Tagged: San Francisco Giants

Where Champions Are Grown

When the final out was recorded on Sunday night in the San Francisco Giants’ World Series clinching win, baseball’s focal point was on two players: Buster Posey and Sergio Romo. Romo finished off the Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera with an unanticipated fastball while Posey received the season’s final pitch to erupt a night of celebrating.

Romo and Posey were two of the 17 players that played for the Fresno Grizzlies at one point in their careers on the Giants’ 25-man roster. The list of 17 is a mix of draft picks, free agents and MLB Rehabbers, but nevertheless, the stamp of the Grizzlies was prevalent on this World Series run.

Torture reigned in 2010. Every night for the Giants seemed like a tall mountain to climb during that season.

In 2012, it was a team-wide never-give-up attitude that carried them to the end. This is not to suggest the 2010 version was a just a group of individuals, but this season, it felt as if each player on the 25-man roster had a moment to shine.

Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Posey are the more well-known Grizzlies alums, but there are others with stints in Fresno during their careers. Each had a unique moment or moments that introduced them to fans of this band of characters.

Before Xavier Nady drove in three runs in his first game with the Giants on September 1st, he played in 25 games with the Grizzlies. Nady was signed as a minor league free agent after being released by the Washington Nationals. The Nationals, of course, fell in the first round of the playoffs.

Joaquin Arias recorded the final out in Matt Cain’s perfect game, nearly falling over in the process, but he also registered two RBIs in the Grizzlies first game of the 2012 season to help the team to a 3-0 win over Tucson. Arias was a member of the Texas Rangers during the 2010 season when Texas eventually lost to the Giants in the World Series, but Arias was traded to the New York Mets during the season. He had never played in the World Series prior to 2012 and spent most of his career in the minors.

George Kontos was traded at the last possible moment before the start of the 2012 season to the Giants organization from the New York Yankees. He started the season in Fresno, appearing in 23 games and fashioning a 1.71 ERA. Once Kontos earned the Major League promotion in June, he never looked back. In fact, he became a valuable asset for the Giants in the playoffs. Kontos previously pitched in the bigs with the Yankees in 2011, but he did not make their playoff roster. The Yankees eventually lost to the Detroit Tigers in the 2011 playoffs after New York won 101 regular season games.

Ryan Vogelsong, an epitome of hard-work and perseverance, made his first appearance for the Grizzlies during the purple-and-black, home-games-at-Beiden-Field era in 2001. After being the Grizzlies Opening Day starter in back-to-back seasons in 2011 and 2012, he stood on the largest stage and consistently delivered standout performances in 2012 postseason. The Giants originally drafted Vogelsong in 1998 out of Kutztown University. It took Vogelsong many miles traveled, 14 different professional baseball teams and 15 years since he was drafted to taste the nectar of a World Series title.

Santiago Casilla (played for the Grizzlies in 2010 and 2011), Guillermo Mota (2012), Barry Zito (2011), Hector Sanchez (2011-12), Brandon Belt (2010-11), Brandon Crawford (2011), Aubrey Huff (2012) and Pablo Sandoval (2011-12) complete the list of 17 Farm Grown stars on the Giants roster.

When the Giants won the 2010 World Series, 16 of the 25 players on the postseason roster at the time played in Fresno (14 came up through the system while another two appeared with the Grizzlies on MLB Rehab assignments).

Posey was one of only two three positional players on the Giants’ World Series roster in 2012 that was also on the 2010 championship-winning team (Huff was a starter in 2010 but a bench player in 2012). Sandoval, though, was relegated to a bench role in 2010, but he totally redeemed himself in a monstrous way in 2012 with an MVP performance. It is only fitting the likely 2012 MVP from the regular season paired up with the 2012 World Series MVP to guide the Giants offense, banking off experience (positive and negative) from two years ago.

