Saturday, January 28, 2012

Mixed Six: A Look at 2007 First Rounders Madison Bumgarner and Tim Alderson

As promised, here is the first piece on the 2007 Draft series. The first part unsurprisingly is on the Giants' first two picks in the draft: left handed pitcher Madison Bumgarner (who went 10th overall in the draft) and right handed pitcher Tim Alderson (who went 22nd overall). Both were high upside arms out of high school, and though they were projected to be a couple years away at the soonest from contributing at the Big League level, many Giants fans dreamed of rotation headlining Lincecum, Cain, Bumgarner and Alderson for years to come.

After years of development in the minors though, the two pitchers have panned out in remarkably different ways. One is a World Series stud, the other hasn't played above Double-A. One was arguably the best pitcher last year in a rotation with not one or two but three All-Star pitchers, while the other one performed so poorly in 2010 that their team sent him from Double-A to High-A.

I think it's safe to say we all know who's who.

Let's take a deeper look though at their individual profiles though.

Madison Bumgarner: "The World Series Hero"

Bumgarner went 10th overall in the 2007 MLB Rule 4 Draft. At the time, there was some good arms coming out of the draft, as David Price went No. 1 overall and Jarrod Parker (formerly the Diamondbacks' top prospect) went in the slot before Bumgarner. At the time, Bumgarner was young and just out of high school, but scouts liked what he brought to the table as a big (six-foot, five inches, 227 pounds) left-handed pitcher with Top-of-the-rotation potential.

A lot of Giants fans though weren't exactly thrilled however with the selection of the pick. Dr. B of When the Giants Come to Town was adamantly against the drafting of Bumgarner prior to draft day (as stated by OGC in his post about the Bumgarner selection), and even OGC himself had some choice things to say in his "disappointment" of Bumgarner going in the Giants' slot. Here is what he said about the pick:
"I was disapppointed by the selection of Madison Bumgarner. Not to the point of wanting to throw myself down the stairs, as DrB on MCC said he would if the Giants selected him, but I had been hoping to get some offensive help from the #10 pick. I was really hoping that Wieters would fall to us, but I guess that was wishful thinking. But there was a bunch of top offensive help available at #10, Beau Mills, Jason Heyward, Matt Dominguez, who were consensus top picks where you couldn't go wrong - in the post analysis - selecting one of them."

Furthermore, OGC also pointed out to Bumgarner's lack of breaking stuff as a bit of a red flag, especially considering Sabean said after draft day that they were planning to "fast track" him in the Giants system. Of course, OGC was realistic that he could develop one, especially since he was so young at the time. Here's what he said about Bumgarner developing his secondary pitches:

"Bumgarner doesn't have a curve or slider not because he could not master them, but because he just started pitching them just one year ago, because his father wouldn't allow him to. Well, now he will get professional training on the proper way to throw them, plus he can speak with Zito, Cain, and Lincecum about it because they all have a great curve ball, and probably with Lowry and Misch about their changeups. And he's only 17 (18 in August), so he still has some physical maturation coming, which should add a few MPH to his already good fastball plus with professional coaching, he should be able to master the curve and/or slider with a few years under his belt."

The issue though for most Giants fans at the time (OGC included) though was not really the fact that they picked Bumgarner, but rather that they picked Bumgarner when it was obvious that they needed to restock their system with position players. At the time, Dominguez and Heyward were available in the draft, and to some (if not most Giants fans), the common thought was that either of those guys would have brought more value because of the lack of position talent in the Giants system. As for Bumgarner, while he was a good pitcher, he would still be a No. 3 guy behind Lincecum and Cain and, at the time, would probably be a No. 3 or 4 guy depending on how Noah Lowry developed (which ended up being 3 because Lowry got hurt and his career fell off a cliff).

Despite the controversy with the selection, Bumgarner was ranked highly by baseball publications as Baseball America ranked him the No. 3 prospect in the Giants system before even playing a game. Bumgarner made good on the high praise and the Top-10 selection as he absolutely dominated the Sally. In 24 games and a 141.2 IP, he went 15-3 with a 1.46 ERA, 1.71 FIP, 0.93 WHIP and a 164 strikeouts. He showed impeccable command (his K/BB ratio was 7.81 and his BABIP was around average at .304), and his control was also very mature for a kid just out of high school (1.33 BB/9). Without a doubt, Bumgarner was dominating in every way in Low Single-A and it was safe to say the Giants had a lot to look forward to with the former Top-10 pick.

With such a dominating 2008 campaign with the Green Jackets, his stock rose considerably going into the 2009 season. Baseball America ranked him the No. 9 prospect overall, and a popular argument amongst prospect experts was whether he or Baltimore Orioles left-handed prospect Brian Matusz would have the better pitching career. Bumgarner started out the year in San Jose in High-A, but the league proved to be too easy for him as he dominated in just five starts. In 24.1 IP, he posted an ERA of 1.48, a FIP of 2.05, a WHIP of 0.89 and a K/BB ratio of 5.75. Though his strikeout numbers did decline a little (his K/9 rate in the 24.1 innings sample was 8.51, almost seven points down from the previous season), but considering the Cal League was a hitter's league, there wasn't too much concern about the initial dip in San Jose.

After five starts, the Giants moved Bumgarner up to Double-A with the Connecticut Defenders (the team moved to Richmond the following season). Bumgarner pitched a lot of innings (107) and posted good traditional numbers (1.93 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 9-1 record) in the Eastern League, but there were some red flags raised during his 2009 campaign with the Defenders.

The biggest concern was his dip in dominance rate (K/9), as it fell to 5.80, an almost 10 point drop from the previous year. While he was still showing good control (his BB/9 was 2.42), the huge regression in K/9 rate from Augusta left him with a K/BB ratio (2.30) that looked a whole lot less impressive than the gaudy 7.81 ratio he put up in the Sally. Hence, a lot of questions started to get asked about Bumgarner's development. How was his velocity holding up? Was he developing his secondary pitches? Are hitters figuring him out? Is he going through some minor injury issues that fans and writers aren't aware of?

All those questions became amplified when the Giants called him up for an emergency spot start late in the 2009 season. Though Bumgarner pitched admirably in a 76 pitch start (he went 5.1 IP and allowed five hits, one walk and struck out four while only giving up two runs), the big alarm that went off was Bumgarner's dip in velocity. While reports said that he was hitting the mid-90's range in the minors, Bumgarner's fastball velocity averaged only 88.1 MPH in his first Major League appearance. Suddenly, many people began wondering if Bumgarner's stuff and velocity in the minors were exaggerated, simply to raise his stock as a prospect in the system. Management claimed though that the drop in velocity was a temporary thing, and that he was just suffering from fatigue after pitching so many innings in 2008 and 2009 as a teenager.

Unfortunately, come Spring Training in 2010, things did not start off well for Bumgarner. The velocity did not go up as expected, as Bumgarner was hitting the 87-89 MPH range on the radar guns and he also put up very uninspired numbers during the Spring as well, as he allowed five runs, eight and seven walks in seven innings pitched. His ERA hovered to 6.43 during Spring Training, his WHIP was a bloated 2.14, and the worst stat of all? He had zero strikeouts the entire Spring. (That's right...ZERO!)

The lackluster performance made the Giants go with Todd Wellemeyer in the fifth spot over Bumgarner, and instead, Bumgarner started the year in 2010 with the Fresno Grizzlies. Despite the humbling spring and drop in stock (he fell from No. 9 to No. 14 in BA's prospect rankings), he still managed to pitch well in the Pacific Coast League. He finished the Fresno campaign with a 7-1 record, 3.16 ERA, 3.43 FIP, 1.33 WHIP and a K/BB ratio of 2.68. Furthermore, his velocity came back (he was back in the 90 MPH range by April) and his strikeouts per nine increased to 6.42 with the Grizzlies.

After Wellemeyer (predictably) flopped in the fifth spot in the rotation, Bumgarner got the call up to the Big League roster. Not only did Bumgarner have a great year overall during the regular season (7-6, 3.00 ERA, 3.66 FIP, 1.31 WHIP and 3.31 K/BB ratio), but he shined the most in the playoffs during the Giants' World Series run. In four playoff appearances, and 3 starts, Bumgarner went 2-0 with a 2.18 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, and had 18 strikeouts and only five walks in 20.2 IP during the postseason. Bumgarner's real gem came in the World Series against the Rangers on the road in Game Four, as he pitched 8 shutout innings with six strikeouts and only two walks and three hits allowed in the winning effort that put the Giants up 3-1 in the series.

