We’re at the unofficial halfway point of the 2023 baseball season, as both the Majors and Minors reset over the All-Star break. It’s not actually the halfway point, but who cares. It’s close enough. It’s a good time to take a look at where the San Francisco Giants are at the break, and also to take a look at the Minor League Baseball affiliates.
The three biggest first-half storylines
It’s been a season full of interesting stories on the Giants farm. There’s no shortage of things to look at and dive deep into, but these are, as I see it, the biggest stories that emerged.
The general sentiment regarding the Giants farm system at the start of the season ranged from tepid to pessimistic. The Giants were lacking in star prospects, with very few notable players knocking on the door. Reliever Cole Waites was the only player drafted by Farhan Zaidi to make it to the Majors, and most prospect sites viewed it as a distinctly average system. And the biggest knock? Whiffs at the top of the draft. After four drafts, Zaidi’s regime had produced one gigantic question mark (Reggie Crawford), two players who looked like the dreaded b-word (Hunter Bishop and Will Bednar), and one player who was behind schedule and looked likely to be a backup (Patrick Bailey) with their first-round picks.
So much of the sentiment has changed. Bailey now looks like a franchise player. The worries about developing stars like Luis Matos and Marco Luciano are far in the rearview mirror. The upper Minors are populated with players nearing debuts.
Don’t get me wrong: there are still question marks on the farm. But the vision that was blurry for so long is starting to come into focus.
The last few years have been frustrating, as we’ve all been watching the Giants populate their roster with journeymen and players that they designate for assignment after a few days. We’ve all been waiting for the farm to step in and start to contribute.
That time has come. The Giants have an all-rookie backstop duo of Bailey (who has been the best catcher in the Majors since getting called up) and Blake Sabol (who also plays in the outfield). Matos has been their everyday center fielder, and looks primed to keep that role even when Mitch Haniger returns. Tristan Beck and Ryan Walker are core bullpen pieces, while Keaton Winn seems to have the inside track at earning the final rotation spot. Casey Schmitt has spent most of the year on the roster as a versatile defender, and Brett Wisely has filled in all over the diamond.
It’s been the best season for Giants prospects at the MLB level in a long time.
Love it or hate it, the Giants have prioritized versatility ever since Zaidi took over. And, love it or hate it, we’re seeing that take place in the Minors now more than ever. Schmitt surprised people when, after winning the Minor League Gold Glove at third base last year, he started 2023 primarily playing shortstop and second base. Middle infield depth options Tyler Fitzgerald (third base and center field) and Will Wilson (third base and corner outfield) have both started to play more positions, too. You see it at the Minors with players like Thomas Gavello (second base, third base, and catcher) and Shane Matheny (every position except pitcher and catcher). And of course, the Giants drafted a two-way player in the first round for the second straight season. The Giants are all about maximizing pathways to MLB value, and that’s on full display in the farm right now.
The three biggest second-half storylines
Enough looking behind us! Here are the stories I have my eyes on for the rest of the year.
Crucial 40-man decisions
The Giants aren’t in as notable of a position as they’ve been in past years when it comes to the 40-man roster. Usually it’s a big storyline. We’ve seen them make moves based on players who were on the 40-man and not ready to contribute, or needed to be added to the 40-man in the offseason, ranging from minor (but painful) roster shifting (trading Prelander Berroa for Donovan Walton) to major moves (using Alexander Canario to highlight a package for Kris Bryant). This time last year they were approaching the offseason and deadline knowing that Matos and Luciano would need to be protected from the Rule 5 Draft.
Those stories are largely absent this year. While the Giants will surely protect some players come November, there are no names that you can circle right now as musts. And while the roster isn’t full of ready-to-contribute players, it’s lacking in players like Canario, who was putting up so-so numbers in Low-A while taking up a 40-man spot at the time of the Bryant trade.
