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Are the A’s accelerating prospect development?

The Athletics are churning out prospects rapidly, and pushing them to the major leagues more quickly than past years

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Oakland Athletics Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Last week I took a look at the state of the A’s farm system as a whole, and in general there was a lack of optimism in that post outside of a few key names. Here I want to expand more into how the system has formed into what it has, and before looking into talent acquisition I think it’s worth taking a shallow dive into the player development for the organization. Generally, player development is hard to quantify, as while we can put numbers to how much value a team got from a draft or trade it’s hard to judge whether any perceived gain or lack of value was based on the scouting aspect, development aspect, or sheer good/bad luck. What we can take a look at is the general path of development players have taken in the system and how that compares to the historic Oakland Athletics plan.

This is going to be a bit of a crude way to draw conclusions, however I looked at the position players since 2004 who have generated 10+ fWAR and pitchers who have generated 7.9+ fWAR (just to get a chance to lump Barry Zito in) and gauge some facets of their development in comparison to the modern young players. In total 13 position players and 10 pitchers fit the bill, of which seven players and seven pitchers were primarily develop within the A’s minor league system. Two obvious trends among the best stood out, and that was a short (typically around two full MLB seasons of games) development path, and some level of success within their rookie eligible seasons. These facts don’t exist in a vacuum, however, as most of these players were drafted out of college, and with an organization that typically deals players prior to free agency if a player has trouble early in his career it is hard for him to reach the 10 and 7.9 WAR thresholds due to the lack of time.

Taking a look through the position player history, and there is only one notable standout among those who developed into franchise leaders. Matt Olson, who was one of the rare high school draftees to have success in Oakland, took 586 games to reach the major leagues — 213 more than Josh Donaldson with the second most. Notably those two both had struggles in late season stints in Oakland before going on to develop more at Triple-A and have better second rookie seasons. The median number of games played was 320 by Matt Chapman, with a median Triple-A experience level of 86 games. This is, anecdotally, a trend you see with much of the top major league talent. Triple-A is not valued highly as a development location, but rather a place to stash players that can’t quite make the major league roster. Olson, for example, played 131 games at Triple-A which is still slightly less than a full season of action. The notable sticking point for players was Double-A, where the median experience prior to major league action was 121 games with only Mark Ellis (7) providing a notable outlier. Ellis would end up spending the most time of this group - 158 games - in Triple-A.

This latter point is one that seems to be a discrepancy in the modern strategy for Oakland. Looking at six young players likely to contribute in Oakland this year and notably they lack the Double-A experience of those successful prospects before them. Between Zack Gelof, Esteury Ruiz, Shea Langeliers, Tyler Soderstrom, Lawrence Butler, and Darell Hernaiz the median Double-A experience was 85.5 games, and all but Ruiz played fewer than 100 Double-A games. Notably, Ruiz was not in the system during his time at Double-A. Overall game experience (313.5) and Triple-A experience (75.5 games) both represented drops, but not nearly to the level of Double-A. Now not all of these players primarily developed in the Athletics system, and the three that did faced seemingly shortened development paths. Zack Gelof played just 201 games in the minor leagues, though he notably played the most at the upper levels of the trio with 168 games between Double and Triple-A. Butler and Soderstom, however, have played 268 and 376 games respectively, far off from Olson’s 586 games though not a long stretch from Eric Chavez who played 269 games in the minor leagues. Chavez did however outpace them both in upper minors experience, having played 135 games between Double-A and Triple-A prior to his 1998 call-up, versus 122 for Soderstrom and only 89 for Butler. This upper level experience seems to a significant stumbling block for these two players in particular, who struggled in their debuts.

There is a question that I ask here, and it surrounds why the Athletics would even push players like that. You do eventually have to get young guys time, and with the lack of major league investment they have to fill out a major league roster with someone, but the team is unlikely to compete across the next two seasons and is unlikely to retain these players beyond their team control. Thus, accelerating the development of Soderstrom and Butler serves to put them in a situation they are not ready to succeed in while also costing the team potential value in the future. I want to make it clear I’m not advocating for service time manipulation here. Guys like Gelof, Langeliers, and debatably Ruiz were clearly ready for the show and deserved the opportunities they got. Hernaiz has 144 games now at the upper levels, and there is a strong argument to be made that he should be the opening day shortstop. However for Butler and Soderstrom it seemed an unnecessary move that provides no present value and interrupts the development of players who otherwise should have been taking their necessary lumps in Double-A.

This is not to say this is out of the ordinary for players, and I’ll again draw on my experience with Atlanta. Within the organization and around the league the players that have major league success tend to spend only 2-3 seasons in the minor leagues. When guys are good they are just good immediately and Michael Harris II for example played in 43 Double-A games before winning Rookie of the Year. However, two points need to be made here. One is the impact of the alternate site, where Harris for example got significant playing time against Double and Triple-A quality players. Soderstrom had just been drafted when he spent time at the alternate site for Oakland and Butler as far as I can tell was not a part of that. The other is team success. While the 2000’s to 2010’s Oakland Athletics weren’t exactly a powerhouse, they typically put together at least respectable teams that came into the season with a chance to make the postseason. Thus, accelerating a prospect to the major leagues (like in Harris’s case) makes sense in order to bolster a potential winner and provide value during a team’s competitive window. The Athletics have no real reason to do that at the moment, and I question the handling of Soderstrom and Butler and due to this don’t really believe their rookie seasons were true reflections of their talent levels. Gelof of this crew is the most obviously fit to reach that 10 WAR threshold, as while I do have questions about his tool there is no question he moved quickly, spent significant portions of his minor league experience in the upper minors, and had immediate major league success. He trails only Yoenis Cespedes in rookie production for the A’s over the past 20 years, and among the top seven rookies by fWAR all had at least one more productive season, with injury issues to Ryan Sweeney and Bobby Crosby being significant factors to neither having lengthy careers. Langeliers and Ruiz are both floating in a bit of a grey area, where they had enough attributes to be major league players in 2023 and can’t yet be discounted long term, but haven’t given anyone confidence in their projections. For example, the two players immediately above Ruiz on the rookie fWAR list are Mark Canha and Dan Johnson, who took on quite different roles in their later careers.

