Cain, Bumgarner… Crick!

I had the pleasure of watching Kyle Crick on the tube for the first time last night. Sure, I tuned into a couple of his starts with San Jose on the computer this season, but the video quality of those minor league games really isn’t very good. As far as TV goes, I missed his outing this summer in the Future’s Game, and wasn’t able to catch him in the Fall Stars game last week either. So, when I found out he was starting on MLB Network last night, I knew I wasn’t missing it.

Crick took the mound at the home of the Giants’ Spring Training complex last night, with fellow Gigantes prospect Andrew Susac calling pitches for him behind the dish. It was Cricky’s fourth AFL start, but since before the Fall Stars Game (he’d made three relief appearances in that time), and his first three hadn’t gone so well. So I had tempered expectations going in, hoping that the young hurler could just control the strike zone and get some outs… He did, folks.

For those who missed it last night, allow me to recap Crick’s outing: Jared Mitchell (CHW #10 prospect); Eddie Rosario (Min #5); Yorman Rodriguez (Cin #15); Brandon Jacobs (CHW #7); Max Kepler (Min #8)… Grab. Some. Pine.

If there’s anything we know about professional sports and baseball in general, one performance can’t possibly define a player’s potential, good, bad, or otherwise… but it sure can help. Had Crick walked the bases loaded last night and been pulled in the second inning, we’d have said that he needs to learn to command his pitches, understanding that he still had some maturing to do as a pitcher. But we already knew those things about Crick, and one outing wasn’t going to diminish his prospect value. Something entirely different happened last night though, something that you should be very excited about. Crick took the hill opposite the top pitching prospect in Minnesota’s stacked organization – the towering Alex Meyer – and the two young studs put on a show.

Crick’s line for the night: 3 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 5 K… and those numbers don’t even begin to tell the whole story for the Giants’ number one prospect. The 6-foot-4, Texas-grown righty dominated a pretty stacked Glendale lineup, with basically just a fastball. From the very first batter, Crick popped Susac’s mitt to the tune of 94,95,96 and even a 98 mph heater. He threw it down the middle, he threw it on the corners, he elevated it above the hands… and some of the top prospects in baseball couldn’t touch it. He struck out the side in the first, and then two more in the second. For a kid known for his inability to control the strike zone, Crick had only one 3-ball count on the night – the final hitter in the 3rd inning, to which he induced a chopper to 2B to finish his outing. One of the few changeups he threw all night was knocked back up the middle by Colin Moran in the first… that was the only blemish in an otherwise perfect performance for the Giants’ 2011 supplemental first round pick. This was literally a group of future MLB hitters getting blown away by nothing but high ched from a future MLB pitcher. Awesome stuff in a coming out party for Crick.

This post is certainly about Crick, but Meyer was just as dominant on the other side, taking a no-hitter into the 6th inning, striking out Susac twice in the process. Quite an impressive night from a couple of promising pitchers.

Crick was ranked #42 on MLB.com’s midseason top 100 prospects list this summer, but I’d have to think last night’s performance will have Johnathan Mayo and his posse considering a move into the top 25 for Crick next spring… that’s how good last night’s outing was. Yes, the same issues about control and developing offspeed pitches remain, but there’s no doubt to me that Crick’s got a promising MLB career ahead of him. This kid is the reason the Giants felt comfortable trading Zack Wheeler a couple years ago, and I think he’ll help all the fans who are still (inexcusably) bitter forget about that trade in a couple years. Like most 20 year-old power pitchers, he just needs time. If he stays healthy, I have to believe he’ll be a part of the 2015 rotation, and I’d say there’s even a slight chance we see him in a Giants’ uniform late next season… they did it with Madison Bumgarner in 2009.

One final thought here. The Crick comparisons to Matt Cain are well documented, and certainly have some backing. The similarities between the two really are uncanny. Right-handed, Southern country boys, similar body builds, easy deliveries, power pitcher profiles, prep first round picks… Crick is a carbon copy of Cain, and will hopefully find similar success at the big league level. But watch the video of Crick’s interview from last night. Not only does he resemble Cain, but he’s got the same dry, gruff personality of another pretty good Southern boy, Bumgarner. His response to the compliments about his start killed me. “Yeah, thank you.” And the slightest of smirks to go along with it. Seriously, if that interview doesn’t make you chuckle a little bit, I don’t know what will. The Giants know their pitching, and will have a great opportunity to draft another electric arm next summer… I have a sneaky hunch they will.

