|Original Published Date: January 14, 2020|
Few teams in baseball can match the Oakland Athletics top three minor league players. Jesus Luzardo, AJ Puk and Sean Murphy are elite prospects with all three having early success in their major league debut. While Luzardo is listed number one on the list, it wasn’t clear cut. In fact, you can make an argument for all three at the top spot. Murphy did his best impression of Will Smith in his September call-up with his offensive game is rounding into shape. Puk has the size to go with an impressive arsenal that if he can find better control, could easily pitch at the top of the rotation.
Robert Pauson was one of the top international free agents signed in 2019 and has the athleticism and tools to be an impact performer at the highest level. He’s only 16, but as we’ve seen with recent Latin signees, he could move quickly.
It’s a solid system with strength at the top, solid rotation help in the middle with some high upside young players sprinkled in for good measure.
Prospect Quick Shot
- Top Prospect: Jesus Luzardo
- Biggest Mover: Nick Allen
- Emerging Prospect: Robert Pauson
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1. Jesus Luzardo (LHP)
- Highest Level: Majors ETA: 2019 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 40 SP with upside
- Tools Summary: He has performed at every level including in his Major League debut. Health and a lack of a quality curveball is the only thing holding him back from potential stardom.
Jesus Luzardo shattered a lot of fantasy owner’s dreams last season as he was drafted heavily, and early in many leagues. However, the back of his baseball card list only 12 innings pitched in the Major Leagues. While they were impressive innings (12 IP, 12Ks, 3 BB, and a 2.25 ERA), once again he was unable to stay healthy. Not only did he start the season on the IL with a muscle strain in his shoulder but then strained his Lat muscle in July. In total, he pitched 55 innings in 2019.
Durability is clearly an issue with the six-foot lefty, but when he does pitch, the results are impressive. In 195.2 innings in the minor leagues, he’s pitched to a 2.53 ERA striking out 10.8 per nine while walking less than two per nine. His fastball sits 95 to 96 MPH (in the Majors, he averaged 97.24 MPH out of the bullpen) with a plus changeup. Both have above-average spin rates. He curveball still needs work as the depth and spin are poor. His lack of a quality breaking pitch could ultimately limit his upside and why we’ve put his ceiling as a Top 40 pitcher. If that pitch improves and he can stay healthy, he has a chance to be a very good number two starter.
Despite his injury history, I’m grabbing Luzardo in as many leagues in 2020 as I can. His fastball-change-up combination could give him early success. One caveat, he’ll likely be limited to 150 to 160 innings maximum, so plan accordingly.
2. AJ Puk (LHP)
- Highest Level: Majors ETA: 2019 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 40 SP
- Tools Summary: Premium stuff with great size. He has never been able to throw consistent strikes and that could limit his overall upside.
I was not of fan of A.J. Puk when the Athletics drafted him sixth overall in the 2016 MLB Draft. I wasn’t convinced that his control would ever be good enough to play at the highest level. What I didn’t appreciate though was the quality of the arsenal and how it would play in a lefty who is 6-foot-7 coming across his body.
Unfortunately, Puk’s career had to put on hold as he needed Tommy John Surgery in 2018. He made his return in mid-June pitching 25.1 innings, primarily in relief across three levels. The A’s were impressed enough to promote him to the Majors in late August where he pitched to a 3.18 ERA in 10 relief innings.
The A’s still view Puk as a starter and assuming health, he’s a viable candidate to start the 2020 season in their starting rotation. The stuff is impressive with two plus pitches in his fastball and curveball and a change-up that continues to improve. However, his size and lack of premium athleticism will limit his ability to throw consistent strikes and therefore, I view his ceiling as more of a number three starter instead of a top-of-the-rotation arm.
3. Sean Murphy (C)
- Highest Level: Majors ETA: 2019 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 10 Catcher
- Tools Summary: Plus defender who has developed into a potential impact offensive player.
When we wrote about Sean Murphy entering the 2019 season, we thought he would be manning the backstop for the Athletics at some point during the year. However, we thought it would be earlier than a September call-up.
Unfortunately, he tore his meniscus in May which required him to miss nearly three months of the season. However, he made quick work once he returned and after playing 31 games in Triple-A where he hit .308 with 10 home runs, he got the call to the big leagues on September 4th.