The following year in 2011, Bumgarner arguably was the best Giants starting pitcher in 2011, which is saying something considering they had a two-time Cy Young Winner (Lincecum) and two other All-Stars in the past few years (Cain and Vogelsong). Bumgarner pitched 204.1 innings, and finished with a 13-13 record, 3.21 ERA, 2.67 FIP, 1.21 WHIP, and a 4.15 K/BB ratio. In comparison, Bumgarner's FIP was the best on the team, as was his tERA (3.12), xFIP (3.10) and SIERA (3.18). Additionally, his K/BB ratio was almost a point and a half better than the second closest Giants starting pitcher (Cain came in at second with a 2.84 K/BB ratio).

It's crazy to think how Bumgarner went from "mixed feelings" pick in 2007 to a pitcher on the rise on arguably one of the best starting staffs in baseball in 2012. Right now, the future is bright for Bumgarner, as he would be a No. 1 pitcher on most teams right now (seriously, Jonathan Sanchez is slotted to be the No. 2 starter in KC and he could be No. 1 with a good Spring). It'll be interesting to see how Bumgarner will do over a second straight full year, and if he can continue to be as dominating as he was last year, especially in the second half (Bumgarner was dominating June on, as he posted FIP numbers of 2.51, 2.74, 3.08, and 2.51 from June-October). My "gut" tells me he will continue the momentum, though I wouldn't be surprised to see a little regression simply because his year was so phenomenal in 2011.

Regression or not, one thing is for clear: the Giants made the right choice in the 10th slot in 2007.

Tim Alderson: "The Player Traded for Freddy Sanchez"

In 2009, when Alderson was traded for Freddy Sanchez in a July Trade Deadline deal, there was a bit of mixed feelings (mostly weighing toward the negative end) amongst Giants fans on the Web. Chris Quick said this of Alderson in a post on Bay City Ball after the trade went down:

"At first glance, I think it’s a steep price to pay for Sanchez. Injury issues aside, he’s a quality player that’s been worth between 3-4 wins these past four years. In the matter of the last few days the Giants have traded away two Top-10 pitching prospects from their system. Outside of Madison Bumgarner and Zack Wheeler (who is still unsigned), the Giants probably don’t have another pitcher in their Top-10.

The difference between Sanchez and Juan Uribe over the remainder of the season probably varies between 0.5 – 1 win(s). The Giants fix a major hole on their team and do improve themselves. But I’m not sure I like the price that they paid.

Tentatively, I’d call this a Pirates win. Welcome to the team, Freddy."

After all, it did seem like a typical "panic" move by Sabes. Alderson was a Top-10 prospect in the Giants system and a first round pick, and many felt that the contribution Sanchez would have with the Giants wouldn't match the upside Alderson would bring to the Giants rotation in the future.

Two years later, it's obvious the Giants wound up on the better end of the deal, as Sanchez played a crucial role in the Giants World Series run, while Alderson has taken a nose dive as a prospect in the Pirates system.

Alderson was drafted in the 22nd slot in the 2007 draft as a young, tall, projectable arm out of Horizon High School in Arizona (he was a teammate of current Giants prospect Tommy Joseph, so he came from a nice high school program). At six-foot, six inches, Alderson had the physical tools of a No. 1 or No. 2 starting pitcher in the making, and scouts were very high about his potential as a professional pitcher. His scouting report on prior to draft day was positive, as scouts remarked that he had "plus, plus command" and that he displayed very good poise on the mound in the game they scouted (he struck out 13 against Bishop Gorman High School, a pretty good baseball program based out of Las Vegas). There were some concerns about his unorthodox delivery, but for the most part, scouts were pretty high on Alderson's upside, as stated in the summary section of his scouting report:

"With a unique delivery, pitching out of the stretch and unorthodox arm action, some teams may be wary. But Alderson has the chance to have three above-average pitches with outstanding command in a big, athletic package."

After signing, Alderson made a short appearance in the Arizona Rookie League in 2007, pitching in 3 games and a limited five inning stint. He made quite the impression, as he struck out 12, allowed four hits and no free passes in the small sample. The sterling scouting reports and impressive Rookie League debut earned Alderson some hype going into the 2008 season, as Baseball America ranked him at No. 84 in their Top-100 list.

While the Giants opted to have Bumgarner start his professional career in the Sally, they fast tracked Alderson to High-A as a 19-year-old, as he pitched 26 games and a 145.1 innings in the Cal League. Alderson put up great numbers for a teenager in a league where the average age of pitcher's at the time was 22.8 years old (so he was almost four years younger than the competition, which is a HUGE age difference). He went 13-4 with a 2.79 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 2.64 FIP, and a K/BB ratio of  3.65. He wasn't a strikeout machine like his left-handed counterpart in Augusta (his K/9 was 7.68), but the solid control and command he displayed in his first full year of professional ball had a lot of Giants fans salivating about his potential. In fact, it was commonplace for many Giants fans and baseball analysts to compare Bumgarner and Alderson, and there was a wide contingent of Giants fans that preferred Alderson to Bumgarner at the time.

After the solid campaign in San Jose, Alderson's stock rose dramatically, as Baseball America ranked him the No. 45 prospect in their Top-100. Despite the solid campaign the previous year in San Jose, the Giants opted for him to start the year again in the Cal League, not eager to rush him to the challenges of the Eastern League just yet. Despite a drop in strikeout rate (his K/9 fell to 6.92), Alderson showed even better control in San Jose, as he posted a BB/9 of only 1.04 in a 26 inning sample.

Unfortunately, despite the improved control, Alderson proved to be a less dominant pitcher in his second year in the Cal League. His H/9 rose from 7.7 in 2008 to 10.7, and his ERA and FIP numbers rose to 4.15 and 4.12, respectively. Granted, there wasn't much panic from Giants fans or management because it was only a five start sample, but safe to say, there was some concern that perhaps Alderson didn't have that No. 1 upside as initially thought when drafted, and probably was more of a No. 3 or No. 2 starter at best (Fangraphs/Rotographs' Marc Hulet especially championed this notion).

Still, the Giants eventually promoted Alderson to Double-A Connecticut, and he was able to overcome the lackluster start and post solid numbers in his short campaign with the Defenders before being traded for Sanchez in late July. In 13 starts and 72.2 IP, Alderson posted an ERA of 3.47, a FIP of 3.53, a WHIP of 1.24 and a K/BB ratio of 3.29. But again, while the numbers were solid, Alderson continued to get batted around in the Eastern League, as his H/9 hovered at 9.4. So, while most of the numbers were nice, the fact that hitters were making consistent contact against him continued to worry Giants fans, and made people wonder if Alderson was projecting downward rather than upward as a prospect.

Since being traded to the Pirates, all the concerns and worries about Alderson came into fruition (though it came at the expense of another team, thank God). In 38.2 IP and seven starts in Double-A Altoona, Alderson finished off the 2009 season in mediocre fashion, as he posted an ERA of 4.66, a 4.62 FIP, a 1.34 WHIP, an a K/BB ratio of 1.38 (amplified by a drop in K/9 to 4.19 and rise BB/9 to 3.03). To make matters worse, Alderson was getting a little lucky in Altoona as his BABIP only hovered around .267. If his luck was a little different, it isn't out of the question to think that his 2009 Altoona numbers would have been a lot worse.

The next season for Alderson in Double-A proved to be a challenge and sparked his steep decline as a prospect in the Pirates system. He got batted around hard in 18 starts in Altoona, as his H/9 rose to a career high 11.2 and his ERA inflated to 5.62 in 89.2 IP. The stint in Double-A was so disheartening that the Pirates demoted Alderson to High-A to work on some things, but it didn't seem to help, as he finished the High-A campaign with a 6.98 ERA and 1.92 K/BB ratio in 38.1 IP. Of course, his FIP numbers suggest he wasn't as bad his ERA numbers said in High-A and Double-A (they were 4.47 and 4.82, respectively), but considering Alderson was back in High-A after pitching (and dominating) there as a 19 year old displayed how much of a step back Alderson had taken in such a short period of time.

Alderson last year played in Double-A Altoona for a third time and there was some hope that he could rebound from such a disastrous 2010 campaign. Unfortunately, the Pirates organization had soured on him,  moving him out of the rotation and into the bullpen. He only made one start the whole season and only pitched 74.1 innings in 2011. Despite the move to the bullpen, he didn't show much progress, as he finished the year with a 4.12 ERA, 4.25 FIP, 1.30 WHIP and a 2.11 K/BB ratio. In the span of less than three years, Alderson went from a prospect with a No. 2-3 ceiling to most likely a middle reliever. Hence, it isn't surprising that Alderson dropped from most Pirates prospects lists by 2012.

The story of Alderson's decline is an interesting one. In many ways, it makes Giants fans wonder: was Alderson's decline a product of his declining or overrated skills as a pitcher? Or is his decline more of an example of an organization's poor development of pitching talent? After all, Scott Barnes, another top pitching prospect in the Giants system who was traded near the deadline the same season as Alderson also went through a steep decline after he left the Giants system (though to be fair, he did bounce back a little in 2011).

