Results tagged ‘ San Francisco Giants ’

Prospect Watch: Roger Kieschnick

Roger Kieschnick made his first professional season a memorable one. In 2009, the Rockwall, Texas native ranked third in all of Minor League Baseball with 110 RBI. He mashed a team-leading 37 doubles and 23 home runs, earning himself the California League Rookie of the Year Award. He was named a mid-season and post-season California League All-Star. And, to top it all off, he helped the San Jose Giants win the California League Championship.

Kieschnick didn’t come out of college with a typical resume, though. In his freshman year at Texas Tech, Kieschnick was named Freshman of the Year and a member of the First Team All-Big 12 by the conference’s coaches. Kieschnick followed up his freshman campaign by being named to the Second Team All-Big 12 in his sophomore and junior seasons.

College baseball players tend to flock to wood-bat leagues in the summer, getting more playing time and using the equipment utilized at the next level. Kieschnick, however, participated in international tournaments with the United States National Team. He won a gold medal at the World University Championships in 2006 and a silver medal in the Pan American Games in 2007.

The international experience provided Kieschnick not only with the familiarity of facing some of the best baseball players that are his peers, but also performing in front of the professional baseball gatekeepers: scouts.

The outfielder entered MLB’s First-Year Player Draft as a junior in 2008, feeling he had done plenty to impress the scouts with his bat, arm and range. The Giants selected him in the third round, but he did not appear in a pro game that summer.

He did not go into hibernation during his first professional offseason, however. Kieschnick played in the defunct Hawaii Winter Baseball league in 2008. He was a teammate of Buster Posey and Steve Edlefsen with the Waikiki BeachBoys. The trio helped the BeachBoys win their first (and the last) Hawaii Winter League baseball championship. Winning seemed to be following Kieschnick wherever he went.

The international experience, the winter league stint and his stellar season as a first-time professional provided Kieschnick with plenty of momentum entering 2010 – his first at the Double-A level.

By July of that season, Kieschnick was forced to the disabled list with back inflammation. His second pro season was cut short to 60 games, and he hit just four home runs in 223 at-bats – a distant number relative to his 23 in 517 at-bats in 2009.

The 2011 season became even more important for Kieschnick than it already was, and he did not disappoint. Kieschnick returned to Richmond, where he was named an Eastern League mid-Season All-Star and hit 22 doubles, five triples and 16 home runs in 126 games. He did not quite match his 2009 offensive output, but the Eastern League is known to be more of a pitcher’s league, especially compared to the high altitudes and windy locations of the California League.

The Giants rewarded Kieschnick with a 40-man roster spot in November of 2011, providing him with a secure mindset going into 2012. With the 40-man spot comes an invitation to Major League Spring Training, which is his second time taking part in big league camp.

Kieschnick seems to be an organizational favorite. All signs point to him appearing at the Triple-A level in 2012, possibly as soon as Opening Day. With the types of numbers put on display in the Pacific Coast League, Kieschnick may provide plenty of power for the Grizzlies.

Prospect Watch: Heath Hembree

Heath Hembree throws hard. Really hard. And with that kind of velocity, and stats to back up to one’s effectiveness, a baseball player gets noticed

Richard Heath Hembree has quickly risen through the San Francisco Giants farm system. This weekend, when pitchers and catchers report, the just-turned 23-year-old will enter his first big league Spring Training. His invitation to Major League camp was somewhat expected, however, when one looks back at his 2011 season.

The 6-4 right-hander was downright stingy in the California League last year. He allowed only two runs in 24 2/3 innings pitched. He faced 101 batters and only 29 of them reached base (16 hits, 12 walks and one hit-by-pitch). He also struck out nearly half of the hitters he faced with his 44 strikeouts. Not surprisingly, Hembree was named a California League Mid-Season All-Star for his efforts, as well as being tabbed a Topps Class A All-Star after the season.

Heath Hembree pitching for the Richmond Flying Squirrels in 2011 (Real Life Studios)

In mid-June, Hembree was elevated to Double-A Richmond for the first time in his career. His Eastern League opponents batted .194 off of him in 28 games, and he struck out 34 and walked 13 in 28 2/3 innings.

As a hitter, Hembree even batted 1.000 with the Flying Squirrels. Granted, the perfect batting average stems from one hit in his only at-bat, but at least he knows when to make that one hit count. He drove in two runs with a single in the bottom of the sixth inning in the second game of a doubleheader against the Harrisburg Senators, adding the sixth and seventh runs in an eventual 7-5 Richmond win.

The two insurance runs proved to be important, too, as Hembree suffered his worst outing in his pro career when he allowed four runs in the following inning. Hembree recovered nicely for the remainder of the season, though, as he allowed only two earned runs in his final 16 2/3 innings.

For the entire 2011 season, Hembree led all of Minor League Baseball with 38 saves to go along with his 1-1 record, 1.86 ERA and 78 strikeouts in 53 1/3 innings.

Hembree locks in on his opponent (Real Life Studios)

So where did Hembree come from?

The Spartanburg, South Carolina native was drafted by the Giants out of the College of Charleston in the fifth round of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft. Hembree attended Spartanburg Methodist Junior College before pitching for one season with the College of Charleston Cougars. He also attended the University of South Carolina in 2008.

He made his professional debut with the Arizona Rookie League Giants in 2010, and he sort of pitched well. All he did was allow nine hits – only one for extra-bases – in 11 innings. Of the 41 batters he faced, Hembree struck out 22 of them and walked none.

While the Giants pitching staff has not been much of a question mark over the last couple of seasons, it is nice to have the security blanket of a Heath Hembree in the farm system. Arms like Hembree will only support the expectations of Giants fans that they have each and every year when it comes to San Francisco pitchers. With the benefit of time to develop here in Fresno, Hembree will be making his stamp in the Major Leagues soon enough.

