Last year was a great year for some top Giants prospects. Buster Posey certainly made a leap in his first full year of professional ball, Madison Bumgarner made solid headway from Single-A to the Major Leagues and Waldis Joaquin and Dan Runzler proved they could be solid relief options in 2010 after solid Minor (and even Major) League campaigns in 2009.
However, for all the success stories concerning Giants prospects, there were a few downers in 2009. Specifically, four of them were middle infielders (two who were first round draft picks): Emmanuel Burriss, Brandon Crawford, Ehire Adrianza, and Nick Noonan. All four guys were expected to make big leaps after promising 2008 campaigns, but for some reason, none of them really lived up to expectations in 2009.
Now, does that mean the sun has set on these four infield prospects? Not at all. The potential for Major League success as soon as 2010 is still there for some of them. That being said, I feel it is important to look at the four and examine which guys are due for a breakout in 2010, and what are some of the warning signs that may prevent one, a couple (or perhaps all four) of the players from being big-time contributors at the Major League level.
Emmanuel Burriss, 2B/SS (Highest level reached last year: MLB).
2009 stats with Giants: 61 G, 202 AB, 220 PA, 48 H, 42 1B, 6 2B, 0 3B, 0 HR, 18 R, 13 RBI, 14 BB, 34 SO, 11 SB, .238 AVG., .292 OBP, .560 OPS
How Burriss Struggled in 2009:
Big expectations were put on Burriss, the Giants' First Round Pick in 2006, after a solid 2008 campaign with the Giants, and an even better Spring Training where he put up a .855 OPS in Spring Training prior to the 2009 season. With those credentials, and the second base spot open after Ray Durham's departure, Burriss was given the starting nod at second base with the hope that he would build on those two solid campaigns and become a viable candidate for the leadoff spot in the Giants lineup.
Well, Burriss never really lived up to the promise of 2008 or Spring Training, as he struggled to get on base (.292 OBP) and seemed to be overmatched at the plate. He posted the highest strikeout rate of his professional career with the Giants in 2009 (16.8 percent), and only hit six extra base hits all year (all doubles), which produced a putrid .267 slugging percentage and .560 OPS. Even though Burriss did provide some spark on the bases as expected (11 stolen bases in 2009), his defense didn't live up to billing. After sporting a 3.8 UZR in 2008 at second base, Burriss had a -3.7 UZR in 2009 at second base.
How bad was Burriss in 2009? In WAR values for the Giants, Burriss ranked last in WAR out of any San Francisco positional player at -0.8 (equivalent to $-3.8 million dollars, according to Fangraphs).
Why Giants Fans Should be Hopeful of Burriss:
Talent-wise, Burriss is a very interesting player. He has tremendous base-stealing ability (as evidenced by his 35 and 51 stolen bases in 2007 and 2008 in Salem-Keizer and Augusta), a quality that will be sorely needed in 2010 after the Giants lost their leading stolen base leader (Randy Winn) to free agency this off-season. The Giants really do not have a true leadoff hitter at the moment (Aaron Rowand is predicted to bat lead-off on Opening Day) and though Eugenio Velez and Andres Torres are solid baserunning options, they are much older ( 27 and 32, respectively) and it is debatable whether or not they will get many opportunities considering how crowded the outfield is. With Freddy Sanchez injured, and Edgar Renteria on thin ice, Burriss could have a chance to compete if somebody ahead of him falters and if he can get off to a fast start out of the gate in 2010 in the Minors or even Spring Training.
Offensively, Burriss does not draw a lot of walks (6.4 percent walk rate in 2009, 8.4 percent walk rate in 2008) but with the exception of last season, he does not strike out very much either. In 2008, he had a 0.96 BB/K ratio, and in 2009 with Fresno, he had a 0.75 BB/K ratio. While he could swing less outside of the strike zone (he swung at 28.3 percent of pitches outside the strike zone), he has a very strong ability to make contact at the plate. In 2008, he had a contact rate of 90.1 percent and even in his sub-par 2009, he had a contact rate of 84.6 percent, fifth-best of Giants hitters with 20 or more plate appearances.
