Cristian Pache’s path gets tougher with JJ Bleday, Esteury Ruiz in camp

Cristian Pache played in a whopping 10 innings of baseball during the 2020 season and now it could cost him an opportunity to latch on with the A’s in 2023.

Back on Aug. 18, 2020, the Atlanta Braves recalled Pache from their alternate training site. Pache must have been ecstatic to make his big league debut, even if there were only cardboard cutouts in the stands during baseball’s weirdest season.

Three days later, Pache finally got in the game, going 1-for-4 while getting his first big-league hit against … wait for it … former A’s southpaw Cole Irvin, who was then with the Philadelphia Phillies. 

Pache entered the game the following night as a ninth-inning defensive replacement, before going back to the bench. On Aug. 25, 2020, he was optioned to the Gwinnett Stripers in Triple-A – which, you know, didn’t have any games going – and his season was over.

One week. Ten innings. Two games. One option.

Heading into this crucial 2023 season, Pache is now out of options. Either he makes the 26-man opening day roster, or the A’s will have to designate him for assignment and put him on waivers. A’s manager Mark Kotsay was candid about Pache’s situation when speaking with reporters on Tuesday in Arizona.

“He’s in a difficult situation without having the opportunity to be optioned and stay in this organization,” Kotsay said, via A’s media relations. “Not only is he competing for a roster spot here, but he’s gonna showcase himself for 29 other teams. It’s an important spring for Pache, no question. From an individual standpoint and for his career going forward.”

In the past few weeks, more trades have netted Oakland two intriguing outfielders with dueling talents. Both guys, the slugger JJ Bleday and the speedster Esteury Ruiz, have options, meaning they can start the season in Triple-A Las Vegas if the A’s don’t think they’re ready for the bigs just yet.

In a nutshell, most MLB players have three seasons in which they can be optioned – or sent to the minor leagues – for a maximum of five times per year. Pache has been optioned each of the past three seasons, including his disappointing 2022 after being a heralded return piece of the Matt Olson trade. But it’s the 2020 option that just seems like a wasted season of development for Pache.

I hope A.J. Puk is ready for more arepas.

In 2019, Puk met Jesús Luzardo’s mom, Monica, who couldn’t help but notice how lanky the 6-foot-7 left-hander was. So she started feeding him arepas, a Venezuelan comfort food filled with corn, meat and carbs, and he put on the weight. With his transformed body, Puk put together his best season in 2022, posting a 3.12 ERA and 3.68 WHIP in 66.1 innings with 76 strikeouts and 23 walks.

So when Puk was traded to Miami on Feb. 11, he got to reunite with Luzardo and his hometown Marlins. ¡Mas arepas, por favor!

The A’s had planned to let Puk compete for a rotation spot this spring, but they parlayed Puk’s season for some lineup pop, in the form of the 25-year-old Bleday.

Drafted No. 4 overall in 2019, Bleday’s power tool has been prodigious since becoming a professional. In his final season at Vanderbilt, Bleday bashed 27 homers with 72 RBIs and a .347/.465/.701 slash line in 71 games, but he’s yet to hit higher than .229 in his first two full minor league seasons. Even though he missed the whole 2020 season because of the pandemic, the Marlins pushed him aggressively through the ranks the past two years.

“A high-ceiling type player that I don’t think has tapped his potential yet,” Kotsay said.

Last year, Bleday slashed .229/.365/.470 with 20 dingers and 52 RBIs in 85 Triple-A games before getting his call up to the show on July 23. He finished out the season with the Marlins but hit just five dingers with 16 RBIs and a .167/.277/.309 slash line in 65 games, resulting in a 67 OPS+ and 72 wRC+.

Despite those down numbers, Bleday was expected to be part of the Marlins young core going forward, even appearing at the team’s FanFest three days before he was shipped to Oakland.

“They made me go to FanFest and then axed me,” Bleday recently joked with’s Martín Gallegos. “It was definitely a blindside. Definitely a little sense of bitterness at first.”

If Bleday is the thunder, Ruiz is the lightning.

He stole 85 bases between the Double-A and Triple-A levels last season while playing for the Padres and Brewers organizations. The A’s acquired him from Milwaukee in the three-team Sean Murphy trade in December.

Like Bleday, Ruiz had an unsuccessful 2022 stint in MLB, slashing just .171/.194/.257 in 17 games while completing just one of his three steal attempts. You can’t help but be enamored by the numbers he put up in the minor leagues, though, as he slashed .337/.442/.526 with 16 homers, 65 RBIs, 66 walks, 94 strikeouts and the aforementioned 85 stolen bases.

That’s a solid offensive profile for someone who just turned 24, especially the walk-to-strikeout ratio. But it’s the steals that really jumps off the page. 

“The speed is the first and foremost thing,” Kotsay said. “He has dynamic speed that can change the game. … He can play all over the outfield, center field probably being the position he’s played the most.”

Ramón Laureano and Seth Brown have to be considered locks for the outfield and are probably the A’s best two hitters at this point. My guess is that Ramón will play a majority in right field but also shift to center, and that Brown will hold down left field while playing the other two spots when needed.

From there, the A’s have the guys gunning it out for playing time, including Bleday, Ruiz, Cal Stevenson, Conner Capel and Brent Rooker. All those guys got options. And then there’s Pache.

How will time remember the Olson trade?

For now, it’s not looking too hot for the A’s, especially if they have cut loose Pache this spring. Ranked as the Braves top prospect in 2021, Pache was regarded as a major haul in the March 2022 Olson trade, along with catcher Shea Langeliers.

We knew it would take Shea some time to get up to the big leagues, but Pache burst on to the scene with seemingly highlight reel plays every day in spring training. The glove was never a question, but his bat was the biggest issue. By May, Pache’s average dipped below the Mendoza line and never returned.

In a year that started with so much promise, he slashed just .166/.218/.241 with three homers, 18 RBIs, 15 walks and 70 strikeouts in 91 games. Whether it was a fastball (.192 batting average against), a breaking ball (.160) or an offspeed pitch (.045), Pache didn’t stand much of a chance in the batter’s box.

We’re still awaiting to see if Langeliers can hold his own on offense as well, and take the leap to be the face of the franchise. Shea’s bat cooled down once the tape got out on him, as he finished last year with a .218/.261/.430 slash line, six homers and 22 RBIs in 40 games. Once the A’s traded away Murphy, they handed all the responsibility to Langeliers.

How about the other two guys in the Olson trade?

Right-hander Ryan Cusick, a 2021 first-rounder, posted a 7.90 ERA in 12 games with Double-A Midland last year. Joey Estes, also a right-hander, compiled a 4.55 ERA in 20 starts for High-A Lansing. Not exactly blue-chippers.

Just 11 months after Olson was shipped away, Pache’s spring training performance will carry the weight of the trade’s judgment. Now that Bleday and Ruiz are in camp, it’s only going to be harder for Pache to latch on by opening day.

“I think he knows the situation he’s in,” Kotsay said of Pache. “We want him to be a part of this ballclub. He has some intangibles here that we value. I think he’s come into camp and very prepared and very ready to go out and earn an opportunity to be part of this roster.”