2014 San Jose Giants Season Preview: Starting Pitchers
By Joe Ritzo
Our 2014 San Jose Giants position-by-position preview series begins today with a look at the starting rotation.
Since the club’s inception in 1988, no California League team can match San Jose’s success on the mound. 10 Giants hurlers have won the Cal League Pitcher of the Year award while San Jose has led the league in ERA eight times over the last ten seasons. Last year’s talented staff, led by a prospect-laden starting rotation, paced the California League in earned run average (3.66) and was tops in all of Minor League Baseball in strikeouts (1282). Most of those pitchers are now headed for the upper levels of the farm system, but a new crop of exciting young arms are expected to open the 2014 season with the San Jose Giants.
Top prospect starting pitchers Kyle Crick, Ty Blach, Clayton Blackburn and Adalberto Mejia – the backbone of San Jose’s club on their run to a North Division championship last year – are expected to begin this season with Double-A Richmond. The possible exception from that group could be Mejia as a return to San Jose for the young left-hander would not be a complete surprise.
Mejia enjoyed nice success last season compiling a 3.31 ERA with 89 strikeouts over 87 innings in 16 starts. It was especially impressive considering he opened the campaign as the youngest pitcher in the California League (19) and then missed most of the first half due to a lat injury. Once he returned from the disabled list, Mejia seemed to get stronger as the year progressed turning in multiple quality starts. The most likely scenario has Mejia joining Crick, Blach and Blackburn in Richmond this April to form another star-studded rotation. However, several factors could give the organization some pause as to whether Mejia gets that immediate promotion in 2014, including his youth, the lack of a full season pitched in the Cal League due to injury and his rocky performance in the Arizona Fall League at the end of 2013 (8.47 ERA in 17 IP). It would not be unprecedented for the Giants organization to hold one of their younger, more successful top starting pitching prospects back in San Jose, at least for the opening weeks or months of the season. This personnel decision at the conclusion of spring training in late-March is significant and will help shape both the Richmond and San Jose starting rotations.
The bulk, if not all, of San Jose’s 2014 starting rotation will be filled with new faces, many of which are considered some of the best prospects in the organization. It’s a group of pitchers that are talented enough to once again carry San Jose to the top of the California League.
Last year, San Francisco’s Class A affiliate, the Augusta GreenJackets, posted the best regular season record in the South Atlantic League at 82-55. Augusta, like San Jose, featured a prospect-laden starting rotation with the GreenJackets ranking fourth in the league in ERA at an impressive 3.42. Leading the charge was a quartet of right-handers: San Francisco’s top two draft picks in 2012 Chris Stratton and Martin Agosta and a pair of Dominican-born hurlers Kendry Flores and Joan Gregorio. In all likelihood, these four pitchers will move up the farm system together this season to anchor San Jose’s starting rotation.
All four pitchers have received mention on various SF Giants top 10 prospects lists entering 2014. Stratton, who has been ranked as the #3 prospect in the system by Baseball America (behind Crick and Edwin Escobar), is expected to come to San Jose after fashioning a 9-3 record and a 3.27 ERA in 22 starts a year ago for Augusta. Stratton features a good fastball that generally sits in the 89 to 94 MPH range and complements it with a plus-slider that serves as a strikeout pitch. Armed with four pitches, Stratton (who is listed at 6’3″ and 185 lbs.) can also throw a curve and a change-up – two offerings that he’ll look to improve upon in 2014.Stratton, a product of Mississippi State University, was San Francisco’s first round draft pick two years ago as the organization took him with the 21st overall selection. He entered last year with high expectations after winning the SEC Pitcher of the Year award in his final collegiate season. At times in Augusta, Stratton was dominant allowing one or no runs in 11 out of his 22 starts. Stratton struck out 123 batters in 132 innings overall and gave up just five home runs for the entire year – a credit to his quality two-seam fastball that features good downward movement. A lot will be expected of the 23-year old this season and with the California League his most likely destination, SJ Giants fans should get a good look at the latest former first round pitching prospect.
San Francisco went the college starting pitcher route with their first two picks in 2012 as after Stratton’s selection in the first round, it was Northern California native and St. Mary’s product Martin Agosta that received the call in the second round. Like Stratton, Agosta was assigned to Augusta last year for his first full professional season. When healthy, Agosta was as dominant as any pitcher in the South Atlantic League. In 18 starts overall, he boasted a 9-3 record and an impressive 2.06 ERA. Agosta allowed just 57 hits in 91 2/3 innings and struck out 109 with 43 walks. He limited the opposition to a paltry .180 batting average and gave up more than two runs in just three of his starts. For his efforts, Agosta was one of the starting pitchers in the South Atlantic League All-Star Game last June.
