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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Minor Thoughts

I have followed the Major League Giants for many years, but for the past three or four years I have become very interested in the organization’s minor league teams, prospects, and drafts.  Taking an interest in the world of minor league baseball has brought a whole new level of wonder for me to this great game of baseball.  I really don’t think a person will ever understand just how competitive a sport professional baseball really is unless they have some kind of knowledge of the minor league system and all of its levels.  Although many fans may argue this notion (myself included sometimes), the players on the major league fields truly are the best baseball players out there. 

As my interest in the minor leagues has grown, I have found numerous helpful websites and personal blogs that provide in-depth stats and prospect analysis, daily organizational recaps, and amateur draft previews and selection rundowns.  Blogs like When the Giants Come to Town, Optioned to Fresno, and McCovey Chronicles have impressed me with their diligence and knowledge relating to all things Giants prospects.  I do not want to copy what those sites are already doing very well.  I do not understand most of the advanced stats that scouts and bloggers use to evaluate players now.  I am still of the belief that players who succeed at one level should earn the chance to succeed at the next.  If they continue to contribute, they should eventually receive a MLB shot.  However, that is not always the case in this game. 
That being said, my goal for this section is to provide an organizational minor league overview 2-3 times a month (if not once a week).  Which players’ stocks are rising and which are falling?  Who are the underrated players in the system – those low-round or undrafted players who are proving the experts wrong?  Which names should the fans in San Fran want to keep an eye on for the next couple of years?  Those are the questions that will be addressed in Minor Thoughts.  And I hope they will be addressed adequately.  As always, any feedback, corrections, or additional information is always appreciated. 

Anyway, here goes nothin’…

MINOR THOUGHTS: 14 June 2011

We’re two months into the season now, so I think we are due for a bit of a catch-up.  Only a few seasons ago, the Giants were an organization which was very pitcher heavy in the minor leagues.  Solid hitting prospects were tough to find at any level.  But it would seem the times are changing.  With the selection of Cal-State Fullerton outfielder Gary Brown in the first round of the 2010 draft and now St. John’s shortstop Joe Panik as the 29th overall pick in the less-than-two-week-old 2011 draft, it appears as if the higher-ups are making a push for offense.  And I don’t think it would take a rocket scientist to understand why.  Our reigning champs, whose offense was expected to be surprisingly strong this season, has crumpled under injuries and underachieving performances.  As Andrew Baggarly recently reported, the Giants are the only division leader in all of baseball who’s allowed more runs than it’s scored…. And Giants pitchers don’t allow many runs.  If this organization wants to build a lasting contender, some offensive support is imminent.  Luckily, it seems that many offensive prospects are starting to make names for themselves in the minors, with a select few (including Brandon Belt and new shortstop MLB Brandon Crawford) rising quickly.  If the Giants fall out of contention this year (which we hope they won’t), it will be interesting to see which young hitters are given a chance to prove themselves.

The draft is behind us, and short-season ball is set to begin at the end of the week.  It will be interesting to see how Panik – who signed quickly – and the other new draftees will perform at the professional level.  I’m also looking forward to seeing 2010 7th round selection Chuck Jones, a raw 6-3 235 pound outfielder who’s drawn comparisons to a young Matt Kemp.  Jones was drafted out of high school in Missouri, saw limited action in the Arizona Rookie League last year, and should move on to Salem-Kiezer this year.   

