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Prospect watch: Jesus Luzardo, A.J. Puk return to action


Puk last pitched in spring training 2018.

All of the top injured pitching prospects are now back to health and pitching in real games.

When Athletics Nation voted on our Community Prospect List last winter, the top two spots went to left-handed pitchers Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk. Both possess elite talent, enough to place them in the Top 50 of virtually every national prospect list, but unfortunately they missed the beginning of the year to injuries. On Tuesday, they got back on the mound for High-A Stockton for their season debuts.

During the spring, the 21-year-old Luzardo looked like a candidate to force his way onto the A’s Opening Day roster. A meteoric 2018 had seen him blow through High-A, dominate Double-A, and even get a taste of Triple-A, giving him an argument as the best lefty pitching prospect in the entire sport, and then he spent the Cactus League piling up zeroes against anyone who faced him. However, his shoulder acted up as March wore on, and he was shut down for the first couple months of the season.

Now Luzardo is back. He worked three scoreless innings on Tuesday, needing just 33 pitches to breeze past the overmatched competition. There were two singles along the way, one of them a grounder, but overall he retired nine of his 11 batters including two strikeouts. Better yet, he showed the electric stuff he’s known for, reports Andrew Baggarly of The Athletic:

His fastball touched 97 mph and showed every bit of poise and polish that made him the talk of scouts in the Cactus League. … His best sequence might have come when he threw a pair of changeups to get ahead of Ramos — quick pitching him on the second one — and then blew him away with a slider. Luzardo followed with a fastball on Bart’s hands that the cleanup batter rolled to shortstop.

And even more importantly than that, he felt good after the outing, via Ben Ross of NBCS: “[He] also felt great physically. Says he was happy to be pain-free and throw all of his pitches well.” Here’s some video from Ross, or see a more close-up angle below.

As for Puk, the wait for this moment has taken even longer. He’d been in the same position as Luzardo the previous spring, coming off an eye-popping 2017 campaign and looking like a candidate to force his way onto the A’s 2018 squad, but he too went down toward the end of March with an injury. However, rather than a couple months of rest, he required Tommy John surgery to fix his elbow, costing him that entire summer and the beginning of this year.

On Tuesday, the 24-year-old showed everything we could have hoped for in his return to real game action. The first four pitches he threw were each 99 mph — “an easy 99,” says Bob Melvin, via Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle. He did allow a homer to Heliot Ramos, a Top 100 prospect in his own right, but ultimately he struck out four of the seven batters he faced over two innings.

Joey Bart, the Giants top prospect and a Top 50 national name, raved about Puk after the game, via Baggarly: “A guy like Puk, he’s not just throwing 98-99 mph but he’s got a wipeout changeup and a slider off it. It makes him pretty special. I felt like we battled them pretty well. It was cool. I look forward to us battling them a lot.”

Here’s some video of that slider, which MLB Pipeline includes in the conversation as best of its kind in the minors. Or, watch below for his 70-grade fastball:

Of course, as exciting as this day was, we still have to maintain some caution anytime we’re talking about pitcher injuries. Everything looked great on Tuesday, but these things don’t always progress in perfectly linear fashion. Regarding Luzardo, shoulders are the worst problem for a pitcher to have, and on top of that he already has a TJS in his past from high school. And as for Puk, we just saw fellow TJS patient Jharel Cotton get back on the mound for a few games and then sit back down due to a setback (hamstring surgery). There are many more hurdles to clear before one or both of these prized youngsters are contributing in Oakland.

But at the same time, the importance of this day can’t be understated. Luzardo and Puk bring franchise-changing talent — both in the long-term, and immediately in 2019 at positions where the A’s still need a lot of help. They’ll never be able to sign or acquire an established ace starter, so they need to grow their own like they’re trying to do with this pair. And while Puk is slated for relief work this year to limit his innings, the current Oakland squad can use a bullpen boost as well, as they lead the AL in blown saves and are desperately short on lefty depth. A 6’7 southpaw pumping upper-90s heat with top-notch secondaries would be a nice add to that unit.

On Tuesday, the A’s got back their two best prospects, a dynamic duo of elite lefty pitchers. There’s still some road yet to travel on their way to the majors, but there’s every reason to hope they can get there this year, and this was an enormous first step toward that goal. The A’s stand at an unremarkable 35-34 right now, but they might finally have a couple of elite reinforcements coming, to transform the second half of this campaign into something entirely different than we’ve seen so far.

