A new season approaching means new projections, new evaluations and new predictions for teams, and minor league systems are no exception.
Thursday was especially enticing for prospect enthusiasts, as both MLB Pipeline and The Athletic released their respective Top 100 overall prospect rankings. Unfortunately for A's fans, Oakland's prospects didn't fare so well.
The A's didn't land a single prospect on MLB Pipeline's Top 100, and 25-year-old lefty A.J. Puk was the team's lone representative on Keith Law's list for The Athletic, landing at No. 84. Baseball America ranked catcher Tyler Soderstrom at No. 92.
Additionally, the A's are the only major league team that doesn't have a Top 100 prospect per Pipeline. That's pretty rare. Only one team -- the Milwaukee Brewers -- began the 2020 season without a ranked overall prospect last season.
So, what exactly does this mean for the A's minor league circuit?
Although the early projections look grim, the A's still have plenty of young talent on the horizon, starting with Puk. Injuries have plagued the southpaw over the last two years. Two separate injuries, one being Tommy John surgery in 2018, have limited the University of Florida product to just 10 major league games. He showcased some impressive potential in that short frame though, posting a 3.18 ERA and a 2-0 record out of the bullpen in 2019.
Puk was eager to build off that success come spring, and he looked poised to do so. The A's had a sturdy rotation, and Puk's versatility could have slotted him in as a starter or as a viable relief option. Instead, a bout of shoulder soreness resulted in another surgery, which subsequently led to him being shut down for the year.
His injury history likely is why he was left off most rankings, but Puk still remains an intriguing talent. At 6-foot-7, Puk's demeanor on the mound is a powerful one. His fastball tops out at 97 miles per hour, and he improved two sharp secondary pitches: a slider and a changeup. His latest surgery was nothing major, just a cleanup procedure, and the A's are optimistic he'll be good to go by the spring. The A's aren't sure what Puk's role will be, but the safest bet is to plan for him to start 2021 out of the bullpen while he bolsters his stamina. If he can remain healthy, he could eventually slot in as Oakland's No. 4 or No. 5 starter.
Neither Robert Puason nor Nick Allen made any overall rankings, but the two of them and the A's No. 1 overall pick, Soderstrom, remain highly regarded in the system. Allen, a prolific defender, has been penned the A's shortstop of the near future, and with Marcus Semien departing in free agency, that future may have gotten a bit closer. Puason, a switch-hitting shortstop that can spray the ball to all fields, likely is the A's top prospect once Puk graduates. He's only 18, but already possesses elite speed and noteworthy instincts.
Catching prospect Soderstrom was selected with the No. 26 overall draft pick last year, and he's already profiling as a solid hitter who will grow into his power, but his work behind the plate needs some fine-tuning. That's to be expected, as he's just 19 years old. He gained valuable reps at Oakland's alternate site in San Jose last year, and the A's are hopeful he'll continue to develop, even with plenty of questions remaining regarding the upcoming 2021 minor league season.
The A's also have a healthy crop of young relief options, and manager Bob Melvin has expressed a need for the bullpen to step up come 2021. Guys like Daulton Jeffries, James Kaprielian and Parker Dunshee should get a shot to do just that, with Jeffries and Kaprielian both debuting last year, and Dunshee spending time at the alternate site.
Oakland also has a couple of under-the-radar outfield prospects in Luis Barrera and Buddy Reed. Barrera was added to the A's 40-man roster in October, while Reed, Puk's former college teammate at the University of Florida, received a non-roster invite to spring training. Both should garner consideration if the A's choose to fill Robbie Grossman's spot in left field internally, and both are expected to debut at some point this season.
Obviously, it's concerning the A's lack a consensus Top 100 prospect. That, paired with their sluggish offseason and inability to re-sign their free agents, can easily make 2021's outlook pessimistic -- and understandably so. But Oakland's player development system already has shown they can establish young talent. Take Jesús Luzardo and Sean Murphy, for example. The top two prospects in the organization last year shined in their rookie seasons, and both will take on critical roles in their sophomore campaigns.
So, hold off on the panic button A's fans, at least from a minor league standpoint. No, the A's system is not one of the league's best, not by a long shot. But it's also not as bad as it might seem. After last year's eliminated minor league system, prospect projections are even more difficult to gauge than before. And there's no telling what guys picked up after spending a summer facing big leaguers at the alternate site, or a fall facing fellow top prospects in the Instructional Leagues.
Given the state of the A's roster with a few weeks remaining until the reported spring training date, Oakland almost certainly will need to tap into their farm circuit for help, and they might even do so before the season begins.
Despite what rankings say, they still have plenty of options.