SAN JOSE, Calif. — This was no ordinary amateur draft. The coronavirus shut down the college baseball season not 20 games into the 2020 year. Most high school teams around the country hadn’t even begun. The Oakland A’s, like every other team, couldn’t unleash its team of scouts into the ballparks for further evaluations on prospective draftees. There were no face-to-face meetings with those players, their coaches or families.
All the necessary evaluations were pieced together from already collected information and video from previous seasons, with newer technologies like Rapsodo and TrackMan coming up clutch to fill in the necessary gaps.
With a draft date and format unknown until May, the A’s prepared their big board as if it were any other 40-round draft. That this draft was shortened to just five rounds, with the option to sign other amateur players to capped $20,000 contracts, was an added twist to an already tumultuous process.
But, the A’s came away with five picks after the MLB Draft on Wednesday and Thursday: Turlock high school catcher Tyler Soderstrom, Michigan right-handed pitcher Jeff Criswell, Georgia Tech outfielder Michael Guldberg, Oklahoma right-handed pitcher Dane Acker and Washington right-handed pitcher Stevie Emanuels.
Here are some takeaways from the picks.
—What’s the state of the farm system?
The A’s farm system was rife with talent in the latter half of the last decade. Most of that talent has graduated, or is about to graduate. Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, Jesus Luzardo, A.J. Puk, Franklin Barreto, Jorge Mateo, Sean Murphy, to name a few.
On March 9, MLB.com ranked the A’s farm system 14th of the 30 teams, around the middle of the back. With the big league team dipping way into the talent pool, the pipeline needs to be replenished at nearly every position.
The A’s system is relatively heavy at shortstop and middle infield. There’s some need in the lower minor leagues for an influx of arms, but an overall need for more high-ceiling talent holds.
—First round pick: High-ceiling, with some risk attached
The A’s immediately selected someone who fits the high-ceiling need.
Sure, picking 18-year-old catcher Tyler Soderstrom strayed a bit from the A’s general trend of selecting polished college players in the first round. But a consistent goal to snag the best player available on their board came to play with this pick. Soderstrom is the first catcher the A’s drafted in the first round since Landon Powell in 2004. And he’s the first high school catcher the team has taken since drafting Jerry Johnson in 1974.
Soderstrom has loads of power in his left-handed swing. Kevin Mello, the A’s regional scout for Northern California, saw a plus hit tool with plus power.
“One of the most advanced high school bats I’ve seen, really, in my whole career,” Mello said. “The first game I went to this year, he hit a ball 89 mph outside corner at the knees out of the park, opposite field. So he has power at all fields.”
It was his bat, not necessarily his defense behind the dish, that elevated his worth. Soderstrom is still a high schooler, yet to prove that he can manage and work with a professional pitching staff — even if he’s demonstrated the pure athleticism and arm that raise his ceiling defensively. He may well move around the diamond as his professional career progresses.
The A’s were shocked to see Soderstrom — who was projected on most mock drafts to land in the top 15 — fall all the way to 26.
Why did he fall? There was some risk attached. Some guess the coronavirus-shortened high school season created another layer of uncertainty around high school players this year. That Soderstrom is committed to play for the UCLA Bruins in 2021 might’ve made teams shy away, too.
Multiple reports indicate the A’s are close to signing Soderstrom over slot, perhaps to a $3.3 million deal — per MLB Network’s Jon Heyman.
—The A’s addressed a need — with versatility
On Day 2, the A’s used three of their remaining four picks on right-handed pitching. There’s some versatility at play with these selections.
Jeff Criswell made some of his most impactful college appearances for the Wolverines out of the bullpen, particularly in 2019’s College World Series run with Michigan finishing as runners up. In two appearances against Texas Tech in the CWS, Criswell recorded two saves in five scoreless innings. Against Vanderbilt, he tossed five innings of relief in one game of the CWS finals. He also earned a two-out save against UCLA in the super regional. There are some rumors that he can hit 100 mph out of the bullpen — something Criswell wouldn’t commit to as fact on an A’s Cast segment on Thursday.
“I’m not sure about the triple digits yet,” he said.
The A’s saw Criswell as an impactful starter, primarily, with a 97 mph with a solid breaking ball — the hold up is his delivery, which the team feels confident it can smooth out, scouting director Eric Kubota said. Still, there’s some versatility here.
The same can be said for Stevie Emanuels, who was mainly a reliever for the Huskies in his time with Washington. He had a 2.35 ERA with 65 strikeouts and 22 walks in 53.2 innings out of the bullpen in 2019. His first season starting was cut short, due to the virus, but in four starts he collected a .79 ERA with 38 strikeouts and nine walks in 22 innings.
The A’s see the makings of a starter’s repertoire: a 93 mph fastball, out-pitch slider and developing changeup.
“He has a starters mix with some projection left to him,” Kubota said. “We’re excited to put him into the system in the fifth round.”
—Bread and butter pick
Sandwiched between the right-handed pitchers was Michael Guldberg, and projected outfielder with plus speed out of Georgia Tech.
Most notably, Guldberg fits the Billy Beane Ball bill: he was one of the most disciplined batters in this draft. His keen eye generated a .355/.441/.418 slash line in 2019, a .450/.521/.533 line in 16 games in 2020 with a career 41 strikeouts and 44 walks in 393 college plate appearances.
We know how he might project at the plate, but where he will stand in the outfield might be up in the air.
A shoulder injury he incurred his freshman year might limit Guldberg to a corner outfield spot. Although, Kubota assured that the A’s medical evaluators deemed the injury worth the risk, and not quite as alarming since he isn’t a pitcher.
—Don’t forget about Pedro Pineda
If John Fisher’s initial decision to shut down the A’s minor leaguer’s $400 weekly stipends last month doesn’t deter prospective amateur players now, the organization could expect another handful of newcomers in the coming days to sign $20,000 contracts.
But, another big fish is still on the hook to bolster even more an A’s farm system that needs replenishing — top-ranked international prospect Pedro Pineda. The 16-year-old centerfielder from the Dominican Republic could demand $4 million in international signing money from the A’s, but he’s another high-ceiling prospect in the wings.
From Baseball America’s Ben Badler:
“He’s a strong, athletic, physical center fielder with a loud tool set and a power/speed threat. He’s a center fielder with excellent speed, a fast bat and the power potential to hit 25-plus home runs.”
©2020 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)