Two World Series titles in the last three years is quite an accomplishment. The Giants are now the first National League team to claim MLB’s championship in two out of three years since the Cincinnati Reds did so in 1975 and 1976.

The Giants deserve each title, but each crown should serve as a moment of pride for the Central San Joaquin Valley community as well. It is one of the few regions in the country that can say they were able to see the World Series champions of tomorrow, today.

Romo threw pitches for the Grizzlies before he jumped to the Majors. Posey was a backstop at Chukchansi Park before a catcher at AT&T Park. The list goes on and on, and we should all be happy to be a part of it all.

Fresno is where champions are grown.

A Valuable Pair Called Up To San Francisco

Machi made 53 appearances with the Grizzlies in 2012 (Don Davis/dadphoto.com)

The Fresno Grizzlies’ 2012 Opening Day roster featured nine players (including MLB Rehabber Ryan Vogelsong) that are currently on the San Francisco Giants’ active roster pushing for a National League West Division title.

Two pitchers, Jean Machi and Yusmeiro Petit, are certainly two of the most deserving Grizzlies hurlers that graduated to the Major League level in September.

The Venezuelan natives were not on the Giants’ 40-man roster all season, so their promotions are not the easiest. San Francisco had to make room by either designating a player for assignment or transferring another player to the 60-Day disabled list. A 40-man roster spot is valuable to all Major League clubs, and they only provide the roster security to the most deserving.

Machi and Petit were some of the closer friends on the Grizzlies roster. Obviously, the shared native country helped create the bond, but their personalities aligned for a season-long friendship. To see them both reach the Majors at the same time was a rewarding experience for all.

Petit got off to somewhat a slow start, posting a 5.35 ERA and only one win in his first seven starts to the season. Of his 33 runs allowed in the first seven starts, 21 were earned.

The Grizzlies, though, went 5-2 in Petit’s seven starts. Run support was not an issue in the first quarter of his season.

Petit began to author a different story for his season, however, beginning with his start against the Omaha Storm Chasers on May 15th at Chukchansi Park. He scattered seven hits and allowed two runs in six innings against Omaha, setting the table for a run of eight-straight quality starts.

Over his last 21 starts, Petit had 128 strikeouts and 25 walks while posting a 2.95 ERA. His 153 punchouts for the entire season (fourth-most in the PCL) are third-most in a single season for a Grizzlies pitcher in franchise history.

Petit finished the 2012 season leading the Grizzlies in strikeouts (153), starts (28) and innings pitched (166.2) (photo from Don Davis/dadphoto.com)

Petit, 27, did not get his call-up from the Giants until September 8th, five days after the Grizzlies’ season ended. Petit has had plenty of Major League experience in his career, appearing in 71 games (36 starts) over four seasons with Florida (2006) and Arizona (2007-09).

Machi was a steady rock in the Grizzlies bullpen for the entire season. He was tied with Heath Hembree for the team-lead in saves with 15. Machi was 15-for-16 when entering in the ninth inning during a save opportunity.

Machi also set the Grizzlies’ season-high for most consecutive scoreless appearances with nine straight shutout outings from June 9-28.

Machi had already drawn the attention of the parent club’s decision makers early this year when he was a non-roster invitee to big league Spring Training – the first time in his career he attended a Major League camp. It is a nice vote of confidence heading into a new season when you spend the first few weeks of Spring Training at the Major League training complex.

The 30-year-old Machi made his Major League debut on September 3rd against Arizona, throwing 95 mph gas and completing a perfect ninth inning of an eventual extra-inning (and emotional) win for the Giants.

San Francisco has 18 active pitchers for their stretch run to the playoffs. Machi and Petit will provide specific roles out of the Giants bullpen, with their appearances limited compared to the amount of time they pitched while with the Grizzlies. Machi and Petit, though, probably don’t mind the smaller roles as the opportunity to help the Giants make the playoffs is too good to pass up.

