With 16 different players set to make their major league debut in 2008, the Giants broke a franchise record set by the 1926 New York team that featured 14 first timers. The previous franchise record in the San Francisco era was 12 set by the 1996 squad.
Can you name the player from that 1996 team who ended up with the most career service time?
Over the past few years, we've been lucky to see more and more young players come up and make an immediate and refreshing impact at the major league level (Jonathan Papelbon, Evan Longoria, Ryan Howard and Milwaukee's dynamic duo of Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder to name just a few). With the Giants in the midst of a rebuilding phase and somewhat lucky to find themselves playing at a better than a .400 pace, I find myself this season focusing more and more on the future of the team. From players making an impact at the major league level now (Tim Lincecum) to those whose contributions are still a few more years away (Angel Villalona), the Giants future isn't as bleak as has been rumored. With this year's draft of amateur players, it just got a whole lot better (say it with me folks…Buster Posey).
Although the off-season signing of center fielder Aaron Rowand initially left me skeptical of the club's commitment to rebuilding, the Giants have seen no less than 23 different rookies on the active roster at various times this year, with a franchise-record 15 of them making their major league debut. Another, 2008 sandwich pick Conor Gillaspie, will soon become the 16th rookie to make his debut, since the club purchased his contract on September 6. This is all in addition to such rising young starts as Lincecum (24), Matt Cain (23), Jonathan Sanchez (25), Brian Wilson (26), and Fred Lewis (27), each of whom entered this season with fewer than three-years of service time in the majors.
The results have been mixed, and the team has certainly seen its share of rookie mistakes. There have been more than a few positives, however, and it's been quite refreshing after so many years of regularly watching lineups filled with aging, past-their-prime veterans to see so many young players getting their feet wet and showing what they can do in the big leagues.
This influx of youth has definitely piqued my interest, and as a result, I have spent the past three months delving deep into the depths of the Giants minor league system to learn as much as I can about the potential future of the team. Over the next two weeks I will share what I have learned with an in-depth look at the top prospects throughout the organization position by position, starting today with a look at the top five catching prospects.
Though Bengie Molina's three-year, $12 million deal was roundly criticized when the club inked the backstop prior to the 2007 season, he has thus far been money well-spent. The former Gold Glover has been a clutch hitter at the plate and solid behind it, his veteran presence helping to guide the club's impressive stable of young aces. Still, he recently turned 34, and with GM Brian Sabean proclaiming in June that Molina's "clock is ticking," the eldest Molina brother is unlikely to be re-signed when his current deal expires after the 2009 season. This puts the issue of the future of the Giants' catching position squarely in the spotlight.
Steve Holm, 28 years old and in his ninth professional season, made his major league debut this year as Molina's backup after both Guillermo Rodriguez and Eliezer Alfonzo fumbled the job away in Spring Training (Alfonso would also later serve a 50-game suspension for use of a banned performance enhancing drug). Holm is nothing more than a career minor league backup. While passable at the plate in his first two stints with the club prior to September (.256/.351/.390), he is certainly no long-term answer (or even a good short-term band-aid), much less a prospect.
Will the Giants have to turn once again to the free agent market to fill the void when Molina is gone or can they fill that hole from within? The answer to the latter question is an emphatic "yes."
San Francisco Giants Top Five Catching Prospects
1. Buster Posey
Buster Posey – 2008 w/FSU - .463/.566/.879 – 26 HR – 40.6 % CS – FSU 54-14
Northwest League – Salem-Keizer Volcanoes
1st round – 5th overall – 2008 – DOB – 3-27-87 – Bats – Right
Until recently, catcher was one of the weaker positions in the Giants system, with GM Brian Sabean admitting that the organization "lack(ed) depth there, especially at the higher levels." That was until the club selected Florida State catcher Buster Posey with the fifth overall pick in the June 2008 amateur draft. ESPN's Keith Law declared Posey the best overall pick. Baseball America called him the safest selection and ranked him as the fourth best prospect in the nation. I call him Joe Mauer with a bit more power, or, the best thing to happen to this franchise since Lincecum was taken with the 10th overall pick in 2006.
In leading his team to a berth in the College World Series, Posey led the NCAA in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging. He also finished the year topping all college sluggers in hits (119), RBI (93), and total bases (226) and was tied for third in home runs. He hit equally well against both right-handers (.463) and left-handers (.450) and batted .467 with a 1.022 OPS on Fridays, the day college teams typically use their top starter.
And despite having begun his college career as a shortstop (he started all 65 games there as a freshman) and spending just two years behind the dish, the junior quickly became the top catching prospect in the country both offensively and defensively. BA cited his receiving, footwork, and release as "all advanced." His tremendous arm strength was evident in the 94 mph fastball he used to lead the Seminoles in saves this season with 6.
