The 2016 Nashville Sounds were the best regular season team in the Pacific Coast League last season, but they failed to advance out of the first round in the playoffs after they saw their roster gutted by major league promotions in late August and early September. The Sounds return an even more talented roster in 2017, but it remains to be seen whether this group stay together long enough for Nashville to win a ring.
After being led by manager Steve Scarsone the past two seasons, the Sounds have a new skipper at the helm in manager Ryan Christenson. Christenson is a prospect in his own right, having made the post-season in every year he has managed in the A’s system (a streak stretching back to 2013). He won Texas League titles in each of the past two seasons with Double-A Midland and is one of the most well-regarded minor league managers in the game.
Christenson has an experienced staff backing him in the Nashville dugout, with pitching coach Rick Rodriguez and hitting coach Eric Martins returning to the posts they held in 2016. Rodriguez has been part of the A’s organization as either a player or coach for 33 years, while Martins has been a scout or coach with the A’s since 2007.
The Sounds open their season with an experienced roster. Only one player – Paul Blackburn – has no previous experience in Triple-A and 16 have at least some big league time. The A’s figure to borrow heavily from their Triple-A roster, especially if they go with a youth movement after the July 31 trade deadline.
The Sounds open the season with a star-studded infield that features many of the organization’s top prospects.
Even without second baseman Joey Wendle, who will begin the year on the big league disabled list with a shoulder strain, the Nashville infield is so stacked that Sounds’ 2016 homerun leader Renato Nunez figures to get most of his at-bats at DH rather than his customary third base.
Matt Chapman will be the Sounds’ regular third baseman. Chapman won the Texas League’s Player of the Year award in 2016 and he finished the year with the Sounds, hitting a combined 36 homers between Double-A and Triple-A. Chapman is the organization’s top defensive infielder (including the big league roster) and one of the organization’s top power threats. Chapman has work to do to cut down on his strike-outs (he whiffed 173 times last season), but that is the only thing standing between him and a big league job. Chapman figures to benefit from playing for Martins, who was Chapman’s signing scout in 2014 and has worked with Chapman on his hitting during the off-season the past few years.
Up-the-middle, the Sounds will begin the year with Franklin Barreto and Chad Pinder trading off between short and second base. Wendle will work his way into the second base mix once he is healthy. Until Wendle returns, the Sounds will have only Barreto and Pinder as players on the roster with significant experience playing in the middle infield. Chapman will likely serve as the back-up shortstop until Wendle returns.
Barreto, the A’s top prospect, hit .281 at the age of 20 last season in Double-A and had an impressive two weeks with the Sounds to end the 2016 season. Barreto can hit for average, steal a lot of bases and he has some power in his 5’9’’ frame. He is the most dynamic prospect in the A’s system. Barreto saw time at short and second last season and will continue to work at both positions in preparation for whichever position has an opening first for the A’s in the big leagues.
Pinder had an up-and-down season with Nashville in 2016, a year after he won the Texas League Player of the Year award for Midland. Pinder struggled defensively at shortstop early in the season, but he improved as the season progressed. Offensively, he never ran into the kind of hot streak that carried him in Midland in 2015, but he still managed a solid .258/.310/.425 line with 14 homers. He earned a late-season promotion to Oakland and hit .235 with a homer in 22 games. Pinder has above-average power for a middle infielder and can hit for average, as well. He doesn’t walk much, but he did a better job of being selectively aggressive as the season wore on last year. He profiles as a utilityman in the big leagues and should see time at second, short and possibly third base during the season.
Matt Olson will round out the Sounds’ infield at first base. He returns to first as his primary position after spending more time in right field than first base last season. Olson is a gifted defensive first baseman and he should benefit offensively from not having to worry about playing in the outfield, which was a more unfamiliar position for him. Like Pinder, Olson had an up-and-down season with Nashville last year. He posted a 757 OPS, the lowest of his career, but he had an 820 OPS during the second half of the season. Olson appeared in 11 games for the A’s in September. He hit only .095 but walked seven times to post a .321 OBP. Olson is a three-true-outcomes hitter, with 103 career homers, 384 career walks and 606 career strike-outs in 586 minor league games. Olson is still learning the right balance between not swinging at pitches out of the strike-zone and being aggressive on “non-strikes” that he can drive. He is still only 23 and has some time yet to figure it out.
