Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Farm Watch: Grizzlies Swoon, Dynamic Duo Up the Middle, SJ Catcher Competition, and Augusta Roster Shakeup

It's mid-May, and it's getting close to the point where will be seeing other lower level affiliates (Salem-Kezier, AZL and DSL) starting hitting the field soon. In the meantime, let's take a review of how things have been going in the current Giants system since our last update.

Fresno Grizzlies, 19-21 going into May 18th.
  • The Grizzlies have hit a bit of a snag as they have lost six of their past seven games on the road. The biggest problem during this road trip has been the bullpen. Steve Edlefsen has allowed seven hits and seven runs in his past three appearances (2.1) IP, and Marc Kroon is coming off a subpar performance against Nashville on May 13th where he allowed two hits and a run while not recording a single out. If the Grizzlies want to have any shot at making a run for the Pacific Coast League division title, they are going to need to get some improved contribution out of their bullpen.
  • There has been a lot of roster turnover lately in Triple-A. Not only did Emmanuel Burriss and Ryan Rohlinger get "optioned to Fresno" (sorry, it is the name of the blog) last week, but the Grizzlies also welcomed former Giants cast-off relievers Waldis Joaquin and Geno Espineli in the past couple of weeks. Joaquin is an interesting arm, mainly because he was deemed a top prospect in the Giants system a couple of years ago. In an uninspired stint last year in San Francisco though, he struggled to strike batters out and eventually got designated for assignment to clear him off the 40-man roster. After not accepting a claim with the Chicago White Sox last year, he is back in Fresno and has pitched decently. In 10.1 IP, he has a 1.74 ERA, a 1.07 WHIP and a 1.78 GB rate. Unfortunately, much like last year, the strikeouts are down (only three strikeouts this year), so any shot of him returning to the majors at this point seems to be a stretch. As for Espineli, he had a rocky Grizzlies 2011 debut (0.2 IP, 1 R, 3 BB, 2 SO), but he bounced back to have a clean inning of work against Memphis two days ago (he retired the side in order). Giants fans should probably expect him to spend the majority of the year in Triple-A though.
  • Brandon Belt continues to rake (as evidenced by his grand slam home run yesterday) and draw walks at an impressive rate (he has drawn 26 free passes in 104 plate appearances). That being said, his strikeouts are a bit of a concern, as he has whiffed out 21 times (a 28 percent rate). Having just subscribed to for 30 bucks for the year, I have gotten the chance to see a lot of Belt's at-bats on tape. He definitely is patient at the plate, but he has swung and missed a lot, a bit concerning because he isn't exactly facing the best pitching in the PCL. His walks do make up for his high number of strikeouts (as evidenced by his 1.14 BB/K ratio), but not even John Bowker had a strikeout rate this high. With a callup looming for Belt soon (or at least we hope so), one has to wonder if the low contact rate (72 percent in Fresno this year, five points lower than his stint with the Giants) is a sign of things to come. That being said,  I'm still optimistic and high on Belt and what he can do at the Major League level, and this may just be a case of me being nitpicky.