Hembree is also on Twitter. Follow him @HeathHembree.

A Walk In The Park

By: Noah Frank

When you are fortunate enough to work in baseball, you can, from time to time, forget the advantages your job affords you. In the offseason, when there are no games being played, you work a fairly standard 9-5 day, joining the rest of the population on the morning and evening commutes. But if you are lucky enough to have your offices built into the ballpark, and built into as beautiful a ballpark as we have here in Downtown Fresno, there is a constant reminder, right outside the window.

This week, that which all Grizzlies fans already know about our baseball home was revealed to a nationwide audience. Baseball America, the preeminent publication in our sport, chose Chukchansi Park to grace the cover of its 2012 Great Parks Calendar, which will hang in offices and homes from Spokane to Jupiter, from Portland (not Oregon anymore, just Maine) to Orem. It is a special honor for a city like Fresno, one that is not always associated with aesthetic beauty by those who do not live here.

In order to get a feel for the weight of such an honor, I caught up with a couple of people who know Downtown Fresno as well as anyone. Craig Scharton was born and raised in Fresno, and has moved his life Downtown, first living in the Security Bank building before purchasing his current house. This is only fitting, as he spends his days in the city offices as the Director of Downtown and Community Revitalization. There are few people in our town more committed to the success of Downtown than Scharton, who currently has a 20-game package for The CRU Club, and whose family has owned some form of ticket plan since the team’s move to its Downtown home in 2002.

A shot of Chukchansi Park from the Fresno sky. (Fresno Grizzlies)

“It’s obviously an incredible facility,” said Scharton of the ballpark. “And if we forget, we’re always reminded when we take visitors around how beautiful it is.”

Sometimes it takes an outsider’s view to make us aware again of what a great facility we have here. Another one of Downtown’s biggest champions, Travis Sheridan, relayed such a perspective.

“I’ve had visitors in all last year, coming anywhere from St. Louis to Australia,” he recalled. “They have all been so impressed with the ballpark. That’s when you know without a shadow of a doubt that this is a top notch ballpark.”

Scharton also recalled his experiences hearing from those who live outside of Fresno about how Chukchansi Park compares in the national landscape.

“We consistently hear from players and visitors that it’s the nicest ballpark in Triple-A” Scharton commented. That’s saying a lot, considering that six other parks have been built since 2000 in the Pacific Coast League alone.

The ballpark has also become the focal point of the Downtown entertainment experience. Sheridan was living in the Tower District when he first attended a game, back in 2004. Despite being a big baseball fan, he did not begin attending regularly until he became more involved in the future of Downtown four years ago as the Director of Marketing and Communications for the Central Valley Business Incubator.

“For me, it was a two-pronged approach,” Sheridan explained. “The more I got involved, the more I started patronizing the Downtown area, and the ballpark is the crown jewel of Downtown. As a baseball fan, I realized I was missing out.”

Sheridan (left) with Billy Crystal in the tunnel behind the Grizzlies dugout. (Don Davis)

Sheridan moved Downtown a year ago and took a much bigger leap in his connection to the Grizzlies this season, when he became the on-field host for 67 of the team’s 72 home games.

“Nothing beats an afternoon at the ballpark,” said Sheridan, who would certainly know. “Walking from my place (at Broadway Lofts) to the ballpark, it’s a great way to experience Downtown. It makes for a great overall urban experience.”

Adding to that experience, at least over the last couple of seasons, was the chance to see past or future World Champions playing right here in Fresno.

“One of the things I thought was great last year was carrying the momentum forward from the San Francisco Giants winning the World Series,” said Sheridan. “We don’t have that with Fresno State Football. There’s not a lot of people who graduate that program who we’re following in the pros.”

Of course, college football lacks the fluid feeder system that the Grizzlies enjoy, thanks to the club’s strong affiliation with the Giants. After all, more than half of the 2010 World Series roster came up through Fresno at one point or another, intrinsically tying Grizzlies fans to last year’s world title. Scharton agreed with the importance of that connection, citing a recent example.

“We were with a whole group in LA last night talking about Downtown (Fresno),” he recalled. “We listed off the players that we’ve all been fortunate enough to watch up close and personal, like Buster Posey, Tim Lincecum, and even Pablo Sandoval, who hit that home run here last year (on a Major League rehab assignment).”

In good times and bad for the baseball on the field, though, the ballpark remains. As it goes into its 11th year, Chukchansi Park looks as good as ever, as evidenced by its selection for the Great Parks Calendar cover.

The photo used by Baseball America for the cover of the 2012 calendar. (Don Davis)

“We know that we have a great stadium, and we hope that this recognition lets a lot of other people see what a great facility we have too,” said Sharton. “We hope they come and check it out.”

The people Scharton is referring to aren’t limited to just Fresnans, though. There are Giants fans all over the state, mostly north of the Central Valley, who travel great distances to see those in the farm system play.

“Just like people go to Spring Training, they should come down a couple times a year to see the upcoming prospects,” said Scharton. “It’s much easier and much cheaper to come down here than to go Scottsdale.”

Scottsdale Stadium, the Spring Training home of the Giants, is somewhat similar to Chukchansi Park. It holds roughly 12,000 people and was wholly renovated just a couple of years after Chukchansi Park was built. Both provide an opportunity for Giants fans to get out of San Francisco and watch the up-and-comers in the organization before they hit the Major League level. Sheridan agreed, for the most part, that Fresno could pull the same type of fan that makes the trek to Arizona each spring.

“Spring Training will always be a destination, but you can definitely carry that momentum,” Sheridan suggested. “Once people that have been identified in Spring Training as prospects, you can follow those folks in Fresno, throughout the year. To be able to see the prospects in Scottsdale and know you’ll be able to catch them any weekend in Fresno is a good selling point.”

