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Oakland A's prospect watch: Billy Burns emerges as the team's top rookie in 2015

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A legit everyday leadoff hitter, just like nobody expected.
A legit everyday leadoff hitter, just like nobody expected.
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Before the season began, Athletics Nation voted on its annual Community Prospect List, ranking the 25 best players in the minors. Of those 25, five of them graduated to MLB as rookies in 2015. In addition, one of the prospects Oakland acquired at the July trade deadline stepped right up to the big leagues.

With the season over, it's time to take a look back at how these new guys performed and what we can expect from them next year. Here are the six members of the 2015 rookie class, organized by fWAR because that happens to align with my opinions of them as well:

Billy Burns, CF
Mark Canha, 1B/LF
Chris Bassitt, RHP
Kendall Graveman, RHP
Aaron Brooks, RHP
Max Muncy, 1B/3B

In order to graduate, a player must rack up 130 at-bats, 50 innings pitched, or 45 days of service time on the 25-man roster (excluding September call-ups). The first four guys on the list reached those thresholds easily, but Brooks just barely cleared the 50 innings and Muncy actually made it via service time despite only getting 102 at-bats (112 plate appearances).

There were several other notable prospects who appeared in Oakland but didn't achieve rookie status: LHP Sean Nolin, RHP R.J. Alvarez, utilityman Tyler Ladendorf, RHP Arnold Leon and RHP Ryan Dull will all still be eligible for the 2016 list. Pat Venditte didn't pitch enough to graduate, but sadly he is now on the Blue Jays after being claimed off waivers so he is out of the picture for that reason.

For the full 2015 list, as well as a list of the different categories that I've separated the prospects into, scroll to the bottom of the post.

Billy Burns | CF

No. 17 prospect on preseason list

2015 playing time: 125 games, 555 plate appearances
Batting: .294/.334/.392, 100 OPS+, 5 HR, 26-for-34 SB, 26 BB, 81 Ks
Defense: +4 DRS, -5.2 UZR (in 1,066 innings)
Value: 2.3 fWAR, 2.8 bWAR

Burns is a reminder that we never really know how a young player will turn out. More often than not that means a can't-miss guy falls short of expectations, but in this case it was the opposite -- he didn't just reach his ceiling, he blasted through it. He initially seemed to profile as a fourth outfielder, but by early May he got his first real shot in the bigs when all other options had gotten hurt or failed (Coco Crisp, Craig Gentry, Cody Ross). Burns ran with it and never looked back, providing a surprisingly consistent presence both in CF and at the top of the lineup. His reliability was especially nice in a year when everything else on the roster seemed to be a daily game of mix-and-match. His batting average by month:

May: .327
June: .307
July: .258
Aug: .288
Sept: .284

In those first couple months, Burns did a lot of his damage by ambushing pitchers and swinging on the first pitch, but even when the novelty wore off and the league began to adjust, Burns adjusted right back and kept producing. All told, he swung at the first pitch 49.8% of the time, second among qualified MLB hitters behind only Marlon Byrd. He put that first pitch in play 118 times in his 555 PAs, resulting in a fantastic .479 average and 1.193 OPS. (Brett Lawrie put the first pitch in play 75 times, second-most on the team.) It turns out he can also do this:

Ah, but what happened when the at-bat lasted more than one pitch? Burns led all qualified MLB hitters in a stat I've never noticed before, from Baseball-Reference -- Foul Ball Strike Percentage, calculated by dividing pitches fouled off by total strikes seen. Burns' mark was 37.7%, edging out Pablo Sandoval and a few points ahead of Brandon Belt and Adam Jones. He swung a lot (5th-highest rate in MLB), and he didn't miss much when he did, and that's a recipe for lots of contact and pesky, extended at-bats. It's also a recipe to keep putting yourself in position to get pitches you can hit, because the pitcher has to keep coming after you -- after all, no one wants to give an elite speedster a free pass on base by walking him.

