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Oakland A’s 2019 Community Prospect List #19: Nick Allen has tools but a lot to prove

Can this high school draft pick succeed where previous ones haven’t?

Photo credit: Justin Nuoffer | Beloit Snappers

Our 2019 Community Prospect List adds one of its youngest members yet. 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%)
  3. Sean Murphy, C (+80%)
  4. Lazaro Armenteros, OF (+1%)
  5. Austin Beck, OF (+59%)
  6. Jorge Mateo, SS (+6%)
  7. Jameson Hannah, OF (+4%)
  8. James Kaprielian, RHP (+13%)
  9. Sheldon Neuse, 3B (+12%)
  10. Parker Dunshee, RHP (+21%)
  11. Grant Holmes, RHP (+7%)
  12. Jeremy Eierman, SS (+31%)
  13. Luis Barrera, OF (+15%)
  14. Brian Howard, RHP (+1%)
  15. Greg Deichmann, OF (+17%)
  16. Skye Bolt, OF (+11%)
  17. Daulton Jefferies, RHP (+12%)
  18. Tyler Ramirez, OF (+17%)
  19. Nick Allen, SS (+50%)

In recent years, the Oakland A’s have made a habit of snagging talented high school prospects who fall out of the first couple rounds of the draft. They usually do this by paying the prep athletes way overslot to woo them away from college, thus allaying their signability concerns and giving the team extra top-end players in rounds where they otherwise wouldn’t have been available. Unfortunately, the strategy hasn’t really paid any dividends lately.

While the A’s have found some recent 1st-round gems from the high school ranks, including Matt Olson in 2012, the ones who fell to the 3rd and beyond haven’t yet panned out. In 2013 they got pitchers Chris Kohler in the 3rd round and Dustin Driver in the 7th for around a half-million each, and neither has yet made it higher than Single-A Beloit as they’re rarely healthy enough to get on the mound. In 2014 they found infielder Trace Loehr in the 6th for $600K (nearly triple slot value), but he also hasn’t left the lower minors and will already turn 24 this season.

In 2015 Oakland spent $1.2 million (double slot) on pitcher Dakota Chalmers in the 3rd round, but he barely pitched the last couple years, couldn’t ever find the strike zone, and was eventually traded. In 2016 it was $1.0 million (double slot) for pitcher Skylar Szynski in the 4th, but he’s now missed the last two seasons to injury and has barely thrown a dozen innings in the pros. The book isn’t totally closed on some of these guys — Kohler finally pitched last year, Loehr is more or less on the timeline that got outfielder BJ Boyd (2012, 4th round, $300K) as high as Triple-A before departing, and Szynski is still here. But so far the A’s don’t have anything to show for them.

In fact, you have to go back to the 2009 class for even a marginal MLB success story from this demographic. That would be catcher Max Stassi, who went in the 4th round for a $1.5 million bonus that set a record for his slot at the time. He finally established himself as a backup on the Astros last year, nearly a decade after his draft, for 88 games and 1 WAR at the prime age of 27. (That same year they took reliever Ian Krol in the 7th round for nearly a million, and he’s at least had an MLB career too albeit sub-replacement-level.)

Next up is Nick Allen, who got a full $2 million (nearly triple slot) to sign out of the 3rd round in 2017. He has upside just like the others before him, maybe even more, but he’s still a long-term project just like they were. Any prospect can fail, but the further you are from the majors, the more ways your development can stall en route.

For Allen, the questions lie on the offensive side of the ball. No one doubts his defense at shortstop, which earns a 65-grade for Fielding and a 60-grade for Arm from MLB Pipeline, but his bat is a work in progress. The 20-year-old is listed at 5’9, 155 pounds, so for starters he simply needs to finish growing and physically filling out.

On the bright side, he showed some early signs last year in an aggressive assignment to Beloit. He made a lot of contact and kept his strikeouts low, which is a good building block especially for a low-power hitter. Even better, he improved from a weak first half of the season (.204 average, 50 wRC+) to a totally decent line after the league’s All-Star break (.274, 95), with the latter/better numbers coming in a slightly bigger sample size and with a more normal BABIP (and an excellent 12.9% strikeout rate). He also used his 60-grade speed to steal a team-leading 24 bases at an acceptable 75% success rate.

And so we wait. The last several high-upside high schoolers the A’s drafted in this fashion (3rd-thru-7th rounds) haven’t panned out, but Allen might be the best of the bunch and his 2018 was more encouraging than anything those last five guys did in any year — partly because he was healthy enough to actually play. There’s a long way to go, but hopefully Allen can be the one to buck the recent trend and finally give the A’s the jackpot they’ve been waiting for with this annual draft strategy.

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 (or leaves for the NFL), 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 Dairon Blanco. He was relatively old when he signed out of Cuba, and made his U.S. debut in High-A a couple weeks before his 25th birthday. But he held his own with the bat, enough to show off his 80-grade speed on the basepaths, and along the way he made some headlines as the league’s All-Star Game MVP. He’s yet another interesting outfield sleeper in a system suddenly full of them.

