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Oakland A’s prospect watch: Sonny Gray trade package has risk but huge upside

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Oakland A’s finally traded star pitcher Sonny Gray on Monday, within an hour of the deadline. The Yankees sent back three prospects:

  • OF Dustin Fowler
  • SS Jorge Mateo
  • RHP James Kaprielian

Of particular note is that two of the players are currently dealing with significant injuries that ended their 2017 seasons. Fowler ruptured the patellar tendon in his knee while trying to make a catch, and Kaprielian is recovering from Tommy John surgery. As for Mateo, he’s healthy and now playing for Double-A Midland.

Each of the three prospects have appeared on national Top 100 lists at some point this season. Mateo and Kaprielian were both on the preseason lists of MLB Pipeline, Baseball America, and Baseball Prospectus, with Mateo ranking Top 50 twice and Kaprielian Top 60 twice. They each fell off the midseason updates for their own reasons, but this time Fowler showed up even despite his injury (as high as No. 77 on MLB Pipeline).

Dustin Fowler | OF | Age 22

Level: On the MLB 60-day DL

There isn’t really one true headliner in this deal, with three similarly strong pieces. Fowler is currently the highest-ranked and the most likely to reach Oakland first, so let’s start with him. His scouting report from MLB Pipeline:

Scouting grades: Hit: 50 | Power: 50 | Run: 60 | Arm: 50 | Field: 60 | Overall: 55

Fowler makes repeated hard contact with a short, quick left-handed stroke. His bat speed, strength and plus speed give him 20-20 upside, though he's still learning to be an efficient basestealer. To reach his offensive ceiling, he'll need to get more selective at the plate because he walks infrequently and puts too many early-count pitches in play rather than waiting for one to drive.

Fowler has made tremendous defensive improvement since turning pro. He has worked diligently with outfield instructor Reggie Willits to refine his reads and routes, going from spending the majority of his time on the corners in his first two season to being a quality center fielder. He also has bolstered his arm strength to at least average.

Some other opinions and notes:

The primary hope of this trade deadline was that the A’s would land their new starting CF. This is the guy. He comes with a whole heap of risk because of his injury, but in terms of talent and development he’s ready to go right alongside the rest of the rookie core.

Many on Athletics Nation were hoping that Clint Frazier would be part of this deal, but is Fowler such a bad option? He’s more likely to stay in CF, so he’s a better fit in that way — in fact, Frazier has already moved to the corners, where the A’s are already packed. Fowler also put up superior numbers in Triple-A this year at the same age, and was the first to get the call to MLB. He’s not rated as highly at this moment but the difference isn’t huge, and if healthy he’s closer to a comp than a consolation prize.

It all comes down to how he recovers from his injury, specifically in terms of speed. The A’s are aiming for upside and are clearly willing to take on risk to get it, and if this gamble pays off then they will have filled their most pressing need with a quality long-term solution.

Fun fact — Fowler was an 18th-round draft pick who worked his way up the rankings, much like 20th-rounder Jharel Cotton, who was acquired in last year’s deadline blockbuster.

Summary: MLB-ready CF, age 23 next year, solid or better in every area, but has to overcome significant knee injury and regain his plus speed.

Jorge Mateo | SS | Age 22

Level: Double-A Midland RockHounds

Although I claimed there was no headliner here, Susan Slusser mentions that Mateo was the “key to the deal.” His scouting report from MLB Pipeline:

Scouting grades: Hit: 50 | Power: 40 | Run: 80 | Arm: 60 | Field: 55 | Overall: 50

One of the fastest runners in baseball, Mateo has top-of-the-scale speed and led the Minors with 82 steals in 2015 before dipping to 36 last season. He can get from the right side of the plate to first base in less than 4.0 seconds and wreak havoc once he gets on base. His quickness also should boost his on-base ability, though he'll need to tighten his plate discipline to become a quality leadoff man.

While his speed gets the most attention, Mateo has a nice array of tools. His deceptive strength gives him solid raw power and he has an offensive ceiling of a .275 hitter with 15 homers per season. Few players can match his combination of quickness and arm strength, though he has been erratic at shortstop. Some scouts believe he'll wind up at second base or in center field, where he saw increased playing time in 2017.

