Which 2019 rookie will make the biggest splash in 2020?

“Jesus Saves!” It is a popular saying across the world, apparently. It may adorn the green and yellow signs of the Coliseum next season as the Oakland Athletics aim to break the postseason voodoo by finally winning a Wild Card game. Why? It has everything to with the A’s number 1 prospect: Jesús Luzardo.

Acquired in the deal that sent Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson to the Washington Nationals in 2017, the Peruvian Luzardo made his Major League debut this season. His stat-line was more than impressive: 16 strikeouts in just 12 innings including 2 saves and 2 holds with a 1.50 ERA and 0.67 WHIP. He also came on in relief in the A’s Wild Card loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, tossing a further 3 shutout innings with 4 strikeouts, the youngest pitcher to do so in a postseason game since Madison Bumgarner in 2010

The 22-year-old Luzardo is the epitome of pitchability. His 5-pitch armory made mouths water in his stint in the bigs, and his postseason cameo sent the hype train into overdrive. And rightly so, Luzardo threw four fastballs at a recorded velocity of 98.7 mph, his highest all season. His ability to mix in his wicked sinker with elite command not only generates groundballs for outs but has top hitters missing on both sides of the plate: a 12.0 K/9 ratio this season is backed up by 129 strikeouts with a 2.88 ERA over three levels of minor league ball in 2018.

What really gets the senses tingling is his devastating curveball, which generated a whiff on 68% of swings during the regular season. It is not even Luzardo’s best pitch behind his fastballs, that would be his sinking changeup: a pitch that is often delivered in hurry-up to jam the hitter. According to FanGraphs pitch values, his wCH/C (changeup) is 5.0 compared to a wCU/C (curveball) of 3.87. Expect these numbers to increase significantly when Luzardo establishes himself as a key piece of the rotation for the Athletics in 2020.

The A’s have propped up their rotation the last couple of years by acquiring older free agents or cheap trade bits to scuttle their way to the postseason. These short term deals are for players who either suit their pitcher-friendly park or complement their elite defensive unit: starters such as Mike Fiers (38.8% flyball rate) and Brett Anderson (54.5% groundball rate) have delivered 28 wins while recent trade acquisitions Tanner Roark (4–3) and Homer Bailey (6–3) both finished with winning records adding another 10 wins in 23 starts. This has allowed the A’s to bring prospects like Luzardo, AJ Puk and Daulton Jefferies along with caution, particularly important given all three have had major injury issues.

The immediate truth, however, is that the A’s don’t have to do this anymore. Their young arms are ready, Frankie Montas showed that this season with his stellar 9–2 record with a 2.63 ERA before being hit with a suspension for PEDs. Puk flashed his 98mph arm out of the bullpen and looked comfortably at home. The biggest plus was probably the return of lefty Sean Manaea after his injury plagued 2018. He looked phenomenal in the regular season, going 4–0 in his five starts with an improved slider.

Luzardo is the jewel in the crown, however. His incredible poise on the mound is second-to-none among rookies expected to break into the starting rotation in 2020. Luzardo is calm in his demeanor, confident in his ability and disciplined in his delivery – think of Luzardo as the complete opposite of Rick Moranis realising his dream of becoming a Ghostbuster.

Luzardo is fascinatingly unpredictable, an invaluable asset in these days of uber-analytics especially when pitching through the batting order multiple times. Likely to slide into the back end of the rotation after Fiers, Manaea and Montas, Luzardo will provide the A’s with an almost perfect right-left rotation balance. The only red flag is the injury history: Luzardo tore his ulnar collateral ligament and underwent Tommy John surgery in March 2016, just a few months before being drafted by the Nationals in the draft. He then strained his left rotator cuff late in spring training this season which curtailed his expectations of making the A’s rotation.

“But, where should I draft him in fantasy next season?” I hear you say. Pitcher List recently released their first mock draft for the 2020 fantasy season and the price for Luzardo was high, the 10th round. Luzardo was selected a round behind aces such as Jose Berrios, Brandon Woodruff and Sonny Gray; and ahead of this season’s stellar performers such Hyun-Jin Ryu, Mike Soroka and Max Fried. So, expect competition for the A’s young gun. 

The beauty of the off-season is having the luxury to dive into analysis of the prospects and breakout candidates for 2020. Don’t be a fool, start with Jesús Luzardo.

Benjamin Haller, Dec 2019

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