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Minor League round up, 9/14: And then there were two

Yesterday’s action on the Giants farm.

Sean Hjelle reaching out to catch a throw
RHP Sean Hjelle allowed just 1 run in 5.2 innings for AAA Sacramento
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

For the final time this year, three San Francisco Giants Minor League Baseball affiliates were in action on Thursday. Going forward the eight-team system has been whittled down to just two.

Let’s jump into the action.

Link to the 2023 McCovey Chronicles Community Prospect List (CPL)

All listed positions are the positions played in that game.


Itty bitty news, but AAA Sacramento moved LHP Chris Wright and RHP Miguel Yajure to the Development List. This is surely just logistical puzzle pieces, as they had to make room for RHP Joe Ross to be activated, and third baseman Casey Schmitt to be optioned.

AAA Sacramento (63-77)

Sacramento River Cats beat the Sugar Land Space Cowboys (Astros) 4-1
Box score

It hasn’t been the year that RHP Sean Hjelle (No. 30 CPL) envisioned, after making his MLB debut in 2022. The hope was that Hjelle would be an impact player at the MLB level and, when not doing that, look really good in AAA.

Unfortunately, neither of those things have happened, as Hjelle has struggled a bit at each level, and will enter the offseason with his 40-man roster spot in peril.

But Thursday he reminded the team as to why he’s such an intriguing prospect. Hjelle was initially slated to start the game, but when veteran RHP Joe Ross was activated from the IL, Hjelle moved into a bulk-innings relief role. He entered in a messy 3rd inning and got out of the jam he didn’t make, then settled into an absolutely delightful outing: 5.2 innings, 4 hits, 1 walk, 1 hit batter, 1 run, and 2 strikeouts.

Hjelle lived in the strike zone, throwing 53 of 81 pitches for strikes, and despite the low strikeout numbers, batters looked quite uncomfortable taking at-bats against him all night long. Such is the inherent advantage of being a pitcher who would be one of the tallest players in the league if he played in the NBA.

With a handful of notable pitchers being Rule 5 eligible this offseason, it won’t be easy for the Giants to find a way to keep Hjelle, considering that he has a 6.03 ERA and a 5.94 FIP this year in AAA, to go with his 8.59 ERA and 4.80 FIP in the Majors. But you can certainly understand why they might prioritize him more than the raw numbers would suggest. There’s definitely something there.

As mentioned, Ross got the start, his first with AAA after spending the year injured and then making 5 rehab appearances. He looked a little rusty, as expected, but was good overall, pitching 2.1 scoreless innings with 2 hits, 2 walks, and 3 strikeouts. This short stint in Sacramento is important for Ross as he tries to get back to the Majors — if he looks good, he could certainly factor into the team’s plans for 2024.

Shutting the door in the 9th inning was LHP Erik Miller, who struck out a batter and walked a batter in a no-hit inning. By now you all know the drill with Miller, who has obscenely high strikeout and walk rates: among 165 Pacific Coast League pitchers with at least 30 innings thrown, Miller’s 12.8 strikeouts per 9 innings ranks 8th, while his 7.2 walks per 9 ranks 150th.

But while those are the numbers that jump off the page, it’s something a little quieter that might be the most stunning. Since getting tagged for 5 runs in 0.2 innings in his final appearance in July, Miller has been almost literally unhittable. In 16 games since, Miller has thrown 14.2 innings and allowed .... wait for it .... 1 hit. And that hit was a single. Needless to say, he hasn’t given up a run, and he has 24 strikeouts to 10 walks in that time frame.

I think it’s safe to say that the Giants are going to protect Miller from the upcoming Rule 5 Draft. Southpaws who can go nearly 7 weeks of 1-hitting opponents in the Minor League equivalent of Coors Field don’t exactly grow on trees.

A fairly pedestrian day on offense, though shortstop Tyler Fitzgerald (No. 18 CPL) certainly didn’t get that memo. He had another delightful game, hitting 2-4 with an opposite-field home run.

