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Nashville Sounds 2016 season review: The future A’s begin to emerge

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Top prospects Chad Pinder and Matt Olson made their MLB debuts in 2016.
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the Oakland A’s 2016 season is over, it’s time for a look back. There’s a long offseason ahead and plenty of dreary winter days for dreaming on the future, but first we need to digest all that has happened over the last six months. So far, we’ve looked at:

Our final stop brings us to the Triple-A Nashville Sounds, who play in the 16-team Pacific Coast League. Nashville entered the year with a stacked roster -- five of the top 10 prospects on our preseason list were on this team, and nearly the entire lineup was made up of legit youngsters. Even more help arrived from Midland throughout the summer, and all that talent led to a league-best 83-59 record. Unfortunately, the Sounds lost in the first round of the playoffs, coming one win short of reaching the Championship Series.

The A’s called on 15 players to make their MLB debuts in 2016, the most of any team. A handful of them were September call-ups (or late-Aug.), but several more came up throughout the summer when Oakland needed help. The best thing a Triple-A team can do is graduate new blood to the bigs, and the Sounds yielded a couple of starting-caliber players and a few more who could make a difference next year. It was an exciting season in Nashville.

Here’s a closer look.

Top prospects

Hitters

Name Pos PAs Avg/OBP/SLG HR BB% K% wRC+
Bruce Maxwell C 219 .321/.393/.539 10 11.0% 17.4% 148
Ryon Healy 3B 210 .318/.362/.505 6 6.2% 19.0% 128
Jaycob Brugman OF 433 .295/.352/.438 7 8.3% 20.3% 109
Joey Wendle 2B 526 .279/.324/.452 12 4.9% 21.3% 103
Matt Olson OF 540 .235/.335/.422 17 13.1% 24.4% 102
Chad Pinder SS 465 .258/.310/.425 14 5.4 % 23.2% 93
Rangel Ravelo 1B 416 .262/.334/.395 8 8.2% 15.1% 93
Renato Nunez 3B 550 .228/.278/.412 23 5.6% 21.6% 78

It’s difficult to know exactly how to interpret stats in this new Nashville ballpark. It’s already gaining a reputation as an extreme pitcher’s park that stifles HR power, so keep that in mind as you look at these numbers.

Nevertheless, a couple hitters emerged out of the group of position players that has risen up the system together over the last few years. Healy continued the roll he started in Midland and reached Oakland by July. Maxwell joined him a week later, on the heels of an unbelievable hot streak to start the second half (14-for-23, 5 HR, 2 doubles, 3 BB).

Meanwhile, several of the higher-rated prospects struggled in their first Triple-A action. Nunez started hot and then cratered; Pinder put up a modest line and scuffled on defense; and Olson and Wendle started slow and then warmed up toward average as the summer went on. Still, all four of them got to make their MLB debuts late in the season. (Brugman played well but didn’t get to join the party in September.)

A few other names:

  • Top prospects SS Franklin Barreto and 3B Matt Chapman came up for a few games at the end of the year. Barreto went a quick 6-for-17 with a homer and a triple, while Chapman racked up 85 plate appearances over 18 games with mixed results — 7 HR, but 26 strikeouts and a .197 average, all evening out to a wRC+ of 101.
  • 2B/OF Colin Walsh returned from his Rule 5 loan to Milwaukee. He was the same as ever, with a ton of walks (16.7%) helping him to a solid line (114 wRC+).
  • The MLB backups included utilitymen Max Muncy (108 wRC+), Arismendy Alcantara (114), and Tyler Ladendorf (51), as well as catcher Matt McBride (108). Outfielder Jake Smolinski (90) ended up moving up to Oakland for good in May.
  • OF B.J. Boyd made a brief appearance at the end of the year (59 wRC+), up from Stockton.

Pitchers

Name R/L Games ERA IP K BB HR FIP
Raul Alcantara R 8 1.18 45⅔ 32 3 1 2.80
Daniel Mengden R 13 1.67 75⅓ 67 17 4 3.43
Jharel Cotton R 6 2.82 38⅓ 36 7 3 3.41
Zach Neal R 11 3.21 61⅔ 32 8 5 4.18
Dillon Overton L 21 3.29 125⅔ 105 31 6 3.46
Jesse Hahn R 15 4.32 66⅔ 46 34 4 4.79
... Bullpen ...
Daniel Coulombe L 20 1.08 25 35 6 0 1.64
Andrew Triggs R 16 2.95 18⅓ 21 5 0 2.91
Aaron Kurcz R 35 3.50 54 43 17 2 3.61
Tucker Healy R 44 3.61 52⅓ 76 26 3 3.11
J.B Wendelken R 39 4.11 46 65 26 5 4.27

As you can see, not many pitchers stayed in Nashville full-time. Almost anyone who threw even a hint of a strike for the Sounds ended up helping Oakland’s injurious staff for some length of time.