So… Cain, Bumgarner, and now Kyle Crick. It won’t be much longer, folks. It won’t be much longer.

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Giants 2014: Right Field

We’ll kick the “state of the franchise” series off with the most secure position in the Giants organization right now: right field. You may know this area as the Pence Territory, and for good reason, as it’s hard to see anyone unseating Hunter as the everyday RF at AT&T Park for the foreseeable future. Pence is the most recent Giant to earn a major contract, as he was locked up last week for $90 million over the next 5 years. Odds are, he’ll spend most if not all of those 5 years as the Giants’ everyday right fielder.

I call right field the most secure position in the organization for a few reasons, and we’ll address some of them in future posts. But I think the biggest proof I have is the fact that Pence started EVERY game this year. All 162, good times or bad. I think he played all but something like 16 innings this season. In this generation, that kind of durability is incredible. It’s also invaluable. There are certainly a few positions on this team that are unsettled going into the offseason (more than you’d think, actually), but right field is not one of them. Barring an unforeseen injury, you can pencil Pence’s name in the middle of the lineup card and the #9 on the scoresheet for the long haul.

There’s really no debate here, and that is a very good thing for an organization facing a difficult offseason. Pence was priority #1, and the Giants locked him up before he could test the waters of free agency. A little rich, maybe, but it’s a deal the Giants had to get done. You can’t go into the offseason with holes at both corners of your outfield… you just can’t. Pence banked on his torrid September, and he really had all the leverage in negotiations. He would have gotten his money somewhere, and it’s a good thing he got it in-house.

The Pence deal gives the Giants another centerpiece to build around, but right field hasn’t always been a strength for this team. In fact, it had been quite a carousel prior to Pence arriving last summer. AT&T Park is a difficult right field to play; it’s one that definitely takes some getting used to. But other than Nate the Great, the Giants really haven’t had much consistency in front of the Levi’s Splash Landing wall (or whoever the hell sponsors it now) in recent years.

Where it’s been: We’ll start in 2009, the beginning of the 4-year stretch of winning seasons. That was Randy Winn’s last year… seems like yesterday, right? Winn wasn’t cutting it, so the Giants gave their homegrown kid Schierholtz a shot. That was Nate’s first significant playing time, and really the job was his to lose for the better part of 3 years. Unfortunately for him, he managed to lose it just about every year! But Nate played RF in San Francisco like nobody else, with a cannon for an arm. He just couldn’t ever get the bat to play on an everyday basis, and in 2010 we saw guys like Bowker, Huff, Cody Ross and the memorable brief stint from Jose Guillen. Of course, we all know how that season ended. History, folks.

In the first title defense year, RF was Nate’s job again, with Ross platooning from time to time. Then came the Posey injury, and eventually the move that thousands still cannot get over to this day: Wheeler for Beltran. The Giants were one of the top teams in the NL at that point, even without Posey. Lights out pitching from some guy named Vogelsong, but a miserable offense. They had to do something, so they gave Nate’s job to Beltran. I thought it was a solid move at the time. If I remember correctly, Wheeler wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire at that point. Injuries, wildness, inconsistency… but yes, the upside was there. We all knew it, the Giants knew it. The Mets knew it too. In my book, if you can use a minor league talent to acquire a perennial all-star in a contending season, you do it. Every time. Of course, you’d like to re-sign that player in the offseason in a perfect world. Alas, it didn’t work out, Beltran got hurt, took some heat and signed with St. Louis on a bargain of a deal in the offseason, where he’s got one ring and is working on another. He looks good in red, while Wheeler looks good in blue. That’s the one people will never let Sabean live down, but it’s water under the bridge to me. Sorry if that offends you.