Backing up Olson at first and Chapman at third is Nunez, who will also get regular time at DH. Nunez ranks up there with Chapman as the two premier right-handed power hitting prospects in the A’s system. Nunez had a down year with Nashville last season and still managed to hit a team-leading 23 homeruns. He failed to hit for average for the first time in his career (.228 after never hitting lower than .268 in any previous season), but Nunez, like Olson, is still young and has time to make the adjustments he needs to be successful. Unlike Olson, Nunez’s aggressiveness hurt him last season, as he swung at a lot of balls that weren’t good pitches to drive. With a year of Triple-A under his belt, Nunez should fair better in 2017.
Minor league free agent signing Jermaine Curtis begins the year in Extended Spring Training rehabbing a leg injury. He could join the Nashville infield once he is healthy.
Teams don’t often expect much offense from their catchers, but Nashville should get plenty of production from its Opening Day backstop duo: Bruce Maxwell and Ryan Lavarnway. Maxwell had a breakout season in 2016, hitting .321/.393/.539 with 10 homers in 60 games for Nashville before getting the call to Oakland in late July. He got off to a slow start in the major leagues but was one of the A’s most productive hitters in September. Maxwell had a strong spring and should see time with the A’s this season.
Lavarnway was a minor league free agent signing this off-season. The Yale alum made headlines this spring as the top hitter on Team Israel’s WBC squad that shocked the tournament by reaching the second round. Originally a Red Sox’s draft pick, Lavarnway has 134 big league games on his resume. He has always been an excellent minor league hitter and has a .280/.372/.466 career line in the minor leagues.
The Sounds’ outfield will begin the year without the team’s 2016 MVP Jaycob Brugman, who injured his leg late in spring training. Until he returns, Kenny Wilson and Jaff Decker will get the bulk of the playing time in centerfield.
Decker was the A’s final cut from big league camp this spring and he could join the A’s roster if Oakland decides to go away from carrying an eight-man bullpen. A former top prospect in the San Diego chain, Decker has bounced around the past three seasons. He spent last year in the Tampa Bay chain, playing 19 games for the Rays and 99 for Triple-A Durham. Decker hit .255/.366/.421 with the Bulls. He doesn’t strike-out a lot and has some power and speed. Decker is still just 27 despite being on the prospect radar for many years and could still have a career as a fourth outfielder in the big leagues ahead of him.
Wilson, a minor league free agent signing this off-season, is an outstanding defensive centerfielder with above-average speed. He will team with Barreto to give the Sounds two legitimate base-stealing options. Wilson spent last season in the Marlins’ chain and hit .255 between Double-A and Triple-A.
Matt McBride, Andrew Lambo and Chris Parmelee will all see time in the outfield, as well. McBride gives Christenson some versatility, as he can catch and play both corner outfield spots, as well as first base. He split last season between Oakland and Nashville and had a 781 OPS for the Sounds in 70 games.
Lambo missed much of last season after he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He made a full recovery and re-signed with the A’s as a minor league free agent during the off-season. A nine-year veteran of professional baseball, Lambo has a career 806 OPS in the minor leagues. He has 60 games of big league experience, as well. The left-handed hitter can play both corner outfield spots.
Parmelee, like Decker, was with the A’s in big league camp for the duration of spring training. The former Minnesota Twins’ regular signed a minor league free agent contract with the A’s during the off-season. Parmelee spent last season in the New York Yankees’ organization, appearing in six games with the big league team and 64 with Triple-A Scranton. Parmelee has a career 717 OPS in 311 big league games and an 815 OPS in 919 minor league contests. A first-round pick of the Twins in 2006, Parmelee has some power and a solid approach. He can play first base and the corner outfield spots and he figures to see time at all three positions.
