Thursday, April 8, 2010

The 2010 San Francisco Giants Minor League Preview

The 2010 season is officially on its way in San Francisco, with the home opener against Atlanta looming tomorrow. While Opening Week is near the end of its run in the Major Leagues, today, the Giants' minor league organizations begin their own Opening Days, respectively.

What should Giants fans expect this season after the Giants combined farm system finished with the best record out of any other organization in baseball? Which guys will be seeing callups in 2010, and which guys are probably a year or two away from seeing a Giants uniform?

Here is an in-depth look at what Giants fans should watch for in the Giants' minor league system this year.

Most Interesting Team to Watch: Fresno Grizzlies

The Grizzlies top to bottom are stacked. They have a great starting pitching staff, headlined by Madison Bumgarner, the Giants' pitching phenom who happened to be a candidate for the No. 5 spot in the rotation this Spring, and Kevin Pucetas, who pitched all last year in Fresno to varying results (10-6, 5.04 ERA). However, it doesn't end there with Bumgarner and Pucetas. Joe Martinez contributed at the Major League level last year, and is looking to bounce back in Fresno after having an up and down 2009, and Horacio Ramirez is a left-handed Major League veteran who had his best days in Atlanta.

Yet it's not just the starting rotation that makes the Grizzlies such an interesting team to watch. Their bullpen is stocked with second-chance veterans (Denny Bautista, Felix Romero), questionable, older prospects with upside (Alex Hinshaw, Osiris Matos, Eric Hacker, Geno Espineli), and promising young arms (Henry Sosa, Steve Edlefsen). Though Bumgarner and Pucetas may receive a majority of the hype in 2010, the Grizzlies bullpen may be a strong aspect of this Grizzlies team. It is very reasonable to think that not only will many of the arms in the bullpen will find success in Fresno in 2010, but it is also likely that many will see opportunities at the Major League level over the course of the season.

Offensively, the Grizzlies will sport some familiar faces (Jesus Guzman, Matt Downs, Ryan Rohlinger, Steve Holm), but there are also some fresh new faces who are looking to make an impact after having success in Double-A Connecticut. Brock Bond, Mike McBryde and Brett Pill (who made the 40-man roster this year) are all capable of having good seasons in the Pacific Coast League.

The biggest offensive player to watch, however? That honor goes to Buster Posey. It will only be a short matter of time before we see Posey behind the plate in a Giants uniform, but for now, Grizzlies fans will reap the benefits of Posey "developing" behind the plate in Triple-A.

Least Interesting Team to Watch: San Jose Giants

Last year, San Jose fans were spoiled. They started the year with three top pitchers in their rotation (Bumgarner, Tim Alderson and Scott Barnes), a top arm in their bullpen (Dan Runzler), a stacked outfield (Thomas Neal, Darren Ford, Roger Kieschnick) and a promising infield (Conor Gillaspie, Brandon Crawford, Nick Noonan).

No wonder they were the best team in the Giants' minor league organization last year.

This year though, the roster isn't quite as enticing. Though the Giants will sport promising shortstop and defensive wizard Ehire Adrianza, centerfielder Francisco Peguero (who is on the Giants' 40-man roster) and former first round pick Wendell Fairley, for the most part, nobody offensively jumps out at you.

As far as the pitching is concerned, Aaron King and Eric Surkamp are two lefties to watch and could be contributing to the Giants in a couple of years. Unfortunately, after King and Surkamp, the quality of the pitching seems to dip (though it wouldn't be surprising to see Zach Wheeler see some time in San Jose mid-season should he perform well in Augusta).

Sorry San Jose fans, but it doesn't look like the Giants will be repeating as California League champs. 

Wild Card Team: Richmond Flying Squirrels

Whether or not you like the name, the Richmond roster will be a very peculiar team in 2010. They could either be incredibly solid, or could struggle in the transition to the Eastern League.

If anything, the inaugural Richmond squad looks like the San Jose Giants 2.0. Gillaspie will be starting at third, Crawford at shortstop and Nick Noonan at second. It is the same story in the outfield, as Neal, Ford and Kieschnick will patrol left, center and right field, respectively.

Offensively there is a lot to like, as they are solid all-around. Yet while the Flying Squirrels will most likely score plenty of runs, their pitching is a different story.

With Sosa and Edlefsen getting the callup to Triple-A, and Surkamp and King still in High-A ball, Richmond will be relying heavily on Clayton Tanner and Daniel Turpen to carry this squad. Tanner had a solid season in San Jose, posting a 3.17 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 2.88 K/BB ratio in 26 games last year. Turpen was solid out of the bullpen as well in San Jose, as evidenced by his 1.24 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in 46 appearances.

