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Oakland A’s 2020 Community Prospect List #2: A.J. Puk makes strong MLB debut after injury layoff

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The lefty came back from Tommy John surgery to make a successful MLB debut.

Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Our 2020 Community Prospect List adds its second member, in one of the closest votes in CPL history. It was a two-man race for the No. 2 spot, and in the end, A.J. Puk edged out Sean Murphy by a tally of 77-75, with only one vote going to any third party. Here’s the current (somewhat lonely) list, including his winning margin (the difference between his % of the vote, and the % of the runner-up):

  1. Jesus Luzardo, LHP (+84%)
  2. A.J. Puk, LHP (+1%)

For the second straight year, Puk takes second place on our CPL. Since being picked sixth overall in the 2016 draft, his rankings on our list have gone like this: 3rd (2017), 1st (2018), 2nd (2019), 2nd (2020). In other words, Athletics Nation is extremely excited about this guy, and has been for a while.

And we’re not the only ones, as Puk is adored by national prospect evaluators as well. He placed No. 17 overall at Baseball Prospectus, No. 21 at Baseball America, and No. 27 via John Sickels, with his by-far worst placement still coming at No. 60 at MLB Pipeline. And even despite that relatively bearish rating from Pipeline, they still singled him out as having the best slider in the minors. He’s not just a good A’s prospect, he’s one of the handful of top youngsters in the entire sport.

It’s not hard to see why Puk’s stock is so high. The lefty brings upper-90s heat alongside that highly touted slider, and we barely even saw him use his changeup last year as the A’s cautiously eased him into action. Furthermore, his lanky 6’7 frame makes all of his stuff look even more terrifying. He still has to fully prove his ability to control and command his arsenal against top competition, but the raw stuff gives him an enormous ceiling, toward the front of a rotation if all goes well.

Of course, like so many top names in Oakland’s current system, Puk’s progress was stalled by injury. He seemed on track to reach the majors in 2018, but instead lost the season to Tommy John surgery. Fortunately, he returned to health and got back on track in 2019 — he maintained his pre-surgery velocity, and showed well enough in his minor league rehab to punch a ticket to an MLB debut, where he threw nearly a dozen quality innings.

Like Jesus Luzardo before him on this list, Puk is no longer a purely theoretical idea. We’ve seen him pitch in real life, we’ve seen his upper-90s heat and wipeout slider, and we’ve seen him retire big-league hitters. That doesn’t mean he’s a finished product, as he’s still got work to do in his final stages of development, but there’s every reason to expect we’ll watch him wearing green and gold this year while contributing to a contending squad.

The same can be said of Sean Murphy, who fell two votes shy of earning this No. 2 spot. Out of the four major national evaluators listed above, Puk placed ahead of Murphy on three of them, with only Pipeline swapping the pair. Really there’s no wrong answer, as both of them are phenomenal prospects poised to make big impacts in Oakland immediately; it’s effectively a tie between them, and comparing a pitcher and catcher is like apples and oranges. But someone has to get the nod, and in the end it’s Puk defending his spot from last year’s list.

Here is the voting process.

  • Five candidates will be listed on the ballot. The voting will take place in the comments section. I will start with a comment listing all five players, and then I will respond to that with five new comments in the style of “Vote: Player Name” for each candidate. Please do not reply directly to the official “Vote” comments, so that the ballot can stay together in one group.
  • Choose your ONE favorite by Rec’ing the comment with his name. Please only vote for one. The player who receives the most Rec’s earns the next spot on the CPL, while the remaining four players move on to the next ballot where they are joined by a new nominee.
  • In the comments, below the official voting, the community will nominate players to be put onto the ballot for the next round. Similar to the ballot, I will start with a comment calling for nominations, which can then be made as a response to my comment. The format for your comment should be “Nomination: Player Name”.
  • After the first nomination for a player has been put in, all other votes for that player will come from Rec’ing his comment. The player with the most Rec’s earns the nomination.
  • If a prospect is traded, his name will be crossed out, and all other players will be moved up a space. If a prospect is acquired, a special vote will be put up to determine where that player should rank.

* * *

The new nominee is James Kaprielian. The big right-hander finally took the mound for an A’s affiliate last summer, nearly two full years after being acquired from the Yankees in the Sonny Gray trade. He essentially missed three seasons to an extended Tommy John experience, but in 2019 he got back on track for the first time in his pro career and found success in the upper minors. He’ll already be age-26 this year, so the clock is noticeably ticking, but just by returning to health he took the first massive step toward realizing his highly touted talent.

Hitter rates (poor/avg/great):

  • wRC+ (75/100/135)
  • BB% (5.0%/8.5%/12.0%)
  • K% (30%/22%/14%)

Nominees on the current ballot:

Sean Murphy, C

Expected level: MLB | Age 25

2019 stats (AAA): 140 PAs, 136 wRC+, 10 HR, 10.7% BB, 22.1% Ks
2019 stats (MLB): 60 PAs, 135 wRC+, 4 HR, 10.0% BB, 26.7% Ks

MLB Pipeline grades and scouting report (2020):

Scouting grades: Hit: 50 | Power: 50 | Run: 40 | Arm: 70 | Field: 65 | Overall: 55

While Murphy has always been known for his glove work, he has the chance to be an impact player on both sides of the ball. He continues to make a ton of contact with his short right-handed swing, keeping his strikeouts low. That’s all the more impressive because of his considerable power, which could eventually be above-average at his peak.

