It’s been a historically bad season in every way possible for the Oakland A’s, both on and off the field. But while the big-league team is on its way to a second-straight 100-loss season, there have been a few silver linings, as the team has been much more competitive since it started playing more young players after the All-Star break. Last year at this time, A’s assistant general manager Billy Owens was predicting big things for a second base prospect in Double A named Zack Gelof, saying, “he has real talent that will translate to the top level in numerous ways.” Gelof has already lived up to those words, winning the American League’s Rookie of the Month in his first full month in the big leagues.
In his more than 20 years in the A’s front office, Owens has correctly projected the futures of numerous big-league regulars. With the 2023 minor-league season winding down (except for Triple A), it seemed like a good time to get Owens’ thoughts on some of the up-and-coming talent in the A’s system. It also seemed like an opportune time to hand out some hardware. So, below are my picks for the A’s 2023 minor-league All-Stars, with thoughts from Owens on many of them.
1B: Tyler Soderstrom
This is cheating a little, granted, though the A’s don’t really employ many full-time first basemen in their system at the moment (newly drafted Will Simpson may be the only one). In 77 minor-league games this season, Soderstrom played 38 behind the plate, 28 at first, and he DH’d 11 times. Though catcher is still the main position for the A’s 2020 top pick, Owens believes Soderstrom has the skills to handle both first and catcher.
“He’s a good athlete with a strong arm, flexibility, agility and dexterity,” Owens said. “Tyler has solid baseball court awareness and knows his way around the diamond.”
Of course, it’s his bat that will carry Soderstrom, and although he hasn’t gotten it going yet at the major-league level, he posted an .833 OPS with an organization-best 21 home runs as a 21-year-old in Triple A this season. Like Matt Olson, it may take Soderstrom a little time to click in the big leagues, but he still has 30-plus homer potential. Owens sees multiple All-Star appearances in Soderstrom’s future.
“Tyler Soderstrom is a prodigy,” he said. “We’ve all seen glimpses of his Herculean power at the major-league level. He’ll continue to sharpen his approach and eventually realize his vast potential on the big stage.”
HE’S BACK, BABY
Tyler Soderstrom starts off strong with a three-run homer off the first pitch 🔥
Aviators 3, Rainiers 0 pic.twitter.com/0JJ6BMa9IF
— Las Vegas Aviators (@AviatorsLV) August 23, 2023
Honorable mention: Brennan Milone
Milone, the A’s sixth-round pick last season out of Oregon, has been one of the better hitters in the A’s system this season. In a season split between Low-A Stockton and High-A Lansing, Milone had 17 home runs and an .886 OPS. He’s played a mix of first, second and third and isn’t a naturally gifted defender, but his bat makes him a sleeper to emerge as an MLB threat down the road.
Owens says Milone has “positive hitter qualities and ample thunder” and compared Milone’s profile to that of the Nationals’ Joey Meneses and the Yankees’ Tyler Austin as right-handed, corner-of-the-diamond power hitters.
2B: Zack Gelof
Gelof has so quickly emerged as the face of this rebuilding A’s team that one forgets he played 69 games in Triple A this season. He was very much the same game-changing player with the Aviators as he has been with the A’s, posting a .930 OPS and hitting 12 homers while swiping 20 bases. He impacts the game in multiple ways and has the potential to be a star for a franchise in desperate need of one.
“Zack Gelof is a baller in every sense of the imagination,” Owens said. “Somehow with all of Zack’s success, his pure athleticism is underrated. Gelof is a world-class athlete and is physical. His sprint speed is easily top 20 in the American League.
“Zack has undeniable leadership characteristics. His worth ethic and motor are elite. Fun to watch and root for such a confident, humble, unselfish, and talented ballplayer.”
Zacky G is just getting started 😤 pic.twitter.com/0ZXCs5ESVY
— Oakland A’s (@Athletics) September 4, 2023
Honorable mention: Cooper Bowman
Acquired from the New York Yankees last season in the Frankie Montas deal, Bowman has struggled with injuries, but when healthy put together a strong season in Double A. A top-of-the-order type bat with a solid glove at second and short, Bowman has a .367 OBP, an .811 OPS and 34 stolen bases in 64 games for Midland in his age-23 season. Owens called Bowman “an electric athlete” and compared him to fellow Louisville alum Nick Solak, who played all over the diamond for the Reds.
“It’s fun watching him glide running and I imagine he’ll eventually play some outfield to increase his versatility,” Owens said.