In all likelihood, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. It was obvious that Alderson was proving to be less and less dominating as he moved up the system, but at the same time, the Giants organization is very efficient when it comes to developing pitching talent. Would Alderson have realized that No. 2 or No. 3 starter potential if he was still in the Giants system? Maybe not, but I don't think he would have gone through such a steep decline either if he was still in the same organization that drafted him.

At the end of the day though, while Bumgarner's story is an example of why organizations need to keep their top farm talent, Alderson is a poster boy for why losing top prospects isn't the end of the world. Remember, the Alderson for Sanchez trade was unpopular at the time amongst baseball circles, as many thought the Giants hadn't learned anything from previous deals like the A.J. Pierzynski for Joe Nathan and Francisco Liriano trade. However, if anything, the Alderson trade probably shows that management does know more about their prospects than we as Giants fans would like to give them credit for. Did Sabes and the Giants management team probably expect Alderson to decline so fast in the Pirates organization? Probably not. But, his skills and stats showed that he was declining and thus, expendable, and they made a deal where they could get a solid piece in return before his value depreciated to the point where he would be untrade-able (as he is now).

As a Giants fan, you can't find much argument with that approach at all.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Prospect Talk: A Look at the Giants Prospects Rankings Around the Blogosphere

I have almost finished compiling my Top-30 list (not writing the posts, but actually coming up with the list). I have gone back and forth quite a bit on it, but I think by the time I finish the "2007 Draft Class" series, the list will be done, and I will start writing some posts on each one.

In the meantime, many other Giants blogs have already gotten a head start on me in terms of making their own Giants prospect lists. A lot of these are from blogs I like and respect, and I would have to be lying if they didn't have some influence on the "eventual" list here. So, if you haven't already, check out these other prospects lists if you want to get a full sense of what Giants nation thinks of prospects in the Giants farm system.

Dr. B's Top-50 Prospects at "When the Giants Come to Town."

I can wholeheartedly admit that Dr. B's blog is the best Giants minor league blog out there. This one pales in comparison. His annual prospects lists are in-depth, but still concise and he always generates good discussion in the comments sections of his posts (if you want to see the individual profiles of this year's list, check it out here). Additionally, you can tell he has a passion for minor league ball if he can make a prospect list that goes all the way to 50. And who came in No. 50? None other than Jean Delgado, a shortstop, of course! (Again...just goes to show you how knowledgeable of the Giants system he really is.)

Marc Hulet of Fangraphs' Top 15 San Francisco Giants Prospects

I'm a big fan of Hulet's Minor League work and how well he analyzes prospects and the draft. He's pretty straight forward in his approach, but he does make some interesting picks (Heath Hembree, who's going in the Top 5 in a lot of prospect lists is at No. 10 while shortstop Ehire Adrianza, who has dropped out of the Top 10 in some lists is at No. 5). Giants fans probably could get a little more comprehensive reading from other sources, and in reality, his lists are pretty streamlined because he has to do so many. That being said, for a good analysis of the Top 15, Hulet's work has been pretty good (and he always reviews his lists on a consistent basis too, which is always nice.)

Bay City Ball's 2012 Top 15 Prospect List Roundtable

This is probably my favorite of the bunch, though not really for the rankings but more for the "roundtable" way they discussed and agreed upon their rankings. It's amazing how BCB has grown from a one-man operation to a nice little staff of writers who all offer a variety of perspectives on the Giants. Definitely check this one out, just to read about how they share or differ on thoughts about certain prospects and how their rankings differ (some rankings were pretty crazy, both in a good and bad way).

Prospect "Nirvana" at Giants Nirvana

Formerly "Splashing Pumpkins," Julian at Giants Nirvana probably runs one of the better independent Giants blogs out there. His analysis is always spot on, and he's always been a big supporter here at OTF. During this time of the year, GN spares no cost when it comes to prospects, as Julian not only has his own Top 20 (20-11 here and 10-1 here), but another writer, Josh (he wasn't around during the Splashing Pumpkins days from what I can remember) has compiled a Top 30 of his own as well (30-21 and 20-11 are both up). Both have very interesting takes as they have a lot of differences in opinion on some of the prospects (Clayton Blackburn and Charlie Culberson were the ones with big differences in their rankings).

John Sickels' 2012 Top 20 Prospects for the Giants

I'm a big fan of Sickels. I like his approach in terms of how he grades his prospects (mixing scouting reports and analysis), I like the A-F grading system, and he is usually concise and straightforward in his analysis of players in the minors in general. He tends to favor high risk, high upside guys (especially pitchers), but for the most part, I usually am in agreement with his rankings, especially in the Giants system. Only disagreement I have with him? Not sure if I would put Andrew Susac at No. 4. Kinda high for a guy with no professional experience (he signed late and didn't play any ball last Summer).

Crazy Crabbers' Top 20 Prospects for 2012

Scott and his crew at CC do a good job. They always do a good job mixing sabermetric analysis with just general Giants fandom in their posts. Amazing that I still have a bio there considering I haven't posted there in like a year. But, that just goes to show you how good sports they are with this stuff. Anyways, I really like the format of their posts (looking at each prospects' best tool and their ceiling) as well as how they have integrated their minor league numbers into graph form. A solid series of posts that I know is only going to get better as they go down the list (they started from No. 1 and went down).

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Mixed Six: A Look at the Giants' 2007 Rule 4 Draft

This upcoming Rule 4 draft will mark the fifth anniversary of the 2007 draft. While everyone will remember that draft for the big names such as David Price, Jason Heyward and Matt Wieters (and most likely Mike Moustakas...I'm that big a fan), this draft was also a pretty significant one for the Giants.

In many ways, the end of the 2006 season signified the beginning of the end of the Barry Bonds era. The Giants canned Felipe Alou at the end of the season (the Giants finished 76-85; the Giants tried to make a playoff push by acquiring Shea Hillenbrand, but the deal ended up doing more harm than good), and hired Bruce Bochy, who was coming off a successful campaign for the rival Padres. Additionally, many of the Giants' mainstay players in 2006 opted for greener pastures in the off-season. Seasoned (and often injured) veterans such as Moises Alou and Steve Finley left San Francisco, and suddenly, the Giants' window of opportunity for competing in the NL West looked closed for at least the next couple of years. Yes, the Giants management did sign Barry Zito to a massive contract (a mistake the Giants are still paying for), but it was obvious by the start of Spring Training that the Giants were in rebuilding mode, even in Bonds' last year of his contract.

With the Post-Bonds era looming, Brian Sabean and his management team's biggest moves in 2007 had nothing to do with the Big League roster (sans the Zito deal of course; also getting rid of Matt Morris and his albatross contract wasn't bad either). Instead, the main goal for Sabean and Co. was to restock a farm system that had been left bare by numerous mid-season and off-season transactions in the recent past, and organizational flame outs in the Majors and Minors. (Does Jerome Williams, Jesse Foppert, Lance Niekro and Eddy Martinez-Esteve ring any bells?) The 2007 was the right kind of draft to start such a rebuilding process, as the Giants had six (that's right SIX) picks in the first 51 slots of the first and supplemental rounds.

Yes, there was some talent in the Giants system going into 2007 (Matt Cain had made his debut already and Tim Lincecum was set to do so in 2007), but no one would question that behind their top two prospects (Lincecum and Cain) that the system was incredibly weak. So, in 2007, the Giants loaded up on talent, knowing that they had to get younger and build depth in their system if they ever wanted to compete when Bonds left town after the 2007 year.

The 2007 draft class, especially the first six picks, basically are a symbol of the start of the current mold of the Giants system Giants fans see today. Remember, this used to be an organization that preferred veterans to talent within the farm system during the early years of Sabean's regime. However, that took a turn in 2007 (though you could argue Cain and Lincecum really planted the seeds; the 2007 draft class burst the new plan through the dirt) as the organization went through a huge overhaul in terms of how they evaluated and signed players. As most Giants fans will tell you, the plan obviously proved to be a success (2010 World Series).

I could do this in one post, but I don't feel like I would be doing the subject much justice. So instead, I will be breaking down the analysis of the 2007 draft class into four posts. Here is how the breakdown will look like:

Part I: The "First Rounders" (Madison Bumgarner and Tim Alderson).
Part II: The "Future Duo Up the Middle" (Nick Noonan and Charlie Culberson).
Part III: The "Tools" Guy and the "College" Guy (Wendell Fairley and Jackson Williams).
Part IV: The "Outsiders" (Notable guys drafted outside the first and supplemental round).

