Back in 2012, the Oakland A's spent a 2nd-round draft pick on a power-hitting catcher from a small college called Birmingham-Southern. They had just taken high school infielders Addison Russell, Daniel Robertson, and Matt Olson in the first round, but Bruce Maxwell presented a whole different kind of risk in that Division-III players aren't usually drafted that high. They knew they were getting a long-term project, but four years later their gamble might be ready to pay off as Maxwell is now knocking on Oakland's door.
Maxwell is a big guy, listed at 6'1 and 250 pounds. The A's clearly drafted him for his bat, as he hit for a ton of power in college and also showed incredible plate discipline -- in his senior season, he slugged .928 with 59 walks and 11 strikeouts. When he got to the pros, the plate discipline mostly remained but the power was nowhere to be found, and meanwhile he was a work-in-progress on defense as he moved up the ladder. Catchers are probably the toughest players to judge anyway, since so much of what they do doesn't have an obvious numerical value, and analyzing their development in the minors is no easier.
But the A's stuck with him over the years, and he steadily worked his way up the ladder. He didn't hit much in Double-A last year (79 wRC+), but he maintained his solid plate discipline throughout and for what it's worth he did his best work at the end of the season and in the playoffs. Combined with reports that his catching was improving (it might even be good now), he seemed like he could eventually make it as a backup one day.
And now suddenly, in 2016, his stock has done nothing but skyrocket. The A's showed their continued interest in him with an invite to spring training, and he went 6-for-23 with a couple homers and a few walks. He got to play for Team Germany, the country of his birth (where his army father was stationed), in World Baseball Classic qualifying. And now, after once again starting slowly at a new minor league level, he is breaking out at Triple-A Nashville like he never has before in the pros. An illustration of his progression this year:
April: .563 OPS
July: 1.490 (!!!)
That July mark comes in 13 games (51 PAs), with the following numbers: 21-for-45, .467/.490/1.000, 7 HR, 4 BB, 6 Ks. That is absurd, for anyone, much less a guy who had never hit more than seven homers in an entire season before. That power from college is suddenly back. His incredible hot streak earned him league Player of the Week honors to begin the second half of the season, and he hasn't slowed down since.
So what happens next? Maxwell is doing everything he can to force his way up to the bigs. The A's gave him a lot of attention even when he wasn't putting up numbers, and there's no reason to think they'll stop liking him now that he is. The primary catcher right now is Stephen Vogt, but today is July 21 and so you never know who will still be on the team two weeks from now. Could the presence of an exciting new catching option be enough for Oakland to move Vogt, either to a new team or at least a new position? Meanwhile, Josh Phegley is on his second DL stint for his knee, and while he could be on the way back soon we've all learned that you can't take anything for granted when it comes to injuries. Matt McBride has been a decent enough fill-in, but he's not doing anything to block a dynamic 25-year-old prospect.
It might take a couple weeks for all of the pieces to get sorted out, but it sure does look likely that there will be room for Maxwell sooner than later. With a bang bang of Maxwell's silver hammer, Bruce appears to be turning into The Hulk.
(Check out this podcast from Wed., with Maxwell joining Nashville play-by-play man Jeff Hem.)
There have been a ton of recent promotions throughout the system lately, so let's do a quick rundown. We'll continue to look at each of these moves in more depth as we look at each individual minor league team.
Up to AAA: RHP Raul Alcantara
Up to AA: RHP Heath Fillmyer, RHP Lou Trivino
Up to A+: RHP James Naile
Up to A: RHP Nolan Blackwood, RHP Brendan Butler
(Update: RHP Michael Murray was called up to High-A to start on Thursday, as Fillmyer had been scheduled. However, it's unclear at this point whether that's intended as a permanent promotion or just a quick spot start. My hunch is the latter.)
Some pitching is shifting up the ladder! This is all wonderful news, as most of these guys were putting up excellent numbers and it'll be great to see them take on bigger challenges. We've already discussed Naile, and we'll cover the others in the coming days, but let's talk about Alcantara while we're doing the Nashville update.
Unlike the rest of the promotions, this one feels more like a move born of situation rather than pure success. Alcantara has been on the 40-man roster for a couple years already and only has two option years remaining after 2016, so the A's can't wait forever for the 23-year-old to work his way up. Furthermore, the rotation choices at Triple-A Nashville are getting slim, as it's now down to the following: Dillon Overton and Jesse Hahn (for now, until one or both move back up to Oakland), Ross Detwiler and Chris Smith (org filler), Zach Neal (when he's not in Oakland's bullpen, which he currently is), Chris Jensen (basically another Zach Neal), and occasionally Angel Castro (a reliever). There's room for someone new to prove himself.
But will Alcantara do that? He had a 4.80 ERA in Double-A this year, and even if you instead focus on his 4.12 FIP it's still not anything to write home about. His best month came in May, and he's been hot-and-cold in three starts since returning from a brief June DL stint. He was once among the A's very best prospects before TJS interrupted his career, and it's been a slow recovery in the two seasons since. But just as Bruce Maxwell marinated in obscurity for a while before suddenly breaking out, you never know what might happen when the right switch gets flipped. I don't think I'm alone among folks on this site who think Alcantara will eventually wind up in the bullpen, but heck, let's see what the kid's got for now while there's space in Nashville's rotation.
Hitters (98 games, thru Wed.)
I did the last Nashville update on Saturday, and Maxwell's wRC+ has gone up 22 points since then (with 64 extra points of slugging). Meanwhile, Wendle is quietly hitting well, with an .837 OPS since the beginning of June and a surprising amount of HR power (he also tripled on Thursday, not reflected in the stats above). Olson homered on Thursday, so his wRC+ should push back over 100.
Pitchers (thru Wed.)
|... Bullpen ...|
Daniel Coulombe and Zach Neal are the taxi guys currently in Oakland, and Andrew Triggs is on the DL.
All five affiliates are in action, or were supposed to be.
Triple-A Nashville: Won 8-4, Chris Jensen vs. Albuquerque
Double-A Midland: LIVE, Heath Fillmyer vs. San Antonio
High-A Stockton: 7:00 p.m.,
TBD Michael Murray vs. Visalia
Single-A Beloit: Postponed (rain in Wisconsin, ya don't say)
Low-A Vermont: LIVE, Dakota Chalmers vs. Hudson Valley
Fillmyer is making his Double-A debut. Chalmers had a decent outing (5 ip, 3 runs, 6 Ks, 4 BB). Not sure who's starting for Stockton in place of Fillmyer. (Update: It's Michael Murray, up from Single-A Beloit for at least one game.)