Down on the Farm
For the last decade, the Giants have been famous for drafting and developing an endless slew of above-average pitching prospects. The legacy began with the likes of Shawn Estes, flamed out with the trio of doom (Jerome Williams/Kurt Ainsworth/Jesse Foppert) and finally culminated in the glory that was Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, and Madison Bumgarner. The caveat to this endless slew of promising arms though was a complete inability to develop even halfway decent position players. God knows we suffered through more than our share of Brian Bococks and Dante Powells before Buster Posey saved us from an uncertain future.
Nowadays, the Giants find themselves with something of a surplus in terms of good hitters in the lower levels. Past Brandon Belt we may not have a stable full of Will Clarks, but the depth they have now is unprecedented. Many pundits would have you believe that because Posey and Bumgarner graduated, the system once again needs to rebuild. I on the other hand am of the mind that the minors is well-stocked and vastly underrated.
At the top of the food chain we have Brandon Belt, a first-base prospect that many scouts say is one of the best minor leaguers in the country. I could go on for ages about him, but Belt has earned himself his own special post next week. As such, I’ll be devoting this the lesser known prospects toiling in the minors that the layman doesn’t hear about on ESPN.
Last year, I ranked the top five guys in the system, with Posey/Bumgarner at the numbers 1 and 2 spots respectively, while 3-5 were covered by the likes of Thomas Neal, Zach Wheeler, and Eric Surkamp. Neal struggled initially in AA-ball, but got it together enough in the second half to accrue a .291/.359/.445 line with 12 homers and 11 stolen bases. Wheeler encountered problems typical of a high-school draftee’s first professional season, but still maintained a high enough K/9 rate to be an intriguing prospect for 2011. Surkamp continued to strike guys out while controlling the strike zone with authority (2 BB/9 in 2010 at A+ ball).
While my top five from last year experienced varying degrees of success in 2010, other players were busy opening eyes throughout the organization. As a prime example, I present to you 21 year-old second-baseman Charlie Culberson. Culberson was a supplemental pick (51st overall) in the 2007 June Draft. In 46 games at Rookie-ball soon after the draft, he mustered a .289/.374/.416 line to go along with 19 stolen bases as an 18 year-old. It was a sample size that showed promise for 2008 at a traditionally thin position depth-wise.
Then Culberson came crashing back down to earth in 2008-2009, failing to post an OBP over .303 and hitting just five homers between the two seasons in almost 800 total at-bats. It seemed safe to say Culberson would go the way of Cody Ransom and Brian Bocock, as he seemed fated to fade into obscurity. Curiously, he began to hit again in 2010 as a 21 year-old at A+ ball. He saw across the board improvement in everything from the power department to batting average, slugging 16 homers to go along with 25 stolen bases and a .290/.340/.457 line. Having vaulted himself back into relevancy with a strong 2010 campaign, Culberson sits atop my unofficial list of interesting prospects to watch this season.
While Culberson learned how to hit again, another prospect was quietly putting together an impressive season. Johnny Monell isn’t a guy that’s going to be on a whole lot of top-10 prospect lists. He began 2010 as a 24 year-old at A+, so to say he’s old for his level would be a fair assumption to make. He was drafted in the 30th round (914th overall) of the 2007 June Draft, so the pedigree obviously isn’t there either. With all this working against him, he hit to the tune of .273/.350/.487 with 19 homers and 12 stolen bases while spending most of his time catching.
He’s shown improvement at every minor league stop, and will likely start 2011 at AAA Fresno. Given that Buster Posey is well-cemented at catcher for years to come, there’s a good chance that should Monell pan out he’d have to learn how to play the field somewhere (likely first base). He’s of course far from a sure thing, but like Eric Surkamp last year (who also wasn’t on anyone’s top-10 lists), sometimes it’s the guys you forget about that can surprise you the most.
This is an unprecedented period of excitement for the Giants minor-league system. While they’re certainly not on par with the depth of a system like the Royals who have guys scattered all over Baseball America’s top-100 list, there’s still reason to hope. Looking at the lower levels just 6-7 years ago, there wasn’t a whole lot to look forward to. Nowadays, it’s completely kosher to dig into the lesser known names and still come out with a couple of gems worth looking at for the long haul. In order for a franchise without the payroll of the Yankees to experience any sort of sustained period of success, they need to build from the foundation up, something the Giants neglected to do in the Bonds-era. This is no longer the case, as the fruits of their labor already helped bring in a World Series trophy. Here’s to more of the same.