 Richmond Flying Squirrels, 17-20 going into May 18th.
  • There was a lot of question marks about Charlie Culberson and Nick Noonan going into 2011. Culberson had to prove in Richmond that he wasn't just a Cal League wonder (he had two sub-par years in Augusta prior to 2010), and Noonan had to not only bounce back from a mediocre 2010 campaign in the Eastern League, but injury as well. However, both have gotten off to solid starts offensively, and seem to be quite the duo up the middle for the Flying Squirrels (Noonan, traditionally a second baseman, is playing shortstop). Culberson is hitting a team high .299 and has a home run and 14 RBI to go along with four stolen bases and a .727 OPS in 167 plate appearances. Noonan leads the team in OPS at .741, and he has two home runs, 11 RBI, and seven doubles in 115 plate appearances this year. Culberson still is a bit of a free swinger at the plate (34 strikeouts, 0.21 BB/K ratio), but he is only 22 years old and in his first year in the Eastern League. As for Noonan, his biggest improvement has not only been the increase in pop from a year ago (he had a .304 slugging last year; this seasons it's .396), but his more patient approach at the dish. Already, in almost 300 less plate appearances, he has half as many walks (11) as last year (22), and his BB/K ratio (0.46)  is a vast improvement from a season ago (0.30).
  • One of the more interesting stories in Richmond right now has to be Juan Perez. Rated as the 24th best prospect in the Giants system according to Baseball America, Perez is around league average age-wise, but has had a very rocky path to professional ball. Originally from the Dominican Republic, Perez moved to the United States in 2001, but wasn't drafted out of high school. Instead of going to college, he ended up doing an apprenticeship for his father's plumbing company while playing in Adult Baseball night leagues. The impressive showings in the rec-league contests got him some attention from junior colleges, and he committed to Western Oklahoma JC, where he set the DII National JuCo record for home runs (37) and RBI (102) in 2008. Impressed by his gaudy JuCO numbers, the Giants selected Perez in the 13th round. Now, Perez isn't tearing up the Eastern League by any means (he is batting .264 with a .673 OPS, but he does have eight stolen bases on nine attempts). Still, he does have an interesting toolset (Baseball America said that his defense in center field was so good last year in San Jose, that it bumped Francisco Peguero to right field) and his "Sugar"-esque tale would be a great success story for the Giants organization.
  • One of the more impressive bullpen arms in Richmond has been left-hander David Quinowski. A bit older for the Eastern League (he's 25), Quinowski has put together a solid campaign this year for the Flying Squirrels out of the pen. He has a 1.61 ERA and 0.71 WHIP in 22.1 innings of work, and limited his walks (only 3 non-intentional walks allowed) while displaying excellent command (5.00 K/BB ratio). A 46th round pick in the 2005 draft out of high school, Quinowski's MLB upside may be simply as a LOOGY (left-handers only guy). That being said, with Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez going to be free agents next year, Quinowski could be a dark-horse to break into the Giants bullpen as early as next year if he maintains this good display in Richmond.

San Jose Giants,  25-14 going into May 18th.
  • Gary Brown is due for a callup. He's absolutely annihilating Cal League pitching, and it's looking like he doesn't have much to prove in San Jose. He is hitting .374 with a .968 OPS and has three home runs, two triples, 11 doubles and 23 stolen bases in 38 games and 190 plate appearances. The only question now is when (not if) the Giants are going to promote him to Richmond. I think the Giants would probably wait until June to pull the trigger on such a move, just not to rush him. Nonetheless, Brown is head and shoulders above the competition in the California League in 2011 and is suddenly one of the hottest prospects out there right now.
  • The catcher's competition between Hector Sanchez and Tommy Joseph has been an interesting subplot this year in San Jose. Joseph, a second round pick a year ago, was known for his tremendous power (16 home runs, 68 RBI in 2010 in Augusta), but lack of plate discipline (116 strikeouts in 436 AB). The same has proved to be true this year, as Joseph has four home runs and 20 RBI, but is hitting for a low average (.223), not walking (only seven walks in 162 plate appearances) and striking out a lot (30 strikeouts; though his 20.2 percent rate is lower than the 26.6 percent rate a year ago). As for Sanchez, he has proved to be better defensively (his success rate in throwing guys out is 48 percent, while Joseph's is 34 percent) and he is hitting better for average than Joseph as well (Sanchez's batting average is .282). To make matters worse for Joseph, Sanchez has actually been showing just as much power, if not more, as Sanchez has four home runs, 26 RBI, a slugging of .470 and an OPS of .771. Joseph is still young of course (he's only 19 years old) and I think the Giants have a lot more invested in the slugger from Arizona than the catcher from Venezuela. That being said, if Joseph doesn't show progress soon, he may be in jeopardy of losing playing time or getting a demotion to the Sally to figure things out and get his confidence up.
  • Bay Area kid and former Cleveland Indians prospect Chuck Lofgren made his Giants organizational debut against Lancaster, as he went two innings and struck out two while earning the save in the Giants' 5-2 win on May 11th. Lofgren was a top prospect with the Indians, as he was ranked No. 54 in Baseball America's Top-100 rankings going into 2007 and No. 71 going into 2008. However, his last two campaigns in Triple-A have been far from stellar, as he posted an ERA of 5.31 with Columbus and 5.19 with Nashville (Milwaukee). He signed with the Giants as a free agent after being non-tendered by the Brewers this off-season. It is expected that his stint will be short in San Jose, and he'll probably find a spot in the Grizzlies' bullpen soon.

