When you take a look at the Giants organization, from top to bottom, they're arguably one of the best in baseball. In fact, in 2009, they were the best in terms of overall organizational record.
Four of the six Giants affiliates made the postseason (San Jose, Fresno, Augusta, Salem-Keizer), and two of those four won their respective league titles (San Jose Giants, Salem-Keizer Volcanoes).
The San Francisco Giants were arguably the most improved team in the majors, and have had one of the biggest transformations of their minor league system since the days of the Build Around Barry Era.
Right in the middle of that minor league system has been manager Andy Skeels. Skeels is a former catcher, like Giants manager Bruce Bochy, Grizzlies manager Steve Decker, and San Jose Giants manager Brian Harper.
In his first four years in the Giants organization, two as the hitting coach and two as manager, he's led his team to the playoffs each year, making it to the finals three years out of four, and winning two championships (2008 - Augusta, 2009 - San Jose).
Usually, that leads to a promotion, and the Giants rewarded Skeels by giving him the reins to the AA Richmond Flying Squirrels. But the Squirrels have had a 2010 far from the success of Skeels' previous teams.
Skeels has never been part of a team in the San Francisco system with a winning percentage under .636. The Squirrels, as of today, are 44-50, (.468).
Yet just as the San Francisco Giants are starting off their second half on the right foot, the Squirrels are channeling that energy and putting together a little run of their own.
I got the opportunity to watch this team live in action this weekend, and the entire experience, from high-fiving Nutzy the Flying Squirrel to the general feel of The Diamond in Richmond, was fantastic. It didn't hurt that the Squirrels took two straight from the Bowie Baysox either.
Following Skeels to Richmond were a trio of outfielders who were possibly the best hitters in the Giants farm system not named Gerald D. Posey. And following their impressive years in 2009, this trio is only just starting to get going at the plate in 2010.
Left fielder Thomas Neal hit .337/.431/.579 last year, bombing 22 home runs and driving in 90 runs. This year he's hitting .287/.351/.429, and with much lower power numbers of eight homers and 46 RBIs.
Fleet-footed center fielder Darren Ford hit .300/.386/.463 in 2009, driving in 50 and swiping 35 bags. His offensive numbers have dropped significantly in 2010, with a hitting line of .239/.299/.344.
Right-fielder Roger Kieschnick had a line of .296/.345/.532 last year. As of right now, Kieschnick is on the disabled list, and his hitting stats have been hurting too, posting a line of .251/.305/.368, a drop of almost 200 points in his slugging percentage. Not surprisingly, his four homers in 2010 do not keep him on pace for the 23 he hit last year for San Jose.
This pitching-dominated team has all the makings of the 2008 San Francisco team, leading the league in ERA (3.53) but near the bottom in batting average (.248). It looks like they need just a couple people to get hot to put it all together, as these three did in San Jose last year.
And three games into the second half, it looks like that offensive help might be on the way.
First-baseman Brandon Belt has starred these past two weeks as the new addition to the Squirrels offense, batting a torrid .404 with five home runs and nine RBI in only 14 games since being promoted.
That has galvanized the other hitters on this team, as Neal, Ford, outfielder Clay Timpner, and third-baseman Conor Gillaspie have also heated up in the recent weeks.
Gillaspie, a first round pick in 2008, is hitting .424 in his last 10 games, including a 2-4 game Saturday night and a 1-2 game with a triple on Sunday.
Timpner has been solid all season, being the only Squirrel consistently around .300 all season. After a 2-4 night with an RBI on Saturday, he followed it with a 2-3, two-RBI game on Sunday, and raised his average to .295 on the year.
Ford has also picked it up offensively, tallying four multi-hit games out of his last seven, including a three-hit performance Sunday. He also drove in two important runs on Saturday, one with a sacrifice fly and the other with a hustling double in the eighth.
And Thomas Neal, the offensive prodigy from last year, also had a good Sunday, going 2-4 and driving in his 46th RBI of the year.
Lefty Clayton Tanner took a one-hitter into the seventh on Saturday and only allowed two runs in 7.1 innings while striking out five. Craig Wescott followed that up today with another 7.0 inning performance, giving up two runs (one earned) and striking out nine.
Basically, just like the Giants up on top of the system, this team's fate lies in its bats. They have the pitching. That's for sure.
If they can start to hit, they'll rocket to the top of this league. Although they are 14.0 games back of first place, and might be out of first place for now, any improvement in their hitting will be reflected by a record of over .500 at the end of the season.
This weekend showed what they're capable of. They know how to hit, and they can see up and down the system what hitting can do to your chances of winning a championship.
The Squirrels might be new to Richmond, but Richmond is crazy about them already. All they need to do is to start going nuts with the bats.
(Photo courtesy of Real Life Studios)