         First Rounder Joe Panik

As for the teams that are in play…

Fresno Grizzlies| AAA Pacific Coast League | 28-37

The Grizzlies have struggled this season, as they’ve seen many players (“Flash Brothers” Manny Burriss and Darren Ford specifically) moving up and down to fill injury holes in San Francisco.  I would like to see Burriss continue to improve his offense with the big league team, and I wonder if Ford will return to Fresno when his DL stint is over.  His speed is amazing, but I don’t see a spot for him right now.  Maybe Burrell will be cut around midseason or so to make room, but I think that’s unlikely.  Despite a lack of superstar names and elite prospects on this team, I think a few guys are proving themselves worthy of an eventual call-up… Brett Pill, who’s 26 and been in the organization since 2006, has impressed me with his offensive numbers at every stop.  He is one of the only players I’ve noticed in four years of following the Giants’ minor league teams to hit for power at AA, where he posted a .298 average with 19 HR and 109 RBI.  Pill’s a big guy, a first-baseman who doesn’t quite have the ideal power for the position.  However, he has made the switch to second base this year and has only committed 7 errors so far.  In 64 games, he is hitting .287/.333/.818 with 11 HR and 46 RBI.  He has a good 16/30 BB/K ratio.  Although he is too old to be considered a prospect, I think Pill could be an eventual major league player.  Maybe a poor man’s Billy Butler?  I would like to see him get a chance, but I doubt in happens in San Francisco.  For now, he continues to hit in AAA. 

Another older “non-prospect” player who has impressed me for a couple of years is outfielder Tyler Graham.   Graham, a 27 y.o. Oregon State kid out of Great Falls, MT (home of Seattle Mariners blogger and good friend Aaron Stucker),  has racked up steals throughout his minor league career, and he continues to do so this season in Fresno.  Through 59 games, he’s hitting .269/.341/.701 with 1 HR and 15 RBI.  He’s also swiped 32 bags in 38 tries.  That’s impressive at any level.  Obviously Graham is not a power guy, and I have noticed that he DH’s frequently, so maybe there are questions about his defense.  It should be noted though that he hasn’t committed an error all season.  Power or no power, you’ve gotta’ love a guy who can steal bases like that and draw some walks.  I’d want Graham on my team, but I don’t see him surpassing Darren Ford as the speed specialist in San Francisco.    

A few other notes in Fresno… outfield prospect Thomas Neal has returned from an early-season injury, and is hitting the cover off the ball.  Through 31 games, 23 y.o. Neal is hitting .324/.392/.855 with 2 HR and 15 RBI.  He’s shown some sweet hitting skills before, has had some chances in Spring Training, and should be seeing his chance for a call-up arrive late this year.  I like this kid, and I would like to see him holding down left or right field for us in as little as a year or two if he can continue hitting.

Catcher Hector Sanchez (21) has been called up to AAA from San Jose after hitting .301/.321/.832 with 8 HR and 46 RBI in 42 games.  Sanchez had a 3 HR game earlier this season, and is an interesting young prospect.  I’m not sure why he was moved from High –A to AAA, but it would seem that Giants’ brass is losing faith in current Fresno catcher Jackson Williams.  Williams is known for his defense, but can’t seem to get the bat going, and may end up being another Steve Holm or Eli Whiteside down the road.  For now, it seems that Sanchez has taken over the catching duties in Fresno, where he is 3 for 11 with 2 RBI in three games.

Hitting has definitely been the strength of this Fresno team in 2011.  As can be the case in AAA, pitching has not been the Grizzlies’ strong suit.  Spring Training sensation Marc Kroon has performed well in the closer role for the Griz, posting a 2.59 ERA and 13 saves while striking out 32 batters in 24 innings.  Kroon is 38 years old, and he’s a guy I’d love to see throwing on the big league team.  Unfortunately, our bullpen is one of the best in baseball.  Maybe a crazy thought, but if I were a GM looking for relief help at the deadline, I’d be calling Brian Sabean about Kroon.  Not only is he a good guy, but he can pitch.  Could he create some interesting leverage for the Giants in July?

                Pitcher Marc Kroon

Once promising prospect Henry Sosa seems to be derailing.  After posting a 10.14 ERA and walking 17 batters in 23 innings at Fresno, he was demoted to Richmond.  His stock has definitely fallen off drastically in recent years.
Dan Runzler has been working in a starting role since his demotion to AAA, albeit for 5.1 innings in games.  If the Giants could work him into a starter and clean up his control issues, I’d take a flame-throwing lefty on the bump any day.

