San Francisco Giants Prospect Peek: 2011's Top 5 Minor League Pitchers So Far
Pitching wins baseball games. But you don’t have to remind the San Francisco Giants.
The Giants 2010 Championship run was built on the back of pitching that is unmatched in major league baseball (that’s right, Phillies fans—I’m looking at you). If San Francisco’s farm system is not currently littered with high profile pitching prospects, it is only because they have done such a stellar job of drafting players—pitchers in particular—who are simply too good to require extended time in the minors.
Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner have all been great for the Giants. The fact that they spent minimal time in the minors and that their success at the major league level was basically immediate only makes them seem more impressive. Watching these studs of the Giants rotation, it is easy to lose sight of what a normal career path for a starter looks like.
But just because there may not be another Tim Lincecum or Matt Cain waiting in San Jose or Fresno ready to jump a level or two or five and dominate major league hitters doesn’t mean that the Giants are devoid of young pitching talent.
On that note, here are five minor league pitchers in the Giants organization who are leading the farm system's rebuilding efforts.
To the slides!
5. Justin Fitzgerald
Justin Fitzgerald may not be great, but at least Giants fans have the warm blanket of Madison Bumgarner to wrap themselves in.
Drafted: 2008 – 11th round, 327th overall by the San Francisco Giants
2011 Minor Line: 41.2 IP/3-3/3.67 ERA/23 K/1.704 WHIP
No one is saying Fitzgerald is great. Or even that he will make it to the majors. But following the ascensions of Buster Posey, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner, the Giants minor leagues are somewhat in a state of rebuilding.
And all things considered, starting a rebuilding process with Fitzgerald as your fifth-best minor league pitcher is pretty decent.
Fitzgerald has been solid at the AA level. His 2011 stats are basically in line with his career numbers, and while no one would mistake them for those of a future Hall of Famer, he could very well parlay his skills into an acceptable career.
With his promotion from high A-ball, Fitzgerald has seen his number predictably rise although not too dramatically. His strikeouts are down, his hits allowed are up, etc.
None of this is surprising.
In fact, very little about Fitzgerald is surprising. He is what he is. If he continues to develop, his skills could take him into a specialist role in the big show but more likely will result in a productive minor league career.
Given the Giants recent success in developing young talent that is ready to contribute to the big club, it is no surprise that the minor league cupboards are somewhat bare.
The fact that Justin Fitzgerald makes a list of the organization’s five best minor league pitchers is truly a testament to this bareness but also to the depth of talent the team has at the major league level.
4. Kelvin Marte
I couldn't find a picture of Kelvin Marte. So here is an infinitely more awesome one.
Drafted: Undrafted (signed as free agent in 2007)
2011 Minor line: 48.2 IP/4-2/2.59 ERA/28 K/1.171 WHIP
Marte has surprised just about everyone in 2011. And even though he may not be for real, he has pitched so well in 2011 that I just can’t leave him off this list.
Although he doesn’t have overwhelming stuff, Marte has somehow been incredibly successful in advanced A-ball this season. He seems to have found a way to adjust to the fact that he doesn’t possess overwhelming velocity and has improved his control as well, which has been a bugaboo for him in the past.
Marte loves to throw breaking pitches, but his curveball has shown signs of laziness, and prior to 2011, he showed a troubling penchant for hanging them up in the zone. Predictably, he has suffered because of it.
This season, there have been no such problems. Marte has never been a strikeout pitcher and probably never will be, but he has managed to keep the ball in the yard and has vastly improved his command. The importance of this improvement cannot be overstated for a pitcher whose fastball does not top 89 MPH.
A possible explanation for Marte’s success in 2011 is as simple as comfort and familiarity. Throughout his career he has struggled during transitional periods. In 2008, for example, he began the season in the Arizona Fall League and had tremendous success, posting a 1.78 ERA in eight games. However, once he moved up a level that same season, his ERA rose to 6.14 in the same number of outings.
He managed to get back on track the next season but faltered again in 2010 when he was promoted from A to advanced A-ball and saw his ERA rise from 2.73 to 14.73.
This season he is clearly more comfortable. No one is expecting him to make a major league roster anytime soon, but his numbers in 2011 have been so impressive that they are certainly worthy of note.