Sabean spent that offseason making his outfield over. Savvy trades, new faces in center and left. Nate the Great patrolling right again, and showing spurts. New guy Gregor Blanco got a little time out there too. Nate wasn’t too happy with his role, and this time he didn’t just lose his job at the deadline; he lost his uniform as well. For the second year in a row, the Giants used July 31 to upgrade in right field. This time, they got a player who fans could rally around, a guy who would be a clubhouse leader. I don’t think season-saving motivational speeches were written into Pence’s contract. Even though he wasn’t sporting the .285 lifetime average he’d brought to the Bay Area, he always seemed to be in the middle of the big moments.

The Giants wanted Pence back for title defense, part II, but they weren’t willing to lock him up long term. Nobody had been willing during his consistent, productive career. He took the qualifying offer and returned for another year to the city that embraced him. It certainly wasn’t a guarantee that he’d get another new deal with the Giants this year, however. Remember the trade deadline? There were many teams knocking on the door, but the Giants didn’t budge. Personally, I think they wanted him back all along. If there were doubters out there, he put them to bed with a September for the ages. In 99 AB, he went .293 with 11 HR and 32 RBI… and it earned him $90 million and a permanent place to call home for the first time in his career.

Where it’s going: There are people who certainly will look at Pence’s contract and scoff. Yes, when the team was scuffling in July, he was a .242 hitter with only 1 HR. But he always finds a way to get his production in. Is he incredibly streaky? Yes. Is he the greatest defender? No. Does he lose his plate discipline entirely at times? Yup. But Pence is the type of player whose game can’t be summed up by one statistic. He does a little bit of everything. He hits for average, he owns some of the most raw power in all of baseball, he makes athletic plays in the outfield, and he steals bases at a very high percentage. For the first time in his career, he’s a 20-20 player. He hit .293 with runners in scoring position this year. He hit .309 against lefties. He hit 18 of his 27 HR versus divisional opponents. At 30 years old, his line of .283/.339/.822 is nearly identical to his career mark. Consistency is so important in baseball. Yes, he has his flaws. He’s not an elite hitter, and never will be. But he is a 5-tool player, and I’ll take the upside any day. You know what you’re going to get when you put him on the field… hard work 24/7.

So, Pence is a Giant until he’s 35, with a full no-trade clause. In a different time, maybe his talents are worth $40 million instead of 90. But that’s not how baseball operates anymore. The Giants needed Pence. Had he left, I just don’t see a realistic way where they could have made up for his production. We’ll talk more about some of the outfield options on the market this year when we get to LF in the series. Having Pence locked up now also means one less position the Giants need to plan for in the immediate future. Big Mac Williamson is the top corner outfielder in the system, and could be in the bigs by 2015 if he can pass the big Eastern League test next year. If he does, he’ll almost definitely be in left field, with the other OF spots locked up. That bodes well for the Giants.

So, the Giants enter 2014 and beyond with an every day RF, and it’s likely that you will see him out there every single day. You can also likely pencil him in for 20 HR and 80-90 RBI while you’re at it. Five more years of Hunter Pence, and finally some stability in right for the Giants. It’s about time.

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Mid-Season Top 40 Prospects: #1

Well, it’s been almost a month since we started this project, and we’re finally down to #1. If you’ve been following along, I want to thank you for your support, and welcome any feedback or insight you may have about any of these players. This is by far the most comprehensive list I’ve ever put together. I’ve learned so much about the Giants’ farm system during the process, as I hope you have too. Now that it’s complete, I already feel like there are changes to be made, players I missed, etc, so I’m hoping to put together another list (maybe 50 this time) at the end of the season. Until then, you can be sure there will be plenty more posts on the prospect front, including updates on many of the guys we’ve covered here, and maybe some profiles of some lesser known players in the system. As always, thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed this series!

#1. Kyle Crick – RHP, 20 yo, Hi-A: Surprise! Ok, so there really wasn’t a lot of suspense around this pick, and there shouldn’t be. Kyle Crick is the bell cow of the farm, and you’ll find him ranked #1 on probably 99% of Giants’ prospect lists. Crick is a big, power righty who hails from Texas. He’s got a classic pitcher’s frame at 6’4, 220 lbs, and owns an elite fastball that he can run up to 98 mph. He’s the most promising pitching prospect the Giants have had since Zack Wheeler left the system.

