My favorite time of the year is almost upon us: the start of the Major League Baseball season. And when my favorite time of the year, the start of the Major League Baseball season, arrives, it means that my second-favorite time of the year is right around the corner: the start of the Minor League Baseball season.
In my eyes, this is the most important season of Minor League Baseball since Farhan Zaidi took over as San Francisco Giants President of Baseball Operations after the 2018 season. We’re finally at a point where the slow drip of player development — slowed further by the pandemic wiping out Minor League Baseball in 2020 — should bear enough fruit from Zaidi’s tenure that we can get a better feel for how this regime has done in that department.
More importantly, the Giants are at a juncture where a young core is starting to become the foundation of the team; but we don’t yet know if it’s a good foundation. San Francisco had a whopping 12 players make their MLB debut last year, and even that underscores just how reliant the team has become on young (and mostly unproven) talent.
As of today, the Giants 40-man roster features 12 players who still have rookie eligibility, and another nine who exhausted their eligibility in 2023. And on top of that, three of their core players are still on the young side, with Thairo Estrada entering his age-28 season and Logan Webb and Camilo Doval entering their age-27 seasons.
The future is here, and the next 5-10 years of Giants baseball will be heavily impacted by whether or not that presently-arriving future (if such an oxymoron is possible) is actually good or not.
We’ll see the first returns of that immediately, as the Giants two most important prospects — Marco Luciano and Kyle Harrison — will almost surely start the year on the Opening Day roster (health permitting), and will quite likely stay on the roster all year. So while our prospect eyes and future interests will all be pointed towards those two, we have to forget about them for the next few thousand words.
This article is about the Minor Leagues where, hopefully, we won’t ever see Luciano or Harrison again (save for rehab stints). These are 11 questions that will define a pivotal Giants Minor League season.
Will they be as aggressive with promotions?
Vaun Brown and Wade Meckler, while both among the top outfield prospects in the system, are dramatically different prospects. Nearly as different as could possibly be. And yet we can use the two players, drafted in similar slots in consecutive years, to highlight a dramatic shift in the Giants promotion philosophy last year.
Brown was drafted in the 10th round in 2021 and spent that year on the Complex League, amassing 98 plate appearances. In his first full season in 2022, he opened in Low-A. Despite having some of the best numbers in all of Minor League Baseball, he stayed in San Jose for 262 plate appearances before getting the promotion to High-A. He hit even better in Eugene, where he stayed for 194 plate appearances ... until the season ended and he got to hop up to AA for the final game of the year.
As Brown was stringing together that season, Meckler was selected in the eighth round, debuted in the Complex League and, after 50 plate appearances, was sent to Low-A for 50 more. The Giants had seen enough to have him start his first full season — 2023 — in High-A where, like Brown before him, he had some of the best numbers in all of Minor League Baseball.
His time in Eugene lasted just 87 plate appearances before a promotion to AA, which lasted 174 plate appearances before a promotion to AAA, where he saw all of 33 plate appearances before the Giants made the controversial decision to add him to the MLB roster.
It took Meckler about as many plate appearances to make the Majors as it too Brown to get to High-A.
Again: this was more than just a shift in philosophy. Zaidi’s regime has always moved players with good control of the zone (like Meckler) much more quickly than hitters with strikeout issues (like Brown). But Zaidi was also open about how the team was purposely being more aggressive. Like Meckler, youngsters Casey Schmitt, Luis Matos, and Patrick Bailey flew through levels in 2023, en route to MLB debuts. On the pitching front, Carson Whisenhunt and Hayden Birdsong barely had time to unpack in between promotions, with rumors that two of Meckler’s draftmates — Whisenhunt and Reggie Crawford — might have made the Majors were it not for injuries.
Meckler excelled at every stop last year ... except the Majors. And that was emblematic of the whole season for the Giants and their development team. I suspect that they’ll remain just as aggressive promoting players within their affiliates, while taking a more cautious approach with adding prospects to the Major League roster.
What are the starting assignments?
Just as the Giants were aggressive with some promotions last year, they were aggressive with some opening assignments ... and telling with others.
