Farm systems are hard to gauge in general because prospects are difficult to assess in general. One moment you’re all gung ho about Daniel Robertson and then Ryon Healy comes out from just left of nowhere and warrants the excitement. Remember when Michel Ynoa was going to be the next great thing, perhaps one of the "3 aces" along side Fautino de los Santos and Raul Alcantara? Now one is in the bullpen, one is out of options and trying to impress, and one is killing it on the 3rd shift at IHOP.
So perhaps the A’s current situation isn’t all that unusual. Yet few prospects have emerged to clarify themselves as booms or as busts. Here’s a look at what I mean, focusing on a slew of prospects whose legitimate upside is compromised not just by question marks but by important ones...
The good news — and it’s really good — is that the A’s actually do have several prospects who have a chance to be stars. The problem is when you get to the "If he can just improve a bit in this area" piece and realize how many prospects have been stalled by that area.
A.J. Puk and Grant Holmes both throw in the mid-to-high 90s with raw stuff that puts their ceiling at the top of the rotation. They also share the same achilles heel: they need to throw more strikes. Puk entered pro ball with the profile of a 5 IP pitcher due to long counts, 20 pitch innings, and high walk totals, while Holmes has had high BB rates in the minors (120 BBs in 286 total IPs).
On the hitting side, Matt Chapman has it all: "potential gold glove level" defense at 3B, tremendous raw power, the ability to take walks. Well, almost all. Chapman strikes out too much. A lot too much, actually: 30% of the time in 2016 between AA and AAA. Apparently great Matts swing alike, as fellow masher Matt Olson and his long swing also struggles only with the pesky chore of making contact. In Olson’s case, the K-rate was 24.4% at AAA this past season, 23.8% at AA last season.
Franklin Barreto is probably the prospect with the least alarming warts to overcome. His fielding has been error-prone at times, but high error rates at low levels do not especially portend disaster. He has had somewhat pedestrian batting lines but mostly due to slow starts at new levels for which he was especially young.
Ultimately, if "throwing strikes" and "making contact" were not big deals the A’s might well have 5 future stars on their hands. As it is, one has to wonder how much to bank on pitchers gaining command and hitters whiffing less against the world’s best pitchers.
Highly rated, highly flawed
Next you have a group of players who continue to get ‘B’ grade from John Sickels, continue to be included in ‘top 10’ lists, but who really have to improve in a lot of areas in order to carve out a big league career.
Renato Nuñez excites many because he hits the ball hard and he is still very young (22). However, not only is he coming off a season of batting .228/.278/.412 at AAA, Nuñez has never been a patient hitter (his BB rate has hovered between 5.1% and 6.7% the past three seasons), he is known to be a shaky fielder whose best position is DH, he is slow — basically he has to hit a ton in order to provide value.
Meanwhile, Chad Pinder also hits the ball hard when he hits it but is similarly allergic to walks. And like Nuñez he has yet to establish himself as a good fielder, though unlike Nuñez he plays premium positions (SS, 2B, 3B) and some scouts are hopeful about his defensive skills.
On the flip side is #1 pick Richie Martin, who is widely considered to be a good defensive SS but who has to prove he can hit the ball hard when he hits it. Even the super hitter-friendly Cal League couldn’t save Martin from a .230/.322/.312 line — but he reportedly made one of those famous "mechanical adjustments" late in the season and did finish strong (.292/.385/.453 in August).
There’s much of your top 10 right there, along with "on the rise" SP Daniel Gossett, wild cards like the youthful Dakota Chalmers or the "SP or RP?" Frankie Montas, and "high floor, low ceiling" guys like Jaycob Brugman. How does it compare to the farm systems of their competitors? Do the A’s now have a "top 1/3" system, e.g., 10th best in MLB? Or is it still just "middle of the pack," e.g., 15th? Or does all the high risk outweigh the corresponding upside, and it’s a bottom 1/3 system with more recognizable busts?
Hard to say. I tend to rate it, in my mind, somewhere around 12th now with the hope that after next June’s draft it might rise as high as 8th or 9th — remember that the A’s have not only the 6th overall pick but also high supplemental picks due to the competitive balance picks they have been awarded. I do like the high upside finally present at AAA and soon AA. It’s just a question of whether those warts are more eczema or carcinoma.