A surprise acquisition last offseason, JJ Bleday possesses many of the skills the Oakland Athletics have thrived with in the past. However, he has one more leap to make before proving he’s worth playing every day and that he’s more valuable than what the A’s gave up to get him.
Following a finally healthy and effective season out of the bullpen for former 6th overall pick A.J. Puk, the A’s unexpectedly traded him to the Miami Marlins for another former top pick in Bleday. The Marlins took the left-handed outfielder with their 4th pick in the 2019 draft and he made it as high as 20th on national prospect lists. Unfortunately, he didn’t live up to the hype his first couple of minor league seasons, putting up a .690 OPS in his debut at High-A and a .695 OPS at Double-A after sitting out in 2020. Much like Puk, however, he had a 2022 breakout that re-instilled in his talent, putting up a Noda-ish .229/.365/.470 line at Triple-A. He struggled greatly in his major league debut with the Marlins, but the A’s figured a high-ceiling position player would have more value than an injury-prone setup arm.
What were the expectations?
Though it was likely he’d never produce to the level one would expect from someone picked that high in the draft, Bleday had all the tools to be an above average, well-rounded outfielder. He walks a lot, he hits for power, he has some range, and he can throw it hard. If he could do most of the things in the majors that he did at Triple-A, the A’s would probably win the Puk trade, unless he somehow evolved into Josh Hader or a healthy mid-rotation starter. It was a pretty fair one-for-one challenge trade with lots of risk and reward to go around.
With a crowded outfield player mix (in relative terms) to start the 2023 season, the A’s let Bleday get reps at Triple-A as they tried out Brent Rooker and Connor Capel. With the latter predictably not working out, the team tagged Bleday in after he put up a 1.110 OPS in Las Vegas. The numbers were obviously boosted by the hitter-friendly environment, but he made a huge leap in his plate discipline, cutting his strikeout rate to a very strong 12.7%, less than half of the 27% rate he put up the prior year.
Though he didn’t maintain that at the major league level, he was still down to a solid 23.8% while walking at an elite 13.9% of the time that would rank him 12th in the major leagues, right ahead of Mookie Betts. Unfortunately, that didn’t quite translate to elite production as he ended the season with a .195/.310/.356 slash line with 10 homeruns and just 0.1 fWAR in 303 plate appearances. Despite the ugly batting average, his three-true-outcomes skillset lifted him to a nearly league average 92 wRC+.
What went right? What went wrong?
Bleday’s strikeout-to-walk ratio has improved nearly every year and is on par with many above average hitters. It’s the quality of his contact that’s holding him back from taking the next step at the plate. His 88.6 mph exit velocity isn’t bad but it’s not where it needs to be for him to tap into the raw power we know he possesses. Statcast tells us his 2023 numbers were right around where they should be, so there’s nothing to blame but his own bat. His defense also didn’t rate particularly well, but he fared much better in the corners than in center.
Still just 26 years old, Bleday will enter the 2024 season with more chances to prove he’s an everyday outfielder. With no one separating themselves from the pack yet (outside of Rooker, who’ll likely spend most days DH’ing again), he should be in the lineup on most days. He’ll likely never be a liability as long as his OBP stays above .300 and he’s playing well on the grass, but his bat has to take a leap in order for him to not get relegated to fourth outfielder territory. Puk had another solid season out of the bullpen, even looking like an elite closer for a period of time, and could move into the rotation next season. Despite the comparison being wonky, the two will be connected as long as they’re with their current teams. So Bleday, it’s your move. Win this trade for Oakland.