However, Turpen's  low strikeout rate (7.6) and questionable K/BB ratio (2.50) last season prevent Giants fans from totally buying in on Turpen's potential. If he can improve those numbers, it would not be surprising to see Turpen in Fresno, especially should an injury happen to the San Francisco bullpen.

Tony Pena, Jr. the former Royals "shortstop of the future" turned pitcher will also be an interesting guy to watch in Richmond. While he is still developing as a pitcher, he has decent enough stuff (his fastball averaged 89.8 MPH in 2008 with the Royals) to at least get a shot in the Majors.

Most Overblown Storyline: Madison Bumgarner's Velocity

That is all we have heard this off-season concerning Bumgarner. That is all we have heard this Spring. Chances are, that's all we're going to hear about this Minor League season.

"What about Bumgarner's velocity?"

Now, I'm not saying that the Giants or Giants fans should ignore this completely. After all, it is concerning when a primarily fastball-throwing pitcher suddenly dips under 90 MPH at only 20 years of age. There should be research to find out if this is a mechanical issue, a health issue or perhaps an issue of overblown scouting reports.

That being said, the biggest question that needs to be asked isn't "How's Bumgarner's velocity looking in Fresno?"

Instead, what everyone should be asking is "How well is Bumgarner pitching in Fresno in general?"

If Bumgarner's fastball is only hovering around the 87-90 MPH range, but he's still posting decent K/BB ratios and WHIP numbers, then you know what? I don't care about the velocity. Does velocity help in terms of reaching success at the Major League level? Sure, but it doesn't always guarantee success. Ask Merkin Valdez about it sometime.

Best Position Battles: Matt Downs/Brock Bond at Second Base (Triple-A) and Tommy Joseph/Hector Sanchez at Catcher (Single-A)

I couldn't pick between the two so I decided to list them both. Sure, there are other position battles going on throughout the Giants system, but it goes without saying that these two will be the most interesting (and impacting) ones.

In terms of the first one, the Grizzlies will have quite a dilemma at second base. Matt Downs is coming off a solid spring, where he batted .356 and scored eight runs in 45 at-bats, and a quietly good 2009 in Fresno where he hit .300 with 14 home runs, 74 RBI, and posted a wOBA (weighted on-base average) of .365. Brock Bond, however, is no slouch. Bond led the Eastern League in batting (.333) and on-base percentage (.429) and also scored 93 runs while posting a wOBA of .381 with the Connecticut Defenders (the Giants former Double-A club) in 2009.

Both guys offer different skill sets, with different strengths and weaknesses. While both are solid fielders (Downs sported a 4.3 RF/G with the Giants in 2009; Bond posted a 4.35 RF/G in Connecticut) Downs is more similar to former Giants second-base prospect Kevin Frandsen (who is now with the Red Sox organization). He doesn't draw a whole lot of walks (5.4 percent BB/9 rate last year) but he doesn't strike out a whole lot either (13.7 percent K/9, 0.43 BB/K ratio). Downs does offer some power upside (he hit 14 homer runs last year, and 17 home runs in San Jose in 2008) in comparison to Bond (two home runs total in professional career; .076 ISO in 2009).

Bond has also shown a tremendous ability to avoid strike outs (he only had a 15.3 percent rate last year), but unlike Downs, Bond may be better at drawing walks. He had a 12.6 percent walk rate last year, and a BB/K ratio of 0.97. Those numbers aren't a fluke either, as he has owned a BB/K ratio of 2.00, 1.24, 0.65, and 0.65 from Rookie to High-A ball.

In addition to being a solid contact hitter and on-base guy, Bond can also swipe the occasional base. Though his percentage was not good last year (46 percent), he did steal 13 bases and could be a good bet for ten or so bags at the big-league level.

With Freddy Sanchez holding the second-base job down when he returns from the disabled list, and Juan Uribe the primary utility infielder, chances are, both guys will be staying in Fresno a lot longer than they would like.

In terms of the second position battle, it will be a battle between two young, highly hyped catchers. Tommy Joseph was the Giants' second round pick (55th overall) in the 2009 draft, and there is a lot of promise that comes along with the Arizona native. Joseph  is known for his offense (he hit .442 with 15 home runs his senior year in high school) and power (apparently, he held his own in a home run contest against "Baseball's Lebron James" Bryce Harper).

