Conor Gillaspie's road as a prospect has become an up and down rollercoaster of sorts. Drafted in the supplemental round of the 2008 draft, Gillaspie came with some hype when he was drafted out of Wichita State. In his junior year with the Shockers, Gillaspie hit .419 with an 1.197 OPS. He smacked 11 home runs, drove in 82 RBI, scored 71 runs and stole 16 bases on 18 attempts. With the selection of Gillaspie and Buster Posey as their first two picks of the draft, many Giants fans felt that the Giants brass had two players on their hands that were well-developed and close to being Major League-ready very soon.
Gillaspie got on the fast track in the Giants system. He was placed on the Giants 40-man roster his first year in professional baseball and after 24 games and 105 plate appearances in Rookie League and the Northwest League, he got a late season callup when the Giants expanded the roster. While his tenure with the big league club was a brief one (he had only seven plate appearances), he still managed to get a hit and two walks. The feeling amongst Giants fans was that if Gillaspie could have a solid year in the minors in 2009 and move up quickly, he would be called up again and perhaps given a more extended shot.
Unfortunately, his 2009 didn't go as stellar as many expected. While Gillaspie didn't strike out much (14.5 strikeout percentage) and showcased a good plate approach in San Jose (he had a BB/K ratio of 0.81), he didn't show any power (.100 ISO, .756 OPS) and he had a lot of issues defensively (.908 fielding percentage; 2.29 RF/G). Considering the California League is considered a hitter's league, Gillaspie's lack of extra base hits was a bit surprising. Sure, nobody expected him to be a 20-home run hitter or 1.197 OPS hitter like he was in college, but Giants fans and management expected more considering how polished a hitter he was in college.
Despite the down year in San Jose, Gillaspie made some progress last year in the Eastern League. He showcased a little bit more power, as his slugging, OPS and ISO numbers all improved (his slugging went up to .420, his OPS was .754 and his ISO was .132, all improvement from the previous seasons) despite playing in a pitcher's league and park. Furthermore, his defensive skills improved as well, as his fielding percentage (.946) and range (2.46) went up as well. The only real concern about Gillaspie was the fact that he didn't draw as many walks in Richmond. After walking 55 times in 2009, he only garnered 37 free passes in 10 more plate appearances in Double-A. That being said, he did double his home runs (eight in comparison to four), quadrupled his triples (eight in comparison to two), and garnered more total bases (206 to 181), so his lack of walks was more than made up for. Furthermore, he still was able to make contact consistently, as his strikeout percentage actually went down in Double-A (from 14.5 to 13.6 percent), so his BB/K ratio wasn't affected too badly (0.55, which is still good).
Minor League Ball blogger and prospect analyst John Sickels had some good things to say about Gillaspie after his improvement in the Eastern League in 2010.
"Jumping up to Double-A Richmond this year, he hit .287/.335/.420, which doesn't look much better on the surface. His OPS improved a bit to +3 percent. However, Richmond is sort of the opposite of High Desert: it's a tough environment. He hit just .253/.303/.378 at home, but a much more impressive .320/.365/.460 on the road, which is more like what the Giants were looking for when they drafted him out of Wichita State...
I still don't know if Gillaspie will have enough of a bat to be a regular third baseman, but he made enough progress to go from a Grade C to a C+."
This year, Gillaspie earned a promotion to Fresno and he is producing good numbers going into today's game. He is continuing to improve his power (he has a .422 slugging and a .780 OPS), and his defensive abilities are still developing (career high 2.74 RF/G this year in the PCL). Also, his OBP and BB/K ratio have gotten back to his San Jose levels (.358 OBP; 0.78 BB/K ratio), so it seems like he's finally getting everything all together offensively now at Triple-A. The scouting reports have also been good on Gillaspie, as reports say he's been hitting a lot of line drives with the Grizzlies, which is a good sign.
The problem with Gillaspie may just be the fact that he plays at a position where more power is expected. Third basemen are expected to be major run producers and right now, Gillaspie hasn't necessarily showcased the power in the minors that makes scouts or analysts think he'd be worthy of being an everyday Major League third baseman. I would counter with the fact that his plate approach, good contact ability and ability to get on base make him a viable option to any MLB club, and he could be an everyday third baseman (or at worst, a utility infielder) on the right team. We have seen players like Daric Barton and Bill Mueller become very solid Big League contributors despite lacking power at positions where power is traditionally expected (i.e., third base and first base).
I think Gillaspie will need to be flexible with his position if he wants to break in with the Giants anytime soon, which I think is possible (though there are issues and questions in terms of his ability to perhaps play second base; a position where many Giants fans felt he might need to move to). Furthermore, if he can continue his development defensively, he may allow Pablo Sandoval to move to first, considering Sandoval has had defensive issues in the past (however, Sandoval is in shape and has played solid defensively this year, though Sandoval's erratic arm may prevent him from playing the position long term). The only problem with this scenario is first baseman Brandon Belt, who would keep Sandoval at third. If Belt breaks into the Majors again soon (which is highly likely considering how well he is hitting in Fresno), then it will be a challenge to find Gillaspie in the Giants lineup.
Gillaspie's stock has been a little erratic over the course of his minor league career, and I don't know if he'll be a major contributor to this Giants team mainly because of the solidity at the third base, and even second base position with Sandoval and Freddy Sanchez. That being said, Gillaspie has rebounded nicely after a disappointing 2009 in San Jose, and he certainly is more than capable of developing into the "Bill Mueller-esque" player that many scouts and expected envisioned him to be when he was drafted in 2008.