Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Early Season Struggles of Thomas Neal in Richmond

Richmond is a team loaded with talent. Just look at the roster (especially offensively) from top to bottom, and there will be a lot of names that will jump out at you. Darren Ford, Conor Gillaspie, Nick Noonan, Brandon Crawford, Roger Kieschnick, Thomas Neal, etc. Most of the players on this Flying Squirrles roster tore it up in the California League for the San Jose Giants, arguably the best team in Minor League Baseball in 2009.

Well, how's it going for these former California League studs?

At this point, the results haven't been too hot.

Darren Ford is putting up solid average numbers (.286 average, .723 OPS), but he is tied for the team lead in strikeouts (15) and hasn't been that efficient on the base paths (only four stolen bases on seven tries). Gillaspie is showing some power (three home runs; .738 OPS), but defensively he continues to prove that third base is a bad fit (three errors). Crawford got off to a hot start, but has cooled dramatically (he is hitting .222 with a .661 OPS). Noonan continues to show his age (e.g. that he still is far from ready from the Major League level) and Kieschnick is proving to be a strikeout machine (15) without the homers (zero) or walks (three) to back it up.

The most startling start, however? That honor belongs, unfortunately, to Neal.

Neal on paper looks awful. His batting average is .203 and while his OBP isn't too awful (.311), his slugging numbers have been less than thrilling (.359 slugging, .670 OPS).

To put things into perspective, Neal posted a slugging percentage of .579 and an OPS of 1.010 in 2009 in Advanced Single-A. He hasn't posted an OPS below .800 since his first season in rookie ball, where he posted a .664 OPS in Arizona.

What gives?

In all honesty, it is tough to tell at this point. Despite, the average looking bad, Neal's plate patience has been solid for the most part. If you compare his BB/K ratio (0.57) so far to guys like Ford (0.13), Kieschnick (0.20) and Crawford (0.40), Neal does not look so bad. One of the big compliments about Neal's offensive ability was his improved plate patience in San Jose last year (he posted a BB/K ratio of 0.66). The same seems to be true this year. He still is drawing a good amount of walks despite the lofty strikeout totals, which is something you can't necessarily say of guys like Kieschnick and Ford.

What has really killed Neal so far this season has been the obvious categories. His average looks awful, as does his RBI totals (only six), and considering Gillaspie has hit more home runs in comparison (three to two), which was far from the case last year in San Jose (Neal hit 22 home runs; Gillaspie hit four), it is easy to see why a lot of Giants fans may be starting to panic about Neal's potential (especially with John Bowker continuing to underwhelm at the Major League level).

In my opinion? I think the lack of big-time power numbers early this season shouldn't be too big of a concern. Neal is still accumulating bases (his 23 TB is third-most on the team), and he is still drawing a good amount of walks, so overall, there should be no reason for Giants fans to panic. He just hasn't had a lot of things fall for him so far, which is bound to change as the season progresses. In my mind, high-strikeout, low-walk guys like Ford or Kieschnick are a much bigger worry to me than Neal at this point.

So what should Giants fans think about Neal? He is still a Top-5 prospect in the Giants system, despite this slow start and disappointing Spring Training. I think fans had illusions that he would be a guaranteed call up this season when I think that was unfair. He is still a year away, minimum, from reaching the big-leagues. I have felt that about him since the end of last year, despite the eye-popping numbers he put up in the California League.

There are a lot of things to worry about on this Richmond team (Is Gillaspie and Crawford going to reach their potential? Can Kieschnick's power come back?), but just keep this in mind: Neal is fine and will be fine as the season progresses.

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