The 2019 season got off to a tough start for Franklin Barreto. After Matt Olson’s injury in March, it briefly looked like Barreto might make the MLB squad for the Oakland A’s home opener, but then the team acquired veteran Kendrys Morales at the last moment to fill Olson’s spot. Instead, it was back to Triple-A for Barreto, and to make matters worse he began the year on a slump at the plate.
Through his first 25 games this season, Barreto batted .191 with a 31% strikeout rate and only two homers. The strikeouts, one of the key flaws blocking his move up to the majors, were still there in full force, and to make it worse, the power he’d begun to flash in 2018 had gone missing. On top of all that, he’s in his third tour of Triple-A, so he no longer had the excuse of adjusting to a new level.
But then, Barreto flipped a switch. In mid-May he began to make some noise, and then on May 26 he hit his first homer in a month, and third of the year. In his last 11 games since that date, he’s gone absolutely ham:
Barreto, last 11 gms: .489/.500/1.021, 5 HR, 18 RBI, 14 XBH, 20.8% Ks
He’s 23-for-47 during that span, and he’s had four different four-hit days (including a five-hit day). He’s only drawn one walk, because he’s been too busy hitting everything in sight, but even still his 12.7% walk rate is around the top 25th percentile of the league. Granted, his latest homer came off a catcher pitching in garbage time, and a couple of these games came against the Reno Aces (D’Backs) who have league-worst pitching, but even still Barreto’s run is impressive.
Mid-May offers a convenient, if somewhat arbitrary, cutoff point. A day off, then a team off-day, and then two straight rainouts meant that Barreto didn’t play between May 14-17. After scuffling for 33 games (142 PAs) through May 13, he came out swinging on the other side of that break for the last 21 contests (86 PAs).
Barreto, thru 5/13: .209/.355/.339, 82 wRC+, 2 HR, 14.8% BB, 29.6% Ks
Barreto, since: .410/.465/.769, 200 wRC+, 5 HR, 9.3% BB, 24.4% Ks
It’s a small sample, fueled partly by a .519 BABIP, and the strikeouts are still there despite a small reduction. But if you were looking for a sign out of Barreto, well, here you go. His wRC+ for the season is up to 127, effectively tied with fellow infield youngster Jorge Mateo, whose strong performance has been lauded by fans all year long.
Barreto isn’t technically a prospect anymore, having racked up enough MLB at-bats to achieve rookie status last year, but functionally he’s still a prospect as a 23-year-old minor leaguer who isn’t done developing and has never gotten a real chance in the bigs. Had he been eligible, we would have ranked him No. 5 on our CPL last winter. putting him in good company with a bunch of other youngsters expected to become stars in Oakland sooner than later. His teammates rave about his talent.
Of course, even if Barreto’s heater is for real, there’s still the question of how the A’s could fit him into Oakland. Shortstop is locked down by Marcus Semien, who’s having a career year himself, and Jurickson Profar is showing signs of life at second base — since the beginning of May, he carries a 110 wRC+, seven homers (second on the team in that span), and a roughly league-average .322 xwOBA.
Stay tuned to find out where this episode heads next. The way things are going, the A’s could soon find themselves in that most enviable position, with too many good players to fit into one infield.
Barreto, 2019 AAA: .290/.396/.513, 127 wRC+, 7 HR, 12.7% BB, 27.6% Ks, 13.1% SwStr, 7-for-8 SB
Rest of lineup
Las Vegas has several more relevant hitters in their lineup. First, the youngsters.
Bolt, OF: .311/.379/.571, 131 wRC+, 6 HR, 8.3% BB, 28.8% Ks
Mateo, SS: .335/.368/.576, 128 wRC+, 9 HR, 4.4% BB, 22.8% Ks
Neuse, 3B: .280/.357/.469, 104 wRC+, 7 HR, 10.1% BB, 23.5% Ks
Fowler, OF: .275/.335/.441, 90 wRC+, 8 HR, 6.6% BB, 21.0% Ks
Although he tops that list, Skye Bolt hasn’t played since moving back down to the minors on June 1. He scuffled in his latest stint in Triple-A in May, going a dozen games with no homers, a 36% strikeout rate, and a .692 OPS, but presumably the yo-yo up and down to the MLB bench (plus the lack of playing time once up in Oakland) has contributed to stalling his hot start.
