SF Giants: Which of These 9 Prospects Are for Real?

Barry ShillerContributor IIIOctober 18, 2011

SF Giants: Which of These 9 Prospects Are for Real?

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    Can the San Francisco Giants exploit their precious window of opportunity to win another World Series title? Or two? Or three? 

    The core starting rotation is there.

    A deep, durable bullpen will likely be there.

    The rest of the formula—adequate run and defensive support—may depend on the club's best prospects. Especially since so much of the club's payroll will be needed to keep those pitchers around for the long term.

    Here's a (very early) take on the future ceilings for nine of San Francisco's top prospects. (note: for this piece, "prospects" include players with limited major league experience) 

Heath Hembree: Closer To Be?

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    Drafted: Fifth round, 2010 amateur draft.

    Age (entering 2012): 23

    Last level: Double-A Richmond (Va)

    Key 2011 stats: 1.68 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 3.12 SO/BB ratio 

    Trajectory: The Giants moved Hembree in midseason 2011 from Class-A San Jose to Class-AA Richmond. For the Flying Squirrels (my favorite mascot, ever) Hembree's strikeouts declined a bit as his ERA rose (from 0.73 to 2.83). His WHIP remained stable.

    Context: A big (6'4", 210) guy described by John Sickels of minorleagueball.com in early 2011 as a "power arm," Hembree appears to be the Giants' best internal bullpen candidate. Brian Wilson is eligible for free agency in 2014, but the Giants could lose him after next season if they decide his value/price ratio no longer justifies risking a high arbitration award for 2013. Hembree could be his successor.

    San Francisco could also need right-handed bullpen depth if the club declines arbitration on Santiago Casilla or Ramon Ramirez in 2013. 

    My gut: Unless he's used as trade bait, look for Hembree to be in San Francisco by 2013 if not earlier, either as closer or late-inning setup man. 

Eric Surkamp: Ready...or Not?

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    Drafted: Sixth round, 2008 amateur draft.

    Age (entering 2012): 24

    Last level: San Francisco

    Key 2011 stats: With SF: 2-2, 5.74 ERA, 1.84 WHIP, 0.76 SO/BB ratio; with Class-A San Jose/Class-AA Richmond: 11-4, 1.94 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 3.78 K/BB ratio. 

    Trajectory: After the Carlos Beltran trade sent Zack Wheeler to the Mets, Surkamp became San Francisco's top rotation prospect, supposedly "untouchable" in trade discussions. He was promoted to San Francisco in late August and made six starts through the end of the regular season.

    Surkamp pitched admirably over four starts (2-0, 2.95 ERA, two no-decisions) before surrendering six runs in two-thirds of an inning against Arizona and ending the season with a rocky outing (allowing ten base runners and four runs in 4.2 innings to the Rockies).

    Prior to his promotion Surkamp was dominant at Class-AA Richmond as he had been the prior year at Class-A San Jose. 

    Context: Desperate for left-handed rotation help after Barry Zito and Jonathan Sanchez each imploded, the Giants advanced Surkamp faster than they probably preferred. (G.M. Brian Sabean has admitted as much)    

    My gut: Surkamp will likely open 2012 at Class-AAA Fresno. Unless he regresses and Zito or Sanchez get their act(s) together, expect him back in San Francisco by July—this time, for good. Over the long term, he projects to be a dependable Kirk Reuter-like rotation stalwart. 

Gary Brown: At the Center of Things?

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    Drafted: First round (24th choice), 2010 amateur draft (originally drafted in 12th round, 2007 draft by Oakland).

    Age (entering 2012): 23

    Last level: Class-A San Jose.

    Key 2011 stats: In 131 games: 14 HR, 80 RBI, .336 BA, .407 OBP, .925 OPS, 53 SB. 

    Trajectory: Up, up, up. Projected by John Sickels of minorleagueball.com as a major league regular, Brown's has been a hot name among baseball junkies (and others; one female "fan" declared via Twitter that Brown would become her hubby).

    You can understand the fascination with Brown given the above 2011 numbers—especially given the holes in San Francisco both in CF and at the leadoff spot. Imagine someone batting leadoff with gap power, stealing bases, patrolling AT&T Park's right-center gap...ok, wake up. For now, just a dream.  

    Context: After G.M. Brian Sabean's public declaration at season's end that Brown and other prized prospects wouldn't be rushed to San Francisco, it's fair to say the club had better come up with a viable leadoff hitter via trade or free agency. Otherwise, a "Bring Us Brown" campaign is likely to spring up around 3rd and King.  

    My gut: Brown opens 2012 at Class-AA Richmond (likely) or Class-AAA Fresno (possibly). Either way, Brown makes a cameo San Francisco appearance next September and arrives for good in the majors in 2013. After that, the sky's the limit.  

Brett Pill: First Things First?

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    Drafted: Seventh round, 2006 amateur draft (originally drafted in 45th round, 2005 draft by N.Y. Yankees).