He saw action in 19 games down the stretch slashing .255/.345/.588 with four home runs. While it was only a month, he showed the Athletics that he is indeed their catcher of the future.
He’s always been a plus defender, but his hit-tool has developed very nicely and given his power outburst, the power is starting to show in games. He does remind me of the development path of the Dodgers young catcher, Will Smith. Both started off as defensive backstops with empty bats but have developed their hit-tool and power as they have worked through the system.
Given his ability to control the strike zone and his growing power, the ceiling is a Top 10 fantasy catcher. The fact that he’s a plus defender will only enhance his playing time. Once he gets acclimated to the Majors, I think you could see a slash line of .270/.340/.470 with 15 to 20 home runs. That’s an impact player performer at a position where finding a bat that won’t hurt you is a plus.
4. Robert Puason (SS)
- Highest Level: DNP ETA: 2023-24 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 10 SS
- Tools Summary: Top 2019 International Free Agent with premium athleticism and the makings of a solid hit-tool.
Robert Puason was one of the premier international free agents in 2019 and commanded a signing bonus north of $5 million dollars. After the A’s gambled in the 2018 Draft on Kyler Murray and lost, Puason presents a nice consolation prize with, even at 16-years-old, possibly less risk.
As with Murray, Puason is extremely athletic with plus speed, great bat speed who has always shown the ability to hit. Now, of course, that is as a young teenager. However, the player development of Latin players has improved so much that the tools, even for young teenagers appear to translate very well; at least for the elite players.
The ceiling is a Top 15 shortstop with 30 stolen base upside who can hit with average power. While Dynasty League owners might have to wait a long time for his services, given his tools and pedigree, I wouldn’t be surprised if that wait is only four years.
5. James Kaprielian (RHP)
- Highest Level: Triple-A ETA: 2020 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 30 SP with extreme risk
- Tools Summary: Has never been healthy. But, when he’s pitched, he’s always looked like a guy who could pitch at the top of a rotation.
James Kapriellian was drafted in the first round of the 2015 MLB Draft by the Yankees and has pitched a grand total of 97.1 innings in his five-year career. The good news, most of them were pitched in 2019. He pitched across three levels (High, Double, and Triple-A) pitching to a 3.18 ERA striking out 10 per nine and walking two per nine.
I saw Kapriellian pitch in the Fall League in 2016 and he was dominating. His fastball was touching the upper 90’s and he looked like a future ace. But, that was a long time ago and a long Tommy John surgery ago. But, if his injuries are behind him, he could be an interesting guy to add in a Dynasty League.
6. Logan Davidson (SS)
- Highest Level: Short-Season ETA: 2022-23 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 15 SS
- Tools Summary: Intriguing power-speed potential but the swing gets long resulting in too many strikeouts.
You don’t usually see a three true outcome hitter at shortstop, but Logan Davidson might be the outlier. He was the A’s first-round pick in 2019 (pick 29) and hit 15 home runs in each of his last two seasons at Clemson but also struck out over 20% of the time. He’s also a solid average runner who stole low double-digit bases in each year in college. After signing, the A’s assigned him to the New York Penn League where he hit .239 striking out 23% of the time, walking 13% of the time with four home runs and five stolen bases.
While the tools are interesting, particularly the stolen bases, and he’s athletic enough to stay at short, the swing is long and that is leading to strikeouts. Plus, I don’t see 70-grade power. I see the physicality and bat speed of a 15 to 20 home run player. Could he be a 20-20 player? Perhaps, but he also might hit .230. If the A’s re-work the swing, he becomes more interesting. For now, I would only consider him for Dynasty Leagues that roster 250 or more minor leaguers.
7. Daulton Jefferies (RHP)
- Highest Level: Double-A ETA: 2020-21 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 50 SP
- Tools Summary: Good stuff with elite control. His biggest issue has been staying healthy.
Daulton Jefferies returned from missing the 2018 season to pick up right where he left off – striking out guys and throwing BBs. Across 79 innings in High and Double-A, the 6-foot right-hander struck out 93 and walked only nine. Yes, that’s not a misprint, that’s a 9.