With Bolt absent, the hottest non-Barreto hitter is Jorge Mateo, riding a 13-game hitting streak during which he has a 1.026 OPS. He’s been a consistent force all year, even ranking second on the team in homers, and his ultra-speedy skill set makes his .412 BABIP somewhat less unbelievable than it would be for most players. He’s still swinging and missing a lot (14.1%), but it’s not leading to strikeouts. His 14 steals lead the team, albeit with a subpar 67% success rate, and the small-sample metrics love his defense at shortstop.
Or is Sheldon Neuse hotter? His OPS is at 1.017 though his last 15 games, with a .350 average and plenty of power. He’s done a good job lowering his strikeout rate this year, down 8.5 percentage points from 2018, and like Mateo the metrics tentatively love his defense at the hot corner.
Even Dustin Fowler is getting in on the action after a slow start. Over his last 20 games, he’s batting .318 with an .855 OPS. That’s not up to the standards of his hottest teammates, but it’s still progress for the 24-year-old as he tries to battle his way back to the majors.
Meanwhile, outfielder Tyler Ramirez was demoted back to Double-A after posting a 63 wRC+ for Vegas. He still walked like crazy in Triple-A (15.1%), but his contact finally stopped falling for hits (.250 BABIP, after maintaining huge marks there for years straight).
And then there are the veterans.
Joseph, IF: .354/.402/.560, 136 wRC+, 5 HR, 6.7% BB, 12.4% Ks
Payton, OF: .300/.377/.553, 124 wRC+, 9 HR, 11.4% BB, 19.9% Ks
Martini, OF: .329/.430/.368, 113 wRC+, 0 HR, 16.1% BB, 14.0% Ks
The big name there is Nick Martini, who is up to his old tricks now that he’s back to health. Power isn’t his game, but he’s walking a ton, walking more than he strikes out, and getting on base at a huge clip. Whenever the A’s find a spot for him, he looks like he’s ready to pick up where he left off last summer as a quality table-setter.
As for the minor league Rule 5 guys, Corban Joseph continues to get on base even as his BABIP stabilizes back down toward normalcy. These numbers don’t necessarily mean the 30-year-old would hit in the majors, and with all the competition on the depth chart it’s hard to see him ever getting a look in Oakland, but if for some reason he got called on for emergency duty (like filling in for some future injuries) I wouldn’t complain. Mark Payton has cooled off from his incredible start to the season, as he hasn’t homered since May 12 (in 16 games), but he’s at least still getting on base during that span (.357 OBP).
Oh, and 1B/OF Seth Brown leads the team with 14 homers, and with a reasonable strikeout rate behind the power (21.8%), though all of that is only enough to pump his wRC+ up to 107 (thanks to a low .320 OBP).
For as interesting as Vegas’ hitting has been, maybe it’s best to just ignore the pitching for now. Whatever name you’re wondering about, the answer is that he’s not doing very well.
The biggest healthy prospect is Parker Dunshee, but he’s been blasted so far, for the first time in his pro career. After a quality start in his debut outing, three of his next four appearances were disastrous. Overall he’s got a 6.29 ERA, with a 6.79 FIP backed up by too many walks and six homers in just two dozen innings.
Meanwhile, Paul Blackburn will pitch for Oakland on Saturday, but he (4.55 ERA, 5.46 FIP) was an easy pick over Tanner Anderson (6.26 ERA, 7.29 FIP), Tyler Alexander (6.85 ERA, 7.03 FIP), or Jake Buchanan (6.25 ERA, 7.04 FIP).
There isn’t a lot of help in the bullpen, either. Top relief prospect Miguel Romero is striking out 12 batters per nine innings, but he’s also walking an untenable six batters per nine and giving up dingers. J.B. Wendelken is struggling, and Norge Ruiz has been lit up. The one reliable arm had been Wei-Chung Wang, but he’s already up in Oakland.
If you’re wondering why Blackburn and Ryan Dull were the ones to get the call to the majors this week, all of that is why. There just isn’t any pitching in Las Vegas right now. Of course, this seems like a good time for a reminder that the A’s Triple-A environment has changed drastically this year, between moving from pitcher-friendly Nashville to the dry air and elevation of the desert, as well as the fact that Triple-A has begun using MLB-style balls that carry much farther than minor league balls. That is important context as we judge the Aviators’ extreme numbers — including some of the elevated homer totals for the hitters discussed above.