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Oakland A’s 2019 Community Prospect List #2: A.J. Puk eyes return from injury

After sitting out 2018 for Tommy John surgery, the big lefty should be back this summer.

Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Our 2019 Community Prospect List now has two members, and they’re both left-handed starting pitchers on the cusp of the majors. That’s good news, because there isn’t anything in the world the A’s need more than lefty starters (except maybe a new stadium?). Here’s the current list, including their winning margins (the difference between his % of the vote, and the % of the runner-up):

  1. Jesus Luzardo, LHP (+78%)
  2. A.J. Puk, LHP (+7%)

Call it a mulligan for Puk. He topped this list last year, in a similar landslide as Luzardo did this time. But then, amid an encouraging spring performance that had folks talking about rushing him onto the Opening Day roster, he went down with what turned out to be Tommy John surgery. Just like that, his 2018 season was gone before it even began.

There’s no point in speculating on the details of Puk’s recovery, but for now there’s no reason to think it’s going anything but normally. Until or unless we hear reports about any setbacks, he could be back on the mound in the first half of this season — and, if all goes well, hopefully he’ll debut in the bigs this summer. For as significant of a procedure as TJS is, it’s become relatively routine and is no longer any kind of automatic death knell to a pitcher’s future.

Because of that, Puk has not really lost any of his prospect stock. In fact, he actually went up on Baseball America’s new list, from No. 30 last year to No. 18 this time. Presumably the rise has mostly to do with lots of last year’s top names graduating to MLB and clearing space on the list, but it also requires that Puk himself didn’t lose any notable value. Over at Baseball Prospectus he did go down from 30 to 77, but he’s still comfortably in the Top 100 picture. And it’s the same story here on our CPL — Puk did get passed by one amazing breakout in Luzardo, but his injury didn’t cause him to tumble down the list.

The next question to face is how Puk’s stuff will look when he gets back on the mound. Will he still have his top-notch velocity, or will he lose a couple ticks? He seemed to make great strides in his control and command in 2017, but will he retain those gains after his TJS?

One thing to remember is that he was never just a big fastball — while his heater does get a 70-grade from both BA and MLB Pipeline, his slider is also an elite offering. BA gave it a 70-grade, and Pipeline had it at 65 last summer. According to Pipeline, Puk’s slider is tied for the best in the entire minor leagues, as is his fastball. To repeat: Two of Puk’s pitchers are arguably the best of their kind in the entire minors. Or, they were before his surgery. Will they still be afterward?

If we’re talking about pure ceiling, then Puk is probably above Luzardo because of the unparalleled raw stuff. But between the uncertainty from his injury, and Luzardo’s prodigiously sharp command and polish, the latter rightfully earned the top spot on our CPL at this moment. But Puk still has the ingredients to be a full-on star, and hopefully we’ll see the beginning of the journey this year.

Here is the process:

  • Five candidates will be listed on the ballot. The voting will take place in the comments section. I will start with a comment listing all five players, and then I will respond to that with five new comments in the style of “Vote: Player Name” for each candidate. Please do not reply directly to the official “Vote” comments, so that the ballot can stay together in one group.
  • Choose your ONE favorite by Rec’ing the comment with his name. Please only vote for one. The player who receives the most Rec’s earns the next spot on the CPL, while the remaining four players move on to the next ballot where they are joined by a new nominee.
  • In the comments, below the official voting, the community will nominate players to be put onto the ballot for the next round. Similar to the ballot, I will start with a comment calling for nominations, which can then be made as a response to my comment. The format for your comment should be “Nomination: Player Name”.
  • After the first nomination for a player has been put in, all other votes for that player will come from Rec’ing his comment. The player with the most Rec’s earns the nomination.
  • If a prospect is traded, his name will be crossed out, and all other players will be moved up a space. If a prospect is acquired, a special vote will be put up to determine where that player should rank.

* * *

The new nominee is Kyler Murray. The vote was tied (with James Kaprielian), so I cast the deciding tally. If you don’t know the story already, then here’s the rundown: Oakland drafted him No. 9 overall last summer, but he has declared for the NFL Draft and might play football instead. In fact, football is considered more likely. But at this moment he is still an A’s prospect under contract to play baseball, and so it’s worth including him here until he’s gone for sure.

There’s no rule on how to look at this, but let’s not pretend like it’s the same as factoring in a prospect’s injury risk. This is a unique situation, so here is my advice on how to approach this vote (but you are free to disagree and use your own criteria, because this isn’t The Alex List): I recommend valuing him as if he’s going to play baseball, and then if he bails we can always just remove him later. That’s slightly easier than doubling back and adding him back in after the list is done, and personally I think it makes more sense than hedging and sticking him halfway down the list.

