Before delving into the post-spring training scouting report on each of the San Francisco Giants' top 10 prospects, it's instructive to break down what constitutes a top prospect.
Reliever Heath Hembree is often ranked as one of the Giants' top prospects. However, since he's a reliever, his potential long-term value just isn't as high as starting pitching prospects like Kyle Crick, Clayton Blackburn and Chris Stratton. A starting pitcher typically throws 180-220 innings a year, whereas a reliever throws between 60-80 innings. That in itself makes starters the more valuable commodity.
If Crick, Blackburn or Stratton don't make it as starters, they can always be converted to the bullpen. If Hembree ultimately can't make it as a reliever, there's nowhere else for him to go. Thus, when ranking prospects, potential upside and future role should be valued more than proximity to the big leagues.
Hembree might come up and help the Giants this year. Blackburn, Stratton and Crick will spend this season in A-ball. However, when it's all said and done, those three will likely provide the organization with far more value than any relief pitching prospects will, which is why Hembree shouldn't rank quite as highly as most prospect experts have him.
With that caveat in mind, here is how I would rank the Giants' top prospects post-spring training:
1. Starting Pitcher Kyle Crick
Crick is likely to start the season at the top of the rotation for High-A San Jose. The 20-year-old throws a fastball in the low-to-mid 90s with a plus slider and developing changeup. He has the stuff to pitch at the top of a big league rotation, but he'll need to improve his control after walking 5.4 hitters per nine innings pitched last season (BB/9).
A scout gave Marc Hulet of FanGraphs the following report on Crick:
He’s a great athlete for a big guy… and you can’t teach that kind of velocity. ... His delivery is pretty easy and the ball really jumps out of his hand… The fastball is on top of them [before they know it]. ... He is really, really hard to hit. ... He tries to make the perfect pitch but he doesn’t need to. His stuff is more than good enough.
2. Starting Pitcher Clayton Blackburn
Blackburn is likely to join Crick in the San Jose rotation this year after he was promoted there last season in time for the postseason. The 19-year-old righty took the ball in the first game of the playoffs and threw seven innings of three-hit, one-run ball to earn the victory.
Blackburn doesn't have the same pure stuff as Crick, but he has a more advanced feel for pitching and better control. He's walked only 21 of the 651 hitters whom he's faced thus far in his minor league career. He's a traditional four-pitch guy with a fastball that sits in the 88-93 mph range.
The pure stuff might not put him at the top of a big league rotation. However, his command, control and pitchability will help him advance through the minor leagues quickly and settle in to the middle of the Giants rotation.
3. Starting Pitcher Chris Stratton
Stratton—the Giants' first-round selection last year—had his season cut short when he was struck in the head by a line drive during batting practice. He returned to action this spring but was reportedly not all the way back to where he was before the injury. According to Andrew Baggarly of CSN Bay Area, the Giants will send him to Low-A Augusta to open the year instead of aggressively moving him up the chain:
Before the injury, Stratton put up a 2.76 ERA while striking out 16 hitters in 16.1 innings for the Giants' short-season affiliate. He went 11-2 with a 2.38 ERA and 127 strikeouts in 109.2 innings for Mississippi State last year.
Scouting director John Barr told Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle when the Giants drafted Stratton, "He has a four-pitch mix. ... He can throw breaking balls for strikes. His fastball goes anywhere from 90 to 95. He really competes on the mound.”
4. Right Fielder Mac Williamson
The Giants used their third-round pick on Wake Forest right fielder Mac Williamson last year. Williamson rewarded the Giants by hitting .321/.375/.588 with nine home runs in only 144 plate appearances. He hit .286/.396/.589 with 17 home runs for Wake Forest last year.
Listed at 6'4" and 240 pounds, Williamson has the build to eventually be a legitimate power threat in the middle of the Giants lineup. Williamson is likely to join Crick and Blackburn at San Jose this year. San Jose manager Andy Skeels said:
Mac swings a big bat. He’s got bat speed. He’s got power. He’s just a good hitter. In my limited look in spring training, I’ve been really impressed and I’m looking forward to seeing if he makes it to San Jose. I’d love to have him in the outfield. He’d be a really nice addition, especially sitting in the middle of the lineup for us. This kid is going to be a really good hitter and somebody who can provide some thump.
5. Center Fielder Gary Brown
Brown was the Giants' top prospect heading into last year. He still profiles as an everyday center fielder in the big leagues because of his speed and Gold Glove potential despite a disappointing season at Double-A last year in which his OPS fell by nearly 200 points.
