Oakland A’s living in worst of both worlds — no cash, no prospects

Pitcher Jesus Luzardo of the Oakland A's. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Pitcher Jesus Luzardo of the Oakland A's. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) /

The Oakland A’s have been a team on a tight budget for as long as anyone can remember, even longer than anyone can remember, come to think of it.

So it’s not a surprise there are reports the team is telling player agents there is no money available this offseason, considering Oakland’s run to the AL West title last season happened in the fan-free experience that was pandemic America in 2020.

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With gate receipts, the A’s have a hard time scratching out a competitive budget. Without that cash? Woof.

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But the organization has often been buoyed by having a farm system that produced top-quality talent, even if it couldn’t afford to actually keep those players in Oakland past their free-agency expiration dates.

That’s what made last week’s reveal of the MLB Top 100 Prospects list by MLB Pipeline so concerning for the A’s.

After placing three prospects in the top 100 in 2020, that number fell to zero in 2021. That’s right, the Oakland A’s are the only team in baseball to be shut out on the top 100. That bodes poorly for the present and the near future.

All three of 2020’s top-100 prospects have graduated off the list. Left-hander Jesus Luzardo was the highest-ranked prospect in Oakland’s system last season (No. 12), but he spent the entire season with the big club in 2020. In nine starts and 12 appearances overall, Luzardo posted a 4.12 ERA and 1.271 WHIP in 59 innings, walking 17 and fanning 59.

He struggled as a starter in the postseason, though, allowing three runs on six hits in just 3.1 innings in Game 1 against the Chicago White Sox and then getting hit hard for four runs on five hits — including two homers — in 4.1 innings against the Houston Astros in Game 3 of the ALDS. That’s an 8.22 ERA and 1.696 WHIP.

Luzardo was acquired in the July 2017 trade that sent closer Sean Doolittle and right-hander Ryan Madson to the Washington Nationals.

Catcher Sean Murphy was listed at No. 33 last offseason and emerged as Oakland’s regular catcher in 2020, hitting .233 with an .821 OPS in 140 plate appearances and 43 games. He had seven homers, 14 RBI and 21 runs scored with a strikeout rate of 26.4 percent and a 17.1 percent walk rate.

In the playoffs, Murphy hit .227 with a .780 OPS in seven games, hitting a pair of home runs with four RBI and four runs scored. In 25 plate appearances, his walk rate was 8.0 percent, with a 16.0 percent K rate.

Murphy was a third-round selection by the A’s from Wright State University in the 2016 draft and debuted for Oakland in May 2019.

The final member of the 2020 top-100 list was left-hander A.J. Puk, who missed all of last season after straining his shoulder in Spring Training 2.0. He came up in August 2019 and in 10 relief appearances posted a 3.18 ERA and 1.324 WHIP in 11.1 innings, walking five and fanning 13.

He was on Oakland’s roster for the 2019 Wild-Card Game against the Tampa Bay Rays but did not play.

Puk was the sixth overall pick by the A’s in 2016 from the University of Florida.

Based on MLB Pipeline’s 2020 prospect rankings, shortstop Robert Puason is the top remaining youngster in the system (he was ranked No. 2 behind Puk on the final rankings of the year). Puason signed with the A’s in July 2019 for a $5.1 million bonus. The switch-hitter  has been compared to former All-Star shortstop Tony Fernandez.

Baseball America (subscription required) has catcher Tyler Soderstrom as its top Oakland prospect this preseason. The 19-year-old was the 26th overall pick in the 2020 draft by the A’s out of Turlock High School in California. Neither Puason nor Soderstrom, a left-handed hitter, has played a minor-league game yet and neither is expected to reach the majors until 2024.

Does that mean Oakland — on a run of three straight playoff berths — can expect to hit hard times? Nothing is ever guaranteed and the A’s have consistently been great at pulling bargain players and turning them into functional major league regulars and occasionally into stars.

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But no money and no top-tier prospects is a tough, tough plate from which to work.