There are concerns though about his defensive ability, for he only played one year of catcher in high school at Horizon High in Arizona (the same high school Tim Alderson went too). Despite most people saying he may (or perhaps should) move back to first base, Joseph has stated that he wants to play catcher at the professional level.

Regardless of Joseph's hype and the $712,500 signing bonus he was given, he certainly is going to have some competition at the position in Sanchez. In 2008 in the Dominican Summer League, Sanchez hit .348 with four home runs and 63 RBI in 55 games. In 2009 in the Arizona Rookie League, he hit .299 with a .403 OBP, .810 OPS and a .387 wOBA. While he only hit one home run in 139 plate appearances, his plate patience made up for his lack of power. He sported a walk rate of 11.5 percent, a strikeout rate of 17.9 percent and a BB/K ratio of 0.76.

Add that with solid defense (he threw out 45 percent of base runners attempting to steal), and it's easy to see why Fangraphs writer Marc Hulet listed Sanchez as a 2010 Sleeper in his Minor League Review of the 2009 Giants.

The Giants' "Crash Davis" (e.g. He's not seeing the Major Leagues anytime soon): Eddy Martinez-Esteve

Martinez-Esteve has been in the minors since 2004. A second-round pick out of Florida State, Martinez-Esteve was being hailed as the next Manny Ramirez by some Giants fans. He hit for incredible power at Florida State (20 home runs, .385 average, 1.164 OPS his last year with the Seminoles), but unfortunately, it hasn't translated to the professional level. While he did hit .313 with 17 home runs and posted an OPS of .951 in San Jose in 2005, Martinez-Esteve hasn't been the same since that offensive explosion in the California League.

After injury sidelined him to 27 games in Connecticut in 2006, it has been a long road back for Martinez-Esteve. In 2007, he played in Arizona, San Jose and Connecticut, but didn't produce much at either stop. While his .310 average in Arizona Rookie League was nice, he only hit .207 in 82 at-bats in San Jose and .239 in 134 at-bats in Connecticut. And if that wasn't painful enough, he only hit one home run TOTAL in 2007.

In 2008 and 2009, he started the season in Connecticut and never advanced beyond Double-A. While his batting averages were decent (.298 and .291 in 2008 and 2009, respectively), and his BB/K ratios were very solid (1.46 in 2008; 0.76 in 2009), the power that he showed in college and in High-A hasn't seemed to come back. In 445 plate appearances in 2008, Martinez-Esteve hit six home runs. In 491 plate appearances last year, he hit only eight home runs.

With nowhere to go, Martinez-Esteve will start the year in Fresno, competing with Joe Borchard, newly-converted outfielder Jesus Guzman and Ben Copeland for a spot in right field.

Like Davis in the movie "Bull Durham," I wouldn't be surprised to see Martinez-Esteve stick, if not bounce around, the minors this year while other guys around him get callups to the big leagues. At this point, it just seems as if the Big League ship has sailed on Martinez-Esteve.

Minor League/Major League Late Bloomer: Alex Hinshaw

A lot of people either like Hinshaw or they don't. I can't blame them. While the guy has shown an incredible ability to strike guys out (he hasn't had a K/9 under 10 in the minors, and in 2008 he sported a K/9 of 10.66), his control problems can be flat out irritating (6.58 walk rate in 2008 in San Francisco; 5.50 walk rate last season in Fresno).

However, he had, for the most part, a solid Spring Training this year, and I get the feeling that while his walk numbers won't be great (he walked seven in 7.2 innings pitched this Spring), they will be low enough so that his strikeout rates will overshadow his control issues (he struck out nine batters this Spring).

If he can get his walk numbers in the three range (not impossible in my mind), then I think Hinshaw will have another very good year in the bullpen in Fresno. (He sported a 2.30 BB/9 in 2008 in 13 games in Fresno, and he had a 3.76 BB/9 in 38.1 IP in Double-A in 2007.) Granted, this Giants team doesn't need much bullpen help at this moment. If somebody falters though (cough...Medders...cough), don't be surprised to see Hinshaw as the first or second pitcher callup. Not only is he capable of putting up sterling numbers in Fresno, he can do it in the Majors as well.

If he gets his control under-wraps, of course. Unfortunately for Hinshaw, that's a big "IF" if you look at his seven walks and ten hits allowed in six innings at the Major League level last year. (Though, despite those numbers, I'm still willing to take a chance on it coming together for Hinshaw anyways)

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