 Augusta Green Jackets, 16-23 going into May 18th.
  • The No. 28 prospects in the "OTF Most Interesting 32 Prospects" list have gotten off to good starts so far in the Sally. Carlos Willoughby has been a stout option at leadoff, as he is hitting .295 with a .752 OPS and has 14 stolen bases on 17 attempts. Willoughby hasn't shed his "slap-hitter" label (his slugging is only .362), but he has been the Green Jackets' best hitter during this first couple months of play. As for Rafael Rodriguez, while he is young for the league, he has been holding his own, a nice sign after a disappointing campaign in the Northwest League last year. He is hitting .281 with a homer and 12 RBI. His OPS isn't great (.681) and he could still draw more walks (only six in a 129 plate appearances). That being said, he isn't striking out either (only 17 strikeouts) and he is showing more power as of late (he hit his first home run a couple of days ago). At 18 years old, it seems like Rodriguez's career is back on track after that down year in Salem-Keizer in 2010.
  • Augusta made some wholesale changes as they sent a few players to extended Spring Training, most notably shortstop Ydwin Villegas and catcher Dan Burkhart. While touted pitching prospect Mike Kickham made his 2011 debut, the biggest additions to the Green Jackets were Brett Bochy and Ehire Adrianza. Bochy is the son of Giants Manager Bruce Bochy and pitched well in his first appearance of the year on May 15th. He threw two innings and struck out one and allowed only one hit. As for Adrianza, he has flashed some power after coming off the disabled list to start off the season. He has four hits, including a double and a home run, as well as five walks in 20 plate appearances this year. Adrianza most likely will make the jump up to San Jose or Richmond soon considering he played all last season in the California League.
  • Though Shawn Sanford's numbers aren't terrible by any stretch of the imagination, his declining strikeout rate the past three seasons has been somewhat alarming. After being drafted in the 13th round by the Giants in the 2008 draft out of South Florida, Sanford was hittable in 20.1 innings of work in the Arizona Rookie League (he allowed 26 hits). However, he struck guys out (31 strikeouts) and displayed good command (3.88 K/BB ratio) in his first professional season, which gave hope that he could be somewhat of a sleeper. Last year, in Salem Keizer, Sanford's ERA went down (from 5.31 to 2.14), but so did his K/BB ratio (2.86) and strikeout rate (8.6) over double the workload of a year ago (40.2 IP). So far this season, he's almost pitched as many innings in the first two months (40 IP) as he did all of last year, and yet his strikeout rate is less than half (3.8) of what it was in the Northwest League. Sanford presents a nice ERA (2.92), but he has a mediocre K/BB ratio (1.89) and is benefiting from a slightly below average BABIP (.294). His ability to induce groundballs at a decent rate may help him maintain his current start (his GB rate is 1.53), but chances are he is probably due for a reality check soon, even if the Sally is a pitcher's league.


    1. Nice rundown. Yes, Belt's strikeouts are very disconcerting, I know most people look at his eye-popping batting line numbers but that is because he owns AAA/AAAA pitchers when they make mistakes - that's why they are AAA/AAAA pitchers in the first place. Unfortunately for him, MLB pitchers don't make that many mistakes.

      I am excited to see Noonan, Brown, and RafRod do well, they were prospects, along with Surkamp and Hembree, who I were expecting to take a big step forward in their prospects as a prospect.