Even when he’s not hitting, Murphy can make a huge impact behind the plate. He has great hands and one of the strongest arms of any position player prospect in the game. He’s agile with excellent footwork and pitchers love to throw to him because of his receiving and game-calling skills. Assuming health, he has all the tools to become a standout big league regular now.

* * *

Daulton Jefferies, RHP

Expected level: Triple-A | Age 24

2019 stats (A+): 2.40 ERA, 15 ip, 21 Ks, 2 BB, 1 HR, 2.13 FIP
2019 stats (AA): 3.66 ERA, 64 ip, 72 Ks, 7 BB, 7 HR, 3.19 FIP

MLB Pipeline grades and scouting report (mid-2019):

Scouting grades: Fastball: 60 | Slider: 50 | Changeup: 55 | Control: 55 | Overall: 45

Jefferies did participate in mini camp as the 2019 season approached and the ball was coming out of his hand well. His velocity was up to 90-91 mph in bullpen sessions and he’d shown excellent command of his low-90s fastball in the past. His changeup has the chance to be a plus pitch, thrown with terrific deception, and the bottom falls out of the pitch. His slider looks more like a cutter to some and it has more teeth that way, with the A’s wishing he would have a little more finish on the end of it to turn it into a better-than-average pitch.

Jefferies was always known as a strike-thrower before the injury, and he got back to filling up the zone in 2019. After good post-surgery progress, he’s attacking the organizational ladder in earnest.

* * *

Nick Allen, SS

Expected level: Double-A | Age 21

2019 stats (A+): 328 PAs, 122 wRC+, 3 HR, 8.5% BB, 15.9% Ks

MLB Pipeline grades and scouting report (mid-2019):

Scouting grades: Hit: 50 | Power: 30 | Run: 60 | Arm: 60 | Field: 65 | Overall: 50

Allen certainly did struggle in the first half of 2018, hitting just .198 with a. .513 OPS in the Midwest League before the All-Star break. Some of that is because of the aforementioned lack of strength, though the A’s think he can add some to help him stay durable, but much of it can be attributed to Allen having to deal with the loss of a family member in early May. In the second half, Allen corrected a little drift in his swing and started impacting the baseball more, posting a .274 average and .679 OPS after the break. His walk rate went up and his strikeout rate dropped as his pitch recognition improved. He also stopped worrying about trying to lift or drive the ball, understanding that consistent contact and on-base skills, combined with his plus speed, are his ticket.

There’s never been any question that Allen’s glove will carry him to the big leagues. His arm is strong and accurate and he can throw from any angle to go along with his plus range and outstanding hands. A greater understanding of who he is offensively could help him become a defensive-oriented regular.

* * *

Robert Puason, SS

Expected level: Rookie League | Age 17

2019 stats: Has not played U.S. pro ball yet

MLB Pipeline grades and scouting report (mid-2019):

Scouting grades: Hit: 50 | Power: 50 | Run: 65 | Arm: 60 | Field: 55 | Overall: 50

The A’s had just over $5.9 million in their international bonus pool at the start of the 2019-20 signing period. They used nearly all of it, $5.1 million, to sign Puason, the talented shortstop who was ranked No. 2 on MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 international prospect list.

Puason is lean and wiry, with a projectable and durable frame. A fast-twitch athlete, the switch-hitter can make solid contact from both sides of the plate. He has shown a polished approach with fluid swings and the ability to spray line drives to all fields. He has good barrel control and extension for his age. Like most prospects his age, he continues to work on his hitting mechanics, and it’s the development of the hit tool that could make him an everyday player in the big leagues one day. For now, he uses a semi-open stance and semi-uppercut swing from both sides and projects to have average power. He’s already an above-average runner.

On defense, he shows fluid actions and good footwork. He has an above-average throwing arm now with solid carry and it’s expected to get better as he develops. Add good hands along with great instincts, and it makes for an above-average package that could keep Puason at shortstop for the rest of his career.

* * *

James Kaprielian, RHP

Expected level: Triple-A | Age 26

2019 stats (A+): 4.46 ERA, 36⅓ ip, 43 Ks, 8 BB, 6 HR, 4.43 FIP
2019 stats (AA): 1.63 ERA, 27⅔ ip, 26 Ks, 8 BB, 2 HR, 3.60 FIP
2019 stats (AAA): 2.25 ERA, 4 ip, 6 Ks, 0 BB, 0 HR, 0.80 FIP

MLB Pipeline grades and scouting report (mid-2019):

Scouting grades: Fastball: 60 | Curveball: 55 | Slider: 55 | Changeup: 55 | Control: 55 | Overall: 45

While at UCLA, Kaprielian had a fastball that was largely average velocity-wise, but played up because of his command of the pitch. There was excitement when he experienced a jump in his velocity at the outset of his pro career, going from 88-92 to 93-96 mph while touching 99 mph. He was healthy, finally, at instructs last fall, but wasn’t popping the radar gun like that. He does have three secondary offerings that all can be above-average, with a tight slider and a changeup with good fade to it, not to mention a solid curve he mixes in effectively. Kaprielian repeats his delivery well and has always been a strike-thrower.

More than anything, the right-hander needs to turn in a healthy season. The A’s are sure to proceed cautiously with Kaprielian to give him the best chance of fulfilling his potential as a mid-rotation starter.

* * *

Vote in the comments below for your favorite of the five by Rec’ing his “Vote: (Player Name)” comment, and post your nomination(s) as well!