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Rule 5 scouting report: Blaze Ka’ai Tom has the tools to replace Robbie Grossman in A’s outfield

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Could Tom be the A’s LF to begin 2021?

MLB: Cleveland Indians-Media Day Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Oakland A’s made two picks in the 2020 Rule 5 draft, adding two new prospects to their depth chart. Each of them will have to remain in the majors all season in order to stay in the A’s organization, but both have clear paths to the bigs if they can make good on their potential.

In this post we’ll take a closer look at Blaze Ka’ai Tom, an outfielder drafted away from the Cleveland Indians.

Before we get to his player profile, let’s clarify Tom’s name. His official full name includes all three parts as written above in bold, but he’s “happy to use either Blaze or Ka’ai (pronounced ‘Kai’) as his first name,” reports Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle. Both are excellent choices and you could make a compelling case for either, and only time will tell which one ultimately takes hold in the MLB zeitgeist.

For now, I’m calling him Blaze Tom. I can’t resist the opportunity to someday have an outfield consisting of Blaze, Laser, and Skye Bolt. (Note: In 2012, the A’s drafted but didn’t sign an outfielder named Dalton Blaser, which would have really completed the Dodgeball reference.)

With that sorted out, what does Blaze bring to the field?

Blaze Tom | OF

  • Age: Turns 27 in May
  • Bats: Left | Throws: Right
  • H/W: 5’9, 190 pounds
  • Amateur Draft: 5th round, 2015 (University of Kentucky; born and raised in Hawaii)

Offensive profile

Tom played five seasons in the Indians minor league system, and two trends jump out amid his track record. He was an above-average hitter at every level of the minors, and he played nearly equal time at all three outfield positions. Taking the batting part a step further, he contributed at least something in every area of the offensive game. He’s the very definition of a jack-of-all-trades, and Cleveland radio host Jeff Ellis thought he should have gotten an MLB chance in 2020:

Honestly, Tom should have gotten a chance last year, he did not and I could see him sticking with the A’s easily. He plays all three spots and hits at every stop. He isn’t the best athlete and is way undersized, which has been the knocks but he just kept performing.

Don’t take that jack-of-all-trades label to mean he’s a master of none, though. Tom had clear control of the strike zone in the lower minors, and he’s maintained double-digit walk rates up through Triple-A without letting his strikeouts get out of hand. Plate discipline appears to be a legit plus in his skill set.

But what of that other comment by Ellis, about being undersized? Sure, Jose Altuve and others have shown the world that smaller players can succeed, but it’s still seen as an obstacle to be overcome in terms of scouting. It might not be something to worry about with Tom, though, according to one teammate.

Pitcher Argenis Angulo, who signed with the A’s this winter and is a non-roster invite to MLB camp next spring, was drafted by the Indians the year before Tom. The two followed nearly identical paths up the minor league ladder, and they played together on the same teams for most of 2016-19 in Cleveland’s system. Angulo had the following to say, via journalist Manolo Hernandez (h/t insider Martin Gallegos):

“Never in my life have I seen a guy so small hit a ball so hard like him.”

Talk might be cheap, but few people have seen Tom play more pro ball than Angulo. And you don’t even have to take his word for it, because the numbers back up his statement. Tom spent 2019 in the upper minors, and his power spiked upward, both in terms of homers and overall extra-base hits. He split the year between Double-A and Triple-A, so each batting line below is technically a small sample, but together they form a full season of utter breakout at age 25. (2019 totals: 132 games, 554 plate appearances, 151 wRC+)

  • Tom, 2019 AA: .285/.386/.512, 162 wRC+, 14 HR, 12.5% BB, 21.3% Ks
  • Tom, 2019 AAA: .298/.370/.564, 132 wRC+, 9 HR, 10.0% BB, 25.1% Ks

But don’t take that surge of slugging to mean that Tom is aiming for the fences now, or taking advantage of the launch-angle revolution. He’s just a smart hitter with a good approach who makes enough loud contact that some of it clears the wall. More from Gallegos:

Ka’ai Tom doesn’t necessarily consider himself a power hitter but more of a guy who can spray line drives all over the field. Made an adjustment at the plate with his hands in 2019 that led to a big increase in extra-base hits.

