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Oakland A’s prospects shine in 2017 Arizona Fall League

A’s score two spots on the 12-member All-AFL team.

Sean Murphy
Meghan Camino | Stockton Ports

The Arizona Fall League ended a week ago, but that week happened to be Thanksgiving. Let’s take a moment to look back on how the Oakland A’s prospects fared while playing for the Mesa Solar Sox.

The first piece of good news is that Mesa made it to the championship game, where they attempted to defend their title from last year. Unfortunately, they fell short this time around with an 8-2 loss to an absolutely stacked opponent. The A’s pulled their weight in the contest, though, as all three of their hitters made the starting lineup and combined to go 5-for-11 with an RBI. That accounted for half of the team’s hits and scoring. Click for full box score.

The second piece of good news is that Oakland’s players earned some national recognition for their performances over the six-week season. MLB Pipeline put together an All-AFL Team to point out the top name at each position, and two A’s made the cut: catcher Sean Murphy, and 3B Sheldon Neuse (in the DH spot).

A moment ago I mentioned that Mesa’s championship opponent was stacked, and this is what I was referring to. There are 12 spots in that best-of lineup, and the Peoria Javelins filled half of them in a league that features six teams (Peoria included players from ATL, SD, and SEA, among others).

Sheldon Neuse | 3B

Neuse was the loudest name among Oakland’s contingent thanks to impressive hitting stats. He tied for the league lead with 12 extra-base hits (5 HR, 7 doubles), and also led in RBI for what that’s worth — 23 of them in 22 games played, plus another in the title game and the go-ahead ribbie in the Fall Stars midseason exhibition.

There’s a different Neuse stat that impresses me more, though. He struck out only 16 times In 93 plate appearances, good for a 17% K-rate. He ranked 38th in the league in strikeouts, but top-10 in plate appearances. Factor in the Fall Stars and Championship games, and he inches up to 18% (18-for-99).

Even when he was torching the ball in Stockton and Midland this summer, he was fanning at an enormous 27% rate and relying on a massive, unsustainable BABIP. In the AFL he cut down on the bad without sacrificing the good, as he increased his contact but continued hitting for both average and power. That allowed him to put up big numbers alongside a reasonable BABIP (.338), which is something we hadn’t yet seen him do. Of everything in his AFL experience, this is what makes me consider bumping him up my prospect list (currently No. 16, considering the 13-15 range).

On the defensive side, MLB’s Jim Callis liked Neuse better than most of the other AFL third basemen, while MLB’s Mike Rosenbaum called him “passable” in his brief time at shortstop. Bernie Pleskoff of Clubhouse Corner specifically notes a “strong and accurate arm ... capable of hitting mid-90s as a pitcher.” Neuse’s strength is clearly his bat and that’s what got him onto the All-AFL Team as the DH, but his defense doesn’t appear to be a liability that will hold him back (other than being blocked by demigod Matt Chapman, which is merely unfortunate timing for Neuse).

Sean Murphy | C

While Neuse garnered the headlines, Murphy’s performance has me more excited. I already had him in my A’s Top 10 prospect list, but the glowing reports from national analysts have only emboldened my view that he is essentially a catcher version of Matt Chapman — jaw-droppingly elite defense at his position, with the chance to hit for enough power to be productive at the plate too.

The power didn’t show up in the AFL, as it hadn’t in Double-A, but his .309 average and more walks than strikeouts are enough to keep his bat interesting. Kyle Glazer of Baseball America notes that the hard contact was there, just in the form of liners and gappers to all fields rather than dingers (“The home runs will come,” claimed Mesa’s hitting coach). In the meantime, his 8.8% K-rate* was even better than the sub-20% marks he’s put up throughout the minors.

* Factor in championship game and K-rate raises to 10.8%, still excellent.

Long-term, Callis advises that “while he may not hit for a high average, he should have at least 15-homer power.” In other words, the thing he was good at in the AFL isn’t even the thing he’s supposed to be good at, which is encouraging in its own way.

The real story is Murphy’s defense, though. Rosenbaum’s report:

There were many strong performances from rising catching prospects this fall, but no backstop improved his stock quite like Murphy. The 2016 third-rounder ... drew raves for his plus arm strength as well as his big-league-caliber catch-and-throw skills, the combination of which enabled him to cut down 11 of 18 attempted basestealers.