Hitter rates (poor/avg/great): wRC+ (75/100/135), BB% (5.0%/8.5%/12.0%), K% (30%/22%/14%)

Kyler Murray, OF

Expected level: Low-A? NFC? | Age 21

2018 stats: Hasn’t yet played pro baseball

MLB Pipeline grades and scouting report:

Scouting grades: Hit: 50 | Power: 50 | Run: 70 | Arm: 40 | Field: 55 | Overall: 50

Murray’s gains were obvious during his breakout spring as he made better contact, showed better aptitude for recognizing spin and did a better job of controlling the strike zone. He has the plus-plus speed to create havoc on the bases and the bat speed and strength to produce average power. The son of former Texas A&M quarterback and Brewers farmhand Kevin Murray and the nephew of two-time first-rounder and five-year big leaguer Calvin Murray, Kyler still needs to reduce his strikeouts further and is a work in progress defensively. He’s still learning reads and routes but has the quickness to outrun his mistakes and eventually could become at least a solid center fielder. His arm has regressed on the diamond and currently plays below average.

Oakland’s decision to allow Murray to play football in the fall comes with obvious risk, as any injury suffered on the gridiron likely would further delay the start of Murray’s baseball career. If he can stay healthy, Murray, with his tools and the surprising progress he has made on the diamond, could one day provide the A’s with a huge return on their investment.

* * *

Sean Murphy, C

Expected level: Triple-A | Age 24

2018 stats (AA): 289 PAs, 131 wRC+, 8 HR, 8.0% BB, 16.3% Ks
2018 stats (AAA): 12 PAs, 2-for-8, 3 BB, 2 Ks, HBP

MLB Pipeline grades and scouting report:

Scouting grades: Hit: 45 | Power: 50 | Run: 40 | Arm: 70 | Field: 65 | Overall: 55

Murphy draws raves from evaluators for his athleticism, agility and defensive tools behind the plate. He stymies the running game with plus-plus arm strength and above-average pop times, so much so that only 46 baserunners attempted to steal against him over 91 games in 2017. His blocking, game-calling and receiving skills have all improved in the professional ranks, and club officials consistently praise his ability to handle pitchers.

Offensively, Murphy possesses an intriguing blend of power potential and on-base skills from the right side of the plate. There’s some natural hitting ability there too, and he proved comfortable using the entire field in his first full season. Even if his production is only modest, Murphy’s defensive chops alone could make him an everyday catcher at the highest level.

* * *

Lazaro Armenteros, OF

Expected level: High-A | Age 20

2018 stats (A): 340 PAs, 126 wRC+, 8 HR, 10.6% BB, 33.8% Ks

MLB Pipeline grades and scouting report:

Scouting grades: Hit: 50 | Power: 55 | Run: 60 | Arm: 45 | Field: 55 | Overall: 50

Armenteros stands out for his hitting ability, raw power, speed and overall athleticism, the combination of which gives him the potential for four average-or-better tools. His bat speed is explosive and fuels his projection as an average hitter with above-average power, though his bat path through the zone, as well as his approach and overall plate discipline, will need to be ironed out.

Armenteros is expected to lose some of his speed and athleticism as he continues to grow into his already physically strong and mature frame. He’s best-suited long term for left field, where his below-average arm strength is a clean fit. That doesn’t leave much room for defensive flexibility, but Armenteros has the offensive upside to easily offset those concerns.

* * *

Austin Beck, OF

Expected level: High-A | Age 20

2018 stats (A): 534 PAs, 103 wRC+, 2 HR, 5.6% BB, 21.9% Ks

MLB Pipeline grades and scouting report:

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

Beck is loaded with loud, promising tools. He generates well-above-average bat speed from the right side of the plate, albeit with a swing that currently has some holes and overall inconsistencies. That should improve as Beck gains pro experience, however, and it could make him an average hitter in time. Beck’s plus raw power likely will be his calling card and could translate to 25-plus-homer seasons during his prime.

Beyond his offensive tools, Beck also possesses the plus speed and athleticism needed to play center field, where he spent his entire pro debut, though some evaluators peg him as a future right fielder on account of his remaining physical projection and plus arm strength. It may take Beck some time to learn to harness his tools and refine his game, but the final product could be that of a run-producing, everyday outfielder who also adds value with his baserunning and defense.

* * *

Jorge Mateo, SS

Expected level: Triple-A | Age 24

2018 stats (AAA): 510 PAs, 62 wRC+, 3 HR, 25 SB, 5.7% BB, 27.3% Ks

MLB Pipeline grades and scouting report:

Scouting grades: Hit: 50 | Power: 45 | Run: 80 | Arm: 60 | Field: 55 | Overall: 50

Mateo has a nice all-around set of tools, but it’s his elite speed that enables him to truly impact games. He led the Minors with 82 steals in 2015 and tied for third with 52 in ‘17 to push his career total to 234 stolen bases in his first six pro seasons. Mateo’s wheels are equally dynamic out of the box, as he regularly turns in top-of-the-scale run times from home to first. His deceptive strength translates to sneaky raw power and he has an offensive ceiling of a .275 hitter with 15 homers per season, though he’ll need to tighten his plate discipline to become a quality leadoff man.

Mateo has the raw tools to stick at shortstop, most notably outstanding range and plus arm strength, though his consistency and focus in the field still leave something to be desired. Some scouts believe he’ll wind up at second base or in center field, the latter of which he played for the first time in his career in 2017.

* * *

Vote in the comments below for your favorite of the five by Rec’ing his “Vote: (Player Name)” comment, and post your nomination(s) as well!