SS: Darell Hernaiz
When all is said and done, the A’s best trade during the 2022-23 offseason may have been the one that received the least coverage — the deal that sent left-hander Cole Irvin to the Baltimore Orioles for Hernaiz. Hernaiz, who turned 22 in early August, has put together his best season as a pro at the Double-A and Triple-A levels. He’s hitting .331 with an .868 OPS, and Owens sees more power production coming for Hernaiz down the line as he matures physically.
“There is some Marcus Semien to his game, with higher degree arm talent,” Owens said. “Mature disposition, despite being the youngest player on the field. Freakish contact ability and hitterish vibes. He already uses an all-fields approach.”
There were questions about Hernaiz’s defensive ability at the start of the season, but Owens likes what he’s seen from him at short and believes he’ll be able to handle second and third base, as well.
“Defensively he’s sure-handed and dependable,” Owens said. “He catches everything in his jurisdiction. His arm plays firm, dependable and true.”
Darell Hernaiz just absolutely demolished that ball at 461ft 🔥 pic.twitter.com/QXWnRoELXy
— Las Vegas Aviators (@AviatorsLV) August 2, 2023
Honorable mention: Max Muncy
Muncy got off to a slow start in his return to High-A Lansing to begin the year, but he’s taken his game to another level offensively since a mid-season promotion to Double A. Overall, he has a respectable .753 OPS in his age-20 season (he just turned 21 on Aug. 25), but he has a .303/.382/.431 line in 47 games with Midland. The A’s love his maturity and work ethic, which was demonstrated when he volunteered to repeat Instructional League to get more playing reps.
Muncy’s defensive skills are advanced — “A Trevor Story-type in terms of physicality, range, agility, athleticism and arm talent,” Owens said. “He’s capable of making any play imaginable.” — and his offensive skills are improving. He still strikes out a lot but an improved two-strike approach has upped his contact rate in Double A. His home run power is down compared to last season, but he’s racking up extra-base hits in the gaps and Owens believes he still has 20-plus homer capabilities.
3B: Brett Harris
One of the best contact hitters in the A’s system, Harris has posted a .279/.383/.424 line this season in 105 games split between Double A and Triple A. He struggled for an extended period (June and July) for the first time in his pro career, but has rebounded with a red-hot August and start to September.
Despite that two-month lag, Harris has upped his walk rate and cut his already solid strikeout rate from last season, while continuing to play above-average defense at third base. He’s also dabbled at second base and shortstop. His in-game power has dropped off from last season but shown up lately. Owens gives Harris — a 2021 seventh-round pick — a Spencer Steer comp.
“He’s a physical dude with plus athleticism,” Owens said. “Short, compact swing. Low maintenance, and he has a solid approach to all fields. A ballplayer who keeps showing up on the tape.”
What can’t Brett Harris do??!! 😱 pic.twitter.com/JyTMYeTjoW
— Las Vegas Aviators (@AviatorsLV) September 2, 2023
Honorable mention: Jonah Bride
Bride has been riding the Triple A-to-MLB shuttle all season. The results haven’t been there for him yet in limited MLB appearances but he’s had a huge year at the plate in Triple A, posting a .311/.442/.557 line with a career-high 12 home runs and more walks than strikeouts. He hasn’t caught at all this season, though he still has that skill in his back pocket, but he did show his versatility with time at third, second and first base.
“Jonah is the consummate professional,” Owens said. “Controls the strike zone. Solid plate appearances. Sneaky sting. Dependable and versatile defender. He’s an exceptional teammate, and fits in that Chris Gimenez (former MLB utility player) mold.”
C: Daniel Susac
The A’s top pick last year spent most of the season with High-A Lansing before a recent promotion to Double A. Although his defense remains a work-in-progress, Susac has shown his offensive potential this season with a .306/.372/.431 line in 108 games. His .303 batting average with Lansing was tops in the Midwest League for 2023.
He’s hit only seven home runs this season, but Owens believes more power will come as he improves his pitch selection. Defensively, Susac has shown soft hands and the ability to frame pitches but continues to work on his agility as a taller catcher.
“His skill set overall is in the Wilson Ramos/Willson Contreras mold,” Owens said.
— Lansing Lugnuts (@LansingLugnuts) August 15, 2023
Honorable mention: Kyle McCann
It took a few years, but McCann is finally hitting the ball the way the organization projected he would when he was selected in the fourth round in 2019. After hitting 21 home runs last season, McCann has 17 this year, to go along with a career-best .279/.360/.502 line in 88 games in Triple A. He still strikes out a lot, but has improved his contact rate considerably and that has resulted in a significant uptick in his batting average.
