If there is ever one place to find hope in any major league organization, it’s the future of their youngest members. The farm system is the foundation of any successful modern baseball dynasty and is a place dreams unfortunately go to die more often than they are realized. It’s a tough life in minor league baseball, but those players who come out of it in the end shape the sport for years after their trek through the back fields and bus rides.
My name is Garrett Spain and since 2015 I have been a minor league writer at Battery Power covering the Atlanta Braves system. I asked Kris Willis if there was any space for me to help out at Athletic Nation, and I am truly excited for the opportunity to follow this system and provide minor league coverage here. In my opinion there is no better way to start out with the site than by giving myself a starting point and looking at an overview of the system as a whole. I had a chance to dig in and study these guys more this winter, and I’m going to do a five-part series looking at the current state of the Oakland Athletics farm system and how it’s been built this way. I have seen the full life cycle of a rebuild over in Atlanta, and I hope you can excuse references I make to that but it is the most familiar I am with a system and the framework for a lot of my understanding of both the good and bad decisions that general managers make. The first part of this is going to be me giving my general overview of the system, which players seem poised to contribute to the improvement of the major league team, and where the holes in the system are most apparent.
The depth of the pitching in the A’s system is clearly the biggest strength, and is a recipe that many contenders use to success. Teams need to hit to win games, but while a core group of position players can drive an offense, building a pitching staff is truly a war against the sport itself. There is going to be massive roster churn in even the most stable rotations, so having a well of talent to pick from is essential to the success of a team over 162The top tier of Oakland’s pitching prospects are all high-risk, but when building a major league roster effectively from scratch a team has to throw darts and hope that a number of players pan out rather than trying to build out 26 sure-fire players. Joe Boyle and Mason Miller are both prime examples of this, as while either seem likely to end up in the bullpen there is a tantalizing ceiling there that could provide the core for a dominant rotation. Boyle has already had success in a small sample despite the doubts of many scouts, and should he continue to defy the odds and hold onto his command improvement he would be the mold of a player a team is confident to call on in a playoff series. Miller himself seems guaranteed major league success, only truly having to battle his own body as physics is rarely kind to players that throw as hard as he does. If either pan out long term it can provide the core of a starting rotation, and throughout the system there are more that could be confident playoff talents.
A major league rotation doesn’t need to be five players deep. It needs to be about 12 players deep, and at least eight to nine of those will make enough starts to need to actually be competent pitchers. However, a team can skate into the playoffs and have success in those series just on the quality of the top three starters. Of all of the players in the system the most immediately impressive is Luis Morales, and even with a small sample of affiliated experience to draw from I would rank him as the top prospect in the system right now. Morales oozes talent from every bone, pairing projectability and athleticism with a snappy right arm and a pair of potentially elite breaking balls. The conventional wisdom of a pitcher needing a changeup to succeed in the rotation is falling by the wayside, and Morales’ pitch mix is ready to make a push up top prospect lists this season. Morales is clearly the best player on the field anytime he suits up and strolls to the mound, a trait rarely seen at his age and level of experience.
Beyond those three there aren’t many pitchers who feel immediately worthy of slotting into a contending teams plans, however the A’s have picked their spots and picked their players giving them a solid mix of talent to hopefully fill out major league depth in the future. There are three that I am very familiar with, the favorite of mine being Joey Estes. Estes lacks the top end talent of many of Oakland’s top pitching prospects, but his deep arsenal of pitches and ability to command them all has allowed him success at a young age. There will be growing pains, and for many players with fringy fastball velocity and shape the quality of major league hitters can eat them alive. Estes however is a player who is constantly looking to improve and execute his pitches, and separates himself with his approach and mentality on and off of the field. He projects to a number 4 or 5 role where he can fill valuable innings and provide stability. Freddy Tarnok is a maddeningly inconsistent player, who at various times has flashed a plus fastball, curveball, and changeup but has rarely been able to showcase all at the same time. Tarnok has struggled with injuries throughout his career, and that isn’t something that tends to improve with age. Royber Salinas is himself an immense gamble of risk vs reward, with one of the purest arm talents I’ve seen and a devastating slider to go along with it. However, he has already faced injuries and his high-effort delivery and lack of overall athleticism doesn’t bode well either for his health or command as a starter. Mix the likes of Steven Echavarria into this group, and there is an intriguing mix of talent throughout the system that could provide the basis to fill out those final spots that any team needs to get through a major league season. This doesn’t even include the potential resurgence of Gunnar Hoglund, who likely won’t ever live up to a first round billing but further provides a risky yet potentially reliable starter for Oakland’s future. The pitching for this organization is surprisingly deep, and while there are going to be growing pains with the potential of multiple prospects flooding the upper levels at once there is already the start of waves of talent to continuously restock the major league squad. This could potentially be not just a serviceable but actively good rotation within three years and with their focus on drafting young players like Echavarria and Cole Miller along with the consistent commitment to arm talent there should be a steady supply of intriguing pitching prospects flowing through for the coming years.