But there are still decisions to be made. The Giants are a deep team, and as a result, there’s not a lot of fat to trim from the 40-man roster. But 60-day IL outfielders Haniger, Heliot Ramos, and Luis González, will all likely need to be added back to the roster in the coming months, and space will need to be cleared. If a player like Kyle Harrison forces the issue, a spot will need to open up. Are the Giants ready to pull the plug on Ramos, David Villar, or Joey Bart? Will they continue to employ three relievers — Waites, Randy Rodríguez, and José Cruz — who don’t look particularly close to adding Major League value? Is Sean Hjelle part of the plans for a team that has a million multi-inning pitchers on the 40-man roster and a few knocking on the door? With the trade deadline approaching, we’re about to get some answers.
Harrison is currently sidelined due to a minor hamstring injury, which has made his immediate story a touch less interesting. After announcing that news, Zaidi admitted that the Giants had intended to call Harrison up this month to get a feel as to if he can be part of the rotation’s plans this year. Now that’s on hold.
Making an MLB debut this year was seen as an inevitability at the start of the season, but now might be a question mark. Harrison isn’t Rule 5 eligible, so there’s no reason to get him on the roster unless it’s for a serious purpose — either to help the team win games, or to answer questions. Harrison is an elite prospect, and he’s the best strikeout pitcher in the Minor Leagues right now. But he has a serious walk issue, a moderate hamstring issue, and a minor “what’s the plan for the rest of the year?” issue. It will be very interesting to see how he performs the rest of the way out, and what the Giants do with him.
The Giants just wrapped up the fifth draft class in the Zaidi era, which saw them add a lot of position players. Newly-drafted players usually don’t play too much, and the Giants are extra careful with them, so adjust your expectations accordingly. Still, we can learn a lot in a short time with a player’s debut. Hayden Birdsong only pitched 11.2 innings last year after being drafted in the sixth round, yet the reports that came from the Giants in those innings were enough to leave us all excited ... and his performance this year has warranted that excitement. Wade Meckler had 100 plate appearances and opened a lot of eyes in the organization and ... well, here we are! It’s usually easier to slide hitters into the Minors than pitchers after the draft, and the Giants used seven of their first eight picks on position players (that includes their first-round pick, bat-first two-way player Bryce Eldridge), so we might see a lot of professional debuts in the coming weeks. They’re worth paying attention to.
Players to keep an eye on in the second half
While I’m staunchly opposed to the strict limits that the league has put on the number of Minor Leaguers that an organization can roster, it has created one really cool thing: organizational filler is a thing of the past. I’m sure some teams still have it, but with the Giants prioritizing depth, versatility, and untapped potential, you can genuinely say that every player in the Minors is worth keeping an eye on. But some more than others. Here are a few players I’ll be watching closely as Minor League Baseball returns to action.
Harrison entered the season as the team’s consensus top prospect, and he still has a strong case to hold that label. I said earlier that Harrison is the best strikeout prospect alive, and I wasn’t being hyperbolic. Among 514 Minor Leaguers with at least 50 innings thrown, Harrison — a 21 year old in AAA — is sixth with 14.7 strikeouts per nine innings. The only players above him? A 25 year old in AAA, a 24 year old Major Leaguer whose numbers were propped up by his time in AA, a 21 year old in High-A, a 22 year old in AA, and a 23 year old in AA (who is now in the Majors). Harrison is also walking 7.0 batters per nine innings, which is the only thing keeping him from being an MLB ace. And if you want reason for optimism? Well, when you round to the tenth, Harrison’s walk rate is identical to the one that Camilo Doval had in AAA.
The writing seemed to be on the wall for Ramos just two months ago. Once arguably the top prospect in the organization, he’s struggled mightily since the pandemic took away the 2020 season, and the quotes from the organization weren’t exactly glistening last year or this spring. After being optioned with the hope that things would click, he instead suffered an injury and was placed on the 60-day IL. It seemed possible that his time with the Giants was over.
He began rehabbing at the end of July, and immediately caught fire. In five Low-A games he hit 5-13 with two home runs, two doubles, one walk, and three strikeouts. He returned to AAA and in seven games has hit 14-29 with four home runs, a triple, four doubles, and just five strikeouts. On the one hand, that’s a fairly small sample. On the other hand, it’s really rare to see a player put up numbers like that, even in a seven-game sample in the Pacific Coast League. It’s far too early to say that Ramos is putting it all together, but here’s a reminder that he’s still just 23. He’s younger than so many notable Giants prospects, including Bailey, Schmitt, Fitzgerald, and Ricardo Genovés, and only a few months older than Meckler. In fact, of the 216 Giants Minor Leaguers with at least 50 plate appearances or 10 innings pitched, Ramos is just 100th in age.