Each part will be posted within a couple of days within each other. As you can see from the list above, the results from that 2007 draft have been a bit mixed. Nonetheless, despite the results, the draft above started a process within the Giants system that has not only produced better teams at the Big League level (three straight winning seasons for the Giants from 2009-2011), but a better framework for the organization in terms of acquiring talent, be it through the draft, free agency or international signings.

I also find this all interesting because one has to wonder when the Giants will undergo another change in organizational philosophy similar to 2007. The safe bet seems to be going into the 2014 season, when Lincecum will be a free agent. Will the Giants continue the ride the train that they first started churning in 2007? Or are they preparing for Lincecum to chase the dollar and perhaps prepare to change their identity again?

As for the questions above, only time will tell. I'm not a fortune teller, and as stated before on this blog, I focus more on the Giants' Minor League rosters here, not the Big League one (go to Giants Nirvana, Crazy Crabbers, McCovey Chronicles, or Bay City Ball for that). For now, I'm going to be looking at and analyzing that 2007 class that helped start the process that Giants fans currently see now.

I think that's enough on my plate for now.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Is It Time to Give Up on Nick Noonan?

Probably one of the most interesting non-roster invites to Spring Training has to be Nick Noonan. I find it mostly intriguing because he doesn't fit the mold of the typical Spring Training invite: he's not a top prospect anymore (e.g. not Gary Brown), he's not a castoff (e.g. not Brian Burres or Gregor Blanco), he hasn't been in the minors tremendously long (e.g. not Matt Yourkin), and he's not a fringe pitching prospect who is being looked at because he could eat innings should somebody on the 40-man get hurt or fall off a cliff (e.g. not a Justin Fitzgerald or David Quinowski).

Noonan was a top draft pick (Supplemental round pick in the 2007 draft) and prospect in the Giants system after he had a tremendous season in Rookie Ball in 2007 as an 18-year-old. In 224 plate appearances in the Arizona Rookie League, Noonan posted a slash of .316/.357/.451 along with a .809 OPS and .390 wOBA. Considering his age (just out of high school) and his position (middle infield), many Giants fans and baseball analysts thought Noonan had all the makings of a stud-in-waiting. In fact, after his 2008 campaign, many Giants fans were comparing Noonan to Chase Utley, with the hope that Noonan had that kind of star potential and toolset after such a solid first professional season.

In Augusta the next year, his numbers regressed a little, but there was little alarm with the dip. For starters, Noonan was young for the league at 19 (the average age of hitters in the Sally that year was 21.6), and he still posted good numbers for a second baseman with a slash line of .279/.315/.415 and an OPS of .730. That being said, there was a little concern with Noonan's approach, as his BB/K ratio fell from 0.60 in 2008 to 0.23 in 2009. What hurt his BB/K ratio the most was the increase in strikeouts as his his K rate rose from from 8.9 percent in the AZL to 18.4 percent in the Sally. Of course, the Sally is a pitcher's league and Noonan did have more plate appearances  in Augusta than in Arizona (532 to 224), so some kind of rise in strikeouts was to be expected, especially considering his youth. Nonetheless, a 10 percent rise was alarming, especially since Noonan didn't appear to be the kind of player that would garner a ton of walks.

Noonan remained high on prospects lists going into 2009, and a breakout season was almost expected from him as he made the transition to San Jose as a 20 year old. Unfortunately, though the Cal League does tend to favor hitters, Noonan looked a bit overwhelmed as his hitting line dropped massively in High-A. In 530 plate appearances, Noonan hit only .259, with an OBP of .329, a slugging of .397 and an OPS of .727. His wOBA regressed again for the second straight year, this time to .325, a bit concerning since hitters numbers tend to inflate in the Cal League, not deflate. Noonan did show a better eye at the plate, as his walk percentage rose to 9.1 percent and his BB/K ratio improved to 0.49. That being said, the Chase Utley comparisons he garnered early on in his career started to look a little premature after his 2009 season.

Though he probably should've started the year again in High-A (his year wasn't that great, he had some flaws he needed to work on and he was still young enough to begin in San Jose), but the Giants brass deemed it necessary to move Noonan up to Double-A in 2010 along with his other 2009 San Jose teammates Roger Kieschnick, Thomas Neal and Conor Gillaspie. The move proved to be a mistake, as Noonan looked totally out of his league at the plate against Eastern League pitching. He put up a slash line of .237/.280/.304 in 406 plate appearances and posted career lows in OPS (.584) and wOBA (.266). His plate approach and eye at the plate took a step back as well in Richmond, as his BB/K ratio fell to 0.30. Without a doubt, Noonan was one of the bigger disappointments in Double-A in 2010, though to be fair, he wasn't alone and probably wasn't the biggest one that year (that honor in my opinion belonged to Kieschnick).

At 22 years old, the Giants decided to keep Noonan in Richmond to begin the year in 2011. However, Noonan didn't play much at second base, as Charlie Culberson (who tore up the Cal League in 2010) manned the position for most of the year for the Flying Squirrels. Instead, Noonan mostly played shortstop, as he played 71 games at the position in 2011. He and Culberson proved to be a good double play combo up the middle, and the position switch did give Noonan some value as it showed he had some versatility as an infielder. His fielding numbers were pretty solid (.970 fielding percentage, 4.07 RF/G), though safe to say, he's far from the best glove at the position in the Giants system (Ehire Adrianza and Brandon Crawford are clearly ahead of him as far as defense is concerned).

While the position switch proved to be valuable to Noonan's status as a prospect, the 2011 season wasn't kind again for Noonan. Though his batting eye improved (11 percent walk rate, a career high, and a 0.55 BB/K ratio), his offensive numbers didn't show much improvement (as evidenced by his .215/.306/.292 slash line). The power he showed in Rookie ball (.136 ISO) has seemed to disappear (.077 ISO in 2011) and even for a middle infielder, his bat seems sub-par to mediocre at best. Noonan did get a cup of coffee in Fresno (13 games and 41 plate appearances) and he performed respectably (.297/.366/.378 slash line), but by the end of the year, he found himself back all the way to San Jose to work on some things at the plate (he posted a .647 OPS and .291 wOBA in 135 plate appearances in San Jose).

To go from Double-A to Triple-A to High-A in the span of months is certainly disheartening for fans of Noonan. At 23 years old, he still has some youth on his side, but he's not getting any younger and he certainly has not gotten better as he's moved up the system, obvious from his disastrous campaigns in Richmond in 2010 and 2011 (though he did have a nice call up in Fresno, it was a VERY small sample). It wouldn't be surprising to see Noonan off of most Baseball Experts' Top-30 lists for the Giants system this winter, especially with infielders such as Culberson and Joe Panik making progress last year.

So, as a Giants fan, it makes one wonder: is all lost on Noonan? Some would like to think so after being demoted to San Jose in August, but Noonan did earn an invite to Spring Training as a non-roster invitee, which makes one think that Giants brass still is curious about Noonan in terms of how he will develop. Noonan may not be the Chase Utley-type most Giants fans dreamed of when he came onto the scene in Arizona in 2007, but to be honest, he still has potential to be a good utility infielder type in the Mike Fontenot-mold. Remember, he still is only 23 years old. He is only a year older than Panik, who has played less than a year of professional ball to this point. Yes, his success hasn't come recently by any stretch of the imagination, but late bloomers are common-place in baseball (see Alex Gordon in 2011) and Noonan may be a case of a.) why organizations shouldn't rush their prospects up in the system (the Mets have learned this the hard way with Lastings Milledge and Fernando Martinez) and b.) why fans shouldn't give up on players who still have a lot of playing time left in their careers. Noonan hasn't impressed, but he hasn't stunk it up to the point where one could say that there is no hope for him at all.

Of course, this Spring Training and this upcoming season will be huge for Noonan. A good showing this Spring probably will earn him one last invite to to Richmond, where it will be a crucial year for his status (if he doesn't succeed in a THIRD year in Double-A, then it probably is safe to say that he won't have much of a future in baseball, let alone with the Giants). A poor showing, and well, he could be sent back to High-A again, which would be a back-breaker in his development, especially since Panik is expected to start the year in San Jose and is also widely rumored to move to second base.

I want to believe in Noonan (which is why I didn't list this post as a "tumbler" post; he will be on the list, though very low). I think injuries and a rash rise up the system hurt him, but his improvement in his batting eye last year I think were some nice signs. Of course, the slash line has to improve in 2012, but I think he is certainly capable of posting better offensive numbers in Double-A now that he has had two mediocre years under his belt.