…And that is the most words that will probably ever be written about Kelvin Marte
3. Ryan Verdugo
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Drafted: 2008 – Ninth round, 267th overall by the San Francisco Giants
2011 Minor Line: 34.2 IP/2-0/3.12 ERA/34 K/1.413 WHIP
For a middling prospect who was actually drafted on three separate occasions, Verdugo has done pretty well for himself in his brief career.
Although he ended up in the San Francisco organization by way of a ninth-round draft choice, he was actually drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in 2005 and again by the Giants in 2007. The extra time in college seems to have served him well, as he has been terrific at nearly every stop in the minors since being drafted.
He is one of many Giants prospects who does not possess an overwhelming fastball (he tops out at about 91-92, and cruises around 87-88), but he does have a nice, repeatable delivery and compact arm action for a left-hander.
In the past, Verdugo has had difficulty throwing all of his pitches for strikes, and this inconsistency has been reflected in less-than-desirable WHIP and BB/9 ratios throughout his career.
In AA-ball, Verdugo has seen his H/9, WHIP and ERA rise dramatically, but this is to be expected for a young pitcher dealing with his first tour around a league with considerably greater talent than he has ever faced before.
And even though he has suffered somewhat, a tidy 3.12 ERA won’t exactly have him hanging his head in shame.
2. Zack Wheeler
Zack Wheeler: Uber-prospect
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Drafted: 2009 – First round, sixth overall by the San Francisco Giants
2011 Minor Line: 37.2 IP/3-2/3.82 ERA/45 K/1.22 WHIP
Wheeler is undoubtedly the top prospect in the San Francisco farm system. He is the biggest name, has the draft day pedigree and top-of-the-rotation stuff that makes GM's salivate and is the most highly touted minor leaguer the Giants have.
His fastball sits in the mid to high 90’s and was a major league-ready pitch coming out of high school. He has added a second plus pitch with the development a tight curveball, which can be straight up nasty at times but remains somewhat inconsistent.
He is developing a changeup, but it is a work in progress, and his stats in 2011 show the usual problems with consistency and control one would expect from a player with little professional experience. He has had particular issue with varying release points, especially when throwing his changeup, which he clearly isn’t fully confident in just yet.
Although he eventually projects as a top-notch starter, Wheeler’s career trajectory seems to be more traditional than what the Giants have seen from Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum in recent years.
Wheeler has performed admirably in advanced A-ball, but it is reasonable to expect him to continue to develop in the minors for at least another season until his repertoire becomes more refined, and his young-but-promising 6’3" frame adjusts to the increased stress of a major league workload.
1. Eric Surkamp
On this pitch, Eric Surkamp struck out some career minor leaguer with an 88 MPH fastball. It was awesome.
Drafted: 2008 – Sixth round, 177th overall by the San Francisco Giants
2011 Minor Line: 46 IP/2-2/1.76 ERA/61 K/1.174 WHIP
Although he may not have the hype and pedigree of Zack Wheeler, Eric Surkamp has been the Giants best minor league pitcher in 2011.
He leads all San Francisco minor leaguers in ERA and K’s and is in the top five in BAA and WHIP. These numbers are especially impressive when you consider that Surkamp is a control pitcher, a style that wouldn’t generally lend itself to huge strikeout totals and swing-and-miss stuff.
Surkamp was the Giants sixth-round pick in 2008 and even coming out of college wasn’t exactly known for his velocity. His fastball sits consistently around 87-91 MPH, but he backs it up with above average secondary pitches—a curveball and a changeup—and has displayed immaculate command of all three weapons.
Truthfully, Surkamp has been getting disrespected since he was drafted. His general lack of velocity has concealed the fact that he has been one of the best pitchers in the Giants farm system each of the last three seasons. He doesn’t give up the long ball and has shown impressive control and maturity throughout his minor league career.
But he has taken it to the next level in 2011. He has not only been the best pitcher in the Giants organization but one of the best in all of minor league baseball. While other highly touted prospects may get more publicity, Surkamp quietly goes about his business of getting hitters out.
It is also worth noting that Surkamp has a nicely projectable body for a starter, standing 6’5" and weighing only 190 pounds. It is not unreasonable to expect him to gain some weight, add a few miles per hour onto his fastball and emerge as a legitimate No. 2 or 3 starter in the majors.