Probably one of the most interesting non-roster invites to Spring Training has to be Nick Noonan. I find it mostly intriguing because he doesn't fit the mold of the typical Spring Training invite: he's not a top prospect anymore (e.g. not Gary Brown), he's not a castoff (e.g. not Brian Burres or Gregor Blanco), he hasn't been in the minors tremendously long (e.g. not Matt Yourkin), and he's not a fringe pitching prospect who is being looked at because he could eat innings should somebody on the 40-man get hurt or fall off a cliff (e.g. not a Justin Fitzgerald or David Quinowski).
Noonan was a top draft pick (Supplemental round pick in the 2007 draft) and prospect in the Giants system after he had a tremendous season in Rookie Ball in 2007 as an 18-year-old. In 224 plate appearances in the Arizona Rookie League, Noonan posted a slash of .316/.357/.451 along with a .809 OPS and .390 wOBA. Considering his age (just out of high school) and his position (middle infield), many Giants fans and baseball analysts thought Noonan had all the makings of a stud-in-waiting. In fact, after his 2008 campaign, many Giants fans were comparing Noonan to Chase Utley, with the hope that Noonan had that kind of star potential and toolset after such a solid first professional season.
In Augusta the next year, his numbers regressed a little, but there was little alarm with the dip. For starters, Noonan was young for the league at 19 (the average age of hitters in the Sally that year was 21.6), and he still posted good numbers for a second baseman with a slash line of .279/.315/.415 and an OPS of .730. That being said, there was a little concern with Noonan's approach, as his BB/K ratio fell from 0.60 in 2008 to 0.23 in 2009. What hurt his BB/K ratio the most was the increase in strikeouts as his his K rate rose from from 8.9 percent in the AZL to 18.4 percent in the Sally. Of course, the Sally is a pitcher's league and Noonan did have more plate appearances in Augusta than in Arizona (532 to 224), so some kind of rise in strikeouts was to be expected, especially considering his youth. Nonetheless, a 10 percent rise was alarming, especially since Noonan didn't appear to be the kind of player that would garner a ton of walks.
Noonan remained high on prospects lists going into 2009, and a breakout season was almost expected from him as he made the transition to San Jose as a 20 year old. Unfortunately, though the Cal League does tend to favor hitters, Noonan looked a bit overwhelmed as his hitting line dropped massively in High-A. In 530 plate appearances, Noonan hit only .259, with an OBP of .329, a slugging of .397 and an OPS of .727. His wOBA regressed again for the second straight year, this time to .325, a bit concerning since hitters numbers tend to inflate in the Cal League, not deflate. Noonan did show a better eye at the plate, as his walk percentage rose to 9.1 percent and his BB/K ratio improved to 0.49. That being said, the Chase Utley comparisons he garnered early on in his career started to look a little premature after his 2009 season.
Though he probably should've started the year again in High-A (his year wasn't that great, he had some flaws he needed to work on and he was still young enough to begin in San Jose), but the Giants brass deemed it necessary to move Noonan up to Double-A in 2010 along with his other 2009 San Jose teammates Roger Kieschnick, Thomas Neal and Conor Gillaspie. The move proved to be a mistake, as Noonan looked totally out of his league at the plate against Eastern League pitching. He put up a slash line of .237/.280/.304 in 406 plate appearances and posted career lows in OPS (.584) and wOBA (.266). His plate approach and eye at the plate took a step back as well in Richmond, as his BB/K ratio fell to 0.30. Without a doubt, Noonan was one of the bigger disappointments in Double-A in 2010, though to be fair, he wasn't alone and probably wasn't the biggest one that year (that honor in my opinion belonged to Kieschnick).
At 22 years old, the Giants decided to keep Noonan in Richmond to begin the year in 2011. However, Noonan didn't play much at second base, as Charlie Culberson (who tore up the Cal League in 2010) manned the position for most of the year for the Flying Squirrels. Instead, Noonan mostly played shortstop, as he played 71 games at the position in 2011. He and Culberson proved to be a good double play combo up the middle, and the position switch did give Noonan some value as it showed he had some versatility as an infielder. His fielding numbers were pretty solid (.970 fielding percentage, 4.07 RF/G), though safe to say, he's far from the best glove at the position in the Giants system (Ehire Adrianza and Brandon Crawford are clearly ahead of him as far as defense is concerned).
While the position switch proved to be valuable to Noonan's status as a prospect, the 2011 season wasn't kind again for Noonan. Though his batting eye improved (11 percent walk rate, a career high, and a 0.55 BB/K ratio), his offensive numbers didn't show much improvement (as evidenced by his .215/.306/.292 slash line). The power he showed in Rookie ball (.136 ISO) has seemed to disappear (.077 ISO in 2011) and even for a middle infielder, his bat seems sub-par to mediocre at best. Noonan did get a cup of coffee in Fresno (13 games and 41 plate appearances) and he performed respectably (.297/.366/.378 slash line), but by the end of the year, he found himself back all the way to San Jose to work on some things at the plate (he posted a .647 OPS and .291 wOBA in 135 plate appearances in San Jose).
To go from Double-A to Triple-A to High-A in the span of months is certainly disheartening for fans of Noonan. At 23 years old, he still has some youth on his side, but he's not getting any younger and he certainly has not gotten better as he's moved up the system, obvious from his disastrous campaigns in Richmond in 2010 and 2011 (though he did have a nice call up in Fresno, it was a VERY small sample). It wouldn't be surprising to see Noonan off of most Baseball Experts' Top-30 lists for the Giants system this winter, especially with infielders such as Culberson and Joe Panik making progress last year.
So, as a Giants fan, it makes one wonder: is all lost on Noonan? Some would like to think so after being demoted to San Jose in August, but Noonan did earn an invite to Spring Training as a non-roster invitee, which makes one think that Giants brass still is curious about Noonan in terms of how he will develop. Noonan may not be the Chase Utley-type most Giants fans dreamed of when he came onto the scene in Arizona in 2007, but to be honest, he still has potential to be a good utility infielder type in the Mike Fontenot-mold. Remember, he still is only 23 years old. He is only a year older than Panik, who has played less than a year of professional ball to this point. Yes, his success hasn't come recently by any stretch of the imagination, but late bloomers are common-place in baseball (see Alex Gordon in 2011) and Noonan may be a case of a.) why organizations shouldn't rush their prospects up in the system (the Mets have learned this the hard way with Lastings Milledge and Fernando Martinez) and b.) why fans shouldn't give up on players who still have a lot of playing time left in their careers. Noonan hasn't impressed, but he hasn't stunk it up to the point where one could say that there is no hope for him at all.
Of course, this Spring Training and this upcoming season will be huge for Noonan. A good showing this Spring probably will earn him one last invite to to Richmond, where it will be a crucial year for his status (if he doesn't succeed in a THIRD year in Double-A, then it probably is safe to say that he won't have much of a future in baseball, let alone with the Giants). A poor showing, and well, he could be sent back to High-A again, which would be a back-breaker in his development, especially since Panik is expected to start the year in San Jose and is also widely rumored to move to second base.
I want to believe in Noonan (which is why I didn't list this post as a "tumbler" post; he will be on the list, though very low). I think injuries and a rash rise up the system hurt him, but his improvement in his batting eye last year I think were some nice signs. Of course, the slash line has to improve in 2012, but I think he is certainly capable of posting better offensive numbers in Double-A now that he has had two mediocre years under his belt.
Are the chips stacked against Noonan to succeed as a prospect in the Giants system? No doubt about it. But is it time to give up on him? I would cool the jets on that argument until we see him play in 2012.