In addition to being named the 2008 ACC Player of the Year, Posey also won the Golden Spikes Award, the Dick Howser Trophy, the Brett Wallace Award, a collegiate Rawlings Gold Glove Award, and the Johnny Bench Award, given annually to the nation's top collegiate catcher.
On draft day, Sabean stated that Posey was "on the fast track," and that it would be "up to him how soon he wants to get going and how soon he can get here." To that end, his signing went down to the final hour before he and the club finally agreed on a franchise-record $6.2 million deal that surprisingly did not include a major league contract. It was, however, the largest bonus awarded any player in this year's draft.
The club was anxious to get him going, so just six days later, he went 1-for-5 in his Arizona Rookie League debut as a DH. Then in just his fourth professional game, Posey went 3-for-3 with his first home run, ending up just a single away from completing the cycle. Overall in Arizona Posey went 10-for-26 (.385) with 3 doubles, a triple and a home run along with 5 walks and only 4 strikeouts before going 0-for-3 with a walk in the AZL Championship game won by the Giants. He finished up the minor league regular season with a three-game stint in Salem-Keizer where he went 3-for-11 with 2 doubles, 2 RBI, three more walks and no strikeouts as the Volcanoes wrapped up a division championship. Posey will conclude his whirlwind debut campaign with an assignment to San Jose where he'll assist the Giants in the California League playoffs that began this past weekend.
He is likely to begin the 2009 season at San Jose, where he'll be able to work with Giants manager Steve Decker, a former major league catcher.
Pablo Sandoval – 2008 MiLB - .350/394/.549 – 20 HR, 96 RBI, 60 XBH – 30-of-68 CS
National League – San Francisco Giants – Active Roster
Signed as amateur free agent – 2003 – DOB 8-11-86 – Bats – Switch
Sandoval was signed by the Giants out of the Dominican in 2003 at the age of 16. A natural catcher, he was initially moved to third base and then later to first base, but this past off-season, management decided that with their lack of depth behind the plate, he would move back to catcher full-time. So while being recognized as San Jose's 2007 Offensive Player of the Year merited a promotion to Double-A ball, he was re-assigned to the Cal-League for a second straight season where he could work with Decker on his defense. Sandoval was charged with 12 passed balls in only 59 games last year, but under Decker's tutelage, he improved his play behind the plate and displayed a strong and accurate arm. Up until the time of his promotion, San Jose pitchers had recorded the best ERA in the California League by nearly a full run per game.
"He throws out 50 percent (of opposing baserunners), but that's just a little part of the game. He needs to learn to control the tempo of the game, control the pitching staff, a lot of little things such as blocking technique," Decker told MiLB.com. That improvement combined with his red-hot bat, finally earned him that trip to Connecticut in June.
Sandoval jumped out of the gate flaming hot, batting .453 with 7 home runs in his first 21 games to win the Minor League Player of the Month award for April. He kept his average over .400 deep into the month of May to help him earn a spot on the Cal-League All-Star team as well as a selection to the Future's Game in New York City, the second time he has been tabbed to participate in the pre-All-Star game exhibition. After his promotion, he continued his hot hitting by batting .337/.364/.549 with 8 HR in 44 games with Connecticut despite playing at pitcher-friendly Dodd Stadium. He earned player of the week honors in late July. By all reports, he personally energized the entire Defender team with his infectiously exuberant attitude.
With 20 home runs and 96 RBI combined between the two stops, the Giants decided to promote Sandoval again, this time straight to San Francisco where he made his ML debut on August 14. After going 0-for-3 in this debut, he caught fire once again and hit safely in nine straight games and 13-of-14 while collecting 22 hits in 53 at bats (.415). He went into the first weekend of September batting .353/.384/.529 with 2 home runs and 7 extra-base hits in his first 68 major league at bats. And as was evident in Connecticut, Sandoval has fired up his big league teammates with his youthful enthusiasm.
If there is a knock on the switch-hitting Sandoval, it is that he is a lesser hitter from the right side of the plate. He batted just .269 cumulatively in the minors this year versus lefties while batting .391 against right-handed pitchers. And for his minor league career, he has batted almost 60 points better from the left side (.267 vs. LHP; .324 vs. RHP).
With the durable Molina playing nearly everyday, Sandoval has seen limited action behind the plate, and as a result, he has also played both corner positions and looked defensively capable of playing either. Because Molina is signed through next year, Posey is not far away, and potential holes needto be filled at both first and third next year, the chances are likely that Sandoval will continue to see time at all three. A full-time move to first base isn't out of the question, either.