After enough years of following minor league baseball, you learn a few things.  Through my recent interest Giants minor league affiliates, I have learned that hitters tend to see inflated numbers at High-A and AAA, while their numbers usually fall in AA.  I don’t know exactly why this is.  Instinct would say that most of the parks in AA are bigger pitcher parks.  Additionally, elite prospects (like Buster Posey) don’t always make a stop in AA, but skip right over the level from High-A to AAA.  No matter the reasons, Richmond, VA has not been a location of offensive explosions from Giants farmhands. 

When the 2011 Richmond roster was announced, I saw some great offensive promise from this team.  Names like Roger Kieschnick, Nick Noonan, and Charlie Culberson provided the potential for some big numbers.  While none of these players were recognized as elite prospects, they had all shown the ability to hit, and hit well, at other levels.  However, none of them have been able to sustain any real offensive production this season so far.  Kieschnick, a 6-foot-4 left-handed hitting outfielder drafted out of Texas Tech in the third round of the 2008 draft, slugged .296/.345/.876 with 23 HR and 110 RBI at High-A San Jose in his first year of professional ball in 2009, but reverted greatly after starting the season at Richmond the next year.  Injuries nagged him for most of the 2010 season, in which he hit .251/.305/.673 with only 4 HR in 60 games.  After exactly the same amount of games played this season, his numbers remain eerily similar.  Currently, Kieschnick is hitting .254/.303/.682 with 4 HR.  However, through his last 10 games he has hit for a .351 average, so maybe the injuries are behind him.  If he wants to regain his status as a prospect of note in this system, he’ll have to find the power numbers and cut down his gaudy strikeout totals. 

Second baseman/shortstop Nick Noonan, listed as a top-ten Giants prospect less than two years ago, has also seen a drop-off in production since bursting onto the professional scene.  The Giants drafted the highly regarded lefty hitter out of high school with their sandwich pick in 2007.  He hit .316/.357/.809 in 52 games with the Arizona Rookie League Giants that summer, then showed more promising skills the next season at Low-A Augusta, hitting 9 HR, driving in 68 runs, and stealing 29 bags.  After a mediocre season at High-A San Jose in 2009, Noonan hit only .237/.280/.584 with 3 HR in 101 games at AA in 2010.  This season, he’s hitting just .229 through 48 games.  His speed has seemed to diminish as well, as he’s stolen only 18 bases in over two seasons since his 29 steal campaign in Augusta.  Noonan is still young, only 22, and has plenty of time to develop.  But for now he’ll have to earn any promotion he gets. 

Charlie Culberson is another young (22) infielder who turned heads in the organization with a strong 2010 season at San Jose, as well as an impressive performance in the Arizona Fall League.  He was promoted to Richmond to start the 2011 season, where he maintained a respectable average through May.  Lately, however, those numbers have started to plummet.  Despite hitting three of his four HR in the past 10 games, he’s hitting only .154 during the same stretch.  For the season to date, his numbers read .259/.297/.665 with 4 HR, 21 RBI, and 62 K’s in 59 games.  Culberson still has plenty of room to grow, and hopefully a strong summer will be in store for him.
                                                              Charlie Culberson

