San Francisco Giants Minor League Update: AA Richmond Flying Squirrels

Tom DubberkeCorrespondent IJuly 8, 2010

After yesterday’s post on the Giants AAA Franchise, the Fresno Grizzlies, it’s obviously time to look at what the boys are doing down at the AA level.

When the Giants moved from Norwich, Connecticut to Richmond, Virginia, one had to believe that the Giants’ AA batting stats would improve dramatically.  The Eastern League is a pitchers’ league, and the Norwich ball park, Dodd Stadium, was just a terrible place to hit, especially for power.  Although it was short down the lines, it had a deep center field and power allies, and the ball just didn’t carry well there.

Well, the new stadium, The Diamond in Richmond, is just as deep in center and deeper down the lines than Dodd Stadium.  Apparently, the ball doesn’t carry any better there, because the Flying Squirrels are only a hair below .500 (41-45 as I write this), but the team doesn’t have a single player with more than 100 ABs hitting .300 or with an OPS as high as .800.  It’s got to be the ball park.

The Giants’ South Atlantic League Class A team, the Augusta GreenJackets, also play in an extreme pitchers’ park, while the Giants’ California League Class A+ team in San Jose, and the Giants’ Pacific Coast League team in Fresno, play in strong hitters’ parks.  I think it’s really a problem for the Giants as they try to develop young players.

Many, many young hitters who thump the ball at A+ San Jose get promoted to AA and just seem to hit a wall.  The team is aware of this, and sometimes they skip their most promising young hitters over AA ball entirely, sending them from San Jose directly to AAA Fresno, like they did with Buster Posey last year.  The problem is that very few prospects are Buster Posey, and the jump to AAA from A+ ball is too much, too soon.

Pitchers, on the other hand, almost always pass through the Giants’ AA Eastern League team. They tend to hit the wall when they are promoted to AAA Fresno.

Consistency is good for young players.  You want to bring them along at the right speed so that they continue to be successful as they move up the ladder (0f course, the minor leagues are set up to weed out a majority of players before they even reach AAA ball, let alone the majors—what I’m talking about here are the players who likely have the talent to play regularly at least up to the AAA level).

You don’t want to damage their confidence by throwing them into situations where they have to have exceptional ability just to succeed at each level as they work their way up.  Giants’ prospects don’t get this, because they are going to face exceptionally big jumps between levels at least a couple of times between rookie ball and AAA.

Now, on to the Richmond Flying Squirrels.  A player who has had my attention all year with his exceptional play at Class A San Jose in his first year of professional baseball, 1B Brandon Belt, has finally been promoted to AA Richmond.

Belt is off to a blazing start at the level that really separates the men from the boys, so to speak.  After five games, he’s eight for 17 with a pair of home runs.  This is after 77 games (which I thought was about a dozen too many) at San Jose in which Belt hit .383 with a 1.121 OPS.

As I’ve said in earlier posts, Belt was a fifth round draft pick last year (147th overall).  Playing for Texas (hook ‘em horns!) he had an .877 OPS in 2008 and a .939 OPS, not impressive for a college first baseman, although Texas did make the College World Series in ’09.  He played in the Cape Cod League in 2008 and wasn’t particularly impressive there either (.761 OPS).

There was no good reason for Belt to be selected any earlier than he was, yet his performance has been explosive from the moment he hit professional baseball.  It just goes to show something, I’m not exactly sure what, but probably that it’s extremely difficult to predict how amateur players will adapt to professional baseball.

There’s still plenty of time for Belt to go cold, but he hasn’t done anything so far to suggest that the Giants didn’t luck their way into a Grade-A prospect.

Thomas Neal has finally started to hit.  Neal caught everyone’s attention when he had a huge year at A+ San Jose at age 21 last year, hitting .337 with 41 doubles, 22 HRs and a 1.010 OPS.  Neal actually had a fine year at Class A Augusta (.803 OPS) in 2008, which was masked by the fact that Augusta is a tough place to hit.

Neal had hit the wall I was talking about when he was promoted to AA Richmond.  However, he broke out with a three HR game in Erie, PA on June 26th.

Neal is currently hitting .279 with a solid .343 on-base percentage and a team leading (for players with more than 100 ABs) .766 OPS.  With 30 extra base hits so far this year, he’s showing the same kind of alley power he showed last year at San Jose.

I’m also still mildly optimistic about 23 year old SS Brandon Crawford.  He’s only hitting .241, but he has a fine-for-a-shortstop .337 OBP and .712 OPS.  Not awe inspiring, but good enough for third and fourth best among Flying Squirrels with at least 100 ABs.

CF Clay Timpner cooled down considerably after a very hot start (he was hitting .400 at one point), but he’s still having a solid season.  Catcher Tyler LaTorre isn’t playing badly.  Unfortunately, both Timpner and LaTorre are 27 this year and can’t be considered prospects at this level.

Among the “prospects”, former first round picks third baseman Conor Gillaspie (37th overall in ’08) and 2B Nick Noonan (32nd overall in ’07) have OPS numbers of .676 and .628, respectively. At ages 22 and 21, they still have time to develop, but they both have a long way to go.

Another former sandwich pick, C Jackson Williams (43rd overall in ’07) hit an ugly .192 with a .597 OPS.  For some reason, the Giants thought that merited a promotion to AAA Fresno, where Williams has hit all of .167 (2 for 12) after four games.

Former third round pick RF Roger Kieschnick has a .673 OPS. At least he’s only 23 this year.

24 year old CF Darren Ford is hitting .233 with a .640 OPS, but has 26 steals in 39 attempts.  Ford had a terrific Spring Training and was the subject of one of those terrible Spring Training newspaper articles in the SF Chronicle about the hot young prospect in camp.  Back in the minors, however, he’s hit pretty much what you would expect from him playing his home games in this ballpark with his career minor league numbers.

None of Richmond’s pitchers impress me as much as Brandon Belt, Thomas Neal, or Brandon Crawford.  They have fairly good numbers, but I think a lot of that has to do with pitching in Richmond, and no one really stands out.

24 year old Daryl Maday had a fine first half, going 8-5 with a 2.34 ERA, which earned him a promotion to AAA Fresno.  He registered 58 Ks in 96.1 AA innings pitched, which strikes me as not enough for an A-grade prospect at this level in this park.  I think his performance at AAA Fresno in the second half will be a much better indicator of where he rates as a prospect.

David Mixon also had a fine first half (9-4 record, 3.25 ERA with a line of 102.1 IP, 93 hits, six HRs and 23 walks and 70 Ks).  However, Mixon turns 26 on September 10th, and that’s getting awfully old to be a prospect at this level.

22 year old Aussie leftie Clayton Tanner has a 3.34 ERA, but with 41 Ks and 36 walks in 89 IP, it’s doubtful that he has the stuff to develop into a major league pitcher.  He may have to be moved to the bullpen to have a shot at a major league career.

No one in the Flying Squirrels’ bullpen looks to have the combination of youth, stuff, and command to be a serious prospect.  The most promising of the bunch is 25 year old lefty Jake Stephens and 23 year old righty Daniel Turpen.  Stephens has a 2.20 ERA with 25 Ks and 14 walks allowed in 32.2 IP.   Turpen has a 4.05 ERA with 28 Ks and 11 walks allowed in 40 IP.  Hard to get particularly excited about that.

In summation, Belt, Neal, and Crawford provide reason for hope, and Gillaspie and Noonan are young enough to take a big step up in the second half or in 2011.  Otherwise, the pickings look slim for the Giants at the AA level.


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