Jackson Williams – Career - .213/.306/.314 – 139 G, 10 HR, 46 BB, 104 K – 23 E, 27 PB
California League – San Jose Giants
1st round (supplemental) – 43rd overall – 2007 – DOB – 5-14-86 – Bats – Right
The Giants had high hopes for Williams when they selected him last year with the fifth of their six first round picks, and he entered this year with the label of the Giants' top catching prospect. Thus far he has been a major disappointment, struggling on both sides of the dish and falling (so far) to number 3 on this list. He began the season at Augusta, where he batted just .179 with a .538 OPS in 47 games, but did throw out 50% of runners trying to steal. Sandoval's advancement meant a promotion for Williams to San Jose, where he fared slightly better, batting .231 with a .629 OPS in 50 games. But while his offensive numbers give plenty of reason for concern, the supposedly strong defensive catcher's struggles behind the plate are even more disconcerting. Williams is likely to repeat 2009 at San Jose in what could be a make-or-break year.
Johnny Monell – 2008 MiLB - .303/.370/.518 – 6 HR, 34 RBI – 52 G
Bill Mueller made his ML debut with the 1996 Giants, batting .330 in 200 at bats. He would go on to play 11 years in the majors, appearing in over 1,200 major league games, finishing with a career batting line of .291/.373/.425
Northwest League – Salem-Keizer Volcanoes
30th round – 2007 – DOB – 3-27-86 – Bats - Left
Solid defensively, Monell exhibited a strong throwing arm, good receiving skills, and superior ball blocking abilities last year in the Arizona Rookie League. He began this season in the AZL, batting .405/.479/.643 in 11 games to earn a promotion to Salem-Keizer, where he hit .275 with a .823 OPS, including a .324/.388/.552 clip in August. For the year, he threw out 24-of-52 would-be base stealers (46%). It shouldn't be long until he overtakes Williams on the organizational depth chart.
Michael Ambort – 2008 - .328/.395/.664 – 9 HR, 34 RBI, 34 G
Northwest League – Salem-Keizer Volcanoes
6th round – 2007 – DOB – 4-23-85 – Bats – Switch
Ambort was one of the most highly-regarded hitting catchers in the nation entering his junior year at Lamar University in 2006 and was expected to go high in the draft. Unfortunately, his season was cut short to just six games by Tommy John surgery, and he subsequently fell to the 18th round and chose not to sign. He was able to rebound in his senior year, and the Giants were able to get him in the sixth round, but elbow problems have continued to plague him, and he has seen very limited action in the field. Despite playing in just 34 games, his nine home runs were good for second in the Northwest League this season. The hard-swinging Ambort is valued for his potent bat, which he can swing for average and power from both sides of the plate (.474 SLG vs. LHP; .756 vs. RHP). Because of his elbow, he may not stay behind the dish much longer, with first base a likely alternative destination.
Adam Witter – Career - .256/.348/.487 – 54 HR, 203 RBI, 236 K – 281 G – 41 PB, 28 E
Eastern League – Connecticut Defenders
Signed as amateur free agent – 2006 – DOB – 2-17-83 – Bats - Left
After going undrafted, Witter signed as a free agent out of East Carolina University, where he was used as a first baseman and DH. The Giants moved him to catcher, where they lacked depth, because they like his powerful left-handed bat. His defense is seriously lacking, and any ML future he may have is likely to be as a first baseman or DH.
Hector Sanchez – 2008 - .348/.458/.502 – 21 XBH, 36 BB, 29 K – 55 G
Dominican Summer League – DSL Giants
Signed as amateur free agent – 2006 – DOB – 11-17-89 – Bats – Switch
Good contact hitter with nice on-base ability and some pop. Better from the right side of the plate. After a fantastic year in the Dominican Summer League, the Venezuelan native should make his debut in North America in the AZL next summer. His defense needs improvement, but he can also play first base.
Jesus Navarro – 2008 - .303/.357/.355 – 27 G – 0 E, 3 PB, 10-of-31 CS
Arizona Rookie League – AZL Giants
Signed as amateur free agent – DOB – 1-3-88 – Bats – Right
The 20-year old native of Sinaloa, Mexico had a nice debut in the States after a rough '07 season in the DSL. Seriously lacking in experience, Navarro will be brought along slowly and may begin next year no higher than short-season Salem-Keizer.
A very special thank you goes out to Phillip Ramirez, my Arizona eyes and ears, whose contributions to this report were absolutely invaluable. Be sure to check out his AZL Giants Blog for all the latest the Giants top Rookie League prospects. Additional thanks also go out to Wes Snow in Augusta for all of his help.