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

Dairon Blanco, OF

Expected level: AA | Age 26

2018, A+: 346 PAs, 102 wRC+, 1 HR, 22 SB, 7.2% BB, 19.1% Ks

MLB Pipeline grades and scouting report:

Scouting grades: Hit: 45 | Power: 35 | Run: 80 | Arm: 45 | Field: 55 | Overall: 40

When Blanco made his A’s debut in the California League in 2018, it had been nearly two years since he had played competitively in Cuba. At the outset, it was all about his speed, an 80 on the 20-to-80 scouting scale, and defense. But he quickly shook the rust off and showed more offensive acumen than anticipated. There wasn’t as much swing and miss as some expected to see and he often showed a solid approach at the plate, with some signs of potential extra-base ability. His physicality and speed could add up to an average hitter.

There’s no doubt Blanco’s speed is his calling card. It allows him to be aggressive on the basepaths (22 steals in 82 games in his debut) and really go get the ball in the outfield. After his first season was cut short by a hamate injury, it will be interesting to see how quickly he can climb the ladder.

* * *

Jonah Heim, C

Expected level: AA | Age 24

2018, A+: 348 PAs, 113 wRC+, 7 HR, 8.3% BB, 17.2% Ks
2018, AA: 154 PAs, 29 wRC+, 1 HR, 6.5% BB, 14.3% Ks

MLB Pipeline grades and scouting report:

Scouting grades: Hit: 45 | Power: 40 | Run: 35 | Arm: 55 | Field: 55 | Overall: 40

A long-limbed, switch-hitting backstop, Heim stands out more for his work behind the plate than at it. He receives well and has a strong arm that’s allowed him to throw out just over 34 percent of potential basestealers heading into 2019. Heim started to swing the bat with a bit more authority over the past two seasons and hit well in the California League before stumbling post-promotion. He has more of a line drive approach now, but he shows some raw power in batting practice and still has room to add strength. While it’s more leverage than bat speed, you can dream on some future pop.

The A’s would love to see Heim play with a little more urgency. A slow heartbeat for a catcher isn’t a bad thing, but some added energy could help him reach the big leagues as a backup backstop.

* * *

Kevin Merrell, SS

Expected level: A+ | Age 23

2018, A+: 290 PAs, 72 wRC+, 0 HR, 5 SB, 5.2% BB, 22.8% Ks

MLB Pipeline grades and scouting report:

Scouting grades: Hit: 50 | Power: 30 | Run: 70 | Arm: 45 | Field: 50 | Overall: 45

Merrell should be able to use his legs to wreak havoc on the basepaths. He’s still learning his left-handed swing and he had a tendency to hook balls on the ground early on. He’s now working on getting some separation so he can impact the ball, and he’s learning to slash the ball to the left side so he can use his legs to help him more. The combination of approach and speed could make him an above-average hitter, albeit one with little power, in time. It’s unclear what Merrell’s long-term defensive home will be. He’s unorthodox defensively at short, with a fringy arm, but he does have impressive range. He impressed in big league camp during 2018 Spring Training, playing on both sides of second base. He also played some outfield in college.

It could be that Merrell ends up fitting a super-utility role at the big league level, with his speed playing at a number of positions, though it’s too early to rule out an every day gig at second base. Most importantly, he needs to make up for lost at-bats in 2019.

* * *

Marcos Brito, 2B

Expected level: A | Age 19

2018, A-: 241 PAs, 89 wRC+, 1 HR, 11.2% BB, 20.7% Ks

MLB Pipeline grades and scouting report:

Scouting grades: Hit: 50 | Power: 30 | Run: 50 | Arm: 50 | Field: 55 | Overall: 45

It hasn’t shown up on the stat line just yet, but Brito has the chance to hit from both sides of the plate, though he’s a touch better swinging the bat left-handed. He’s added some strength as he’s matured and while he’s never going to be a power guy, there should be the ability to impact the ball with some extra-base authority to all fields. Brito initially spent time bouncing between second and third, but it’s looking more and more likely that second base is his long-term defensive home with an arm that’s a little short for the left side of the infield. He could eventually be a plus defender, though right now he mixes in making the spectacular play with losing concentration and making needless errors on routine plays.

Brito will play all of the 2019 season at age 19, so there’s plenty of time for his production to catch up to his potential. If it all clicks, he eventually could be a solid every day second baseman in the big leagues.

* * *

Wyatt Marks, RHP

Expected level: A+ | Age 24

2018, A: 3.23 ERA, 106 ip, 127 Ks, 35 BB, 8 HR, 3.14 FIP
2018, A+: 3.58 ERA, 27⅔ ip, 32 Ks, 16 BB, 4 HR, 5.17 FIP

MLB Pipeline grades and scouting report (from 2018):

Scouting grades: Fastball: 55 | Curveball: 55 | Changeup: 45 | Control: 50 | Overall: 45

Marks gets the most out of his two above-average pitches, missing bats inside and outside of the zone easily with each. He won’t shy away from challenging hitters up in the zone with his low-90s fastball that he can also spot to both sides of the plate. His curveball is a hammer when it’s on, registering in the low 80s with tight spin, and it serves as an ideal bat-missing complement to his fastball. Marks has a strong track record as a strike-thrower, but he’ll need to improve his fastball command for continued success at higher levels.

Though he started seven of his 13 games during his pro debut and has pitched almost exclusively in that role with Class A Beloit in 2018, Marks’ future is likely in the bullpen. His fastball-curveball combo gives him upside as a high-leverage reliever, and with improved command of both pitches, he could hop on the fast track to the Major Leagues.

* * *

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!