If there is one organization in the Giants system that has taken strides in the past couple of years, it has to be the Fresno Grizzlies. Despite the competitiveness of the Pacific Coast League and the South Division, the Grizzlies have made strides from a mediocre squad to one that has been very competitive. After finishing with losing records in 2008 (67-76) and 2009 (71-73), Fresno bounced back in a big way, finishing with a 75-69 record, their first winning record since 2007.
Granted, while the improvement was nice, a late season swoon cost the Grizzlies the South Division to division rival Sacramento, the Oakland A's PCL Affiliate. The Rivercats have had a strangehold on the South Division title, as they have won it in seven of the past eight seasons.
Of course, you could argue the Rivercats' dominance over the Grizzlies is more of an indicator of how good the A's system has been in comparison to the Giants over the past decade. That point is probably true since the A's have built their rosters more through the draft and the farm under Billy Beane rather than the Giants who have built their teams through Free Agency under Brian Sabean. That being said, since 2007, the Giants have really invested more into the draft and their minor league system, which explains the progression the Grizzlies have made as a team the past few years. The Grizzlies are bringing up higher quality players with upside and talent, a far cry from the days when the players mostly manning the Fresno roster were Four-A players who really had little to no shot in terms of making the Giants squad.
This year though, it'll be interesting to see if the Grizzlies can finally break the Rivercats' reign over the South Division and win the Division for the first time since 1998 (their first year of existence).
Many of the crucial elements of the Grizzlies' success from a year ago are gone. Buster Posey was an offensive catalyst with the Grizzlies during the first half last year, but it's safe to say that he's probably not going to see the PCL in the future except for injury rehab assignments. The same goes with Madison Bumgarner, who has found a niche in the Giants rotation (and he still has one despite his early season struggles this year).
Also gone from the Fresno are Jesus Guzman, Eugenio Velez, John Bowker and Matt Downs, players who flip-flopped between Fresno and "cups of coffee" with the Giants club. Sure, all those guys were probably fringe prospects at best, and were (and still are) long-shots in terms of being successful Major League players, but they all contributed to the Grizzlies' offensive and overall success in 2010.
That being said, the Grizzlies do have a lot of players who are capable of having some success in 2011. First base prospect Brett Pill hit 16 home runs last year in Fresno and is off to a good start in 2011, as he is currently hitting .371 with two home runs, 14 RBI and has an OPS of .953. Also, Thomas Neal is off to a decent start, showing good plate patience (.345 OBP) in his first eight games in Triple-A. While the power (.385 slugging) isn't exactly where you would want it, Neal started slow last year as well in Richmond before ending the year with some decent power numbers (12 home runs, .440 slugging).
They key to the Grizzlies offense may be how the journeymen do, as Emmanuel Burriss, Travis Ishikawa and Tyler Graham are vets who will be expected to carry the Grizzlies offense. Burriss is off to a good start, showcasing good average (.339) and stolen base (15) numbers. However, Ishikawa and Graham have struggled a bit this year, as their OPS numbers are .484 and .629, respectively. Brock Bond and Ryan Rohlinger are also infielders who had solid 2010 campaigns in Fresno last year that are off to slow starts (Bond is hitting .229 and Rohlinger is hitting .211), but at least Rohlinger has showed some power potential, as he has hit three home runs and 11 RBI in 63 plate appearances this year.
Conor Gillaspie took a bit of a dive in Richmond last year after putting together a solid 2009 in San Jose, but Gillaspie as at least holding his own a bit with the Grizzlies. He has hit two home runs, and has continued to showcase solid plate patience at the dish (9.7 walk percentage). While he could cut the number of strikeouts (he has whiffed 12 times), Gillaspie is certainly capable of bouncing back in 2011 after losing so much ground as a prospect since breaking into the Majors in 2008.
The pitching seems to be key to the Grizzlies success in 2011, and much like the offense, the Grizzlies will need to replace a lot of arms. Kevin Pucetas and Eric Hacker, two inning-eaters for the Grizzlies a year ago are gone, and the Grizzlies will have to rely on some new arms to carry them through the PCL season. Two starters who have showed some promise this year are Shane Loux and Andrew Kown, who have posted solid ERA numbers (3.72 and 3.18, respectively) in their first 3 starts. While both guys are pretty old (they are 31 and 28, respectively), they could provide some stability to the Grizzlies rotation, since they probably won't be breaking the Giants' rotation anytime soon (barring injury of course).
The bullpen does seem to have some upside. Steve Edlefsen is off to a good start, as he struck out five and only walked one in 6.1 IP. Marc Kroon, Alex Hinshaw and Henry Sosa are also solid options, though they have struggled with walk issues this year and in the past. That being said, Kroon (who's pretty old at 38...but hey, he was a Baseball America Top-100 prospect in 1995!) and Hinshaw still can strike guys out, as they have put up good K/9 numbers this year in their appearances (Kroon has a K/9 of 11.4 and Hinshaw has a 11.1 rate). If Sosa can get his walk issues under control (9.0 BB/9 rate this year), he may be another good option, though it's safe to say he's not exactly the prospect he once was a couple of years ago, when many Giants fans thought he could be a viable option in the rotation or bullpen for the Giants in the near future.
In terms of projection, the Grizzlies should be where they were a year ago: in the mix with the Rivercats for the division title. However, the pitching (a weak spot for the team the past few years) needs to have some good years out of their "older" prospects, and Sosa and Edlefsen need to capture some of the promise they showcased a couple of years ago when they were lighting up the lower levels. If they can do that, then the Grizzlies could be in good shape, because the Grizzlies have the offensive firepower to compete in the PCL in 2011.