Why Giants Fans Should Be Skeptical of Burriss:
Speed and defense were supposed to be the key characteristics of Burriss' game. Last year, he only proved the former. His negative UZR at second base was disappointing, and his negative UZR at shortstop in 2008 proved that he may not be as versatile in the field as many Giants fans would like to think.
Furthermore, Burriss' absolute lack of power is a huge red flag. He has never posted a slugging percentage over .370 in his career, and has never sported an OPS over .750 either. Granted, Giants fans don't expect him to be Barry Bonds at the plate, but one would expect with his speed that he would be better in terms of legging out extra-base hits, especially triples. Sadly, that isn't the case. In his career at the Major League level, Burriss has only hit 14 extra-base hits (12 doubles, 1 triple, 1 home run) in 494 plate appearances.
Brandon Crawford, 2B (Highest level reached last year: Double-A).
2009 stats with Connecticut (Double-A): 108 G, 392 AB, 423 PA, 101 H, 69 1B, 26 2B, 2 3B, 4 HR, 38 R, 31 RBI, 20 BB, 100 SO, 11 SB, .258 AVG., .294 OBP, .659 OPS.
How Crawford Struggled in 2009:
Crawford actually tore it up in 2009...in Single-A San Jose that is. In San Jose, Crawford hit .371 with a 1.045 OPS and also hit six home runs and 17 RBI in 25 games in the California League.
However, after getting promoted to Double-A Connecticut, Crawford ran into major problems at the plate.
Nearly every category of his dropped with the Defenders. His average went down to .258, his OPS went down to .659, he couldn't draw a walk to save his life (as evidenced by his 4.7 walk percentage, and .294 OBP), and he suddenly became a modern day recreation of Pedro Feliz circa 2001 when it came to swinging and missing (100 strikeouts in Connecticut, 25.5 percent strikeout rate).
To make things worse, he didn't add much power either in Double-A. After posting a .600 slugging and .229 ISO in San Jose in 2009, his slugging and ISO fell to .395 and .107 respectively. Additionally, he only hit four home runs in 423 plate appearances (he hit six home runs in 119 plate appearances in San Jose).
Why Giants Fans Should Be Hopeful of Crawford:
Crawford has always had raves for his glove and he still remains a solid defensive player. His RF/G was 4.58 in combined Single-A and Double-A play in 2009, so that should give some Giants fans hope considering Edgar Renteria's RF/G was 3.74 for the Giants in 2009. If anything, Crawford would be a solid upgrade over Renteria or even Juan Uribe (who had a 3.78 RF/G in 2009 at shortstop).
Granted, defense isn't everything. Brian Bocock was a good defender too. However, unlike Bocock, Crawford does have an ability to hit. His combined stats in Single-A and Double-A last year were still decent (.282 average, .742 OPS) and he had a solid campaign in Arizona Fall League this year (as evidenced by a .312 average and .850 OPS). If Crawford can get back to Single-A form somewhat, or hover around those combined-level stats from 2009 in 2010, it isn't impossible to think that he could be competing for the starting shortstop job in 2011 once Edgar Renteria's contract is up.
Why Giants Fans Should Be Skeptical of Crawford:
He is 23-years-old, and played three years of college baseball at UCLA. So, he's not exactly young considering where he's at in the minor league system, and he doesn't have a whole lot of time to develop in comparison to guys out of high school (such as Nick Noonan). Therefore, Crawford ceiling may not be very high, and Giants fans could seem him reach it in a couple of years considering his college experience.
That being said, despite his three years of college ball, and two years of professional ball, Crawford has serious issues at the plate. At four levels of play (rookie, short-season Single-A, Advanced Single-A, and Double-A), Crawford's BB/K ratios haven't been great. He had 0.00 BB/K ratio in Arizona and Salem Keizer (because he drew no walks, but then again, it was only a five game sample) and a 0.20 BB/K ratio with the Defenders. Even in his solid outing in San Jose, he BB/K ratio wasn't good at 0.31 (a 30.5 percent strikeout rate probably contributed to such a high ratio).
