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Stock up or stock down? The state of the Giants’ farm system

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After a month of games, it’s time to check in on the team’s investments.

San Francisco Giants Photo Day Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

This is the first in a series of monthly check-ins on the farm system to see if the stock is up or down.

In Alex Pavlovic’s most recent Giants Insider podcast, Alex responded to a mailbag question of “how close are the Giants to entering an official rebuild” by offering this opinion:

I don’t think anybody will ever come out and say “this is an official rebuild” but it is pretty clear and it was pretty clear when they got rid of Bobby Evans and they hired Farhan that that’s the direction they’re going... if you are still wondering when the Giants are going to get into a rebuild: we’re in it right now. We’re watching it. And it’s tough and it’ll be slow I think.

As Alex quite rightly notes, while we can hope for something entertaining to happen on the field to reward our hours and hours of devotion — the real impact of what’s happening this year won’t take place in the 9 innings the Giants play every day. The real story of 2019 will be the trade market, the draft, and the progress being made with a farm system that was universally ranked among the weakest two or three systems in the game this past winter BA had them at 28, Baseball Prospectus at 27, Keith Law at ESPN pushed them all the way up to 26! You get the picture: it’s a thin system which hasn’t produced much major league talent now for several years — which is a primary reason why so many front office folks have lost jobs the last two years.

So this year I’m planning to do a monthly check in to take the pulse of the system and see which direction it’s headed: Stock UP/Stock Down, and see if there are any trends to spot overall that will effect the course of this rebuild.

I know what you’re thinking — April has not been kind to the Giant’s system and their stock must absolutely down. Why I even weighed in from the other side of the world to say something like that myself in the wake of the Logan Webb news:

But even with that disappointment still leaving a bitter taste in my mouth I’m going to strike a note for heroic optimism by proclaiming the Giants System:

STOCK UP!

Believe it! Despite a mountain of injuries and an 80 game suspension to, for my money, the top pitching prospect in the system, one month into the 2019 season I’m saying the Giants’ farm is Stock Up (slightly)!

WHYFOR?

Rebuilding a desolate farm system is essentially a two-step process:

  1. Add Impact Talent
  2. Add Depth

And of course, the third step: Repeat, Repeat, Repeat. Of those two steps, the first is by far the most important. It’s good to have great system depth — depth gives a team the chance to continue to supplement the core by trading for upgrades (as for example Houston’s work the last two years) and reinvigorating the supplemental portion of the roster. But to get to the point where depth really matters you have to produce the impact players around which you want to build.

The Giants recent history is an object lesson in that truth. The system in the mid- and late-00s was always thin, even with pop ups like Pablo and Crawford and Romo. But they nailed their star prospects. Four times they had top 10 prospects in all of baseball — Cain, Lincecum, Posey, and Bumgarner — and they turned them all into major league star level performers. You can get by with thin when you deliver the stars.

From that perspective, despite the injuries that have beset their two best prospects, the little we saw out of both Joey Bart and Heliot Ramos in the spring of 2019 have pushed their prospect status somewhat higher and the likelihood of their becoming part of a core of a future good team inches forward from wishcasting towards forecasting, even with the little we’ve gotten to see.

Joey Bart’s spring performance and overall play since becoming a pro has boosted his stock around the injury. So much so that in Baseball America’s hot off the press Top 100 prospects Bart has moved up into the top 20, coming in at the #19 spot. That’s a move up of 10 spots since the publication’s winter Top 100. Bart came into pro ball with a lot of variation in where people in the scouting/prospecting community graded his hit tool. While his power has delivered as promise as a pro, he’s also shown the beginnings of a promising hittability that would allow him to really get to that power regularly in games. He looks really good.

Right you are random person on the internet! This is the development that has really excited me this spring. Heliot Ramos has shown almost overnight growth in his ability to recognize pitches and lay off of balls outside of the strike zone. The numbers have changed slightly since that tweet but the point still stands: 16.9% BB rate in 83 PA, with 14 BBs to 20 Ks.

That’s extraordinary in a number of ways. Let’s count them!

  1. Ramos career BB rate coming into the year was 6.5%
  2. His K/BB ratio over the first two seasons was 184/45, a 4 to 1 ratio
  3. At 19, he’s one of the 10 youngest players in the Cal League this year.

The development has also shown in the damage he’s been able to inflict when he makes contact as well. When Ramos went on the IL he was leading the Cal League in OPS (1.009) thanks in large part to his .370 Iso. He’s still striking out a faster clip than you might ideally want, but in his first three weeks of the year he appeared to be growing right before our eyes. Ramos did not make BA’s new Top 100, but if he can keep up this sort of performance once he returns, there’s a strong likelihood that he’ll show up on these lists next winter.

