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Aces Wild: Time For The A’s To Get A Break?

Scottsdale Scorpions v Mesa Solar Sox
“Strike 3! And the fan is on his foot!”
Photo by Chris Bernacchi/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. In 1990, the “4 Aces” were foreshadowed in the same way your lottery ticket foreshadowed you being a millionaire. Few A’s fans could even name the 4 pitchers who were supposedly going to lead Oakland into the next wave of greatness. Perhaps in hindsight, Dave Zancanaro and Don Peters weren’t all that worth getting excited about. (The other two, Kirk Dressendorfer and Todd Van Poppel, pitched in the big leagues but were never confused for an “ace”.)

Fast forward to the early 2000s and the A’s made another try at a handful of studs and this time it really took. Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito formed the “Big Three” and were so interchangeable that Zito wound up slotting in as the #3 SP in a season where he finished 23-5.

Now here are the A’s, rebuilding with a strong focus so far on acquiring pitching prospects, hoping to accumulate a group from which multiple frontline SPs could emerge. Certainly no one profiles as likely to become an actual ace, and yet if you combine squinting and dreaming the talent and upside are there.

The A’s would just have to get lucky for a change, in the way they did when they acquired a mediocre John Mabry only to watch him perform like an MVP for a magical stretch and like they did when they got Josh Donaldson as a ‘lottery ticket’ behind the more advanced Sean Gallagher, Eric Patterson, and Matt Murton, a trio that could have been nicknamed “The Big Three Busts”.

So let’s not analyze today so much as dream, traveling to a land in which the A’s, losers of 102 games this season and having seen most of their newly acquired prospects take steps backward, get smiled on by that goddess of unpredictability that is baseball.

Mason Miller

Miller is not one of the A’s draftees we have heard the most about, probably because the 24 year old has pitched all of 20 innings in his minor league career and has yet to post a single win. Winless 24 year olds with 20 innings of experience are rarely on your “future ace” radar.

And yet, similar to the path James Kaprielian took to the big leagues it is health and not stuff that has held Miller back and in 2022 he demonstrated that if he can stay on the mound he can be something special. And by all accounts, the A’s 3rd round pick from 2021 is healthy and ready to be fast-tracked to the show.

Miller throws high 90s (literally 98MPH-100MPH) with a true “wipeout slider” and it has earned him 34 strikeouts in those 20 IP. Perhaps just as key is that Miller walked only 6, throwing a lot of strikes, few of them hittable (12 hits).

Miller added 16.2 IP in the just completed Arizona Fall League, allowing just 9 hits while walking only 4 and striking out 20. So that’s now 36.2 IP in which Miller has surrendered 21 hits, walked 10 and struck out a sensational 54.

Certainly Miller’s floor is to blow out his arm, as neither a 99MPH fastball nor a crackling slider is considered to be a terrific regimen for the body, but his upside is sky high. Enough so that he makes today’s dream of being one of Oakland’s aces, perhaps joining the “dream team” in 2024.

Luis Medina

“You have got to be kidding me.” Well yes, kind of. The overwhelming odds are that Medina will be a bust the likes of which only Carol Doda and Dolly Parton can comprehend. Medina has, quite literally, walked 266 batters in 382 minor league innings, a “per 9 IP” rate of 6.3.

If you are consistently walking more than 2 batters every 3 innings in the minors, across 5 seasons and 4 levels, what you are is simply a bad pitcher. Being out of options, likely Medina “earns” a spot as the A’s long man in 2023 by virtue of his options status not because he has done anything to warrant a big league job.

Here’s the thing. Medina has, unquestionably, ace stuff and when you look at his mechanics it’s a big hard to figure out exactly why he doesn’t throw strikes more consistently. I have only seen his better moments, because highlight reels tend to throw the pitches that strike hitters out and not the flurry of balls and wild pitches in between.

What Medina has going for him is that with the same high 90s velocity as Miller, and an equally devastating curve to match Miller’s slider, Medina can practically aim for the center of the strike zone and let hitters try to solve his assortment of pitches that move and dart suddenly. Obviously at the big league level this isn’t literally true, but the point is that if Medina ever finds the one skill of repeating his pitches with any semblance of control he is going to be a force.

And by force we mean he has “ace” upside that maybe, possibly, squint-and-see-ally, if it’s time for the A’s get a break with an unlikely breakout.......why not Medina attacking the zone and joining Miller in throwing triple digit fastballs and knee buckling breaking pitches that have batters screaming “uncle!” and trudging back to the dugout wishing they could just face Ken Waldichuk instead?

Gunnar Hoglund

For most of the A’s off-season acquisitions it was a lost season instead of a growing one. Cristian Pache and Kevin Smith couldn’t hit big league pitching, injuries slowed Ryan Cusick, J.T. Ginn, and Gunnar Hoglund.

But at least with Hoglund it was a known issue, as the A’s chose him (in the Matt Chapman deal) understanding he was recovering from Tommy John surgery and would not be ready to pitch until August.

When he did pitch, though, he was fine: 8 scoreless innings (2 unearned runs) in Rookie and A ball, with 1 BB and 8 K. More importantly, Hoglund comes with “front of the rotation” pedigree having been selected in the 1st round, with the 19th overall pick, by the Blue Jays in 2021.

So like Miller, Hoglund suffers from a lack of minor league innings and experience but not from a lack of significant upside. He was always, and still is, Oakland’s best chance to make something out of the Chapman trade which has looked tepid at best so far, but Hoglund also has a chance to make it a big win for the A’s.

After all, aces aren’t easy to come by except in this article where the stars align and the A’s are anointed, by the baseball gods, that confluence of “potential meeting actualization”.

Before we wake up, let’s imagine a 2024 starting rotation in which Miller, Medina, and Hoglund are emerging as the aces their stuff allows to be their upsides. Suddenly Ken Waldichuk is your luxury #4 SP — your Ted Lilly in one era, your Cory Lidle in another — and your #5 SP is Cole Irvin. Or J.P. Sears. Or James Kaprielian.

Wouldn’t it be nice? Don’t wake up, as reality isn’t nearly as fun as this. Just enjoy the very real 1% chance it could happen. Wouldn’t it be nice?