It certainly won’t hurt to have some national recognition from the likes of Baseball America, either.

Trying To Catch Up With Tyler Graham

By: Noah Frank

The title of this article is, admittedly, a bit deceiving. It is, in fact, far easier to catch up with than it is to catch up to Tyler Graham. Of course, I don’t have to tell that to any Grizzlies fan, nor any battery in the Pacific Coast League. Ever since Graham received a chance promotion from Double-A in early May of 2010, he has thrilled the Fresno crowds with his blazing speed. After two big years in Triple-A, including a franchise record-shattering 60 stolen base performance in 2011, Graham has run all the way onto the San Francisco Giants 40-man roster.

For those who are not as familiar with baseball’s intricate rules surrounding its various player designations, the 40-man roster serves several purposes. It is the group from which the 25-man active Major League roster is derived. One cannot become a Major Leaguer before first being added to the 40-man. The act of adding a new player to that roster is called “purchasing a contract”, and is what happened to both Brett Pill and Justin Christian in September.

Residency on the 40-man also protects a player like Graham from the upcoming Rule V Draft, which I will leave you to read about in further detail here, should you choose to do so. Finally, it means an automatic invitation to Major League Spring Training next spring, which will be a first for Graham in his seven-year tenure in the Giants organization after being selected in the 19th round out of Oregon State in 2006.

The speedy center fielder found out about his addition to the roster via text message on Friday night in Culiacan, Mexico, where he is currently playing winter ball for the Tomateros (which, according to Google Translate, means “fryers”). Graham also received a follow-up phone call from Giants VP of Baseball Operations Bobby Evans with the good news.

Grizzlies fans are used to seeing Graham getting his uniform dirty. (Don Davis)

“Obviously I’m very excited,” he said over the crackling line of an international cell phone call on Monday. “It’s always positive to know you have the backing of the coaching staff and front office. It means a lot that they believe you can play at that level, gives you the extra confidence to get the job done.”

Graham is a native of Great Falls, Montana. To suggest that his hometown lies on the periphery of the baseball world would be kind. In fact, according to baseball-almanac.com, Graham’s home state has produced just 21 Major Leaguers in the history of the sport, including just one— Mets catcher John Gibbons, who played in a grand total of 18 games over two seasons— from Great Falls. Not that any of this matters, particularly, except to say that Graham certainly came in to professional ball with no particular advantages over any of his peers as he tried to fight for respect, and playing time, throughout the minors.

There was another battle that Graham faced early in his career, though, that as Graham matured, he realized he needed to better prepare himself to fight.

“I kind of always felt I was put on the back burner, mostly because I wasn’t able to stay healthy the first couple of years,” he admitted. “At the time I didn’t think it was fair, but over time I’ve realized how important it is to stay healthy and on the field. I knew I could play, but it was more that I to prove to them that I could stay healthy than that I could play.”

Graham has been able to keep himself on the field  the last couple of seasons, during which he has played in 236 games with the Grizzlies, but he has made just 847 plate appearances over that span. By comparison, Boston center fielder and leadoff hitter (as well as Graham’s former teammate at Oregon State) Jacoby Ellsbury stepped to the plate 729 times this season alone over 158 games, and the Pirates Andrew McCutchen (another leadoff-type center fielder) 678 times over the same amount of games.

It stands to reason that, should he stay healthy, one could best compare Graham’s potential opportunities (in plate appearances alone, not comparing their specific skill sets) at the next level to McCutchen’s. After all, Pittsburgh had the National League’s third-worst run-scoring offense, the Pirates’ .244 team batting average just marginally higher than the Giants’ .242. I use this comparison to try to show what Graham might be capable of over a similar amount of offensive opportunities. Graham’s two-season plate appearance total is almost exactly 25% more than McCutchen’s numbers from last year alone. If we adjust Graham’s plate appearance numbers to match McCutchen’s, we come up with the following line:

 

 

 

Now, I’m certainly not suggesting that these numbers will translate across the board at the Major League level. The quality of pitching in the National League is undisputedly better than that in the PCL. But the precipitous drop-off that we are often cautioned to expect from hitters that graduate out of our circuit is perhaps not as easily applied to Graham. After all, the notion is that power numbers will dissipate, turning home runs into doubles at best, long fly ball outs at worst. Graham has never been a power hitter, and makes his living with line drives and worm-burners. So while it is conceivable that stronger infield defenses will take a hit away here or there, the parks themselves should not work against his ability to succeed.

It is more notable to mention that Graham’s 76 stolen bases would have led the Major Leagues by 15 over Michael Bourn, who had 12 more swipes than the next closest big leaguer in 2011 (Coco Crisp/Brett Gardner, 49). Granted, Graham will need to continue to find ways on base to be able to come close to replicating those figures, but it is an impressive total, nonetheless.

“Obviously there are going to be times at the next level where I won’t be able to (steal)”, Graham recognized. “But I definitely will continue to be aggressive in the right situations as long as I play this game. That’s what makes me the player that I am.”

Another way in which Graham’s speed defines him, one that is often overlooked, is his outfield defense. Capable of playing all three positions, he has shown flashes of ability as a plus defender in center field, one of baseball’s most demanding positions. Always with an eye on how talent will translate at the Major League level, there is no doubt that the Giants place a premium on outfielders who can cover AT&T Park’s expansive outfield. While Gary Brown is the eventual heir apparent in that space, Graham’s name is now in the mix along with the likes of Christian and Andres Torres to show what he is capable of in 2012.

Graham's speed can be of value on the basepaths, in the outfield, and at the plate. (Don Davis)

“I think that’s a big reason they do believe in me is the defense I bring to the table,” explained Graham of the Giants front office. “Saving runs in the outfield is the same as RBI at the plate. If you can save a couple runs during the week it’s the same as being a power hitter … at the end of the day whether you do something at the plate or in the field, your job is to help the team win.”