A Little Spring In His Voice

By: Chris Kutz

When a Minor League team hits the road, the traveling party consists of players, the manager, the pitching coach, the hitting coach, maybe a roving instructor or two, the strength and conditioning coach, the athletic trainer and the radio broadcaster.

The group of around 30 takes early morning flights and late-night bus rides to move on to their next series of games. Needless to say, Minor Leaguers would love to experience the luxury a Major League travel itinerary brings with it (i.e. less 3:45 am alarms, more leg room on charter flights, etc.).

The voice of the Grizzlies, Doug Greenwald, is not one to look past the travel inconveniences. For the month of March, Greenwald calls the San Francisco Giants’ Spring Training games via webcasts. While in Arizona, he does the least amount of traveling he does all year.

Voice of the Grizzlies, Doug Greenwald, broadcasts a Spring Training game on March 13th with former Giants pitcher Shawn Estes

“The longest ‘trip’ in spring training for me is from Scottsdale to Surprise. That’s maybe 55 minutes. Get in the car, and go,” said Greenwald. “During the PCL season we generally have to be at the Fresno Airport by four a.m. for a six a.m. flight, and play a game that night (sometimes in Nashville or New Orleans). Or be on a bus for a handful of hours, get into Fresno in the wee hours, and play that night.”

Once the Grizzlies season ends in September, he heads up to the Bay Area as well as across the nation.

“I spend time in San Francisco with my family, and go to the big league games at AT&T Park. I will also take that time to unwind, do some traveling on my own,” said Greenwald.

“I’m a huge college basketball fan. That’s always been my second love behind baseball. I will go around the country, and watch college hoops.

“This season I saw games everywhere from Fullerton to Burlington, Vermont to Troy, Alabama. I have seen in person NCAA Division I basketball games in 48 states (including Washington, DC). The only states where I have missed in this category are Wisconsin, and Montana. I hope to complete my cycle next basketball season.”

March becomes quite a busy month for Greenwald with the college basketball season kicking into full madness and the baseball season launching one more time. Greenwald doesn’t mind, however. With 2012 being the seventh season he has broadcasted Cactus League games, Greenwald is used to an action-packed March at this point.

Since 2006, Greenwald has called San Francisco Giants’ Spring Training games on SFGiants.com. Greenwald and the Giants were one of the first Major League teams to offer their fans the chance to catch the Spring games.

“[The idea of Spring Training webcasts] was proposed by Jon Miller,” said Greenwald. “I went up one day to say hello to him at AT&T Park in September of 2005. He knew that since I was broadcasting for Fresno, it was a good role for me, and the Giants were to have every spring training game aired one way or another”

Up until 2005, the Giants’ Spring Training games were only broadcasted on KNBR on the weekends.

“By only doing games on the weekends, it was almost as if fans lost track of the team during the weekdays. By doing them on the web now, every pitch (one way or another) of Spring Training is heard,” said Greenwald.

With Greenwald’s familiarity of the Giants farm system, calling Cactus League games became an easy transition for him. Most of the players, including late-inning substitutes, had either passed through Fresno at one point or were well on their way to the Triple-A level.

Providing webcasts of Giants’ Spring Training games gives Greenwald a Spring Training of his own as he gets up to 18 games before the regular season’s first pitch. It also provides him the opportunity to interact with listeners, something he does all season long with the Grizzlies.

“[T]he biggest benefit [of Spring Training] is hearing from the fans, the positive reaction the games on the web have been, as we get e-mails from all over the world. It is amazing to reach out to folks in California, Germany, Denmark, all over, who follow the club.”

“There was an e-mail from a fan listening in a hospital in Australia. We thanked him over the web for his note, and he sent an e-mail back saying we made his day by responding to him, and wishing him well. A half world away, yet the pushing of a send key made it felt like we were with him in his room.”

The voice of the Grizzlies, once again, was making a day happier for one listener at a time. This time, at least, he didn’t have to travel far to reach them.

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.”