And of course, that speed remains the key to Burns' game. It helps him beat out infield hits (30 of them, 5th in MLB), it allows him to steal bases (26 of them, 9th in MLB), and it leads to some spectacular diving catches in the outfield. That said, though, there is improvement to be made in the latter two areas of that list -- he didn't run nearly as often as it seemed like he should, especially given that at least half of the eight times he was caught were either because he overslid the bag after making it easily or because the umpires incorrectly overturned a call on replay (in my humble opinion). He also wasn't necessarily a good fielder despite his frequent highlight reel grabs, often using his speed to make up for a bad route to a ball, but at his best he made absolutely dazzling plays.

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Burns made his share of rookie mistakes, but between his sparkplug bat, his lightning speed, his steady-enough hand in center, and his consistent everyday presence, he was easily the top rookie on the team this year. It's tough to say if this is as good as it gets for him or if he can continue to improve -- after all, he was never really supposed to be this good in the first place. But he seems to have mastered switch-hitting over the last few years, so can he continue to cut down on his popups, become more aggressive on the basepaths, and/or improve his instincts on defense? We'll find out next year, but at least there's enough substance here that I'm confident he won't be a Jemile Weeks-type one-year wonder. And, with Coco looking like he might be done as a regular, the timing is perfect for Burns to take the torch in CF.

Mark Canha | 1B/LF

No. 13 prospect on preseason list

2015 playing time: 124 games, 485 plate appearances
Batting: .254/.315/.426, 102 OPS+, 16 HR, 7-for-9 SB, 33 BB, 96 Ks
Defense, 1B: -3 DRS, -2.9 UZR  (in 538 innings)
Defense, LF: -1 DRS, +1.3 UZR (in 414 innings)
Value: 1.4 fWAR, 1.1 bWAR

Nobody knew what to expect out of Canha this year. He was a complete unknown, as a 26-year-old without eye-popping minor league numbers. But the A's went to lengths to acquire him after the Rule 5 draft, and their comments about him at the time made it clear that he was a part of their plans.

He showed some power early in the year, but between inconsistent playing time and a stomach illness that visibly affected him for a bit, his numbers were somewhere between pedestrian and subpar. And then, just as it started to look like he might not pan out after all, Ike Davis went down for the year and Oakland finally gave Canha a shot to play every day at first base. Beginning on Aug. 12, he started 46 of the remaining 48 games, and he put up the following line:

Canha, since 8/12: .285/.347/.487 (.834 OPS), 8 HR, 15 BB, 40 Ks, in 213 PAs

If he can do that for a full season, he's a star. If he can do a notch down from that (say, .750-.800 OPS) then he's a solid everyday player. At the very least he's going to hit for some power, which is in short supply in Oakland right now.

There's more to Canha's game than power, though. He's got more speed than you would expect from his strong frame, and that allows him to beat out some infield hits and even swipe a few bases. His defense at first base looked adequate to my eye, and while he initially looked a bit cumbersome in LF he did improve as the year went on. Add in his decent plate discipline, and you're looking at a guy who doesn't have a particular weakness in his game while bringing a noteworthy strength (power) and a bit of defensive versatility. That's the kind of player the A's could use more of. At this point, I have Canha penciled into the everyday lineup in 2016, and the only question left is which position he'll play (based on how the roster shapes up around him).

Chris Bassitt | RHP

No. 15 prospect on preseason list

2015 playing time: 13 starts, 5 relief outings, 86 innings (113 ERA+)
In starts: 3.58 ERA, 75⅓ ip, 56 Ks, 21 BB, 4 HR, 3.41 FIP
In relief: 3.38 ERA, 10⅔ ip, 8 Ks, 9 BB, 1 HR, 6.23 FIP
Value: 1.4 fWAR, 1.2 bWAR

Before the season, it was unclear whether Bassitt was best-suited as a starter or a reliever. The more specific question was whether he could learn to consistently retire left-handed batters, a necessity for someone who wants to face an entire lineup rather than match up up one inning at a time out of the pen. He bided his time in the early going, making starts for Triple-A and spending a brief stint in the A's bullpen, and then he finally cracked Oakland's rotation on June 30. One good start earned him another, and then another, and before long he'd done the following through nine starts:

Bassitt, first 9 starts: 2.31 ERA, 58⅓ ip,  45 Ks, 10 BB, 4 HR

He was even giving Sonny Gray a run for his money at the top of the rotation. But then, in his 10th start, he looked a bit off and got knocked out in the 5th ... and then, naturally, he went on the shelf for a month with a shoulder injury. Welcome to the 2015 A's! Fortunately, the injury wasn't serious and Bassitt returned for a few more games at the end of the season, though his last three starts were pretty shaky (11 runs and 7 walks in 12⅔ innings combined).