Knowing that his naturally spry legs are what lend him both his baserunning ability and outfield range, Graham’s priority has become keeping himself healthy. With those first two years cut short by injury, he had to rethink his commitment to keeping his body in top shape. It was perhaps fitting, then, that his big break (so to speak) came when a more highly-touted player in front of him on the depth chart, Mike McBryde, suffered a broken hand while playing in Fresno last season.

“When I found out that McBryde was hurt, I decided that this was finally my chance,” Graham remembered. “I started to get excited. I knew I was going to have a good chance to be in the lineup every day, to put up some good numbers.”

With no other true center fielder on the roster, Graham— who had been riding the bench in Double-A following his own injury on Opening Day— found himself in the lineup early and often. He made the most of his chances, going 13-for-23 (.565) with four doubles, six runs scored, four RBI and four stolen bases over his first eight games, and going on to hit .343 with 35 stolen bases.

The rest, as they say, has been history. Specifically, franchise history, both in the form of the single-season (60) and career (95) franchise stolen base record here in Fresno. Graham’s focus now is on doing what he has done successfully the last couple of years, preparing himself to be ready to hit the ground running in Scottsdale in February.

“I’m going to be doing the same offseason program I always do,” he said. “I just need to get ready to be in as good of shape as I can.”

Prospect Watch: Gary Brown

By: Noah Frank

Oh, the offseason. The lack of daily baseball at Chukchansi Park leaves those of us who work here itching to get a jump on next year. And so, as we did last offseason, we will begin looking at the players making their way through the farm system who seem likely to spend at least part of the 2012 season here in the Central Valley. There will be names you most likely recognize, as well as those you probably do not. We’ll start this year’s crop with one that most Grizzlies and Giants fans know by now: Gary Brown.

Even if he begins the season at Double-A Richmond, which seems likely, given the logjam in center field created by the likes of Justin Christian, Darren Ford, Tyler Graham, the newly-signed Gregor Blanco and possibly Andres Torres, Brown will be a name often on the tips of Grizzlies fans’ tongues next season. That expectation simply comes with the territory when you are a first-round draft pick, as Brown was in 2010. Just ask Madison Bumgarner (’07) and Buster Posey (’08), or the recently departed Zach Wheeler (’09), who now faces the additional pressure with the Mets of being the top prospect traded for a star in Carlos Beltran.

Brown's season continued with the Scottsdale Scorpions this fall. (Chris Lockard/Scout.com)

With Beltran himself quite possibly heading elsewhere this offseason, that will put pressure on Brown to live up to large expectations, and will no doubt lead to fans calling for his promotion to the Majors sooner rather than later.

Brown has certainly done nothing to dampen the enthusiasm surrounding him, but the Giants were careful with the Cal State Fullerton product in his first season. After assigning him straight to High-A San Jose in 2011, Brown was given the entire season to prove what he could accomplish in the California League. All he did was post a line of .336/.407/.519, rapping out 61 extra-base hits, stealing 53 bases, and scoring a mind-numbing 115 runs in just 131 games for the minor Giants.

As we always do at Yard Work, we sought out the expertise of someone who has seen what Brown can do close-up. We spoke briefly about Brown a couple weeks prior with former Grizzlies hitting coach Ken Joyce, who served in the same role for Brown’s Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League, whose regular season ends today. But we went into greater depth with Joe Ritzo, the radio voice of the San Jose Giants, to learn more about what to expect out of the young centerfielder as he moves through the system. Ritzo pulls no punches when describing the role Brown played for San Jose, picked as the High-A Team of the Year, last season.

“He was our MVP,” says Ritzo, and it’s easy to see why. “Everyone knows about his speed and his defensive abilities, which were evident on a daily basis, but he had power too.”

Indeed, Brown swatted 14 home runs on the season. He also absolutely wore out left-handed pitching, batting .459 with a .685 slugging percentage (!) against southpaws last year. Not bad for a leadoff hitter.

Ritzo also compares Brown’s speed to the likes of Grizzlies single-season and franchise stolen base leader Graham, as well as Ford. Those two have been considered the fastest prospects in the system over the last few seasons, so the bar has been set high in the speed department before Brown ever sets his fleet feet in Fresno. But how does he compare to recent top draft picks at other positions?

Brown, like Brett Pill, is a Cal State Fullerton product. (mattbrownphoto.com)

“I’ve been here five or six years and there’s nobody quite like him and how he plays the game,” says Ritzo, which is high praise considering the top prospects that have roamed the diamond at Municipal Stadium the last few years. When I ask Ritzo to compare Brown to the likes of Posey and Bumgarner, he provides some interesting perspective.

“I don’t think his personality was really like any of those players,” he posits. “But what you see is that desire, working so hard before games, the competitive edge that you might see in Buster and Madison that separates them from others. The mental ability that those guys had, Gary has it as well.”

Brown, as mentioned earlier, had the advantage of coming through a high-caliber college baseball program at Cal State Fullerton, the same school that produced Brett Pill. Fresno fans have seen that the experience and maturity gained from those years has paid dividends for Pill, and they seem to be doing the same for Brown, according to Ritzo.

“There’s something extra when you watch him play that you just feel confident that he’s going to have a long and successful Major League career,” says Ritzo. “You can’t predict that kind of Major League success with much certainty very often with guys at the Single-A level.”

The only tick on Brown’s stellar 2011 performance can be seen with a deeper look into his month-by-month numbers. He batted .333 (including a .385 mark in August and a .397 clip in May) or better in every month of the season except one— a glaring .202 performance in June. In cases like these, it’s important to look for answers beyond the box scores, which is where someone like Ritzo comes in handy to provide context for such a slump.

