Oakland A's Prospect Profile: Zach Neal

The Oakland A's signed Zach Neal as a minor league free agent just before the start of the season. Thus far this year, he has been one of the best pitchers in the A's system. We take a closer look at the right-hander.

Background

Born in South Carolina, Zach Neal was raised outside of Dallas, Texas, in the suburb of Flower Mound. He starred at Flower Mound High School, following two years behind 2005 Oakland A's second-round pick Craig Italiano, who was selected by the A's out of FMHS.

After high school, Neal attended Sam Houston State. After one season with the Bearkats, Neal transferred to Howard Junior College, one of the top junior college baseball programs in Texas. In 2009, Neal was the ace of a Howard team that went 63-1 and won the National Junior College Championship.

After being named an NJCAA second-team All-American in 2009, Neal moved on to Oklahoma University. Neal would help the Sooners reach the College World Series in 2010. He went 8-3 with a 4.45 ERA and a 95:24 K:BB ratio in 105.2 innings. That season put Neal on the MLB draft radar and he was selected by the Florida Marlins in the 17th round of the 2010 draft.

Neal dominated in his first half-season of professional baseball. In seven appearances for the Marlins' short-season affiliates, the right-hander had a 1.44 ERA and 37 strike-outs in 31.1 innings. He walked only three, held opposing batters to a .221 average and gave-up just one homerun.

In 2011, Neal spent the entire season in the Low-A Sally League, where he found it a little tougher sledding than the short-season leagues. In 22 starts, he posted a 4.16 ERA and struck-out 84 in 119 innings. Neal walked 41 and allowed 12 homeruns.

Last season, Neal recaptured much of his 2010 form. He began the year in the High-A Florida State League, although he was promoted to Double-A to replace an injured starter after the first week of the season. Neal would split the year between High-A and Double-A. In 44.2 innings (eight starts and a relief appearance) in High-A, Neal had a 1.21 ERA and a 33:10 K:BB ratio. In Double-A, he would split time between the bullpen and the rotation. In 21 appearances (10 starts), Neal posted a 3.80 ERA. He had a 45:12 K:BB ratio in 68.2 innings. Overall, last season Neal had a 2.78 ERA and a 78:22 K:BB ratio in 113.1 innings.

Despite those solid numbers, Neal wasn't considered a priority prospect by the Marlins. At the end of spring training this year, Neal asked for his release and the request was granted. He signed a minor league free agent contract with the A's just days later and was assigned to the Double-A Midland Rockhounds.

Playing near where he starred for Howard College in 2009, Neal has been a star once again for the RockHounds. He has made seven starts for Midland and is averaging an even six innings a start. In those 42 innings, Neal has compiled a 2.14 ERA and a 30:8 K:BB ratio. Neal has allowed just two homeruns and boasts a better than 50% groundball rate.


Scouting Report

Neal has a starter's workhorse frame (6'3'', 220) and was raised in the hotbed for power pitchers. However, Neal is not a flame-thrower. His fastball generally sits in the 88-92 MPH range. He has a deep arsenal of off-speed pitches, highlighted by a sharp breaking slider. He also has a solid change-up and a get-me-over curveball.

Throughout his career, Neal has had above-average command. For the past two seasons, he has averaged less than two walks per nine innings. Neal has generally skewed slightly towards being a flyball pitcher, although thus far this year he has been much more of a groundball pitcher. Either way, because of his ability to spot his pitches, Neal has been able to keep the ball in the park. He has a career 0.6 HR/9 ratio.

The Marlins may value hard-throwers more than "pitchers", but the A's have always favored pitchers who can change speeds and keep hitters off-balance over one dimensional hard-throwers. Neal has been a perfect fit for the A's in this respect.

"He has been outstanding for us," A's minor league pitching coordinator Scott Emerson said. "Competes well, mixes his pitches well. Throws strikes and has the ability to throw something soft behind in the count. He came over with a great attitude. He has been very consistent and has been a true pro."


Outlook

Neal was brought in by the A's as minor league depth, but he is quickly positioning himself to be more than that. Along with Murphy Smith, Neal has become a top option for the A's if they need another starter at the Triple-A level. Given the struggles the A's current Triple-A starters have had, Neal could be called up by mid-season.

The A's have had success with pitchers whose ability to pitch rates higher than their raw stuff (A.J. Griffin, Dallas Braden and Tommy Milone are recent examples). Neal fits that profile to a tee.

Because he was signed as a minor league free agent this off-season, Neal will be a free agent again this off-season if the A's don't add him to the 40-man roster. If he continues to pitch as he has thus far this season, he will be a hot commodity if he isn't added to the roster.


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