On an encouraging note, he held his own against lefties overall:

Bassitt vs. RHB: .279/.342/.390, 18.8% Ks, 5.4% BB (3.50 K/BB)
Bassitt vs. LHB: .217/.313/.337, 17.0% Ks, 10.4% BB (1.64 K/BB)

The K/BB ratios are a better indicator there than the batting averages, so these stats aren't meant to suggest that he is now better against lefties. But he also didn't fall apart against them, either.

So, what to make of all of that? There was enough success to get excited, but not enough to guarantee anything next year. He's got serious velocity, sitting around 93-95 and able to touch 97, but there are still questions about his command. His secondary pitches (slider, low-70s curveball, change) worked well, but was that real improvement or a small-sample fluke? Was his shoulder injury a one-time thing, or a result of his high-effort delivery that will recur with big workloads? You've got to assume he's a frontrunner to make the 2016 rotation, but from there we'll have to wait and see.

Kendall Graveman | RHP

No. 6 prospect on preseason list

2015 playing time: 21 starts, 115⅔ innings (100 ERA+)
In starts: 4.05 ERA, 115⅔ ip, 77 Ks, 38 BB, 15 HR, 4.60 FIP
Value: 0.4 fWAR, 1.4 bWAR

Unlike the others on this list, Graveman got his chance right out of the gate. He made four starts in April ... but he simply didn't look like he belonged in MLB, failing to hit his spots or throw strikes or get his sinker down. He finished five innings only once in those four tries.

He went down to Triple-A for a month, and when he returned he looked like the guy we had expected to see. At his best, he ripped off six straight outings of at least 7 innings and 0-2 runs, showing how he can quickly chew through lineups when he's on his game. He came back to Earth and mixed in a few more stinkers before his season ended in late August with a strained oblique, but by that point he had shown what he can do and whetted our appetites for 2016.

Graveman, first 4 starts: 8.27 ERA, 16⅓ ip, 7 Ks, 9 BB, 3 HR, 43.8% GB
Graveman, last 17 starts: 3.35 ERA, 99⅓ ip, 70 Ks, 29 BB, 12 HR, 51.3% GB

The odd stat about Graveman is that, despite being a pitch-to-contact guy who relies primarily on his 90-92 mph sinker, his groundball rate wasn't that great -- 50.0% of his batted balls, good for 33rd in MLB among 133 starters with at least 100 innings. That's alright, but consider that 25 of the 32 guys ahead of him on that list also had superior strikeout rates, and you can see where he begins to fall behind the pack. If groundballs are going to be Graveman's biggest real weapon (if not his only weapon), then he needs to be among the league leaders in that capacity. As you can see in the stats above, he did improve in this regard after his stint back down in the minors, but if he wants to be more than a back-end starter then I'd like to see that figure jump to at least 55%, if not higher.

Overall, Graveman's season profiled like a No. 5 starter, stringing together some good games but also getting blown up plenty of times. If that's what he remains, then he looks like he can at least be an innings eater at the back of the rotation. But there's still upside here, and if he can more consistently keep the ball on the ground then he could still find himself panning out into a No. 3 or 4 starter.

Aaron Brooks | RHP

2015 playing time: 9 starts, 2 relief outings, 51 innings (60 ERA+)
In starts: 6.33 ERA, 48⅓ ip, 34 Ks, 13 BB, 8 HR, 4.93 FIP
In relief: 13.53 ERA, 2⅔ ip, 1 K, 1 BB, 1 HR
Value: -0.1 fWAR, -0.9 bWAR

* Only counts stats with A's; excludes 2 relief outings with Royals

Note: I just wrote about Brooks last week in the New Acquisitions category. Parts of this section are copied from that post.

Oakland received Brooks from the Royals as a secondary piece in the Ben Zobrist trade. He is especially good at one thing, and that is throwing strikes. They're not always good strikes, but throughout his professional career he has done a great job of avoiding walks. His fastball is usually around 90-92 but can hit 93, and he mixes in a change, a slider, and a curve.

