Nick Noonan is another prospect (much like Henry Sosa, No. 26 on the list), who's stock has taken a considerable plunge over the past couple of seasons. Unlike some experts who think Noonan probably won't live up to the hype he garnered when he was drafted No. 32 in the 2007 MLB Draft, I still think Noonan has a chance to carve out a good professional career in the future. He just won't be the "high-ceiling star" a lot of Giants fans christened him to be early on in his career.
Noonan was drafted out of high school, playing ball in the San Diego area (a very competitive region for high school baseball...then again, most of California is). Scouts had a lot of praise to say about Noonan, especially offensively, as chronicled in a 2007 post by Obsessive Giants Compulsive.
Here is what a couple of NL scouts said in their reports about him:
"Every time you watch him, you get a better appreciation for him and what he can do. He does everything smooth and easy..."
[One NL Scout] considers Nick one of the top high school hitters in Southern California: "I've seen him hit 95 MPH like it's 75 MPH. He has a quick bat and exceptional knowledge of the strike zone. Nothing fazes him. He's just a cool customer - a true baseball player...."
When the Giants got him at No. 32 in the supplemental round, it was considered a steal of sorts. Yes, Noonan was still young and had a lot of development to do as a player. That being said, the Giants could afford to wait, and Noonan seemed to have the tools to succeed.
Noonan came onto the scene fast, hitting pretty well in the Arizona Rookie League. In 224 plate appearances in 2007, he hit .316 with an .809 OPS and three home runs, 40 RBI and had 18 stolen bases on 21 attempts. The impressive campaign by the 18-year-old in the 52 game stretch only added to the hype surrounding Noonan, as the second baseman was on most Giants writers and bloggers Top 10 prospects lists going into the 2008 season.
While he didn't excel like he did in the Rookie League, his time in the SALLY still proved to be a respectable stint for Noonan statistically. While his BB/K ratio fell from an impressive 0.60 in Arizona to 0.23 in Augusta, and his OPS dipped from .809 to .730, Noonan did hit nine home runs, drove in 48 RBI, and stole 29 bases on 33 attempts in 119 games in 532 plate appearances. While the high number of strikeouts (19.6 percent strikeout rate) and low walks (4.3 walk percentage) did alarm some scouts, many felt that his offensive upside, decent power and ability to swipe bags at efficient rate boded well for his future. Futhermore, the fact that he did this as a 19 year old was even more impressive, and the thought was that Noonan's plate approach would get better as he acquired more at-bats and more professional experience.
Unfortunately, 2009 in San Jose didn't exactly prove to be kind to Noonan. While playing on a team stacked with talent such as Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, Conor Gillaspie, Thomas Neal and Darren Ford, Noonan didn't exactly stand out in a crowded pool. He hit only .259 with a .727 OPS and seven home runs and 64 RBI. What was most concerning was his dip in stolen bases, as he had only 9 on 14 attempts after swiping 29 in the SALLY. (Of course, he probably wasn't needed to steal bases with Ford on the roster, but nonetheless...the dip was big, especially considering he played five more games in San Jose than Augusta.)
Much like his 2008 campaign in Augusta, many fans remained positive about Noonan's potential, citing his age, an improvement in BB/K ratio (0.49) and a strong finish in the California League (he hit .292 in August and .310 in September) as promising signs that made up for his regressing OPS, slugging and stolen base numbers from the previous seasons.
In 2010, the Giants organization decided to move up Noonan to Richmond along with Neal, Gillaspie, Ford, Brandon Crawford and Roger Kieschnick. The move was a bit rash, since Noonan statistically didn't show anything in San Jose that merited a promotion to Double-A. As expected, the Eastern League proved to be overwhelming for the 21 year old as he hit .237 with a career low .584 OPS and three home runs and 26 RBI in 406 plate appearances with the Flying Squirrels. The improvement he also showed in plate approach in San Jose went out the window as well, as Noonan had a 0.30 BB/K ratio and a career low .266 wOBA. The lackluster season in Double-A killed Noonan's rankings with experts, as John Sickels, who had him ranked as the 13th best player in the Giants system going into 2010, left him off the list completely going into 2011.
This year, Noonan's back in Double-A, and he is off to an okay start (thanks to a big game last night, where he hit a home run in each game of a double-header with New Britain). Currently, he is hitting .246 with a .701 OPS and two home runs and seven RBI in 70 plate appearances. Noonan still has some issues at the plate (he has struck out 15 times this year), but the showing of power this early is nice, and hopefully he can continue to build upon this with a year of the Eastern League already down his belt.
In my opinion, there is still a lot to like about Noonan. There was a whole lot of "Chase Utley" comparisons early-on in his career, and to me, those expectations seemed to be quite lofty and perhaps unfair. Noonan, while inconsistent with the bat, has flashed good defensive skills in the minors, as he has a career fielding percentage of .969 and range factor of 4.74 in 392 games in the minors. If he can be at least "replacement level" offensively (or better yet, slightly above, though I'll settle with "replacement level"), then he could have a future as a utility player in the Mike Fontenot mold because of his defensive ability. As far as developing beyond that comparison though is questionable at best.
Sure, Noonan is still young (he just turned 22 on May 4th), so he has that going for him. That being said, he needs to have a massive change offensively (both in approach and production) if he ever wants to recapture that promise he garnered after his solid AZL campaign in 2007. Considering how he's done so far in 115 games in Double-A, it's probably unlikely he'll bounce back to that "top 20 Giants prospect" status again (though I certainly wouldn't rule it out completely).