Some other opinions and notes:

  • In 2016, the Yankees suspended Mateo for two weeks for violating team policy.
  • Preseason Top 100 lists: Baseball Prospectus (43), MLB Pipeline (47), Baseball America (85) ... entering 2016, rated as high as No. 26 by Baseball America.
  • After a mediocre 98 wRC+ in High-A this year, he was called up to Double-A and posted a 147 wRC+ in 30 games before the trade, with a higher average, more liners, more power, more walks, and fewer strikeouts.
  • Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs notes that Mateo added a leg kick upon his promotion to Double-A: “While his success at Double-A has some small-sample stink on it, the fact that it’s been paired with a substantive mechanical change might mean it’s more representative of his future output.”
  • Wayne Cavaldi of Minor League Ball calls him an “absolute stud.”
  • John Sickels of Minor League Ball gave him a B+ grade entering the year.
  • Melissa Lockard at The Athletic includes the following phrases: boom-or-bust, five-tool talent, second-to-none-speed (even Billy Hamilton), cannon for an arm.
  • Lockard also notes that Mateo is using his first option year already.
  • The reports generally agree that he can probably handle SS, but that his speed would be intriguing in CF.
  • He tripled in his first game for Midland. See video below. Didn’t look like it took him much longer (if any) than Hamilton’s MLB-best 10.45 seconds last year.

Regardless of your opinion of Mateo, he definitely fits the A’s current strategy of shooting for the moon on high-ceiling players. If you like, he might also represent a backup plan in CF if Fowler doesn’t work out, meaning they double-solved that hole in the long-term depth chart.

Some might say the Yankees sold high after his impressive Double-A debut. Others might suggest the A’s bought low on elite talent after his stock deteriorated from two years of disappointing performance and questionable attitude. Athletics Nation didn’t want him to be the headliner of the deal, but it turned out to be more of a 1/1A/1B situation — it’s easier to appreciate his value without the label of being the guy we got for Sonny.

Mateo’s up-the-middle athleticism could prove particularly useful given that Oakland is heavy on corner sluggers right now. The biggest questions are whether he’ll hit enough to use it, and if so, which premium position he’ll settle at.

Fun fact — In 2015, between Single-A and High-A, Mateo stole 82 bases at an 83% success rate, all in 117 games.

Summary: Elite athlete just reached upper minors, 80-grade speed, up-the-middle defender, if he hits he’s a star but his potential is boom-or-bust.

James Kaprielian | RHP | Age 23

Level: Pitched in High-A in 2016; currently out for Tommy John surgery

Rather than a throw-in third piece, the A’s got another top talent. Like with Fowler, though, Kaprielian’s value was suppressed by injury. His scouting report from MLB Pipeline:

Scouting grades: Fastball: 60 | Curveball: 55 | Slider: 55 | Changeup: 55 | Control: 55 | Overall: 50

After working at 88-92 mph in college with a fastball that stood out more for its sink and command than it did for velocity, Kaprielian has sat at 93-96 mph and touched 99 in pro ball. There's no consensus as to which of his secondary offerings is the best, because his curveball, slider and changeup all grade as plus pitches when they're on. His slider might have been his worst pitch coming out of college but he ran it up to 90 mph when he returned to the mound in the Arizona Fall League.

Kaprielian controls and commands his pitches very well, doing a good job of delivering all of them from the same arm slot. Considered more of a pitchability right-hander with a ceiling of a No. 3 starter when the Yankees drafted him, he has shown frontline stuff on the rare occasions he has been healthy. He shoudn't require much Minor League seasoning but will have to prove he can stay on the mound.

Some other opinions and notes:

  • 1st-round pick in 2015, 16th overall
  • Preseason Top 100 lists: Baseball Prospectus (58), MLB Pipeline (58), Baseball America (87)
  • Only 29 minor league innings to date, because of injuries that ultimately resulted in Tommy John surgery (April 2017).
  • Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle: “[He] should be throwing by next month and potentially pitching in games before the middle of next season.”
  • John Sickels of Minor League Ball gave him a B+ grade entering the year, and before his surgery.
  • Melissa Lockard at The Athletic suggests he brings No. 1 starter potential when he’s healthy.
  • Keith Law of ESPN agrees with the No. 1 potential, and had him ranked as his No. 28 overall prospect entering the year.
  • Jeff Passan of Yahoo: “Before his TJ, James Kaprielian showed monster stuff. If he can come back with it, he's a front-of-the-rotation kind of arm. Huge upside.“
  • Daniel Federico of Elite Sports NY claims the A’s turned down fellow Yankees pitching prospect Chance Adams in favor of Kaprielian.

