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Oakland A’s prospect watch: High-A Stockton’s rotation off to hot start

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The starters have allowed one run total through four games.

Parker Dunshee
Photo provided by Vermont Lake Monsters

The High-A Stockton Ports began their 2018 season on Thursday, and so far their starting pitching has carried them to a 3-1 record. The Oakland A’s rotation depth is virtually nonexistent throughout the upper minors, with seven notable arms going on the shelf this spring with new injuries (Cotton, Blackburn, Puk, Holmes, Shore, Sawyer, Hurlbutt) on top of previous long-term surgeries (Jefferies, Kaprielian) and trades (Hahn, Fillmyer, Meisner, Bailey), but the next wave is making a great first impression in the lower minors.

The headliner of the group is 20-year-old Jesus Luzardo. The left-hander is the top healthy pitcher on our Community Prospect List, and he showed up on several national Top 100 prospect lists as well. After returning from Tommy John surgery last summer and pitching briefly at Low-A Vermont, he debuted in High-A on Thursday’s Opening Day and met every reasonable expectation. The Ports lost because their lineup got shut out, and Luzardo was short of dominant with only one 1-2-3 inning, but he didn’t allow a run until the 5th and he racked up strikeouts along the way. Scouts had him sitting at 95 mph with his fastball and reaching as high as 98.

Next up are the sleepers. The 2017 draft class brought lots of names to watch, and two of AN’s favorites so far are Parker Dunshee (7th round) and Brian Howard (8th) — both made our CPL this winter after eye-popping debuts in Vermont. With Stockton’s second game being rained out and made up as a doubleheader on Saturday, the pair lined up to pitch back-to-back on the same night, much to the chagrin of the opposition. They each breezed through five quiet innings — Howard at one point retired 13 straight batters, and Dunshee recorded 10 of his 15 outs by way of strikeout. They still have plenty to prove against this age-appropriate competition, but you almost literally couldn’t have asked for better High-A debuts.

Finally, an even deeper sleeper left over from last year. Right-hander Matt Milburn came late in the 2016 draft (29th round), but he put up a Howard-like K/BB rate in his pro debut in Low-A Vermont that summer (44:2). He spent last year starting in Single-A Beloit, and although his ERA was pedestrian he still managed to strike out more than four batters per walk. He’s already old for the Cal League at 24 years, but he’s off to great start in High-A with five scoreless innings on Sunday.

Luzardo: 4⅔ ip, 1 run, 6 Ks, 1 BB, 4 hits
Howard: 5 ip, 0 runs, 5 Ks, 1 BB, 1 hit
Dunshee: 5 ip, 0 runs, 10 Ks, 0 BB, 2 hits
Milburn: 5 ip, 0 runs, 6 Ks, 0 BB, 5 hits

Add it all up, and Stockton’s rotation has given up one run in 19⅔ innings, good for a 0.46 ERA. They’ve backed that up with 27 Ks to 2 BB, coupled with a minuscule hit rate and nary a dinger. Holy Toledo!

Perhaps the biggest development, though, has been the stuff of Howard. He entered the year with amazing pro stats but a questionable arsenal of pitches, topping out at 91 mph. According to Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs, Howard was reaching as high as 93 this spring, with an uptick in the quality of his secondary offerings as well. That alone doesn’t guarantee anything, but it mitigates one of the major concerns about his ability to sustain his success at higher levels.

Stockton still has two more arms to look forward to this week. The initial word was that they’d use a tandem system like last year, with two starters combining for each game, but instead they appear to be using a six-man rotation to help keep everyone’s workloads in check. Their official scorer reports that Zack Erwin and Jake Bray are on tap for the next two contests. Both were trade acquisitions — Erwin (LHP, age 24) came over for Brett Lawrie, got hurt, and now is back on track; Bray (RHP, age 25) came over for Jaycob Brugman this winter and has spent all but one of his 93 career pro outings putting up massive K-rates in relief.

Apart from Luzardo, this is currently a group of sleepers rather than truly top prospects. However, if any of them keeps putting up monster performances like these for any extended period of time, there’s not a whole lot blocking them in Double-A Midland right now. This would be a great time for someone(s) to step up and plant themselves firmly on the prospect radar.

Lineup

The first few games of the season were low-scoring all around, which isn’t a huge surprise given the inclement weather. That’s a grain of salt to take with the pitching stats above, for people who like having their buzzes killed. However, the bats came alive on Sunday, pounding out eight runs on 13 hits.

The biggest names in the lineup are from the top of the 2017 draft class — speedy shortstop Kevin Merrell (late 1st round), slugging outfielder Greg Deichmann (2nd round), and performance-over-tools 3B Will Toffey (4th round), all of them lefty swingers. Toffey had the big day on Sunday with four hits, though the final one featured some BABIP luck. No one has enough plate appearances to draw any meaningful conclusions, but here are the numbers for your consideration:

Toffey: 5-for-12, 3 BB, 3 Ks, 2B
Deichmann: 3-for-11, 3 BB, 3 Ks, 3 2B
Merrell: 2-for-10, 1 BB, 2 Ks

Beyond them, the standout name so far has been catcher Jonah Heim. The switch-hitter, acquired this winter for Joey Wendle, almost single-handedly won the nightcap of Saturday’s doubleheader by driving in both of the team’s runs. Serving as DH after catching the day’s first leg, he knocked a homer in the 4th to open the scoring, then drew a bases-loaded walk in the 7th to force in the walk-off run (minor league doubleheader games only go seven frames). There’s no point in getting too excited yet, but it’s a nice first impression for the 23-year-old in his new organization — especially as he bats high in the lineup and gets that DH nod to keep his bat in the game.

Heim: 2-for-12, HR, 3 BB, 2 Ks

The team’s only other homer so far was off the bat of 22-year-old infielder Edwin Diaz, a 2013 draft pick (15th round) who spent most of last year holding his own in Beloit.

Monday’s games

Today’s action:

Triple-A Nashville: Lost 7-4, Brett Anderson vs. New Orleans
Double-A Midland: 4:30 p.m., Kyle Friedrichs vs. Tulsa
High-A Stockton: 7:10 p.m., Zack Erwin vs. Rancho Cucamonga
Single-A Beloit: Snowed out

Anderson got to practice some Oakland baseball in his start. Sheldon Neuse committed errors to let the first two batters of the game reach base, and a potential 1-2-3 opening frame turned into five unearned runs. Whoops!

Link to today’s box scores