The home run was notable for Fitzgerald because it gave him a 20-20 season in Sacramento. He’d already blown past having a 20-20 year across 2 levels, but fun to see a 20-20 season in AAA.

The Giants have had just 4 20-20 seasons in the Minors over the last 2 years: Grant McCray last year, Vaun Brown last year, and Fitzgerald both this year and last year. That’s really cool, so congrats on the accomplishment, Tyler!

It’s hard to know what to make of Fitzgerald’s power and overall offensive performance. On the one hand, an up-the-middle player with a lot of home run power is obviously a very exciting thing. On the other hand, the Giants are pretty wary of prospects who rely on home runs for offensive success. We’ve seen firsthand what happened when David Villar and Jaylin Davis were given opportunities in the Majors and didn’t sustain their PCL home run rates and had limited offensive tools to fall back on.

The unfortunate place where that comparison breaks is in the fact that Villar and Davis used homers to boost their delightful statlines, while Fitzgerald has used his to tread water offensively. Villar’s 27 homers in Sacramento last year resulted in a 148 wRC+, while Davis’ 25 homers across a pair of AAA teams in 2019 left him with a sky-high, very nice 169 wRC+.

It’s been a different story for Fitzgerald, whose 20 homers in Sacramento this year have given him a 103 wRC+, while 21 big flies in AA Richmond a season ago left him with a distinctly-average 100 wRC+. Seen through that lens, it’s a little more understandable that the Giants don’t seem to be as high on Fitzgerald as most fans are, but it’s still exciting to think of a player who plays a quality shortstop, second base, and center field having that type of power.

Also a 2-hit day for catcher Joey Bart, which was nice to see, while left fielder Trenton Brooks was the other player to reach base multiple times, hitting 1-2 with a walk.

Not a notable day for the players trying to get back to the Majors this year, as designated hitter Heliot Ramos (No. 12 CPL) hit 0-4 with 2 strikeouts, while Marco Luciano (No. 2 CPL) and Wade Meckler (No. 42 CPL) both had the day off.

AA Richmond (73-62)

Richmond Flying Squirrels beat the Erie SeaWolves (Tigers) 7-3
Box score

With their 10th win in their last 11 games, the Flying Squirrels have done something that looked impossible when the month began: punched a ticket to the postseason. And with 3 games remaining, no less!

Driving the critical win was LHP John Michael Bertrand, whose final regular season appearance of his first full season put a bow on an absolutely delightful year. A 10th-round pick in 2022, Bertrand started this game and tossed 6 scoreless innings, giving up just 4 hits and 2 walks. Delightful!

He also only struck out 2 batters, but that’s part of the Bertrand experience. He doesn’t have overwhelming stuff, but he has fantastic command and control, and limits hard contact, which is what has allowed him to fly through the system: after throwing just 8 innings in his debut season last year, and starting 2023 in Low-A, he ends the regular season having made 11 starts in AA.

Among 56 Giants pitchers with at least 50 innings thrown this year, Bertrand is 4th in walks per 9 innings (2.7), 7th in home runs per 9 innings (0.5), and 4th in ground ball rate (56.4%). That’s allowed him to be 14th in ERA (3.65) and 9th in FIP (3.61), while mostly trailing relievers, despite being 54th of those 56 in strikeouts per 9 innings (7.0).

Is that type of old school pitcher enough for Bertrand to have a future as a starter in the Majors, or will he end up being a Scott Alexander-esque reliever? I’m sure the Giants would be happy with either!

The standout player on offense was someone who has been standing out most of the year, right fielder Victor Bericoto. Playing in his 49th game since a midseason promotion, Bericoto hit 1-3 with a walk, and added to his organizational lead with a solo home run to open up the 6th inning.

Despite a very slow start after his promotion, Bericoto has seen his AA numbers rise up to a .777 OPS and a 107 wRC+. Still just 21, the Giants have to be mighty impressed by the righty’s ability to adjust. He joined Richmond in early July and posted a .464 OPS in the month. But in August that number rose all the way to .888, and so far in September it’s sitting at .854.