Brown's speed in the outfield, and on the base paths, sets him apart. (Tony Medina)

“We made a lot of roster moves right about that time (early June), including sending Hector Sanchez to Fresno, and Gary was arguably playing better than any of those guys,” explains Ritzo. “He was maybe anticipating that call-up, and when he didn’t get the call it was a little disappointing, so he hit a bit of a lull. It was expressed to him that the organization wants him to stay in San Jose the whole year.”

While the San Francisco brass may have taken the conservative route with Brown in 2011, Ritzo does not expect them to necessarily continue to do moving forward.

“You get the sense that they won’t go that same route this year, especially if he’s starting the season in Richmond,” Ritzo says. “I would think if he starts hot would make it to Fresno before too long. If he has anything close to the kind of year that he had in San Jose, he’ll move quickly through the system.”

Here’s to hoping Fresno fans get a glimpse of what Brown can do sooner rather than later.

Too Good For Hollywood

By: Noah Frank

“Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air.” —Thomas Gray

Those familiar with the baseball classic Bull Durham may recognize the line above. It is the one used by Annie Savoy, played by Susan Sarandon, as Crash Davis sets the all-time minor league home run record in utter obscurity, only the two of them aware of what he has accomplished. It signifies that many victories in life go unseen, unheralded by the masses.

In that vein, most of the 12,161 fans that attended the August 27th contest between the Grizzlies and rival Sacramento were focused on the highly publicized story of the evening, that Billy Crystal was in the ballpark to film scenes for his upcoming motion picture. While the attention of the crowd was captured by the ballpark being transformed into a Hollywood set for the night, there was another script unfolding, one which even the most softhearted of tinsel-town producers would probably reject, considering it too preposterous to be believable.

While Billy Crystal was stealing the spotlight, Jason Stevenson was quietly going back to work. (Don Davis)

This is the story of Jason Stevenson. It is one that includes several acts, but which is perhaps just beginning to enter its most interesting phase, beginning with that night.

Act One of Stevenson’s baseball career seemed promising enough. The Redding, California native was selected out of Sacramento City College in the 12th round of the 2000 First-Year Player Draft by the Montreal Expos, advancing as high as Triple-A by 2004. But in 2005, when the floundering Expos were moved to their current home in our nation’s capitol, Stevenson went just 6-14— including a 1-9 mark with an ERA over 10.50 at Double-A— and decided to hang up his cleats.

From there, Stevenson’s life fell off track. He doesn’t like to talk about that period of his past; not in specifics, at least. He mentions in passing “the path I was on” or “troubled times”, referring occasionally to his time spent at “the bottom”.

“The first few years away I really just didn’t do much, I stayed away from the game,” he recalls as we chat after batting practice on August 25th in the home clubhouse, nestled under the right field concourse at Chukchansi Park. “It was a point in my life where I still wanted to stay in shape because the day that I gave baseball up I still had regrets.”

In spite of his lifestyle, though, somewhere in the back of his mind he knew the value of keeping his blessed left arm strong. He played a variety of sports— flag football, competitive softball— and kept himself active. Nevertheless, it took several years for his frustration and contrition to come to a head.

“I was really tired of the way I was living my life,” he admits. “I finally got to the point where I could trick my mind into thinking that I was better than what I was doing, what kind of person I was. Then I started seeing guys that I played with … just certain guys … I knew I had the same stuff as them, and my competitiveness started coming back to me.”

He tried out for the independent league Chico Outlaws in 2009, but did not receive an offer. He did so again in 2010, but again manager Mike Marshall was not willing to sign him until Stevenson fully committed to becoming a professional athlete again, in every aspect of his life.

“[This year] I decided I was going to make an effort, off the field completely and on the field completely,” Stevenson explains. “I just tried to pick up from where I left off in ’05.”

Maybe the difference was finally realizing that he was playing for more than himself.

Stevenson (center) fit in immediately in a clubhouse of veterans, like Marc Kroon (left). (Don Davis)

“My daughter is seven years old, and I haven’t had her in my life the past two or three years through off the field stuff,” Stevenson says, his voice becoming strained with emotion. “But I want my daughter to have a good life and I know that, for me playing baseball, if I can make it, I can make things a lot better for her. For my family, for myself and for everybody.”

He gained inspiration from the story of top prospect-turned-heroin addict-turned-MVP Josh Hamilton, whose story has risen to the national spotlight over the last couple of years. Stevenson took that story to heart, and felt he could provide the same inspiration to others through his own comeback.

“I wanted people who may have taken the path I took once I gave up baseball to see that there is hope,” Stevenson says.

As we speak, I notice that he doesn’t strike the eye as a natural athlete the way that someone like the 6’4”, 240 pound Hamilton does. Of course, the Rangers slugger was the first overall pick the year prior to Stevenson’s draft, going 344 spots above him. Stevenson’s blondish hair is buzzed close to the skin, the crown of a receding hairline creeping backwards around his scalp. Listed at 6’1”, 175, he is clearly in good shape but, having just celebrated his 30th birthday, is fighting the slow march of time in a room full of players mostly younger than him, and without a five-year career gap.

“Through the five years that I played Minor League Baseball I was a young guy, I was younger mentally than I was my age,” he explains. “I didn’t know how important the off the field stuff was— the working out, the going to sleep early, the focus that you have to have even off the field to be able to take it on the field.”

Stronger in mind and body, Stevenson finally earned a spot with Marshall’s Outlaws this spring. All he did from there was go an outlandish 8-0 in eight starts, also earning a three-inning save in his lone relief appearance. He logged an ERA of just 1.68, striking out 76 in 64.1 innings of work. That was enough for the San Francisco Giants, Stevenson’s hometown rooting interest as a Northern California kid, to take a flier on the southpaw. With a rotation depleted by injuries and promotion, the Grizzlies became Stevenson’s first professional destination, as he was penciled in for a spot start at Las Vegas on August 22nd. It was a far cry from Chico, and a much farther one from his life the past five years.

