Once upon a time, the Giants decided they needed a below-average corner outfielder. Like, really, really needed one. Everyone else totally had one. OMG, it would be so embarrassing if the Giants didn’t have one. But the team couldn’t afford one. The money they were printing was for rolling around in, not for personnel. So someone in the front office came up with a brilliant solution: Sign the below-average corner outfielder before his old team can decline to offer him arbitration. Just give the draft pick to the player’s old team, and that way the Giants wouldn’t be forced to waste $1M on a draft pick.
Those were the dark days – as far as player development went, the Giants were giddily practicing trepanation while the rest of the league had moved on to laser surgery. It didn’t begin with the Michael Tucker fiasco, though that was the most egregious example. The Giants weren’t spending a whole lot in international scouting, and they weren’t spending a whole bunch in the draft, making sure to pick players who weren’t expecting more than their slot commanded.
There was an oasis in this fog, though. In the 21st-round of the 2002 draft, the Giants picked Travis Ishikawa, who was a 2nd- to 3rd-round pick based on talent, but whose commitment to Oregon State caused him to plummet. The Giants bought out Ishikawa’s commitment for just under a million dollars. Every year, there are draftees who fall because of bonus demands or school commitments, but who eventually sign with the drafting club. It’s been a viable strategy for some teams. The Giants tried this once, nabbed themselves an Ishikawa, and then ditched the strategy. It’s a weird anomaly compared with the rest of the player development blueprints from Sabean’s Classical Era.
Ishikawa started out alright, holding his own as an 18-year-old in short-season A-ball. He moved through the system at a typical pace, and he reached high-A when he was 21. In San Jose, he started tearing it up, finishing with 22 home runs and a .282/.387/.532 line. He was the heir apparent to Will Clark, the anti-Benzinger, the first position player since Matt Williams to make the All-Star team, the…
And then: ka-thunk. The move to AA killed him. Dodd Stadium is an extreme pitcher’s park, but that couldn’t completely account for the decline. The next year in AA would be the charm, as Ishikawa would have an extra year under his belt, and…
And then: ka-boom. In AA last year, Ishikawa hit like a 64-year-old Omar Vizquel. The numbers improved when Ishikawa was moved to the Cal League, but he was way too old for that league. Plus, he wasn’t exhibiting great contact or strike-zone judgment, either. His average was .268, and his K/BB ratio was 78/19 in almost 200 at-bats.
And then: ka-surge? Ishikawa finally got the handle of AA in his third go-round, as he almost halved his strikeout rate from the previous season. Then he went to AAA and started hitting like a pre-vegan Prince Fielder.
I have no idea what to make of this guy. It’s been a couple of years since I wrote him off completely, so it’s hard to just accept him as a possible piece of the Giants’ rebuilding plan. Looking through his numbers at Minor League Splits, it isn’t as if there’s anything that screams "fluke!" His batting average on the balls he put in play wasn’t unusual. It isn’t as if his strikeout numbers stayed the same while his other numbers improved; it’s been a wholesale improvement.
So I’m looking forward to Travis Ishikawa being a part of the Giants’ plans next season, and that’s something I would never have dreamed of writing just 100 days ago. If there’s something that concerns me, it’s his platoon splits, as he doesn’t hit lefties all that well. The Giants have a ready-made solution, though, as they have a catching prospect, Pablo Sandoval, who can also play first base against lefties. Sandoval’s legs get some rest, Ishikawa is eased in against tough lefties…win/win.
I’m a liking the options that a rejuvenated Ishikawa brings. If he ends up as a good major leaguer, it will be the kind of player development break that the Giants haven’t had in decades. Open Ishikawa Thread.