Ehire Adrianza, SS (Highest level reached last year: Single-A).
2009 Stats with Augusta (Single-A): 117 G, 388 AB, 448 PA, 100 H, 80 1B, 15 2B, 3 3B, 2 HR, 54 R, 46 RBI, 42 BB, 66 SO, 7 SB, .258 AVG., .333 OBP, .660 OPS.
How Adrianza Struggled in 2009:
Adrianza played sparingly in 2008, but he showed some promise in Rookie League, Short-Season Single-A, and even Triple-A stints. He performed okay in his longest stint of of the year in Arizona Rookie league, hitting .255 with a .349 OBP and .731 OPS, but his two-game cup of coffee in Fresno proved to be the most impressive, as he went 3-for-8 with a double and scored two runs.
Despite the promise from the Fresno games, Adrianza didn't really make a jump at the plate in Augusta. He only hit .258 in 117 games and only sported an OPS of .660. While his plate patience numbers were fine, if not promising considering he was only 19-20 years old in 2009 (.333 OBP, 9.4 percent walk rate, 0.64 BB/K ratio), he really didn't show much ability to get extra base hits or produce runs. His slugging was only .327, his ISO was 0.70, and he had a runs above average based on wOBA of -2.6. That's not exactly the kind of improvement everyone expected from Adrianza after his callup with the Grizzlies.
Why Giants Fans Should Be Hopeful of Adrianza:
Giants fans should be hopeful because a lot of people are. Baseball America is, as is the McCovey Chronicles, not to mention MLB.com Giants beat writer Chris Haft. Why is that? Because Adrianza has a great glove and great speed. Adrianza had a 5.06 RF/G in 2008, which shows that he is capable of being a Gold Glove-Caliber shortstop. And his speed? You won't see it in his seven stolen bases (though he was only caught once), but his speed score of 5.4 is very solid, and shows the potential he has when he gets running.
Also, Adrianza has very solid plate patience for a guy his age. Granted, he's no Nick Johnson, but considering he's only 20 and he had a BB/K ratio of 0.64 in 2009 shows that he isn't too much of a free-swinger and has an idea what the strike zone looks like. If he can continue to harness and slightly improve these solid plate patience skills as he makes his way through the Giants' system, Adrianza will be a very solid commodity to a ballclub that is notoriously known for lack of strike zone recognition from their hitters (e.g Aaron Rowand, Bengie Molina, etc.).
Why Giants Fans Should Be Skeptical of Adrianza:
Giants fans should have some skepticism about Adrianza because some people seriously doubt his ability as well. Seriously, SF Dugout.com has him rated as No. 50 in their Top 50 Giants prospects. That's a pretty big difference from where Baseball America, McCovey Chronicles and Haft have him ranked. Why do I think there's such a big gap in terms of the mindset on Adrianza? Well...for the most part, at this point in his career (like I said before, he's only 20, but still) he's all potential and really hasn't proven all that much on the field.
At the levels of pro ball he has played at extensively ( Dominican Summer League and Augusta), his stats are very underwhelming, especially when it comes to getting hits. He hasn't hit over .260 in places where he has played 15 games or more (Dominican Summer League, Arizona Rookie League, Augusta), and his OPS in stints where he played 15 games or more has topped out at .676 (2007 in the Dominican Summer League).
Furthermore, the two aspects of his game that are most intriguing (defense and baserunning) took major hits last season in Single-A. His RF/G went down to 4.13 (he had a 5.06 RF/G in 2008) and he committed 30 errors as well. As for his baserunning, he only stole seven bases in 117 games in 2009, a huge drop from his ballyhooed 2007 in the Dominican Summer League where he stole 23 bases in 66 games.
Nick Noonan, 2B (Highest level reached last year: Advanced Single-A).
2009 stats with San Jose (Advanced Single-A): 124 G, 459 AB, 530 PA, 119 H, 78 1B, 26 2B, 8 3B, 7 HR, 82 R, 64 RBI, 48 BB, 97 SO, 9 SB, .259 AVG., .330 OBP, .727 OPS.