Whisenhunt has been flying through the system since being drafted in the second round in 2022. Can he keep up his dominance at higher levels? The optimistic view is that he has a changeup that would already be significantly above average in the Majors if he were to be pitching there. The pessimistic view is that the rest of his repertoire might not be good enough to let his star pitch shine against better hitters. Depending on who you ask, Whisenhunt profiles as everything from a potential top-line starter to a high-leverage reliever. Some believe he could make an MLB debut this year. I doubt it, but if he keeps pitching like this...
Luciano has become the forgotten star of the Giants prospect lists, thanks to the breakout players at the MLB level, the giant Harrison storyline, and Luciano missing the first month of the season. But he’s been quietly superb in AA, and could easily end the season knocking on the doors of the Majors.
I’d guess that we see Black, a third-round pick in 2021, in AAA soon (Update: Black just got promoted to AAA). As with almost all pitching prospects, it’s still unclear if Black can stick as a starter, but look at what he’s done in his last six AA starts: 26.1 innings, 11 hits, six walks, two runs, one earned run, and 38 strikeouts. Wow.
No player in the Zaidi era has been promoted as fast as Meckler, an eighth-round pick in 2022 who, at just 306 career plate appearances, is on the verge of a promotion to AAA. We’ll have to wait to see if Meckler’s hit tool can play against better pitchers, especially if he can’t develop more power, but the dude has a career .389 batting average and 1.027 OPS in the Minors, and has looked equally comfortable at every level. Is he a thing? Stay tuned.
As I was writing this article, Crawford got promoted to High-A. We’ve only see him pitch 11 innings and have 39 plate appearances in his pro career, and that won’t change much anytime soon: he’ll probably be limited to two-inning outings and once-a-week DH’ing for the rest of the year. Still, the potential is on display. It’s clear watching him play that he is the type of athlete you don’t often see in baseball, and it’s clear listening to the organization talk about him that he is a very special dude.
The MLB players
It’s never too early to look to 2024. While Bailey has cemented his spot as the starting catcher, the other young players are still looking to prove that they’re part of the immediate plans. What happens over the next few months will determine whether Matos, Schmitt, Sabol, Winn, Beck, Wisely, and Walker enter the offseason penned into the roster next to Bailey, written in pencil the way Villar was last year, or destined for more Minor League seasoning ... or even a new home.
First half All-Stars
I was originally planning on making this just an article naming the Giants Minor League All-Stars at the break, but a lot of people do that, and most of them are smarter than I am. So I’m just going to do a quick-hitting look at the All-Stars in the system at the halfway mark.
I’m including all players who have played in the Minors this year as genuine prospects, so this doesn’t include Sabol, players who have rehabbed, or players like Villar and Bart who are in the Minors due to demotions.
First team: Patrick Bailey (MLB)
Second team: Onil Perez (Low-A)
Bailey is a no-brainer. He started the year having never played above High-A, and seen as a mediocre prospect. A few months later he’s someone who we figure will likely be the starting catcher for the next decade or so. Hard to do better than that.
Perez continues to impress with an unconventional approach for a catcher. He has one of the best batting averages in the system, and has suppressed walks better than any Giants prospect other than Matos. But he doesn’t have much power at all. He’s just 20 years old, and his defense leaves a lot of reason for optimism, while also being pretty sketchy at the moment.
Honorable mention: Adrian Sugastey (High-A)
Sugastey is still trying to get his bat to take off, but it shows a lot of life and his defense is very good.
First team: Victor Bericoto (AA)
Second team: Logan Wyatt (AA)
Wyatt is really the team’s only genuine first base prospect, but I’m including Bericoto — who also plays corner outfield — because he’s been one of the best players in the system. You can kind of count this portion as also being the DH. Bericoto leads the organization in home runs by a sizable margin, while also hitting for a good average, limiting strikeouts, and drawing walks. He only just got promoted to AA, so keep your eye on him.
