It's that time of year again. Minor leaguers in the San Francisco Giants organization begin reporting to camp today with the first workout of spring training scheduled for Saturday. In two weeks, a slate of exhibition games against other farm teams will begin that will help determine who starts at which level this season.
Minor league spring training will once again be an ultra-competitive setting as over 150 players in camp will be fighting for coveted roster spots on the four teams scheduled to begin their seasons in early-April (Fresno Grizzlies, Richmond Flying Squirrels, San Jose Giants and Augusta GreenJackets). Beginning on March 13, the San Francisco front office will put the players on the four individual teams: a Triple-A squad, a Double-A team, a High-A team and a Low-A club. Those four teams will play a 15 or 16-game exhibition schedule over the next 2 1/2 weeks against other organizations in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area.
The rosters for the four clubs during spring training are fluid meaning several players will shift up-and-down throughout the exhibition season. A strong spring training performance during these games can certainly help a player's cause whether it's attempting to earn a promotion up the minor league chain or perhaps just make a team out of spring for the first time. Unfortunately, spring training can also have negative consequences for minor league players with a handful likely to be released at various times during the month.
Here's a quick snapshot of some of the major storylines in Giants minor league camp this year, involving both former and potential future San Jose players:
The Shortstop Logjam In Double-A
Two of San Francisco's brightest position player prospects are shortstops in the upper levels of the system. Joe Panik had a solid year in San Jose last season batting .297 with 27 doubles, seven homers, a .368 on-base percentage while also ranking as the toughest player in the California League to strikeout. Additionally, the former first round pick was recognized by league managers as the top defensive shortstop in the California League. A promotion to Double-A is certainly in the cards for Panik. But what about slick-fielding shortstop Ehire Adrianza? Adrianza, who is on San Francisco's 40-man roster and thus his clock is ticking, had a less-than-impressive year offensively with Double-A Richmond last season. In 127 games with the Flying Squirrels, Adrianza batted just .220 with 22 doubles, three homers and 16 stolen bases. Given his subpar batting average, does Adrianza repeat in Richmond which could accelerate Panik's move to second base, a position many in the organization feel he'll eventually end up at. Does Adrianza receive a promotion to Triple-A Fresno thereby making room for Panik to play shortstop in Richmond? It would be a big jump for Adrianza given his lack of success at the plate, but maybe a move to the more hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League could jump start his bat again. A less likely possibility might be moving Panik all the way to Fresno, which would allow Adrianza to remain in Richmond for another year. That would show a lot of confidence in Panik and would be an unusual, but not totally unprecedented, promotion for a top prospect in this organization.
Andrew Susac - Does He Return To The California League?
With Hector Sanchez established in San Francisco as Buster Posey's back-up and Tommy Joseph now in the Phillies system, there's no question that 2011 second round draft pick Andrew Susac is the top catching prospect in the Giants organization. Susac had his share of growing pains last season as a rookie in San Jose where he hit a pedestrian .244 with 16 doubles and nine home runs. Adjusting to the professional game - both offensively and defensively - was a major challenge for Susac, but he improved as the season progressed (a .333 batting average in August being one example of that). With his skill set, many feel that Susac still projects as an everyday catcher in the big leagues. Now the question for the start of 2013 is will he return to San Jose and try to build on his late-season surge? Or, will Susac receive a promotion to Richmond, where the pitching-rich Eastern League would be a stern test for a prospect that has yet to enjoy sustained success as a professional?
The Angel Villalona Situation
Angel Villalona is back in the United States after his Visa was approved and now the question is where does the organization decide to play the slugging first baseman this season? Villalona's situation is a unique one as he hasn't played baseball in this country since his time in San Jose during the 2009 season. After sitting out all of 2010 and 2011 due to his legal issues, Villalona returned to the field last season in the Dominican Summer League where he hit .303 with seven homers in 44 games (albeit against much younger competition). Villalona was once regarded as perhaps the top power hitting prospect in the Giants farm system and he's still only 22, so there's time to continue his ascension through the organization. As for 2013, does Villalona pick up where he left off and return to San Jose? Or given his current standing on the 40-man roster, does the organization show more of a sense of urgency and move him to Richmond? The Giants don't currently possess many top first base prospects, so he isn't necessarily blocked by anyone else. It is noteworthy though that Ricky Oropesa, who hit 16 homers and collected 98 RBI's last year in San Jose, could be ticketed for Richmond at the start of this season. Deciding how to handle Villalona and how it might affect where Oropesa is placed will certainly be a major storyline in minor league camp as spring training progresses.
High Draft Picks
The placement of recent high draft picks on the various minor league rosters is always a notable storyline in camp. Going back to the 2010 draft, it's expected that first round pick Gary Brown will earn a promotion to Fresno for the start of the season. Second rounder Jarrett Parker has had his ups and downs the last two years in San Jose (28 home runs and 48 stolen bases, but also 319 strikeouts with a .250 combined batting average). Does Parker finally get a shot at Double-A? High 2011 picks Panik, Susac and Oropesa are all looking to move up and then what about last year's top selections? Chris Stratton (first round) and Martin Agosta (second round) are two exciting starting pitching prospects that will enter 2013 with almost no professional experience. Outfielder Mac Williamson (third round) had a terrific stint with Short-Season Salem-Keizer last summer where he hit .342 with seven home runs in 29 games. The organization has certainly not been shy in recent years about pushing players in their first full seasons to San Jose. Will Stratton, Agosta and Williamson all earn that jump to the California League or will one (or more) start the year in Augusta?
Prospect-Laden Starting Rotation
A lot of the discussion throughout the offseason has been about the exciting possibilities for the San Jose starting rotation in 2013. 2011 supplemental first rounder and #1 prospect Kyle Crick had an excellent year in Augusta and is poised for a promotion to the California League. Clayton Blackburn was arguably the most consistent Augusta starter and dazzled in his playoff appearance with San Jose. Edwin Escobar gave the GreenJackets a third terrific starter and was rewarded with a spot on the 40-man roster. 18-year old Adalberto Mejia was statistically as impressive as anyone in Augusta's rotation during the closing weeks of the season. When healthy last year, Bryce Bandilla was a dominant strikeout pitcher as a starter for the GreenJackets (although many feel his future could be as a reliever). Not to mention, Stratton and Agosta expected to burst onto the scene in 2013 after their high draft selections last June. Baseball America has ranked Crick (#1), Stratton (#3), Blackburn (#6), Mejia (#10), Escobar (#14) and Agosta (#15) all among the top 15 prospects in the farm system entering this season. One of the biggest questions concerning the San Jose Giants this spring is which of these top prospects will be on their way to Municipal Stadium? Is there enough room for all? Will one or two get a jump to Richmond or have to start the year in Augusta? The San Jose starting rotation has a chance to be as prospect-rich as any in recent memory here and this spring will determine the initial make-up of the staff.
The full San Jose Giants spring training schedule can be found here.