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Oakland A’s 2019 Community Prospect List #25: Jonah Heim pops onto the radar

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The catcher was acquired for Joey Wendle last winter.

Photo credit: Meghan Camino | Stockton Ports

Our 2019 Community Prospect List adds just its second catcher. 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%)
  20. Wyatt Marks, RHP (+1%)
  21. Marcos Brito, 2B (+4%)
  22. Gus Varland, RHP (+7%)
  23. Kevin Merrell, SS (+18%)
  24. Tanner Anderson, RHP (+7%)
  25. Jonah Heim, C (+29%)

Joey Wendle finally got a real chance in the majors last year, with the Tampa Bay Rays, and he ran with it. He batted .300, played five positions, and posted 4 WAR, finishing an admirable fourth on a stacked Rookie of the Year ballot. It’s always bittersweet to see one of your old prospects succeed elsewhere, because you’re obviously happy for him but also bummed about the missed opportunity. Fortunately, the Oakland A’s still have something to show for their time with Wendle, because when they traded him to the Rays they got back catching prospect Jonah Heim.

It wasn’t exactly clear at the time what the A’s had in Heim, and the jury is still out for the most part, but he moved in the right direction last summer. When he was acquired, the scouting reports all lauded his defense as his carrying skill, but he hadn’t yet proven much with his bat. Would he turn out as org filler, with a career as a glove-first catcher mentoring young pitching staffs in the minors? Or would he hit enough to reach the majors?

The answer didn’t get much clearer in 2018, though overall his campaign was positive. Heim posted an above-average batting line for High-A Stockton (113 wRC+), which got everyone’s attention, but then moved up to Double-A and completely tanked at the plate (29 wRC+). We finished the season with the same question about whether he could hit, but at least the whole conversation had moved another step up the ladder into the upper minors — and onto the legitimate prospect radar.

Here’s some context for Heim’s mixed results last year. He was drafted out of high school, and if he’d instead gone to college and been drafted as a junior then he would have been picked in 2016. In real life he spent 2017 in Single-A (Beloit equivalent), with a late callup to High-A, and then in ‘18 he played High-A with a promotion to Double-A at age 23. He’s on exactly the track you would expect chronologically for a solid prospect, except that he spent his college years in Rookie Ball and various levels of A-ball.

Furthermore, there is precedent for his slow start at a new level. A brief timeline (starting with the Orioles):

2015: Scuffles in Single-A at age 20 (college sophomore)
2016: Rushed to High-A, doesn’t hit (despite great plate discipline)
2017: Acquired by Rays, demoted back to Single-A, finally hits (but scuffles in late promotion to High-A)
2018: Acquired by A’s, finally hits in High-A, but scuffles in late promotion to Double-A

The post-promotion slump obviously tempers the enthusiasm gained from his High-A success, but it’s far from a dealbreaker yet. He’s needed time to adjust to a new level the last couple steps up the ladder, so we’ve seen him start slow before and then figure it out. That doesn’t guarantee it’ll turn out well again in Double-A, but at least there’s precedent for optimism. If you need an extra reason to be hopeful, his plate discipline remained excellent even in the upper minors, as his strikeout rate and swinging strike rate were both among the lowest on Midland’s roster. At the very least, he can make contact.

Catcher prospects are particularly difficult to judge, especially when you’re just working with box scores and second-hand reports. Heck, we still don’t know much about how to quantify the skills of MLB catchers, and there’s exponentially more info about them to work with. Defense and game-calling are the most important parts of the job, but also the ones we are least able to accurately rate, which makes the whole position a bit of a mystery relative to the rest of the roster. As prospects they also have a lot more to work on and focus on, relative to hitters who play other positions.

As for Heim, we’ll just have to wait and see. MLB Pipeline gives him 55-grades for both Field and Arm, so his reputation is still strong where it matters most. But right now he profiles similarly to Beau Taylor, who has peaked so far as the emergency backup option who mostly waits around in the upper minors serving as org filler. Heim is a switch-hitter, which helps, but in order to truly set himself apart he’ll need to keep making steady progress on offense this year. Taylor didn’t fully figure out Double-A pitching until age-26 in his fifth try at that level, whereas Heim will turn 24 in June and has a chance to hit that important checkpoint much faster.

