Renato Nunez entered the 2016 season as one of the top players in the Oakland A's minor league system and one of the closest to the majors. He was No. 6 on our preseason Community Prospect List, he opened the year at Triple-A, and he was already on the 40-man roster. Add all of that up, and he seemed on the cusp of getting his shot in MLB and was theoretically just a plane ride away from Oakland if he played well enough to get that call. His journey since then has not been perfectly smooth, but after a long slump he is back on track. Let's start from the beginning.
The 22-year-old wasted no time getting going in Nashville. and by mid-May he seemed well on the way to forcing that promotion. In our May 24 prospect update we ran a poll asking which Nashville player would be the next to reach Oakland -- Daniel Mengden won easily, which turned out to be the correct guess, but among the position players on the list Renato won in a landslide. (He got 29% of the vote, with the next-highest being Joey Wendle at 4% ... the eventual correct answer, Ryon Healy, got 3%.) He carried a 121 wRC+ and the only remaining question was whether he could play enough defense to stay out of the DH spot.
But then the slump came. Actually, it had already quietly begun by the time we voted in that poll, but it got worse as the summer went on. From the beginning of June through the end of the season's first half in mid-July (34 games), he batted .192/.250/.262 with only three homers and a strikeout rate that uncharacteristically rose above 20%. If you move that arbitrary beginning point to mid-May, the numbers are basically the same, and overall his wRC+ eventually dropped all the way into the mid-70s. A hot first month had given way to a cold patch that lasted twice as long, and that's a great recipe for a terrible year.
Ah, but things can change quickly in the minors. Humans continue to work hard toward their goals, and young players fight to adjust to the ways their opponents beat them. Nunez came back in the second half of the season, and suddenly he looks like his old self again. His numbers since the All-Star break, in 27 games (114 plate appearances):
Nunez, 2nd half: .267/.307/.581, 9 HR, 6 BB, 27 Ks
He's still striking out more than he used to, but that only means that he's settled into a normal range after being a high-contact guy in the past. Meanwhile, he's back to cracking extra-base hits at a high rate, and while his OBP will probably never be high at least he's back over the Sogard Line (that's my new term for a .300 on-base). But all of these are just numbers; what do they mean? Fortunately, there is a convenient comp for Nunez's performance. Up in Oakland, Khris Davis has also played 27 games* since the All-Star break and he's lit up the sky during that time. Here's what his hot streak looks like numerically (108 plate appearances):
Khrush, 2nd half: .263/.315/.606, 10 HR, 7 BB, 26 Ks
* Stats are entering Sunday, so they don't count today's game in which Davis homered again.
It's uncanny how similar those lines are. The slash lines, the power output, and even the BB and K rates are nearly identical; even Davis' extra homer is offset but a couple spare doubles by Nunez. The point here is not a literal comparison -- Davis did this against MLB pitching, and Nunez didn't. Rather, the point is to help you picture what Nunez's stat line looks like in action. Imagine what Davis is doing for the A's right now, and that's what Nunez is doing in Nashville. That's how hot he is.
This year was never make-or-break for Nunez, because reaching Triple-A at his age gave him the luxury of time on his side. Even if he spends all of 2016 struggling and adjusting to the upper minors, he'll still enter next year as a 23-year-old who is on the younger side for his level. Despite his long slump, his 21 homers still tie him for fifth in the PCL, and the only hitter above him on that list who isn't at least two years older is Joey Gallo (only five months older). Renato is the age of a 2015 college draft pick -- five days younger than Alex Bregman, two months younger than Dansby Swanson.
Granted, there is a clock to beat in terms of his dwindling option years (he'd be out of options in 2018), but worrying about his contract status is a secondary concern to me after ensuring that he actually becomes a quality big leaguer first. After all, if he comes up sometime next year and starts doing his Khris Davis impression again, I don't think anyone will be too worried about how to send him back down to the minors.
