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Getting to know the A’s newest prospect, RHP Paul Blackburn

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Kicking off the offseason in exciting fashion, the A’s traded 1B/3B/LF/RF/DH/Boxer Danny Valencia to the Seattle Mariners. In return, the A’s received RHP Paul Blackburn. Who is Paul Blackburn you ask? Let’s find out!

He's local to the East Bay

Who doesn't love a local guy! Blackburn went to Heritage High School in Brentwood, California. Here's some grainy video of him playing against Miramonte High School, the alma mater of notable persons such as former NFL quarterback Ken Dorsey, Athletics Nation dot com writer Yours Truly, and probably some other famous people.

Drafted in the supplemental round by the Cubs (and therefore by Theo Epstein and company so we’ve got that going for us which is nice), Blackburn has a decent pedigree. Getting drafted that early indicates upside, or upside for upside, as was the case here. As a high schooler and still as a prospect, Blackburn is a guy who would benefit from a few extra miles per hour. Similar to a Dillon Overton, Blackburn lives on razor's edge, and relies on his ability to hit spots.

To further temper any excitement you may have, let me remind you that many top picks do disappoint. Most, in fact never see the light of day at the big league level and even more contribute almost zilch once reaching that level. Still, there’s something mildly exciting about the A’s getting a guy with the pedigree to go early in the draft -- he’s got some upside though predictably, as we’ll see shortly, he’s not a top prospect either.

The statistics

Year Age Level G ERA IP K BB HR H
2012 18 RK 9 3.48 20⅔ 13 7 2 23
2013 19 A- 13 3.33 46 38 29 3 41
2014 20 A 24 3.23 117 75 31 6 108
2015 21 A+ 18 3.11 89⅔ 63 22 3 89
2016 22 AA 26 3.27 143 99 35 8 138

Blackburn has been pretty excellent at preventing runs throughout his career, in spite of a serious lack of strikeouts. That speaks to his excellent pitchability, though the lack of strikeouts is of course a concern. Missing bats is crucial to succeeding at the big league level, especially when you're pitching in front of the A's defense. There's a clear correlation between strikeouts and big league success, meaning Blackburn is probably a number five starter if everything breaks right.

Blackburn has done nothing but get outs in spite of all that, and if he continues to do so, he'll definitely earn a look at the big league level. The A's have certainly done more with less before, and Blackburn should at least pique your interest.

One final point of note -- Blackburn topped the 140 mark last season, suggesting if the A's need innings eaten next year or Blackburn tears through AAA, he could have the stamina to handle the rigors of a big league season.

The scouting reports

From John Sickels of Minor League Ball, entering 2016.

Paul Blackburn does several things well. A 2012 supplemental first-rounder from high school in California, he throws strikes, shows good pitching instincts, and has made progress with both his curveball and change-up. His velocity is erratic, ranging from 86-89 in some games to 92-94 in others. Obviously the higher readings are preferable but he hasn’t maintained them over the course of a season yet. He also made two visits to the disabled list last year and it remains to be seen what kind of workload he’ll manage at higher levels. I have been optimistic about his chances, thinking that his velocity could pick up, but right now he looks more like fifth starter material or possibly a bullpen arm. Grade C.

... and Sickels again, in his July update:

2016 has been a very good season for him ... He's held his fastball velocity more readily this year in the low-90s while making further progress with a tighter curveball. Best of all he's been healthy. The 6-1, 195 pound right-hander is 22 years old and I'd move his grade up to a C+ based on current information.

From Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs.

Mostly 88-92 mph, though he’s touched higher in the past. It’s a little bit straight, but he fills the strike zone with it and locates well to his arm side. Mid-70s curveball is the best secondary, 11-5 movement with solid depth, a fringe pitch now that projects to average. The arm action allows for some changeup projection but it’s unlikely to miss bats. He projects as an up and down spot starter.

From Christopher Crawford, formerly of Baseball Prospectus.

The Cubs took Blackburn with the 56th overall pick of the 2012 draft out of Heritage High School in California, and the belief was that he was an advanced pitching prospect that also had some projection. While he's shown the ability to throw strikes with all three pitches, the projection hasn't--and probably will not--come, and he's actually lost a tick or two off his fastball, sitting 88-90 mph most games. His best pitch is his changeup; he uses the same arm speed on it, and there's enough fade here to call it a solid-average offering. The curveball is also an average pitch; a pitch that is light on velocity but has enough break and depth to give it a 50 grade. He repeats his delivery well, and he should throw enough strikes to start. You're looking at no more than a fifth starter in all likelihood, but that might be the floor, too.

From MLB Pipeline (No. 19 in the system):

Scouting grades: Fastball: 50 | Curveball: 50 | Changeup: 50 | Control: 50 | Overall: 45

Blackburn can throw 90-94 mph sinkers with downhill plane to both sides of the plate and back them up with a sharp curveball. But there were several starts last year when he had an 88-91 mph fastball and a vanilla curve. He still needs to add strength so he can maintain quality stuff deeper into games and longer over the course of the season.

Blackburn has good feel for his changeup and pitching in general. He has the athleticism to repeat his delivery and throw strikes, and he continues to pound the zone even when his pitches aren't at their best.

The takeaway

Without a velocity burst, Blackburn will never find himself at top of any prospect lists, and that's just fine. That's in line with with what the A's gave up, and a potential backend guy is a solid but not overwhelming get for a position-less clubhouse malcontent.

Blackburn has succeeded at every professional stop in his career, and the A's will give him every chance to make it at the big league level after some AAA seasoning. This is an organization that's found pitching in unlikely places. Don't get overly excited, but keep a close eye on Blackburn's campaign in Nashville.

Welcome to Oakland, Paul Blackburn!