Overton put in the most work of the guys in that table, with the irony being that his strongest stat was his low HR rate (more on that later). Mengden was the clear standout, in between his quick domination of Double-A and his stints in Oakland. Two new additions showed up later in the year: Alcantara came up and inexplicably excelled, after a mediocre showing in Double-A and before an absolute shelling in the bigs. And Cotton arrived in the Reddick/Hill trade, nearly threw a perfect game in his second start, and then looked great in five starts for the A’s.

If anyone knows what’s wrong with Hahn, please email bobmelvin@oaklandas.com.

The bullpen also provided some reinforcements, with Coulombe pitching 35 MLB games and Triggs unexpectedly emerging as a starter. Wendelken debuted, but he struggled and eventually went down with probable TJS.

A few other names:

  • LHP Sean Manaea, No. 1 on our preseason Community Prospect List, only made three starts before getting the call to Oakland. They were good starts (1.50 ERA, 18 ip, 21 Ks), but his quick ascent was more a symbol of how quickly the A’s rotation fell apart this year.
  • RHP Daniel Gossett, who opened the year in High-A, made it all the way up to Triple-A and made two good starts (1.98 ERA). He also made a solid start for Nashville in the playoffs.
  • RHP James Naile, who opened the year in Single-A and finished it in the Double-A playoffs, made a couple of emergency starts early in the summer. They weren’t great (5.71 ERA) but the point was presumably about eating some innings in a pinch rather than putting him in a position to succeed. He went on to have a great year against more appropriate competition in his first full pro season.
  • LHP Patrick Schuster was lights-out in the pen (1.16 ERA, 2.79 FIP), and he got to make his MLB debut. But after getting knocked around in a half dozen games the bigs (10.80 ERA), he was eventually claimed off waivers by the Phillies in August.
  • RHP Bobby Wahl (9 games, 2.79 ERA, 13 K/9) and RHP Carlos Navas (4 games, 2.70 ERA) came up from lower levels at the end of the year and helped out in Nashville’s pen.

Postseason run

Nashville faced the Oklahoma City Dodgers in their best-of-5 Division Series. The winner would move on to the Championship Series, which the A’s last won in 2008 with the former-affiliate-that-shan’t-be-named. Unfortunately, the Sounds had to go for it with a shell of their normal pitching staff, with so many of their starters called up to Oakland when rosters expanded in September.

Even still, it was a tight series throughout, with the first three games all decided by three runs or fewer leading up to an eventual winner-take-all Game 5. In a thriller that was reminiscent of the A’s 2014 Wild Card heartbreaker, the lead seesawed back and forth all night -- the Sounds mounted comebacks to take leads of 4-3 and 9-7, but OKC got in the final word with a three-run 8th. Olson and Nunez left the bases loaded in the 9th to end Nashville’s season.

Despite coming up short in that final moment, though, Nunez had a big series just like he had in the Double-A playoffs last year. In five games, he managed to rack up 3 HR and 10 RBI. Olson and Barreto also homered.

CPL Review

Nashville was home to a lot of the A’s top prospects this year, so let’s see how they did. (I’m not including Barreto, Chapman, Gossett, or Wahl, who only showed up at the very end of the year.)

1. Sean Manaea, LHP: The top prospect did not disappoint when all was said and done. He got his chance early and took a couple months to adjust to the bigs, but after a quick DL stint in June he posted a 2.74 ERA with 4 K/BB in his final 16 outings the rest of the way. By the second half of the season he looked like he’d figured things out, and next year he could turn out to be the top-of-the-rotation starter we hoped for.

3. Matt Olson, OF: He didn’t light Triple-A on fire, but he wasn’t bad either. In his defense, his tough home park probably worked against him (11 HR on road, 6 at home), and on top of that he also spent most of the year learning to play the outfield. He got to show off his plate discipline in his MLB debut in September, with 7 BB and 4 Ks in 28 PAs, but he also went just 2-for-21. It’s easy to be disappointed in Olson’s performance, but it’s crucial to remember that he’s still just 22 years old, which is the age of a 2015 college draft pick. He’s been one of the youngest players in every pro league he’s ever played in, and even though there are legitimate red flags there is also lots of time left for him to address them.

5. Chad Pinder, SS: Where will he fit into the puzzle? He’s not going to supplant Semien at SS, so that leaves 2B or 3B. He didn’t hit much in Triple-A nor in his brief MLB debut (73 wRC+) and he seems like a good bet to open the year back in Nashville. Perhaps we’ll have a better idea how the pieces fit together by next spring.