More injured pitchers returning

This story doesn’t end at just Luzardo and Puk, though. Out of 30 spots on our preseason CPL, five went to hurlers who missed all of 2018, of which Puk was only one. Then two more went down this spring before the season began (including Luzardo), and another got hurt just a few weeks into the new campaign. That’s eight key pitchers hurt, but six of them are back in action.

The latest return came from Gus Varland. Despite a nondescript draft position in the 14th round last summer, the right-hander captured the No. 22 spot on our CPL after an incredible pro debut. However, he then missed the beginning of 2019 due to knee surgery.

Varland finally made his season debut on Monday for High-A Stockton, and it was an excellent showing. His final line: 5⅓ ip, 1 run, 6 Ks, 2 BB, 4 hits, 1 HR. Other than the solo homer, he never even allowed a runner to reach third base.

Meanwhile, Daulton Jefferies continues to utterly dominate for Double-A Midland since returning from a two-year TJS recovery. Through eight appearances, he’s striking out a batter per inning and hasn’t yet issued a single walk to any of the 93 batters he’s faced. And he’s not just filling the zone with hittable strikes, either, as no one is doing much damage off him when they do make contact.

Jefferies, 2019 AA: 2.55 ERA, 24⅔ ip, 24 Ks, 0 BB, 3 HR, 21 hits, 3.50 FIP

In a particularly notable development, the right-hander had been limited to three innings per game but was allowed to pitch into the 4th his last time out, throwing a season-high 62 pitches in the process.

Alongside him in Midland is fellow 23-year-old Grant Holmes, who missed 2018 to a shoulder problem and also briefly hit the injured list this year due to another flareup. But he’s back on the mound, also for three-inning appearances, and in four games since returning he’s got a 2.25 ERA despite a lackluster rate of 7 Ks to 4 BB (plus 2 HR and a HBP). Those numbers aren’t as impressive as Jefferies’ early work, but stepping off the IL directly into immediate success is more of a bonus than an expectation, and the important thing is that Holmes is finally pitching again.

And then there’s James Kaprielian, who like Jefferies missed two seasons to TJS. He’s now pitched five times (technically just four games, since two were part of the same suspended contest), and the latest may have been the best yet. On Saturday, for High-A Stockton, he tossed three scoreless, hitless innings, retiring 9-of-10 batters (3 Ks) and issuing just one walk along the way.

Kaprielian, 2019 A+: 4.50 ERA, 14 ip, 15 Ks, 3 BB, 1 HR, 11 hits, 3.08 FIP

Even better, Kaprielian’s velocity seems to have mostly returned. Before his TJS he’d spiked his heater up to the mid-90s, which was part of the basis for his high prospect stock, and one big question was whether that velo would remain post-surgery. According to Ports broadcaster Zack Bayrouty, he sat 92-94 mph his last two times out, and hit 95 at least once before that. That’s not quite where he was before he got hurt, but it’s enough to start getting pumped about the 25-year-old’s progress.

The A’s spent a lot of resources collecting this group of arms. Puk was a No. 6 overall draft pick, the premium prize after suffering through a whole MLB season of losing, and Jefferies went No. 37 overall right after him. Holmes was the headliner of the Reddick/Hill trade, Luzardo was the headliner of the Doolittle/Madson trade, and Kaprielian was a key piece in the Sonny swap. That’s a lot of beloved stars gone, and these pitching prospects are a significant portion of what the A’s have to show for them. Seeing them all get hurt was a crushing blow to the rebuild, and therefore to the chances of sustained success for the newest MLB core already in Oakland. Getting them all back now is too exciting to put into words. It’s scrumtrulescent.

***

Here’s one final look at the list of eight injured pitchers, in order of their CPL placement.

1. Luzardo: BACK with High-A Stockton (debuted 6/11)
2. Puk: BACK with High-A Stockton (debuted 6/11)
8. Kaprielian: BACK with High-A Stockton (5 appearances)
11. Holmes: BACK with Double-A Midland (4 apps since last IL)
17. Jefferies: BACK with Double-A Midland (8 apps, plus 6 w/ A+)
20. Wyatt Marks: Still on IL since 4/26 (shoulder)
22. Varland: BACK with High-A Stockton (debuted 6/10)
26. Hogan Harris: Still on IL since 2018 (elbow)

Best of luck to all the injured A’s prospects in their further rehab and recoveries!

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