Meckler, Matos, Schmitt, and Bailey all had notable starting assignments, bumped up a level after either very short stints or poor performance the year prior. Other players, like Tyler Fitzgerald and Kai-Wei Teng, were asked to repeat levels that they’d spent an entire year at, in hopes that they’d improve certain elements.
This question is less about aggression and more just about my curiosity as to where players will start. Will Whisenhunt head to AAA after a mere 19.2 innings in AA? Crawford pitched just 11 innings in Low-A before getting promoted, and has a mere 19 professional innings to his name ... does he open in AA? What about 2023 first-round pick Bryce Eldridge, who put up good numbers in Low-A but only had 69 plate appearances with a fair amount of swing-and-miss? Is he High-A bound, or returning to San Jose?
Rayner Arias is a fascinating one. A darling of last year’s international signing class, Arias was touted as ready for stateside baseball by none other than Giants Senior Director of International Scouting, Joe Salermo ... before he even made his professional debut. San Francisco took a more cautious approach, having him play in the Dominican Summer League, where he did borderline illegal things to the baseball before having his season end in injury. He’ll surely be stateside in 2024, but do the Giants have him jump straight to A-ball, or do they slow-play him in Extended Spring Training until the Complex League season starts?
On a similar note ...
What of the 2023 draft class infield logjam?
This is really an extension of the last question, it just deserves its own space.
The Giants used their second, third, and fourth-round picks in July on shortstops (Walker Martin, Cole Foster, and Maui Ahuna, respectively). Low-A San Jose is the logical starting point for all three, but the current rules of baseball make it hard to play three shortstops at once. In theory, some of the logjam can be addressed by having Foster and Ahuna spend time at second base ... except that the Giants used their fifth-round pick on Quinn McDaniel, a second baseman.
I won’t even try to take a stab at figuring out how the Giants might handle this, but I’m very curious.
What is Reggie Crawford’s pitching load?
The Giants certainly made an interesting selection to start the 2022 draft, when they chose a pitcher-centric two-way player who was recovering from Tommy John surgery and had pitched just 16.1 innings combined between college and summer ball.
Crawford has pitched sparingly since getting drafted, which was mostly the plan, as the team wanted to be very careful with him. He didn’t pitch at all after getting drafted, and threw just 19 innings in 2023, though he was hampered by minor injuries and illness.
Despite some raised eyebrows, San Francisco — and yours truly — continue to view Crawford as a starting pitcher. It’s easy to see why: power lefties with high-90s fastballs and excellent sliders don’t grow on trees. Yet the Giants have yet to allow Crawford to pitch into the third inning of a game.
Will the one and two-inning approach continue in 2024? Will the Giants slowly let him pitch three and maybe even four innings? Will they fully unleash him and see what happens?
And can he remain effective as more innings pile up?
Speaking of Crawford...
Will the two-ways get to two-way?
The Giants failed in their bid to land Shohei Ohtani in free agency, but they have used their last two first-round picks on two-way players.
Yet while they’ve allowed Crawford and Eldridge to keep the “two-way player” plaque on their desk, they’ve also made it clear that they view the former primarily as a pitcher, and the latter primarily as a hitter.
So how will that play out in 2024?
Crawford made it into a few Complex League games after getting drafted, and the Giants let him DH sparingly last year ... but he’s had just 40 plate appearances in the Minors, hitting 7-36 with one home run, two doubles, two walks, and 14 strikeouts. Notably, they sent him to the Arizona Fall League a few months ago, specifically as a designated hitter and first baseman.
Results there were mixed. Crawford mostly looked overmatched: his .558 OPS was 63rd out of 68 hitters, and he struck out 30 times in 71 plate appearances. On the other hand, one could argue that the success he did have — he bopped two homers and drew 12 walks in those 71 plate appearances — was emblematic of the potential he has, considering that his teammates had all spent years hitting full-time and he had basically never hit as a pro.
But his struggles paint why it will be so difficult for him to continue the two-way experiment. If I had to guess, Crawford will open the year with AA Richmond ... hitting in the Eastern League is an incredibly difficult task for even the best hitting prospects, so one can imagine how challenging it would be for someone who had exactly 18 plate appearances in Low-A ... and just one in High-A.
It’s not quite as extreme for Eldridge, who I’m guessing begins the year in Low-A. But seeing as how he came from high school, having him jump straight into A-ball pitching could pose more questions than answers.
