Right now, the San Francisco Giants farm system doesn’t rank as high as it has in the last few years, with the (obvious) promotions of Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner taking away much of its thunder.
Even before the end of the 2011 season, however, the team still boasted some highly-touted pitching prospects, featuring the likes of Heath Hembree and Zack Wheeler.
Unfortunately for the Giants, they traded away their one prospect blue-chip in Wheeler to the New York Mets in exchange for outfielder Carlos Beltran, in an attempt to make one last push for the playoffs. That didn’t work out.
Fast forward to 2012. Brandon Belt has finally found a permanent home at first base, and the organization has a plethora of highly-talented pitching prospects, with some position players that are on the verge of being called up.
So who do the Giants have waiting in the wings right now?
Here are the top ten prospects in the Giants’ minor league system, based on talent and their ETA into the majors:
#10 – RHP- Clayton Blackburn: One of the younger prospects in the Giants farm system (19), Blackburn has had two impressive minor league campaigns. Last year in the Sally League (Low A), he finished among the league leaders in all major pitching categories, finishing 8-4 with an ERA of 2.54, and an astonishing one hundred and forty three strikeouts over 131.1 innings of work. He’s very young, but very talented, and has a high ceiling for success given time.
#9 – RHP- Kyle Crick: He has only one year of pro ball under his belt, but his 2012 performance was very impressive; He went 7-6 with a 2.51 ERA, while striking out one-hundred and twenty-eight batters over only 111.1 innings of work. Though it was only in low A, those are pretty impressive numbers. The win/loss record isn’t always indicative of a pitchers ability, and with Crick’s size, there’s plenty of up-side. Give it a couple years and he will definitely be competing for a starting spot.
#8- SS/2B – Nick Noonan: Noonan has spent the last four year in the minors between low A and is currently at the AAA level. He’s had success at every level, and the ceiling for him is very high as he is only twenty-three with four years of minor league experience. Second base is a position the Giants do not have a whole lot of depth at, and he could definitely serve as a utility player in the coming season. He’s got speed, power, and finished last season with a .296 batting average, the best he’s put up since his inaugural days in the Arizona Fall League (.316). He’s a great fielder, and provides more depth at his position.
#7- 3B – Conor Gillaspie: Gillaspie has the potential to be a very good hitter, as he’s spent the last two seasons in AAA where he’s hit right around .290. He’s got above average power, but his range at third base (despite his almost perfect size for the hot corner) and speed need improvement. He’s a patient hitter, and like others on the list, seems to get at least marginally better from one year to the next. He’s never batted below .286 and does not strike out that often. He made his major league debut last season filling in for an injured Pablo Sandoval, but did not produce what he is capable of doing during that time, going 3-for-20 over six games. This shouldn’t be counted against him, as it is an extremely small sample size. He will continue to develop into a useful hitter, and at the least, be a more than confident bench player.
#6- OF- Francisco Peguero: Over seven years of minor league experience, Peguero has played for almost every affiliate of the Giants, and has generally improved from season to season. He’s a five tool player, and I would compare him most to an un-polished Marco Scutaro in the outfield, as he hits for average, and doesn’t strike out a lot. In fact, he’s a career .305 minor league hitter with some pop. He’s got a strong arm, and can play all over the outfield, primarily in right and center, but obviously would be used in left should the Giants bring him up this coming season. He could be used off the bench as soon as 2013 to be used as a pinch runner, as he has excellent speed both on the bases and in the outfield.
#5- LHP- Eric Surkamp: The pitcher with the most experience in the team’s system, Surkamp has proven he can be a back of the rotation type starter, as he showed us with some pretty good performances for the big league club during the end of the 2011 season. Although he missed all of the 2012 season due to Tommy John surgery, like Chris Heston, he seemingly gets better every year, varying from vast to minor improvements. He’s valuable just as a lefty starter, but also induces many strikeouts and does not allow many hits or earned runs. Depending on how his rehab goes, he will most likely be in the mix for a starting job over the next couple seasons.