It is not yet clear if Brooks belongs as a starter or a reliever, but with the season already lost the A's took the free opportunity to try him out in the rotation. It began well, as he looked fantastic in his first two starts -- Nico had the eyeball scouting reports, here and here. But he got shelled in Toronto in his third game and had to take a brief trip to Triple-A due to a roster squeeze before resuming his role in Oakland. In his final six starts, he was quality three times and disastrous the other three -- in other words, he was a No. 5 starter.

So the question remains: Should Brooks be a starter or a reliever? I could go either way on him as we enter the offseason, and there's no point deciding now until we know what the team needs in March. If the A's rotation depth is tested before Opening Day, then it's worth keeping him stretched out because he can probably at least eat some innings in the No. 5 slot if need be. But if there are seven or eight healthy options ahead of him, I'd rather see if his mediocre stuff can play up in shorter relief stints, as many other fringe Quad-A starters have done around the league in recent years. Only time will tell if he can stick in Oakland, and what role he'll play if he does.

Max Muncy | 1B/3B

2015 playing time: 45 games, 112 plate appearances
Batting: .206/.268/.392, 79 OPS+, 3 HR, 9 BB, 31 Ks
Defense, 1B: 0 DRS, -1.0 UZR (in 145 innings)
Defense, 3B: 0 DRS, -2.4 UZR (in 90 innings)
Value: -0.5 fWAR, -0.1 bWAR

I didn't really expect Muncy to graduate this year, or even debut at all, but the A's many injuries forced the issue. He spent a lot of time on the bench in Oakland, but he played enough that we at least got a feel for his game.

At the plate, Muncy's calling card is patience. He works long at-bats, and his 4.38 pitches per plate appearance were more or less tops on the team (Carson Blair edged him out in a handful of PAs). His batting eye is truly top-notch, and that brings with it good news and bad news. The good news is that he really seems to use that selectivity to find a pitch to hit rather than just for the sake of working counts and looking for free passes. The bad news is that when he got his pitch and swung at it, he usually didn't do much with it. His walk is worse than his bite, if you will. That said, there is some power here, and his .186 isolated slugging is frankly better than I remembered.

On defense, Muncy is more mobile than you would guess by looking at him and he's not afraid to get his uniform dirty. At times he would make a nice play I wasn't expecting, and at other times he would make an ugly error or rookie mistake. I do think there is average-or-better 1B defense in him given more practice, but I'm still not convinced that he'll ever be anything more than an emergency backup at 3B.

It's not impossible that Muncy could still develop into a serviceable bench player, filling in at a couple of positions and contributing some walks and a bit of pop at the plate. Honestly, I'm not terribly optimistic about him, and right now he's one of those red-flag type players to me -- that is, if he's on the active roster, it means that something else went wrong. I'd rather see Canha or Rangel Ravelo or even Stephen Vogt playing 1B, and I'd rather see Danny Valencia or Brett Lawrie at the hot corner. But hey, it's nice to know that there's at least a backup plan in Triple-A, and even better that it's a 25-year-old who might have a bit of upside remaining.

Final Comments

The A's are a team that needs to build primarily from within. The real impact prospects are still on the way (and getting closer!), but in 2015 Oakland did a good job of identifying some future contributors from lower down the ranks. This rookie class yielded two guys who I truly want in the starting lineup next year (Burns, Canha), as well as two pitchers who I think will be legitimate starters in the 2016 rotation (Bassitt, Graveman) and a couple of depth guys (Brooks, Muncy), and only one of these six players was even in our preseason top 10. That's what Warriors broadcaster Bob Fitzgerald would call "found money."

The Oakland A's dress up day. #LAHereWeCome #DressUp

A photo posted by Josh Reddick (@realjoshreddick) on

***

The categories:

The Graduates
The MLB Pitching Depth
The Young Hurlers
The Even Younger Hurlers
The Middle Infielders
The Corner Sluggers: 1B
The Corner Sluggers: 3B
The Best of the Rest
Stepping up in 2015
New International Standouts
Final Names of Note
The 2015 Draft
The New Acquisitions

***

The List

Each player is listed at the level at which he finished the 2015 season (except where noted), and his stats only include his performance at that current level. The levels refer to the Nashville Sounds (AAA), the Midland RockHounds (AA), the High-A Stockton Ports (A+), the Single-A Beloit Snappers (A), the short-season Low-A Vermont Lake Monsters (A-), and the Arizona Rookie League (RK). For the hitters, I am going to focus less on raw numbers and more on league-adjusted stats (wRC+) and rates (K% and BB%).

