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Oakland A’s 2021 Community Prospect List: A.J. Puk is the top prospect

The lefty returns to the top spot after two years in second place

Oakland Athletics Summer Workouts Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

Our 2021 Community Prospect List officially has its first member, as pitcher A.J. Puk took the top spot in a landslide, with 56 out of 95 votes. 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. A.J. Puk, LHP (+42%)

This isn’t the first time Puk has been No. 1 on our CPL. He led the list in 2018 as well, before Jesús Luzardo took over for two straight years. Now Luzardo has graduated to the majors, but Puk is still hanging around on the prospect radar.

The reason is injury. Puk returned from Tommy John surgery long enough to make an impressive MLB debut in 2019, but then his shoulder acted up and cost him all of 2020. It was a lost season for the former No. 6 overall draft pick, pressing pause on his development and leaving him exactly where he’d started the year — as a southpaw with immense talent still waiting for the chance to prove himself at the highest level.

The good news is, nothing else about Puk’s profile has soured. Nobody questions the lefty’s plus-plus stuff, as multiple mainstream sources point out he still has the tools to be a front-end starter. Even a backup plan as a lockdown late-inning reliever could offer significant impact. But it all begins with his health, because he has to actually take the mound to deliver on any of his potential.

That’s all enough to keep Puk toward the top of the chart, but his No. 1 prospect distinction also owes thanks to the particularly weak state of the A’s farm — after all, he only made one national Top 100 list. The system has some talent but all of it is attached to similar levels of uncertainty, and nobody got the chance to show one way or the other in the minors last summer. With no can’t-miss names to choose from, his superior ceiling was enough to get the vote from AN for another year.

One way or other, this is surely Puk’s last turn in the upper echelon of our CPL. If he gets back on track and pitches a healthy season, then it will likely come at the MLB level and he’ll graduate out of prospect status. If he misses another year, then the injury risk will too heavily outweigh the ceiling and he’ll fall down the rankings. If he gets back on the mound but struggles in Triple-A and can’t force his way back to Oakland, then new questions will rise about his ceiling and he’ll drop.

The A’s are going cheaper than ever this season after the coronavirus pandemic cut their revenues, which means they’ll have to draw from within to continue their current window of contention. Adding a successful Puk to the mix would be one of the biggest boons they could hope for in 2021.

Extra note: This is the fifth time in six years that our No. 1 prospect has been a left-handed pitcher, after Sean Manaea (2016), Puk (2018), and Luzardo (2019-20). The only exception was infielder Franklin Barreto (2017).

The voting process is explained below. Please take a moment to read this before participating:

  • 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 for the next ballot.
  • 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 right-hander finally made his long-awaited MLB debut last summer, after fighting back from several years of injury obstacles. He got knocked around in his first brief action in the majors, but he cranked his fastball as high as 96.9 mph in short stints, which answered his biggest question about whether his velocity would return after Tommy John surgery. He turns 27 next month, which is old for this prospect list, but he’s ready for another try in the bigs as soon as he can get his next call.

Hitter rates (poor/avg/great):

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

Nominees on the current ballot:

James Kaprielian, RHP

Expected level: MLB | Age 27

2020 stats: 2 games, 3⅔ ip, 3 runs, 4 Ks, 2 BB, 2 HR
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:

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

No one has worked harder than Kaprielian to get back on the mound and start moving towards the big leagues. If his 2019 is any indication, he’s not going to be the guy who was pumping mid-90s heat with potentially plus secondary stuff back in college. Instead, he’s learning to pitch at 91-93 mph while occasionally touching 95, commanding the pitch very well. Because of his injury history, Kaprielian was a little tentative in throwing his secondary stuff. He still throws a curve and a slider, with the latter being a bit better, but they do blend into each other at times and neither were better than average last year. He does show a solid changeup with fade at times.

While Kaprielian is a physical pitcher, kind of in the mold of a Kevin Brown type, he’s going to have to be more of a finesse and command type and he did fill up the strike zone consistently in 2019. There’s a chance his stuff snaps back a bit the further removed from injury he gets, but he looks more like a back-end starter than the potential frontline one he projected to be coming out of college.