The Giants might scrap the two-way thing for one or both players in 2024. They might do as they did with Crawford in 2023, letting each player dabble in their lesser position, but not really commit to it. Or hell ... maybe they go all-in!
What position does Casey Schmitt play?
Schmitt’s 2023 was very odd. After a breakout 2022, he started the 2023 season in AAA. Despite not putting up very notable numbers, he quickly earned a spot in the Majors, where he proceeded to have one of the best debut weeks in MLB history. Eventually he fell back to earth ... and then a lot further, finishing the season with one of the worst offensive lines in the Majors.
Along the way, Schmitt — the 2022 Minor League Gold Glove winner at third base — started to play up the middle, necessitated by an injury to second baseman Estrada, the struggles and injuries of shortstop Brandon Crawford, and the surprisingly-good defense of third baseman J.D. Davis.
Schmitt became an elite defensive third baseman prospect primarily because of his strong arm, nifty ability to pick grounders (especially moving to his right), and sensational work coming in on choppers. Quickness and lateral agility were always relative weaknesses, so it wasn’t surprising that he didn’t look nearly as good at shortstop and second base as he had at third.
Which puts the Giants in a conundrum. Schmitt’s best position, by far, is third base. But in order to succeed in the Majors at the hot corner, one needs to also have a fairly hot bat. As Estrada and Crawford have taught us, an average or even a bit below-average bat can still result in a high-quality middle infielder; that’s not true at third. And the jury is still out on whether Schmitt, who ended 2023 with a .206/.255/.324 line, can hit well in the Majors.
He’ll almost surely open 2024 with AAA Sacramento. Do the Giants fully commit to him as a third baseman there? Or will they signal pessimism in his bat and try to develop his middle infield skills more? And does a potential signing of Matt Chapman change that equation?
And while we’re wondering where players will play...
Is Luis Matos still a center fielder?
In many ways, Matos’ 2023 was the opposite of Schmitt’s. Unlike Schmitt, Matos was coming off a very disappointing 2022. Yet despite that, Matos, unlike Schmitt, absolutely tore the stitches off of the ball in the Minors in 2023. And, unlike Schmitt, he had to wait quite a while before the Giants gave him his chance at the Major League level. Unlike Schmitt, he didn’t get off to a blistering hot start there, but, unlike Schmitt, he seemed to get better as the year went on.
And while Schmitt’s question is whether or not he can hit well enough to stay at his position, Matos’ question is whether or not he can field well enough to ... or whether he can hit well enough to move positions.
Matos has never profiled as the truly elite glove that Schmitt has, but he did look the part of an above-average defensive center fielder at every stop in the Minors. But he looked fairly awful there in his first Major League stint ... though it’s worth noting that he was on the young side of 21.
The Giants signed Jung Hoo Lee over the offseason, which means that Matos’ immediate path towards impacting the Major League roster is as a corner outfielder. And while he dominated AAA (1.030 OPS, 145 wRC+), and showed tons of promise at the Major League level (where he had a microscopic strikeout rate and crushed lefties), there are questions as to whether he can tap into enough power to be an everyday corner outfielder.
But just because the Giants signed Lee doesn’t mean they’ve abandoned hope of Matos playing center. They still need someone to be the backup center fielder, and there’s always a chance that Lee struggles or gets injured, and then they need a full-time center fielder.
Matos might make the Opening Day roster, but if not I’m curious to see if the Giants have him patrolling center in Sacramento ... or if he’s just a corner outfielder moving forward.
Will starting pitchers pitch like starting pitchers?
The Giants frustrated a lot of fans with how little they used starting pitchers in 2023. While most of that frustration was aimed at the MLB team — where the Giants often had a rotation of Webb, Alex Cobb, and three bullpen games — it trickled down to the Minors. Only seven prospects in the Giants system threw 100 innings last year.
As mentioned, Crawford lived in the 1-2 inning range, but it wasn’t just him. Top prospect Harrison was usually in the 2-4 inning range, and even the dominant Whisenhunt topped out at five innings, which he only reached three times in 16 starts.
