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Oakland A’s prospect watch: Dustin Hurlbutt throwing zeroes in High-A return

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The right-hander is back from injury and reestablishing his sleeper status.

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Photo credit: Meghan Camino | Stockton Ports

The Oakland A’s opened this season with a severe rash of pitching injuries throughout the organization. They lost multiple MLB arms during spring training (Cotton, Blackburn), and the minors were hit hard as well including several members of the preseason Community Prospect List (Puk, Holmes, Shore, Sawyer). After a few years of relatively sparkling health at all levels of the farm, Oakland’s system finally took their turn getting bitten by the bug.

Fortunately, some of those lost arms are beginning to reappear. Logan Shore already returned and moved up to Double-A Midland, and MLB starter Paul Blackburn is set to begin minor league rehab this week. They won’t all be back this year (Cotton, Puk, and Sawyer are all out with Tommy John surgery), but any progress is nice to see after such a rough start.

One more pitcher who has recently gotten back on the mound is Dustin Hurlbutt. He’s not a top prospect, as he missed out on both our CPL Top 30 and the Oakland Clubhouse Top 50, but after a strong 2017 performance he definitely qualifies as a sleeper. He was drafted in 2015 (16th round), pitched well as a swingman for Single-A Beloit in 2016, and then followed it up with strong showings in the same role for both Stockton and Midland last summer (as well as one game in Triple-A, on emergency fill-in duty):

Hurlbutt, 2017 A+: 3.23 ERA, 69⅔ ip, 74 Ks, 16 BB, 7 HR, 3.87 FIP
Hurlbutt, 2017 AA: 3.55 ERA, 45⅔ ip, 32 Ks, 25 BB, 5 HR, 5.18 FIP

Granted, his peripherals took a big step back in Double-A, but the point is that he made real progress from the beginning of the season to the end. He graduated out of one level and made his way to the upper minors, where he also held his own in a small sample.

That progress was stalled this spring when Hurlbutt opened the season with a shoulder problem, but now he’s back in action for High-A Stockton. He debuted last Thursday with 3⅔ scoreless, hitless innings, and he followed it up on Tuesday with another five sparkling frames.

Hurlbutt, 2018 A+: 0.00 ERA, 8⅔ ip, 6 Ks, 1 BB, 0 HR, 2 hits, 2.70 FIP

Of course, there is one more significant detail to factor in here. On top of this being his third full pro season, Hurlbutt is also 25 years old already. You won’t find a lot of serious prospects who are still in the lower minors at that age, which affects how we should interpret this early success. The point here isn’t that he’s suddenly breaking out and raising his stock, but rather that he’s back on the horse and ready to resume his development.

It’s great to see Hurlbutt putting up zeroes in High-A as a sign of his renewed health, but he already graduated out of this level once. The real test will begin when he moves back up to Double-A and beyond for his next trial in the upper minors, where he still has something to prove. Without the injury he would surely have opened the year in Midland/Nashville anyway, so personally I look at his current placement as a sort of unofficial rehab assignment — similar to how Shore made a pit stop in Stockton before finally moving up.

And what do we have to look forward to if all continues to go well? Here’s what Melissa Lockard of Oakland Clubhouse had to say before the season (also note: he had TJS in college, which helps explain why he got off to a late start in the pros):

In shorter stints, Hurlbutt can run his fastball into the upper-90s and he sits comfortably in the low-90s in his starts. His two-seam fastball gets plenty of sink and he can pitch up in the strike-zone with his four-seam. He also has a slider and a changeup that can be effective and a cut-fastball that he has flashed on occasion.

My speculative hunch is that, when all is said and done, we’ll be focusing on the reliever aspect of that profile. Between his age, his injury history, that velocity spike in shorter outings, and a lack of control in his first crack at Double-A, that just feels to me the likeliest bet. Either way, though, it’s clearly worth continuing to let him start for now until he stops succeeding in that role, and then at that point it’ll be nice to know there’s a fallback plan for him as a high-octane bullpen arm.

As long as we’re on the topic of pitchers returning from injury, Stockton welcomed back another arm last week: lefty Evan Manarino, who can most simply be described as a lite version of Tommy Milone. Like Hurlbutt, he’s a 2015 draftee (25th round) who already turned 25 years old and already graduated out of High-A once (but got smoked in Double-A), so he’s in the same boat of needing to get back to the upper minors before he can be interesting again. But it’s impossible not to notice his monster K/BB rates, and that will always make it tough for me to close the book on him.

