But the rotation is getting more expensive to keep together, and the Giants' pitching factory under vice president of player personnel Dick Tidrow is beginning to stall. They sacrificed their only elite pitching prospect, Zack Wheeler, to the Mets for Beltran—who became a free agent after the season and can't bring draft-pick compensation because his contract forbid offering him arbitration.
The current strength of San Francisco's system is in position players, led by speedster Gary Brown and longball threat Tommy Joseph. Brandon Belt, who graduated to the majors in 2011, could make an impact for years to come. Scouting director John Barr added two polished college hitters in the 2011 draft, with St. John's shortstop Joe Panik in the first round and Oregon State catcher Andrew Susac in the second.
However, the Giants don't have another can't-miss position player like Posey in the system. He's determined to catch again and club officials will relent to his wishes, but they've talked about moving their best hitter out of harm's way in the not too distant future. Catcher may be the richest position in the system, with Joseph, Susac and Hector Sanchez.
The farm system was a priority for managing partner Bill Neukom, who was forced out by other partners in a palace coup in September. In the new management structure, club president Larry Baer was elevated to CEO and will report directly to the investors. The reorganization wasn't expected to impact Brian Sabean, baseball's longest-tenured GM with his current club.
BA's list stands out for their putting Tommy Joseph #2 on their list. Most had him 3-4, though he was as low as 9 in MiLBA's Top 15 list. So it is not a huge outlier, just one beyond, but BA is certainly the highest rank of Joseph. Shows just how powerful his potential is right now: he improved defensively where people now think he can stay at catcher, and he showed a lot of power despite being one of the youngest players in the league.
They are also the only list to include Brett Pill anywhere on a list. I understand why a list might not include him, he certainly has a lot to prove, despite his stellar 2011. Still, he did do very well in both AAA and the majors last season, and he did it while suffering from his disappointment of 2010 and his dropping off the 40 man, and then no team even wanted to take him at virtually no cost to the other team, other than a 40 man spot. Remember, Frandsen in his disappointment, sulked (and publicly bad-mouthed the Giants) his way off the team.
I think he's one bad injury from getting him some Pill-sanity, though at a much, much lower level of insaneness (no magazine covers for him). Not that he'll be a star or even necessarily good, but he plays great defense at 1B and looks like he can hit OK but with good power, I think he could certainly outdo what Huff did last season, and be an average 2-WAR player, which is extremely good value for a scrub on the borderline between the 25 and 40 man rosters. He'll be a right-handed Travis Ishikawa without the angst about performing, and be a great bench player for us over the next 6 seasons, plus maybe shine a little when an injury or poor performance lets him start for a while.
They are also the only major list to have Chuckie Jones still on their Top 20. He disappointed in 2011, but injuries was part of the reason for that. I am still hopeful, he's still very young, plenty of time for adjustments.
They are also the only major list to not like Josh Osich highly. Some had him as high as 7th, but BA ranked him 23rd. I guess they are more worried about his health and his ability to return from it than the other lists. Because, if he's anything like what he was before he was shut down, we are talking about another Dirty, a lefty who can hurl in the mid-to-high 90's MPH. In fact, BA thinks that he's capable of being a #2 starter: if healthy...
They are also not as enamored with Clayton Blackburn's stellar 2011 professional debut. They only see him as a middle rotation (#3-4) starter at best. But his numbers were so stellar, I would lean towards the irrational exuberance than rational practicality.
Thought I would end with a look at Gary Brown's overall prospect rankings. BA had him ranked #39 out of 100 (unfortunately, Tommy Joseph was ranked 100th until Cespedes signed, pushing him to 101st; Hembree also got some talk for the bottom of the list but did not make it). BP had him #18 on their 101 list. Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com had him #48. John Sickel's had him #43 on his Top 120 list (He had Joe Panik #117). Minor League Baseball Analyst's two authors had him pretty close, #24 and #26.
And BA's top editors also had Brown up that high, which I found out in the book. Jim Callis ranked him #29, JJ Cooper #39, Will Lingo #26, and John Manuel #25.