Bobby Wahl promoted
The pitching portion of the A's system continues to make steady progress, as reliever Bobby Wahl has been promoted to Triple-A Nashville. The right-hander was the A's 5th-round pick back in 2013, but a variety of injuries stalled his progress and it was tough to know what to expect from him this year. Even still, he managed to crack the bottom of our CPL (No. 29).
After an abbreviated season in Double-A last year, a healthy Wahl repeated the level this year and finally started to look like the late-inning power arm we hoped he could be. He struck out the world (10.6 K/9), kept the contact weak (low hits and homers), and posted a 2.21 ERA, earning the job as the RockHounds' closer along the way. He'll still walk some guys, but he's got the tools to work around it.
Wahl has thrown two games for Nashville so far, totaling 3 ip, 0 runs, 4 Ks, 0 BB, 1 hit. The A's have a strong bullpen right now partly thanks to the collection of serviceable role players they've been able to rotate in from Triple-A all year, and now they've added one more quality name to that list. And with his relatively high ceiling, he could continue to grow into even more than just another depth guy. As a reminder of what Wahl brings, here's a snippet from his preseason scouting report on MLB.com (I can't link to it because he's fallen off the list in the time since; I copied this out and saved it earlier this year):
Before he went under the knife [for an impingement in his elbow in summer 2015], Wahl had regained his trademark velocity, sitting in the low to mid 90s and reaching 98 mph in short stints. His power breaking ball remains his best secondary offering and shows above-average potential, and he's dialed back the usage of his changeup since shifting to the bullpen. There's some effort in his delivery and his command is below average, but he also hasn't had enough time on the mound to properly address those issues. ... Provided he can stay healthy, there's little doubt among evaluators that he has the power stuff to pitch high-leverage innings in the Major Leagues.
Hitters (thru 121 games)
I decided to add Alcantara to the list even though he's not technically a prospect, since he's the same age as some of these guys (24). He's still a youngster with question marks, which functionally makes him a prospect. Meanwhile, Wendle leads the team with 12 stolen bases in 14 attempts. Finally, Renato's wRC+ still looks low, but remember that it was down at 79 when we looked last week so he's trending in the right direction.
|... Bullpen ...
What has gotten into Raul Alcantara? It took him until his fourth game to allow a homer or a walk, and he's still yet to give up more than one run in a single outing. He's been so good that Cotton is only second on this list (sorted by ERA) after coming one batter away from a perfect game.
At this point in the season, young starters like Mengden and Alcantara are having their innings limited. That means they're generally being capped at five innings per game, which allows them to keep taking their regular turns in the rotation. But it also means their results from here on out might look slightly better than they really are, because they are never being tested in that 6th or 7th inning nor that third time through the batting order.
All five affiliates are in action, with a doubleheader in Low-A Vermont.
Triple-A Nashville: LIVE, Chris Jensen vs. Reno
Double-A Midland: Lost 6-3, Brandon Mann vs. Springfield
High-A Stockton: 6:10 p.m., Kyle Friedrichs vs. High Desert
Single-A Beloit: Won 3-1, Boomer Biegalski vs. Wisconsin
Low-A Vermont #1: Lost 3-0, A.J. Puk vs. Tri-City
Low-A Vermont #2: LIVE, Logan Shore vs. Tri-City
Not the most exciting pitching slate, but it gets better as you get to the bottom of the list. Friedrichs has lost some of his shine (6.67 ERA in last 5 starts), but at least he's stayed on his game plan with only 2 BB in 27 innings during that time.
But the guy you want to know about is Puk. Never mind the team loss; that was all the bullpen. Puk's line was ridiculous: 3⅔ ip, 0 runs, 8 Ks, 2 BB, 1 hit. Eight of his 11 outs were via strikeouts. You guys, I think the A's might have picked the right guy in the draft. Also, I don't know how to socially acceptably phrase my excitement about seeing a Puk/Shore tandem in a doubleheader.