Agosta’s fastball, at its best, will sit in the low 90’s with the ability to hit 95. His slider is also an above-average pitch while the continued development of his change-up will be crucial going forward. Agosta, who turns 23 in April, isn’t particularly big (listed at 6’1″, 180 lbs.) and could profile as a reliever down the road. Issues with a dead arm and a blister hampered Agosta during the second half of last season as he made just four starts after the first week of July. Assuming full health at the start of 2014, there will be high expectations for Agosta this season. He was rated the ninth-best prospect in the system by Baseball Prospectus at the end of last year.
While both Stratton and Agosta were solid, and sometimes excellent, in Augusta last season, the most consistent GreenJackets starting pitcher throughout the entire year was Flores. As a 21-year old last season, Flores burst onto the scene posting a 10-6 record with a 2.73 ERA in 22 starts. He featured a remarkable 137-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 141 2/3 innings while limiting the opposition to a .216 batting average. Flores had a 2.87 ERA during the first half and a 2.60 ERA after the All-Star break. His most memorable outing was a 15-strikeout, no-walk effort over eight innings (one run allowed) in late August. In fact, over his last 12 starts totaling 79 2/3 innings, Flores walked just four batters compared to 86 strikeouts. For his efforts, Flores was placed on San Francisco’s 40-man roster at the end of the year.Flores isn’t a flamethrower as his fastball will sit in the upper 80’s-to-low 90’s range. His curve and change-up also continue to make a lot of progress, but it’s Flores’ command that sets him apart from others. Flores is a fly ball pitcher (gave up a team-high 11 home runs last season), so keeping the ball down in the hitter-friendly California League this year will be a key to his success. With his inclusion on the 40-man roster, there’s no question that much focus will be on Flores this year as he looks to build on his breakout 2013 campaign. Baseball Prospectus ranks Flores as the fourth-best prospect in the system while he checks in at #14 on Baseball America’s Giants list.
The final hurler of the four is Gregorio, who perhaps features the most potential of the group. Gregorio has an incredibly lanky frame as the 22-year old is listed at 6’7″ and just 180 lbs. He missed time last year due to an oblique injury and a blister and thus was limited to only 13 starts. Overall with Augusta, Gregorio logged a 6-3 record with a 4.00 ERA. His secondary numbers were impressive as he struck out a whopping 84 batters in just 69 2/3 innings with just 17 walks and three home runs allowed. On July 18 last year, Gregorio tossed seven no-hit innings with 10 strikeouts and only one walk before leaving the game due to reaching his pitch count limit.
In addition to his size, Gregorio is a unique pitcher in that he possesses different arm slots while maintaining good control – not a particularly comfortable at-bat for a hitter. He owns a low 90’s fastball that can reach 95 MPH with a good slider and improving change-up. All three of his pitches could be plus-offerings in the not so distant future. Gregorio likely just needs more innings (his career-high through four years as a professional is 76 IP) to continue his upward trend as he attempts to tap into his incredible potential. Baseball America ranks Gregorio the 17th best prospect in the system while Baseball Prospectus has him at #8.
If the quartet of Stratton, Agosta, Flores and Gregorio all move up a level to San Jose this season, the Giants starting rotation should once again be one of the most talented in the California League.
It is common though for San Jose to use a six-man starting rotation (as opposed to the more tradition five-man staff), so there could be one of two more spots to fill. Pat Young was promoted to the Giants from Salem-Keizer (Short-Season) for the playoffs last September and is a San Jose starting pitching candidate this year. Young, a 13th round pick in last June’s draft out of Villanova, put together a dominant summer in the Northwest League after signing his professional contract. In eight starts with the Volcanoes, Young owned a sparkling 0.92 ERA yielding just four earned runs in 39 1/3 innings. The 6’7″ right-hander walked nine, struck out 27 and held the league to a .186 batting average.2013 San Jose manager Andy Skeels then thrust Young into the spotlight after his promotion starting him in the decisive fifth game of the highly competitive North Division Series against Visalia. Young battled through 3 2/3 innings in the start surrendering two earned runs with one walk and an impressive seven strikeouts (the Giants, of course, won the game 9-5 to advance). With his big frame on the mound, Young showed a low-to-mid 90’s fastball and a quality slider last September. He should open the 2014 season with either San Jose or Augusta.
