Buster Posey is a home-grown Giant
The ownership group has self-imposed a salary cap of $130 million for the 2012 season and mandated that Sabean not exceed that amount. The Giants ended the 2011 season with a salary level just under $125 million, so although this is technically an increase, it really isn't.
The increase is eaten up by the scheduled jump in salary for Matt Cain and Brian Wilson. In addition, several arbitration eligible players are due big raises, including Tim Lincecum, Pablo Sandoval and Ryan Vogelsong.
To make matters worse, the Giants are still on the hook for another $46 million for Barry Zito, $19 million of which is owed this year. Then there's the case of Aaron Rowand, who is on the books for 2012 at a cost of $13.6 million and he isn't even on the team.
I have mentioned this before, but I am compelled to reiterate that albatross contracts for Zito and Rowand were the work of then owner Peter McGowan, and not Sabean. These two terrible contracts are a main reason behind why the Giants' ownership group ousted McGowan, in favor of Bill Neukom. It was Neukom who was in charge when the Giants won it all in 2010.
The ramifications of this salary cap for the Giants is that they are unable to spend big money for the impact free-agent bat they covet.
Sabean has tried to bolster the offense by acquiring outfielders Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan in trades. These two are not power bats, however. They are line drive hitters and their speed is a bigger asset than power.
With the salary structure in place currently for the Giants, the only way they can bolster their lineup is from internal development. Continuing to develop young, star players like Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval and Madison Bumgarner is vitally important for the Giants.
These players all made less than $1 million last year. Developing this young talent is the key to maintaining the financial control of your franchise and still fielding a competitive team.
When we see players like Albert Pujols, Jose Reyes and Michael Cuddyer sign hefty contracts, all in excess of $10 million a year, you know the Giants cannot fit that into their budget, unless they decide to let Lincecum or Cain leave.
When journeyman players like Clint Barmes are signing for over $5 million per year, it becomes painfully obvious that the Giants must build through their farm system. This is the only way the Giants can ensure long-term stability of their cost structure and still be competitive.
With this in mind, let's take a position by position look at the players who are coming up through the Giants' organization. Hopefully, some of these players will ultimately become stars for the Giants, but only time will tell.
Hector Sanchez could make the Giants' roster this spring
The San Francisco Giants have Buster Posey as their primary catcher, however, a solid No. 2 man will be essential to their success. Posey is destined to play several games at first base this coming year, as it remains to be seen how well he recovers from the devastating leg injury he suffered last May.
The Giants' best option, I believe, is Hector Sanchez. He is the most accomplished hitter of the bunch and at the age of 22, has a decent upside. Sanchez hit .285 in the minors last year, splitting time between San Jose and Fresno. He hit 12 home runs, with 84 RBI, in only 365 at-bats.
Sanchez has a strong arm and has improved his defense quite a bit in the past year. He will need to learn more about calling a game, but with the Giants' pitching staff, they should essentially be able to call their own games.
We may be rushing Sanchez by one year, but I believe he is the only one at this stage who has a big league bat. He hit .258 for the Giants, as a late season call-up. Sanchez was absolutely crushing the ball in the Venezuelan winter league, with a .352 average in 159 at-bats.
Chris Stewart is the "safe" option, for manager Bruce Bochy. He is an excellent defensive catcher, throws well and does a good job handling the pitchers. However, Stewart has a career average of only .200 over sporadic play in five seasons. At age 29, the journeyman Stewart has minimal upside.
The Giants just re-signed Eli Whiteside. Why they did this I have no idea. Whiteside's defense last year was mediocre, at best. He threw poorly and even had problems catching the ball, at times. He, like Stewart, also cannot hit. Whiteside has a career average of .218 and only hit .197 last year.
An important difference is that Stewart threw out 39 percent on steal attempts, compared to Whiteside's 25 percent. Whiteside is probably best suited as a catcher in the Giants' minor league system, where he can teach some of the young pitchers what it's like to be in the Majors.
