Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Farm Watch: 10 Prospects with Stong Starts Out of the Gate

I want to make this a weekly thing, but considering I'm a little late to it, I'm just going to start with whoever is off to hot starts thus far (all stats going into today's games). All levels of play will be examined from Triple-A to the Dominican Summer League, so this will be a nice radar in terms of who is playing well in the Giants system and whom fans should be watching and paying attention to over the course of the year. Now, while I list 10, it's not really a ranking of who's the best. The numbers are just for organizational purposes, not really ranking purposes.

10. Carlos Willoughby, 2B (Augusta Green Jackets)

Willoughby, the highly hyped infielder from Colombia who tore it up in the Dominican Summer League from 2007-2009 and performed well in the Arizona Rookie League last year, is off to a good start in the SALLY league. Willoughby is hitting .301 with a .414 OBP and has swiped 10 bags this year. While his power numbers are pretty meager (.356 slugging, which brings his OPS to .770), his good eye at the plate (13 walks) has made him one of the top run generators for this Green Jackets squad this year (he has scored a team high 17 runs and he has 3 RBI as well).

9. Shawn Sanford, RHP (Augusta Green Jackets)

The pitching has been a little inconsistent for Augusta, with fireballer Edward Concepcion still struggling with his control (a major issue so far in his professional career). Sanford though has been one of the nice bright spots however for this Green Jackets pitching staff, as he is posting a 1.65 ERA and 0.98 WHIP in 16.1 IP. Sanford doesn't exactly strike guys out (only nine strikeouts and a K/9 rate of 5), but he shows decent control (four walks; 2.25 K/BB ratio), which helps him get through innings and generate outs. Sanford had a good year in the Northwest League last year (42 IP, 2.14 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 2.86 K/BB ratio), so he has the potential to be solid contributor to this Augusta staff this season.

8. Devin Harris, OF/DH (Augusta Green Jackets)

Despite hitting only two home runs his rookie season in 41 games between Rookie and the Northwest League, former East Carolina Pirate Devin Harris is mashing this year in the SALLY. He has hit five home runs in 70 plate appearances and he is posting an OPS of .922. Harris has flashed some power before in college, as he hit 27 home runs combined in his last two seasons with the Pirates, but it's safe to say Harris is really flashing his muscles in his second year of professional ball. Harris probably needs to cut down the strikeouts (his 18 strikeouts are second-highest on the team) and he doesn't make up for it with a lot of walks either (only six this year), but the big fly ability is a nice surprise, even if it is probably unsustainable for the rest of the year.

7. Nick Liles, 2B (San Jose Giants)

While a lot of the hype has been around 2010 first round pick Gary Brown and Chris Dominguez (who has  team leading five home runs), Liles has been one of the more spectacular offensive player for the Giants thus far. He has a team-leading .945 OPS and he has 19 hits, 6 RBI, 8 runs scored and three stolen bases (on three attempts) in only 60 plate appearances (Brown has 35 more, Dominguez 26 more). Liles didn't exactly tear up the SALLY last year (only a .747 OPS), but he has a good eye (.361 OBP last year; .417 OBP this year) and speed and not just when it comes to swiping bags either. This year, he has five doubles and two triples, pretty telling evidence that Liles is the kind of player who can stretch base hits in a "Andres Torres-esque" style.

6. Gary Brown, OF (San Jose Giants)

While Liles has been the better player statistically speaking, Brown has had the more impact, which is pretty impressive considering he came in with a lot of question marks after skipping Single-A this year despite putting up pedestrian numbers in a combined stint in the Arizona Rookie and Northwest League last year (.524 OPS, only two extra base hits in 54 plate appearances). Brown is hitting .346 with an .844 OPS and he has a home run, 13 RBI and has scored 17 runs in 95 plate appearances. His speed, one of the most glowing aspects of his game when he was drafted, has also been on fully display, as he has swiped 16 bases on 21 attempts to begin the year. While one wonder if Brown's walk numbers (0.58 BB/K ratio) are for real (he only walked 41 times in 174 college games), his good start in Advanced Single-A is a promising sign of things to come.

5. Heath Hembree, RHP (San Jose Giants)

Hembree seems to be the Giants' closer and he seems primed for the responsibility. Hembree in 8 appearances has four saves, a 1.29 ERA and a WHIP of 1.71 (not good I know, but stay with me). Despite giving up a lot of hits (he has given up eight this year), He has shown exceptional control (3.25 K/BB ratio) and a strong ability to strike guys out this year in the California League (13 strikeouts). This shouldn't be too much of a surprise as Hembree flashed the same strikeout ability last year in the Arizona Rookie League as he struck out 22 batter in 11 innings pitched (he also walked ZERO batters too...even more unbelievable).