“He’s starting to fit that old-school comp of the Cubs’ Rick Wilkins and the Tigers’ Matt Nokes,” Owens said. “He’s minimized the empty swings from earlier in his career.”
McCann has also improved defensively behind the plate, going from a liability to a trusted presence for the Aviators’ pitching staff.
“His agility, exchange and arm strength have surged forward,” Owens said. “He’s become (an MLB)-worthy left-handed hitting catching complement.”
The creator of the “New Oakland moniker” for the group of players making their way to the big leagues, Butler has been as good on the field as he has been at marketing this season. Beginning the year in Double A, Butler posted an .817 OPS with 10 homers and 13 stolen bases before a post-Futures Game promotion to Triple A. At that level, he had an .852 OPS with five homers and eight stolen bases before getting his major-league call-up. It has been a meteoric rise for a 2018 sixth-round pick, who hit only .177 and struggled defensively in short-season in 2019.
“An unbelievable metamorphosis in all aspects,” Owens said.
Butler improved his contact rate significantly this season while still hitting for power and, perhaps most importantly, went from being a defensive liability to a solid corner outfielder who can handle center field if needed. “He has Cliff Floyd vibes,” Owens said.
Sea you later, baseball 👋
🚀 109 mph
📐 431 ft pic.twitter.com/YDvZHceUcH
— Oakland A’s (@Athletics) August 30, 2023
The A’s didn’t get to see their 2022 third-round pick in action until this season as he was recovering from shoulder surgery. It’s been well worth the wait, as he’s posted a .286/.351/.493 line with 18 homers and 25 stolen bases in 126 games between Stockton and Lansing. Thomas plays with a hair-on-fire style that has endeared him to coaches, teammates and fans. He’ll need to cut down on the strikeouts in future seasons, but it’s been a strong debut overall for the Mercer alum, whom Owens compares to Nationals outfielder Lane Thomas.
“He’s a pack of dynamite,” Owens said. “Plays the game with an edge. Amazing hustle. He’s got serious buggy-whip, voltage power, solid defense and a tenacious motor. It’s an upside package.”
Colby Thomas continues his strong pro debut with his 18th homer of the year to go along with 25 steals.
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) September 6, 2023
The Palo Alto High alum was the A’s second-round pick last season. He came to pro ball with the reputation of being a high-ceiling but raw prospect. Many assumed Bolte would spend this season in Rookie ball, but he made his debut with Stockton in late April and was one of the team’s better hitters the rest of the season. In 112 games, he’s posted a .777 OPS with 14 homers and 32 stolen bases. He still has holes to close in his swing, as evidenced by his high strikeout rate, but he’s shown he can work a walk and has proved to be coachable in his brief time as a pro. Owens sees Bolte’s ceiling as similar to that of fellow South Bay native Mitch Haniger, with a floor of Jake Marisnick or Trayce Thompson.
“Henry Bolte has an extremely high ceiling and plays with a youthful exuberance,” Owens said. “Toolsy mold of clay to cultivate. He has an evolving approach, developing swing, booming thunder, plus athleticism and a strong arm. Plays with reckless abandon.”
A look at Henry Bolte’s two home runs in last night’s 7-1 win over Visalia! pic.twitter.com/GwoZjOwww6
— Stockton Ports (@stocktonports) August 2, 2023
Clarke would have run away with this honor if he’d been able to stay healthy, but shoulder issues limited him to 64 games with Midland. He was excellent during his time on the field, posting an .877 OPS with 12 homers and 11 stolen bases, while also wowing defensively. Like many taller hitters, the 6-foot-5 Clarke strikes out a lot, but he cut his K-rate this season while maintaining a strong walk rate. Physically, there is no one in the A’s system with louder tools than Clarke, who has plus power, speed, arm strength, and has also shown a strong baseball IQ.
“Denzel Clarke had an amazing season, despite only 286 plate appearances,” Owens said. “Accomplishing an .877 OPS with his explosive, rare electric skill set is exciting to the highest degree. Denzel is firmly on the baseball radar of high-end prospects and his ceiling is in the stratosphere.”
Lazarito’s progress through the A’s system didn’t go as the team had hoped it would when he signed a $3 million deal as an amateur in 2016. Nevertheless, he put together a strong year in what could be his last in the A’s system. (He’ll be a seven-year minor-league free agent this offseason.) After a short stint in Lansing, Lazarito made the jump to Midland, where he has an .862 OPS in 90 games with 14 homers. Those numbers have still come with massive strikeout totals, as he’s never fully addressed the holes in his swing, but he did show improved technique and pitch recognition this season. He’s also improved his arm strength to make himself more playable in all three outfield spots than before.