Tommy Joseph is one of the Giants' top prospects. However, he is very unpolished, both as a hitter and defensively. Joseph is only 20 years of age and only played Single-A ball in 2011. Joseph does have good power, but he is an undisciplined hitter. He is at least two years away and maybe a lot more.
Dan Burkhart is a 22 year old prospect who played Single-A ball in 2011. He hit only .268 with four home runs on the season. Burkhart is a long way away from the Majors at this point.
Brandon Belt never got untracked in 2011
First base is one position where the Giants do have some good major league options. In addition to the up and coming players, like Brandon Belt and Brett Pill, Buster Posey will also see time at first base.
I expect that Aubrey Huff will get the opening day start at first base for the 2012 San Francisco Giants. It's a long season and Huff will need to produce in order to retain his starting job.
The Giants really like Brandon Belt and their plan is to use him at first base and left field this coming season. After tearing up minor league ball in 2010, Belt split time between San Francisco and Fresno in 2011. He struggled at the plate with the Giants and never really found his comfort zone at the plate.
Belt hit .225 with nine home runs and 18 RBI, in 187 ABs. His struggles were largely due to two key factors. First off, he never received consistent playing time, although a large reason for that is when he did play, he was very inconsistent at the plate.
The second critical factor is that pitchers found the they could get Belt out with good fastballs in on his hands. Belt is 6'5" tall, but hits out of a crouch. His swing is long and loopy, which means it takes him a long time to uncoil.
Opposing pitchers exploited this and pounded Belt inside. He typically missed that pitch, or fouled it off weakly to the left side. In order for Belt to develop the consistency he needs, he must change his swing to be quicker and more direct to the ball.
Defensively, Belt is excellent at first base and can also play an adequate corner outfield. If he hits, this will give Giants' manager Bruce Bochy multiple spots to keep him in the lineup. Belt can split time at first base and also see time in left and right field.
The Giants also have Brett Pill as a strong candidate at first base. Pill seemed to be a more accomplished hitter than Belt. A late season call-up, Pill hit .300 with two home runs and nine RBI in only 50 ABs.
Pill sparkled at the Giants' Triple A affiliate in Fresno. In 536 AB's, Pill hit .312 with 25 home runs and 107 RBI. In watching him hit at the big league level, Pill did not seem to have the big hole in his swing that Belt has.
Unfortunately, Pill is primarily just a first baseman. He has tried playing some at second base and the outfield, but he did not look good.
The only other first baseman that is an intriguing prospect is Angel Villalona. He was signed at the age of 16, but got into trouble with the law and did not play in the last two seasons. Villalona has now resolved that situation and hopes to return to baseball in a big way.
According to Baseball America, Villalona was the Giants' top prospect in 2008. He is still only 21 years old, so he has a chance to resurrect his career.
Manny Burris could win a utility role in 2012
The San Francisco Giants do not have a lot of top prospects on the horizon in the middle infield positions. Veteran Freddy Sanchez has one year remaining on his contract and is coming off a shoulder injury which required surgery. The Giants are hoping Sanchez can stay healthy and play every day.
Middle infield is a weak area in the Giants' minor league system. At second base, the next in line to follow Sanchez is Manny Burriss. He will be 27 when the 2012 season begins. Burriss has had stints in the Majors in each of the past four years and has not impressed me.
Burriss, in 137 ABs, hit only .204 last year for the Giants. He also has no power as his .212 SLG shows. Burriss does have good speed, but that is of little value if he can't get on base. The only real value Burriss has shown is as a pinch runner, which is a September call-up luxury. Defensively, Burriss is only average.
In reality, veteran Mike Fontenot will likely get the bulk of playing time at second base, if Sanchez goes down. Fontenot is a scrappy player, who can play second, short or third. However, he is best suited for a utility role, as opposed to being an every day starter.