    2. Selective hitters are going to have more K's simply because they take the count deeper and have more called strikes. You can't strike out if you don't get to strike two first and selective hitters are more likely to get to strike 2.

    3. OGC: Good point about Belt. The fact of the matter is that Triple-A pitching is not really the best. For the most part, you are getting Quad-A pitchers or some decent prospects who are just getting a warm up before they hit the Majors. While he has a good walk rate, striking out at a 28 percent rate is still concerning. Furthermore, I'm also worried about the contact rate (0.72) His contact rate wasn't even this low in the minors last year (0.80), so I think he's getting a little TOO selective at the plate to his own detriment. Also, I agree with you on the Noonan, Brown and RafRod. They all had down years last year, and they have come back out of the gate with a fury. The future looks bright for them again it seems.

      Dr. B: You have a good point, but as I noted above, his contact rate is pretty subpar for a hitter in Triple-A (especially for a prospect of his caliber). To put things in perspective, Posey had a contact rate of 0.83 and Bowker had a contact rate of 0.79. So, this may be a case of Belt trying to be too patient at the plate for his own good, which could hurt him when he faces better pitching at the Major League level. Still, I'm not saying this is all doom and gloom. I'm just pointing out that Belt hasn't been flawless in Triple-A as the numbers may suggest. He's been good (very good in fact), but not perfect.

      (Also, the contact rate I got from the Minor League Baseball Analyst; basically it's (Ab-k)/Ab). It's a crude statistic and contact rate calculation, but with the lack of batted ball information at the Minor League level, it's about as close to a contact rate as we can get.)

    4. I completely agree with Belt being too selective. Not you, but a lot of people seem to think that selectivity is the be-all, end-all of hitting. I was just pointing out that there are mathematical downsides and high K rates is just one.

      To me, the important thing is pitch recognition and the size of a hitter's "hot zone". If you have a tiny "hot zone" and wait for a pitch that's in it, it may never come! If you do get a pitch in the "hot zone" on pitch #1, that may be the best pitch you see in the AB and you better be ready to swing at it.

      One thing that's bugging me about Buster right now is he almost never swings at the first pitch, even when it's an 89 MPH fastball right down the middle of the strike zone. Come on Buster! Get that bat moving!

      My wife is a Twins fan. She pointed out to me a long time ago that Joe Mauer never, ever swings at the first pitch. Pitchers have discovered that and just fire the first pitch down the pipe for strike 1. That means that Mauer only has one strike to work with before he is in a 2 strike situation. Now, Mauer is a great 2 strike hitter, but I believe that is a big part of why his power has never developed.

    5. Both interesting points on Belt and Posey. As for Belt, it seems like a pitch recognition thing with him, because while he's in the top-20 (16th specifically) in terms of strikeout percentage in the PCL (with batters of 100 or more plate appearances), he is tops in walk percentage. So it's not a plate discipline issue at all like the other guys who have strikeout percentages above the 25 percent range.

      I think Belt right now is figuring out his "hot zone" as you mention, and unfortunately, I think it's sapping his power a little bit (his .213 ISO this year is the lowest ISO in his minor league career). You could make the small sample size argument, but even when you put together his two Fresno stints together, he still proved to be a high walk/high strikeout kind of guy. Once he really understands his zone though (and he's getting there), he'll be dangerous because he's good at not chasing stuff out of the zone.

      As for Posey, he has been around league average in terms of swing percentage in his past two MLB stints (45 percent). This year, he's down to 41 percent. Now, I'm not knocking the low swing percentage at all. Jose Bautista, Ben Zobrist, Kevin Youkilis and Jayson Werth all have swing percentages under 40 percent, and yet they are some of the game's top hitters. I think Posey is just figuring out what he can drive and what he needs to lay off. He went through this last year, as he tended to err on the side of swinging more. Once he makes that adjustment and gets comfortable at the plate and recognizing pitches, he'll get back on track I think, and will hit with more power than what he's been showing so far this year.