* * *

Nick Allen, SS

Expected level: Double-A | Age 22

2020 stats: DID NOT PLAY (but was at alternate site camp)
2019 stats (A+): 328 PAs, 122 wRC+, 3 HR, 8.5% BB, 15.9% Ks

MLB Pipeline grades and scouting report:

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

No matter how much Allen improves at the plate, there’s no question he’ll always be a defensive-minded player. He makes every play at shortstop, with plus range, hands, footwork and a plus arm that allows him to make throws from every angle and on the run. All of it plays up even more because of his outstanding instincts that give him Gold Glove potential. He also showed he can handle second base easily, sharing time at both spots with fellow prospect Jeremy Eierman, though there is no question which of the two is a full-time shortstop long term.

Before the injury, Allen was executing his offensive game plan better than he had previously, showing an advanced approach at the plate and using his line-drive swing well, though he never got his timing back when he returned from injury in the AFL. He can get caught buying into the launch angle game a bit too much and that’s never going to be part of his game. At the very least, Allen looks like a No. 8 or 9 hitter as a big league regular. If his offensive gains before he got hurt are real, that plus his defensive profile point to a much larger impact.

* * *

Tyler Soderstrom, C

Expected level: Low-A | Age 19

2020 stats: DID NOT PLAY (he was in high school, then joined A’s alternate site camp)

MLB Pipeline grades and scouting report:

Scouting grades: Hit: 60 | Power: 50 | Run: 50 | Arm: 60 | Field: 40 | Overall: 50

Soderstrom is an athletic, left-handed-hitting catcher whose bat is ahead of his defense. At the plate, he’s really polished with a solid overall approach and makes the kind of loud contact that makes people sit up and take notice when he’s taking batting practice. He’s a hitter first, but he will get to his power. He might be a tick above average as a runner, especially for a catcher, and has shown he has the athleticism to play third and even the outfield.

Soderstrom’s hands work and he has a very strong arm, but he is raw in terms of blocking and game management. If the A’s want him to stick behind the plate, they might need to be patient, with an offensive-minded big league regular backstop his ceiling, knowing his bat will likely profile well at any of a number of positions if needed.

* * *

Robert Puason, SS

Expected level: Rookie League | Age 18

2020 stats: DID NOT PLAY (but was at A’s alternate site camp)

MLB Pipeline grades and scouting report:

Scouting Grades: Hit: 50 | Power: 45 | Run: 65 | Arm: 60 | Field: 60 | Overall: 50

Puason is lean and wiry, with a frame that should add strength, and a body type that reminds some of former All-Star shortstop Tony Fernandez. He has a smooth stroke from both sides of the plate with the ability to barrel up the baseball consistently and spray line drives to all fields. As he matures and grows into his 6-foot-3 frame, there’s sure to be power to come. How much remains to be seen, but a floor of 15 homers annually seems more than reasonable given his long levers and some leverage to his swing.

A plus runner, there’s no question about Puason’s ability to play shortstop. He can really pick it and throw it, with fluid actions, good footwork and plus range to go along with a very strong arm. He’s already displaying solid instincts as well and will get to show off his tools in earnest this summer.

* * *

Daulton Jefferies, RHP

Expected level: MLB | Age 25

2020 stats (MLB): 1 start, 2 ip, 5 runs, 1 K, 2 BB, 2 HR
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:

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

Not only did Jefferies stay healthy in 2019 as the A’s closely monitored his workload, his stuff and command came back, allowing him to post a ridiculous 93/9 K/BB ratio over 79 innings of work. He’s likely going to work with a low-90s fastball, around 91-93 mph, though he can reach back for a 94 now and again and it plays up because of his ability to command it so well. He complements it with a plus changeup that he sells really well with his arm action and good tunneling with excellent fade that drops off the table right at the end.

He’s never had a great breaking ball and he’s experimented with different pitches and grips. He didn’t throw it a lot in 2019 and it was inconsistent, looking like a slider-cutter hybrid more often than not. If he can commit to a breaking ball to give him a third average offering, he has the chance to be a No. 4 type starter in short order, a kind of Kyle Hendricks type with a bit more velocity.

* * *

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!

Programming Note: Each CPL vote will run for around 24 hours, so don’t delay making your selections! Next ballot goes up at noon Thursday.