When he returns... and there is, of course, the caveat. Neither Ramos nor Bart are currently performing at all. But for me the development Ramos and Bart have shown thus far matter much more than the time they will miss the remainder of the spring (though it certainly saps the joy out of our daily prospect monitoring for the time being). Neither has an injury that should have long term significance; both will be back soon enough to get in a solid season of work. As Farhan Zaidi mentioned, there’s even a small silver lining in the time lost in that it may ease up some of the intense fan pressure to push their development. Joey Bart is not here to save the 2019 Giants. Ramos is not here to save the 2020 Giants. Hopefully, they can be here to boost the 2021 Giants. From that perspective, what we’ve seen so far from the pair is more important than what we’re not seeing right at the moment.

And the same is true even of Webb, who is obviously a tier down from the top pair (and Marco Luciano who has yet to make his official pro debut, but has been garnering rave reviews in XST from Fangraphs’ Eric Longenhagen — another reason for the Stock UP assessment). While knowing he was under a ticking clock until suspension, Webb went out and absolutely shoved in AA. A 2.00 ERA in the Eastern League with 31 Ks in 27 IP against 7 BBs, 5 of which came in his first three innings of the year. His last two starts were particularly sensational as he struck out 19 over 11 innings, while allowing 1 earned run. In a system that is mostly bereft of even potential mid-rotation starters (see below), Webb looks to me to have the best chance of becoming a #3 starter in the majors. The 80 game suspension hurts, but he’ll be back for the final month of the year, and as Zaidi told Dalton Johnson the team still hopes to get him to AAA before the year’s out. He can pitch in XST games to keep in shape and will certainly be assigned to the Arizona Fall League come September. Webb can still be on a timeline to make his major league debut in 2020.

Now there’s a long LOOOONG way to go on improving the system depth, and certainly it would help to have more than just 3 potential impact players around, but getting the top guys to become toppermost is job #1 right now and thus far it’s been looking pretty good.

OTHER POSITIVE TRENDS: Improved Discipline

While Ramos’ development is the most prominent, he’s not the only farmhand who has shown marked improvement in plate discipline in the org. as Kevin detailed well in the Prospect Roundup. Most notably for me, 2015 3rd rounder Jalen Miller is currently sporting a near 1:1 K:BB ratio with 14 BBs to 15 Ks for AA Richmond. That’s an incredible improvement for a player who’s had 370 strikeouts to just 101 walks in over 1,500 PA coming into 2019. He’s also starting to do more damage with his contact. The speedy and athletic 22 year old 2b is one of the few guys in the org beyond the top prospects who could develop into a starting player option.

Richmond teammate Chris Shaw has also shown dramatic improvement in his peripherals (9.1% BB, 14.8% K) albeit coming along with a lower assignment back down to AA. In fact, the entire Richmond roster is showing a strong command of the zone. Jonah Arenado, who has never had a BB rate above 6% is walking at a 9% clip so far this year, and Jacob Heyward, who has always known how to take a walk, is walking at an elite 21% rate in 2019. More importantly, he’s made improvements to his swing that are boosting the overall production line. Heyward’s definitely a sleeper guy to look out for.

OTHER NEGATIVDE TRENDS: Thinning Pitching

The Giants’ system started the year incredibly thin in pitching prospects, and early season injuries (along with Webb’s suspension) have exacerbated the issue. With Gregory Santos, Jose Marte, and Andrew Suarez all on the IL (and now possibly Garrett Williams joining them), the org is scrambling to fill rotation spots in the top three levels. Far too many starts are going to org guys, as there just aren’t many real prospects to turn to.

Augusta is the exception here. Even with Santos’ shoulder soreness, the Greenjackets manage to put a decently interesting pitching prospect on the mound nearly every night, with Sean Hjelle, Blake Rivera, Jake Wong, Seth Corry, and even now Jesus Ozoria, taking turns on the mound. None of these are particularly high upside guys (though Seth Corry has his fans) but all are legitimate major league prospects. The rest of the system combined would have a hard time matching that group just at the moment. We’ll see far too many starts from the Carlos Navas and Trent Toplikars of the world this year — a trend we’ve been seeing in the org for several seasons now. While the performance we’ve seen from the best prospects in the system this spring gives the org a slight boost in my opinion, the incredible lack of depth is obviously still a huge concern moving forward.


We’ll check back in on the system in another month. Not much is likely to change between now and the draft in early June, but hopefully we’ll see both of Bart and Ramos back in action when the calendar turns to June. The real excitement should come later though. By July we’ll have both the Rule 4 draft and the debut performances of Marco Luciano and a very intriguing group of international teammates in the AZL to keep an eye on. And come August, we’ll know what the trade deadline has added to the org.

Each month will hopefully give us new reasons to look forward to the future, even if the future isn’t getting here as fast as we might like.