If the Giants stay with Brandon Crawford at shortstop, the next logical move may be to shift 2011 top draft pick Joe Panik over to second base. Panik impressed the Giants in his first stint in pro ball. He hit .341 with six home runs, 54 RBI and 13 stolen bases, all in 270 ABs in Low-A ball at Salem-Keizer.
Panik also played well in the Arizona Fall League. He hit .323 with an OBP of .394 and .473 SLG. Panik's experience is mostly at shortstop, but he may be the Giants' best long-term option at second base.
The other second base prospects in the Giants' organization have a long way to go before they can be legitimately considered as big league talents.
Charlie Culberson played at the Double-A level with the Richmond Flying Squirrels. He batted .259 with a low OBP of .293. Culberson hit 10 home runs and drove in 56 runs, in 553 ABs. In addition, Culberson's 129 strikeouts, compared to only 22 walks is very poor.
Brock Bond, who played in Fresno at the Triple-A level, hit only .246 in limited playing time. At 26-years-old, time is beginning to get short for Bond.
23-year-old prospect Ryan Cavan had 508 ABs for San Jose, in 2011. He hit .270 with 12 home runs and 90 RBI. His RBI totals are excellent, but he's still a long way away from the Majors.
Brandon Crawford is an excellent defensive player
Brandon Crawford will get his chance to be the starting shortstop in 2012. He is an outstanding defensive player, which is important for the pitching led Giants. The problem for the Giants is Crawford is a very weak hitter.
Crawford hit only .204 last year with the Giants and had an OBP of .288 and OPS of .584. These are numbers that typically get you sent to the minors. Unfortunately for the Giants, they were unwilling to spend the money for a top flight shortstop and are just hoping Crawford's defense can make up for his weak bat.
Equally alarming is that Crawford has never really hit in the minor leagues either. He has a career average of only .266 in parts of four minor league seasons. Even in the Arizona Fall League, where he played following this past season, Crawford got off to a hot start, then slumped to a .276 average.
Similar to second base, except for Joe Panik, the Giants do not have strong prospects at the shortstop position. The Giants are hoping Panik develops quickly and will make an impact at shortstop or second base. He is still a year or two away, at best. Please refer to the previous slide for more background on Panik.
The only other shortstop that potentially looks to have the talent to reach the big leagues is Ehire Adrianza. He was slowed by injuries at the start of 2011, but came on strong at San Jose over the second half of the year.
At age 22, Adrianza is young and has enough upside to still be considered a decent prospect for the Giants. Nevertheless, he still has a long way to go.
Other shortstops in the Giants' organization, Nick Noonan, Skylar Stromsmoe and Carter Jurica look like organizational depth at this point.
Conor Gillaspie is a line drive hitter
The San Francisco Giants already have a young and very productive third baseman in Pablo Sandoval. Unless Sandoval eats his way out of the position, he should be the Giants' third baseman for several years.
This is not good news for prospects like Conor Gillaspie or Chris Dominguez. Gillaspie has played almost exclusively at third base and his path is blocked by Sandoval. It would be to his benefit for Gillaspie to learn to play another position, such as second base, where he could make an impact right away.
Gillaspie played at the Triple-A level with the Giants' affiliate in Fresno. He hit a solid .297 with 11 home runs and 61 RBI. Gillaspie's OBP was an impressive .389 and his OPS was .842. I believe if Gillaspie can learn to play other positions effectively, he has the capability to play in the big leagues.
Chris Dominguez split time at San Jose, then was promoted to Richmond, in 2011. He has good power, but needs to learn plate discipline and cut down on his strikeouts. Between the two locations, Dominguez hit .266 with 18 home runs and 85 RBI. The downside was that he also struck out 151 times in 553 ABs.
Dominguez is also not a good fielder and must improve his defense if he expects to make it to the Majors with the Giants. It could be that Dominguez is best suited as a DH. It would not surprise me to see him traded to an American League team at some point.
One player to keep an eye on is Jose Cuevas. He played rookie ball in 2011 and hit .337 with a .403 OBP and 1.042 OPS. Cuevas also hit nine home runs and had 46 RBI, in only 166 ABs.
