A's prospects Jesús Luzardo, A.J. Puk help each other through injuries

Ali Thanawalla/NBC Sports Bay Area

A's prospects Jesús Luzardo, A.J. Puk help each other through injuries

STOCKTON, Calif. -- Neither Jesús Luzardo nor A.J. Puk has thrown a single major league pitch, but both have already faced a great deal of adversity in their young careers.

Each of the A's top two prospects has had to undergo Tommy John surgery before turning 23. Both understand the frustration of seeing their Oakland debuts delayed due to injury.

But through that frustration and disappointment, the talented left-handers have formed the closest of bonds.

"I'd say we became good friends," Luzardo said Tuesday. "Rehab is tough. You have early mornings, but then you have long afternoons with nothing to do, so we spent most of our time together. ... A lot of video games, a lot of of food, a lot of movies."

Luzardo and Puk have quickly risen through the A's minor league system, the two were reunited again Tuesday night as they each made their first rehab appearance for the Class-A Stockton Ports.

Said Puk: "We kind of talked about that for a little bit, like, 'Who's gonna start? Who's gonna start?' We kind of gave each other some crap about that. But it was cool, definitely.”

Puk ended up getting the start and therefore earned bragging rights.

"It's a friendly little competition," Luzardo joked. "But it was funny. I enjoy it."

Both youngsters pitched great. Puk, 24, struck out four batters in his two innings of work, allowing just one hit on a home run by Giants prospect Heliot Ramos. Puk threw 33 pitches, including 22 strikes, sitting at 98-99 mph with his fastball.  

Not to be outdone, Luzardo followed with three scoreless innings, allowing just two singles and striking out two. The 21-year-old also threw 33 pitches, including 24 strikes, with his fastball at 96-98 mph.  

Puk looked poised to make the A's rotation last season before finding out he needed Tommy John surgery. He describes the recovery process as long and often lonely.

"You kind of feel like you're in the land of the lost," Puk said. "When I first got it, I had an apartment, solo. I'd go to the field, I'd go hang out and not be around anybody, just kind of cut off. ... It was definitely tough."

Luzardo can relate, having undergone Tommy John surgery during his senior season of high school. He fully recovered from that, but suffered a shoulder strain this March.

"It was definitely tough," Luzardo said. "But I'd say it took me about two days to kind of just move on from that. My mentality was just, get better, get back healthy, and get on the field."

The two left-handers have a very different look on the mound, but both are incredibly effective. Luzardo is only 6-feet tall, but can still be overpowering with his high-90s fastball. His breaking ball and changeup also induce plenty of swinging strikes.

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Puk, meanwhile, towers over hitters at 6-foot-7 and fires his fastball close to 100 mph. That makes for a pretty intimidating presence on the mound.

Off the field, however, it's a different story.

"He's not intimidating at all," Luzardo laughed. "He's a clown. It's all a front."

Where A's MVP finalist Marcus Semien wants to improve next season

Where A's MVP finalist Marcus Semien wants to improve next season

OAKLAND -- Marcus Semien enjoyed a breakout season in 2019, in just about every area. The Oakland shortstop became the first A's player to register a top-three finish in the AL MVP race since Miguel Tejada in 2002.

"It means a lot," Semien told NBC Sports California. "It was a very competitive field this year. I think that the game is changing. There are so many players who can do everything on the field -- fielding, base running, scoring runs, producing runs. I'm trying to work on every part of my game to get better, and in the second half, I really made some improvements."  

Semien, 29, set career-highs in runs, hits, home runs, doubles, RBI, walks, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and just about any other stat you can think of. The Bay Area native might have been even better defensively, where he was a Gold Glove finalist for the second straight year.

But despite all of his accomplishments, Semien believes he still has room to improve in 2020.

"I think baserunning is a big one, just getting in scoring position more for our big hitters," Semien said. "We've got great hitters in the middle of the lineup, so walking and getting hits, you want to just make sure you run the bases right. Defensively, turn more double plays, help our pitchers. We're going to have some young pitchers, so we want to make them feel as comfortable as possible."

Last offseason, Semien's most significant development involved plate discipline. He reduced his strikeout total from 131 to 102 and drew a career-high 87 walks, 26 more than the year before.

Semien also matched an A's single-season record by scoring 123 runs, fourth-most in the majors.

"Scoring runs was a big one for me," Semien said. "Solidifying myself in the leadoff spot. I've been moving around the lineup for a couple of years now and just to solidify the leadoff spot and score runs and get in a routine was great."

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While he appreciates the individual recognition, Semien's main focus is team success. After experiencing back-to-back Wild Card Game losses, he is optimistic that the A's can make a deeper run next season.

"I think we're going to be good," he said. "We want to start off better than we did last year. I think that our rotation will be more solidified. These last two years, we've added at the (trade) deadline to get our rotation where we want it to be, where this coming season, we'll hopefully start the rotation that we like. Position players are ready. I think that we'll have everybody healthy and it'll be fun."

Why A's shortstop Marcus Semien could be MVP candidate again in 2020


Why A's shortstop Marcus Semien could be MVP candidate again in 2020

Marcus Semien fell short of winning the AL MVP Award, but his third-place finish might be just the beginning.

At 29 years old, the A's shortstop still is very much in his prime and has significantly improved in each of his five seasons with Oakland.

When Semien first joined the A's at the age of 24, he was a decent hitter but looked completely lost in the field. In 2015, he committed a league-high 35 errors, prompting many to believe that he could never develop into a major-league shortstop.

But with the help of Ron Washington, Semien went to work. He spent hours upon hours working on his footwork, glovework, and consistency. Fast forward to 2019 and Semien has transformed into a back-to-back Gold Glove Award finalist.

Semien's offensive development has been just as impressive. This past season, the Bay Area native slashed .285/.369/.522 with 33 home runs, 43 doubles, 92 RBI, and 123 runs scored. He notched career-highs in just about every offensive stat imaginable, ranking near the top of the majors in all of the important categories.

Most impressive, Semien's 8.1 WAR (wins above replacement) was fourth-best in baseball, behind only Mike Trout, Alex Bregman, and Cody Bellinger. Semien started all 162 games at shortstop, batting in the leadoff spot for 145 of those contests. And the scariest part for the rest of the league is that he continues to get better.

"He becomes a better hitter every year," A's manager Bob Melvin said earlier this year. "Nobody works harder than Marcus Semien. He knows what he needs to work on."

After the All-Star break, Semien arguably was the most productive hitter in baseball. In 70 games, he slashed .304/.396/.621 with 19 homers, 22 doubles, five triples, 44 RBI, and 62 runs.

If Semien continues at that rate next season, it would translate to 44 home runs, 51 doubles, 12 triples, 102 RBI, and 143 runs over the course of 162 games. That certainly is MVP-caliber.

Of course, the A's have a major decision to make -- Semien is set to become a free agent after the 2020 season and figures to see some big-money offers. Will Oakland sign its star shortstop to an expensive extension or instead turn the reigns over to young prospect Jorge Mateo?

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Semien is entering his final year of arbitration, where he is projected to get $13.5 million. After that, the A's could choose to make a qualifying offer to Semien for 2021, but there is no guarantee he would accept.

If 2020 does end up being Semien's last year in Oakland, it figures to be another special one. This year he was an MVP finalist. Perhaps next year he'll just be the MVP.