Heim’s fortunes at the plate this season should give us our next big clue as to whether he has a serious MLB future — and if so, whether he can get there in time to do it in Oakland before reaching minor league free agency or getting nabbed in Rule 5 or flipped in a trade, or whether it’ll happen elsewhere like it did for the late-blooming Wendle.

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 Alfonso Rivas. There was a tie between him and reliever Tyler Alexander, so I cast the deciding vote and went with the shiny new draft pick instead of the shiny new free agent sleeper. Rivas was the 4th-round selection last summer, and he brings an unorthodox profile as a low-power, high-OBP first baseman. It’s not a skill set we see that often, but he was one of Vermont’s best hitters in his pro debut so the early returns were encouraging.

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

Alfonso Rivas, 1B

Expected level: A+ | Age 22

2018, A-: 257 PAs, 137 wRC+, 1 HR, 14.0% BB, 17.1% Ks

MLB Pipeline grades and scouting report (from mid-2018):

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

The left-handed hitter’s calling card is his bat. He can flat-out hit and makes a ton of contact at the plate while showing solid on-base skills. The one knock on Rivas offensively has been his power, which hasn’t shown up consistently from his solid 6-foot frame. Some think the power will eventually come, and that will be important for him to profile at a corner position. He primarily plays first base, and has good footwork, solid hands and an above-average arm there, but he’s also played the outfield and might prefer playing right field if given the choice.

In either spot, Rivas’ ability to be a run producer will be important for him to profile as an everyday player there. Given his strengths as a hitter, Rivas could move relatively quickly through the Minors, especially if his power emerges as the A’s hope it will.

* * *

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.

* * *

Hogan Harris, LHP

Expected level: A/A+ | Age 22

2018 stats: Missed pro season to injury, but did pitch in college season

MLB Pipeline grades and scouting report:

Scouting grades: Fastball: 60 | Curveball: 55 | Slider: 50 | Changeup: 50 | Control: 45 | Overall: 45

Harris created a stir by hitting 98 mph in mid-March after missing a month with an oblique injury, though he usually pitches at 91-94 with some run and angle on his fastball. He has aptitude for spin, throwing a curveball with power and depth and morphing it into a slider at times. He also has an effective changeup to combat right-handers.

While he possesses four pitches, Harris also has a lot of work to do to remain a starter at the next level. He lacks reliable command, and he loses velocity and location on his fastball at times when he falls in love with his breaking pitches. He also has a history of nagging injuries, leading to questions about his durability.

* * *

Jordan Diaz, 3B

Expected level: A- | Age 18

2018, RK: 186 PAs, 121 wRC+, 1 HR, 10.2% BB, 11.8% Ks

MLB Pipeline grades and scouting report:

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

The key to Diaz’s progress offensively was an increased understanding of his approach, and the right-handed hitter stayed with it all summer. He had some good exit velocity numbers with a line-drive approach and showed much better discipline, with a solid walk rate to show for it. Diaz didn’t try to lift the ball too much, but with a strong, stocky build, there is some power to grow into. He also improved defensively at third, working hard at it and putting aside some lazy tendencies he displayed in his first summer, and he looked like one of the better defenders at the hot corner in the AZL.

The A’s are excited to see how Diaz’s newfound maturity in terms of his approach, work ethic and consistency will allow him to progress moving forward. It’s too early to tell exactly what he’s going to be, but watching how he builds off of his encouraging 2019 should be interesting.

* * *

Dalton Sawyer, LHP

Expected level: A+ | Age 25

2018 stats: Missed entire season due to Tommy John surgery

MLB Pipeline grades and scouting report (from mid-2018):

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

After working out of the bullpen exclusively during his pro debut, Sawyer made the transition to starting in 2017 and passed all tests. A 6-foot-5 southpaw whose delivery is loaded with deception, Sawyer pitches with fringe-average velocity, usually sitting around 90 mph. A changeup and a curveball comprise his secondary arsenal, with the former grading as an above-average pitch and the latter needing further refinement. He throws a lot of strikes but needs to improve his command, especially when it comes to his fastball.

Sawyer’s effectiveness against same-sided hitters is his greatest strength, and he held them to a paltry .100/.202/.127 slash line in 125 plate appearances in his first full season. That said, he’ll need to figure out a way to retire right-handed hitters to remain a starter after they slugged .446 with 17 home runs against him. Sawyer’s future might not be as a starter, but there’s enough there for him to carve out a bullpen role at the highest level.

* * *

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!