31-80 in year 2 of what filmmakers would choose, as a working title, A Rebuild Gone Awry. However, from the darkness rises a phoenix proclaiming, “Not all is lost!” Depending on what century it is, the phoenix may or may not mix in a “forsooth” or a “ye” so we won’t worry about that just now. The key players to note...
At the big league level, Tyler Soderstrom’s first cup of coffee has left a bit to be desired (it’s a changeup, Tyler, you saw it last pitch too). But he’s 21 and even he has shown unexpected strengths behind the plate with good framing and very good blocking of errant pitches.
For good reason, so far the excitement centers around Zack Gelof, who looks every bit like a keeper. The positives so far? Gelof has hit for power (5 HR in 18 games, missed another one by a foot), has flashed speed (5 SB in 6 attempts), and has demonstrated the ability to hit the ball hard, and for power, to all fields.
This is thanks in part to a lightning quick bat and Gelof’s tendency to “stay inside the ball” really well. His right-center field swing is a thing of beauty, reminiscent of Josh Donaldson’s and Mark Canha’s majestic quick-strike capability.
Perhaps as important is Gelof’s solid defense at 2B, a relatively new position for him. He has shown soft hands, an accurate arm, good range (Fangraphs loves him so far, with a 15.3 UZR/150) and zero panic, and he clears himself beautifully on the pivot to turn DPs.
There is certainly one area worthy of quibble and that is the K-rate that contributes strongly to a low .236 batting average. Through 76 PAs Gelof’s K-rate stands at 31.6%, with some swing-and-miss tendencies in the zone. But it’s not hard to envision that with a chance to acclimate and adjust to the big leagues Gelof can bring that down to 25% and while that’s far from elite it’s probably good enough to make him a genuine impact player.
Hernaiz is looking like the A’s shortstop of the future and it’s hard to see how that future doesn’t begin in April, 2024. Hernaiz hasn’t just replicated his 2022 breakout season; as he has moved up the ladder he is actually getting better. And he only turned 22 this week.
Hernaiz batted .305/.376/.456 last year in A+ ball. The A’s put him at AA Midland to start the 2023 season and the SS responded by crushing it, in a pitcher’s league, to the tune of .338/.393/.486 with an impressive 15% K-rate.
So Oakland promoted Hernaiz to AAA and all he has done so far, in 20 games, is to bat .361/.427/.569 with 8 BB and 7 K (his K-rate at AAA is 8.6%). Just another Las Vegas mirage? No, Hernaiz has actually hit better away from LV. On the last road trip he was 9 for 20 with 3 BB and 0 K.
Meanwhile, scouts have pivoted from “he’ll probably have to move off of SS” to suggesting that while his arm strength is not great Hernaiz’ range, footwork and fundamentals combine to offset his average arm and many scouts are now predicting Hernaiz will play a perfectly good SS in the big leagues.
No doubt, the A’s trades have sent the club spiraling backwards in most cases, from Kyle Muller to Kevin Smith to the highly disappointing (at least so far) Shea Langeliers. But Hernaiz has a chance to be a godsend at a premium position, moving Nick Allen into the part-time utility role to which he is probably best suited.
Butler has been my “holy grail” ever since he was in A-ball and I got a strong sense — call it intuition or just luck — that he was going to be a star. Butler not only has power, speed, plate discipline, athleticism and tools, he seems to have two other important qualities.
One is intelligence leading to the ability to make major adjustments, such as cutting his K-rate from last year’s 31.5% to under 20% both at AA and AAA this season without sacrificing power. The other is that intangible “It” factor that just oozes “quiet confidence” suggesting that the moment is never too big because the player simply belongs.
Butler mastered AA (.285/.352/.465, 10 HR and 13 SB in 67 games) and has put up numbers so far at AAA that are solid (.280/.337/.493), though not excellent relative to this extreme hitter’s league. Nonetheless, in just 20 AAA games he has 4 HR and 8 SB — in 8 attempts.
So there’s 3 players who will likely be your 2024 A’s up the middle on the infield and in the corner outfield, all of whom have a real chance of impacting the game on both sides of the ball.
Now 3 players, even if all superb, doth not a contender make, especially when none of them can pitch. But it may be an exciting, and legitimate core, to build around and keep bringing talent up to join. We have already seen some of that talent in Soderstrom and Jordan Diaz, Esteury Ruiz and Ryan Noda, Mason Miller and the increasingly intriguing Luis Medina.
The 2024 A’s will almost certainly be better than the 2023 A’s (I know, low bar), but also they will be really interesting because we should finally see a saturation of real talent scattered around the field. Stay the course, peeps!