As for Wyatt, he’s having a breakout year after really stumbling with performance and injuries in his first few seasons as a pro. He never showed power before this year, but now is racking up the extra-base hits.
First team: Brett Wisely (MLB)
Second team: Diego Velasquez (Low-A)
Wisely’s numbers haven’t been very good in the Majors (.521 OPS, 39 wRC+) but that shouldn’t be concerning. The Giants threw him into the deep end of the pool out of necessity, he’s been red-hot when he’s been optioned to Sacramento, and he’s playing a reliable second base and center field. The Giants clearly believe in and trust him, and that’s the entire goal.
As for Velasquez, the 19-year old switch-hitter has been one of San Jose’s best players. He has a good average, a high walk rate, and limits walks very well for a player his age. His defense is still a bit of a question mark, but he’s really turning into an exciting player.
Honorable mention: Dario Reynoso (DSL)
Reynoso only turned 18 in March, and has 24 walks in 104 plate appearances in his debut season. He also has a 149 wRC+ while playing all over the infield.
First team: Casey Schmitt (MLB)
Second team: Hayden Cantrelle (AA)
Perhaps it’s funny to include Schmitt here, since he has an 83 wRC+ in Sacramento and a 62 wRC+ in San Francisco. But the Giants promoted him to the Majors after just a month in AAA, and he’s stuck there ever since. He may be in a rut, but he’s still a key part of the MLB roster, and that’s worth celebrating.
Cantrelle is more of a second baseman who can play third than a true third baseman, but whatever. He has a 110 wRC+ and is sporting the fourth-highest walk rate of Giants Minor Leaguers with at least 100 plate appearances. If he can tap into the power he showed last year, he could become very exciting.
Honorable mention: Thomas Gavello (Low-A)
Gavello, who also plays second and catcher, has been doing everything for the Giants this season after being drafted in the 13th round in 2022. He’s hitting for average and power, drawing walks, and has been plunked 26 times this year.
First team: Marco Luciano (AA)
Second team: Tyler Fitzgerald (AAA)
It hasn’t been a perfect season for Luciano. He missed a month due to injury, and has a very high strikeout rate. He also has strong batting numbers (.804 OPS, 117 wRC+) despite an unlucky BABIP, and has the highest ISO in the organization. He’s drawing a ton of walks, and his defense has taken a big step forward.
Fitzgerald has done exactly what the Giants asked him to do: cut down on strikeouts. He repeated AA and cut the strikeouts down, then got promoted to AAA and cut them down even further. After a hot start though, he’s fallen off a bit, and is down to an 88 wRC+ in Sacramento. He remains an important depth option even though he’s not knocking on the door.
Honorable mention: Will Wilson (AAA)
Including Wilson is a hot take, since he’s not having a good season (.698 OPS, 63 wRC+). I really just wanted to highlight that he leads the River Cats in home runs, and his .270 BABIP is dead last in the Pacific Coast League, meaning he’s probably had an unlucky season (or, alternately, he’s making weak contact when not putting the ball over the fence). Those are the type of players I like to keep my eye on, because they can reverse course quickly.
First team: Luis Matos (MLB), Wade Meckler (AA), Rayner Arias (DSL)
Second team: Vaun Brown (AA), Carter Howell (High-A), Angel Guzman (DSL)
Matos went from a highly-disappointing season in High-A to arguably the best player in AAA in the blink of an eye, and is now an everyday player in the Majors. Hard to poke holes in that. Meckler’s .398 batting average leads all stateside Minor Leaguers with at least 100 plate appearances, and he’s looked completely unfazed every time he moved up a level. And Arias, the star of the latest international signing period, is hitting a cool 24-58 with four home runs, two triples, six doubles, and 15 walks to 11 strikeouts, and turned 17 less than two months ago. Unfortunately, he’s also injured, and we’re not sure if it’s serious.