As for the lower level Athletics players, there is some reason to hope they can follow the path that prior players had success in. Denzel Clarke had played only 164 minor league games, and has already reached 64 games at Double-A where he has had success. Max Muncy similarly played well in Double-A, should repeat the level, and should he play around 125 upper minor league games would reach the major leagues sometime this season after 330-ish total games.

The pitching side shows similar results, though arguably even less minor league experience is needed for the top players. Again all of the top players had early success in the major leagues, with the worst being Dallas Braden’s 0.9 fWAR in only 72 13 innings. However, a look at the top nine rookie starters gives a glance out how unpredictable pitching is. Each of these nine had 1.5+ fWAR in their debut season, and Brett Anderson, Joe Blanton, Sonny Gray, and Sean Manaea are among the seven fWAR leaders from the past 20 seasons. However Jarrod Parker, Cole Irvin, and Guillermo Moscoso were quickly out of the major leagues. Dan Straily and Tommy Milone went on to have lengthy careers, but as journeyman 5th starters who never contributed significantly to a team. That’s a more than 50% attrition rate among the best rookie pitches in the team’s recent history. So unfortunately early success doesn’t say too much for pitchers because of how quickly the algebra changes, but early failure is certainly a major red flag. It is not, however, a death sentence as Frankie Montas (who was not primarily developed with Oakland) did struggle during his rookie eligibility before being a solid major league pitcher.

Kyle Muller had already pitched more innings than the seven players that make up the top seven Athletics-produced pitching talent by the time he made his debut in 2021 with the Atlanta Braves. He then spent two more seasons trying to develop in Triple-A and struggling at the major league level. Muller unfortunately has never learned to command the ball well, and it’s fairly likely we’re seeing an early flameout from him. Similarly Luis Medina pitched in 398 23 innings before debuting with Oakland, though notably only 16 23 of that was at Triple-A. Still, he spent 166 13 innings at Double-A, and the median among the top seven Oakland pitchers is 293 13 total innings and 176 13 innings at the upper levels. Again we see a full season-ish or more of innings at the upper levels, with only Brett Anderson and Sean Manaea breaking the trend, and a median of 88 23 innings from Rich Harden for Triple-A experience.

The Athletics don’t really have a pitcher who has had the sort of major league success of even their rookie position players, with Medina really being the most experienced of the bunch. Yet again though, Mason Miller is a huge beacon of an outlier on this list. Of the Athletics top seven players Barry Zito was the quickest to the big leagues at an impressive 170 innings. Mason Miller has less than 40 minor league innings. He produced 0.7 fWAR in only 33 13 innings last year. The production here is outstanding but I really don’t think I need to tell anyone this it’s all about injuries for Miller. Pitching is an annoying game to play. Joe Boyle was also incredible in his short major league time last year, and fits right in with the rapid ascent of the top guys on the list with 237 13 innings, and again we’re seeing that quick push from the Athletics as he had 143 total upper level innings before debut. Joey Estes also fits this plan with 337 minor league innings and 137 upper level innings, though like Medina, Boyle, and Miller he had little Triple-A experience with only 32 23 innings. In fact those four have a combined 82 13 innings of Triple-A experience, which is less than the median Triple-A experience from the top performing group. It will be interesting to see if the same will happen with Royber Salinas, who currently sits at 253 innings of total minor league experience, with 67 13 in Double-A. He seems far off from the major leagues at this point, but the Athletics are so desperate for warm bodies to fill innings that they are effectively forgoing the Triple-A experience for pitchers to throw them against major league lineups.

All in all that seems to be the takeaway from everything I’ve seen in my research. Oakland largely targets older/near major league ready players be it in the draft or in trades, and pushes them to the major leagues as quickly as they can get them there. I would like to reiterate that generally the best players do make it to the major leagues quickly. However, in the most recent season this could be at the detriment of some players, who are taking a lack of upper level experience with them when they make a jump to the major leagues that is as big a leap as it has ever been. The contraction of the minor leagues has led to the talent gulf between levels, specifically Triple-A and the major leagues, than it has in years past and the Athletics are largely ignoring that for the sake of getting players to the major leagues. This is largely with no real purpose as the players aren’t ready or contributing to meaningful games, but they are also probably cheaper than getting talent outside of the organization. It remains to be seen if this trend continues, though I don’t think this is doom for the long-term development of a player. To use another Braves example, Dansby Swanson and Austin Riley were both largely rushed to the major leagues before they were ready and while it took Swanson until his contract year to really figure things out both have turned into very good major league players. Good players find a way to succeed through adversity, however in some cases pushing them too quick can stunt their growth or just lead to a core that only truly develops once they start getting expensive.