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Oakland A’s prospect watch: A.J. Puk makes Triple-A debut

Also, James Kaprielian makes his Double-A debut.

The Oakland A’s had a large group of pitching prospects return to the mound this season after long-term injuries, and a couple of them made moves up the minor league ladder recently.

Leading the way is A.J. Puk, who made his Triple-A debut on Tuesday. Pitching at home in Las Vegas Ballpark, he breezed through two quick innings and faced the minimum six batters. He did allow one single, but it was eliminated in a double play. He also struck out two, while dialing his fastball up to 98 mph and his slider to 91, per Melissa Lockard of The Athletic.

Puk, AAA: 2 ip, 0 runs, 2 Ks, 0 BB, 1 hit

This wasn’t just another step of rehab for Puk, but rather uncharted territory for his career. Before his Tommy John surgery he’d only made it up to Double-A in 2017. Now he’s finally at the highest level of the minors, just one step away from reaching Oakland and helping the current contending team.

Athletics Farm provided an interesting update about Puk in their podcast interview with A’s special assistant Grady Fuson (click here to listen to the whole thing on A’s TuneIn):

Fuson: “They’ve taken away his changeup a little bit right now currently, because the pronation in that move was kinda starting to bug his elbow a little bit. So he’s really going after these guys with two pitches right now, he’s throwing hard, he’s been in command, he’s been sharp. So we’re just gonna continue to play it out and hopefully there’s a point in there where the changeup comes back. He’s definitely gonna need that pitch eventually when he goes back to being an every-fifth-day starter.”

If all keeps going well with Puk, then perhaps he can help the 2019 A’s as a power lefty reliever. Overall in the minors this year, he’s struck out 24 of the 66 batters he’s faced, a 36% clip.

Kaprielian up to Double-A

Another hurler getting a recent promotion is James Kaprielian, who moved up to Double-A and made his debut tonight. His first taste of the upper minors was a bit rough, but not a total disaster. He allowed hits to his first three batters, resulting in a run, but got out of the jam quickly. In his second inning he issued two walks, then a HBP, then another walk, all consecutively, to force in another run, but then got a double play to end that threat. His third inning was cleaner, with only two hits this time, followed by an outfield assist and two strikeouts.

Kaprielian, AA: 3 ip, 2 runs, 3 Ks, 3 BB, 5 hits, 0 HR

The right-hander had never pitched above High-A before his own TJS, so like with Puk this is the highest level he’s ever played at in his career. His final line in High-A Stockton:

Kaprielian, A+: 4.46 ERA, 36⅓ ip, 43 Ks, 8 BB, 6 HR, 4.40 FIP

In his last game for the Ports, his fastball was sitting 92-93 with a high of 94.

Luzardo on the mend

Of course, the biggest name in the A’s prospect world is Jesus Luzardo, who missed the first two months of the season to a shoulder strain and now is out with a lat strain. Fortunately, he’s making quick progress from his latest setback, as Fuson (in the A’s Farm podcast) noted that the left-hander “was pain-free within a week” after pulling the lat muscle.

A further update came from Susan Slusser on her A’s Plus podcast, speaking with Gil Patterson, the A’s minor league pitching coordinator. Patterson said that Luzardo is scheduled to throw two innings in early August, either in a sim game or an Arizona Rookie League game, and that from there he could begin ramping up his workload again toward that of a starter. Patterson said Luzardo feels “tremendous,” and a debut in Oakland this September is still a possibility.

Varland out for year

Unfortunately, the news isn’t as good for Gus Varland. The 2018 draft pick burst onto the scene in his pro debut last summer and nabbed a spot on our preseason Community Prospect List, but he missed the first couple months of this season to knee surgery. Now he’ll miss the rest of it due to his elbow. He’s avoiding Tommy John surgery for now, reports A’s Farm, but he still won’t pitch again this year.

Also still out from High-A Stockton is Wyatt Marks, with his own elbow issue.

Quick notes

As for the other CPL names recovering from injuries:

  • Daulton Jefferies is still plugging along in Double-A, throwing three strong innings at a time and walking nobody. He’s now faced 202 batters in Double-A and walked just three of them, for a microscopic 1.5% rate. That goes along with 53 strikeouts in 49 innings, and otherwise productive results — in his last 13 games, he’s allowed more than one earned run just twice. Fuson mentions on the A’s Farm podcast mentions that his velocity is sitting 92-93 mph and topping out at 95 (with movement down in the zone), and references his plus changeup, but notes that his breaking ball is still a “work in progress.”
  • Grant Holmes has worked his way up to five innings in each of his last two appearances, a season-high.
  • Hogan Harris is striking out the world in Low-A Vermont, with a 35% rate (36 of 104 batters). The lefty is making his pro debut after being Oakland’s 3rd-round draft pick in 2018.

Full stats at their current levels:

Puk, AAA: 0.00 ERA, 2 ip, 2 Ks, 0 BB, 0 HR, 1.79 FIP
Holmes, AA: 3.13 ERA, 54⅔ ip, 47 Ks, 22 BB, 4 HR, 4.13 FIP
Jefferies, AA: 3.86 ERA, 49 ip, 53 Ks, 3 BB, 5 HR, 3.18 FIP
Kaprielian, AA: 6.00 ERA, 3 ip, 3 Ks, 3 BB, 0 HR
Harris, A-: 3.12 ERA, 26 ip, 36 Ks, 9 BB, 2 HR, 3.09 FIP

But wait! There are two more key pitching prospects worth checking in on, even though they aren’t injury cases.

Dunshee and Howard

It’s been a rough go at Triple-A for Parker Dunshee, especially in terms of an enormous homer rate. However, the problem may not entirely be the hitter-friendly environment of Las Vegas. Fuson mentioned on the A’s Farm podcast that Dunshee needs to improve his fastball command and generally use the pitch more, rather than relying too hard on his wide array of secondary offerings (cutter, slider, curve, change).

Dunshee, AAA: 6.49 ERA, 59⅔ ip, 54 Ks, 29 BB, 16 HR, 7.13 FIP

The lack of a stronger fastball has long been the knock on Dunshee, and now it’s finally catching up with him for the first time in his pro career. It will be interesting to see how he responds to these struggles, and whether he can make the necessary adjustments to get back on track.

On the bright side, he’ll now be joined by his draft-mate Brian Howard, who was promoted to Triple-A on Wednesday. The big right-hander put together a 2.21 ERA in his last six starts in Double-A, and rediscovered the comically high K/BB rate that he’s shown at lower levels when he’s going well (38 Ks, 5 BB).

Howard, AA: 2.97 ERA, 115 ip, 102 Ks, 35 BB, 7 HR, 3.56 FIP

Here’s a roundup of the top pitchers on our preseason CPL, in order of their ranking on that list. (Including Tanner Anderson and Miguel Romero.)

1. Luzardo: Hopefully back in action early August
2. Puk: Moved up to AAA
8. Kaprielian: Moved up to AA
10. Dunshee: Struggling in AAA
11. Holmes: Looking good in AA
14. Howard: Moved up to AAA
17. Jefferies: Looking good in AA
20. Marks: Out (elbow)
22. Varland: Out for year (elbow)
24. Anderson: Lit up in MLB
26. Harris: Looking good in A-
30. Romero: 3.74 ERA, 5.26 FIP in AAA bullpen