It had been a long time coming since the San Francisco Giants had a winning season.
One of the best pitching staffs around overcame major deficiencies on offense, and for the first time since 2004, the Giants found themselves above the .500 mark when the season came to an end.
Not only did the big club win 88 games, the organization’s minor league teams combined to win the most in all of the land. Two of those teams, San Jose and Salem Keizer, claimed their league’s respective titles while the Giants’ Double-A affiliate, the Connecticut Defenders, lost in the Eastern League championship series.
The emphasis put on bringing in better quality to the system has everything to do with how the teams in the organization have performed. While it may not seem like it, as Brian Sabean looks to plug in veteran stopgaps to upgrade the woeful offense, the kids in the system are coming along nicely.
That is why the Giants’ system is now consistently ranked amongst the best around—a quick turnaround considering where the system was just five years ago. The core of the team—Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Pablo Sandoval, Brian Wilson—are all products of the system, and with Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner making their debuts this season, they are the first wave of talent to come through the organization.
The front office can only hope that the success that the kids had this season is only a sign of things to come.
1. Buster Posey, Catcher
When the Giants said Posey was on the fast track to the majors, they weren’t joking around. Just 14 months ago, he signed his first professional contract that included a $6.2 million bonus after being the No. 5 overall pick and winning the Golden Spikes Award at Florida State following a completely insane year offensively.
Between San Jose and Fresno in his first full year, Posey did nothing to hurt his stock—hitting .325 with a .416 OBP, 18 HR and 80 RBI. Posey got a surprising call to the majors just days after the Giants said they wouldn't call him when the rosters expanded in September—albeit spending more time behind the plate in the bullpen than on the actual diamond.
Regardless of the lack of playing time, Posey is the Giants’ backstop of the future. Not only can he hit for average, he can hit for power to all fields, take a walk, and doesn’t strikeout much at all. Posey has the ability to quickly adjust at the plate and is rarely fooled, no matter what the count is.
Behind the plate, Posey is a great athlete with soft hands and a cannon arm. Between San Jose and Fresno, Posey threw out a combined 46 percent of base runners trying to steal. Put together the polished bat that he has and the position he plays, you have one of the best prospects in the game.
2. Madison Bumgarner, Starting Pitcher
After leading all of the minors with a 1.46 ERA in 2008, the big lefty finished his 2009 campaign with a 1.85 mark, good for third in the minors. However, this wasn’t the same Bumgarner we saw last season—one who was blowing away hitters with huge fastballs. This version of Bumgarner was one that saw his velocity go down as the season went on.
When he made his major league debut in September against the Padres, there were more fastballs hitting 87 or 88 than there were in the 90's. Even with loss of fastball zip, Bumgarner still managed to go 12-2 this season and limit Eastern League hitters to a .209 average after he was promoted to Double-A in May.
The drop in velocity is obviously the biggest concern when it comes to Bumgarner’s development. If the velocity does come back, he will throw in the mid-90's with a solid slider and a changeup that is still developing. The premium fastball and unique arm angle is Bumgarner’s calling card. Despite being 20, he is as mature as a five-year vet on the mound. The talent is there for him to live up to the billing as a frontline starter in the majors.
3. Thomas Neal, Outfield
2009 was a breakout season for Neal. The Giants’ 36th round pick in 2005, who was a draft and follow and signed a year later, was healthy for the first time in almost two years and the stats were reflective of that.
Neal was close to the top of almost every statistical category in the California League, and set the pace with a .431 on-base percentage. Neal also cut down on his strikeouts (24.1 percent in 2008 to 20.6 percent in 2009) while boosting his walk percentage nearly two points compared to last season (from 10.1 percent to 12 percent).
Just 22 years of age, Neal is still developing as a hitter because of all the time he has missed due to injury before the 2009 season. But the strides he made this year show that, when he is healthy, he can be a force in the middle of the order. He isn't the fastest runner on the bases or in the field, but with his shoulder healthy once again, he showed off a very good arm—recording 15 assists as San Jose's starting left fielder.
4. Zack Wheeler, Starting Pitcher
Instead of going with one of the high-priced high school pitchers still available when they selected sixth in June’s First-Year Player Draft, the Giants went with Wheeler, who was viewed as more of the financially safe pick.
That certainly doesn’t mean the kid does not have talent, as he was one of the top high school right-handers in the draft. As a senior at East Paulding High School, Wheeler posted a 9-0 record with a 0.54 ERA. In 77.2 innings, Wheeler struck out 151 batters while allowing only 31 hits and walking 20.
Wheeler sports a fastball that sits in the low 90's tops out at 95. Along with a top-notch fastball, Wheeler throws a power curve, or slurve. He throws it differently to different hitters, throwing it with more sweeping movement to right-handed hitters. He also has the ability to throw it tighter to hit the inside corner for a called strike. Compared to Bumgarner at this point in time, Wheeler is further along than the Giants’ 20-year-old southpaw.
5. Roger Kieschnick, Outfielder
Another 2008 draftee who began his professional career with San Jose, Kieschnick showed the legitimate power and run production that made him a third round pick. In a league full of talented, Kieschnick ranked second with 110 RBI and fifth with 68 extra base hits. He also ranked in the California League’s top 10 in almost every other offensive category while hitting in an order that featured Neal and Posey for most of the season.