4. Zach Wheeler, RHP (San Jose Giants)

The 55th rate prospect according to Baseball America, Wheeler has gotten off to a sterling start in his first three appearances in San Jose. While going through some injury issues a year ago, Wheeler struggled with his control at times, as evidenced by his 38 walks in 58.2 IP (A BB/9 of 5.8). However, the upside with the young right hander (and what helped make him the sixth overall pick in the 2009 draft) was his lively fastball and ability to strike guys out. He didn't disappoint last year (10.7 K/9 in Augusta), and the same is true this year (18 strikeouts in 15.2 IP). What's even better is that Wheeler hasn't shown the control issues he sported a year ago. His WHIP is down (from 1.45 to 0.96) and his BB/9 and K/BB ratio looks a lot better as well (its 2.3 and 4.50 respectively). Of course, it's just a three start sample, his ERA (4.02) doesn't exactly show he's dominating (though his 2.69 FIP is a better indicator of how well he's doing in my opinion), and Wheeler still has to prove this over a full year of play. Still, Giants fans have to be happy with the First Round pick's jump to the California League.

3. Ryan Verdugo, LHP (Richmond Flying Squirrels)

Verdugo has been one of the few bright spots for a Richmond team that's got off to a bit of a shaky start. If you look up and down the statsheet, not a lot of guys on the roster are putting up great numbers, both on the offensive and pitching side of things. However, Verdugo has been nails, as illustrated by his 1.65 ERA, 0.87 WHIP and 16 strikeouts in 16.2 IP. He has also shown impeccable control in his first three starts this year, only walking two batters and hitting one (his BB/9 is currently 1.1 and his K/BB ratio is 8). For those Giants fans who think Verdugo is flash in the pan, they might have to think twice. Verdugo posted excellent numbers in a split stint in Augusta and San Jose last year (1.87 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 2.85 K/BB ratio in 62.2 IP) as well as in 2009 with in the SALLY and Rookie League (1.27 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 2.68 K/BB ratio in 35.1 IP).

2. Emmanuel Burriss, 2B/SS (Fresno Grizzlies)

With Tejada struggling, one of the hot topics with Giants fans is whether or not Tejada is going to replace the production Juan Uribe contributed the past two years for the Giants. While Burriss may not have the offensive upside that Tejada has (he has a career .687 OPS in the minors and .631 OPS in the Majors), Burriss is slap hitter with a strong knack for swiping bases. In the Grizzlies first 20 games (they are 9-11 currently), Burriss has been one of the Grizzlies' catalysts, as he is hitting .344 with an .849 OPS and 15 stolen bases. The speedster has also shown a good approach at the plate, as he has drawn seven walks and only struck out six times in 73 plate appearances. Granted, Burriss may not be a long-term solution, and he may just be feasting on Pacific Coast League pitching, which has a history of being mediocre. However, if Tejada doesn't bounce back soon, and if Burriss' bat continues to stay hot, it wouldn't be surprising to see Giants fans start clamoring for the 2006 first-round draft pick.

1. Brett Pill, 1B (Fresno Grizzlies)

If Burriss provides the speed to the team, then Pill provides the mashing. After a solid full year in Fresno (he hit 16 home runs and had an OPS of .752), Pill has made the most of his second season in Triple-A. He is currently hitting .390 with three home runs, 18 RBI, and sports an OPS of 1.001 in 89 plate appearances. Even though he has stellar competition at the first base position with Travis Ishikawa and the recently demoted Brandon Belt, Pill is making it hard for Grizzlies management to keep him out of the lineup. That being said, Belt is the Giants' future first baseman, and it's going to be interesting to see how the first base position is going to be platooned this year as long as Belt and Ishikawa are with the Grizzlies. Still, Pill is no slouch and he is certainly capable of having the kind of breakout season that might get him seriously noticed by the Giants brass as the seasons carries on.

Honorable mentions: Charlie Culberson, 2B (Richmond), Chris Dominguez, 3B (San Jose), Rafael Rodriguez, OF (Augusta), Hector Sanchez, C (San Jose), Justin Fitzgerald, RHP (Richmond), Luke Anders, 1B (San Jose).

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