You can also see signs of the hard contact in his BABIP, which took a jump in 2019 up to the .350 range. When coupled with his other numbers, that’s more likely to be a sign of how well he hit the ball than it is a statistical fluke, and it helped him maintain a healthy batting average.

In addition to all that, Blaze stole some bases when he was in the lower minors. In his first four seasons, from Low-A up through Double-A, he swiped 53 bags in 77 attempts — not a nice success rate at 69%, but enough quantity to surmise that he probably has a bit of speed to even try that often. (He only went 5-for-10 in steals in 2019.) Indeed, Baseball America suggests that is the case:

“He’s a fast runner who uses his legs to leg out doubles and triples more than steal bases.”

Put it together, and you have all the ingredients of a quality hitter. He knows the zone, draws walks, makes enough contact, and he can consistently hit the ball hard, all without being a slug on the bases.

Defensive profile

As usual for minor leaguers, Tom’s defense is tougher to figure out. He’s played over a thousand innings at each outfield spot, with a slight plurality in LF followed by CF and then RF. The available metrics are all over the place, though if you squint they might suggest he gets poor ratings in CF, possibly negative in RF, and decent to good in LF. On the other hand, SB Nation site Let’s Go Tribe refers to his “stellar defense” and provides the following opinion:

While he’s experienced at all three outfield spots it is likely that his speed and quickness allow him to play center at the major league level.

Of course, the CF question is irrelevant, because Oakland has Laureano entrenched there as a plus defender, with Mark Canha as a capable backup. If Tom can help out there too, then great. But he only needs to be able to play LF to fit in here, and all signs seem to suggest he can do that at least adequately and maybe even better.

Comp: Robbie Grossman

So what does all that leave us with? A lefty hitter with OBP skills and some mid-level power potential, with at least average speed and maybe more, who can play LF and maybe even be a plus there? I think I just described Robbie Grossman, the exact player Oakland is looking to replace.

Granted, Grossman is a switch-hitter, but on the A’s he effectively wasn’t. He almost never got to bat against lefty pitchers while wearing green and gold the last two seasons, with just 14% of his plate appearances coming as a righty hitter while the team saw southpaws over 35% of the time. Even during his breakout this summer, he only got to bat lefty.

Perhaps going full 2020 Grossman is an unrealistic goal, complete with a 126 wRC+ and .241 isolated slugging, but even Grossman himself will probably take at least a slight step back from that wherever he lands in 2021. The point is, conceptually it’s easy to see how Tom’s skill set could be a viable replacement for Grossman’s, both in nature and in quality. Remember, Grossman didn’t tap into his power until age 30, while Tom already found his in the minors when he was five years younger than that and he’s just now entering his prime.

Roster fit

The A’s have at least two outfield positions spoken for. Laureano is clearly the CF, and they have RF covered between Canha and Stephen Piscotty. Perhaps Canha plays LF, or helps out at DH if Khris Davis still can’t bounce back. One way or other, there is still a need for a lefty hitter in the mix. And it’s OK to stash that hitter in LF, so defense is more of a bonus than an absolute requirement. Essentially, there is room for a new Grossman.

There is already a massive logjam of Triple-A outfield prospects on the 40-man roster, all of whom bat lefty or switch. Former Top 100 prospect Dustin Fowler has the most MLB experience, but Seth Brown and Skye Bolt have also briefly played in the bigs. Luis Barrera and Greg Deichmann might be the most promising of the bunch, but neither has played above Double-A and they probably aren’t in serious consideration for Opening Day.

That’s enough to find a keeper in the bunch this spring without spending money on a free agent, but it’s not enough to block Tom. Only Fowler is out of options, making it a two-man race between players who can’t be stashed in the minors. Perhaps Brown or Bolt could force their way in with huge spring performances, but at the moment it’s easy to see how Tom could be a front-runner for a platoon LF job out of camp, at least as the guy who gets the first turn due to his Rule 5 situation. And while he’s no sure thing, he has the tools to give him a genuine chance of making good on his opportunity, which is the entire point of Rule 5.

Will Tom make the team, and if so will he pan out into a positive contributor? Your guess is as good as mine. But he’s absolutely worth a look next spring, and his addition makes the depth chart more interesting. He’s not just a pinch-running bench stash, but rather a legit MLB-ready lotto ticket who could potentially help a contending A’s club in 2021.