Stevenson delivers a pitch in his lone start at Chukchansi Park this season. (Don Davis)

“Obviously playing for the team I grew up cheering for, it was pretty overwhelming getting that call,” recalls Stevenson. “But I knew once I got that call that everything was meant to be and that there’s baseball left in my career.”

His comeback began inauspiciously. The first batter he faced, Darin Mastroianni, homered. Stevenson surrendered a second longball in his first inning of work, the Grizzlies trailing 4-0 after one frame. But he settled in to shut the 51s down from there as he pitched into the seventh inning, allowing just four more hits while striking out seven the rest of the way. The offense did its part in the meantime, providing six runs of support to stake Stevenson to his first professional win in six years.

That gave the southpaw another opportunity, as he made his first home start for the Grizzlies in front of a packed house in the penultimate home game of the season. Of course, most of the fans had no idea of his story, but that didn’t matter anymore. All that mattered was that he was finally back where he wanted to be, where he needed to be. With the cameras rolling on the action taking place around the ballpark, Stevenson quietly went back to work on the mound, home once again.

“I’m just so thankful to have a second chance,” he says. “Not a lot of people get a second chance in anything they do, so a chance to play baseball again? I’m just taking it all in at once and just trying to do what I can.”

This is a lesson he has learned and has paid dearly for. It is one he is reminded of every day, one that he will not need to learn again.

“Quitting in ’05 was the worst thing I ever did,” he declares, but then qualifies his statement with a perspective only gained through experience and maturity. “Then again, it could end up being the biggest thing I ever did. Now I’ve grown up. I now know how much this game means to me. Baseball is my greatest love, so I play this game as hard as I can. This time I’m not going to give it up until I can’t throw the ball anymore.”

If You’re Going To San Francisco

By: Noah Frank

When Justin Christian signed a minor league contract with the San Francisco Giants last offseason, he didn’t expect an assignment back to the Double-A Eastern League, with the Richmond Flying Squirrels. That’s exactly where the 31-year-old found himself on Opening Day, though, surrounded by teammates and opponents in their mid-20s, a place he was in when he first came up through the New York Yankees farm system five years prior.

Christian was an up-and-coming 26-year-old when he opened the 2006 season on the roster of the Trenton Thunder, the Eastern League team affiliated with the Yankees. He made it to the majors in June of 2008, but lasted just 24 games before being sent back to Triple-A. The Yankees non-tendered him in 2009, and he spent a shortened season in the Orioles chain after recovering from shoulder surgery. He began 2010 in Indy ball before the Yankees signed him once again, but he was relegated to a season split between Double-A and Triple-A again. Needing a change of scenery, Christian signed as a free agent with the Giants, his hometown team that he grew up rooting for in San Mateo. And yet, here he was to begin 2011, back on the east coast, two big steps removed from getting back to the promised land.

“Having to start in Double-A was tough for me,” Christian admitted. “I looked it as an opportunity to help the young guys over there and to get at-bats in and to perform and be ready to be up here.”

Christian kept his head down and his numbers up in Fresno. (Don Davis)

To keep himself focused, Christian decided on a walk-up song that would remind him of his ultimate goal, a return to the Major Leagues. That song was the “San Francisco Anthem” by San Quinn, a hip-hop track that samples Scott McKenzie’s seminal ‘60s hit “San Francisco”. Those at the Diamond in Richmond, as well as those who attended a game at Chukchansi Park following Christian’s promotion Fresno, may well remember it echoing from the sound system as he stepped to the plate.

“You always want to have those constant, daily reminders of where you want to be,” he explained. “I think if you see it every day, you hear it everyday and you believe it, that you will get there.”

Nevertheless, the dream still seemed distant, even after the move to Triple-A. Christian had hit a modest .256/.328/.359 with four home runs, 18 stolen bases and 46 runs scored in 73 games for the Flying Squirrels, and had only really gotten the opportunity to play in Fresno after Darren Ford and Tyler Graham collided going after a ball in right-center field at Kino Stadium in Tucson. The former had tweaked his wrist on the play, leading to the decision to move Christian up.

So much of baseball, though, as players and longtime fans of the game will tell you, is what you do when opportunity comes your way. Christian took full advantage of his opportunity, homering twice and swiping five steals through his first four games as a Grizzly. He would go on to finish his 64-game Triple-A stint at .338/.428/.574 with 10 homers and 36 steals in just 39 attempts. When the Giants decided to part ways with Aaron Rowand and Miguel Tejada, summoning Brett Pill from Fresno, there was one more spot open on the 40-man roster. As much as a player can’t let himself be concerned with such administrative details as he goes about trying to succeed on the field each day, there is no avoiding it.

“Personally, I’m never too much aware of that part of the game because I’m too focused on playing well every single day,” said Christian. “But, you know, I have an agent, and a girlfriend that knows more about that kind of stuff than I do.”

Moments before one of Christian's spectacular catches this season. (AP)

As it turned out, Christian did not need to avoid the chatter from either agent or girlfriend. He would end up filling that final 40-man spot on September 6th, seven months to the day after signing with San Francisco.

“There were a couple of other guys who were deserving as well and they chose me,” he said in an early September interview in the home clubhouse at AT&T Park. “That means a lot to me. I always believed, deep down, that I could get back here.”

Not only did Christian get the call-up he has been waiting for, ever since recovering from that shoulder surgery, he found himself consistently in the starting lineup, batting leadoff. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’ve always expected to play, that’s just my mindset,” he said. “When the Yankees called me up back in June of ’08, even though I flew all day that day, I expected to play, and sure enough I was in the lineup. I always to expect to play, so that I’m not surprised. It’s too hard to do it the other way.”

