The Giants have undergone bit of an identity change under Brian Sabean's tenure as GM. Once known for dishing talent for higher-priced veterans (especially during the Barry Bonds era), the Giants the last five to six years made a heavy commitment to rebuild their minor league system. It all started with guys like Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, but with the emergence of Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner last year, baseball fans and experts around the nation took notice of the talent the Giants were stocking and bringing up in their system. The days of Sabean trading Joe Nathan and Francisco Liriano seemed to be a thing of the past (though Tim Alderson for Freddy Sanchez certainly wasn't popular at the time), as the organization seemed committed to developing their own players so they could eventually contribute to the San Francisco club, and not just the Fresno, Richmond and San Jose ones (in addition to Augusta, Salem Keizer and Arizona ones).
That being said, with Brandon Belt making the Opening Day roster (and then being eventually demoted back down to Fresno...a wise decision in my opinion), there seemed to be a question that lingered with Giants fans: Is the talent pool still strong in the Giants system? Or with Posey and Bumgarner now Major League players, is the talent not as deep as it was the past few seasons.
The answer is a mixed bag. First off, if you take a look at the Top 10 prospects list from Fangraphs the past two seasons (2010 and 2011), the list doesn't look that dramatically different, but the 2011 list doesn't pack the same punch as the 2010 one. Posey, Bumgarner and Dun Runzler are off the list in 2011, and the aura of the Giants rankings kind of diminishes as a result. Despite the losses though, many of the same players are there. Thomas Neal, Ehire Adrianza, Brandon Crawford, and Francisco Peguero are still prospects of note that still bring high hopes for the future of this Giants organization.
Unfortunately, there are a few guys who have fallen out of favor with "experts" and have questionable futures in this Giants organization. Roger Kieschnick tumbled big time in Richmond and out of the Top 10 after being ranked No. 5 in 2010 (then again, that probably was a reach considering his strikeout percentage). Clayton Tanner also tumbled out of the Top-10 after being ranked 8th going into the 2010 year. And Waldis Joaquin? He's not even in the Giants organization (he was released from the 40-man last season).
Additionally, those aren't the only prospects whose stocks have taken a hit. Conor Gillaspie and Nick Noonan came in with a lot of promise after being drafted in the first rounds of the 2008 and 2007 drafts, respectively. And yet, neither has made a big dent in the minors, as Gillaspie has struggled with his fielding and power, while Noonan has been over-matched offensively (though to be fair, he was probably rushed to Double-A last year and should have started the year in San Jose). Henry Sosa has also fallen into the Gillaspie and Noonan mold, failing to live up to the promise he garnered after striking out 139 in 125 innings pitched between Salem-Keizer and San Jose in 2007 (then again, injuries have been the main cause to Sosa's struggles).
Should Giants be fearful that the managements is reverting back to the old days, when the talent pool was thin in the minors and instead money was being spent through free agency on older vets like Dave Roberts and Matt Morris?
In the words of Lee Corso, I would say "not so fast my friend."
Yes, it may be easy to think that the farm system is in trouble with Posey and Bumgarner, two of our most prized prospects that past couple of seasons, no longer in the minors. Furthermore, it may be easy to get jealous when you look at systems like Kansas City, Tampa Bay and Toronto, which are packed to the brim with promising young talent. Also, the 20th future talent ranking according to Fangraphs doesn't exactly make Giants fans feel easy. When you look at the system as a whole though, the future talent in the Giants organization is still solid and bright.
Zach Wheeler, despite struggling through inconsistency and injuries last year, still displayed solid stuff in his first full year in Augusta, and he is off to a dominating start in the California League (18 strikeouts in 15.1 IP, 2-0 record, 0.96 WHIP, 4.02 ERA). Crawford and Adrianza have the potential to be everyday Major League shortstops considering their defensive ability (though they will have to develop some flaws offensively if they want to break into the Majors sooner rather than later). And even though the catcher's position seems to be solidified for the future with Posey, Hector Sanchez and Tommy Joseph showed flashes of promise in their campaigns in the South Atlantic League last season (Sanchez showed some decent plate patience and Joseph showcased solid power with Augusta as he hit 16 home runs).
And let's not forget about the heralded guys Belt and Gary Brown. Belt showed he could handle himself at the Major League level despite having only ONE year of professional experience under his belt (one!). And as for Brown, he's off to a great start in San Jose, as he was hitting .343 with a .819 OPS and 15 stolen bases going into tonight's game (and he hit an inside-the-park home run tonight!).
Sure, the system looked a lot nicer with Posey and Bumgarner, but those guys were elite First Round picks. They lived up to their potential, and the Giants roster is benefiting. That's a good thing. In my mind, it's better that our talent is contributing to our Major League roster rather than Minor League ones like some other teams (such as the Royals for example). It shows not only are we developing our prospects properly, but management is doing a good job investing in the right guys. Yes, the Minor League talent depth will take a hit, but in the long run, the point of prospects is for them to contribute to the Major League club, not just the Minor League ones.
Giants fans really have no reason to fret. The talent pool maybe isn't as deep as it was in 2008, 2009 and even 2010, but it's still chock-full with potential. The names aren't as big as the Posey's, Bumgarner's and even Belt's, but as we have seen so far this year, players are starting to emerge as serious candidates to contribute to the Giants roster in the next three to four years at the soonest.
Is three to four years too long? Maybe, but the talent is fine at the Major League level, and that's not a bad thing to have. With guys like Posey, Lincecum, Cain, Bumgarner, Pablo Sandoval, Brian Wilson, and Jonathan Sanchez as our core for the future, there is no need to rush a Brown, Wheeler or Neal (and in some ways, even Belt). As history has showed (especially in our own organization), it's better to develop guys slowly rather than throw them quickly into the fire. Even phenoms like Lincecum and Posey spent some time to develop in the minors before they made the Big League jump. Ask Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Kansas City, teams that rushed their talent to the Majors, how that strategy fared out for them...
It didn't result in any playoff appearances or World Series titles, that's for sure.