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Oakland A’s prospect watch: James Kaprielian pitches in real-life pro game

It was his first appearance since fall of 2016.

Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

When the Oakland A’s acquired pitcher James Kaprielian in the 2017 Sonny Gray trade, he represented a big gamble. The right-hander was already in the midst of losing a second straight season to injury, and more than two years after being a 1st-round draft pick he’d only thrown 29⅓ innings in the pros. His ceiling was high because of the stuff he’d shown before his injury, but at some point he would need to actually pitch in order to reach it.

The story didn’t progress any further in 2018. Continual setbacks in his recovery from Tommy John surgery ended up costing him yet another full season, and the question in fans’ minds went from whether he’d reach his ceiling to whether he’d ever actually play again at all. Yet another setback cost him spring of 2019, and then April too, and it all felt like yet another rerun of the same old show. At 25 years old, he was essentially still waiting to begin his pro career.

On Sunday, though, it finally happened: Kaprielian pitched in a real-life game. Not a simulated game on the sidelines, not a bullpen session at extended spring. An actual game for the High-A Stockton Ports. It was his first official appearance since the 2016 Arizona Fall League.

In a fitting twist, the universe did everything it could to resist this development. Kaprielian was initially scheduled to pitch on Saturday, but a storm washed out the game and pushed him to the next day. The rains continued into Sunday, and what was supposed to be a three-inning appearance was shortened to two when the game was suspended entering the 3rd. In fact, the league still hasn’t decided yet whether to erase the game completely, or keep it suspended and finish it later.

Imagine that. Wait over two years to get back on the mound, and then when you’re finally ready, it rains all weekend, in California in late-May. And then when you finally do pitch anyway despite the rain, there may end up being no record of it in the books. This is gonna make such a good movie when he eventually wins the 2023 Cy Young.

As for how Kaprielian actually performed on Sunday, that almost seems like an afterthought. The important thing is that he pitched at all. Furthermore, any results must be taken with the footnote of the inclement weather alongside them. But for what it’s worth, it was a good outing — he faced seven batters, retired six of them including one strikeout, and allowed a solo homer to the other, all in just 22 pitches (17 strikes).

Next up for Kaprielian will be building on this successful debut. That will require sustaining his newfound health, and also showing how much of his once-ace-caliber stuff survived the surgery. Ports broadcaster Zack Bayrouty reported that “the stuff was definitely sharp,” though he didn’t have info on the velocity.

Last winter, Athletics Nation placed Kaprielian eighth on our Community Prospect List. Even with the long layoff, we still believed in the talent he flashed pre-injury and were willing to patiently wait to see what he could do with it this summer. Now the first checkpoint is passed, as he’s back on the mound. If he stays there, then we’ll finally begin to find out what he can do.

Jefferies update

As long as we’re talking about pitching prospects returning from ultra-long-term injury, here’s an update on Daulton Jefferies. The right-hander is Kaprielian’s kindred spirit, as another hurler who had TJS in 2017 and then missed multiple seasons. He entered 2019 with 20⅓ innings in his pro career.

Jefferies began his year in High-A, but it only took five outings for him to move up to Double-A. He’s now pitched four games for Midland, with promising results (on an innings limit of three frames per game):

Jefferies, 2019 AA: 3.75 ERA, 12 ip, 12 Ks, 0 BB, 1 HR, 12 hits

The keys there are the strikeout per inning, and the zero walks. Control and command can be just as much of a problem as velocity post-TJS, so seeing him master the strike zone in the early going is a huge deal — especially without getting pounded by hittable strikes along the way. Even better, three of those games were against the top three offenses in the Texas League so far, so he’s been facing the best competition that his current league has to offer.

There’s still a long way for Jefferies to go to prove himself. But between the quick promotion and these strong early stats in the upper minors, this is everything that anyone could have hoped to see from him to this point.