The Giants drafted Crick with their 1st round “sandwich” pick in 2011 out of Sherman (TX) High School and assigned him to rookie ball in Arizona. He made only seven appearances that summer, but Sabean and co. knew what they had, and Crick began 2012 in Lo-A Augusta alongside fellow 2011 high school draftee Clayton Blackburn. Neither disappointed. In 23 games (22 starts), Crick dominated the SALLY (South Atlantic League), posting a 2.51 ERA and 128 K in 111.1 IP, good for a 10.3 K/9. However, he also walked a hefty 67 batters (5.4 BB/9) and tossed 13 wild pitches.

Crick’s performance in Augusta earned the raw 20 year-old a spot at the top of a stacked rotation this year in San Jose, as well as a #66 ranking on Baseball America’s preseason top 100. If he could continue to pump his fastball by hitters and cut down his walks, many felt that he could begin to move quickly up the ladder, much like Matt Cain did as a top prospect in 2004. With Crick’s electric stuff, it certainly wasn’t out of the question. Crick strained his oblique in only his third start of the 2013 season, however, and missed two months. He returned to San Jose’s rotation exactly one month ago, and in five starts since the injury, his numbers have been absolutely mind-boggling. In 25 IP, he’s allowed only 3 ER, good for a 1.07 ERA. He’s struck out 38 hitters, including 10 on two separate occasions. While his mid-90’s fastball and sharp breaking ball have been devastating on Cal League hitters to the tune of a 13.0 K/9, he still hasn’t overcome his signature wildness, as he’s surrendered 10 walks over his last 10 innings, and owns a staggering BB/9 of 6.2 on the year. For the season, he’s amassed a razor-thin 1.04 ERA with 50 K and 24 BB in 34 IP.

Crick’s performance over the past month has certainly earned him his share of accolades, including a trip to the Future’s Game in New York and a spot on the BA mid-season Top 50. It’s clear that most of the hitters at Hi-A cannot handle his fastball, but his high walk rates are still a little alarming. Luckily, he’s got two months to prove he can command the strike zone better. He’s young for the level, and the Giants don’t need to rush him. What amazes me about Crick is his ability to keep runs off the board, despite the high number of base runners he allows. For a kid his age who doesn’t always know where the ball is going when it leaves his hand, that’s pretty impressive. Without the walks, he’s been pretty much unhittable this season. If he can continue to miss bats, I’d have to think we’ll see him in Richmond next year. If you’ve watched him pitch at all, it’s uncanny how much he resembles Matt Cain. Both are built very similarly, both have compact, easily repeatable deliveries, and both are fastball/slider power pitchers. Can you see why the Giants are so excited about this kid yet?

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Limping to the Break

Six weeks into the season, the Giants were starting to resemble the team I thought they’d be. They’d just taken three of four from Atlanta (the “it” team in the NL), and they were a season-best eight games over .500 (23-15). The team had overcome some spotty starting pitching with a consistent offense and late-game heroics. They would spend the next day traveling north of the Border for a two game series with last-place Toronto, and I was just cocky enough to believe we were about to establish our dominance over the league.

That was May 12.  Since then, the Giants have lost 32 of 49 games, suffering through defensive and base-running blunders, significant injuries and terrible slumps. They’ve tail-spun into last place thanks to some brutal road play (losing three of four at home to the Marlins didn’t help either). Nearly half of their everyday lineup is mired in a deep funk, and Angel Pagan is essentially out for the season.  In case you were wondering, help is NOT on the way from Fresno.

The Giants, now 7 games under .500 after dropping two of three at home to the Dodgers this weekend, host the 37-48 Mets for a 3-game series. But don’t let the poor record fool you… New York will send phenom Matt Harvey to the mound for game one, and former Giant top prospect Zack Wheeler toes the rubber for game three on Wednesday night.  Seven games remain in the first half, and the Giants are limping toward the break