Are the chips stacked against Noonan to succeed as a prospect in the Giants system? No doubt about it. But is it time to give up on him? I would cool the jets on that argument until we see him play in 2012.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Stats vs. Scouts: Comparing Conor Gillaspie and Chris Dominguez

As I lead up to the OTF Top-30, I am going to do a brief series where I look at two players who share the same position in the Giants system. The key part of this analysis is that they are contrasting players in the way scouts and stat-guys look at them. One guy will be more valuable according to scouting reports, while the other player may not be as highly heralded by scouts, but will have better numbers than the player he is being compared to.

The first two players that popped into my mind were a pair of third basemen: Conor Gillaspie and Chris Dominguez.

I hope to make this an on-going series, but with things a changing all the time, who knows how long this will go. Hopefully, I can get four or five comparisons for Giants fans and fellow writers to chew on before I start my rankings.

Why the Stats Guys like Gillaspie

Gillaspie was pretty heralded coming out of Wichita State in the 2008 Rule 4 draft. He was a first round supplemental pick who went in the Giants' slot at No. 37 and though he didn't hit for a ton of power for the Shockers, many analysts liked him as a "Bill Mueller-esque" player who could hit for high average and get on-base well despite missing that power tool set for a corner infielder.

Amazingly, Gillaspie was put on the 40-man roster in his first year of professional ball in 2008 and actually had a cup of coffee for the Giants where he had seven plate appearances at the Big League level. Gillaspie wasn't overly impressive in his short 18 game stint in Salem Keizer in 2008 (he posted a .338 wOBA with a .268/.350/.674 slash line), but he showed good contact skills and a solid eye at the plate in his professional debut, as he sported a 0.69 BB/K ratio with the Volcanoes. Many believed that due to his status as a prospect (he was a high draft pick out of college) and his plate patience and contact skills, Gillaspie would be fast tracked to the Major League level, perhaps seeing a longer callup in 2009 and competing for a job in 2010.

Unfortunately, some things hurt Gillaspie in 2009. For starters, Pablo Sandoval, formerly a catching prospect in the Giants system, came on with authority in 2009 at third base, pretty much serving as a road block for Gillaspie getting called up. Additionally, Gillaspie didn't set the world on fire in the hitter-friendly California League, as he posted a slash line of .286/.364/.750 in 530 plate appearances for San Jose, good for a a .341 wOBA. Gillaspie didn't show much power at all, as evidenced by only having 37 extra base hits (including only four home runs) and the reports on his defense weren't stellar at all. Dr. B of When the Giants Come to Town said this about Gillaspie in his scouting report for the 2010 prospect list, where he actually saw Gillaspie in person (he ranked Gillaspie no. 18 in his Top-50 in 2010).

"The most worrisome part of his game is on defense. He looks quite awkward at 3B and appears to struggle to make routine throws. The 3'rd time I saw him, he made several routine plays without incident and looked a bit more confident. He reportedly voluntarily went to Arizona Instructionals in the fall to work on his defense, so maybe it will come around."

Scouts have said many of the same things: that he doesn't have a great arm, that his range is nothing special, and that he just isn't a natural fielder or athlete. This makes Gillaspie's status as a prospect difficult to handle because it doesn't seem like he's the kind of player that the Giants brass could move around the field. He probably could play third and maybe first, but even if you're moving him to first, you're sacrificing a lot power for the position, and there are a lot better options to play at first before Gillaspie (Brandon Belt being the main one).

In Double-A in 2010, Gillaspie did bounce back a little from his disappointing Cal League campaign, holding his own in the pitcher-friendly confines of the Eastern League. Amazingly, he did show more power in Richmond than he did in San Jose, as his ISO went up from .100 in the CL to .132 in 540 plate appearances in the EL, but his slash line (.287/.335/.754) still remained underwhelming for a former first round pick (though he was a supplemental round pick to be fair).

Last year though, being mostly written off by most Giants Top Prospect lists, Gillaspie had a bit of a renaissance at the plate, as he really came on strong in the Pacific Coast League with the Grizzlies. He hit 11 home runs and posted a .157 ISO in 503 plate appearances, both Minor League career highs (that's not counting the .292 ISO he posted in the Arizona Fall league, but considering he only had 80 plate appearances and he was mostly facing rookies and second year guys, I don't take that sample very seriously). He finished his 2011 campaign with the Grizzlies with a slash line of .297/.389/.842 and his solid performance in Fresno earned him a callup to the Giants where he garnered 21 plate appearances (he hit .263 and had an inside the park home run; the best part of his callup was his ability to make contact and show a good eye at the plate, as he drew two walks and only struck out once).

I think why a lot of stat guys would be high on Gillaspie is due to his strong contact abilities, as evidenced by his consistently strong BB/K ratios in the minors. In his extended stints in San Jose, Richmond and Fresno, Gillaspie posted ratios of 0.81, 0.55 and 0.84, respectively, and he's never had a strikeout rate over 16.3 percent (his first year in pro ball in Salem Keizer). Coupled with a bit of a power renaissance in Richmond and especially Fresno, Gillaspie is a "stats" darling of sorts, as many envision him as poor man's Bill Mueller who could consistently be a .280-300 hitter and .340-380 OBP guy in the Majors if given ample playing time.

However, a lot of scouts simply just aren't all that into Gillaspie. He doesn't have a standout tool other than his ability to make contact. He doesn't hit for much power (though that has been getting more developed since his Cal League campaign), he has never hit for incredibly high average, and his defensive tools are rated average at best. With Sandoval beating him in upside in almost every imaginable tool category possible, Gillaspie just seems like a bench player to a lot of scouts, and even if he wasn't blocked Pablo, he maybe would be a utility infielder at best in their eyes. Other than the OBP and BB/K ratios, nothing really jumps out with Gillaspie to most scouts.

So where do I stand on Gillaspie? I love his contact skills and I think his ability to get on base will serve him well at the Major League level. It's not like he's hitting .240 with a .360 OBP and putting up egregious strikeout numbers. Furthermore, he's gotten better at the plate as he's moved up the system, so that has to count for something.

Yet there are a couple of problems with Gillaspie. First off, if you had to say what Gillaspie's plus tool was, it would be difficult to be say, and you could argue that he might not have any. It's obviously not his speed, power, defense or base-running, so the only possible plus tool he could have has a prospect is hitting for average. But that's the thing: though the wOBA and OBP stats are nice, Gillaspie has not really hit for high average at any stop in the minors, with the highest batting average he has posted being .297 (last year with the Grizzlies). Can you really say a guy has plus "hitting for average" tool if he's never hit for .300 at all from High-A to Triple-A? To me, that concerns me, because even the guy he's constantly compared to (Bill Mueller) hit for average in the minors (career batting average of .306 in the minors in comparison to Gillaspie's .288) and it's hard to imagine a guy who hasn't hit over .300 in the minors suddenly be able to do so in the Majors. I'm not saying it's impossible (you never know with how much BABIP fluctuates and the scarcity of batted ball rate information in the minors), just that it's very unlikely.

Another challenge for Gillaspie reaching the Majors may just be out of his hands, as Sandoval is simply just a mainstay at the position and you can't put Gillaspie (or even Sandoval for that measure) anywhere else due to his lack of athleticism and mediocre defense. At this point, Gillaspie's future with the Giants, despite his good numbers, may be as a utility infielder or trade fodder (though I could see him producing good value on a team that may give him an extended shot).

Why the Scouts like Dominguez

Dominguez is an older prospect of sorts. The highest level he has played at is Double-A, and he's already 25 years old, so the time span for Dominguez as a prospect is ticking away quickly (much like Gillaspie). Dominguez also was moved along slowly in the Giants system (he spent his first full professional season in Single-A, Augusta, which is not typical for most higher profile prospects out of college, as they usually start in San Jose), so that didn't do him any favors as well.

Nonetheless, despite the slow progression up the Giants minor league ladder, scouts have had some affinity with Dominguez for two reasons: his power and his arm. As a prospect, Dominguez has two plus tool sets which many scouts believe can transition to the Major League level. Additionally, with his size (six-foot, three inches, and 215 pounds), he has all the characteristics of a big league player, especially a corner infielder.

Dominguez burst on the scene in his debut season in 2009 after being drafted by the Giants in the third round. After signing quickly, he was able to play in 47 games in Salem Keizer and in 198 plate appearances he posted a slash line of .254/.298/.740 and a wOBA of .343 (he also had a wOBA of .415 in a stint in the Arizona Rookie League, but that was only a nine game, 40 plate appearance sample). While the averages and walk numbers (4.5 walk percentage, 0.16 BB/K ratio) were concerning, Dominguez displayed impressive power in the Northwest League, as he hit nine home runs and sported an ISO of .188.

