Sunday, April 8, 2012

Season Preview: San Jose Giants

First off, yes, I'm posting on Easter. Which means one of four things:

1.) I'm away from family and don't have enough money to make the trip back home by road or air
2.) I'm not religious, don't believe in Easter or any God for that matter and like to live a shallow life that is devoid of anything "spiritual."
3.) Am Jewish and celebrated Passover already.
4.) Am at home, but trying to avoid family because well...I'm  just an anti-social kind of guy that would rather spend time in front of a computer than with family.

Well, if you guessed one, you would be correct. Two or three wouldn't have been bad choices, simply because I never touch anything religious on this blog, so my religious views have been (and will remain) fairly ambiguous. And as for four, just have to be a jerk to think that, so shame on you. I hope you feel better after you eat your Ham on Easter Sunday.

Bitterness aside, on to the 2012 preview of the San Jose Giants.

2011 Recap:

The San Jose Giants got off to a roaring start to begin the year, as they finished the first half with an unreal record of 51-19, good for the best record in the Cal League overall at the time. The Giants finished the first half 13 games ahead of second place Stockton, and 16 games ahead of third place Bakersfield. Considering the Giants past history of success in the California League (they have been in the title hunt consistently the past five years), the Giants looked primed for another run at the CL championship in 2011.

However, with the callups of Chris Dominguez, Francisco Peguero and Heath Hembree to Richmond by mid-season, a trade of top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler to the Mets (in the Carlos Beltran) and a mid-season slump by top prospect Gary Brown, the Giants regressed in the second half, going 38-32 over their next 70 games. The Giants did have a chance to win the Northern Division at the end of the year, but they ended up losing out to Stockton in the Northern Division Championship series. Still, at 90-50, it was an impressive year overall for the South Bay Giants, and the fans took notice, as they finished with the second-best attendance in the Cal League.

Offensively, everything began and ended with Brown, whose strong campaign in the Cal League garnered him honors as the Giants' top prospect going into 2012 by almost every publication and analyst. Brown posted a slash of .336/.407/.519 and added a .925 OPS to go along with 14 home runs, 115 runs scored and 53 stolen bases. For his efforts, Brown was named the 2011 Cal League Rookie of the Year and also earned a spot in the Futures Game at All-Star Weekend.

However, Brown wasn't the only bat that stood out in San Jose. Before getting call ups to Fresno and San Francisco, catcher Hector Sanchez went from middling catcher prospect to a Top-10 system guy after lighting up Cal League pitching in only 52 games. The 21-year-old Venezuelan put up a .302/.338/.533 line in 228 plate appearances and also added 11 home runs and 58 RBI to his already gaudy averages. Fellow countryman Ehire Adrianza sparked the Giants offense in the second half after Peguero and Dominguez moved up to Richmond, as the slick-fielding shorstop posted a career best slash of .300/.375/.470 in 262 plate appearances.

While the offense was a force for San Jose in 2011, the pitching was sneakily good, even after they lost Wheeler in the Beltran trade. The Giants pitching staff finished first in the Cal League runs allowed per game at 4.21, which was 0.80 runs better than second place Stockton. San Jose also finished with the league's best team ERA at 3.70 (they were the only CL team under 4.00) and second-best WHIP at 1.33 (only .04 behind first-place Stockton).

While Wheeler was the Giants' most dynamic pitcher in his tenure in San Jose (he struck out 98 in 88 innings pitched), he was far from the best pitcher statistically on the San Jose roster in 2011. The rotation was led by the three-headed-force of Craig Westcott, Chris Heston and Kelvin Marte, who all threw over 145 innings in 2011, and posted sub-4 ERAs (3.42, 3.16, 3.47, respectively). Though he finished a win behind Westcott in the W-L column, Heston was the most impressive of the three as he finished with the best K/BB ratio (3.28), K/9 (7.8), HA/9 (8.6) of the bunch. Heston was 23 years old last year, so he was around league average when it came to age (the average age of CL pitchers was 23.2 last year), but he certainly has the potential to be a strong contributor to the rotation in Richmond in 2012.

After Hembree dominated the CL (21 saves, 0.73 ERA, 16.1 K/9) and predictably earned a call up to the Eastern League, Jake Dunning and Mitch Lively split closer duties to mixed results. While Dunning did earn 10 saves, he posted a 4.74 ERA and allowed 10.2 hits per nine innings. While he did post solid K/BB ratios (2.96), Dunning has to improve his ability to limit contact if he wants to survive in the move to the Eastern League this upcoming season.