Callis, regarding the championship game against Peoria:

The AFL's top catching prospect -- and maybe its best overall defensive prospect -- he stole a called third strike against Filia in the fourth inning with his framing ability, displayed a quick transfer when he threw out Luis Urias (Padres) stealing in the fifth and deftly blocked several balls in the dirt.

Callis again:

His throwing, receiving and blocking are already Major League-caliber.

Bill Mitchell of Baseball America:

With major league teams always looking for advanced defensive skills behind the plate, Murphy showed himself to be one of the best young catchers in the minors. ... Behind the plate, Murphy showed off his plus-plus arm, excellent receiving and blocking skills.

Finally, here’s teammate Logan Shore on what it’s like to pitch with Murphy behind the plate, via Nick Badders of A’s Farm:

He just knows the game. It’s nice having a catcher you can trust and know that he…kind of sees hitters’ tendencies. And I can trust what he’s doing with calling pitches and that kind of stuff. Even with two strikes, if I want to be throwing a breaking ball or something and there’s a runner on third, I know one-hundred percent he’s going to block it and have no worries if I throw a ball in the dirt or anything like that. He’s as solid as they come.

That’s a lot of words, so here’s one video that best ties them all together. He nimbly dug out a tough pitch and still threw out the basestealer with a strong, perfect throw. This reminds me of Chapman making a sweet diving stop down the line and still somehow having time to not only nab the runner but actually start a 5-4-3 double play. This is what game-changing defense looks like. (h/t Jason Pennini on Twitter)

There’s no question in my mind that Murphy is Top 10 in the A’s system now, and it’s time to consider if he goes even higher than that. My highlight of the AFL was the rest of the nation getting their first serious look at him since his draft.

The rest of the Oakland contingent

Murphy and Neuse were the standouts, but the A’s had a few more players in Arizona. A quick word on each.

RHP Nolan Blackwood: The sidearmer was excellent. He was generally asked to finish games for Mesa, and responded with a tiny ERA and excellent K and BB rates. Couldn’t have asked for anything more from him.

RHP Logan Shore: He got crushed in six starts despite a stellar K/BB rate, wrapping up a disappointing 2017 that also included substantial time missed to a summer injury. Not what we were hoping for, but let’s see how he responds next year.

OF Jaycob Brugman: Late arrival serving as an injury replacement. He didn’t hit in his nine games, but did get on base with a strong walk rate. In the championship game he went 3-for-4 and scored a run, so at least he finished strong. Unfortunately, he was traded to Baltimore on Wednesday.

OF Tyler Ramirez: Played a few games, struck out a bunch, then bowed out with a back injury. This is a total write-off as far as I’m concerned, between a minuscule sample and the confounding variable of health. Check back next spring to see how he follows up on his breakout minor league campaign.

RHP Miguel Romero: Generally got torched out of the bullpen, but he’s got plenty of time to develop.

RHP Sam Bragg: Mediocre in a few games, but the reliever didn’t have much to prove here anyway. All that’s left to see is whether he can retire hitters in Triple-A.

And that wraps up the 2017 Arizona Fall League. A few prospects shined, a few more struggled, and the group made it all the way to the finals. Here are the complete stats, including the championship game as well as Neuse’s Fall Stars performance. (Left out Ramirez’s insignificant stint, and Brugman since he’s no longer in the org.)

Neuse: .315/.364/.554, 5 HR, 7 doubles, 25 RBI, 7 BB, 18 Ks, 99 PAs
Murphy: .310/.410/.366, 0 HR, 4 doubles, 10 BB, 9 Ks, 83 PAs

Shore: 6.00 ERA, 24 ip, 18 Ks, 2 BB, 5 HR, 35 hits
Blackwood: 1.50 ERA, 12 ip, 16 Ks, 3 BB, 0 HR, 6 hits
Bragg: 4.82 ERA, 9⅓ ip, 6 Ks, 1 BB, 2 HR, 12 hits
Romero: 7.59 ERA, 10⅔ ip, 7 Ks, 3 BB, 1 HR, 20 hits

Complete regular season stats from AFL, which differ slightly from those above

As for the international winter leagues, there is still nothing of interest to report. Jorge Mateo is playing in the Dominican, but not well enough to merit praise nor poorly enough to warrant concern.

Farewell, AFL, and we’ll see ya next year. I’ll leave you with this video of Murphy taking batting practice dressed as a hot dog.