The Sounds will begin the 2017 season with a mostly veteran pitching staff. Two inexperienced starters – Daniel Gossett and Paul Blackburn – will figure prominently in the rotation, but much of the rest of the staff has copious Triple-A and even big league experience.
Gossett starts the season in Triple-A after a 2016 campaign that earned him OaklandClubhouse’s A’s minor league pitcher of the year award. Gossett began the year in High-A and finished with two starts in Triple-A. Along the way, he posted a 2.69 ERA and a 151:41 K:BB in 153.2 innings. Gossett features a deep repertoire that includes a two-seam and four-seam fastball, a cutter, a change-up and a breaking ball. He fills up the strike-zone and keeps the ball on the ground. Gossett doesn’t overpower hitters, but he can hit 94 and works comfortably in the low-90s. He mixes speeds well and presents a challenge for any line-up. He is in a similar stage of his career as Sean Manaea was at this time last season, although Gossett is likely to be in Triple-A longer than Manaea was last year.
Blackburn, an East Bay native, joined the A’s from the Seattle Mariners this off-season in a trade. Blackburn began his career in the Cubs’ organization, going to Chicago in the Compensation A round of the 2012 draft out of high school. Blackburn spent all of last season in Double-A with the Cubs and Mariners, posting a 3.27 ERA in 143 innings. Blackburn doesn’t strike out a lot of batters, but he is a groundball pitcher with excellent command. In his career, he has allowed just 22 homeruns in 416.1 innings. This is his first season at the Triple-A level.
Jesse Hahn begins the year in Triple-A after an up-and-down spring training that saw him lose his rotation spot to Andrew Triggs. Hahn was the A’s number three starter in 2015 – and a good one – but he struggled badly last season with his command. He had a 6.02 ERA in 46.1 innings with the A’s and a 4.32 ERA in 66.2 innings with Nashville. When Hahn is pitching well, he can dominate even the best big league line-up. He features a four-seam and two-seam fastball, a curveball, a change-up and a slider. Hahn keeps the ball on the ground and gets enough movement to generate his fair share of swings-and-misses. Hahn hasn’t really looked right since missing the last eight weeks of the 2015 season, however. It remains to be seen whether he can re-capture the effectiveness he displayed with the A’s in 2015 and the Padres the season before that.
The A’s will have several options to round out the Nashville rotation, but Zach Neal and Cesar Valdez will begin the year in the rotation. Chris Smith, Simon Castro and Ross Detwiler also have significant experience as starters and will begin the year in the Nashville bullpen.
Neal had a breakthrough 2016 season during which he made his major-league debut. The right-hander joined the A’s as a minor league free agent signing before the 2013 season after he was released by the Marlins. Neal spent the next three seasons going mostly between Double-A and Triple-A with the A’s. Last year, he began the season with Nashville and would spend the year going between the Sounds and the A’s. In 61.2 innings with Nashville, Neal had a 3.21 ERA and he walked just eight. In 70 innings with the A’s, Neal had a 4.24 ERA and he walked just six. Neal doesn’t throw hard and he can be prone to giving up the longball, but he is the most consistent strike-thrower in the A’s organization by far. He was removed from the A’s 40-man roster during the off-season, but should the A’s need a reliable arm as a fifth starter or longman at some point during the season, they will give Neal strong consideration given his success last season.
Valdez has been pitching in professional baseball since 2006 and he has only 20 innings of big league experience, all of which came in 2010. He spent the 2012-2015 seasons pitching in the Mexican Summer League before joining the Astros’ organization for the 2016 season. Valdez was an ace for the Fresno Grizzlies last year. He went 12-1 with a 3.12 ERA and a 114:13 K:BB in 138.1 innings. Like Neal, Valdez is a strike-thrower who challenges hitters to beat him and gets a lot of groundballs. He has experience both starting and relieving. Valdez spent all of spring training in big league camp and will be another strong candidate for a fifth starter or longman opening, should the need arise.