How Noonan Struggled in 2009:
Other than perhaps Conor Gillaspie, nobody had a more disappointing 2009 in the minors than Noonan. His rookie season in 2007 showed flashes of promise, illustrated by his .313 batting average, .809 OPS and 18 stolen bases. For a while, Noonan was being compared to a young Chase Utley: a solid defensive infielder with some pop and skill on the basepaths.
However, after a slight regression in 2008 Augusta (where his OPS fell to .730 and his strikeout rate rose to 19.6 percent, though he did steal 29 bases), Noonan really hit the skids in 2009 in San Jose. His average fell down to .258 (down 55 points from his rookie season), his OPS fell to .727 (down 82 points from his rookie season) and his stolen base total, one of the sole category highlights of his 2008 campaign, fell from 29 to 9. Noonan was deemed somewhat of "tumbling" prospects by some experts after the 2009 season, which made many Giants fans wonder if he ever could live up to those Chase Utley comparisons he was bestowed with after his rookie season in 2007.
Why Giants Fans Should Be Hopeful of Noonan:
Noonan is still incredibly young (he'll be 21 in May, something Grant from McCovey Chronicles continues to emphasize) and he still has shown some extended flashes of brilliance in his three years of pro ball (something you can't really say out of a guy like Adrianza, who has shown "brief" flashes of brilliance). Also, while Noonan's strikeout rate went up two points (from 19.6 percent in 2008 to 21.1 percent in 2009), his walk rate did improve in 2009 (from 4.3 to 9.1 percent) as did his BB/K ratio (0.23 in 2008 to 0.49). If his BB/K ratios had stayed around the same or went down (ala Brandon Crawford) then I would be more worried. So, to look on the sunny side of things, Noonan is getting a better idea at the plate, even if it isn't exactly reflected in his batting average or OPS. And if you look at video of Noonan's swing, you can't help but feel he has a solid, balanced stroke and approach in the batter's box.
In addition, Noonan still remained stellar defensively at second base despite his drop offensively. Noonan's RF/G stayed around the same at 4.68, and he made less errors (16 in comparison to 18 in 2008) in more games (120 to 116 in 2008) and chances (577 to 572 in 2008). So, even though his ability at the plate and his ability to steal bases are in question, his ability in the field certainly isn't.
Why Giants Fans Should Be Skeptical of Noonan:
Sure, he's young, but still...one bad season is an "off season" (and Giants fans can live with those). Two bad seasons in a row, however, could be grounds for regression, and you could make that argument with Noonan. An 82 point drop off in OPS in a two year span is a red flag. A 20 base difference in stolen bases (despite having only two less plate appearances from 2008) is a red flag. A steadily increasing strikeout rate from 2007 to 2009 is a red flag. Going from 6.1 runs above average based on wOBA to -6.4 runs above average based on wOBA in one season is a red flag.
As you can see, there are so many red flags with Noonan that his career outlook almost looks like the Soviet Union (lots of red flags...duh!) Pre-Fall of the Berlin Wall. Therefore, Giants fans have every right to be skeptical. Then again, Giants fans have to remember that Noonan is still young (and I know it's tough to stomach because we saw guys like Pablo Sandoval come in and mash at the Major League level at 22 years old), and that is comforting because he still has a lot of time to develop his approach at the plate (something a guy like Crawford, for example, doesn't have the luxury of doing because he's 23 years old).
As far as the Utley comparisons, you have to take into consideration Utley's stats when he played in Advanced Single-A during his second season of professional ball. (Granted, Utley was three years older than Noonan when he broke into professional ball, so take that into consideration).
Utley's 2003 stats with Clearwater (Advanced Single-A): 122 G, 467 AB, 523 PA, 120 H, 25 2B, 16 HR, 65 R, 59 RBI, 19 SB, 37 BB, .257 AVG., .324 OBP, .746 OPS.
As you can see (unfortunately), those numbers don't bode well for Noonan in terms of being the "Next Chase Utley."