    Age (entering 2012): 27

    Last level: San Francisco.

    Key 2011 stats: In 133 games at Triple-A Fresno: 25 HR, 107 RBI, .312 BA, .341 OBP, .871 OPS, 36 2B. In 15 games/53 plate appearances in San Francisco: .300 BA, .881 OPS, 2 HR, 9 RBI. 

    Trajectory: Oddly flat. Pill's rise through the Giants' system has been methodical—one level a year, no midseason promotions, two years at Class-AAA Fresno—no matter how much he's produced.

    (and he has produced. Between 2009 and 2011 ('09 at Class-AA Connecticut, '10 and '11 at Class-AAA Fresno), he's delivered 19/26/25 HR, 109/84/107 RBI, .828/.752/.871 OPS)

    Had Pill stumbled during his September call-up to San Francisco, you'd trust the Giants knew of a flaw no one else could see. But, in 15 games/50 AB: .300BA/.881 OPS with 2 HR, 9 RBI. (small sample size, sure. But, projected over 500 AB that translates to 20 HR/90 RBI. Hmm.)

    Context: For whatever reason, Pill has been the Invisible Man in San Francisco's system. John Sickels' 2011 list of 20 top organizational prospects had nary a mention of Pill–not even among 17 other "notable" names.

    Pill has shown too much natural hitting skill not to be offered a chance to earn a major league job, perhaps competing for the chance to platoon with Huff and pinch-hit. His presence on the major league roster could be a motivator for Huff in the short-term.

    My gut: Pill excels in the spring, sticks with the big club, and gradually plays his way into the lineup. And we're left to wonder what might have happened in 2011 if Pill had been given a shot earlier in the year, as Arizona did with Paul Goldschmidt.  

Brandon Crawford: At Short, or Shorted Again?

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    Drafted: Fourth round, 2008 amateur draft.

    Age (entering 2012): 24

    Last level: San Francisco.

    Key 2011 stats: In 43 games at Class-A San Jose and Class-AAA Fresno: .265 BA, .335 OBP, .971 Fld. percentage. In 66 games in San Francisco: .204 BA, .288 OBP, .972 Fld percentage.

    Trajectory: Compared to Pill, Crawford's advancement has been meteoric. He moved from rookie ball to the majors in fewer than three full seasons, joining the Giants directly from Class-A San Jose in mid-2011.

    Crawford was impressive from the start defensively; his range, arm and athleticism were light-years beyond Miguel Tejada and Orlando Cabrera, the ancient alternatives ill-advisedly brought to San Francisco by Brian Sabean. 

    Unfortunately, the Giants were so desperate for offense last season that Crawford's glove and arm were regarded as luxuries. And when he didn't hit (see above), he didn't play.

    Context: Not everyone agrees with this assessment, but from here, Bruce Bochy's handling of Crawford hurt the club and delayed Crawford's development. Curiously, the rookie remained in SF on the bench for a long stretch before finally going to Class-AAA Fresno, where he remained until a September call-up).

    Crawford was encouraged to play in Arizona this fall to work on his hitting stroke; he was batting .360 in 25 AB's through six games. 

    My gut: Crawford's still something of a mystery. He could end up anywhere on a continuum of Giant shortstops ranging from Rich Aurilia (great run producer, good glove) to Johnnie LeMaster (great glove, lousy bat, odd duck).

    His prospects in 2012 might depend on the destination of soon-to-be free-agent Jimmy Rollins; if the Giants lure him to San Francisco, Crawford might be traded. Or, he might be asked to take lots of ground balls at second base and become a very affordable utility middle-infielder.

    Odds that Crawford sticks in 2012 with SF: 50/50. Odds that he eventually settles in as a major league shortstop: very high.

Brandon Belt: In Left, or Left Out?

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    Drafted: Fifth round, 2009 amateur draft. (earlier drafted in 11th round, 2006 by Red Sox, 11th round, 2007 by Braves)

    Age (entering 2012): 24

    Last level: San Francisco.

    Key 2011 stats: In 53 games at Class-A San Jose and Class-AAA Fresno: .320 BA, .989 OPS, 8 HR/36 RBI, 47 BB/48 SO. In 63 games in San Francisco: .225 BA, .718 OPS, 9 HR, 18 RBI, 20 BB/57 SO.

    Trajectory: Quick and turbulent. Touted by minorleagueball.com as the Giants' top prospect (comparable to the Kansas City Royal's Eric Hosmer), Belt was in the Giants' opening day lineup, in equal parts the result of an impressive spring and injuries to Andres Torres and Cody Ross.

    That followed a single, awesome minor league season (.352 BA, 1.075 OPS, 23 HR, 112 RBI, 43 2B, 10 3B, 22 SB, 93 BB/99 SO) beginning in Class-A San Jose and ending in Class-AAA Fresno.   