With his speed and decent pop in his bat, as well as a propensity for highlight-reel catches like this, and this, Christian will be an intriguing piece of the puzzle as the Giants decide the future of their outfield.

On the Brink

By: Josh Jackson

There are many young kids in this country and other parts of the world who aspire to play professional baseball when they grow older. Unfortunately, for most of us, this fantasy is eventually smothered by the harsh realities that come with the different seasons of life. We realize that the road to becoming a professional athlete is too narrow for all dreamers to travel on. On the other hand, there are some kids who are just gifted, lucky, and put in a lot of time and hard work.  These kids eventually do get to play baseball professionally. We see them every summer at venues like Chukchansi Park in Downtown Fresno.

But the ultimate goal of every player performing in affiliated ball is to make it to The Show. Even out of all the players that are fortunate enough to have made it to a professional baseball team, a very minute portion will ever make it to the big leagues. So when 2011 Grizzlies Brandon Belt and Hector Sanchezmade their Major League debuts this season at such a young age, it was hard not to appreciate the rarity of the situation.

Hector Sanchez facing Sacramento on July 4 in Fresno

As most Grizzlies and Giants fans may know, Belt made his Major League debut on Opening Day this season. He struggled at the plate to start the year, which is very common for young hitters, and was optioned to Fresno on his 23rd birthday. Injuries to the Giants gave Sanchez his first opportunity to play in the Majors back on July 15th at the young age of 21. Most people don’t even dream of starting a career at that age and this young man started behind the plate for the defending World Series Champions. This year also marks Sanchez’ fifth year as a professional. Some simple math reveals that he was only 16 when he played his first professional baseball game.

Three-time All-star and Gold Glover Vernon Wells would know something about being on the brink of being a big time ball player at such a young age. Wells was a first-round selection by the Toronto Blue Jays in 1997 when he was just 18 years old. At the age of 21, he went from playing Single-A ball to playing in the Majors in the span of one season, just like Sanchez. Wells described what it was like to be a teenager in the minor leagues.

“It was a great experience being around the older guys and guys that have played in the big leagues,” he explained. “You play around big league ballplayers everyday and it is hard to not focus on that.”

When asked what advice he would give to Hector Sanchez on the day of his Major League debut, Wells responded, “Just relax. Just stay confident. That’s the hardest part. It’s actually much easier to hit, you can see the ball easier in these (Major League) parks. Sometimes I would go rehab at these minor league stadiums and it was so difficult to see the ball.”

Brandon Belt facing the Tucson Padres on May 6 at Chukchansi Park

Perhaps confidence and the ability to relax at the plate was something Giants top prospect Brandon Belt lacked at the beginning of the season. Being sent back-and-forth between Fresno and San Francisco did not discourage Belt, as he kept a positive attitude and a healthy work ethic that was visibly apparent to even the casual observer. His focus paid off on July 19th, when he was recalled by San Francisco to face the rival Dodgers at home. Belt had no problem seeing the ball on this night, as he turned in a 2-for-4, 3 RBI performance, which included a solo shot to right field in the second inning, his first home run at AT&T Park. His contributions lifted the Giants to a much needed, 5-3 victory. Speaking with Belt after the game, you could see it felt good for him to get passed some of his early season struggles.

“The first time I was up (with the Giants) at the beginning of the year, confidence was definitely something I lacked,” Belt explained. “I put a lot of stress and pressure on myself and it definitely showed in my play. That’s one of the main things I wanted to work on when I was in Fresno. I was able to relax and find a place where I was comfortable physically and mentally and fortunately I was able to bring it back up here.”

Belt will likely finish the season with the San Francisco Giants, and it does not appear that he will be coming back our way to Fresno anytime soon. Sanchez is currently with San Jose until rosters expand in September. After talking with him in San Francisco, Sanchez expressed his excitement on finishing the year strong and getting more opportunities down the road.

“It is amazing being where I am and having a chance to play for a big league team,” Sanchez explained. “I am excited for the future and being able to play with those guys”.

Belt and Sanchez are already breathing rare air by making it to the Major League level at such a young age. Now the focus turns to doing what Vernon Wells has done, competing at the highest level for an extended period of time. The hard work and dedication to their craft will have to be pushed to the next level if they wish to have that kind of success down the road. Having witnessed their meteoric rise through the minor league system, it is hard to put a damper on their potential.

Photo Credit: Don Davis

Catching Up On Hector Sanchez

By: Ellen Ward

Ever since Buster Posey’s season ending injury, the San Francisco Giants have had a tough time fully replacing their every day catcher. A couple weeks after Posey went down, catcher Hector Sanchez was promoted from High-A San Jose all the way to Triple-A Fresno. This sudden promotion sparked many questions and speculation about whether or not the Giants were grooming this young catcher to perform on a bigger stage.

With a pitching rotation that the World Champion lean on, it is only fitting that a top-notch catcher should be calling the pitches and blocking the plate. Posey was the Giants top prospect in 2010, and he found his way to San Francisco on May 28th of that year and became the compliment to the pitching staff. Posey spent the first few weeks at first base while the Giants evaluated their options. In the end they traded veteran catcher, Bengie Molina to the Texas Rangers and Posey became the Giants starting catcher and prized possession.

Buster Posey catching for the Fresno Grizzlies in April of 2010

A year ago, the Giants fan base wouldn’t dare think that a number of players would be doomed to the disabled list, but that is exactly where half of the World Series roster ended up by mid-May. The most devastating injury by far was Buster Posey’s shoulder-to-shoulder collision. He suffered season-ending injuries after Florida Marlins’ outfielder, Scott Cousins barreled into home plate in an extra innings game on May 25th at AT&T Park.