Because he still had a lot to work on as a hitter after his Volcano campaign, the Giants brass opted to move him up to only Augusta rather than San Jose in 2010 in hope that he would develop more as a hitter. He spent the whole year with the Green Jackets in the Sally and did improve in many ways. His slash line in 608 plate appearances improved to .272/.326/.782 and his BB/K ratio and wOBA both rose to 0.26 and .351, respectively. While the improvements weren't dramatic, his numbers, especially his power ones (.184 ISO, .456 slugging and 21 home runs) did give some Giants fans some hope. However, his older age in the league did put some analysts back and prevent them from ranking him as a higher prospect, as Mike Newman remarked on a post he wrote for "Scouting the Sally."

"After watching him play, I referred back to a scouting report on Dominguez by Frankie Piliere back in 2008 to find little had changed in the two years since that report was written. Dominguez seemed like the same player he was as a junior in college which leaves me questioning his ability to adjust at a more advanced age than the average “Sally” prospect...

...At 19, I wouldn’t be concerned about his progress or lack thereof yet. But at 24, Dominguez needs to mash his way through High-A and finish the season doing the like in Double-A for me to really take him seriously as a prospect. Unfortunately for Dominguez, I suspect he will hit a buzzsaw in Bridgeport against pitchers who can spin a breaking pitch with any consistency whatsoever, dooming him to organizational status."

Last year, the Giants moved a little quicker on Dominguez as he played half the year in San Jose, and the second half in Richmond in the Eastern League. While he didn't go HAM with his power like some Giants fans would have hoped (the California League tends to be a launching pad for hitters), he still hit 11 home runs and posted a .174 ISO, .802 OPS and .355 wOBA in 279 plate appearances.

The strong showing in San Jose earned Dominguez a call up to Richmond and though he got off to a hot start (he had two home runs and eight doubles in his first 12 games with the Flying Squirrels), he tailed off and look overwhelmed at the end of the year in the Eastern League, as he finished the Double-A campaign with a .244/.272/.675 slash line. While Double-A is usually hard on hitters, Dominguez's plate approach did garner him many fans, as he posted a BB/K ratio of 0.12, highlighted by a 2.8 percent walk rate.

The age is a concern for Dominguez and though his 2011 campaign in Richmond wasn't terrible by any sorts, he certainly needs to improve next year at the plate if he wants to continue to be seen as a prospect with some high ceiling tools (remember, according to Piliere's scouting report, Dominguez's power and arm were both graded a 70 on a 20-80 scale). Yet there is some optimism with Dominguez, as Jonathan Mayo ranked him No. 8 in his Giants Top 10 prospect list this year (though to be fair, he hasn't included recent draftees, so it's likely he would tumble out of the top 10 if he included guys like Joe Panik, Kyle Crick and Andrew Susac), so it is entirely possible that Dominguez is capable of having a breakout year or at least something similar to what he did in Augusta in 2010 or San Jose in 2011.

I have never really been too high on Dominguez as a prospect in comparison to other Giants fans and writers. For starters, I think he's pretty old and he doesn't have much room to develop. From what I hear, have read and have seen on tape, he seems to be pretty much what he is: a big, athletic guy with some raw power and a great arm, but not much else. I could see him being able to dominate in the Minors after so many seasons there, but my gut instinct tells me that I don't see him doing much at the Major League level, if anything at all simply because I think his low-walk, high strikeout approach simply won't cut it at the Major League level, and it hasn't improved much, if at all, as he's moved up the system.

And then I read things like this...(hat tip to Dr. B of When the Giants Come to Town).

"My lasting recollection of Chris Dominguez from the SJ Giants game I saw early last year in Lake Elsinore is not so much the 2 HR's he hit in the game, but his physical presence. Chris is a big man, but he looks even bigger on the field. I mean, he really did look like a man playing with a bunch of boys out there. Chris Dominguez is a bit of an enigma in the making. I don't think anyone in the GIants system has more raw power, including Tommy Joseph. The big question is whether Chris will ever make enough contact to harness that power."

As a baseball fan (and I'm sure most scouts feel the same way), one can never write off a guy with a plus tool, especially power. For every Mike Jacobs out there (plus power tool guy who flopped), there is a Mark Reynolds whose plus tool carves them out a decent Major League career and one big season. Dominguez does not just have one, but  TWO plus tools. Sure, his other tool sets (speed, fielding, hitting for average) may be below average or below average at best, but when you have two tool sets rated a 70 by scouts, just can't shrug that off. It means that the potential is there, and Dominguez has certainly flashed his power potential throughout his minor league career. He just hasn't put it together on a consistent basis.

Will he put it together to the point where he could be a serviceable Major League player? Right now, I, (and I think most scouts and analysts would agree) that he has a lot going against him. But, if he does put it together...

Well, let's just say a lot of scouts, analysts (and even myself) won't be all that surprised if he finds some Big League success.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tumbler Profile: Carlos Willoughby Takes Step Back in 2011

Second Baseman Carlos Willoughby was on my Top-32 last year (before it dramatically stopped at 17 with Heath Hembree) at No. 28, and though he was kind of a fringe guy on the list last year, I still had some high hopes for him. I basically pictured him as a more patient, Eugenio Velez, and considering Velez's main flaw was his lack of plate patience, I thought Willoughby might have some value and upside as a prospect. However, the Sally was not kind to Willoughby, and consequently, he tumbles out of my Top-30 for this year.

The Colombian-born product made a name for himself in his third year in the Dominican Summer League as he posted a slash line of .327/.466/.904 in 329 plate appearances in the DSL. While he was old for the league (the average age of hitters there was 18.4) and it was his third campaign in the DSL, I still liked the fact that he not only could hit, but he could take a walk as well (his BB/K ratio was a ridiculous 1.67). Furthermore, Willoughby also showed exceptional skills on the basepaths as he stole 46 bases out of 58 attempts, a 79 percent success rate. With an excellent eye, good contact skills and some aptitude on the basepaths, Willoughby had all the tools in my mind to be a sleeper prospect of sorts (though as noted, his older age was a bit of a concern).

At 21 years old, Willoughby produced a solid campaign in the Arizona Rookie League in 2010, as he posted a respectable slash of .295/.432/.804 in 205 plate appearances. His BB/K ratio wasn't as impressive as his DSL numbers, but at 0.47, it wasn't bad considering it was his first exposure to American professional pitching. His base stealing ability was his real strength in Arizona, as he stole 23 bases out of 27 attempts, an 85 percent success rate. Yes, Willoughby did not sport much power, as his ISO was only .136 and he only had16 extra base hits all year. Nonetheless, many felt his speed tool set would suit him well as he continued to climb up the system and be more exposed to American pitching.

He made the jump to Augusta last season and while some things improved in a sense, a lot did not. His BB/K ratio did rise to 0.73, but his overall slash line dipped to .240/.341/.650 in 567 plate appearances. Additionally, though the Sally is tough on hitters, he showed absolutely no power at all as evidenced by his .068 ISO. I found the ISO numbers especially surprising because one would think a guy with his speed set would be able to stretch some single into doubles (unfortunately that wasn't the case in 2011).

Hence, Willoughby pretty much proved to be nothing but a singles hitter (25 extra base hits) who could draw a walk and steal a base decently well (33 stolen bases on 43 attempts). His lackluster numbers, thin profile and older age (he was 22 in the Sally) caused him to fall off the radar in many Giants fans and analysts' minds and you'd be lucky to see Willoughby crack any Top-50 lists, let alone a Top-20 one.

Defensively, Willoughby seems to be good as evidenced by his 5.74 RF/G and .982 fielding percentage, but reports don't rate him as anything spectacular (probably Velez-esque to guess). Furthermore, with guys like Charlie Culberson and Nick Noonan and now most likely Joe Panik (who probably will move to second base based on reports about his defense) ahead of him, it's easy to see why Willoughby has been lost in the shuffle before and most likely will stay lost in the shuffle in 2012.

In my opinion, Willoughby has some potential to be a decent role player in the future. His plate patience is solid, and he has some competency on the basepaths (though to be honest, I'll be interested to see if his stolen base numbers will sustain as he moves up the system). Granted, his upside may be that of a utility player, and at his age, one has to wonder how old he would be when (or even IF) he gets a shot at the Majors. Thus, the big question would be, as an older age prospect making his Big League debut, will his speed and the ability on the basepaths still be there? Or will they deteriorate with age like most guys?

I like Willoughby for a variety of reasons. I was higher on Velez as a player than most Giant fans (I saw him hit a home run in person at AT&T and I was immediately endeared) and the comparisons to him are pretty uncanny; he's from Colombia (I visited Colombia for a month) and I like his plate patience, which you can't devalue by any means. But, if he wants to regain any steam as a prospect, he has to start hitting better for average (I'm not even going to talk about power because it's obvious that he's just not a power guy by any means), and right now that is simply a big question mark that could go either way at this point.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Graduate Profile: Can 2012 Be Brandon Belt's Big-League Breakthrough?