Jeffries doesn’t have overpowering stuff and instead, his fastball sits in the low 90’s, touching the mid-90s when needed. I wouldn’t label him as a command and control pitcher as his stuff is better than that. By the way, that’s what I said about Shane Bieber when he was coming through the Indians system and wasn’t walking anyone. Now, I’m not suggesting that Jefferies is Bieber, but he’s more like him than Tommy Malone.
If Jefferies can stay healthy, which is a big if, he has a chance to be a number four starter, perhaps a little more. He’s only six feet tall, so home runs could eventually be a problem. He did give up seven in Double-A in 12 starts.
Most importantly, when he’s pitched, both in college and the minor leagues, the results have been there.
8. Nick Allen (SS)
- Highest Level: High-A ETA: 2021 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 15 SS
- Tools Summary: Has shown the ability to hit and get on base. His swing is more geared for contact than power. Plus speed. Plus defender.
Nick Allen had a similar season to 2018 except for one thing. Instead of posting a .289 BABIP, he posted a .348 BABIP which added fifty points to his batting average. All of a sudden, the internet is full of people thinking he has a chance to be a Major Leaguer. The fact is, not a lot has changed. He can hit, has plus speed and is at least a plus defender, maybe more. That’s the profile of at least a utility player at the highest level.
As a fantasy owner, it’s the speed that you care about. He stole 24 bags in 2018 and added another 13 last season in 72 games. With full-time at-bats, he could steal 25 plus bases. His swing is more geared for contact than power and power will not likely be a big part of his profile. That could limit his upside, but with his ability to make contact (16% K/9), work a walk (8.5% BB/9), and play defense, there could be something there.
9. Sheldon Neuse (3B/2B)
- Highest Level: Majors ETA: 2019 Fantasy Ceiling: Middle Infielder
- Tools Summary: Improved strikeout rate and a possible move to second could provide some value.
Sheldon Neuse enjoyed the move from humid Nashville with normal baseballs to the desert of Las Vegas with the (clears throat), the enhanced baseball. In 135 games in 2018, he hit five home runs and in 85 games in 2019, he hit 27 with a .317 batting average and a .389 OBP. The performance got him a late-August call-up where he hit .259 in 24 games but only slugged .315 without a home run.
The obvious question is who is Sheldon Neuse? The best news is that Neuse has cut down his strikeout rate significantly. Several evaluators I spoke with were surprised at how poorly he hit in 2018 when he posted a 32% strikeout rate. The 24% strikeout rate is more in-line with his approach as is the 10% walk rate. The power is not. The swing path suggests more average power. If you add it all up, the ceiling is a .260/.330 average with 15 to 20 home runs but with no speed.
With third base blocked, the A’s have moved him to second and that is likely where he will play in the Major Leagues. If he can hit his ceiling, he’ll have some value as a middle infielder in fantasy leagues.
10. Parker Dunshee (RHP)
- Highest Level: Triple-A ETA: 2020 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 60 SP with some upside
- Tools Summary: Strike thrower with average stuff.
Entering the 2019 season, I liked Parker Dunshee as a high-floor, low-ceiling back of the rotation starter. The stuff is solid, and he has plus control but, he doesn’t have the big fastball or a wipe-out secondary pitch. Yet, he continues to pitch well.
He started the year in Double-A and continued to look great. In six starts he pitched to a 1.89 ERA striking out eight per nine while walking 2.6 per nine. After his promotion to Triple-A, he continued to pitch well but 21 home runs in 20 games pushed his ERA to 5.38. Pitching in PCL and Las Vegas, in particular, did not help, but my analysis remains with one exception – pitchers perform better in Oakland. The park is big, and the air is heavy for night games. Remember, Edwin Jackson, pitched to a 3.33 ERA in 17 starts in the 2018 season.
While he’s likely a fourth or fifth starter in the Major Leagues, he could out-perform his ceiling in Oakland. It’s for that reason, I would be adding him in deeper Dynasty Leagues where you roster 300 plus minor leaguers.
11. Jorge Mateo (SS)
- Highest Level: Triple-A ETA: 2020 Fantasy Ceiling: Middle Infielder
- Tools Summary: Power and batting average spike in 2019 was likely the result of a juiced ball in Las Vegas and a high BABIP. He still has the double-plus speed but not much else.
