2012 SJ Giants Preview: Joe Ritzo Q&A

Joe Ritzo has been the voice of the San Jose Giants for the last seven years. If anyone knows the Giants' high-A affiliate, it's him. San Jose Correspondent Evan Stitt recently talked with Ritzo -- about last year's stars, Gary Brown's future and the standout prospects Ritzo will be keeping an eye on this year.

Q: It looks like you've been around for a couple of league championships for San Jose, is that right?

A: Yeah, I've had a chance to broadcast four California League Championship teams in San Jose -- '05, '07 and then our first back-to-back titles in '09 and 2010.

There's certainly been a lot of great players that have come through San Jose since I've been here, and many of those guys obviously had an impact in the big leagues as well, in helping San Francisco win the World Series two years ago.

A lot of winning baseball here in San Jose, I think our fans have come to expect a winner.

I know San Francisco, as an organization, values winning at the minor-league level. They really see that as an important part of player development -- and we benefit from that here in San Jose.

Q: Last year's team came up a little short. Why do you think that was?

A: Well, we had a great first half, we had a couple of 12-game winning streaks, led the division by 13 games. I think it was going to be impossible to keep that pace in the second half, although we still had a winning record after the All Star break.

But I think you could tell late in the year that we weren't quite the same team that we had in the beginning.

Not only did we lose some of our top players to promotions -- which is certainly not unique to us, every team in the league is going to lose some of their top guys to double-A and triple-A over the course of the year -- but I think we were really hurt by that and also had some tough injuries here and there.

We had a tough time in the bullpen late in the season, didn't have the services of our two best relievers Jake Dunning and Jacob Dunnington in the playoffs last season.

It's tough when you get into that playoff atmosphere and you're playing some closer games and you don't have your best.

It certainly hurt us losing Zack Wheeler in July -- obviously a bright prospect and someone that was having a fine season in the California League. He was a big part of our team, and it was unfortunate that we didn't have his services down the stretch and in the playoffs. So, we were short-handed pitching-wise and just didn't have quite enough offense to compensate for that.

At the same time we played a red-hot Stockton team that had our number late in the year, and beat us straight up in the playoffs.

Q: The San Jose team had some of the top prospects in the organization last year. What were some of your favorite guys to watch play on that team?

A: Well, certainly Gary Brown is on the top of that list.

Gary is a guy that I think could give San Francisco that prototypical leadoff hitter, a homegrown leadoff hitter that they really haven't had in quite some time.

He was just an electric player in this league last season. He hit for average, he had surprising power, he was one of our team leaders in home runs. I think everyone knows about his speed -- he stole over 50 bases and could track down just about anything in the outfield. He was a game changer here in San Jose last year, and over the course of the year you realized he probably could have handled a promotion, a spot on that double-A team. But, you can understand, as a first year guy, why the organization wanted to keep him in San Jose all season and let him get his feet wet as a professional. But he certainly stands out as a guy who has a bright future and could just change a game in so many different ways.

Tommy Joseph is another guy. He got off to a slow start. He's very young, only 19 years old at the start of last season. He really benefited from Hector Sanchez, another catcher we had, getting a promotion to triple-A in June. Prior to that, Hector and Tommy were splitting the catching duties -- after the promotion, it was Tommy's chance to shine.

He got an opportunity to catch just about every day, and really took off. I know the pitchers really liked throwing to him. He was a leader back there behind the plate, even now at just age 20. He's got a big time power bat, he hit 22 home runs in San Jose last season. Most of those were later in the year, in the second half, and it just kept getting better and better. He's had a great spring training too, and I don't think anyone around here is surprised that he's done so well in those big league spring games so far because he did nothing but hit here.

Any time you find a catcher that's got that kind of power, you're going to want to hold on to that guy. That's an element that's hard to come by in Major League Baseball. So, another guy with a very bright future.

I guess some of the other hitters were guys that we lost midway through -- Hector Sanchez who got a chance to play in the big leagues last season. [He's] a switch-hitting catcher, a high average guy [who] hit for some power with us. Chris Dominguez is another [guy], he's got maybe the best raw power of any player in the Giants' farm system right now. Just the kind of power that you can't really teach, and if you can refine the other parts of his game -- with regards to making more consistent contact at the plate and improving his defensive abilities over at third base -- he certainly has the chance to move because he's got that kind of power that is going to translate at the highest level, if those other parts of his game can improve.

Q: Some of those guys, maybe Gary Brown and Tommy Joseph, what do you see for those guys moving forward? Where do you think they'll start off 2012 and where do you think they might end up?

A: Everything I've heard, it sounds like both will begin this year in double-A.

I know they're still a couple of weeks away from firming up the rosters and making those final decisions. Tommy especially needs probably at least a full year in double-A given that he's just only 20.

