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Oakland A’s prospect watch: Meet trade acquisitions Jesus Luzardo and Sheldon Neuse

The rebuilding Oakland A’s made their first deal of the 2017 trade deadline on Sunday, sending relievers Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson to the Washington Nationals. In return, they got three players:

  • RHP Blake Treinen (MLB)
  • LHP Jesus Luzardo (prospect)
  • IF Sheldon Neuse (prospect)

For more on Treinen, here’s our full scouting report. This article will cover the two prospects.

Neuse and Luzardo were the Nats’ 2nd-round and 3rd-round picks in 2016, respectively. In Luzardo’s case, though, he was considered a 1st-round talent but slipped due to injury (more on that later).

To put their draft pedigree into context, the A’s took RHP Logan Shore in the same round as Neuse, and C Sean Murphy in the same round as Luzardo. However, perhaps a better comp for Luzardo (purely in terms of draft pedigree) is RHP Daulton Jefferies, another mid-1st-round talent who dropped to Comp Round A after an injury. Luzardo fell further, but he also had to be wooed away from a college commitment to Miami; he ($1.4M) and Jefferies ($1.6M) received comparable bonuses.

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Jesus Luzardo | LHP | Age 19

Level: AZL Rookie League

Let’s begin with Luzardo, the headliner of the deal. His scouting report from MLB Pipeline (lightly cropped for brevity):

Scouting Grades: Fastball: 55 | Curve: 50 | Changeup: 60 | Control: 55 | Overall: 45

… Luzardo’s stock was trending up last spring, with reports of his fastball hitting 97 mph, up until he suffered an elbow injury and underwent Tommy John surgery in March. …

Before his uptick in velocity, Luzardo was bumping 93 mph and sitting in the 89-91 mph range with his fastball, throwing it with good sinking action and commanding it to both sides of the plate. He can change speeds on his curveball, adding and subtracting as needed, and has a very good feel for a changeup, with club officials projecting it as a future plus pitch.

While the Nationals brought Luzardo along slowly in the wake of his surgery, the all-around package gives him the potential to move quickly once fully healthy, with his ceiling being that of a No. 3 or 4 starter.

Some other opinions and notes:

  • Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs (preseason rankings) referred to Luzardo as a “first-round arm” at 88-91 mph and maybe top-20 pick when he was operating in the-mid 90s.
  • John Sickels of Minor League Ball gave him a C grade last winter, leaving him out of the Nats’ Top 20 entirely.
  • Keith Law of ESPN with a crucial update from time of trade: “He’s back pitching in the Gulf Coast League with fastball heat that’s sitting 94-95 mph and touching 97, while also flashing an above-average changeup and average curveball. … He had No. 2 starter upside prior to the injury and it sounds like his raw stuff is most of the way back already.”
  • Chris Kusiolek reports Luzardo touched 96 mph in his debut for the AZL A’s on Wednesday, though sitting more like 90-92.
  • Through 16⅓ ip in Rookie League, he’s racked up 19 Ks and only 1 BB.

The optimistic take here is that the A’s did get a 1st-round talent in this trade, but they had to go their usual creative Oakland route to get there. If Luzardo is more or less back to his old pre-injury self, does it really matter that he slipped in the draft? How far will he move back up prospect lists once his successful recovery is taken into account?

This is exactly the type of player you’d expect a rebuilding team to target. Even leaving aside his general youth, the talent vs. injury tradeoff lends an exciting level of boom-or-bust potential even beyond the usual pitching prospect. The upside isn’t elite but it’s substantial, and some of the risk seems to have been absorbed already now that he appears to be fully back in action.

Fun fact — Though raised in Florida, Luzardo was born in Peru. There has never been an MLB player born in Peru.

Summary: 19yo lefty starter, 1st-round talent, low/mid-90s fastball, but with a Tommy John already in his history. Ceiling of No. 2/3/4 starter. Currently in Rookie League.

Sheldon Neuse | 3B | Age 22

Level: High-A Stockton Ports

While it’s easy to call Luzardo the headliner of the deal, Neuse is still a strong second piece. From MLB Pipeline:

Scouting grades: Hit: 50 | Power: 50 | Run: 45 | Arm: 60 | Field: 50 | Overall: 50

Neuse employs a short and simple swing from the right side of the plate. He keeps his barrel in the hitting zone for an extended period of time, allowing him to drive the ball across the whole field. He has above-average raw power and got to it more consistently last season after improving his approach and plate discipline, although some scouts still question how it will translate at higher levels. He’s an average runner who shows good instincts on the bases and in the field.