The consensus No.1 prospect in the Giants system in almost every publication last year, Brandon Belt not only unexpectedly made the Opening Day active roster, but he also started at first base against the Dodgers in the Giants initial game of the 2011 season. Of course, the starting spot was more out of necessity (Cody Ross was on the Disabled List to begin the year) rather than want (he was expected to begin the year in Triple-A), but nonetheless, Belt's big league debut was received with about as much fervor as previous top prospects Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner.

Belt's first season in the majors was a mixed bag of sorts. In his second game of the year, Belt blasted a deep center field home run at Dodger Stadium, and he showed glimpses of power (he hit nine home runs) and a patient eye at the plate (he posted a walk percentage of 9.6 percent) in 209 plate appearances. However, it was obvious that Belt's plate approach proved to be his own worst enemy at times, as he whiffed 57 times, good for a 23.7 strikeout percentage. Furthermore, he struggled to make hard contact consistently, as his line drive percentage was only 13.8 percent.

When Belt was demoted back to Fresno on April 20th, Belt regained the form that made him such a top prospect after his 2010 season. He posted a .309 average, .975 OPS, and .422 wOBA with the Grizzlies in 212 plate appearances, and he also added eight home runs and sported a BB/K ratio of 0.89 (highlighted by a 19.8 walk percentage). It was obvious that Belt was simply too good of a hitter for Pacific Coast League pitching, but in multiple callups, Belt struggled to find consistent playing time and he just could never get it together. Hence, due to lack of playing time and at-bats, Belt finished his big-league year with a .314 wOBA and a 98 wRC+ (runs created above average, with 100 being the average).

2012 will be an interesting year, because Belt has graduated as a prospect and it's most likely that he will start the year on the Big League roster and could vie for a playing spot in the outfield along with Melky Cabrera and Nate Schierholtz. Though Belt is probably a better defensive player than Huff at first base, Huff's veteran status, manager Bruce Bochy's affinity for such players, and Huff's contract (he's got one more year worth 10 million dollars; slam your head against the desk Giants fans) probably will regulate Belt to backup status at the position.

Still, despite the obstacles Belt will face in terms of playing time in 2012, his chances should be much better, especially with Ross and Pat Burrell no longer Giants. Furthermore, I think Giants fans can expect a much better performance at the plate in Belt's second year. I'll point to a few reasons:

1.) He suffered from a very low BABIP in 2011.

--I would be surprised if Belt sported a BABIP similar to the .273 mark he had a year ago (the league average is .295). He hit a lot of groundballs in 2011 (42.3 percent GB rate), which was probably due to his anxiousness at the plate as a rookie with a lot of expectations. He had a 49.2 percent swing percentage and swung out of the strike zone 30.1 percent of the time. Belt's MO in the minors has always been his patience (.457 minor league OBP), so I think he'll probably hover more toward league average in swing percentage (46.2 percent), especially now that he is more familiar with Major League pitching and is more aware of his limitations (his contact rate was 77.7 percent and his swinging strike percentage was 10.5 percent). With a more selective approach, it isn't hard to think that Belt will get his BABIP back to above league average and perhaps in the .330-.360 mark (his minor league BABIP average was .405), which undoubtedly will result in a better slash line in 2012.

2.) More playing time.

--As noted earlier in the post, Belt will have a lot less competition (though I do wish he would play at first base over Huff). It's probably for certain that Angel Pagan and Melky Cabrera will have regular spots in the outfield, but Schierholtz is by no means cemented in his position (though defensively he is by far the Giants best outfielder). Belt may not start on Opening Day, but if Schierholtz struggles offensively, and if Belt can get off to a hot start, then it simply isn't out of the question that he could play himself into a permanent outfield position by mid-late May or early June. With consistent at-bats, it is likely Belt will play better at the Major League level, since on a talent-level alone he is probably the second or third best outfielder on the Giants roster offensively.

3.) Less pressure to perform.

--After Belt hit that homer against the Dodgers, an insurmountable amount of pressure and expectation was heaped on him. With Posey winning the Rookie of the Year award in 2010, many Giants fans and baseball analysts probably expected Belt to follow in the same footsteps as Posey and compete for the award in 2011. However, Posey had a lot more time in the minors before his callup in comparison to Belt, and additionally, Belt was rushed to the majors due to injury. I don't think the Giants brass really expected to callup Belt in 2011 until May or June, and the callup most likely stalled his development a little. Of course, the slight stall wasn't a bad thing by any measure since Belt still has youth on his side (he was 23 last year and he will be 24 come April). However, now that all the ROY hoopla is done with and Belt is a little more under the radar than a year ago, it is likely that Belt will be more comfortable at the Big League level, especially at the plate.

Overall, there is still a lot of hope that Belt can live up to his Top Prospect status, and there is strong consensus among the baseball blog and analyst circles that Belt will undoubtedly top the numbers he posted a year ago barring injury. Bill James projects Belt to sport a .363 wOBA and a .266/.358/.840 slash line, and though RotoChamp is a little more conservative their .348 wOBA and .251/.335/.800 slash line projection is still a vast improvement from last year and certainly will be welcomed by a Giants team that is desperate need of offense after they clunked a year ago, and lost Carlos Beltran due to Free Agency.

As for my projection? I think Belt will hover in that .250-.270 average line with an OBP around .340-.360 and an OPS of .810-.840. I think the power he has is legit (as evidenced by his 15.8 percent HR/FB ratio) and he will have a better idea at the plate, which probably means more line drives and walks and less groundballs and strikeouts. Of course, he is most likely always going to be a guy that is going to have strikeout percentages in the 20-25 percent range and probably be a sub-.300 average hitter, but if he continues to be an 8-12 percent walk rate guy and sport a .350 plus OBP, then Giants fans and management will be more than happy.

Undoubtedly, it will be interesting to see how the outfield competition pans out, which we will only know come and after Spring Training. That being said, the opportunity to succeed is a lot brighter for Belt than a year ago. While he may not make a total breakthrough, I think he'll have an impact at the plate in 2012, which will mean good things for Belt and the Giants in the following years, especially after Huff comes off the books (and thus, Belt can move back to his natural position at first base).

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The OTF Top 30 Prospect List...

So, I am going to update the prospect list this go-around. Again, prospect lists are a crap-shoot for a most part. Check out every prospect handbook from John Sickels, to Baseball America, to Baseball Prospectus and you'll realize how much fluctuation there is from year to year. Guys progress, guys regress, guys get hurt, guys retire and join the priesthood, etc. Projecting prospects sometimes is like projecting Nic Cage's next movie: you have an idea for the most part (in Cage's example, it's gonna be bad), but how exactly it will pan out is hard to determine (is it going to be "Wicker Man" bad or perhaps just "The Rock" bad?).

I am not going to start writing profiles for the list until sometime in February though out of a couple of reasons. One, that is when I will be getting a couple of publications that I will feel will be crucial in the list-making process (BA's prospect handbook and the MiLB Annalyst produced by Baseball Once I read through those, as well as doing other research on my end, I feel like I can confidently make a list that should be presentable.

The second reason I'm refraining from starting the list early is due to hot stove stuff. Though it's winding down, you never know who's going to get traded and such. For example, if I was a Yankees fan and I made the list two days ago, I would have been screwed because Jesus Montero would have been my number one. As we all know, that certainly is not the case anymore due to him being traded for Michael Pineda. So, waiting it out isn't a bad thing, and allows me to make a list that will be as accurate as possible come Spring Training.

Anyways, as stated on the page, by no means am I a Minor League guru. Just a fan who has an extreme interest in prospects, and has time to kill in between grading and teaching. In the meantime, I will write profiles on guys who will miss the cut because they have dropped out due to regression or poor seasons or perhaps they have graduated as prospects (see Brandon Belt). While I can't make the list just yet, I think I can say definitely who is not on the list, and that should give this blog some posts and articles to chew on before the actual lists comes out. If you really need a list to digest, check out Dr. B's lists and write ups at When the Giants Come to Town. I know I have been reading up on his stuff daily and I will definitely admit he's the best amateur minor league analyst of the Giants system out there on the Web.

Again, don't know how many are following still, but if you are, hopefully there won't be any long breaks anymore! I know that is something I have to work on!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Will Gary Brown's Offense Survive the Move to the Eastern League?

No question about it, outfielder Gary Brown is the Giants' top prospect in the system and it isn't really close. Brown, the Giants' first round pick in the 2010 draft, had a killer year in the California League, as he posted a batting average of .336, an on-base percentage of .407 and an OPS of .925 in 131 games and 638 plate appearances in San Jose. While the home runs were nice for a guy with leadoff potential (14), his speed (his calling card when he was drafted), was on full display in the Cal League as he had 13 triples and stole 53 bases on 72 attempts.

