San Francisco Giants' Top 7 Winter Ball Performers
Every autumn, when the pennant race is over, most ballplayers head home to rest up, watch football and eat turkey. Meanwhile, prospects across the minor leagues scatter to warm weather destinations to play winter ball, with the opportunity to impress scouts and get a leg up on the competition for next year.
Winter leagues are hosted in Arizona, Mexico, Venezuela, Australia and the Caribbean. The leagues provide an outlet where young players can hone their skills while also giving clubs a chance to scout young foreign talent.
Despite being in the dead of winter, these leagues are no spring training or developmental league. With the exception of the Arizona Fall League, they are often the main professional league in their respective countries. Players are given real-game opportunities in a competitive environment.
This fall, the Giants sent 24 youngsters to earn a little extra credit. Here are the seven who made the most of their opportunity and will warrant a longer look come Spring.
7. Brandon Crawford
It's very likely that Brandon Crawford will be the Giants' opening day shortstop by default in 2011. A thin middle infield market and a Miguel Tejada shortage may combine to give Crawford the job. So how did our man do this offseason?
Not so bad. Crawford batted .276 in 87 ABs and played sterling shortstop alongside fellow Giants youngster Joe Panik. Granted, .276 was about league average in the AFL, but league average will fly with Giants fans.
It's also a small sample size that included a 1-12 finish. Crawford ripped off a 16-game hitting streak in the middle of the season, showing a consistency that has been lacking thus far in his career.
Crawford was horrid at the plate in the Bigs last season, and marginally better in the minor leagues. The hope is that his defense will make him valuable until his bat catches up. Crawford hit only .130 against lefties this fall, furthering speculation that a platoon might be in the works.
6. Osiris Matos
Matos has spent his career getting very familiar with the Giants minor league system, pitching close to 600 innings over nine years. But Matos has been lights out this fall in the Dominican Winter League. A recent two-run inning raised his ERA up to 2.04.
He's also striking out over a batter an inning. Matos is a low-level prospect at this point, but he deserves recognition for the solid offseason he has put together.
Last year Matos had the interesting distinction of spending time at every minor league level in the Giants' system. Nevertheless, he posted a very solid 2.70 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP, including some very solid innings in a short stint at Triple A Fresno. He will likely start 2012 at Fresno, and may compete for a chance to get some big league innings if he can continue his winter ball dominance.
5. Stephen Harrold
The Arizona Fall League has a reputation of being a hitter-friendly league and this season was no different. The league-wide ERA was a steroid era-esque 5.53. In this rough environment, right-handed reliever Stephen Harrold stood out. Over 16 innings, Harrold posted a 1.76 ERA with a .196 batting average against and over one strikeout per inning.
Harrold is a minor league relief pitcher, a position that rarely bodes well for major league prospects. Harrold also had a rough time last season in San Jose. Nevertheless, the 2010 12th-round pick will get an extra look after his AFL performance. His ceiling is probably as a big league middle reliever, but it's too soon to tell whether that will play out.
4. Alex Burg
Alex Burg may be the surprise of the offseason. A 24th-round draft pick in 2009, Burg was mostly unspectacular in his first two seasons. However in 2011, he made some noise, slugging .519 in 72 games with Single A San Jose.
Berg is spending his fall in Australia, where he continues to show flashes of power, leading the league in in home runs with five in 15 games. Currently, Berg is hitting .339 with an incredible OPS of 1.024.
Berg's versatility makes him an intriguing prospect, as he has the ability to play catcher, first base and third base. Despite his big season, he's mostly an unknown quantity, and a year at Double A Richmond should give us a better read on his major league potential.
If he continues to develop the power stroke, he could be a pleasant surprise as a utility player in San Francisco several years from now.
3. Brandon Belt
Brandon Belt has mastered every level of baseball short of the majors. Belt had a strong season in the Dominican League, hitting an even .300 with a very Belt-like .395 OBP. He's shown the combination of power and patience that excited (and hopefully still excites) Giants fans when he made the team out of spring training last season.
Apparently, Belt wasn't thrilled when asked to spend some time in the Caribbean this winter, and I don't blame him. Belt has absolutely crushed minor league pitching the last two years. He should be the Giants' starting first baseman in 2012. Big league starting first basemen don't play winter ball.
2. Joe Panik
Panik was the Giants' first-round pick in 2011 and the MVP of the Northwest League in his first professional year. Considered a surprising first-round pick by many, Panik continued to rake in the Arizona Fall League. His line of .323/.394/.473 was easily the most impressive of all Giants prospects in the AFL. Panik was named to the AFL Top Prospects Team as well as the Rising Stars game.
According to Baseball America, scouts rave about Panik's disciplined, polished approach and strike-zone awareness. He projects as a second basemen in the pros with the ability to move over to shortstop if necessary.
While Panik spent most of his minor league campaign at shortstop, he moved over to second base in the Fall League to allow playing time for Brandon Crawford. The prospect of a homegrown middle infield should have Giants fans giddy. The Giants have produced very few quality homegrown middle infielders in the last 20 years, and both Crawford and Panik have potential to contribute on the big club.
1. Hector Sanchez
Hector Sanchez is laying waste to the Venezuelan League this Fall. The 22-year-old catcher leads the league with .376 avg, 1.013 OPS and is making a case to be Buster Posey's backup next season at some point.
Sanchez is listed as the No. 10 prospect in the Giants' system by Baseball America and projects as a backup catcher in the majors.Sanchez will remind Giants fans of Pablo Sandoval, and not just in stature.
Sanchez, like Sandoval, is a free-swinging switch hitter with decent power who does not strike out much. Also like Sandoval, Sanchez is an unheralded prospect who may just force himself onto the big club by continuing to mash the ball.
Sanchez's winter hot streak is only a continuation of his great 2011 campaign that included a .302/.338/.533 line at Triple A Fresno. The Giants know what they have in Eli Whiteside and Chris Stewart. It might be worth giving Sanchez a shot to prove himself, either as a valuable trade chip or a potential every day catcher in the event that Buster Posey is eventually moved to first base.