I’m curious to see if the Giants start Bericoto in AAA next year. I’d guess they’ll be a little more cautious and have him begin the year in AA, and promote him early and aggressively if he performs well, primarily because his strikeout rate has spiked in Richmond, jumping from 19.4% in High-A to 27.0% in AA.

The only player other than Bericoto to reach base twice was shortstop Will Wilson (No. 21 CPL), who hit 2-4 as he tries to find some silver linings at the end of a disappointing season. And the biggest hit came courtesy of first baseman Brady Whalen, who only hit 1-4 but that hit was a bases-loaded double.

Low-A San Jose (eliminated)

San Jose Giants lost to the Modesto Nuts (Mariners) 13-4
Box score

And with that, the season is over for the Baby Giants. This game kind of mirrored their year, as they scored 4 runs early on, then gave up 13 unanswered. That’s fitting for a team that was seemingly unbeatable for the first two months of the year, then fell apart.

The pitchers struggled mightily, with the first 5 arms the Giants put on the mound getting lit up. Then LHP Esmerlin Vinicio showed up and saved the day, striking out all 3 batters that he faced in the 8th inning. I have no idea how accurate the following graphics are, but if they are accurate they certainly provide some insight into just how deceptive Vinicio’s pitches are.

Image of 3 called strikes in the strike zone
Image of 4 tracked pitched, with 2 called strikes in the middle of the zone

That’s a lot of pitches that are clearly in the strike zone and aren’t being swung at.

The raw numbers don’t stand out much for Vinicio, who posted both a 4.91 ERA and FIP in San Jose, with 83 strikeouts to 42 walks in 77 innings (worth noting that Thursday’s game, being the postseason, doesn’t count in his stat totals). But there’s clearly a ton of talent in his arm, and he won’t celebrate his 21st birthday until 2 weeks before pitchers and catchers report.

A few recent draftees ended their debut seasons with strong performances in the batter’s box. Third baseman Charlie Szykowny and right fielder Scott Bandura both doubled, with the former adding a single and the latter a walk. Szykowny, a left-handed hitter taken in the 9th round, struggled a bit after moving from the ACL to Low-A, but ended the year on a 5-game hitting streak (including the playoffs), where he hit 7-17 with 2 doubles, 2 walks, and just 2 strikeouts. Bandura, a left-handed hitting 7th-round pick, had pretty good numbers during his San Jose stint. Including the playoffs, he hit 22-87 with 2 homers, 1 triple, 8 doubles, and 16 walks, albeit with 29 strikeouts.

Also reaching base twice were center fielder Turner Hill who singled, walked, and stole a base, and 2 recent draftees: first baseman Justin Wishkoski and designated hitter Bryce Eldridge. Wishkoski, a right-handed hitting 16th-rounder, hit 2-4 and, like Szykowny, found a way to overcome a slow start to the level and end the year strong. In his first 8 games in Low-A, Wishkosi hit just 2-28 with 0 extra-base hits, 3 walks, and 4 strikeouts. In his next/last 6 games, he hit 10-24 with 1 home run, 2 doubles, 5 walks, and just 3 strikeouts. What an end to the year!

Eldridge, a tall and powerful lefty slugger who was the team’s 1st-round pick, ended his San Jose tenure hitting 18-65 with 1 home run, 2 doubles, 13 walks, and 20 strikeouts, after posting a 1.040 OPS and a 139 wRC+ in the Complex League. Pretty darn good for an 18 year old if you ask me! He’s definitely near the top of the list of players I’m excited to watch in 2024, and I’m already sad that I have to wait half a year for that.

Enjoy the offseason, Baby Giants!

Home runs

AAA Tyler Fitzgerald (20 in AAA, 22 total)
AA Victor Bericoto (11 in AA, 27 total)

Friday schedule

Sacramento: vs. the Sugar Land Space Cowboys, 6:45 p.m. PT
Richmond: @ the Erie SeaWolves, 3:05 p.m. PT

Reminder that Minor League games can now be watched on MLB TV.