Brown was the biggest star on the farm in 2022, but his start to 2023 was rocky after he had an injury setback and then the first cold patch of his career. But he’s been catching fire as of late, and the question with him is whether the 33.6% strikeout rate is enough to give serious concern to the 119 (and rapidly rising) wRC+. Howell went undrafted last year, shined in San Jose to start the year, and was one of the first players to get the Low-A to High-A promotion. So far he’s struggling in Eugene, but most players do. And Guzman, a 17 year old, has a 140 wRC+ in his debut season, with a sub-20% strikeout rate, and a body that’s built for power but can still handle center field.
Honorable mention: Heliot Ramos (AAA), Tanner O’Tremba (Low-A), Moises De La Rosa (DSL)
Ramos’ rehab hot streak has seen his AAA wRC+ rise to 127, his highest mark since playing in High-A in 2019. O’Tremba is a fan favorite who is also playing well (129 wRC+), and De La Rosa is destroying the DSL in his second year.
Rotation: Keaton Winn (MLB/AAA), Kyle Harrison (AAA), Carson Whisenhunt (AA), Mason Black (AA), Hayden Birdsong (High-A)
I’ve already written a bit about most of these players. Winn has emerged as a quality MLB option who I think will be a starter for the Giants for the forseable future. Harrison is battling walk issues, but still looks the part of the best left-handed prospect in baseball, and a potential ace as early as next year. Whisenhunt has one of the best changeups on the planet, and has yet to meet hitters who can figure out what to do with him. Black is the hottest pitcher in the system and will likely be in AAA soon, trying to prove that he belongs in the rotation. And Birdsong is seventh in the Minors in strikeouts per nine innings, just a hair behind Harrison. The move to High-A didn’t faze him one bit.
Honorable mention: Tristan Beck (AAA), Landen Roupp (AA), Gerelmi Maldonado (Low-A)
Perhaps I should have put Beck in the rotation, since he’s already done the very valuable thing of making the MLB roster ... and, most importantly, sticking on it. But it seems the Giants view him as a long reliever, so I’m putting him in the honorable mention as a compromise between the rotation and the bullpen. Roupp has been arguably the best pitcher in the system when healthy, but multiple injuries have limited him to just 31 innings. And Maldonado has emerged as one of the most exciting pitchers in the organization, and someone who you could reasonably rank as their third-best starting pitcher prospect right now, but a few bad games and general inconsistency (he’s only 19, after all) have left him with an ERA inflated to 5.26.
Bullpen arms: Ryan Walker (MLB), Mauricio Llovera (MLB), Erik Miller (AAA), Chris Wright (AAA), Ben Madison (AA), Tyler Myrick (AA), Raymond Burgos (AA)
Walker has had a few struggles lately, but is a pretty solid part of the MLB bullpen right now, and likely will be for quite a while. Llovera didn’t have a great year in Sacramento, but was one of the only pitchers in the PCL to limit walks, and is back in the Majors. Miller and Wright both profile as elite strikeout artists (12.2 and 14.0 strikeouts per nine innings, respectively), with brutal walk rates (8.2 and 7.9 per nine innings, respectively), who could be awesome with just a little improvement to the free passes. Madison, who is second behind only Wright in strikeouts per nine innings among relievers in the system, is, in my eyes, the most likely player to be protected from the Rule 5 Draft this offseason. FIP isn’t a huge fan of the recently-promoted Myrick, but he had a 58% ground ball rate in High-A and has given up just three earned runs in 29.2 innings this year. And Burgos has just been super solid all around in his debut season with the organization.
Honorable mention: José Cruz (AA), William Kempner (High-A), Hunter Dula (High-A), Mat Olsen (High-A)
It maybe hasn’t been the season the Giants hoped for from Cruz when they added him to the 40-man roster, but he still had a 1.45 ERA in High-A with 13.5 strikeouts and 3.4 walks per nine before getting promoted. Kempner, last year’s third-round pick, has already been moved to a single-inning relief role, and is performing well. Dula has a 1.95 ERA and has had some very hot stretches. Olsen may not be the best baseball player with a variation of that name, but he does have 13.5 strikeouts to just 2.8 walks per nine innings, and had an 11-game scoreless streak this season, during which time he allowed just five hits and one walk in 16.2 innings with 24 strikeouts.
OK, 4,300 words is way too many. My bad, y’all. Enjoy the second half of the season. Go baby Giants. You are the future, after all.