San Francisco Giants: Most Exciting Prospects to Look out for in Spring Training
Clayton Blackburn, Kyle Crick and Chris Stratton—the San Francisco Giants' top three prospects according to Marc Hulet of FanGraphs—won't be in big league camp this spring. None of those three pitching prospects have pitched above A-ball yet, so Giants fans will have to remain patient on that front.
However, just about everyone else in the organization's top 15 prospects will be at spring training with the Giants. The most exciting prospects to look out for this spring are outfielder Gary Brown, infielder Joe Panik, reliever Heath Hembree and starting pitcher Chris Heston. Brown and Panik need at least another year of minor league experience, but Hembree and Heston are just about ready for the show.
Let's take a look at what each of these prospects brings to the table.
Brown's stock has dropped after a somewhat disappointing season at Double-A Richmond. The Giants selected him with the 24th pick of the 2010 draft out of Cal State Fullerton, where he batted an impressive .438 during his junior year.
He hit .336/.407/.519 with 53 stolen bases in 72 attempts at High-A San Jose in his first full season in the minor leagues in 2011. After his impressive debut, he entered last season as the 48th best prospect according to MLB.com and the 38th-ranked prospect according to Baseball America.
However, Brown had trouble with the stiffer competition at Double-A. His slash line dropped to .279/.347/.385 as he struggled to hit right-handed pitching, and he was caught stealing 18 times in 51 tries. Despite being a prospect with collegiate experience and 1,302 minor league plate appearances, he remains somewhat raw—particularly as a baserunner.
Due to his struggles last year, MLB.com dropped him down to 100th on their prospect rankings entering this season.
Brown's immediate path to the big leagues was blocked after Angel Pagan inked a four-year deal to remain in San Francisco this winter. However, with Gregor Blanco and Andres Torres sharing time in left field, Brown could push Pagan over to left next year with a solid showing in 2013.
With Torres and Pagan playing in the World Baseball Classic, Brown will have an extended opportunity to make a lasting impression on manager Bruce Bochy this spring. Once he does arrive in the big leagues, his plus speed should allow him to be at least an average regular—even if his offense doesn't get back to where it was in college and the lower minor leagues.
Unlike Brown—who has an obvious elite tool in his speed—Panik is more of a jack of all trades than a master of one.
The Giants are currently using him as shortstop in the minor leagues, but he may ultimately end up at second base given the presence of Brandon Crawford. Very few players in all of baseball would be good enough to move the slick fielding Crawford off of shortstop, and Panik doesn't have the defensive chops to supplant Crawford anytime soon.
Panik has some speed, he's solid defensively and he can hit for average. He doesn't have great power, but he has excellent plate discipline. He walked 58 times compared to just 54 strikeouts at High-A San Jose last season. He's walked 86 times against 79 strikeouts while putting up a .379 on-base percentage thus far in his minor league career.
Panik, selected in the 2011 draft by the Giants with the 29th pick, has excellent feel for the game. A scout told Marc Hulet of FanGraphs, "Joe always just knew how to play. He has instincts and actions, knows his position and has first-step quickness laterally."
His instincts for the game and patience at the plate make him better equipped to handle the jump to Double-A than Brown was last year. If he has another solid year in the minors this season, he could challenge the aging Marco Scutaro at second base next spring.
His pitch recognition and ability to handle shortstop and second base will make him a utility infielder at worst in the big leagues. However, if he continues to steadily improve, there's an excellent chance that he can be a solid regular for the Giants.
His feel for the game could make that happen sooner rather than later.
Hembree could find his way onto the big league squad with a strong spring training showing.
Hembree can get his fastball up into the high 90s, and he also features a swing-and-miss slider. The Giants have an opening in the bullpen, and with his live arm, he could conceivably take the job. He also has the stuff to be the eventual successor to Sergio Romo as the Giants closer after 2014, though his control could use some polishing after he walked 4.4 hitters per nine innings last season.
Manager Bruce Bochy told the media on Tuesday that Hembree could have gotten a look with the Giants last year had he stayed healthy. Bochy said, “It’s too bad he had [an injury] last year. There might have been a time or two where he would have been up here so we could take a look at him. I look forward to watching Heath." (h/t Alex Pavlovic, San Jose Mercury News).
Due to the injury, Hembree was limited to just 44 innings last yea, mostly for Triple-A Fresno. He had a 4.19 ERA but did manage to strike out 44 hitters. For his minor league career, he's put up a combined 2.68 ERA with 143 strikeouts in 107.1 innings.
As long as he stays healthy, Hembree is the best bet to be the Giants prospect who makes the biggest impact in 2013.
Heston is another good bet to have an impact on the Giants this year. He's the only minor league starter on the 40-man roster with experience at Double-A, making him the most likely candidate to enter the Giants rotation if someone gets injured or has performance issues.
He doesn't have an overpowering fastball, so he isn't ranked very highly by most prospect publications. However, all he's done in his minor league career is get guys out. In three minor league seasons, he's put up a 3.13 ERA overall. Last year at Double-A, he had a 2.24 ERA while whiffing 135 hitters in 148.2 innings.
He's a ground-ball pitcher with excellent control, which has helped him flourish in the minor leagues without jaw-dropping stuff. He walked only 40 hitters last season and gave up only two home runs to due his worm-killing sinker.
John Sickels, a prospect analyst for SB Nation, wrote that Heston is a better prospect than his radar gun readings indicate.
Heston does not have the same kind of stuff as the relievers behind him on the list, but he's much closer to the majors and has a chance to start so I want to highlight that. Throw the radar gun away with this guy. Asand show, you don't have to have a blazing fastball to get people out if you know what you're doing. Heston knows what he is doing.
Heston's understanding of how to pitch, proximity to the big leagues, ability to throw strikes and propensity to keep the ball on the ground could get him a spot in the Giants rotation as soon as this season. If not, with Barry Zito and Tim Lincecum set to become free agents at the end of 2013, Heston could have the inside track on a rotation slot for 2014.
Spring training doesn't mean a whole lot for the guys who already have jobs. However, for Brown, Panik, Hembree, Heston and the other prospects in camp, it's an opportunity to impress the Giants and make another jump towards the ultimate goal of playing professional games at AT&T Park.