It's going to be a big test for him, you know that's a tough league for hitters. The Eastern League has got some bigger parks compared to what you see in the California League. The ball doesn't travel nearly as well. It's cold in the early part of the season, not exactly great hitting conditions. And guys just flat out know how to pitch in double-A. You're going against some older guys. So Tommy was really young for the Cal League last year, but obviously did enough to earn the promotion. It's going to be a tough test for him in double-A, but I think that he's going to be ready for it and I would think that he'll continue to show that steady improvement over the course of the year.

For Gary, I think he'll start in double-A, but he's more of guy that's on the fast track. He's older, he was drafted out of college. He's clearly shown that he's ready for the test at the upper levels. Talking with some people in the organization, it sounds like if he can impress early in the year, then he can definitely push himself up to triple-A -- and maybe beyond -- by the end of the season.

Q: Looking forward to this year's team in San Jose, it looks like you guys might again be loaded with some of the top talent in the organization. Do you think this team is poised for another run at the title?

A: Well, it's going to be interesting, we've certainly fielded some competitive teams here the last few seasons. It's still going to be a couple of weeks before we get our final roster, so at this point it's kind of all just speculation.

But, the Giants drafted some position players out of college with their top picks last year. Joe Panik in the first round, a shortsop out of St. John's. Andrew Susac, the second-round pick, a catcher out of Oregon State, and Ricky Oropesa, first baseman, third-rounder out of USC.

The Giants haven't been bashful the last few years with assigning college position players in their first full season to the California League and seeing what they can do here, in that first full season.

Panik had a great summer, won the MVP with Salem-Keizer. He certainly figures to be ready for the Cal League test. Susac and Oropesa will be making their pro debuts this year. They signed very late last summer and didn't get a chance to play. But if we get a few of those -- or all three of those players -- it could certainly form a middle of the order that could do a lot of damage in this league. And I think it'll certainly be to our advantage here in San Jose.

So, we're optimistic, we've obviously had very competitive teams here the last few seasons. The Giants have scouted and drafted so well the last few years, and I would expect that we'll benefit from that again here this season.

Q: You mentioned Joe Panik, and he did play for Salem-Keizer last year. Do you think there's any chance he might be on the fast track as well? Maybe he'll finish the year with Richmond or even Fresno?

A: Yeah, I could see that, just because, again, he's an older guy, and he has three years of college experience. Last year they left Gary Brown down here all season, but I think it was a little bit of a different situation because he basically didn't have any professional experience before coming to us last April.

You look at a guy like Joe Panik, he signed quickly, had the MVP year with Salem, then played very well in the Arizona Fall League. In the Arizona Fall League you're going up against pitchers that for the most part have pretty substantial double-A and triple-A experience, and he hit over .300 in that league last year. So, it's just speculation on my part, but I could certainly see him on the fast track this year -- if he performs well.

And, quite frankly, he plays a position of need in the organization, whether it be shortstop or second base.

It's not like this organization has people in place right now at the major-league level at those two positions where you go, "Well, it's going to be those guys the next few seasons." Obviously they'd like Brandon Crawford to be that guy at shortstop, but he really has to prove himself up there, and there's really no one long-term at second base. If Panik shifts to that position eventually, he might have that spot locked down. So I think that's another factor that could result in the fast track for Panik. But you kinda have to wait and see. He doesn't have a lot of at-bats yet as a pro. You don't want to put too much pressure on a guy like that, but I would expect he'll succeed here in San Jose this season, if this is where he ends up.

Q: Those are some of the bigger names that a lot of people may have heard of. Are there any guys that are maybe flying under the radar that people haven't heard of yet, that you think might be with San Jose this year?

A: Well, I look at some of the top pitchers on that Augusta team last year that could very well end up here. Shawn Sanford was the Pitcher of the Year in the South Atlantic League, [he's] a right-handed starting pitcher, a strike thrower. [I'm] very anxious to see him.

He took a perfect game into the ninth inning in a start he had last August. He kept getting better and better as the year went on. So I think he's someone that certainly seems ready for a promotion to San Jose.

I'm very interested to see Mike Kickham, he's a left-handed pitcher, throws hard, a low-90s fast ball, a good breaking ball. [He] was hurt at the start of the season, but really caught on with Augusta in the second half. I think those two guys could be the anchors of the San Jose starting rotation. They both appear to be ready for promotions, and I think they could do a real nice job here.

In terms of other position players, I suppose you could look at Adam Duvall, another guy who will probably be here. He was one of the top power hitters in the South Atlantic League last season. 22 home runs, which is the most home runs that any Augusta player has hit since they became a Giants affiliate in 2005. More than what Chris Dominguez hit, or Brett Pill, or any of those guys when they were at Augusta. So Duvall's got some big time power that I think will translate well to the California League. It's a great league to hit in and I think he can be a centerpiece of the San Jose lineup this year.

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