6. Renato Nunez, 3B: After April he looked like he might be the first man called up, and through June 1 he had a wRC+ of 109. And then he just stopped hitting for the rest of the year, though he did rebound in the playoffs. He finally got the call in September and went 2-for-15 with the A’s. Like Olson, though, Nunez played this season at age 22, so some patience is in order.

10. Dillon Overton, LHP: He looked good in Triple-A even with his sub-90 velocity, but MLB hitters were not fooled. After allowing 6 HR in 125⅔ innings in Nashville, he served up 12 in only 24⅓ frames in the bigs. That’s a rate of 4.44 HR/9, which is the highest for any pitcher in MLB history with at least 20 innings (and by a wide margin). He’s got a lot to prove next year.

11. Rangel Ravelo, 1B: He didn’t hit much at all, and hitting is his carrying tool. This was a crucial year for him, and there’s a good chance he’ll fall off the CPL entirely this winter.

12. Joey Wendle, 2B: He quietly posted a solid line in Nashville, and even showed some power. He finally got his shot in the bigs at the end of the year, and though his numbers don’t look good (66 wRC+) it still felt like a positive debut. He had a lot of good at-bats, played quality defense, and showed the kind of intangibles he’s famous for. If he’s the A’s starting 2B in April, that would be fine with me.

14. Raul Alcantara, RHP: What a weird year. By midseason I was ready to drop him off my Top 30 list, then he looked like the next big thing in Triple-A, and then he served up nine dingers in 22⅓ innings for the A’s. I have no idea what to expect from here.

15. Daniel Mengden, RHP: Never count out a bulldog. He dominated Double-A, he dominated Triple-A, and he showed some flashes during an inconsistent MLB debut. Despite the rocky finish, that’s a meteoric rise -- he was in the bigs just two calendar years after being drafted. My expectation is he’ll be permanently in the A’s rotation by the end of 2017.

20. Ryon Healy, 3B: You just never know, do you? He was so far down the depth chart that he had to start in Double-A, and when the dust settled he was the best hitter of the bunch. He finished with a 134 wRC+ in nearly half a season in the bigs, and even if he comes down a notch from that level over the long run he’s still a great success story for a system that doesn’t draft-and-develop a lot of quality hitters.

21. Jaycob Brugman, OF: Like Healy, he was buried down in Double-A in April but fought his way up to Nashville. And like he does every year, at every level, he put up an above-average line in a performance that can best be described as “solid.” Hopefully he’ll get his chance in 2017.

22. J.B. Wendelken, RHP: That Brett Lawrie trade isn’t looking so hot right now. Zack Erwin tanked in the low minors, and Wendelken got crushed in his first MLB exposure. Both pitchers finished the year on the DL, with J.B. likely headed for TJS. Welp.

28. Bruce Maxwell, C: He’s been percolating under the surface for years, just inching his way up toward the bigs. He finally broke through, and he sure looks like he’s going to stick. He’s on my Top 10 list right now.

30 Tyler Ladendorf, Util: He finally stayed healthy, but he didn’t hit at all in the minors or majors. It’s possible this is the end of the line for him in Oakland.

Including Ryan Dull, who made the Opening Day roster and never looked back, 13 members of our Top 30 list reached the majors this year. Holy Toledo!

Two new additions came over in the Reddick/Hill trade: righties Jharel Cotton and Frankie Montas. We got to see Cotton post a 2.15 ERA in five big league starts, but you might not know that he led the entire Pacific Coast League with a 10.3 K/9 (minimum 90 ip). Montas didn’t pitch for the A’s due to injury, but he’ll take the mound in the Arizona Fall League.

MLB debuts

Just for fun, a list of all 15 players who made their MLB debuts, in order of date. Asterisk means he played enough to graduate from prospect status (130 PAs, 50 ip):

4/25: Andrew Triggs, RHP*
4/29: Sean Manaea, LHP*
5/8: J.B. Wendelken, RHP
5/11: Zach Neal, RHP*
6/11: Daniel Mengden, RHP*
6/25: Dillon Overton, LHP
7/5: Patrick Schuster, LHP
7/15: Ryon Healy, 3B*
7/23: Bruce Maxwell, C
8/20: Chad Pinder, SS
8/31: Joey Wendle, 2B
9/5: Raul Alcantara, RHP
9/7: Jharel Cotton, RHP
9/12: Matt Olson, OF
9/12: Renato Nunez, 3B

Conclusion

When you’re rebuilding, you want to see your farm system produce some good players. Not every top prospect in Nashville had a great year, but the team played well as a whole and the A’s rookie class included a dynamic new starter, a middle-of-the order hitter, and a top set-up man — with at least a half dozen more youngsters in the running for starting spots next spring. Oakland’s top affiliate did its job this season and looks poised to do so again in 2017.