Gary Brown is the Giants' top young prospect
The San Francisco Giants are only one year removed from their first World Series title, since moving west in 1958. One of the main reasons for the Giants' success in 2010 was the emergence of top prospects Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner.
Young players are the future of any organization, especially with the current economics of baseball. Free agents and veteran players are extremely costly, and it is critical for the Giants to continue to develop their own young talent. This is the only way to remain competitive with reasonable salary control.
Let's take a closer look at the Giants' most underrated prospects at each position.
Hector Sanchez impressed as a September roster addition
The San Francisco Giants have one of the top young talents in the game at the catcher position in Buster Posey. However, with Posey coming off a devastating ankle injury in 2011, he will also play several games at first base.
This means the backup catcher role becomes critical for the Giants. They have three candidates, Eli Whiteside, Chris Stewart and Hector Sanchez. Of the three, it is Sanchez who has the greatest upside.
Sanchez is by far the best offensive player of the three and has improved his defensive skills over the past year. In 2011, Sanchez split time between San Jose, Fresno and San Francisco.
In the minors, Sanchez hit a cumulative .285 with 12 home runs and 84 RBI. He also gained valuable experience behind the plate and calling games.
Sanchez got a chance to play in the majors as a September call-up. He showed that he wasn't awed and more than held his own. Sanchez hit .258, with an OBP of .324.
At only age 22, Sanchez may start the season in the minors. He is, however, the best young prospect at the catching position. I hope Sanchez makes the big league team and does well; the Giants can use his offense.
Tommy Joseph is someone to keep an eye on, but he needs to make more consistent contact with the bat. Joseph has shown good power in Single-A ball but also has a long way to go in terms of his defense. We'll likely see him at Double-A Richmond this coming year and will learn a lot more about his development.
Brett Pill has shown good plate discipline and a consistent bat
Brandon Belt is the hot first base prospect for the Giants, but Brett Pill could be a better first base option. The fact that Belt can also play in the outfield also gives Pill a potential opportunity to get some playing time.
At the age of 27, Pill is not a young prospect, but he is the most underrated of the top first basemen in the Giants' system. In 2011, while in Fresno, Pill hit .312 with 25 home runs and 107 RBI in 536 at-bats. Pill had an impressive OBP of .341 and SLG of .530.
Pill is not the defensive player that Belt is and realistically is only a first baseman. However, Pill has a very good bat and has a mature, veteran presence at the plate. It would be ideal if the Giants decided to play both players, which would mean Belt in the outfield.
Pill had 50 at-bats with the Giants as a September roster addition. He showed excellent plate discipline and an ability to make adjustments in-between plate appearances. He hit .300 with two home runs and nine RBI. I was very impressed by his approach.
Charlie Culberson played in Richmond last year
The Giants do not have a lot of quality prospects at the second base position. Only Charlie Culberson merits a mention here.
Culberson played with the Giants' farm team in Richmond in 2011. He hit .259, with 10 home runs and 56 RBI. His OBP was a low .293, with an OPS of .675.
Culberson's strikeout-to-walk ratio was terrible. In 553 at-bats, he struck out 129 times with only 22 walks. He has a long ways to go before he will be ready for the majors.
The Giants seem set at third base for the foreseeable future with Pablo Sandoval, as long as he keeps his weight under control. At only 25 years of age, Sandoval should be at the hot corner for the Giants over the next several years.
After Sandoval, the Giants have Conor Gillaspie, who would do himself good to become proficient at second base. Gillaspie is a decent prospect, but I really see his upside limited to being just a slightly above-average player in the Majors.
The player the Giants are hoping develops is Chris Dominguez. He is also 25 years old but unlike Gillaspie, has good power. Dominguez started the 2011 season at San Jose and then was promoted to Richmond.
Dominguez' combined stats for 2011 were a batting average of .266 with 18 home runs and 85 RBI. His OBP was a low .302 with an OPS of .735.
In order for Dominguez to continue to advance, he must make more consistent contact. He had 553 at-bats in 2011 with 151 strike outs.
Ehire Adrianza battled injuries this past season
The top middle infield prospect in the Giants' organization is Joe Panik. He had a good taste of pro ball last season and also did well in the Arizona Fall League. However, as a first-round draft pick, we cannot consider Panik as an underrated prospect.
The other player who does have potential at the shortstop position is Ehire Adrianza. Due to injuries this past year, he is largely under the radar. The 2012 season will be a big year for Adrianza, and it will be important for him to show that he can stay healthy and produce.
Adrianza played in only 93 games at the Single-A level. His .273 average was nothing special, nor were his six home runs, 44 RBI and eight steals. The injuries slowed Adrianza and put a crimp in his aggressive base running style. He had stolen 33 bases in 2010.
Adrianza is a good defensive player, and I like his mobility. At only 22 years of age, the key for Adrianza will be if he can develop his offense enough to be a factor at the big league level.
Francisco Peguero lacks plate discipline
Gary Brown is the prized outfield prospect in the Giants' organization. He was a first-round draft pick in 2010, so he cannot be considered underrated.
The next intriguing outfield prospect is Francisco Peguero. He has hit well in the minors and in 2011 split time between San Jose and Richmond.
Peguero hit .312 with seven home runs and 46 RBI in 353 at-bats. The main concern with Peguero is his lack of plate discipline. He is the epitome of a free swinger and is almost impossible to walk.
Peguero struck out 53 times and had only 12 walks. At 23 years of age, he's young enough to learn to be more selective, and that will be a key for his progress.
Heath Hembree has the potential to be a major league closer. With Brian Wilson's contract over at the end of 2012, Hembree could be ready to step into the closer role in 2013. I expect him to make an impact pitching out of the Giants' bullpen this year.
It is Hembree's emergence as a top pitching prospect that enabled the Giants to part with reliever Ramon Ramirez in the trade with the Mets for Angel Pagan. Hembree is a power pitcher with a fastball in the mid-90's and good command.
Hembree pitched in San Jose and Richmond in 2011. He threw a total of 53.1 innings, allowed only 36 hits, struck out 78 and walked 25. His ERA was 1.86 with a WHIP of 1.144.
If Hembree has a good spring training, he has an excellent chance to stick on the Giants' Opening Day roster.
Brandon Belt needs to emerge as a reliable hitter
The San Francisco Giants have promoted several stars to their major league roster in recent years. These young stars include Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner, Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval.
The minor league talent pool for the Giants is currently not very deep. There are only a scant few players who could become true big league contributors in the next year or two.
Perhaps the most important of these youngsters is Brandon Belt. The Giants need him to emerge as a consistent hitter. He struggled in 2011 with a .225 average, and the Giants hope he has grown enough to be a positive force in 2012.
The other young player the Giants desperately need solid play from is shortstop Brandon Crawford. He is an excellent defensive player but needs to hit better than his .204 average in 2011.
The Giants need to continue to develop their own home-grown talent. We'll see if any of these underrated prospects can deliver.
My best guess is that Hector Sanchez, Brett Pill and Heath Hembree have a future with the Giants. I would be very surprised if any of the others noted in this article become big contributors at the major league level.