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A’s “Can’t Develop Hitters!” Narrative May Be On Life Support

Chicago White Sox v Oakland Athletics
“Is it July so I can get hits again?”
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

For years it was hard to argue that the A’s, whether through bad scouting, bad coaching, or just bad luck, had difficulty producing great hitters from their minor league system.

Here was an organization that pulled starting pitcher after starting pitcher from the farm to the Show: The “Big 3” (Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito) were all drafted by the A’s, as were perfect game artist Dallas Braden, essential 2012 mid-rotation SPs Dan Straily and A.J. Griffin, Rich Harden...the list goes on and on.

And then there’s the list that just didn’t go on and on. Or hardly on at all. Oakland drafted Eric Chavez in 1996, which is 16 years before the 2012 draft. From 1996-2012, who was the best hitter they drafted and developed? You can put your vote in the comments with the implied “That was the best hitter we selected and produced in 16 years?”

Then the A’s started to “hit” on some guys: Matt Olson, Matt Chapman, Sean Murphy. This was a huge step forward for the organization, though all 3, like the less successful but still dangerous Chad Pinder, sacrificed a lot of contact and batting average in order to hit for impressive power.

Baby steps. From “epic fail after epic fail” to flawed but highly successful offensive threats. Still the narrative dogged Oakland: around the league you see .300 hitters like Luis Arraez, 5-tool players like Mookie Betts, “pure hitters” like Tim “Hey it was nice to bump into you” Anderson. Where was the A’s fair share of “guys who can just flat out hit”?

The answer might be, “They’re on their way.” Don’t look now (what does that even mean?) but the A’s minor league system is currently stacked with quite a few prospects Oakland has drafted and is developing, who appear to be coming along rather nicely. Not all will make it, not all will thrive in the big leagues, but this group may be setting a standard that is a lot higher than “Um...Adam Piatt?”

If you read AN you likely know all the names, but let’s just take a moment to recap, with appreciation, how well the A’s are currently drafting and developing hitters:

Tyler Soderstrom

Widely considered to be the A’s #1 prospect, Soderstrom’s season numbers are dragged down by a terrible April (.159/.232/.317) when he was trying to play through a thumb injury. Since then, the 20 year old has handled long-A Lansing just fine, batting .287/.347 while slugging over .500 with a lofty .324/.392/.735 batting line in July.

This is on the heels of a terrific showing as a 19 year old at low-A Stockton, where he batted .306/.390/.568 before an oblique injury ended his season prematurely. It appears that when hitting with 10 fingers, Soderstrom is the “real deal”: a guy who is young for his league and hits like he’s old for his league.

Zack Gelof

Gelof was on a fast track to Oakland when he tore a pesky labrum in his left shoulder. But the 2nd round pick (2021) is another prospect who is rising fast and showing no signs of slowing down at the plate.

Gelof was so good at Stockton (.298/.393/.548) that he took a direct flight to AA Midland in 2022. You could say he was up to the challenge, as his 2022 batting line stands at .308/.381/.462. And he probably looks forward to AAA Las Vegas considering he enjoyed a cup of coffee there at the end of last season and went 7 for 12.

Gelof is just 22 and if the A’s haven’t developed him as a hitter they sure haven’t stood in his way. Barring injury/recovery issues, you should expect to see Gelof in Oakland sometime in 2023, likely the first of this group to surface in the big leagues.

Jordan Diaz

If you’re looking for a guy who fits the coveted description of “all he does is hit,” Diaz is probably your guy. He is plagued by questions about what position he can master on defense, and concerns around whether he walks enough to continue his success as he moves up the ladder. But...

We’re still waiting for Diaz to stop hitting and he’s now at AA at the tender age of 21 with no signs yet of slowing down. It’s unusual for a 21 year old to hit over .300 with power at AA, but the “can’t develop hitters” A’s seem to have such a guy in Diaz.

At age 20 he was young for Lansing and hit .288/.337/.483. In 2022, Diaz’ batting line for Midland currently stands at .307/.354/.506 with 14 HR. He started slowly in April (.238/.304/.365), but hit .309/.356/.596 in May, .299/.335/.520 in June, and is raking to the tune of .366/.416/.463 so far in July.

How Diaz’ hitting style will play at higher and higher levels is still very much in question, as his BB rate in July is “up” to 6.7%. But his K-rate is also impressively low at 15.9% and he figures to rise to AAA at age 22, giving him some time to make adjustments and work on flaws and still arrive to the big leagues at a young age.

Brett Harris

Harris is a 7th round pick that the A’s have also failed to destroy. Harris isn’t as young as the previous 3, having celebrated his 24th birthday last month (hey, turns out Harris and I share the same birthday — but not quite the same year).

So far he seems like a great pick and a budding success story, drafted only last year but proving to be too good for Lansing in 2022 (.304/.415/.578) and rising to AA in just his second pro year.

Harris hasn’t lit Midland on fire but he’s holding his own, with a .263/.357/.419 line. He also started slow in Lansing in 2021 before conquering it and then some at the start of 2022, so he may be someone who needs time to adjust to each level. But so far he’s been everything you could hope for from a 7th round pick.

Denzel Clarke

Don’t sleep on Clarke, a 4th round pick who showed up at the Futures game. 22 years old with a bevy of raw tools, Clarke batted .295/.420/.545, with 7 HR and 14 SB in 42 games for Stockton, earning him a promotion to Lansing (where he has struggled). He forms a toolsy “22 year old duo” with the now injured Lawrence Butler (.263/.351/.442 at Lansing)

So what is the overarching point here? It’s not just to continually recite nice hitting lines from the minors because the ones in the majors have mostly evoked nausea and depression.

It’s actually two points. One is that the organization that “can’t draft and develop hitters” has drafted (or in Diaz’ case, signed), and is developing pretty darn well so far, quite a few hitters who have a chance to make an impact in Oakland over the next 1-3 years.

The other point is that the A’s just had a draft in which they added some talented prospects they are banking on developing into the next wave of talent. No longer must you view this in the context of the long bridge to nowhere that connected Eric Chavez to Matt Olson.

Henry Bolte (2nd pick, 18 years old) is as talented as he is raw and as raw as he is talented. In projecting what the A’s might be able to do with him, for comps to work with teens and work with raw tools you can point to Soderstrom, Clarke, and Butler and it looks like the A’s might know what they’re doing after all.

Clark Elliott (3rd pick) has advanced “pure hitting” skills to all fields and Colby Thomas (4th pick) has elite exit velocities, while Daniel Susac (1st pick, 19th overall) comes from a good college program where the ball jumped off his bat with authority. The fast and successful rises of Gelof and Harris speak well to Oakland’s ability to move these bats forward.

Maybe the A’s can draft and develop hitters after all. After all, anyone can have a 16 year slump. Most exciting to me is the variety of types of hitters Oakland currently has coming up through the minors, and now entering the farm system, and how they aren’t just having success with one kind of hitter.

Of course it’s a long, long way from AA to the big leagues. But remember the age old proverb: The journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single ... lined the other way.

Poll

Who was the best hitter the A’s drafted and developed in between Eric Chavez and the Matts?

  • 16%
    I’ve answered in the comments.
    (25 votes)
  • 83%
    I would tell you, but then I would have to kill you.
    (125 votes)
150 votes total Vote Now