His weakness is like a lot of other minor leaguers in the system—plate discipline. Although he has very good power, Kieschnick gets overly aggressive and swings and misses a whole lot more compared to the other prospects that were in the San Jose lineup.
In 131 games, Kieschnick struck out 130 times, which comes out to once every four at-bats. He also didn’t walk too often—only 36 times in 517 at-bats. As he moves up the chain, pitchers are certainly going to try and feast on his aggressive approach more and more.
6. Tommy Joseph, Catcher/Infielder
For the second time in three years, the Giants ventured to the desert to select a big-time player from Horizon High School in Scottsdale, Ariz. In 2007 it was right-hander Tim Alderson in the first round, and this past June it was Joseph, who was taken with the 55th overall pick. After being mostly a designated hitter and first baseman his first thee years at Horizon, Joseph moved behind the plate as a senior and became one of the best catching prospects in the draft. He has the term that scouts love to throw around in "light tower power."
But Joseph isn’t known for his defense behind the dish. What made him such a high pick was the huge potential he has at the plate. He likely isn’t going to stay behind the plate for very long, if at all, with Posey being the obvious franchise backstop of the future.
Joseph's bat won't a problem at first because of the power potential he has. Joseph is a big kid, standing 6'1" and 215 lbs., and doesn't have the greatest athleticism in the world, so his range won't be anything special. Think of somebody along the lines of a young Paul Konerko when you think of what Joseph can become.
7. Dan Runzler, Relief Pitcher
Need a scouting report on any Giants player in the system? Runzler is your guy. A ninth round pick out of UC Riverside in the 2007, the 24-year-old Runzler was just another reliever putting up solid numbers in the lower levels of the minors. That all changed in 2009 when he made stops at every full-season affiliate in the Giants’ system this year.
There’s no other way to say it—Runzler was flat out dominant at every level of the minor leagues in 2009, striking out 83 batters in just 59 innings before joining the big league club for the stretch drive.
Armed with a mid-90's fastball and a hammer for a curve, Runzler blew through the Giants organization after starting the season at Low-A Augusta. Stops at San Jose, Connecticut, Fresno, and finally a September call-up made Runzler the first player to appear at every full-season outpost and then in the major leagues in one season. He will certainly be a part of the Giants bullpen for the 2010 season and beyond. The journey is only beginning for this talented southpaw.
8 . Rafael Rodriguez, Outfielder
Signed by the Giants for $2.55 million out of the Dominican Republic in July 2008, Rodriguez made his debut this year the Arizona Rookie league just days before his 17th birthday. It was an aggressive move from the Giants, as some thought Rodriguez wouldn’t make his debut in the United States until 2010. Despite the lack of power, Rodriguez did show good plate discipline for a player his age, sporting a .392 on-percentage while only striking out five more times than he walked.
Being so young, the 6’5”, 198-pound Rodriguez is still expected to grow. He should develop more power once he puts on more weight and muscle. Combine more strength with the quality approach that he has at such a young age, the numbers should only improve as he gets older. He may not develop at the same pace as others on this list, but he definitely is one to watch for down the road.
9. Brandon Crawford, Shortstop
Entering the 2008 college season, there weren’t many other infielders that ranked higher than Crawford did. However, a sub-par showing his junior year at UCLA led to Crawford’s stock dropping a considerable amount.
The Giants selected the Bay Area native in the fourth round of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft. He made his debut this season at High-A San Jose. After mashing Cal League pitching around over the course of 105 at bats, the Giants aggressively promoted Crawford to Double-A where he never got things going with the bat.
The biggest thing that plagued Crawford at Double-A was making contact at the plate. In 392 at bats, Crawford drew just 20 walks striking out 100 times. Despite the struggles in Connecticut, there is a lot to like about the 22-year-old Crawford. He is a very good all-around athlete, defensively sound, and has good power potential. If he can improve the approach at the plate in the minors this season, he could very well find himself in the mix for a roster spot in 2011.
10. Nick Noonan, Second Baseman
Coming into the 2009 season, some people were predicting that Noonan would have a breakout type of year. After two very good seasons in the Arizona Rookie League and then at Low-A Augusta, Noonan joined the talented group of prospects at High-A San Jose looking to establish himself as one of the top-flight second base prospects in the game.
A first half struggle with the Little Giants had people worried that Noonan was taking a step back in terms of his development. However, the post all-star break numbers looked much more like what we are used to seeing from the 20-year-old Noonan. The biggest thing that caught people’s eyes was the nearly 50-point jump in his on-base percentage—drawing more walks in the second half of the 2009 season (28) than he did in all of 2008 (23).
The numbers show that Noonan was still getting used to facing competition that was at least two years older than he is. Most Cal League pitchers are 22 and 23, while Noonan turned 20 just as the season was getting underway. He will probably never develop into the same kind of power like a certain second baseman he has been compared to in the past, Chase Utley. But if he can keep progressing at the plate, then he will again become one of the best second base prospects around.
**Photo credit to Joseph Pun, who provides quality coverage of all things Giants minor league baseball. Bookmark his website, azgiants.com , and then follow him over on Twitter for news, photos, and interviews with future Giants.