I’ve been writing about Jorge Mateo since he was signed by the Yankees in 2011 as an athletic shortstop with intriguing fantasy upside. While he was in the lower minors, Mateo showed double-plus speed and no power with an inability to control the strike zone. Eventually, he was traded to the A’s where he continued to show the same skillset. Honestly, I stopped tracking him.
This year he made our Hot Prospects list on August 12th when he was hitting over .300 with 17 home runs and 21 stolen bases. WOW…was this the same guy? In digging in, yeah, he’s the same guy. His final stat line was a .289 batting average with 19 home runs and 24 stolen bases. First, I don’t believe the power. Instead, I believe it was more of a factor of the juiced ball in Las Vegas and not a sudden skillset change. Second, he struck out 26% of the time while walking 5% of the time. If it weren’t for an unsustainable .366 BABIP, he would have easily .240.
Net-net for me, I see Mateo as a utility player at the highest level. Sure, if he gets a stretch of full-time at-bats, he can steal some bases. But, don’t count on power or an above-average OBP or BA.
12. Austin Beck (OF)
- Highest Level: High-A ETA: 2022 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 45 OF with risk
- Tools Summary: It appears he traded contact for some power and it didn’t work. Sure, he slugged .411 but also struck out 34% of the time.
After showing improved contact in 2018, Austin Beck regressed last season after his promotion to High-A. In 85 games he slashed .251/.302/.411 with eight home runs and two stolen bases. He struck out an alarming 34% of the time and if it weren’t for a .372 BABIP, he might not have broken the Mendoza line.
The former 2016 first-round pick appears to have gotten off track. He’s an athletic outfielder with plus speed who isn’t running and appears like he’s trying to add power to his game and it’s not working. A 34% strikeout rate will not work and will likely return him back to High-A.
The A’s might want to consider getting him back to making contact with a line drive swing so that he can let his speed play.
13. Tyler Baum (RHP)
- Highest Level: Short-Season ETA: 2023 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 60 SP
- Tools Summary: Solid arsenal with improving control. If it all comes together, the upside is a number four starter.
Tyler Baum was the A’s second-round pick in 2019 after a standout career at the University of North Carolina. He was the Friday night starter as a Jr. pitching to a 3.78 ERA in 14 starts, striking out over a batter an inning while keeping his walks to 2.7 per nine. His control improvement was what led to him being selected in the second round as he’s always had solid stuff. His fastball sits 92 to 94 MPH with a quality curveball and a feel for a change-up.
The A’s assigned him to the New York Penn League where he continued to perform well striking out nearly 10 per nine while walking seven in 30.2 innings. He did post a 4.70 ERA.
If it all comes together, he has a chance to be a number four pitcher on your fantasy team.
14. Brian Howard (RHP)
- Highest Level: Triple-A ETA: 2020 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 60 SP
- Tools Summary: Still some projection left as he fills out his 6-foot-9 frame. Average stuff to slightly above-average arsenal who throws strikes.
Drafted in the 8th round of the 2017 MLB Draft, Brian Howard has already exceeded what many expected from him.
Originally drafted by the Astros, Howard has put on weight and the stuff has taken a nice step forward. His fastball is now sitting 91 to 92 MPH and scraping higher with an improving slider and change-of-pace curveball. The ceiling is likely a fourth starter in the Major Leagues, but his height and ability to control his arsenal makes him an intriguing prospect.
15. Lazaro Armenteros (OF)
- Highest Level: High-A ETA: Unknown Fantasy Ceiling: Uknown
- Tools Summary: Plus power, good speed but a 42% strikeout rate makes it difficult to project him as a Major Leaguer. That said, the tools are alluring.
The A’s have never been shy about taking a gamble on young Latin players in the International Free Agent market. The signed Lazaro Armenteros in 2015 and paid him handsomely at $3 million dollars. He’s tooled up with double-plus raw power and is an above-average runner. However, his strikeouts are bordering on well, insane. In 126 games in High-A, he struck out 227 times. This equates to a 42% strikeout rate. That clearly will not work In fact, if that doesn’t improve dramatically, he won’t make it out of Double-A.
He’s still only 20-years-old, but there is a ton of work left in order for Armenteros to be owned in most Dynasty League formats.