For now, the top hitter for Richmond’s struggling offense is journeyman Justin Christian.  The 31 y.o. left-fielder is hitting .254/.326/.674 with 3 HR and 16 SB in 62 games played.  Cather Johnny Monell currently leads the Squirrels with 6 HR.           
The Richmond pitching staff features some interesting players, including a 3-pack of young southpaw starters and some unsung talented relievers.  Lefties Eric Surkamp (23), Clayton Tanner (23) and Ryan Verdugo (24) anchor the starting rotation.  All are former Giants draft picks who have shown promise in their young careers.  While 6-foot-4 Surkamp (4-3, 1.88 ERA, 80 K and 25 BB in 71.2 IP) may see more of the press, and deservedly so, Verdugo is starting to turn heads as well.  After an impressive 2010 season in which he split time between Augusta and San Jose, the former ninth round pick in 2009 has posted a 4-2 record, 3.00 ERA, and 72 K in 66 IP this year.  Both of these players look to be moving toward the list of potential Fresno starters by next season.  Tanner has not fared so well, however.  Pitching at AA for the second consecutive season, the 2006 draftee from Australia is 2-6 this season with a 4.66 ERA and only 50 K in 65.2 IP.    
Closer Jason Stoffel is the most highly regarded name in the Richmond bullpen, although his numbers aren’t as dominant as others on this staff.  The hard throwing righty Stoffel (22 y.o.) has earned 9 saves this season, posting a 3.74 ERA while striking out 20 and walking 9 in 21.2 innings of work.  Middlemen Dan Otero (1.42 ERA in 38 IP), Justin Dowdy (0.82 ERA in 22 IP), and Ronnie Ray (0.95 ERA in 28.1 IP) have all been phenomenal out of the ‘pen.  It seems like the Giants have so many solid middle relievers in their system, only adding to the amazing bullpen depth of the big league squad.     
What can you say about this year’s San Jose team, but Wow?!  It seems this team is the class of the Giants’ minor league system every season, and 2011 has been no exception.  Manager Andy Skeels has his team pushing for another Cal League championship.  At this rate, it wouldn’t be crazy to see them win MiLB Team of the Year as well. 
With the recent success of this San Jose team, we’ve seen a handful of players come through town en route to the big club in San Francisco (including Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, Pablo Sandoval, Brandon Belt, and Brandon Crawford).  I would say this year’s “little” Giants have some serious star potential as well.  2010 first round selection Gary Brown leads one of the best offenses in the minors.  Brown, an outfield product from Cal-State Fullerton, has been nothing less than amazing in his first full year of pro ball.  Through 63 games, he’s hitting a cool .333/.405/.888, with 6 HR 47 RBI, and an eye-popping 32 stolen bases!  If he keeps hitting like this, it would seem that Brown could be in San Francisco sooner than later, potentially as the Giants’ center fielder and leadoff hitter for many years to come.  Keep an eye on this kid folks, he’s a good one.  
                        Gary Brown
Other players who have excelled for Skeels’ offense this year include catcher Hector Sanchez, who was recently promoted to AAA Fresno, third baseman Chris Dominguez (.291/.337/.802, 11 HR 40 RBI), and second baseman Ryan Cavan (.277/.355/.802, 6 HR 45 RBI).  Additionally, 2009 second round selection Tommy Joseph appears to be the team’s number one catcher with the promotion of Hector Sanchez.  Josph, a raw 20 year old with big time power, is hitting only .249/.292/.675 with 6 HR for the season, but seems to have found his groove lately.  He’s batting .419 with 2 HR in his last 10 games. 
Another player of note for this talented San Jose offense is outfielder Jarrett Parker, whom the Giants took with their second round selection in the 2010.  Parker is a 22 y.o. lefty out of the University of Virginia.  He’s solidly built (6-foot-4, 210 pounds), and known as an all around player with speed and pop.  His numbers this year seem to confirm the scouting reports.  Through 58 games, Parker’s hitting .268/.383/.808 with 5 HR 31 RBI and 12 stolen bases.  He’s struck out 61 times in his first year of professional ball, but has also drawn an impressive 38 free passes.     
Outfielder Francisco Peguero has started his season in San Jose after sitting out the first two months with an injury.  Peguero, a 23 y.o. Dominican Republic native, burst onto the scene last season in San Jose, hitting .329/.358/.846 with 10 HR 77 RBI and 40 SB.  He has very little left to prove at this level, so it would seem that his is merely getting his feet wet before a promotion.  Through 12 games, he’s hitting .340 with 2 HR. 
Following the tradition of recent championship San Jose teams, the 2011 High-A Giants feature a mostly blue collar pitching staff, highlighted by a couple of top prospects.  The starting rotation has been very good, with underrated Craig Westcott leading the group.  The 25 y.o. former 30th round draft pick is currently 8-0 with a 2.14 ERA in 10 games started.  He’s fanned 38 while issuing only 13 batters in 67.1 IP. 