“He has serious thunder and potential,” Owens said. “He’ll always be a three-true-outcomes type.”
Schuemann is a jack-of-all-trades who played more outfield than infield this season for the first time in his career. Termed the A’s version of Kiké Hernández by Owens for his energetic style of play and ability to fill multiple roles, Schuemann has an .834 OPS in 108 games this season, mostly with Las Vegas. He’s hit for more power this year than previously in his career and surpassed 20 stolen bases for the fourth time. He hasn’t gotten an opportunity with the A’s yet, but if Tony Kemp moves on in free agency this offseason, it wouldn’t be hard to envision Schuemann assuming a similar role to Kemp’s on the A’s roster.
“Great change-of-pace guy and valuable,” Owens said.
Joey Estes, RHP
There haven’t been a lot of positive pitcher stories in the A’s system this year, but one is definitely the development of Estes, who came over from Atlanta in the Matt Olson trade. Estes struggled initially with his new organization, but finished last year strong and carried that over into a 2023 season in which he’s climbed from Double A to Triple A.
“Joey relaxed and got more cohesive in his delivery, which allowed his stuff to amplify a prime Jake Odorizzi profile,” Owens said.
He leads the A’s system in innings pitched (132) and has a solid ERA (3.82) while striking out nearly a batter an inning (125). It wouldn’t be a stretch to see Estes, 21, compete for a spot in the A’s rotation in the spring.
“He’s a youthful, assertive, creative, forceful right-handed starter with a crisp delivery, compact arm stroke, 92-96 mph lively gas, varied slider, tight cutter, and throws solid starter strikes,” Owens said.
“He’s kind of a maniac on the mound.” 😆
Midland RockHounds manager Bobby Crosby on pitcher Joey Estes pic.twitter.com/J5ekWVKjHv
— A’s on NBCS (@NBCSAthletics) June 11, 2023
Luis Morales, RHP
Morales was the A’s top international signing in January and was rated by most evaluators as the top pitching prospect from that class. The native of Cuba made his pro debut in the Dominican Summer League in June and has progressed all the way up to High-A Lansing. The hard-throwing right-hander can touch 99 mph and sits comfortably in the upper-90s with his fastball. He’s mixed that with a sharp breaking ball to strike out 53 in 44 innings while walking 15.
“Morales is an exciting young pitching prospect,” Owens said. “Natural moxie and feel and a loose, projectable frame with whip-like arm action.”
Morales will turn 21 later this month and could be a quick-riser through the upper levels of the system now that he’s gotten his feet wet in affiliated baseball. Outside of Mason Miller, Morales may have the highest upside of any pitcher in the A’s system.
“It’s been fun to watch his progress this season,” Owens said. “It’s realistic to envision Luis making a significant jump in 2024.”
— Jesse Goldberg-Strassler (@jgoldstrass) September 2, 2023
James Gonzalez, LHP
Gonzalez made a significant leap forward this season, finding success at both A-ball levels and passing the 100-inning mark for the first time in his pro career. He’s struck out 135 in 108 innings for Stockton and Lansing and boasts the best K/9 rate of any A’s minor-league starter with more than 75 innings. His fastball sits in the low-90s and he can spot it to both sides of the plate. He also has two solid off-speed pitches: a breaking ball that can change lanes and a slow, tumbling changeup. The next step for Gonzalez (6-foot-3, 260 pounds) is to improve his conditioning so he can work deeper into games more consistently.
Brady Basso, LHP
Coming off of Tommy John surgery, Basso has impressed in stints with Lansing and Midland. In 62 innings, he has a 2.32 ERA and a 61/15 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Basso uses his low-90s fastball to paint both sides of the plate and he is aggressive with all of his pitches, including a big curveball, a cutter and a changeup. After being eased back in from an innings perspective this season, Basso should be pitching with no restrictions in 2024 and could have a JP Sears-like impact on the A’s down the road.
“Brady Basso is a savvy southpaw,” Owens said. “He has a nice (pitch-)mix and displays moxie, with a natural feel on the mound. Sneaky prospect capable of climbing the ladder. He’ll gain more notoriety as he accumulates innings.”