The Giants seem to live by a “there are only so many coffee pods in the Nespresso canister” mantra (I’m workshopping different non-artillery versions of this common saying, leave your favorites in the comment section). It’s an understandable approach, but as we saw with Harrison, it leaves some pitchers ill-prepared when they make it to the Majors. And it surely has a negative impact on building trade value.
San Francisco’s new coaching staff has already publicly stated a desire for more traditional starting pitcher usage ... will that trickle down to the Minors?
Let’s stick on the topic of arms...
Can any elite bullpen arms arrive?
The Giants have had a good string of developing strong bullpen arms in the last few years, as Doval has turned into an All-Star closer while Tyler Rogers and Ryan Walker have become high-quality late-inning relievers. Even Gregory Santos turned into a delightful bullpen arm, though the Giants gave up on him before it happened.
As the roster currently stands, the bullpen will likely be the strength of the team, which probably is more of an indictment of their rotation and position players than praise of the relievers. But developing a few great relief arms could go a long way towards the Giants becoming a competitive team.
I still think Cole Waites will get there, but Tommy John surgery means he won’t have the chance until 2025. It seems the Giants are putting tons of faith in Erik Miller, a power lefty with obscenely high strikeout and walk numbers ... he was added to the roster as a Rule 5 protection, and is the only lefty reliever on the 40-man other than Taylor Rogers.
Randy Rodríguez, R.J. Dabovich, Nick Avila, Juan Sanchez, and Chris Wright are extremely intriguing AAA arms, and there are some compelling names further down the affiliates, too. Can any of them take off?
What’s everyone’s health status?
Like all teams, the Giants have a lot of injury question marks. After his aforementioned dominant 2022, Brown spent almost the entire 2023 season either being injured or playing poorly because he was hampered by those injuries. You could see him making an impact in the Majors this year, but given that he’s entering his age-26 season, another injury setback could put him on the brink of seeing his career fade away.
Right-handed pitcher Carson Ragsdale might be a top-10 prospect in the system on talent alone, but has pitched just 33.1 innings over the last two seasons. Outfielder Jairo Pomares was once a top-10 prospect in the system, and is only entering his age-23 season, but was limited to just nine rehab games last year.
Catcher Adrian Sugastey and righties Landen Roupp and Trevor McDonald haven’t dealt with injuries as severe as Ragsdale and Pomares, but they’re three very good prospects who have dealt with struggles in that department. Crawford and Whisenhunt both had their 2023s shut down after injuries.
And two of Zaidi’s first-round picks — Hunter Bishop in 2019 and Will Bednar in 2021 — have had their careers completely sidetracked by major injuries.
How many of those players can return to full health? And what will they look like if they do?
Can some star power emerge?
I’m a fan of what Zaidi and the development team have done over the last few years. I think the Giants farm system is significantly improved, and a lot of fun. But the calling card of the system is the depth ... there are lots of intriguing players, and the team has shown an uncanny ability to turn completely unheralded players (like 10th-round pick Brown, eighth-round pick Meckler, and sixth-round pick Hayden Birdsong) into top prospects.
But there can be no denying the lack of star power in the system. Their only top-50 prospects in recent years are Harrison and Luciano and, unless something has gone quite wrong, those two will open the year in the Majors, and lose their prospect status in April.
Right now, the system projects to keep churning out fringe MLB players and a decent number of quality MLB players ... both good things, no doubt. But eventually the Giants need it to start pumping out some stars.
Perhaps Eldridge, who cut a physically-intimidating picture while hitting .294/.400/.505 as an 18-year old last year, will develop into a left-handed version of Aaron Judge this year. Maybe Arias — who hit 24-58 with 12 extra-base hits and just 11 strikeouts as a 17-year old — takes the states by storm. We didn’t get to see Martin — viewed by many as the best athlete in the 2023 draft — play last year; perhaps he makes the whole industry look foolish for letting him fall to the second round.
Can Crawford ramp up to starter innings with his 99-mph fastball and hit bombs in the batter’s box? Can center fielder Grant McCray cut down on the strikeouts enough to let his elite defense and baserunning turn him from an intriguing prospect into an elite one? Is Brown good health away from being a 30-30 guy? Will Whisenhunt make upper Minors hitters look as new to baseball as he made lower Minors hitters look?
There are many forms it could take. But the Giants sure need a star.