#4 – RHP- Chris Heston: A two-time minor league All-Star, Chris Heston is one of the Giants premier pitching prospects. Starting in the Arizona Fall League in ‘09, he’s been promoted up from class A (’10) to high A (’11), and last season he finished his AA season with a 9-8 record and a more than respectable 2.24 ERA. He’s got a four pitch arsenal in his sinker, slider, curve-ball, and change-up. Let’s put it this way: Over the last three seasons, he’s amassed three-hundred and ninety strikeouts over a whopping four-hundred and forty-eight innings, though his walks seem to be his main Achilles heel. Also during that time, his win/loss record has become much improved, and his strikeouts per nine ratio has hovered at around eight. He’s a big, strong, durable pitcher who could help his big league club relatively soon. Who knows, the Giants might opt to skip Lincecum’s spot in the rotation every once in a while to put him in relief, and get some younger arms (Heston) in there to see how they translate.
#3 – RHP- Heath Hembree: He’s a hard throwing right-handed closer, with the typical build of one at 6’4 and 210 pounds. His fastball varies from low to upper 90’s, and between splitting time with the San Jose Giants and the Richmond Flying Squirrels during his 2011 season, he amassed a minor league best of 38 saves. In 2012, he seemed to take a slight step back, finishing with an ERA of 4.19 (it was 4.74 in his time with Fresno). Although pitching at the level he was, there was bound to be a bump in the road somewhere. He still accumulated fifteen saves, and his strikeouts, though diminished in numbers, still translated to where they should be as a result of being promoted to a higher level league. There’s also the fact that he missed some time due to a mild flexor strain during the middle of the season, and as a result pitched ten less innings than he had in his 2011 campaign, where he had an UN-conscionable 13.2 strikeouts per nine innings. Seeing as the closer situation is all but set for the big league club, there should be no reason Hembree couldn’t be a September call up to compliment Sergio Romo and the rest of the bullpen, regardless of what happens with Brian Wilson.
#2 – SS- Joe Panik: Though Brandon Crawford has established himself as one of the best shortstops (defensively) in the game, Panik is quickly pushing himself into the Giants plans. He led the Northwest League in hitting in 2011, and finished 2012’s campaign in San Jose with a .297 average. With double the amount of plate appearances, he kept pace with his 2011 season and walked an incredible fifty-eight times. After seasons end, he kept his hot bat going against better competition when he played in the Arizona Fall League, where he played second base for the first time. He doesn’t have a lot of power, but hits very well for average and doesn’t strike out much. Fielding is also his strong suit, and has impressed many scouts with his defensive ability. If his bat translates into the majors, Crawford may have some serious competition in the coming year.
#1 – OF- Gary Brown: Brown has been the Giants most consistent hitter in the minors, and in 2011 he had an amazing season, finishing with a .336 average, driving in eighty, and stealing fifty-three bases. He has plus speed, great defensive range in the outfield, and also has a bit of pop in his bat (thus his 14 home-runs in 2011). In 2012, he was promoted to AA, but didn’t quite duplicate his impressive 2011 campaign, as he struck out slightly more, but continued hitting for a respectable .279 average while keeping the power numbers there, albeit in a slightly diminished form. Since the outfield is still an issue for the Giants, Brown could definitely see some playing time come 2013, whether it be in the form of a mid-season call up, replacing an injured player, or even if the team decides to give him a shot in spring training to battle for the spot with regular season hero Gregor Blanco.
Catcher Andrew Susac would have been on this list, but he’s still a couple years away from being brought up, and with Hector Sanchez blocking him, it doesn’t seem likely that he will be seen as a potential call-up.
But with the abundance of pitching talent the Giants possess, I wouldn’t be surprised if they made a move with one of them to bring in a hitter.
One thing is for sure: The Giants will bring up at least one or two of these prospects sometime during the 2013 season.