Manarino, 2018 A+: 2.84 ERA, 6⅓ ip, 5 Ks, 0 BB, 0 HR, 7 hits, 2.16 FIP

Best of luck to these two newly healthy hurlers!

Rest of the staff

The leaders of the Ports rotation continue to be Parker Dunshee and Brian Howard. Over at The Athletic, Lockard wrote a great piece on the friendly competition between the two of them. The rest of the starters (Zack Erwin, Jake Bray) are off my radar for now after mediocre performances at advanced ages.

Dunshee: 2.82 ERA, 51 ip, 61 Ks, 15 BB, 4 HR, 43 hits, 3.37 FIP
Howard: 3.00 ERA, 51 ip, 53 Ks, 11 BB, 8 HR, 42 hits, 4.47 FIP

Those stat lines are uncannily similar, but Dunshee’s advantage in home run rate gives him the big edge in FIP for now. As for the bullpen, standout Boomer Biegalski is still on the DL, but Miguel Romero and Angel Duno continue dominating:

Romero: 1.46 ERA, 24⅔ ip, 27 Ks, 2 BB, 2 HR, 2.97 FIP
Duno: 1.91 ERA, 33 ip, 36 Ks, 8 BB, 3 HR, 3.47 FIP

And finally, a few more names to keep in the corner of our eye. Sam Sheehan’s strikeout rate (36.4%) is too huge to completely ignore, and Andrew Tomasovich and Will Gilbert have high walk rates but are two members of a perilously thin lefty depth chart:

Sheehan: 5.32 ERA, 22 ip, 36 Ks, 13 BB, 1 HR, 3.38 FIP
Tomasovich: 4.05 ERA, 20 ip, 29 Ks, 16 BB, 0 HR, 3.69 FIP
Gilbert: 1.96 ERA, 18⅓ ip, 13 Ks, 9 BB, 0 HR, 3.80 FIP

It will be interesting to see who is next to get a call up to Midland!

Lineup

Quick update on the numbers, with a few notes at the bottom:

Bolt, OF: .267/.401/.500, 147 wRC+, 5 HR, 16.7% BB, 22.2% Ks
Diaz, IF: .244/.333/.417, 104 wRC+, 6 HR, 11.5% BB, 25.1% Ks
Mondou, 2B: .284/.340/.402, 102 wRC+, 4 HR, 6.9% BB, 13.4% Ks
Blanco, OF: .286/.346/.392, 100 wRC+, 1 HR, 8.8% BB, 20.5% Ks
Barrera, OF: .266/.341/.386, 99 wRC+, 2 HR, 10.0% BB, 21.7% Ks
Heim, C: .273/.340/.385, 99 wRC+, 3 HR, 9.1% BB, 15.8% Ks

It’s probably time to give Skye Bolt another crack at Double-A, as he looks to be back on track. Dairon Blanco is at least getting on base enough to use his wheels (16-of-18 steals). Jonah Heim has come back down to Earth a bit (last 15 games: 8-for-56, one extra-base hit), but he’s still worth watching. Edwin Diaz still leads the team in homers at age 22. Meanwhile, 23-year-old Nate Mondou and 22-year-old Luis Barrera are notably heating up:

Mondou, last 20 games: 28-for-83 (.337), 142 wRC+, 8 XBH (3 HR), 5 BB, 13 Ks
Barrera, last 16 games: 18-for-55 (.327), 126 wRC+, 4 XBH (1 HR), 5 BB, 9 Ks

For what it’s worth, Mondou and Barrera also get favorable marks on the available (small-sample) defensive metrics. Can one or both maintain their current hot streaks and turn them into full-fledged breakouts?

On the downside, high draft pick Kevin Merrell slumped through an 0-for-27 stretch a couple weeks ago, though on the bright side he’s 11-for-36 since then (overall season: 69 wRC+). Sandber Pimentel is 3-for-29 since his return from a broken hamate, with no extra-base hits and a 40% strikeout rate.

Wednesday’s games

Full slate of action.

Triple-A Nashville: LIVE, Eric Jokisch vs. Round Rock
Double-A Midland: LIVE, Logan Shore vs. Arkansas
High-A Stockton: 7:10 p.m., Parker Dunshee vs. Modesto
Single-A Beloit: LIVE, Jared Poche’ vs. Kane County

Today is Dunshee Day!

Link to box scores