The list has been expanded to include the five new July trade acquisitions (stats listed are since their acquisitions), as well as five of the top June draft picks (first six picks minus third-round pick Dakota Chalmers, who is still in Rookie ball). There are also five more 2015 standouts, labelled SU (Stepping Up).

* The following recent transactions are not reflected: Tyler Ladendorf was promoted from Triple-A Nashville to MLB; Jose Torres was promoted to from Single-A Beloit to High-A Stockton. ... Sean Nolin (MLB), R.J. Alvarez (MLB), Max Muncy (MLB), Pat Venditte (MLB), Ryan Dull (MLB), Rangel Ravelo (AAA), Dillon Overton (AA), Brendan McCurry (AA), Yairo Munoz (A+), and Mikey White (A) received midseason promotions and I've only included their stats at their new, higher levels. ... Aaron Kurcz spent time in the Braves' system, but I've only included his stats from Triple-A Nashville.

Oakland A's 2015 Community Prospect List (stats thru Sept. 8)
# Name Pos Age Level 2015 Stats
1 Matt Olson 1B 21 AA 585 PAs, 132 wRC+, 17 HR, 17.9% BB, 23.8% Ks
2 Franklin Barreto SS 19 A+ 364 PAs, 122 wRC+, 13 HR, 4.1% BB, 18.4% Ks
3 Matt Chapman 3B 22 A+ 352 PAs, 139 wRC+, 23 HR, 11.1% BB, 22.4% Ks
4 Renato Nunez 3B 21 AA 416 PAs, 124 wRC+, 18 HR, 6.7% BB, 15.9% Ks
5 Dillon Overton LHP 23 AA 13 starts, 3.06 ERA, 64⅔ ip, 47 Ks, 15 BB, 4 HR, 3.34 FIP
6 Kendall Graveman RHP 24 MLB 21 starts, 100 ERA+, 115⅔ ip, 2.03 K/BB, 4.60 FIP, 0.4 fWAR
7 Yairo Munoz SS 20 A+ 165 PAs, 132 wRC+, 4 HR, 6.7% BB, 12.1% Ks
8 Sean Nolin LHP 25 MLB 6 games, 77 ERA+, 29 ip, 1.25 K/BB, 5.13 FIP, 0.0 fWAR
9 Raul Alcantara RHP 22 A+ 15 starts, 3.88 ERA, 48⅔ ip, 29 Ks, 8 BB, 3 HR, 4.00 FIP
10 Joey Wendle 2B 25 AAA 618 PAs, 101 wRC+, 10 HR, 3.6% BB, 18.4% Ks
11 R.J. Alvarez RHP 24 MLB 21 games, 41 ERA+, 20 ip, 1.77 K/BB, 7.33 FIP, -0.5 fWAR
12 Rangel Ravelo 3B 23 AAA 112 PAs, 86 wRC+, 1 HR, 6.3% BB, 19.6% Ks
13 Mark Canha 1B/OF 26 MLB 485 PAs, 106 wRC+, 16 HR, 6.8% BB, 19.8% Ks, 1.4 fWAR
14 Chad Pinder SS 23 AA 522 PAs, 135 wRC+, 15 HR, 5.4% BB, 19.7% Ks
15 Chris Bassitt RHP 26 MLB 18 games, 113 ERA+, 86 ip, 2.13 K/BB, 3.76 FIP, 1.4 fWAR
16 Dustin Driver RHP 20 A- 14 games, 4.99 ERA, 52⅓ ip, 32 Ks, 35 BB, 4 HR, 5.41 FIP