The Giants project Gary Brown as their lead-off hitter of the future.
The Giants selected Gary Brown in the first round of the 2010 draft. He has emerged as the top prospect in the Giants' organization following an outstanding year in A ball with San Jose.
In 559 ABs, Brown hit .336, with 14 home runs, 80 RBI and 53 steals. His OBP of .407 and OPS of .925 is also excellent. Brown projects as a leadoff hitter and center fielder for the Giants. He is also a strong defensive player. Brown is likely one to two years away, but he is one the Giants are counting on.
Francisco Peguero is another good outfield prospect in the Giants' system. He split time in 2011 with San Jose and Richmond. Cumulatively, Peguero hit .312, with seven home runs and 46 RBI, in 353 ABs.
The biggest concern with Peguero is his lack of plate discipline. He struck out 53 times last year and only walked 12. If he can learn the strike zone and not swing at everything, Peguero has the potential to develop into a fine player.
Roger Kieschnick had an excellent year in 2009 with San Jose, hitting .296 with 23 home runs and 110 RBI. However, he has leveled off at Double-A Richmond. Kieschnick hit in the .250's the past two seasons. He needs a jump start to the 2012 campaign and must play well to get back on track.
Justin Christian saw time with the Giants in 2011, due to several injuries. He performed decently, but with the Giants' acquisitions of Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan, Christian will have trouble making the team. Christian will be 32 years of age in the beginning of the 2012 season.
Christian appears to be a solid Triple-A caliber player, but one that can help fill a void at the Major League level in the event of injury.
Tyler Graham, who will be 28 years old when the 2012 season begins, appears to be organizational depth.
Wendell Fairley was the Giants' first round pick back in 2007. He has never hit enough to merit elevation to top prospect status.
Jarrett Parker is a youngster who showed promise with San Jose, at the Single-A level. He has a long way to go, however.
Eric Surkamp has an excellent breaking ball
The San Francisco Giants have done a good job developing their young pitchers. The next in line for a big league promotion is lefty Eric Surkamp. Surkamp got a taste of the Majors last year when he replaced injured starter Jonathan Sanchez.
Surkamp started six games for the Giants, pitching well at first, then getting knocked around in his last couple starts. He finished with a 2-2 record, allowing 32 hits and 17 walks in 26.2 innings. Surkamp struck out 13 in those six outings.
Surkamp's ERA was 5.74 and his WHIP of 1.838 was way too high. Surkamp has an average fastball, at best, but a very good curve ball and changeup. He must locate his off speed pitches well to be effective. Surkamp is projected as a fourth of fifth starter, but not much more than that.
Surkamp spent most of the year in Double-A Richmond, where he was 10-4 with a 2.02 ERA and 1.082 WHIP. In 142.1 innings of work, Surkamp allowed only 110 hits, walked 44 and struck out 165. It was these numbers that earned him the promotion to the big leagues.
The Giants are hoping that Surkamp can make the jump successfully, as he is most likely to be the one to replace Barry Zito, if Zito struggles early on. Outside of Surkamp, who is not a sure thing, the Giants do not have anyone else that seems ready to make the jump to the Majors.
The Giants traded two decent starting pitching prospects in recent months. Zach Wheeler was moved to the Mets in the Carlos Beltran deal last year. Ryan Verdugo was traded to Kansas City along with Jonathan Sanchez in the deal that brought the Giants Melky Cabrera.
The Giants' top three starters in Triple-A, Shane Loux, Matt Yourkin and Andrew Kown are all 29 years of age or older. All of them gave up more hits than innings pitched. I do not see any of them making an impact at the big league level.
The Giants are high on Clayton Tanner, a 24 year old lefty, pitching at Richmond. He threw 119.2 innings at the Double-A level and allowed 120 hits and 35 walks. He struck out 90 and finished the year with a 4.29 ERA and 1.295 WHIP.