Nick Vander Tuig made a brief appearance with San Jose last July and is another candidate for the Giants starting rotation this year. Vander Tuig was San Francisco’s sixth round draft pick last June after a standout junior season for national champion UCLA. In 19 starts with the Bruins last spring, Vander Tuig was 14-4 with a 2.16 ERA. He issued only 18 walks all season compared to 93 strikeouts in 129 innings and was the winning pitcher in UCLA’s clinching victory at the College World Series. Due to his heavy workload in college, Vander Tuig saw limited action last summer in Salem-Keizer tossing just 6 2/3 innings, in addition to a spot-start with San Jose.
The scouting report on Vander Tuig includes an 88-to-91 MPH fastball, a slider and a plus change-up. With loads of big game experience in college and pinpoint control, an aggressive promotion to San Jose (much like fellow control-artist Ty Blach last year) for his first full professional season could be in the works.
2013 third round pick Chase Johnson was a reliever at Cal Poly, but has transitioned to a starter as a professional. Last summer in Salem-Keizer, Johnson was 3-2 with a 4.17 ERA in 10 starts. He struck out 37 batters in 41 innings. A strong spring could possibly put Johnson in contention for a spot in San Jose, but he’s likely headed to Augusta. D.J. Snelten, a ninth round pick last year out of Minnesota, dominated in the Arizona Rookie League last summer posting a 1.57 ERA with 39 strikeouts in 34 1/3 innings. He’s another pitcher probably headed to Augusta’s starting rotation, but could perhaps force his way up to the California League. Chris Johnson, a 2012 draftee (17th round) and no relation to Chase, was Salem-Keizer’s top starting pitcher last season recording a 2.49 ERA and a 78-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 83 innings. If the organization wants a left-hander or two in the San Jose starting rotation (assuming neither Mejia or Snelten begin the year in the Cal League), possible candidates include Joe Kurrasch, an eighth rounder out of Penn State in 2012. Kurrasch struggled in Salem-Keizer last season, but enjoyed far more success in Augusta where he posted a 1.78 ERA in 25 1/3 innings. Fellow lefty Matt Lujan was a non-drafted free agent signee two years ago out of USF. Lujan was a bit under-the-radar in Augusta last year, but the numbers were solid as he went 7-0 with a 3.33 ERA in 15 games (12 starts).
2014 San Jose Giants Starting Pitching Candidates
(2013 regular season statistics are listed)
Martin Agosta, RHP
– Augusta: 18 GS, 9-3, 2.06 ERA, 91.2 IP, 43 BB, 109 SO
Kendry Flores, RHP
– Augusta: 22 GS, 10-6, 2.73 ERA, 141.2 IP, 17 BB, 137 SO
Joan Gregorio, RHP
– Augusta: 14 G, 13 GS, 6-3, 4.00 ERA, 69.2 IP, 17 BB, 84 SO
Chase Johnson, RHP
– Salem-Keizer: 10 GS, 3-2, 4.17 ERA, 41.0 IP, 12 BB, 37 SO
Chris Johnson, RHP
– Salem-Keizer: 15 GS, 6-3, 2.49 ERA, 83.0 IP, 8 BB, 78 SO
Joe Kurrasch, LHP
– Augusta: 7 G, 4 GS, 5-0, 1.78 ERA, 25.1 IP, 8 BB, 32 SO
– Salem-Keizer: 9 G, 8 GS, 2-4, 5.03 ERA, 34.0 IP, 12 BB, 25 SO
Matt Lujan, LHP
– Augusta: 15 G, 12 GS, 7-0, 3.33 ERA, 78.1 IP, 28 BB, 64 SO
Adalberto Mejia, LHP
– San Jose: 16 GS, 7-4, 3.31 ERA, 87.0 IP, 23 BB, 89 SO
D.J. Snelten, LHP
– AZL-Giants: 14 G, 6 GS, 3-1, 1.57 ERA, 34.1 IP, 13 BB, 39 SO
Chris Stratton, RHP
– Augusta: 22 GS, 9-3, 3.27 ERA, 132.0 IP, 47 BB, 123 SO
Nick Vander Tuig, RHP
– Salem-Keizer: 3 GS, 0-0, 13.50 ERA, 6.2 IP, 2 BB, 5 SO
– San Jose: 1 GS, 0-0, 11.57 ERA, 2.1 IP, 2 BB, 3 SO
Pat Young, RHP
– Salem-Keizer: 8 GS, 3-1, 0.92 ERA, 39.1 IP, 9 BB, 27 SO
The 2014 San Jose Giants preview series will continue next week with a look at the middle infield.