As for Lively, though an older prospect at 25 years old, he finished the year with nice numbers, recording 8 saves and posting a 1.46 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in 38 appearances and 17 games finished. Lively will be 26 years old and will bypass Richmond and begin the year in Triple-A Fresno.

Who Should Giants Fans Watch Out for at the Plate?

San Jose should be a nice showcase for 2011 Giants draft picks, as catcher Andrew Susac, first baseman Ricky Oropesa, and first round pick, shortstop Joe Panik will all begin the year in the Cal League. So far, the results have been a little mixed for Oropesa and Susac, as they are batting .250 and .231 after three games, respectively. However, it is still VERY early in the season, and they could bounce those numbers up with a solid game today against Modesto.

As for Panik, he is continuing where he left off in the Northwest League, as he is putting up a slash of .400/.538/.600 in 10 at-bats. Panik has recorded two doubles and three walks and no strikeouts going into today's game. As he showed last year in Salem Keizer, Panik's mature skills and approach has illustrated why the Giants took him in the first round of the draft last season (despite the scoffs of many scouts and experts). I expect Panik to really stand out this year and have a breakout season similar to Brown a year ago, though without the speed or home run numbers (though I think he could come close in the home runs and I think their slugging percentages will be similar because of Panik's ability to hit to the gaps).

One of the big under-the-radar prospects to watch for San Jose is Adam Duvall, who is coming off a sensational year in Augusta where he posted a .912 OPS to go along with 22 home runs. Duvall shares a similar prospect profile to Chris Dominguez in the sense that they are both from the University of Louisville and both third base prospects. While he doesn't have the athleticism or plus tools of Dominguez, Duvall's Sally numbers in 2011 were more impressive than Dominguez's 2010. While he hasn't gotten of to the best start (Duvall has struck six times in 12 at-bats and has no walks and only one hit), he could be a key component to this Giants offense in 2012.

Another infield prospect to watch out for will be Carter Jurica, a 2010 draft pick who split last year between the Arizona Rookie League and the Cal League. Jurica posted a .250/.355/.383 slash last year in San Jose, and also added four home runs and five stolen bases. Most of Jurica's value comes defensively, as he has been noted for his solid though unspectacular glove up the middle. He and Panik should provide a very interesting double play combo up the middle, and are expected to rotate between second and shortstop throughout the year.

The outfield will be led Jarett Parker, who'll be making his second tour of duty in the Cal League in 2012. While Parker displayed nice power potential (13 home runs), and a patient approach (.360 OBP, 0.51 BB/K ratio, 74 walks in 571 plate appearances), he struggled in terms of making consistent contact at the plate, as evidenced by his .260 average, 70 percent contact rate, and team-leading 144 strikeouts. I don't expect Parker to stay the whole year in San Jose, as I think he is due for a call up to Richmond at some point this year simply because of his age (he'll be 23). However, he does need to show progress at the plate in terms of making better contact if he wants to be taken more seriously as a prospect. Right now, his stock has regressed since he was drafted in the second round of the 2010 draft, and he looks to be way behind outfielder prospects such as Brown and Peguero.

The rest of the outfield looks pretty thin, as Ryan Lollis and Chris Lofton will look to contribute to the Giants lineup. Lollis put up stellar numbers in Augusta last year, posting a slash of .314/.393/.422 and an OPS of .816 in .296 at-bats, but he struggled in call ups to San Jose and Richmond, posting OPS numbers of .627 and .444, respectively. Lofton is a strong athlete who was rated by Baseball America as being the best athlete of any Giants pick other than Brown in the 2010 draft. A ninth round pick, Lofton put up a pedestrian .615 OPS in 418 at-bats in Augusta. He did steal 22 bags with the Green Jackets, but he was caught 14 times, a sign that his instincts on the basepaths aren't that great and are in need of improvement in San Jose. However with his athleticism, Lofton has a lot of potential to be a contributor to this San Jose lineup in 2012.

Who Should Giants Fans Watch Out for on the Mound?

Shawn Sanford and Taylor Rogers led the Green Jackets rotation in 2011 and will be expected to do the same in San Jose in 2012. Sanford's 10-10 record doesn't impress, but he did post a 2.55 ERA, a 1.02 WHIP and a K/BB ratio of 3.57 in the Sally a year ago. Sanford's strength as a pitcher is his control, as he walked only 30 batters in 169.2 innings pitched (good for a BB/9 of 1.7). That being said, while his control,  command and ability to keep the ball on the ground to limit hits has been impressive (1.69 GO/AO last year), he doesn't possess overwhelming stuff or strikeout prowess. Last year, his K/9 was only 5.7, a regression from the 8.6 mark he put up in 2010 in Salem Keizer. It'll be interesting to see how well he keeps batters at bay in the Cal League in 2012, especially considering the park factors and t he'll be around league average age-wise for a pitcher at 23 years old. He's off to a good start as he went six innings and allowed only three hits and no runs while walking one and striking out one in his debut start of the 2012 season (which resulted in a win for San Jose credited to Sanford).