Shifted from shortstop to third base upon signing, Neuse profiles as an average defender at the hot corner, with soft hands, good range and a plus arm that produced 94 mph off the mound in college. The position change means that Neuse will need to hit to be a regular, though so far that hasn’t been a problem.

Some other opinions:

Granted, Neuse doesn’t bring the most exciting profile in the world as a likely corner defender who isn’t a big-time standout hitter. Furthermore, he plays the position that we all hope Matt Chapman has locked down for the foreseeable future — though Lockard says the Ports will at least try Neuse out at shortstop.

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing here. It’s not hard to find people saying good things about him, and anyway he’s still a couple years away — who knows what the A’s roster will look like in 2019 and what needs he could fill. Load up your farm with as many quality prospects as possible and hopefully enough will pan out in the end.

Fun fact — His name is pronounced “noisy.”

Summary: The proverbial “safe college hitter,” solid hitter, solid fielder. Could be a decent regular or a good utility guy.

Trade analysis

I never wrote a post with my overall take on the trade, so let’s do that here.

Like most fans, I was initially underwhelmed when I saw the return. That’s partly because we were losing a beloved favorite and that makes it hard to be rational, but mostly it was a matter of skewed expectations. We saw what Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller fetched last winter, and Doo/Madson returned nothing close to that, even packaged together as a duo. That is because they are nothing close to the same pitchers.

Chapman is an elite closer, and Miller is a next-level multi-inning setup monster so unique that we don’t even have a name for yet. Madson and Doo are a pair of pretty darn good setup men, each loaded with injury risk. Even packaging the two together, we were never getting anyone’s top prospect.

But once you get past that hurdle, the A’s did fine here. Not amazing, but fine. How about this breakdown:

  • Madson for Treinen and Neuse. The A’s cash in their aging setup man for a younger, cheaper, longer-term model. Madson is the better pitcher right now, but for how much longer? He turns 37 in August, and Treinen was a good setup man as recently as last year (when he was actually better than Madson). Oakland sells high and buys low in this exchange, and for their trouble they also pick up a solid prospect in Neuse. It’s not a pure rebuilding move on its own, but it does retain some trade value.
  • Doolittle for Luzardo. A lefty reliever who is excellent when he’s not injured, for a lefty pitching prospect who could be excellent if he avoids further injury. At least in a poetic sense, it doesn’t get more fair than that. Doo for a 3rd-rounder seems weak, but for a 1st-round talent? That’s easier to accept, and it’s something in the ballpark of what Tyler Clippard returned a couple years ago for what that’s worth. Luzardo is the kind of high-reward player the A’s claim to now want (as they should).

A couple parts of this deal look odd at first but actually make perfect sense. Why take back Treinen during a rebuild? Well, the A’s pen is thinner than you might realize, and there’s not much of interest coming up through Nashville right now. Getting back a cost-controlled setup man still helps the 2018 team and beyond, both on the field and as potential future trade bait. I highly doubt getting Treinen prevented them from receiving a higher quality of prospects here, probably just quantity.

And why take back an infielder when we have plenty of those and need outfielders? The easy answer is that they’re simply going for the best possible prospects regardless of position, as noted in that last link, but let’s also remember that this isn’t the only deadline deal they’ll make. If you were hoping the A’s would find their future stud CF this month, then you should reasonably be expecting it to come from a Sonny Gray trade and only that. Oakland already has plenty of lotto tickets; a Neuse-level outfield prospect might not even crack Stockton’s current outfield (Skye Bolt, Luis Barrera, red-hot Brett Siddall).

Also: The A’s save $12 million for next season (maybe closer to $10 million after Treinen’s arbitration), which could theoretically go toward signing a comparable replacement for Madson in free agency. Now you’ve replaced your two departed setup men with two new setup men while picking up two good prospects on the margin. And that’s how you rebuild.

To be clear, the A’s didn’t need to trade Doo. The year-by-year nature of his contract, combined with reasonable market-or-lower salaries, eliminates most of the injury risk from the standpoint of being saddled with a payroll deadweight. But in on-field terms, he can’t ever again be relied on beyond the current season, and that’s not the kind of player a rebuilding team can afford to count on long-term and construct around. His value is unlikely to get higher than it is now (that is, “healthy and full strength in July”), so this was as good a time as any to pull the trigger.

Overall, this deal is adequate. I’m not jumping for joy, but I’m not cursing the front office either. It’s just about right, minus the fact that it involves a fan favorite (which makes “fair” feel like “gut punch”). Right now it seems like the Nats probably got the slightly better end of it because they got known win-now names without giving up their best youngsters, but it’s close and the A’s got enough upside that the tables could easily turn during the next year or two. I award this deal a firm “Yeah, sure, I guess that’ll work.”

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