Chris Heston, who is pitching in San Jose, may be the Giants' next top pitching prospect, after Surkamp. He showed a live arm, striking out 131 hitters in 151 innings pitched. His ERA of 3.16 led the starting rotation and his WHIP of 1.22 was also solid. Heston is still a couple years away, at best, however.
The other top starters in San Jose, Craig Westcott and Kelvin Marte have a long way to go.
The Giants drafted Kyle Crick in the compensation round, which made him their second overall pick in the 2011 draft. He got a taste of rookie ball, throwing seven innings last season. Keep an eye on him to see how quickly he can develop.
Once a haven for top young starting pitching prospects, the Giants are now weak in this area. Only Surkamp appears remotely ready for big league success. This makes it all the more important for them to re-sign Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum to contract extensions.
Madison Bumgarner may be the last top starter we see come up through the Giants' farm system in a long while.
Dan Runzler has been inconsistent in the Majors
The pitcher with the most big league experience the Giants have in the minors is Dan Runzler. When he's on, he can be outstanding, but he has been far too inconsistent for manager Bruce Bochy to trust in key situations.
In parts of three seasons with the Giants, Runzler has thrown a total of 68.2 innings, struck out 73 and allowed 64 hits. That's decent, but his walk total of 41 is way too high. This has pushed his career WHIP to 1.529, which is excessive, especially for a reliever.
The Giants have held onto Runzler in the hopes that he can harness his live arm and gain consistency. He was also kept as insurance in case the Giants were unable to sign Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez. Runzler will likely battle Heath Hembree for the Giants' final roster spot in the bullpen.
Hembree is a pitcher the Giants are very excited about. He could be their closer of the future. Last season, Hembree started in San Jose and was promoted to Richmond. In 53.1 innings, he allowed 36 hits, 25 walks and struck out 78 hitters. Hembree also collected 38 saves on the year.
Hembree's ERA of 1.86 and WHIP of 1.144 were excellent. The Giants may opt to keep Hembree in the minors to start the year so he can get more regular work, but do not be surprised to see him pitching in San Francisco during the 2012 season.
Justin Dowdy, Ronnie Ray and Osiris Matos are names to keep an eye on from Richmond. All had very low WHIP ratios and allowed fewer hits than innings pitched.
Hector Correa, Mitch Lively and Jacob Dunnington all threw well in San Jose and could advance through the Giants' system. This will be an important year for all of them.
Perhaps the most interesting reliever in the system is Marc Kroon, who will be 39 at the beginning of the 2012 season. Kroon has not pitched in the Majors since 2004 and has toiled in Japan and the minors since.
Kroon struck out 52 hitters in 49.1 innings last season. His walks were too high with 33, which caused his ERA to jump to 5.11 on the year. Kroon is probably not going to make it to the Giants, but it's a good story to watch.
Giants' GM Brian Sabean needs to re-invigorate the farm system
As you can see from this report, the Giants do have some decent players on the horizon, with the top being Brandon Belt, Gary Brown, Brett Pill, Joe Panik, Eric Surkamp and Heath Hembree. Unfortunately, there does not appear to be a lot of star caliber beyond this group.
GM Brian Sabean and VP of Baseball Operations Bobby Evans will need to infuse the Giants' minor league system with some top young talent. In recent years, the system produced Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval and Madison Bumgarner.
Building from within is the best and perhaps only way to remain competitive, while keeping your salary level under control.
The Giants' ownership group set a self-imposed cap of $130 million for Sabean to work with and it remains to be seen how much that will expand in the coming years. This limit tied Sabean's hands this winter, as he was unable to get the big bat the Giants wanted.
The best way to free up more money in the future is for some of these young players to come through. The free agent route has become more and more expensive and the Giants still need to keep Cain and Lincecum.
The Giants' offense will be improved with the return of Posey and Freddy Sanchez from injury and the acquisition of Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan. As long as the pitching remains strong, the Giants will contend for a playoff berth this season.