Giants Minor League Camp Storylines
By Joe Ritzo
Spring training gets underway down in Scottsdale in less than two weeks while we’re now under two months from the San Jose Giants season opener. The San Francisco Giants (all members of the 40-man roster plus the 26 non-roster invitees) will hold their first official full team workout of the spring on February 19 while all remaining minor leaguers report to camp by February 27.
With over 160 players expected in minor league camp, there are a bevy of questions regarding personnel and roster decisions. Here’s a quick snapshot of some of the major storylines in Giants minor league camp this year, involving both former and potential future San Jose players:
Starting Pitching Prospects
The strength of the Giants farm system right now is unquestionably the deep crop of starting pitching prospects. According to Baseball America, eight out of the top 14 prospects in the organization are starting pitchers. And while a handful of these pitching prospects will begin spring training in big league camp, none are expected to compete for spots on the opening day roster and thus should find themselves back in minor league camp before too long. The big question then becomes, assuming full-health for everyone, where do all of these pitchers land at the beginning of the season? It could be as simple as each starter moving up a level from where they finished in 2013. If that’s the case, look for Edwin Escobar, the closest of the group to the big leagues, to start the year with Triple-A Fresno. The quartet of top prospect starters from last season’s San Jose team – Kyle Crick, Clayton Blackburn, Adalberto Mejia and Ty Blach – would jump to Double-A Richmond. Meanwhile, 2013 Augusta headliners Chris Stratton, Martin Agosta, Kendry Flores and Joan Gregorio move to San Jose.
However, projecting the opening day starting rotations in the Giants farm system may not be that simple. Escobar will be under the microscope all spring trying to prove that he’s ready for a promotion to Fresno (not to mention a possible big league debut later in the year) despite just 54 career innings at the Double-A level. Mejia was excellent in the second half last season with San Jose, but missed most of the first half due to injury. At just 20 years old, it would be an aggressive promotion to the Eastern League if that turns out to be his assignment. Meanwhile, perhaps one of the top starters from last year’s Augusta team gains consideration for a jump over San Jose all the way to Richmond. Possible candidates could include Stratton, with his first round pedigree, and Flores, who was placed on the 40-man roster last offseason. How each of these pitchers (who are all listed among Baseball America’s top 30 prospects in the system) fare this spring is a major storyline and it’ll be interesting to see where they all begin their 2014 seasons.
Law And The Relievers
Outside of perhaps Crick, there wasn’t a player in the Giants system that was generating more buzz last October/November than Derek Law. After a dominant second half as San Jose’s closer, Law went to the Arizona Fall League where he fashioned a perfect 0.00 ERA. Law, along with Heath Hembree, are considered the top relief pitcher prospects in the organization right now. Law will initially get an opportunity to pitch in big league camp this spring and if he impresses, might a jump to Fresno and a spot on the fast track be in the works?
The placement of some other relief pitcher prospects this spring is also worth noting. Hard-throwers Cody Hall and Josh Osich were midseason promotions to Richmond last year. Do both return to the Eastern League or show enough this spring to get a look in Fresno right off the bat? Injuries have plagued Bryce Bandilla throughout his pro career, but when healthy, he’s been as dominant as anyone in this system over the last two seasons. Is the talented lefty ready to go this spring and in line for a promotion to Double-A? Augusta’s bullpen was stacked last season as well with the likes of Stephen Johnson (a top 30 prospect), Steven Okert (another top 30 prospect), Tyler Mizenko (All-Star closer), Ian Gardeck and Jorge Bucardo. Do they all move up together this spring and continue the tradition of strong San Jose bullpens?2013 Draft Class – Anyone To San Jose?
The top two picks from last June’s draft – shortstop Christian Arroyo and third baseman Ryder Jones – both excelled in the Arizona Rookie League, but are each still teenagers and thus an aggressive promotion to San Jose seems unlikely. Arroyo and Jones figure to both have an opportunity to make the Class-A Augusta roster this spring. But what about some of the other 2013 draftees – could any of them jump to the California League for the start of the 2014 season? The best bets might be fourth rounder Brian Ragira, an outfielder/first baseman out of Stanford who was second on Salem-Keizer’s club with 36 RBI’s last summer and eighth rounder Tyler Horan, an outfielder out of Virginia Tech who hit .295 for the Volcanoes and has impressive raw power. Utility infielder Brandon Bednar (seventh round) and catcher Ty Ross (12th round) are also candidates after each were drafted out of the college ranks and played key roles in Salem last summer.
On the pitching side, Nick Vander Tuig (sixth round) is a polished right-handed starter out of UCLA and while he has only 10 innings of professional experience, could follow a similar path as Blach and jump to the San Jose rotation for his first full season. Pat Young (13th round) had a 0.92 ERA in eight starts with Salem-Keizer last summer before handling himself well in the playoffs with the Giants. Chase Johnson (third round) was the first pitcher taken by San Francisco in last year’s draft. After working as a reliever in college, Johnson transitioned to the role of a starter last summer with Salem-Keizer and impressed. Meanwhile, Dan Slania (fifth round) is a power arm out of Notre Dame who finished last season as an effective late-inning reliever for the Volcanoes. Which of these players (or others from the 2013 draft class) will perform well enough this spring to warrant a promotion to San Jose?
At the start of spring training, there doesn’t seem to be a clear pecking order for the shortstops in the Giants system. At the highest level, Ehire Adrianza, who is out of options, will be fighting hard in big league camp for a role on the opening day roster. Nick Noonan surprised last spring by earning a spot in San Francisco and will look to do the same this year. Minor league free agent signee Brandon Hicks, another shortstop, has some prior big league experience and is a non-roster invitee. The shortstop job in Fresno probably comes from this group. Beyond that, minor league camp should determine the shortstop logjam throughout the rest of the system.
* Angel Villalona is a 40-man member, so he’ll begin the spring in big league camp, but his starting point in 2014 is a question. Villalona hit just .235 in Double-A last year after his midseason promotion from San Jose, but with incredible raw power and his option clock ticking, does he head to Fresno coming out of camp? If Villalona is assigned to Fresno, that would allow Ricky Oropesa to return to Richmond to play first base everyday.
* Keury Mella is a 20-year old right-hander who became the ace starting pitcher (2.25 ERA, 41 K’s in 36 IP) on the AZL-Giants team last summer that won the league championship. Rated the #13 prospect in the system by Baseball America, could Mella jump all the way to Augusta in 2014 with a strong spring training?
* Will there be any surprises with the roster assignments for any of the top hitting prospects in the system? If not, look for Andrew Susac, Joe Panik, Gary Brown and Adam Duvall to headline Fresno’s lineup, Mac Williamson to anchor Richmond’s middle of the order and Arroyo to lead the way in Augusta.