Without a doubt, offensively, it was a banner year for Brown, but as most Giants fans know, High-A tends to be a banner year for most position prospects in the Giants system due to the hitter-friendly environments of the California League. The big question now will be how his bat will transition to the Eastern League where he will not only face better pitching, but hitting environments that favor the pitchers considerably so.

If you don't believe me, let's take a look at two formerly touted outfield prospects who mashed in High-A, but took dips the following years in Richmond: Thomas Neal and Roger Kieschnick.

2009 was a coming out party for Neal, as he posted a solid .242 ISO in San Jose, thanks to 22 home runs and a slugging percentage of .579. Neal, not previously a highly touted prospect in the Giants system (he was a 36th round draft pick out of junior college), climbed up the boards after his monster year, as Fangraphs had him listed as the the third best prospect in the Giants system in 2010 after Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner (quite good company). In addition to the power numbers, a lot of analysts were high on Neal because of his improved approach at the plate in San Jose, as his BB/K ratio went up from 0.47 in 2008 in Augusta to 0.66 in SJ (he posted a BB percentage of 11.6 percent and a K percentage of 17.5 percent). Fangraphs writer Marc Hulet said this about Neal in his 2010 Giants write-up.

"In fairness, his ’09 numbers may have been helped by a good hitting environment. Even so, the 22-year-old outfielder hit .337/.431/.579 in 475 at-bats. His ISO rate jumped from .168 in low-A in ’08 to .242 in high-A in ’09. Neal has also shown solid patience at the plate over the past three seasons, topping out at 11.6 BB% this past year. He did a nice job of trimming his strikeout rate by 4% over ’08′s 24.1%. It will be hard for Neal to improve upon his .444 wOBA from ’09 but he has the talent to be a star corner outfielder for the Giants."

Neal's impressive 2009 performance merited a Spring Training invite in 2010, but the transition to the Eastern league proved to be a challenge for the 23-year-old from Riverside Junior College. Despite having 26 more plate appearances in 2010, his home run total dipped to 12 and his ISO fell to .149 (and consequently his wOBA tumbled almost a 100 points to .359). Also, he seemed to struggle against the better pitching as well, as his BB/K ratio fell to 0.49, with the walk rate taking the biggest hit, as it dropped to 7.9 percent, the lowest percentage since 2006, his first year in pro ball. While the numbers were not bad by any measure on a hitting standpoint, considering he was the third-best prospect in the Giants system, and his calling card was his bat (especially the power), the regression was a bit of a disappointment for Giants fans who envisioned him a future corner outfielder for the Giants in 2012 or 2013.

Things seemed to only get worse for Neal in 2011 (though it started well with him getting put on the 40-man roster), as his power continued to wilt even in the Pacific Coast League, as his ISO and wOBA fell to .114 and .336, respectively. Even worse, he looked even more lost at the plate with the Grizzlies than with the Flying Squirrels, as he had a 0.26 BB/K rate in 239 plate appearances, amplified by a 20.9 strikeout percentage, the second highest percentage in his career. Neal's decline from top-prospect to most likely a utility outfielder made him expendable to the Giants brass, as he was traded in a mid-season deal for middle infielder Orlando Cabrera (any time you get traded for a player like Cabrera, it means that management doesn't think much of you).

As for Kieschnick, his tumble in the Eastern League is much more evident, though to be honest, injuries have had a part in the hindering of his development. Much like Neal, Kieschnick went bonkers in the Cal League in 2009, as he hit 23 home runs and posted an ISO of .236 and an OPS of .876 in 563 plate appearances. Considering it was his first year of professional ball, there was a lot of hopes that the third round pick out of Texas Tech could be a better-hitting Nate Schierholtz in the future (his calling card was his rocket arm). Hulet of Fangraphs ranked him as the Giants' 5th best prospect in 2010, and remarked this in his report:

"The left-handed hitter did a nice job of handling southpaws by posting a .933 OPS on the heels of a .400 BABIP. His OPS against right-handers was .832. Kieschnick is a hustler on the base paths and in the field despite average speed. He also has the arm strength for right field."

However, Kieschnick's tumble in Double-A was even more dramatic than Neal's. Due to injury, he only had 246 plate appearances and posted a measly .251 average, .298 wOBA and .673 OPS. His home run total fell to four and he had only 15 extra base hits during the injury-shortened campaign. Consequently, he tumbled out of the rankings in 2011 and earned himself a second tour of duty in the Eastern League in 2011. Unfortunately, things did not get better despite a healthier year (he had 501 plate appearances). He hit only .255 and posted a OPS of .737 in his second season with the Flying Squirrles and his ISO remained pedestrian at .174. He did hit 16 home runs and had 22 doubles and five triples, but for the most part, the achillies heel of his game, his plate approach, still did not improve, as he posted a 0.28 BB/K ratio (amplified by a 24.2 percent strikeout rate, a career high) in 2011.

Granted, Kieschnick's flaw as a player has been his inability to make consistent contact (his strikeout percentage in his three pro seasons have been 23.1, 22.4, and 24.2 percent), while not drawing walks to make up for it (his career walk percentage is 6.83). So, in many ways, the Eastern League struggles were probably more predictable than Neal's. That being said, Kieschnick is a prime example of a guy who probably got lifted a little too high in the rankings for a one year sample in a league that obviously hides a lot of hitter's flaws.

As for Brown, is he going to have a similar tumble to Neal and Kieschnick? It's hard to say (because you never know about injuries), but I would say Brown has a lot more going for him than both guys. For starters, Brown is and always was a top prospect, as he was drafted in the first round. He was a top-5 guy in the Giants system last year before his season in San Jose, while Neal and Kieschnick were relatively under-the-radar prospects whose profiles got boosted thanks to impressive (though obviously inflated) Cal League campaigns.

Secondly, Brown's calling card isn't "home-run" power like Neal and Kieschnick. Rather, the strongest part of his game is his speed, and that should be able to transition to the Eastern League, even despite the pitcher friendly confines around the league. Last year, Brown hit 34 doubles and an insane 13 triples in 638 plate appearances. Neal and Kieschnick may have hit more home runs (22 and 23 respectively compared to Brown's 14), but their extra base hits minus home runs don't compare to Brown (Neal had 45 and Kieschnick 27 to Brown's 47; and it must be noted that Neal had 41 doubles, so if you look at it, Brown had more triples than Kieschnick and Neal did combined in 2009). Without question, I would be surprised if Brown launched 14 home runs in Richmond, but while that total will go down, I think he will still manage to post good slugging percentages, because his speed is such a plus-tool.

Of course, the plate approach has people a little worried about Brown and his transition to Double-A. While his BB/K ratio was solid (0.60 in 2011), his walk rates leave a little to be desired. He only posted a 7.2 percent walk rate in San Jose, and in a short stint in the Arizona Fall League before the 2011 campaign, he only drew one (that's right ONE) walk in 55 plate appearances. That being said, he doesn't strikeout a lot either (12.7 percent strikeout rate a year ago), so he's a guy that can make contact consistently, something you couldn't say of Neal and Kieschnick in their tenures in High-A.

Another sneaky factor that could work in Brown's favor is his toughness, as evidenced by his HBP count, which was 23 last year. Add that to his walk total and BB+HBP/K ratio jumps to 0.90. Granted, I don't know if that is a sustainable number, especially as he moves up and faces better and better pitching, but it shows that Brown has an aggressive approach at the plate and that he is willing to get on base any way necessary, which is definitely a plus in his favor.

Overall, I like Brown a lot, and if he can continue to progress in Double-A at the plate like he did in High-A, then it is very likely to think that he could push for a starting job in the Giants outfield in 2013 (he's probably blocked this year due to Angel Pagan and Melky Cabrera). In my opinion, the home run power most likely will take a dip, but he's probably an 8-15 home run guy at the majors anyways, so that shouldn't be too much of an alarm. His speed on the basepaths, his ability to stretch hits and make consistent contact should bode him well at the plate in Richmond, and I don't think Giants fans will see the dramatic drop off from Brown in 2012 like former outfield prospects Neal and Kieschnick in 2010.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Bringing Back Optioned To Fresno

I don't know if anyone is still reading this, but after a long hiatus, I am going to start posting again at OTF. I will start making wholesale changes to the site's design (especially the rankings section), but with things in my life calmed down some and my interest in Minor League ball suddenly re-inspired, I figured it would be a good time to bring things back here. I don't think posts will be as frequent as they used to be, but my goal is to post anywhere from two-three times a week, which I think is do-able considering my schedule now.

Anyways, will probably have a first post sometime tomorrow. Hopefully I can get back to the point where OTF was a well-oiled machine. Can't wait for the 2012 minor league and major league seasons to start for the Orange and Black!