelved him later on). Ryan Cusick (No. 23) also ended up on the injured list with what turned out to be a broken rib. When they all arrived en masse, the A’s had to decide quickly where to let these arms make their organizational debuts.

“We were trying to figure out where the heck to put them,” Sprague said. “We were just like, 'OK, we traded for them, let’s put them in Double-A.' We probably made a mistake with Cusick. But trying to get to these guys in the right spots, get to know them and try to get their plan of pitching, which was different than our plan of pitching. There was a big transition I think which, in the real time, I don’t think we recognized it. I think we recognize it now.”

With those lessons learned, Sprague is trying to create a slightly different culture, with the benefit of a fairly normal Spring Training to operate. It’s a simple message to the staff: Build better relationships.

“I said, ‘Look, spend a lot of time trying to get to know all these people,’” Sprague explained. “We have drafted players who are now here and the Draft guys hardly go out anymore, so nobody knows those guys. And we’re still recuperating from [last year’s trades]. I think we can do a better job getting to know our players really well, because I think once you can understand them, you can deal with the highs and lows they’re going to go through naturally.

“This spring, we do have more familiarity, but now that we do, let's really start diving in on the relationship part.”

There’s also a recognition that this is how the A’s do things, especially in terms of acquiring pitching help for the farm system. Nine of the 12 players Oakland received in the Olson, Chapman and Manaea trades were pitchers, kind of the other side of the coin from an organization that tends to go hitter-heavy in the Draft. Eight of the A’s top 10 picks in 2021 were position players, a trend that continued in 2022 (eight hitters in 11 picks in the top 10 rounds).

Camp standout: Colby Thomas

The A’s don’t want to get too excited about their No. 22 prospect and 2022 third-round pick because, well, they’ve yet to actually see him play in the game. The Mercer University product had a right shoulder injury that required surgery and ended his final season in May, so he didn’t play at all last summer. All player development staff got to see was him working up to a tee progression by the end of the summer. He came with a reputation for having some power, and just seeing him in batting practice this spring has whetted their appetites.

“He supposedly comes with some thunder in the bat, and early returns of batting practice, it's there,” Sprague said. “It was flying off his bat. Just because I haven't seen him in a game and I haven't seen a real at-bat, I don't know if he's the camp surprise, but I'm kind of excited to see what he'll do.”

Something to prove: Austin Beck

Beck, the A’s first-rounder (No. 6 overall) in 2017, has fallen so far off the radar that some might argue it’s too late for him to prove anything. But the 24-year-old outfielder who ranked as high as No. 6 on the A’s Top 30, but had dropped to No. 19 in '21 and then off the list is still trying to work his way up to Oakland. He has just a .688 OPS and a 28.7 percent strikeout rate through the '22 season, but some changes to mindset and mechanics have led to some better results early in camp.

“He’s looked good so far. It’s the best I’ve seen him,” Sprague said. “I think we've seen a big attitude adjustment over the last couple of years, and that's obviously with maturity and age.

“He’s changed some things with his bat path, it's a little bit flatter. It’s more in the zone and the ball is starting to come off his bat a little bit more like we expected when we took him in high school. He does play with a big brace on his knee, so that’s kind of a downside. But he's moving well and we'll see.”

Breakout candidate: Brett Harris

Harris was a solid senior sign type of Draft prospect coming out of Gonzaga, and the A’s got him in the seventh round of the 2021 MLB Draft, signing him for a bit under slot. He was thought of as a solid defender on the left side of the infield who didn’t hit a ton until that last year of college. Even then, he was a contact-first type who never struck out. The breakout may have started last year, when he got to Double-A and hit 17 homers all while still limiting the K’s (17.2 strikeout rate) and drawing walks (10.4) and living up to expectations with his glove.

“He doesn’t get talked about,” said Sprague, who thinks Harris has the chance to settle in at third base after playing there and second in his first pro season. “He’s a steady Eddie guy. For me, he's going to be kind of like a Scott Brosius-type guy, a solid defender who comes with a little bit of power. He plays every day, he’s not a superstar-type guy, but on a winning ballclub, he's a really good fit.”