The big name of this pitching staff is Zach Wheeler, the Giants’ first round selection in the 2009 draft.  The 21 y.o. hard-throwing righty has improved as the season has progressed.  Wheeler is now 6-2 with a 3.26 ERA and 68 K’s in 60.2 IP.  After an injury-plagued first professional season, it’s nice to see Wheeler progressing in the hitter-friendly CAL League.  He’s a big time prospect in this organization, and someone they’re hoping will be a longtime fixture in San Francisco.     
In the bullpen for San Jose, closer Heath Hembree has really made a name for himself, and appears poised to make a Dan Runzler-type run through the minors this season.  Last season’s 5th round selection out of the College of Charleston blew away the competition in San Jose.  In 24.2 IP, he’s posted a 0.73 ERA and 21 saves, striking out an incredible 44 hitters while walking only 12.  He’s 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, and seems to have some excellent potential as a possible shut down closer.    
(Hembree and 3B Chris Dominguez have been promoted to AA Richmond since this was posted).  
The 2011 Low-A Augusta Green Jackets don’t feature too many big name prospects in the organization, but there are a few players from this team to keep an eye on.  Keeping in mind that this level usually doesn’t see too many premier top level prospects, all of these players still have a long road to reach the majors.  However, it should be noted that players can sometimes make a big splash out of the Low-A level.  San Francisco pitchers Madison Bumgarner (2007) and Dan Runzler (2008-2009) are both former Green Jackets who have advanced to the big leagues and seen success in recent years.   
Third baseman Adam Duvall, the Giants 11th round draft pick in the 2010 draft, is showing some serious power numbers for the Green Jackets this season.  Like former University of Louisville teammate and fellow Giants farmhand Chris Dominguez, Duvall is showing the ability to hit home runs and get on base.  Through 68 games, he’s hitting .269/.361/.895 with 17 home runs and 53 RBI.  He’s struck out 49 times while taking 29 free passes.  His home run totals are by far the most of any player in the organization (including the poor-hitting Major League Giants).  Hopefully Duvall can continue to slug as he progresses to the next level. 
Another intriguing player for this team is Carlos Willoughby, a gangly infielder who is finally playing full season ball after three years in the Giants Dominican Summer League and one in the Arizona Fall League.  The Colombian native Willoughby doesn’t offer much pop, but appears to have legitimate speed on the base paths, stealing 24 bags in 30 tries this season.  He has on OBP of .376, so we’ll just have to wait and see how his game develops.  He is 22 years old, however, which is a bit old for this level.   
Rafael Rodriguez has been considered a top prospect in the Giants organization for a couple years now.  However, I’ve never seen anything to be particularly excited about from him.  Yes, he’s only 19 years old, so he’s got plenty of time to develop.  But for a player with his body size (6-foot-5), he’s only hit one home run this season, giving him a total of 3 for his professional career.  His hitting line of .248/.291/.608 this season is less than impressive.  I’m not saying Rodriguez can’t blossom into something special, just that I’m not going to buy the hype until I see some production.
In the Augusta pitching department, former 6th round pick Matthew Graham continues to struggle with his command.  In 22 IP with the Green Jackets, the sturdy right hander walked 18 batters while striking out only 10.  He posted an ERA of 5.32, and was reassigned to short-season Salem-Kiezer for the start of summer ball. 
There don’t seem to be many overpowering pitchers on this team right now, but names like (starters) Seth Rosin, Austin Fleet, Shawn Sanford, and Taylor Rogers are definitely worth following for a couple of years.  It will be interesting to see which (if any) of these players make the jump to San Jose. 
In the bullpen, San Francisco Manager Bruce Bochy’s son Brett Bochy has posted a solid 1.84 ERA through 14 innings of work. Stephen Harrold has shown promise as the team’s closer, earning 10 saves and a 1.95 ERA through 32.1 IP.             
            Rafael Rodriguez



  1. Impressive my friend. I appreciate the shout out to Great Falls native Tyler Graham who I happened to play for the same legion team. Great guy and a great family. Thanks for linking me to this haha! How did you do that by the way? The Giants minor league system is surprisingly strong after their World Series. I'd love to see Kroon called up in the near future. Much love, KG.

  2. Haha thanks brother. Graham needs to get a look... and I'll show you how.