The Oakland A’s gave up a pair of quality relievers when they traded Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson to the Washington Nationals in July. The trio of players they got in return are pretty talented themselves. One is already established — Blake Treinen logged 16 saves this year — while the others are promising prospects.
Sheldon Neuse, a 22-year-old infielder out of the University of Oklahoma, recorded a .321/.382/.502 slash line in his first full season of pro ball. The 2016 second-round pick did his damage at three levels, hopscotching from Low-A to High-A to Double-A.
And then there’s Jesus Luzardo, whose ceiling would be best described as “lofty.” While getting his feet wet at the lowest rungs of the minors — Rookie-level ball and the New York-Penn League — the polished-beyond-his-years southpaw struck out 48 and walked just five in 43.1 innings. His ERA was a smooth-and-shiny 1.66.
When he debuted in late June, Luzardo was three months short of his 20th birthday and 12 months removed from having been drafted out of a Parkland, Florida, high school. He was also 15 months post Tommy John surgery, which is a big reason he lasted until the 94th pick of the 2016 draft. Had the high-upside hurler not gone under the knife, he probably would have gone in the first round.
His signing bonus suggests just that. Banking on a full recovery, the Nationals shelled out a reported $1.4 million to get his name on a dotted line. The payout — equivalent to early-second-round slot money — was enough to persuade Luzardo to bypass a scholarship to the University of Miami. The decision to turn pro made sense, but it wasn’t a no-brainer.
“I definitely wouldn’t call it that,” Luzardo told me at the conclusion of the New York-Penn League season. “Miami is a great school, and going there would have a great experience. But now that I can look back it, I’m glad I signed. The Nationals really took care of me during my rehab process, and so did the A’s. Both took their time. I wasn’t rushed.”
It wasn’t until extended spring training — a full year after his March 22, 2016 surgery — that he began feeling like his old self again. It then took a few more flips of the calendar before he felt 100%. But patience is a virtue, and once the Arizona Rookie League got under way in late June, Luzardo was unleashing heaters with a purpose.
When I talked to him at season’s end, Luzardo told me his velocity was all the way back. He also told me that he’s not typically trying to light up radar guns. As a rule, he humping up is reserved for special occasions.
“I wouldn’t use the word ‘cruising,’ but I’m usually out there trying to spot up,” explained Luzardo. “I don’t need to put 110% effort into every fastball. It’s when I need a strikeout — if I’m K-hunting — that I’ll put a little extra on it.”
His repertoire includes both two- and four-seam fastballs. He described the former as sitting “in the 90-94 range” and the latter as “96-98, for when I want to blow it by someone.” His secondary offerings are a circle change — “I grip it kind of weird; I’m on the bottom of the horseshoe” — and a curveball. He’s especially pleased with his change of pace, which he referred to as “a valuable weapon.”
Meanwhile, the violence and strife in his familial homeland weighs heavily on his mind. Luzardo was born in Peru, and he lives with his parents in South Florida, but most of his extended family is in Venezuela.
“Everyone in my family is from there,” said Luzardo, turning somber as the subject switched from baseball to real life. “It just happened to work out that I was born in Peru in the two years my [immediate] family was out of Venezuela. I used to go back all the time, and that’s how I identify. In my heart, I’m Venezuelan. We talk to my relatives there all the time, trying to get them out. At this point, all you can do is sit back and pray, and hope for the best. It’s in God’s hands.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.