17 Billy Burns OF 25 MLB 555 PAs, 102 wRC+, 26 SB, 4.7% BB, 14.6% Ks, 2.3 fWAR
18 Max Muncy 1B/3B 24 MLB 112 PAs, 80 wRC+, 3 HR, 8.0% BB, 27.7% Ks, -0.5 fWAR
19 Tyler Ladendorf IF/OF 27 *AAA 90 PAs, 76 wRC+, 1 HR, 5.6 BB%, 25.6 K%
20 Daniel Gossett RHP 22 A 27 starts, 4.73 ERA, 144⅔ ip, 112 Ks, 52 BB, 16 HR, 4.49 FIP
21 Bobby Wahl RHP 23 AA 24 games, 4.18 ERA, 32⅓ ip, 36 Ks, 14 BB, 2 HR, 3.17 FIP
22 Chris Kohler LHP 20 A- 11 games, 4.66 ERA, 38⅔ ip, 37 Ks, 10 BB, 2 HR, 3.52 FIP
23 Pat Venditte SHP 30 MLB 26 games, 93 ERA+, 28⅔ ip, 1.92 K/BB, 4.15 FIP, 0.1 fWAR
24 Jaycob Brugman OF 23 AA 566 PAs, 105 wRC+, 6 HR, 11.0% BB, 15.7% Ks
25 Brett Graves RHP 22 A 28 starts, 5.36 ERA, 142⅔ ip, 91 Ks, 44 BB, 15 HR, 4.49 FIP
NR Bruce Maxwell C 24 AA 381 PAs, 79 wRC+, 2 HR, 10.2% BB, 14.2% Ks
NR Ryon Healy 3B/1B 23 AA 543 PAs, 113 wRC+, 10 HR, 5.5% BB, 15.1% Ks
NR Branden Kelliher RHP 19 RK Arizona Rookie League
NR Dylan Covey RHP 23 A+ 26 starts, 3.59 ERA, 140⅓ ip, 100 Ks, 43 BB, 13 HR, 4.60 FIP
NR Sandber Pimentel 1B 20 A 471 PAs, 112 wRC+, 13 HR, 10.6% BB, 22.1% Ks
SU Colin Walsh 2B 25 AA 619 PAs, 163 wRC+, 13 HR, 20.0% BB, 21.2% Ks
SU Ryan Dull RHP 25 MLB 13 games, 97 ERA+, 17 ip, 2.67 K/BB, 5.37 FIP, -0.3 fWAR
SU Brendan McCurry RHP 23 AA 14 games, 1.62 ERA, 16⅔ ip, 26 Ks, 6 BB, 1 HR, 2.04 FIP
SU Jose Torres LHP 21 *A 44 games, 2.69 ERA, 73⅔ ip, 80 Ks, 23 BB, 4 HR, 3.03 FIP
SU Aaron Kurcz RHP 24 AAA 18 games, 4.15 ERA, 26 ip, 31 Ks, 15 BB, 2 HR, 3.95 FIP
TR Sean Manaea LHP 23 AA 7 starts, 1.90 ERA, 42⅔ ip, 51 Ks, 15 BB, 3 HR, 2.95 FIP
TR Daniel Mengden RHP 22 A+ 8 starts, 4.25 ERA, 42⅓ ip, 41 Ks, 10 BB, 6 HR, 4.53 FIP
TR Casey Meisner RHP 20 A+ 7 starts, 2.78 ERA, 32⅓ ip, 24 Ks, 7 BB, 1 HR, 3.35 FIP
TR Aaron Brooks RHP 25 MLB 11 games, 60 ERA+, 51 ip, 2.50 K/BB, 5.11 FIP, -0.1 fWAR
TR Jacob Nottingham C 20 A+ 182 PAs, 107 wRC+, 3 HR, 6.6% BB, 20.9% Ks
DR Richie Martin SS 20 A- 226 PAs, 112 wRC+, 2 HR, 11.1% BB, 20.8% Ks
DR Mikey White SS 21 A 145 PAs, 65 wRC+, 1 HR, 6.9% BB, 20.7% Ks
DR Skye Bolt CF 21 A- 206 PAs, 110 wRC+, 4 HR, 11.7% BB, 21.4% Ks
DR Kevin Duchene LHP 21 A- 8 games, 4.84 ERA, 22⅓ ip, 18 Ks, 9 BB, 2 HR, 4.41 FIP
DR Bubba Derby RHP 21 A- 12 games, 0.78 ERA, 34⅔ ip, 45 Ks, 10 BB, 2 HR, 2.54 FIP