The Nashville bullpen is highlighted by flamethrower Bobby Wahl, who regularly clocks his fastball in the 97-100 MPH range. Wahl had a strong 2016 season and that earned him a spot on the A’s 40-man roster during the off-season. After an injury-plagued 2015 campaign, Wahl posted a 2.65 ERA and struck-out 65 in 54.1 innings for Stockton, Midland and Nashville last year. In addition to his big fastball, Wahl has a devastating breaking ball that is a big league swing-and-miss pitch. He can get wild at times, but Wahl saw his command improve significantly last season. He is a strong candidate to make his big league debut in 2017 if he stays healthy.
Joining Wahl in the late innings will be Tucker Healy, who served as the Sounds’ closer for much of last year. Healy has been consistently one of the top relievers in the A’s system since joining Oakland in the 2012 draft. Last year, Healy had a 3.61 ERA and 76 strike-outs in 52.1 innings. For his career, Healy has struck-out 334 in 246 innings and he has held opposing batters to a .208 average. Healy’s fastball rarely tops 95, but he gets plenty of movement on the pitch and his slider is a plus offering. Healy’s change-up is still inconsistent, but effective when he is throwing it well. He isn’t on the A’s 40-man roster, but mid-season trades could clear a path for him to the big leagues.
Also returning to the Sounds’ bullpen from last year’s team is Aaron Kurcz, who had a 3.50 ERA in 54 innings with Nashville last season and threw 26 innings for the Sounds in 2015. The right-hander was a minor league free agent this off-season, but he returned to the A’s on a minor league contract. Kurcz has a lively fastball and breaking ball, but his command has been an issue throughout his career. He threw a lot more strikes in 2016 and could be ready for a breakthrough in 2017.
Veterans Chris Smith, Castro and Detwiler bring plenty of experience and length to the Nashville bullpen. Smith has pitched professionally since 2002. In 1015 innings in minor league ball, the right-hander has a 3.91 ERA. Last season, he was a starter for Nashville and was one of the PCL’s leaders in strike-outs before he was called up to the big leagues by the A’s late in the season. Smith pitched well for Oakland in a relief role, posting a 2.92 ERA in 24.2 innings. Smith was removed from the A’s 40-man roster during the off-season but re-signed as a minor league free agent. He could fill a variety of roles for the Sounds this season.
Castro was one of the top pitching prospects in baseball several years ago when he was in the Padres’ chain. He hit a wall in his development in 2011 and bounced around for several years after that. Castro moved to the bullpen in 2013 and made his major-league debut that season, pitching in four games with the White Sox. In 2015, he appeared in 11 games with the Rockies. Last season in Triple-A, Castro struck-out 58 and had a 3.38 ERA in 53.1 innings. Castro was impressive in big league camp this spring and brings an aggressive approach to the mound. He should be a reliable arm towards the back-end of the Nashville bullpen.
Detwiler began spring training with a chance to win the second lefty role in the A’s bullpen, but he struggled and lost the role to Daniel Coulombe. Detwiler elected to become a free agent after being demoted to minor league camp, but he wasn’t able to find a big league opportunity and he re-signed with the A’s. The only lefty on the Nashville staff, Detwiler can start and relieve. Last year, he threw 86 innings in Triple-A and 48.2 innings in the big leagues for the A’s and Indians. Detwiler, with 578 career innings in the majors, has the most big league time of any pitcher on the Nashville staff.
Newcomers Josh Smith and Michael Brady will round-out the Nashville bullpen. Smith made 32 appearances in the big leagues for the Cincinnati Reds last season and has 92.1 career big league innings. He has mostly been a starter during his minor league career, but 30 of his 32 appearances with the Reds last season came as a reliever.
Brady, a Cal alum, joined the A’s as a minor league free agent this off-season. A side-arming righty, Brady was a position player in college but was moved to the mound early in his professional career. Brady spent last season in the Nationals’ chain, splitting the year between Double-A and Triple-A. He had a 3.05 ERA in 466.1 innings.
Several pitchers currently rehabbing injuries in Arizona figure to play a role for Nashville once they are healthy. Starters Daniel Mengden, Felix Doubront and Chris Jensen and relievers Trey Cochran-Gill, Tyler Sturdevant and J.B. Wendelken all have Triple-A experience or were part of the A’s big league camp as non-roster invitees.