I've also seen a bunch of blog posts lamenting the loss of Zack Wheeler. Most of the ranks I've seen had him in the 40's, more mid-to-high 40's, though BA had his 55th in 2011, falling from 49th in 2010 (which is a steeper fall than it seems because a lot of prospects above him either graduated or fell more themselves).
What people don't recall is that once you get past the Top 15-25 prospects overall, there is a lot of variableness in whether prospects make it or not. Following is a list of past 40-ish prospects:
- 2009: Jordan Schafer, Angel Villalona, Tim Alderson, Andrew Lambo, Kyle Blanks, Josh Vitters
- 2008: Ian Stewart, Lars Anderson, Jeff Clement, Josh Vitters, Daric Barton, Matt Antonelli, J.R. Towles
- 2007: Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Jacob Mcgee, Carlos Carrasco, Josh Fields, Ian Stewart, Bill Rowell, Travis Buck
- 2006: Homer Bailey, Anibal Sanchez, Mark Rogers, Adam Loewen, Adam Miller, Brian Anderson
- 2005: Eric Duncan, Brian Anderson, Conor Jackson, Michael Aubrey, Dan Meyer, Josh Barfield, Yusmeiro Petit, Homer Bailey
I'll note here that I'm doing this from memory right now, so maybe a few of the above worked out better than I remembered, but generally, these prospects (and as you can see, some stayed in there in consecutive years, boosting their farm system's "status" as a good farm system, whereas the Giants top players - Lincecum, Bumgarner, Sandoval, Posey, Belt - were maybe on BA's top list, at most, one time in their time as prospects; heck, Sandoval couldn't even get on his own team's top prospect list, let alone the BA overall top list).
Still, just because Wheeler is on the list again this year is no guarantee that he's going to ever make it. The Giants, by trading him, effectively voted that he will not make it, at least as a good starter. He might eat a lot of innings and be an OK middle rotation starter in the majors, but as a study by The Hardball Times concluded, teams usually know their prospects better than other teams and tend to trade away the prospects that they have deemed to be not keepers. Given the Giants brain trust's (Sabean, Tidrow et al plus Barr) stellar record in trading prospects and not giving up a good, above 2-WAR per season player, if I had to bet, I would bet that Wheeler not reach his potential and be a good starter, with a low ERA.
And as a sad reminder for us of how prospect high rankings are no guarantees, in 2001 and 2002 Jerome Williams was ranked #19 overall for us and in 2003 Jesse Foppert was #5 (! just behind Jose Reyes and Joe Mauer and ahead of Brandon Phillips, K-Rod, Scott Kazmir, Miguel Cabrera, Justin Morneau, Victor Martinez, Hanley Ramirez, B.J. Upton). Heck, Boof Bonser was #29 in 2002, and Kurt Ainsworth #30 in 2001.
Now, to some of the points made in the quote above from BA.
First, it notes that the Giant's pitching factory is beginning to stall. That is because they have selected position players in 3 of the past 4 drafts, whereas before, the Giants had mostly spent their first round picks on pitchers. Those picks are the picks with the highest chance (roughly 10% when you are contending) of finding a good, above average player.
So that is why they are "stalling", not because they are failing to find pitching while actively looking for pitching, but just because they are working on finding good position players in recent seasons instead of pitching and thus not finding as many pitchers. If you stop looking for pitching as intently as you did before, I view that as less a failure and more a change in strategy/tactics. While I think some of the 2011 picks could pick up the pace (Crick, Osich, Blackburn), I expect the Giants to put more emphasis on pitching again going forward, unless there is clearly a "must pick" BPA position player who falls to them. And, still, most of their picks in rounds 1-10 were pitching, even in 2011,
Second, there are two reasons why the Giants don't have another can't miss position player in the system currently. First, those are very hard to find when you are winning. You have a much greater chance when you are losing a lot of games and getting the great draft picks. Second, the Giants did have one in Belt, but due to injuries, they decided to rush him to the majors and hope that he could figure things out. Unfortunately, he didn't. But had he followed normal development, he most likely would have spent 2011 in the minors and be eligible to be ranked as a prospect for 2012. For all intents and purposes, Belt is still considered a high potential prospect, but according to baseball rules, he cannot be considered a rookie anymore, which is the criteria that BA uses to decide who to cover and who not to follow.
