It's one thing to be struggling at the big league level for 1 year and change but to have a killer group of prospects on the horizon. The present day Chicago Cubs are proof of how good you can get, how quickly, if your AA/AAA pipeline is deep and full of talent. On the flip side, and no I'm talking about the Angels ok maybe I am a little, when you're sliding fast and your farm is more barren than Vince Cotroneo's scalp (he said lovingly), you should be less concerned and more alarmed.
Where do the A's sit in regards to making a move, in 2017-19, from fringe contention to clear contention? As I take a honest look, I see cause for optimism but also cause for concern. Mostly, I see an organization that needs to be jumping on a Josh Reddick extension more aggressively than meets the eye.
I put the current prospects into tiers, beginning with the three prospects about whom there is ample reason to be genuinely excited, then looking at the "best of the rest" and what one can reasonably hope and expect.
"The Big Three"
I think excitement, and planning, around Sean Manaea, Matt Chapman, and Franklin Barreto is warranted. That's a core you can build around and all three appear to have a chance to be up by next year and to be impact players by 2018 if not sooner.
Right now, a good comp for Manaea is Gio Gonzalez. Not just the 93+ MPH fastball, left-handedness, #1 pick pedigree, and "raw talent" combo, but right down to the horrid first blush at the big leagues. Gonzalez habitually struggled initially at each new level, none so dramatically as his first try at big league pitching. If Manaea follows Gio's career arc the A's will have a solid #2 SP for several years.
Chapman is probably "closer than you think" to the big leagues, picking up in AA where he left off in Stockton and displaying consistent ability to provide walks, HRs, and gold glove defense at 3B. Those three attributes should get him to the big leagues soon and he has a pretty high ceiling. Will he be more Kyle Seager or Matt Dominguez? No one knows. But Chapman's ticket to the big leagues seems all but stamped and he has a chance to be an impact player.
Barreto's hit tool is unquestioned and while he has been inconsistent at the plate so far in AA, he is 20 years old and holding his own. Barreto is a guy who could reach the A's younger than most A's rookies do, perhaps cracking the big leagues at age 21 or 22. The question is at what position, as Barreto has played SS and CF, and is a candidate to move to 2B. His hit tool, power/speed combo, and athleticism all make comps to Ian Kinsler reasonable projections if all goes well.
Now if the A's had the next Gio Gonzalez, Kyle Seager, and Ian Kinsler coming up between now and mid-2017, all would be well. Prospects are unpredictable and most likely even among the A's three best, one will meet expectations, one will fall short, and one will be delayed by injuries. Still, plenty to like from these three.
I sure hope Plan A isn't to let Josh Reddick walk and replace him with Matt Olson. Olson is a good prospect but is hardly a sure thing, especially as an outfielder. Olson projects as an excellent 1Bman but has not looked nearly as polished in RF and 1B is very likely his best position. If you have a guy who, defensively, could be Yonder Alonso at 1B or Mark Canha in the COF, I'm not sure your best move is to force him to the OF.
Olson comes with other warts as well, from his low batting average to a long swing. Many a good prospect has been derailed when their long swing doesn't play at higher levels. Young for his league at 22, nonetheless Olson is struggling more than a little at AAA right now batting all of .157/.285/.294.
Sure one can always hope for a Chris Davis type of breakthrough, but realistically if he makes it Olson is probably a .230/.320/.420 hitter with 25 HR power and average outfield defense. That's a ceiling of Khris Davis as an outfielder with plenty of risk.
And that's about what the A's have coming up anytime soon in RF. Unless the organization wants to take two steps forward and three steps back, hopes of being highly relevant in 2017-19 seem to rise greatly if they retain thier position player, who has no real replacement on deck, and that's Reddick.
There is plenty to get excited about with regard to Nuñez and plenty not to. His batting is the former, his fielding the latter. I've seen enough of Nuñez at 3B to know that he is a 3Bman like Mark Canha and Yonder Alonso are 3Bmen: They can play there, just not well enough to avoid hurting you the more they play there.
Nuñez might be an adequate 1Bman, but his glove is not going to be what gets him to the Show or distinguishes him. His bat, however, might. Also only 22, Nuñez is thriving at AAA, currently batting .290/.348/.548 with 7 HRs in 33 games. Nuñez has never been as patient as you would ideally like to see but his bat has a chance to be a real threat in the middle of a lineup.
As a DH/1B type, though, without tremendous on base skills, Nuñez' upside is limited and like Olson he falls into the category of guys you can hope will be good but you had better have plans B, C, and D in your back pocket.
"Starting Pitchers: Three To Make One?"
I love prospects, but one has to be realistic about how quickly and often promise turns to dust. If you have two "can't miss" prospects, you might get one really good player and if you have three exciting SP prospects you are likely to wind up with one good SP.
I have hopes for Dillon Overton, Daniel Mengden, and Casey Meisner, all of whom have a chance to be successful big league pitchers. However, once injuries, and the natural unpredictability of translating skills to the big leagues, are done taking their toll, you are probably going to wind up with one solid #4 SP.
If that sounds pessimistic, go back and look at team after team over the past 10 years who had three similar prospects coming up. Then look at how it panned out.
A #1 (sandwich) pick who is playing SS until he inevitably has to move off the position because he is an error machine, who has a solid hit tool but not enough patience, a guy who definitely can't field but might be able to hit? OK, enough about Grant Green.
In fairness to Pinder, he had a true breakout season at Midland in a league known for suppressing offensive numbers. But he is still a guy who has yet to find a position he can play -- though there may be one -- and who has less plate discipline than Pablo Sandoval at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Basically a lot has to go right for Pinder to be successful in the big leagues and currently at AAA he is batting all of .202/.231/.333.
I could go on, as there are other prospects who may work themselves into the conversation. Ryon Healy, Rangel Ravelo, Bruce Maxwell, and Joey Wendle are among the players who still have a chance to be big leaguers soon should things break right. But in terms of a "core" to build from, plan with, count on? We have pretty much exhausted the A-list.
Where does this leave the Oakland A's in planning for the coming seasons? It's interesting and somewhat exciting, but I'm just not sure it's enough to say the A's are poised, as is, for contention if they lose Reddick and don't add more legitimate "major league ready" talent without losing the little core they have in Sonny Gray, Marcus Semien, etc.
In other words, the farm system is better than it was and could produce multiple exciting players sooner rather than later. But enough to add more than the A's lose in the time it takes for Chapman, Barreto, maybe Mengden or Nuñez, to make an impact? That I'm not sure, especially if they lose Reddick at a time when the system is weakest at COF and they have to scramble just to offset that loss.
Perhaps with the 6th (and 37th) picks in this year's draft, the A's will land someone not only really good but also on a fast track to the big leagues. Maybe a key splash in the International market is finally coming again this off-season. Or it's possible that the organization is in decent, yet not terrific, shape as it moves forward.