When you trade a top pitcher like Sonny, it’s nice to get back a potential replacement. That’s what Kaprielian is, with Yankees prospect expert Patrick Teale (via Lockard) advising that “in two years, he could be better than Sonny Gray is.”

The key here, as noted by Slusser in her column, is that the rebuilding A’s are willing to be patient through a long injury recovery in order to acquire the best talent possible. That strategy comes with obvious risk, but they’re basically trying to turn injuries into a market inefficiency by sacrificing health for extra talent. Entering the year and before his surgery, Kaprielian was ranked ahead of the Yankees’ other top pitching prospects, Chance Adams and Justus Sheffield, by almost every source.

Like with Fowler, we won’t even be able to begin evaluating Kaprielian until he’s back on the field next year. At that point, we’ll start to get an idea of whether the A’s stole a huge third piece in this deal or bought a bag of magic beans.

Fun fact — See tweet below.

He’s from SoCal and went to UCLA, but it appears he knows the password for admittance to the Bay.

Summary: Top-of-rotation potential with big velocity, arsenal, and command, but has barely pitched in pros and currently recovering from Tommy John.

Trade Analysis

When I first saw the prospect package, my immediate reaction was that the A’s caved. Rather than holding out for the names we fans were looking for, they settled for the guy we didn’t want and two other broken players. But looking at it closer, it’s actually a shrewdly solid deal. It’s not the proverbial holy-shit return because it’s weighted down by present-day concerns, but it has the upside to be a huge haul.

It’s not that the A’s caved, but rather that, as usual, they did something completely different than what anyone was expecting. They didn’t get a marquee centerpiece like the Cubs did for Jose Quintana, but they got more Top 100-level talent than Chicago did. You could argue that represents quantity over quality, but really it’s more of a blend of the two because the quantity is still excellent. Remember, Eloy Jimenez could bust too.

Here’s an exercise: Imagine what package you would have preferred. How about Frazier, Adams, and a lotto ticket or two? Headliner (outfielder), strong second piece (Sonny replacement), plus a throw-in? That would have more or less matched Quintana’s return. OK, now replace Frazier with Fowler — who, remember, was rated similarly pre-injury and is a better fit. Next, replace Adams with Kaprielian, remembering the A’s reportedly preferred the latter outright. Then take a deep breath and trust in the A’s medical staff. Finally, instead of a random flyer, you get Mateo, a recent Top 50 prospect.

Of course, the tradeoff in that analogy is that it’s contingent on everyone returning to full health. But isn’t that fair enough? Let’s be real with ourselves: Sonny is a big injury risk as well. We had confidence in him, but from an outside perspective he’s a guy who bombed last year and missed a month of this season. That shaky record lowered his value, just as it did for Fowler and Kaprielian. Both sides exchanged goods that were discounted for the same reason.

Another exercise: If all the players in question were reliably healthy, would you make the same trade? How about if you factor in that the rest of the world outside of Oakland sees Sonny as more of a No. 2 than an ace, which probably wasn’t going to change before the winter even if all went well the rest of the season?

It’s tough to see the A’s give up a blue-chipper like Addison Russell, and then seemingly settle for quantity a few years later when shopping a similar asset (if not better). It’s also frustrating to see the Yankees pick up big names like Gleyber Torres and Frazier last summer for star relief pitchers, one of them a pure rental, and then deem those same prospects untouchable for our franchise starter. But Oakland still acquired players with talent levels that they couldn’t have gotten through any other means than a Sonny trade, and the risk they accepted was the same as that which they doled out.

In that way, injury-risk star for injury-risk prospects, the trade reminds me of Doolittle-for-Luzardo. In fact, that final comp is so apt that I’m going to simply copy/paste the concluding paragraph from my analysis of the Doolittle/Madson trade. The words fit this swap perfectly as well:

Overall, this deal is adequate. I’m not jumping for joy, but I’m not cursing the front office either. It’s just about right, minus the fact that it involves a fan favorite (which makes “fair” feel like “gut punch”). Right now it seems like the Nats Yankees probably got the slightly better end of it because they got a known win-now name without giving up their best youngsters, but it’s close and the A’s got enough upside that the tables could easily turn during the next year or two. I award this deal a firm “Yeah, sure, I guess that’ll work.”