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.
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?
“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.
“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.
By: Cody Turner
For many baseball fans, the excitement of the baseball
season doesn’t end after the World Series; it begins again. Following the
anticipation of the postseason awards, fans eagerly await the fate of some of
the key players from their organization, as well as what newcomers might become
significant contributors next spring.
At the minor league level, while many spectators suspect a
vacant ghost town for a stadium, front office staffs across the country have
begun the diligent preparation for the six-month marathon of a season that lies
ahead. Similarly to fans, many members of the Minor League Baseball family
enthusiastically await offseason transactions, and how those moves affect which
exciting young talents they’ll get to feature come Opening Day.
The most examined teams during the winter are often those
coming off postseason runs. The expectations of a defending champ are particularly
high, and the value of available top performers from such an organization is
increased. It’s always interesting to see how the chemistry of a championship
caliber team may be altered, especially a clubhouse that meshed as well as the
2010 World Series Champion San Francisco Giants.
In their first month since their World Series victory, a lot
has happened in the world of baseball. The activities thus far have had an
affect on multiple levels. What most don’t realize is how the re-signing of a
free agent, or loss of another, can change not just the outlook for a league or
a division, but also an entire organization from the top down. While the elite of baseball’s top
prospects participated in the Arizona Fall League and the Giants focused on
some of their higher priority free agents in November, the fortune of the
Fresno Grizzlies’ 2011 Opening Day roster awaits.
Each time the Scottsdale Scorpions took the field in
Arizona, and every negotiation made in San Francisco shifted which developing
players Fresno fans were likely to see come April. With the young talents of
Brandon Belt, Charlie Culberson, and Conor Gillaspie making their cases for a
shot at the next level with an exceptional display of development in the AFL,
the eventual home of Giants free agents will play a crucial part where these
By the end of Belt’s steady rise through the system in 2010–
culminating in the Scorpions’ AFL Championship— talks of the lefty starting the
upcoming season in San Francisco began to surface. The small glimpse of the heaving-hitting
first baseman in Downtown Fresno at the tail end of last season left fans eager
to see the rising star lead the Grizzlies into 2011. Little did we know that
despite a championship lineup in San Francisco, Belt might end up with the
Giants without stepping foot in Chukchansi Park again.
The immediate future of the Giants’ fifth-round selection of
the 2009 First-Year Player Draft was highly dependent on whether San Francisco
would sign Free Agent first baseman Aubrey Huff. Even after the news of the deal
that would keep Huff in orange and black for two more seasons, the possibility
of Belt being a Giant this spring was not necessarily diminished.
Huff’s experience in the outfield, his willingness to do
whatever it takes to help the team win, and his desire to be an everyday player
didn’t count out the possibility of Brandon Belt starting the 2011 season in a
Giants uniform. The Huff signing inched Belt closer to an assignment to Fresno,
but it wasn’t until San Francisco’s latest signing of Pat Burrell that made Belt’s
immediate future in a Grizzlies uniform seem more probable than that in a Giants
one. Nevertheless, the winter has just begun. How the next four months play out
will determine where we see Belt come Opening Day.
Similarly to the starting first base job, the rest of the
Giants infield is in question for the spring as well. The immediate decision-making
rested on the free agent status of World Series hero Juan Uribe. With the
sure-handed infielder headed to Southern California after signing with the
division-rival Dodgers (and the Giants’ concern with the fitness of Pablo
Sandoval), the opportunity for a young upstart from the minor league system
making an impact appeared as conceivable as ever.
Whether the Giants looked to a more established player like
Emmanuel Burriss or Ryan Rohlinger to step up, or the fresher faces of a
Gillaspie, Culberson or a lesser-known Brandon Crawford to emerge, infield
opportunities were seemingly wide open. However, shortly after Uribe’s
departure, the Giants acquired veteran shortstop Miguel Tejada, who helped
boost San Diego in the divisional race last year.
While the return of Freddy Sanchez and Mark DeRosa to the
Giants infield, along with the attainment of Tejada and re-signing of backup
infielder Mike Fontenot will help fill some vacancies with some veteran
assurance, there are still some questions to be answered this winter. With the uncertainty of Sandoval and the increased progress and
productivity of Culberson and Gillaspie, each offseason move dramatically
impacts what baseball fans in the Central Valley can expect to see in Fresno.
The outlook for Triple-A baseball in Fresno seems bright
with the likelihood of some impressive young talent making their way though at
some point in 2011. As always though, the length at which they stay may vary.
With the recent immediate success of Rookie of the Year Buster Posey and lefty
hurler Madison Bumgarner, the urgency to see a Brandon Belt as a Giant sooner
rather than later will be astronomical.
(Ryan Rohlinger and Madison Bumgarner Photos: Don Davis; Aubrey Huff Photo: AP)
By: Noah Frank
The Arizona Fall League will wrap up this Saturday, as the Scottsdale Scorpions take on the Peoria Javelinas for the league title at 12pm PST on MLB Network. Most of the national media attention paid to the Scorpions when the roster was announced was to the Washington Nationals‘ uber-prospect, Bryce Harper. Now, if you know anything about the Giants prospects participating in the AFL, you may be asking yourself “Isn’t Scottsdale the Giants’ team?” The answer to that is simple: Yes, and no.
See, this is how the AFL works. The prospects from the 30 Major League teams are divided up into six, five-team squads. The Giants are grouped with the Colorado Rockies, Baltimore Orioles, Arizona Diamondbacks and, as mentioned before, the Nationals. San Francisco has a total of seven prospects on the roster, none of them with the same kind of branding as baseball’s answer to LeBron James. But while Harper has certainly helped, living up to the hype so far (in a very small sample size), it has been the trio of Giants hitters that have keyed Scottsdale’s run to the championship game.
Past features of our Prospect Watch series Charlie Culberson and Brandon Belt share the league lead in doubles (11) and triples (5), respectively, earning them some national attention. Meanwhile, Conor Gillaspie has had his best showing as a professional to date, batting over .300 while sharing the league lead in home runs (5). Belt’s line, though, has been the most eye-catching so far at .372/.427/.616 (AVG, OBP, SLG), as he tries to put a cherry on top of his magnificent 2010 campaign with another championship.
The Giants have stocked the team with a few arms as well, lending 2009 Grizzly Dan Runzler and 2010 Grizzly Joe Paterson as well as lower level prospects Jason Stoffel and Ryan Verdugo (interestingly, all but Stoffel are southpaws). This is just the beginning of a whole new campaign for Runzler who, after making the Majors in ’09, was injured this season and may now being groomed for a move into the starting rotation. With the starting five in San Francisco as stable as any in the Majors, it would not be a surprise to see Runzler begin 2011 back in Fresno as he adjusts to his new role. Paterson is likely to return as well, and Grizzlies fans may get a look at Verdugo, who struck out 94 batters in just 62.2 innings while going 8-1 with a 1.87 ERA this season between Augusta and San Jose.
While the AFL is a great way for Giants fans to get a sneak preview of the players that will end up in San Francisco in a couple years, it’s an even better way to see those who will be in Fresno next year. So check out the game on MLB Network at noon on Saturday. It’s your last chance to see some of this top talent until Grizzlies Opening Day on Thursday, April 7th, 2011.
(Photo of Brandon Belt courtesy of Joe Pun/AZGiants.com)