— Jesse Goldberg-Strassler (@jgoldstrass) June 30, 2023
Joe Boyle, RHP
Boyle was the A’s biggest trade deadline acquisition — and that isn’t just because he’s 6-foot-7. The fireballing right-hander has made six starts since coming over from the Reds for Sam Moll and has already positioned himself as one of the A’s top starting pitching prospects. His 168 strikeouts in 117 1/3 innings in the Reds’ and A’s systems this season rank second in the entire minor leagues. His command has improved some since the trade, though there’s still work to do if he’s going to remain a starter. Worst case, though, with his triple-digit fastball and big breaking ball, he’s a high-leverage reliever.
“Boyle is a mountain physically with ridiculous stuff,” Owens said. “Every heater challenges triple digits and his breaking stuff can be devastating. His performance for us has been off the charts in a starter’s role, which you should keep him there until a move is necessary. Josh Staumont of the Royals carried similar traits. Visually and stuff-wise, I get an old school Braves closer Mark Wohlers vibe.”
Jack Perkins, RHP
It’s been a tale of two seasons for the A’s 2022 fifth-round pick, who dominated in 53 innings for Lansing before a promotion to Midland. He’s battled his command at the higher level, but still has shown electric stuff. Perkins’ dominance of High A and struggles at Double A are reminiscent of 2009 AL Rookie of the Year Andrew Bailey, who hit a similar wall when he made that jump with the A’s in 2008. Owens sees other similarities between Perkins and Bailey, including his arsenal, which includes a mid-90s fastball with sink, a sharp breaking ball, a solid changeup and the makings of a cut-fastball. He also has a similar build.
“Physical, barrel-chested dude with machismo on the hill,” Owens said of Perkins. “Assertive actions. He really empties the tank.”
Stevie Emanuels, RHP
The A’s 2020 fifth-round pick battled injuries his first two pro seasons and was moved to the bullpen this season. He missed the first two months of the year but has been outstanding since his return, posting a 2.11 ERA in 38 1/3 innings with 55 strikeouts. Although he doesn’t throw as hard, Emanuels reminds Owens of former A’s closer Lou Trivino, who went from being an afterthought as a starter to a legitimate big-league prospect when he moved to the bullpen.
Tyler Baum, RHP
From an overcoming-obstacles perspective, Baum may be the story of the season in the A’s system. The 2019 second-round pick was hard to watch the last two seasons, as he struggled to throw strikes. In 39 2/3 innings, he walked 67 batters and hit 14. This season, in 47 innings between Lansing and Midland, Baum has a 2.87 ERA with a 60/24 K/BB and only two hit batters. He’s also converted 15 of 16 save opportunities.
Garrett Irvin, LHP
An undrafted free agent signing out of Arizona last year, Irvin was a workhorse reliever this season for Stockton, posting a 2.89 ERA with a 92/30 K/BB in 70 2/3 innings. He also threw a scoreless inning for Las Vegas. Irvin is a classic crafty left-hander who doesn’t throw much harder than 90 but gets the most out of his stuff by aggressively filling up the strike zone.
“Irvin is a fearless competitor on the mound with excellent feel,” Owens said. “He’s willing to take the rock in any circumstance. Great teammate. His knowledge and competitiveness permeates the clubhouse.”
Pedro Santos, RHP
Like Emanuels, Santos began his pro career mostly as a starter, but the native of Cuba has found success after a permanent move to the bullpen. In 50 2/3 innings between Stockton and Lansing, Santos had a 3.20 ERA and a 72/35 K/BB. Owens likened Santos’ frame to that of Yennier Cano and compared his short-arm delivery to Lucas Giolito’s. Santos can touch 98 with his fastball and has a big breaking curveball to go along with a changeup and a cutter.
“He has an aggressive mentality and playable strike-throwing ability,” Owens said. “There are ingredients to cultivate. He’s capable of climbing the ladder and has a chance for a jump if he can harness his command.”
Grant Holman, RHP
A former two-way star at Cal, Holman has battled injuries the last two seasons and seems to have found a permanent home in the bullpen. He’s spent most of the season with Midland, where his inflated ERA (6.37) masks how well he’s pitched for most of the season. In 29 2/3 innings with the RockHounds, he’s struck out 42 and walked 11. (He also threw 12 scoreless innings in the Arizona Complex League and with Lansing.) Built like a power-hitting first baseman, the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Holman can reach the upper-90s with his fastball and has a swing-and-miss slider. His changeup has significantly improved this season, which Owens says is the key for Holman to potentially develop into a leverage reliever in the big leagues.
“The changeup is the dash of cayenne or paprika that he was missing,” Owens said.
(Photo of Darell Hernaiz: John E. Moore III / Getty Images)