The Giants took action quickly, calling up Chris Stewart from Fresno, and moving backup catcher Eli Whiteside into the starting role. Both catchers are familiar with the pitching staff, but neither has come close to filling the vacant role Posey has left. It is rumored that the Giants are looking for other options to fill the position, and the recent promotion of Hector Sanchez from High-A San Jose to Fresno has provoked quite a buzz.

 This is a huge step for him,” manager Steve Decker comments on the arrival of Sanchez. “We need to make this kid a complete guy.”

There is a whirlwind of speculation about this young catcher but no one seems to know much about him. Sanchez is a 21 year-old from Maracay, Venezuela. He signed with the Giants at the green age of 16 in 2007, and played in the Dominican Summer League for two years.

In his second year of professional baseball, he hit .348, with 63 RBI and went 72-for-207. The next year, Sanchez began playing in the Arizona Rookie League, still catching and still producing runs. He hit a solid .299, and hit safely 35 times in 33 games. In 2010, he played at Low-A Augusta, where he batted .274, went yard five times, and had 31 RBI.

The Giants obviously saw potentional in Sanchez because he was a non-roster invitee for Spring Training in 2011. He spent a majority of camp with the defending World Champions, before being assigned to High-A San Jose.

“He got a lot of playing time because Whiteside got hurt in Spring Training”, points out Decker when asked how familiar Sanchez is with catching the Giants starting rotation.

Sanchez playing for the San Jose Giants. (Tony Medina)

In the Cal League, Sanchez tore it up in his first 43 games, batting .301, notching 19 multi-hit games, and hitting eight homers. Even more impressive is that he continued to be a RBI machine, notching 46 RBI in just 43 games. All of this work at the plate was done at the same time he was behind the plate guiding the Giants’ young arms, including top prospect Zach Wheeler. When Sanchez batted clean up for San Jose, he hit .319, and hit six of his eight home runs in the four slot. Sound familiar? Posey was the Giants permanent clean up hitter, and rotating players since his injury have filled that slot.

Sanchez was promoted from San Jose on June 9th, and played in his first Triple-A game on June 10th. He went 1-for-3 with a walk, and a RBI in his first game. He caught for veteran Shane Loux who gave up one earned run and fanned three batters in six innings of work. Sanchez’ has reached base safely in seven of his first nine games. He notched his first multi-hit game just six days into his Triple-A career, going 2-for-4, with a double and single, while plating two runs. He accomplished this at the same time as he was behind the plate calling a game for Cy-Young Award winner, Barry Zito in his third rehab start. Sanchez was the starting catcher in every single rehab start that Zito has pitched in, both games with San Jose and two more in Fresno.

“Sanchez called a great game and made it easy for me”, expressed starting pitcher, Andrew Kown after he threw six innings of no-hit ball to beat the Sacramento River Cats on June 19th.

On the surface Sanchez is a RBI machine based off his offensive numbers alone, and he has the advantage of being a switch hitter at the plate. The real question is, can he catch a starting rotation that carried the Giants to the World Series?

“He is in a position to be called up,” says Decker when asked if he sees Sanchez making his major league debut this season. “They always say you’re one foul tip away from the big leagues.”

Decker, a former catcher who spent most of his career with Giants organization, coached Posey at the Triple-A level, and will continue to shape Sanchez until San Francisco calls upon him.

The Giants put trust in Posey at a young age, but it remains to be seen if they will do the same with the 21-year-old Sanchez. It might be too early to tell, but according to Bay Area reporters he is on the right track. If he keeps producing at and behind the plate, he may find himself in the Bay Area sooner than later.

Panda Sighting in Fresno

By: Ellen Ward

Despite a good overall record, the defending World Champions have had a rough start to the 2011 season. They have lost key players to injuries, several of which have come through Fresno on rehab stints before returning to the Majors. After losing 30 pounds and finding his swing again in the off-season, the last place Pablo Sandoval thought he would end up would be on the disabled list. Just a month into the season, Sandoval fractured his right hand sliding into second base in a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and later received surgery to repair the broken bone. Sandoval used his recovery time wisely; working out constantly, and even took ground balls with his left hand.

Signing with the Giants in 2003, Sandoval quickly rose through the various levels within the organization. The Giants promoted him straight to the Majors from Double-A Connecticut, bypassing Triple-A Fresno completely. The infielder made his Major League debut with the Giants in 2008 after splitting time between High-A San Jose and Double-A Connecticut. Sandoval became an instant fan favorite, batting .345 in 2008 and quickly emerged as a key hitter in the lineup. He received his quirky nickname, Kung Fu Panda, from pitcher Barry Zito, on September 19th, 2008, when he jumped over a tag from catcher Danny Ardoin, against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Sandoval continued to dominate in 2009, batting .330 with 25 home runs, but fell off to just .268 with 13 home runs in 2010. In order to return to his earlier form, Sandoval took advantage of the 2010 off-season, losing 30 pounds over a three-month span. Before breaking his hand, Sandoval was batting .313, and led the team with five home runs in 24 games.

Now, Sandoval is finding his way back to San Francisco after being gone for five weeks. He is scheduled to start his rehab with San Jose before heading to Fresno for the first time in his major league career sometime this weekend. According to various Bay Area reporters the Giants would like him to play in at least five games before returning to San Francisco.

With this being Sandoval’s first time in Fresno, the community is already buzzing about the famous Kung Fu Panda’s debut at Chukchansi Park. To catch a glimpse of the Panda in action, be sure to get your tickets before they’re all gone. And don’t forget to pick up a fuzzy panda hat— you wouldn’t want to miss out on all the fun!

(Photo Credit: top: Lenny Ignelzi/AP; bottom: Associated Press)

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