Excellent starting pitching has been a staple of the past Giants championship teams. San Jose has led the California League in team ERA seven times over the last nine seasons, winning championships in four of those years. Last season, the Giants possessed the top overall record in the North Division en route to another playoff berth, but the starting rotation often struggled to produce consistent results. In fact, of the five pitchers that made up San Jose's starting rotation at the beginning of the year, none finished the season with ERA's below 4.
That should change in 2013.
While the bulk of next year's San Jose starting rotation is expected to be filled with newcomers to the California League, a familiar face may anchor the staff. Clayton Blackburn enjoyed a terrific 2012 campaign with the GreenJackets as the 19-year old right-hander ranked second in the South Atlantic League in ERA (2.54). Blackburn also led the league in strikeouts (143), WHIP (1.02) and opponents batting average (.232) to go with an 8-4 record. He was remarkably consistent throughout the year allowing two earned runs or fewer in 20 out of his 22 starts.
Blackburn received a promotion to the Giants for the postseason and immediately made his mark on the North Mini-Series when he dominated the Modesto Nuts in Game 1 to pick-up the win. Over seven spectacular innings in his California League debut, Blackburn surrendered just one run on three hits with one walk and nine strikeouts.
A former 16th round draft pick, Blackburn has established himself as one of the top pitching prospects in the organization. The Oklahoma native features a sinking fastball in the 89-94 MPH range, but it's his outstanding command of three pitches and poise on the mound that sets Blackburn apart from most in the Giants farm system.
Blackburn though wasn't the only standout starting pitcher on the 2012 Augusta GreenJackets. Kyle Crick and Edwin Escobar also put forth stellar seasons on the mound and both almost certainly will begin next year with San Jose.
Crick, who like Blackburn is only 19 years old, possesses one of the best arms in the entire organization. A supplemental first round draft pick in 2011, Crick dominated the South Atlantic League in his first full professional season. The right-hander logged a 2.51 ERA over 22 starts to go with a 7-6 record and a whopping 128 strikeouts in just 111 1/3 innings. Crick's .193 opponents batting average would have led the league by far had he pitched enough innings to qualify while he also allowed just one home run for the entire season.
Crick's explosive fastball will register between 92 and 98 MPH to go with two breaking balls and a change-up. The youngster often struggled with his command this season as evident by a team-leading 67 walks, but there's no denying his high ceiling as a possible front-line starter at the big league level. With continued refinement of his off-speed pitches and improved command, Crick could move quickly through the farm system in the coming years.
While Crick and Blackburn are considered two of the elite pitching prospects in the organization, Escobar's year in Augusta should not go unnoticed. A 20-year old left-hander, Escobar owned a career ERA over 5 in his first three professional seasons before turning the corner with the GreenJackets this year. He ranked third in the South Atlantic League in ERA (2.96) to go with a solid 122-to-32 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 130 2/3 innings.
Escobar was particularly impressive later in the year as the southpaw possessed a 2.33 ERA after the All-Star break, including a 1.21 mark during the month of August. Featuring a high 80's-to-low 90's fastball, Escobar has above-average command with a good feel for pitching. He'll likely play a key role in the Giants starting rotation beginning next April.
The trio of Blackburn, Crick and Escobar carried the Augusta starting rotation in 2012 and may very well accomplish the same feat with San Jose, but there are still other exciting arms that could make their way to the California League next year.
Adalberto Mejia and Bryce Bandilla may not have been as consistent as the aforementioned trio, but both figure to have bright futures in the Giants system. Mejia is another teenager as the left-hander was still 18 at the start of this season. He recovered from a dreadful start to the year to finish with a solid 10-7 record and 3.97 ERA over 106 2/3 innings. After an earned run average near 6 during the first half, Mejia posted a 3.00 ERA after the All-Star break, including a 1.64 mark in five August starts. With a fastball in the 89 to 93 MPH range, an above-average slider and a change-up, Mejia profiles as a starter in the future. He walked only seven batters over 69 innings in the second half of this season and has positioned himself for a possible call-up to San Jose next year.
Bandilla was limited to just 44 1/3 innings this season due to multiple stints on the disabled list, but is another left-hander hurler with impressive pure stuff. Listed at 6'4", 235 lbs., Bandilla reportedly has a fastball that can reach 96 MPH. He averaged over a strikeout per inning with the GreenJackets this year to go with a 3.05 ERA. Improving his command and showing he can stay healthy are major issues going forward for the 2011 fourth round draft pick, but this power arm should be given plenty of opportunities to show what he can do. A move to the bullpen might be in the cards for Bandilla, perhaps as early as the 2013 season.
And if that wasn't enough, the San Francisco Giants selected two polished arms from the college ranks with their first two picks in this year's draft. 22-year old right-hander Chris Stratton was the first round pick (20th overall) of the club while 21-year old righty Martin Agosta was taken in the second round.
Stratton, a first team All-American and the SEC Conference Pitcher of the Year last spring at Mississippi State University, figures to move quickly through the Giants farm system thanks to a four-pitch mix and a fastball that will sit in the low-to-mid 90's. The organization limited Stratton's time on the mound at the end of the summer due to his heavy workload in college, but the top prospect threw well with Salem-Keizer (Short-Season level) fashioning a 2.76 ERA with 16 strikeouts over 16 1/3 innings. A freak injury late in the year when he was struck in the head by a ball during batting practice abruptly ended his season, but should have no effect on his 2013 prospects.
Meanwhile, Agosta threw briefly in the Arizona Rookie League late in the summer after signing his professional contract. A product of St. Mary's College in the East Bay, Agosta dominated in his final collegiate season recording a 2.18 ERA over 103 1/3 innings. Like Stratton, Agosta reportedly can sit in the low 90's with his fastball with the ability to run it up to the 93-94 MPH range. A smaller pitcher (6'1", 178 lbs.), Agosta can do a lot of different things with the ball and will essentially be receiving his first taste of the professional game next April.
With the influx of starting pitching talent expected to make it's way to San Jose in the spring, the Giants will once again be a strong contender in the California League. It should be noted, not all seven of these pitchers will find themselves in the San Jose starting rotation when spring training comes to a close. Could Blackburn jump all the way to Double-A? Might Mejia return to Augusta or Bandilla transition to the bullpen? Will the organization want to push the inexperienced Stratton and/or Agosta straight to the California League? Unforeseen injuries are always possible as well. However, the bulk of these pitchers mentioned should call Municipal Stadium home at some point in 2013 and that will make for a great year of prospect watching in the South Bay.