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Oakland A’s prospect watch: Richie Martin back in Double-A lineup, Sean Murphy on fire

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The Double-A Midland RockHounds are all bats and no pitching so far.

Livin La Vida Midland

The Double-A Midland RockHounds are off to an 8-5 start, which ties them for the best record in the Texas League in the early going. On Thursday, they added a notable name in shortstop Richie Martin, who had missed the beginning of the season with a lower back strain.

Martin has tumbled down the Oakland A’s prospect list and is at risk of falling off the radar completely. The 2015 1st-round draft pick failed to hit in Double-A last year and washed out of Midland by the end of July, and then he didn’t hit much back in High-A either. For whatever minor league defensive metrics are worth, he hasn’t been recouping that value with his highly touted glove.

Given those struggles, the 23-year-old initially missed our Community Prospect List completely last winter, after ranking 11th in the system the year before. However, he got a reprieve at the last minute when Renato Nunez was lost on waivers, opening a spot at the bottom of the list. Martin had been the first man out in the final vote, so he wound up salvaging the No. 30 spot.

Now he’s back on the field and ready to work toward a better future. He went 1-for-3 with a walk, a strikeout, and a stolen base in his 2018 debut, while the rest of the infield shifted around him to make space — Mikey White already showed defensive versatility last year by playing each infield position, and Eli White saw time in CF last year in Vermont but tried 3B on Thursday for the first time in his pro career.

Welcome back, Richie!

Murphy on fire

Last year, barely a full calendar year after being drafted out of college, catcher Sean Murphy reached Double-A. He didn’t hit much in that first attempt (69 wRC+), but it seemed impressive just that he’d made it there so quickly at all.

For some reason, many onlookers freaked out about Murphy’s Midland slump. Never mind that he was on an absurdly aggressive assignment in the upper minors, in a notorious pitcher’s park/league, that he’d already dealt with an injury earlier in the year, that he’s a catcher (and an elite one) with more to deal with than hitters at other positions, that he hit well in High-A and in the Arizona Fall League while showing enormous plate discipline, or that every scouting report ever written on him made clear that he had plenty of power in his bat. He wasn’t immediately amazing in 217 plate appearances in a league no one expected him to be in yet, and that became an actual talking point. I’ll never understand that, nor why he only made one national Top 100 prospect list.

Murphy is now making those concerns look silly. Over his last four games he’s 10-for-17 with two homers, five doubles, and only two strikeouts. That’s raised his overall stat line to what can only be described as comic book numbers:

Murphy, 2018: 48 PAs, .409/.458/.795, 228 wRC+, 3 HR, 2.1% BB, 14.6% Ks

Looks fine to me. Even that tiny sample of just 48 plate appearances is enough to bring his Double-A career up to a 98 wRC+ and .153 isolated slugging, with the trend obviously pointing in a positive direction. He won’t hit .409 all year, but the point is he can handle hitting in Double-A just fine and all he needed from us was minimal patience. Murphy remains on track to being Oakland’s star catcher of the near future.

Rest of the lineup

In our last Midland update we marveled at the lineup’s hot start. Murphy has remained en fuego, but most of the other bats have cooled off toward their normal levels ... with one unsurprising exception:

Tyler Ramirez, OF: 58 PAs, .347/.431/.612, 173 wRC+, 2 HR, 13.8% BB, 22.4% Ks

After acing his own Double-A test last summer (135 wRC+), Ramirez hasn’t missed a beat in the early going this year. He’s turning batted balls into hits at a similarly enormous rate as last year (.429 BABIP), he’s drawing walks, and he’s even hitting for more extra-bases this time around. His strikeout rate has risen back up to the level he showed last year, but even when he’s fanning he’s still producing — in his last four games he has 7 Ks but is also 5-for-16 with two doubles, two walks, and a sac fly. The dude will not. stop. hitting.

On defense Ramirez has gotten a few looks in CF but mostly stayed in LF, which seems to be his home for now. His Gold Glove award is unfortunately not super meaningful (based on fielding percentage, which is like awarding the MVP based solely on batting average), but for what it’s worth MLB Pipeline gave him an above-average 55 grade in both Arm and Field. Either way, here he is hitting a ball about eight miles (albeit wind-aided) (click link in tweet for full video):

Beyond Murphy and Ramirez, the only other hitters who have remained notable so far are the Whites (who are not related). Mikey began showing serious power last year in High-A Stockton and he’s carried that over to the upper minors and the less friendly Midland ballpark, although he’s still striking out too much to maintain a high batting average. More surprising has been the power of Eli, who didn’t show that ability in Stockton but currently has a .220 isolated slugging while sharing the team lead in dingers.

The two righty hitters are still sleepers at best, but they’re certainly staying relevant in the upper minors (at age 24 for Mikey, and 23 for Eli).

Eli White, IF: 54 PAs, .280/.333/.500, 118 wRC+, 3 HR, 7.4% BB, 27.8% Ks
Mikey White, IF: 51 PAs, .250/.333/.455, 106 wRC+, 2 HR, 11.8% BB, 27.5% Ks

On the disappointing side has been outfielder Skye Bolt. He’s spent most of the year in the leadoff spot but has been absolutely invisible at the plate, with a 4-for-42 line that’s left him with an .095 average and a negative-16 in the wRC+ column. Hey, at least we’re talking about the seemingly lost 2015 draft class again, between Martin (1st round), Mikey (2nd), and Bolt (4th).

Pitching

There’s not much to see here, until Stockton begins sending some of its dominant hurlers up the ladder. The rotation is filler plus Norge Ruiz, who at least followed his disastrous first start with a more positive outing (5 ip, 0 runs, 3 Ks, 1 BB, 1 hit). A few notables in the bullpen:

  • Nolan Blackwood made our CPL last winter but is off to a slow start (6.75 ERA, 4.45 FIP).
  • J.B. Wendelken isn’t allowing a lot of contact, for better or worse (5 ip, 25 batters faced, 9 Ks, 6 BB)
  • John Gorman has the best numbers of the group (6 ip, 1 run, 7 Ks, 1 BB, 2 hits, 1 HR)

Can’t wait to see what this team can do with a better rotation, which is more a question of when than if. Among 27 qualified starters in the High-A California League, the leaders in FIP include Jesus Luzardo (1st), Parker Dunshee (2nd), Zack Erwin (5th), and Brian Howard (7th). That quartet has combined for 59 ip, 82 Ks, 11 BB, 1 HR. If they keep that up then you’d have to imagine at least one or two of them will get the call up sooner than later.

Friday’s games

Full slate of action, with Beloit still looking to play their first game since April 13.

Triple-A Nashville: 5:08 p.m., Eric Jokisch vs. Iowa
Double-A Midland: 5:00 p.m., Norge Ruiz vs. San Antonio
High-A Stockton: 7:10 p.m., Matt Milburn vs. Visalia
Single-A Beloit: 4:30 p.m., Dakota Chalmers vs. Clinton

Ruiz and Chalmers are the ones to watch, as two prospects fighting to regain lost stock.

Link to box scores