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Oakland A’s 2019 Community Prospect List #22: Gus Varland bursts onto the scene

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The mid-round draft pick had an eye-opening debut.

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Photo provided by Vermont Lake Monsters

Our 2019 Community Prospect List adds a most interesting new sleeper. 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%)

The Oakland A’s 2018 draft class is currently (in)famous for what happened at the top of it, with 1st-rounder Kyler Murray choosing to play football instead of baseball. In his absence, and with an injury sapping the initial stock of 3rd-rounder Hogan Harris for now, only two members (Hannah and Eierman) have even made our CPL yet, whereas usually 3-4 are up there by now. Fortunately, there is good news from the middle rounds.

In 2017 the A’s struck what appears so far to be mid-draft gold, unearthing Dunshee and Howard in the 7th and 8th rounds and then watching them quickly dominate their way up to Double-A last summer. In 2018 the jackpot came in the 14th round, in the form of Gus Varland. And he might be even better than his predecessors.

Like Dunshee and Howard, Varland burst onto the scene with ludicrous numbers in his post-draft debut. He had the microscopic ERA (0.97) and the comical strikeout and walk numbers (50-to-7, in 37 innings), just like they did. However, there are three key differences that set him apart.

First is where those stats were accrued. Whereas Dunshee and Howard spent ‘17 beating up on fellow draftees in Low-A Vermont, Varland posted half his line up in Single-A Beloit. It’s not unheard of for a player to move up to full-season ball in their draft year, and in fact the A’s usually do so with a couple new names each summer, but it’s unusual to see them continue to keep thriving at the higher level without missing a beat. For some context: Think of how thrilled we are with the progress of Wyatt Marks (drafted in 2017), and then consider he missed being teammates with Varland in Beloit by two days last summer.

The second difference comes in Varland’s stuff. One knock on Dunshee and Howard is that they seem to get by on some smoke and mirrors that still might get exposed at higher levels, as they lack notable velocity or any other flashy offerings. Varland doesn’t have that problem, as he can dial it up as high as the mid-90s. Melissa Lockard of The Athletic reports that the heater also has an above-average spin rate, and that learning to throw it up in the zone instead of down helped lead to last summer’s breakout.

On top of the extra juice, Varland also brings excellent command and control, as well as a breaking ball that already grades average or better. The one place he falls short compared with the 2017 guys is that his arsenal isn’t as wide or varied, and in particular he could benefit from a changeup to help retire lefty hitters. Fortunately, Lockard reminds us that the changeup is a long-time “point of focus” in the A’s organization, and she mentions that Varland is already working on it.

Finally, it should be noted that Varland was drafted as a junior, like most college players. Dunshee and Howard went pro after their senior season, and their early ‘17 success was partially written off due to their extra age and experience. They quieted those concerns in 2018 at more age-appropriate levels, but that’s something Varland won’t have to prove — in fact, he finished last year somewhat young for his league in Beloit.

So given all this, how did the talented Varland fall to the 14th round of the draft in the first place? The answer has to do with where he was drafted from, and it really ties together a potentially classic A’s origin story. Varland played college ball at Concordia-St. Paul, a Division-II school that you’ve probably never heard of, and Lockard details how difficult it is for a prospect to get attention in that obscure of an environment. He was a big fish in a small pond, tossing the school’s first no-hitter in at least two decades, and he now stands as their highest-ever draft pick. He wouldn’t be the first A’s player from a D-II school (Stephen Vogt, Matt Joyce, and Bruce Maxwell, to name a few), but it’s a relatively rare distinction and exactly the kind of thing you’d expect from an Oakland misfit toy.

Of course, there’s still a lot to prove before we get any more excited. Varland has only thrown a few dozen innings in the pros, and he’ll face his first real test this summer in High-A. For what it’s worth, though, Dunshee and Howard both breezed through that level, and there’s an argument to be made that Varland is an even better sleeper prospect than they were — after all, he’s objectively ahead of where they were at this point in their own impressive early careers.

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 Jordan Diaz. He doesn’t have big tools nor a particularly high ceiling, but he emerged as a strong performer last summer and that’s put him on the map — sort of like a teenage hitter version of Varland and the other college overperformers. There’s still a long way to go before he even reaches Stockton, much less Oakland, but his minuscule strikeout rate is too impressive to ignore.

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

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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!