    Context: After batting .229 at Class-AAA Fresno in 2010, Belt's readiness for the major leagues in 2011 was open to question. His inclusion in the every-day line up in April, followed by a chain of call-ups and demotions to and from Fresno, battered the young player's psyche. (fellow rookie Crawford seemed unfazed by similar treatment)

    By season's end, it was hard to tell if Belt's offensive struggles resulted from a lack of seasoning, the strain of a difficult season in San Francisco, arguable mishandling by Bochy or all three.  

    Belt improved his batting average by 80 points at Class-AAA Fresno over a single season, from .229 to .309. That suggests he has plenty of physical skill upside.

    My gut: The biggest question mark about Belt is his mental make-up. Under Sabean and Bochy, the Giants have not been a hospitable place for young players; besides Buster Posey, can you name one who has prospered?

    This kid unquestionably has major league tools. I remain unconvinced that they'll ever be fully revealed as a Giant.  

Joe Panik: To Be at 2B?

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    Drafted: First round, 2011 amateur draft. 

    Age (entering 2012): 21

    Last level: Salem-Keizer (Or.) rookie league.

    Key 2011 stats: In 69 games: .341 BA, .401 OBP, 6 HR, 54 RBI, 13 SB, 12 errors, .964 Fld percentage.

    Trajectory: We'll see. The Giants thought enough of Panik to send him to Arizona for additional work in the fall instructional league after a very impressive rookie season in the Low-A Northwest League. 

    Context: Drafted as a shortstop, Panik struggled defensively in rookie ball. The Giants have asked him to play second base this fall. That implies that the Giants think enough of Panik's offensive potential to be testing him at another position. It so happens that second base is among their currently-unstable positions. 

    Panik is off to a slow start in Scottsdale this fall, batting .136 in 22 at-bats. Then again, Washington National's All-World prospect Bryce Harper is only batting .129.

    My gut: Although he came to the Giants with three years of college Division I experience and showed considerable promise in rookie ball, Panik's eventual up-side is impossible to quantify. The Giants' recent success with top picks, however, implies that this fellow bears watching.

    Best case: Freddy Sanchez or Jeff Keppinger hold down the fort until Panik is ready, in 2013 or 2014. Worst case: The Giants waste +/- $1 million on a high draft pick (their first middle infield top pick, by the way, since Royce Clayton in 1988). 

Francisco Peguero: Close...but No Cigar

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    Drafted: Free agent, 2006. 

    Age (entering 2012): 23

    Last level: Double-AA Richmond (Eastern League).

    Key 2011 stats: In 87 games: .312 BA, .7 HR, 46 RBI, 12 BB/53 SO.

    Trajectory: Slow. As in glacial. Over six years, Peguero has yet to reach Class-AAA. An amateur signee at age 18, the club hasn't had to make a keep-or-release decision on Peguero—yet. He's shown enough promise—.329 BA, 10 HR, 79 RBI over a full season at Class-A San Jose in 2010 and .312 BA overall—to keep intrigue high. (he was among John Sickel's top ten prospects entering 2011).

    He's also shown an utter lack of plate discipline—more than four strikeouts for every walk—hindering his progress.   

    Context: Peguero is included here as a reminder that far more "hot prospects" fail than succeed. Other prospects discussed here in the past, including C Tommy Joseph and IF Charlie Culberson, might or might not fall into the same category as Peguero.

    My gut: With so much of the club's budget set aside for pitching, the Giants are wise to hold onto and monitor the progress of as many potential bats as possible. If Peguero doesn't soon—really soon—figure out how to discriminate between balls and strikes, the Giants will have one less prospect to monitor.

Conor Gillaspie: Odd Man Out?

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    Drafted: 1st round, 2008 amateur draft. 

    Age (entering 2012): 24

    Last level: San Francisco.

    Key stats: Exceeded 20 doubles and 60 RBI over each of the last three seasons at Class-A San Jose, Class-AA Richmond and Class-AAA San Jose. Career .288 BA, .361 OBP, 170 BB/228 SO. As good as he's been offensively he's been bad defensively: 58 errors, .939 fielding percentage over four seasons (mostly) at third base.

    Trajectory: Methodical, advancing one level per year (might call it the Pill Plan). 

    Context: Gillaspie possesses traits that baseball scouts love: bats left, throws right; selective at the plate; consistently productive gap hitter who gets on base.

    He also has seemingly played his way into no-mans land, displaying stone hands at a position very capably managed by Pablo Sandoval.

    My gut: Gillaspie's value in San Francisco is exceedingly limited; he can hit but he can't field. That makes him an unattractive candidate for a utility role. It doesn't, however, lessen his value to San Francisco as trade bait for a deal with an AL club that could employ Gillaspie as a DH and/or pinch-hitter.

    Odds Gillaspie winds up on a major league roster: Good. Odds it is in San Francisco: Poor.