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Oakland A’s prospect watch: Nick Allen breaking out in High-A

The glove-first shortstop is now producing with his bat.

Photo credit: Justin Nuoffer | Beloit Snappers

The High-A Stockton Ports entered 2019 with a stacked lineup, featuring six names from our Community Prospect List. Unfortunately their results haven’t yet matched that hype, as the team ranks second-to-last in the league in scoring, but one name in particular is rising above the rest — and not the one we might have expected. Nick Allen is arguably the best hitter on the Ports right now.

The A’s drafted Allen out of high school in 2017, picking him in the 3rd round but luring him away from college with 1st-round money. His carrying skill is top-notch defense at shortstop, with the main question being how much offense he would be able to squeeze out of his undersized 5’8 frame (and/or how much more he might still physically grow).

Last year, Allen spent his first full season on an aggressive assignment to Single-A Beloit. At age 19, he did about what was expected — he played a strong shortstop according to the available defensive metrics, but he didn’t hit much along the way. That was enough to keep him on the prospect radar, but not enough to move up the list, and last winter we ranked him 19th on our CPL (down from 16th in pre-2018).

Allen, 2018 A: .239/.301/.302, 73 wRC+, 0 HR, 6.6% BB, 16.6% Ks

However, there were bright sides to that seemingly lackluster batting line. He led the team with 24 steals, at a decent 75% success rate. He also improved as the year went on, 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). And most importantly he made a lot of contact and kept his strikeouts low, which is a good building block, especially for a low-power hitter — his second-half surge was fueled by a tiny 12.9% strikeout rate.

Fast forward to 2019, and Allen is taking his bat to another level. Now age 20, and out of the tough conditions of Wisconsin and into the hitter-friendly California League, he’s building on the success he showed in the second half of last year.

Allen, 2019 A+: .288/.359/.466, 138 wRC+, 3 HR, 9.7% BB, 16.8% Ks

There’s good news all around. He’s got his average up without needing an unsustainable BABIP (.341), and he’s walking way more too, all of which has spiked his OBP. Once on base, he’s 7-for-9 in steals, a similar pace and success rate to last year but against tougher competition. He’s even found some power, with three dingers, a bunch of doubles and triples, and a .178 isolated slugging. And that added thump has come without sacrificing any contact, as his strikeout rate is one of the 10 best in the league and his 10.3% swinging-strike rate is also among the lowest.

It’s tough to judge a prospect’s defense without watching him play, but the available metrics still like him. Clay Davenport’s site rates him as the biggest positive in Stockton, and Baseball Prospectus has him as at least neutral. That said, he’s spent about one-third of his time at second base, so that 2018 draftee Jeremy Eierman can also get some reps at short.

The A’s have parted with a lot of middle infield depth recently, trading away the likes of Yairo Munoz, Max Schrock, and Joey Wendle, and then losing Richie Martin in the Rule 5 draft. Meanwhile, Franklin Barreto has floundered in Triple-A, and 2017 college pick Kevin Merrell hasn’t gotten going at any level. What was once a loaded area of the farm system has quickly thinned out.

Fortunately, the MLB team is set for now, with Marcus Semien locking down SS and Jurickson Profar heating up at 2B. After them comes Jorge Mateo, who is enjoying his own breakout in Triple-A and is presumably next in line for the majors. But it’s a bit of a question mark after that, so if Allen’s hot start turns out to be real then his emergence will be a huge boost for a suddenly weak area the farm — and there aren’t any specific red flags anywhere in his numbers right now that scream small-sample fluke. The A’s might just have their next top shortstop prospect on their hands.

Rest of lineup

As for the rest of Stockton’s lineup, it’s been a mixed bag. Here are the other five CPL names:

Armenteros, OF: .227/.370/.454, 141 wRC+, 9 HR, 17.3% BB, 38.7% Ks
Rivas, 1B: .264/.375/.388, 125 wRC+, 3 HR, 11.1% BB, 20.8% Ks
Hannah, OF: .274/.329/.363, 101 wRC+, 1 HR, 6.9% BB, 19.1% Ks
Beck, OF: .211/.252/.401, 84 wRC+, 5 HR, 4.6% BB, 39.7% Ks
Eierman, SS: .182/.266/.324, 71 wRC+, 4 HR, 9.5% BB, 35.5% Ks

Armenteros and Eierman also each have 5 steals without being caught.

The good news is that Lazaro Armenteros is crushing dingers and drawing walks like crazy, but the bad news is that he’s striking out at an astronomical, completely untenable rate (buoyed by an absurd 18% swinging-strike rate). The good stuff is good, but none of it matters until he makes more consistent contact and cuts that K rate substantially. Austin Beck is in a similar boat, as he’s finally showing a bit of power but with identical whiff problems (18.3% SwStr). That’s why they’re both struggling to stay over the Mendoza Line despite healthy BABIPs (each well over .300), because they’re simply not putting the ball in play often enough.

Meanwhile, Alfonso Rivas leads the top 2018 draftees so far. His game is based on plate discipline and OBP and he’s doing well in those areas, with just enough power to be acceptable for now. Jameson Hannah hasn’t done much but at least isn’t striking out, while Jeremy Eierman is whiffing a ton (as expected) but has shown flashes of his power, speed, and plus defense up the middle. Don’t draw any grand conclusions on any of them yet, but definitely keep following all of them.

Pitching

I’m not going to get into Stockton’s pitching in this post, because frankly there hasn’t been much to write home about, but for now I’ll point out two interesting early sleepers.

Zambrano: 2.10 ERA, 25⅔ ip, 28 Ks, 7 BB, 2 HR, 15 hits, 3.03 FIP
Martinez: 3.05 ERA, 20⅔ ip, 22 Ks, 7 BB, 3 HR, 10 hits, 4.30 FIP

This is Jesus Zambrano’s seventh year in the A’s system, and he’s finally making noise. He was solid in Single-A Beloit last season, but now at age 22 he’s succeeding at a level of the minors that gets my attention. I don’t know much about Seth Martinez (2016, 17th round, age 24), but those are decent early numbers so far.

In the rotation, the top name has been Brady Feigl, last year’s 5th-round pick. He hasn’t been an ace or anything, but he’s been good.

Feigl: 3.71 ERA, 51 ip, 41 Ks, 16 BB, 5 HR, 4.05 FIP

And of course, top prospect James Kaprielian is finally back on the mound after waiting an eternity to recover from Tommy John surgery. He pitched in a game last weekend for the first time since the 2016 Arizona Fall League.