For my optimism regarding the pitching future, I am not impressed by the crop of position players in this system. Some of this I will discuss in future pieces (parts two, three, and five specifically), but the biggest weakness in the system as a whole is that there are no impact offensive talents. Oakland did not have the worst offense in baseball by wOBA or xwOBA last season, but they weren’t far off and it’s not really clear if there is any commitment to changing that in the future. Brent Rooker is a solid outfielder who would be a decent five or six hitter in a good lineup, but beyond that they are only really getting production from Zack Gelof and Ryan Noda, both of whom have comical issues making contact with literally any pitch type. So the future of this lineup falls to the graces of the minor league system, and I don’t really see significant help coming. I like Lawrence Butler quite a bit here, as while I think there are issues with the timing of his swing, I believe his swing path, athleticism, and bat speed all indicate he should be able to have long term success at the major league level. Some players like Butler never really figure it all out, but his history of success and seemingly fixable problems give me confidence that he can be a franchise cornerstone. Maybe not a superstar, but a player you can plug into the top four and know you’re getting quality at-bats from. Darell Hernaiz is also a major league hitter, and one I feel can be a consistent above average hitter with an on-base focus that would fit well at the top of a major league lineup. If his swing remains unchanged again this isn’t a superstar talent, but the dude can flat out hit, hits the ball hard when he does, and seems unwavering in his presence in the box. A solid hitter and a solid defender is good for any franchise to have, but for a team in the situation the A’s find themselves in, they need a gem. That franchise-changing, era0defining piece that injects energy into the team in every single game. That player just isn’t here.
This isn’t necessarily something that will hold true going forward. Ronald Acuna Jr., for example, signed for $300k and while it was clear immediately to the Braves and those that followed closely that he was special, it took a few years for that to really leak to the rest of the league. There is talent to be found, and every team needs to just be lucky to get over the hump. Some teams find luck more often than others, that’s the magic of scouting, but in every case there is just an element of luck. However, Oakland hasn’t really given themselves many chances to find that luck. First round pick Jacob Wilson is certainly a solid piece, but is a high-floor, defensive-minded player whose path to the big leagues should be rapid really what will turn the team around? Denzel Clarke and to a lesser extent Henry Bolte seem well-regarded in the community, and certainly the physical tools exist, but the lack of development and their respective swing mechanics and traits aren’t promising for improvement in swing-and-miss. The intrigue will be in the development of some core players who have shown both performance and tools but need the extra push from coaching to unlock their potential. From bottom to top, Myles Naylor is a fantastic athlete. With his athleticism and the lack of major flaws in his he is one that should make waves in future seasons, though he comes with risk given his current swing and miss and he lacks the elite power that could make him a potential star.
Max Muncy has power, a hit tool, and defensive ability, and by all accounts should be the best hitting prospect in the system right now. However he isn’t and it’s pretty clear to see that while improved his offensive game just isn’t mature enough to handle upper-level pitching. Muncy’s approach is concerningly similar to Dansby Swanson - a player who outside of a fantastic contract year hasn’t lived up to being the first overall pick. Muncy has lightning quick wrists and the ability to do damage to any pitch, but his tendency to hunt inner-half fastballs leaves him dangerously exposed on the outer part of the plate, especially to offspeed pitches. Muncy doesn’t have the patience or the eye to run elite walk rates, so in order to avoid hitting a wall against experienced pitchers there needs to be effort put into changing his approach now. Fortunately, it can be said that the changes have been attempted. Muncy was noticeably better at Double-A last season, and while still vulnerable on the outer half of the plate was able to more consistently fight those pitches off. However, until he learns to drive those pitches and create results in play he may never find the offensive success his potential says he could.
My favorite of this trio I’m highlighting is Daniel Susac, and I can’t wrap my head around the gulf between his physical toolset and performance. In a more direct opinion of where his development needs to go, Susac’s hands sit too high when he loads his swing. An already long-levered swing has even further to travel to get to contact, and his strikeouts and power suffer as a result. He lacks elite bat speed, and simplifying his swing would allow his natural power to be easier to reach in games as he wouldn’t be needing to bring his hands down as steeply to reach the ball. Again to reference the Braves, this is a method they’ve used with their high whiff power hitters at every level, and they’ve managed to turn multiple high-ground ball rate players into power-hitting threats. There are certainly approach-based aspects to that transformation, but the positioning of the hands to start the swing is a key component and Susac doesn’t do himself favors with his. The potential is tantalizing, because the guy can absolutely obliterate baseballs, and he makes enough contact to still be able to be a key potential lineup presence.
In my opinion offensive depth isn’t all that important, as there is only one player who can start at any given position and hitting skill is more stable than pitching. The Athletics do have a decent mix of talent, but the depth of high-end pure athletes doesn’t serve to give them many lottery tickets to cash in. I do think players like Denzel Clarke and Henry Bolte are important to an organization, despite early statements of my doubt, as even one success out of 20 of their type makes the investment in all of them worth it. Even lower down I like players like Logan Davidson, a player with power potential and a smooth swing that could develop into an above average hitter down the line. However a 26 year old utility player who hasn’t hit for both contact and power at the same time isn’t one that screams out anything more than low end starter or first man off of the bench. A valuable major league piece, but not one that makes or breaks any organization’s playoff aspirations.
All in all I think the lack of offensive firepower makes this a particularly poor system. There are solid players who can be everyday big leaguers, but the players who can carry a team are so far away from success and so few in the system that it doesn’t provide much optimism. I just don’t see enough of those players in this system to feel like they can build a lineup that can carry the Athletics to success. It will be a pitching-dependent future for the A’s, but if things develop right they could run into a very good starting rotation. For it to be anything in the imaginably near future it would take many dominoes falling into place. The attrition rate for pitching prospects is disturbing, and it truly takes a village of prospects to raise a starting rotation. There is hope, and I think the pitching in the system is slightly underrated by some publications (Fangraphs and MLB Pipeline in particular) especially with my evaluation of Luis Morales, but all in all there is a stunning lack of core-quality prospects for a team who is so deeply in a rebuilding stage.