Thirdly, the Giants made a priority of the farm system before Neukom took over. They spent all that money on Villalona, RafRod, Posey, and Wheeler, over-paying for each of them. They also went over slot for Lincecum, Posey, Bumgarner, Wheeler, among others prior to Neukom. They also brought in John Barr, both to emphasize position players (not announced but clearly a change in the drafts so far) and improve international scouting and development (that was announced as one of the reasons to get him).
Let's put it this way: the Giants are currently staffed by a lot of farm products who were all acquired long before Neukom took over, ever so briefly, as managing owner, the main effects of his influence on the draft will not have a visible effect on the team until the draftees from 2009-11 start showing up and taking starting positions.
Thankfully, in any case, the CBA no longer allows a team to punt a pick, so even if they were tempted to even think about doing that again, the Giants will be required to select and presumably sign their draftees going forward, Neukom or no Neukom.
And while the removal of Neukom was described as a "palace coup", I would note that the Chronicle's Insiders reporters, Matier and Ross, reported that the reason he was forced out was because he was asking for a $10M annual salary. As much as I liked Neukom as managing owner and miss having him in charge, if there is any truth to that rumor, I am glad he was pushed out, I would much rather the team spend that money on players and development than paying the CEO.
Lastly, most rankings of the Giants farm system have them rated very low. While that is probably true (I'm not going to get into that), that is missing the whole content of why they are in that position today. They are mostly in that position today because of a number of reasons.
First and most importantly of all, they have been a winning team for 3 seasons now. When you are a contender, you get lousy first round pick position and it is very difficult to find a good player drafting that far back. You can't help but have a bad system when you are winning for any length of time. Let's put it this way: the A's would have had an even worse farm system today, probably, if they didn't trade away most of their All-Star players and picked up a boatload of prospects. Think of how good a farm system the Giants would be ranked to have had they traded away, say, Lincecum, Cain, and Sandoval?
Secondly, they have been very aggressive, and mostly successful, with moving their top prospects into the majors. If the Giants prospects were like other team's, Posey, Bumgarner, and Belt could still be in the farm system, hoping that this would be the year they break out, but because they are talented, highly ranked in the Top 100 and giving their team the appearance of a strong farm system.
For example, Homer Bailey was ranked #48 in 2005, #38 in 2006, #5 in 2007, and #9 in 2008, boosting the Reds' overall ranking and making them viewed as more of a successful farm system, and yet the Reds are still waiting for him to break out. Belt was only on one list, 2011, Posey and Bumgarner 2009 and 2010, Lincecum only in 2007, Cain highly ranked in 2005 and 2006 (he was #91 in 2004). So who has had a better farm system then?
Thirdly, the Giants are actually doing OK, when you examine the circumstances. Given their poor draft position in the past couple of drafts, they are actually doing well having a highly ranked prospect of Brown's caliber in their system. Heck, they would look even better right now if Belt had been kept in AAA in 2011 instead of being brought up a lot due to injury needs. Given that Belt is still a prospect, just not by definition for any of the Top Prospects lists, how can their farm system be accurately represented if Belt is not included as part of their farm system?
So there are all sorts of problems with the methodology of how farm systems are ranked. And I don't think that there is a way to come up with one measurement that says it all. I think one good way to see how well the farm system is doing is by looking at how many of the starters are farm products. By that measure, the Giants farm system is looking pretty good compared to most MLB teams.
People complain that the Giants have not produced position players, but neglect to realize that the question can be turned back to them if we ask them to name which teams have produced a better rotation than Lincecum, Cain, Bumgarner from their farm system? That's the reason why the Giants have not produced many position prospects, they have focused on producing great pitching prospects.
It is a trade off that many complainers ignore or slough off. And if I had to chose between having an equivalent hitter or one of our great pitchers, I would chose our pitchers in a heart beat, pitching is the way teams dominate in the players, it is no guarantee, as my research showed, but it is a necessary ingredient if you want to have any strong and good hopes of going deep into the playoffs. The complainers do not realize that demanding position players be produced means less pitchers, which means that they don't really understand that today's research says that if you want to do well in the playoffs, you focus on pitching and fielding, period.