Brown continued to impress with his speed and defense this spring. However, he also continued to struggle with the bat—hitting just .219/.265/.406 in 32 spring at-bats.
One scout told Hulet, "He [Brown] has the ability to be very good both offensively and defensively. ... He has plus make-up plus the wherewithal to take those tools and turn them into skills.”
Brown will need to use his make-up and work ethic to improve his results at the plate at Triple-A Fresno this year.
6. Second Baseman Joe Panik
The Giants are moving Panik from shortstop to second base this year at Double-A to prepare him to be the eventual successor to Marco Scutaro. Panik had a solid season at San Jose last year—hitting .297/.368/.402 with more walks than strikeouts. His plate discipline is currently his best tool:
ESPN prospect expert Keith Law said via Twitter that it's more likely Panik will end up as a utility player than a regular. Like Brown, Panik is going to have to show more with the bat in the upper levels of the minor leagues in order to secure an every day job with the Giants in the near future:
7. Catcher Andrew Susac
Andrew Susac was the Giants' second-round choice in 2011 after he hit an impressive .313/.444/.552 in his final season at Oregon State.
He had a bit of a disappointing season at San Jose last year. He hit just .244 while striking out 100 times in 426 plate appearances. He did manage to put up a .351 on-base percentage despite his low batting average, and scouts remain high on his tools:
Susac will likely advance to Double-A this year. He'll have to show improvement at the plate to eventually move incumbent catcher Buster Posey off of the position and surpass Hector Sanchez on the depth chart.
With Posey in the fold for the next nine years, Susac could end up as trade bait like former top catching prospect Tommy Joseph—who was dealt last season for Hunter Pence.
8. Starting Pitcher Michael Kickham
The left-handed Kickham uses a four-pitch mix that includes a fastball that gets up to 94, a slider, a curve and a changeup. His stuff is certainly good enough to pitch in the middle of a big league rotation.
The one thing holding Kickham back is his control, as he's walked 114 hitters in 264.2 innings thus far in his minor league career. If he can show improved control at Triple-A Fresno, he could get his first crack at the big leagues this season.
If one of the Giants' starting pitchers goes down, he'll likely battle fellow prospect Chris Heston for the call to the big leagues.
9. Starting Pitcher Chris Heston
Heston had an outstanding year at Double-A Richmond last season, but he struggled mightily this spring. In 10.2 innings, he was pounded for 14 hits, 12 runs and four home runs.
With a fastball that rarely cracks 90 mph, he has to rely on command and movement. He has a plus sinker that generates plenty of grounders, and he's flashed the ability to throw strikes throughout his minor league career. This spring, he was struggling to get sink and locate his pitches at the bottom of the zone.
Heston said of his spring struggles (via MLB.com), "The ball's just up. ... Pushing the ball a little bit, rushing to the plate and things are just kind of moving fast. ... Step back, slow down and get back to that downhill plane and I think it will be all right."
10. Reliever Heath Hembree
Hembree continued his steady climb toward the big leagues by striking out 10 in 10 innings this spring. Alex Pavlovic of the San Jose Mercury News recently wrote of Hembree:
Hembree is still inconsistent at this point of his career, but the coaching staff loves his ability to bounce back from bad outings. Obviously, that’s a prerequisite for being a closer.
You have to love that ability to elevate the fastball, too.
“He had good stuff and commanded it pretty well going up and down (the zone),” Bochy said. “He’s gotten better and better as the spring has gone on. He was short-arming a little early in camp, but he’s free and easy now.”
Given how Hembree has looked at times this spring, it won’t be long before he owns a locker at AT&T Park.
Like Kickham, he has the pure stuff to succeed in the big leagues but control is an issue after he walked 21 hitters in 43 innings last year. With a fastball that sits in the mid-90s and a plus slider, Hembree should have no reservations about attacking the strike zone. If he shows improved control at Triple-A Fresno, he should be the first reliever up this year.
The Giants are in win-now mode at the big league level, but that doesn't mean they won't rely on young players to help push them over the top again as the last few seasons have proved. Young players like shortstop Brandon Crawford and first baseman Brandon Belt played key roles last year, and rookies Madison Bumgarner and Posey came up midseason to help push the 2010 team over the top.
Perhaps this year the farm system will deliver more of the same for the Giants.