As for Rogers, while his 2012 debut wasn't as impressive as Sanford's (he went five innings and allowed seven hits, two runs and a walk; but he did strike out seven and earned the win), he does share a similar profile to Sanford as a pitcher, even though he is a year older. Much like Sanford, Rogers showed good command in Augusta last year (2.26 K/BB ratio) and a strong ability to keep the ball on the ground (2.11 GO/AO ratio last year with the Green Jackets). However, he doesn't blow away hitters (5.0 K/9) and he can prove to be quite hittable (career H/9 of 9.3). While Sanford's age and skills give him a little bit more upside, Rogers could prove to be a good No. 2 guy in the San Jose rotation in 2012.

The Giants will have wild cards on the staff in Stephen Harrold, Seth Rosin, Josh Osich and Edward Concepcion, who will all be in the Giants bullpen to begin the year in 2012 (though Rosin and Osich have starter potential). Harrold was rated as the 25th best prospect in the Giants system, according to Baseball America, and Rosin is a power-armed right hander who has cracked the Top 30 in many lists. Both have showed a strong ability to strike batters out over the course of their minor league careers (Harrold has a minor league career K/9 of 9.3 while Rosin is just a notch below at 9.2), but they don't have very high ceilings as older, polished arms out of college.

Osich is a big wild card because it is unknown if the Giants will keep him in the bullpen or if they might move him into the rotation eventually. Osich started in college at Oregon State (and excelled as he threw a no-hitter against UCLA last year), but he had arm issues that could have been related to TJ surgery in 2009 (which forced him to miss 2010) and was shut down for the remainder of the 2011 season (which ended hurting his draft stock as he fell to the Giants' slot in the sixth round; he originally had first round/supplemental round potential pre-shut down). While it is probably wise to ease Osich into professional pitching by keeping him in the pen to begin the year, I do hope Giants management somehow works him into the rotation at some point this year. He has the ability to start, as evidenced by his track record in college, along with a repertoire that includes a solid fastball that touches 97 MPH, and a slider and changeup that have average to slightly above potential. A move of Osich to the rotation would increase his value significantly, and make him a steal as a sixth-round selection.

A sleeper out of the bullpen to watch out for is Concepcion, as he has showed a strong ability to strike batters out (career 9.1 K/9), but has had significant command and control issues as well. After a disastrous stint in the Northwest League which saw him post a 6.39 ERA and K/BB ratio of 1.24 (a minor league career low, and that includes his stint in the DSL) in 63.1 IP as a starter, Concepcion bounced back with a move to the pen in Augusta and posted a 3.69 ERA and 1.72 K/BB ratio in 52.1 IP. Concepcion still walked hitters in bunches (6.2 BB/9), but he did strike out 10.7 batters per nine innings, his best total in that category since his stint in the Arizona Rookie League (when it was 11.5). If Concepcion can harness his control even a little bit, he could be a very valuable arm in the San Jose bullpen this year, and could see his stock as a prospect rise by the end of the season simply because of his ability to strike batters out.

What Should We Expect from the Giants in 2012?

San Jose has been one of the strengths in the Giants' system "team-wise" for a while. They have consistently competed for Cal League titles while at the same time developing talent that has progressed nicely in their system. Of course, it's always tough to judge prospects (hitters especially) in the Cal League because of the offensive-friendly park factors. We have seen many hitters mash in the Cal League, only to be fully exposed in their transition to the Double-A Eastern League. This year, the offense will attract a lot of attention, especially with 2011 Draft picks Panik, Susac and Oropesa expected to get a lot of at-bats. Past those though (and maybe Duvall), the talent offensively does drop off quite a bit. I'm not a big believe in Lofton, and Jurica seems to be backup material at the Major League level at best. Furthermore, the pitching seems less strong in comparison to years past, as the staff lacks that front line starter they've sported in years past (Wheeler last year, Surkamp two years ago, Bumgarner and Alderson in 2009).

I think San Jose has produced a clubhouse environment where the team will always be competitive and I don't expect that to stop in 2012. However, considering how reliant they will be on offense (and considering this is Susac and Oropesa's first exposure to professional pitching, that's a big risk), and how thin the pitching looks, I expect a big regression for the CL Giants in 2012 from their 90-50 record a year ago.

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