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Hembree closes out Giants standouts

Dominant reliever one of six at San Jose among system's elite
December 9, 2011
This offseason, will be honoring the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organization. We're taking a look at each team to determine the outstanding seasons in Minor League baseball. Select a team from the dropdown below.

While the Class A Advanced San Jose Giants -- like their parent club in San Francisco -- were unable to defend their championship in 2011, there were still successes in the Bay Area and beyond.

Among the highlights: The Class A Augusta GreenJackets (70-68) won the second half South Division title in the South Atlantic League, while the Double-A Richmond Flying Squirrels (76-66) and the Rookie-level Arizona League Giants (41-15) advanced to the playoffs.

But no affiliate shared San Jose's experience: Pursuing an unprecedented third straight California League crown, the Giants (90-50) were one of two Minor League teams to reach the 90-win plateau. But they were eliminated in the North Division Finals.

"Anytime you end the season like that and don't come away with a championship, you have to get that feeling out of your stomach," starting pitcher Chris Heston said. "We'll use it for motivation for next year."

Heston and five others who spent time in the Capital of the Silicon Valley this season make up the majority of the system's stars.

Giants Organization All-Stars

Catcher -- Tommy Joseph, San Jose (127 games): The 2009 second-round Draft pick enjoyed a strong second pro season. Despite being San Jose's youngest player, the 20-year-old Joseph collected 22 home runs and 95 RBIs -- both club and career highs -- while batting .270. He ended the season as San Francisco's No. 6 prospect.

Director of Player Development Fred Stanley said Joseph turned his season around once the organization moved fellow catcher and No. 9 prospect Hector Sanchez to Fresno. In fact, on June 6, Sanchez's final day at San Jose before returning late in the season, Joseph was batting .237 with five longballs. "He started to really take off," Stanley said. "He's understanding the importance of catching and not taking a bad at-bat with him behind home plate."

No longer taking a turn at first base and only occasionally serving as designated hitter, Joseph batted .297 or better in each of the final four months and plated 48 runs in 49 games between July and August. Sixteen of his homers came in the second half, and he was named a Cal League postseason All-Star.

"I have been with Tommy since day one," said Heston, a member of the same Draft class. "I have seen him grow into what he is now. The strides that that kid has made, it's pretty unbelievable. He stepped up and filled the role and did way more than anybody expected of him. I am excited to see what he's going to become in the years to come."

San Jose manager Andy Skeels is also convinced.

"Tommy is going to be a big leaguer for a long time," he said.

First base -- Brett Pill, Fresno (133 games), San Francisco (15 games): The 27-year-old put together his best season as a pro. Pill batted a career-best .312 and piled up 25 homers and 107 RBIs -- both tops in the organization. What's more, he struck out in fewer than 10 percent of his at-bats.

The reason? Stanley said Pill's improved pitch recognition has boosted his offensive capabilities. Strong makeup helps, too.

"He's an iron man," Stanley said. "He's a solid defender. He was just supposed to fill in at second base since we were hit with injuries, but he ended up playing [57] games there. Not many first basemen in the big leagues can do that."

"It was a really stretch for him to play second base," Grizzlies manager Steve Decker added. "We were really behind the eight-ball. All we had to teach him was [how to] turn the double play. And [the position switch] didn't affect his hitting, which can happen."

Pill made his Major League debut on Sept. 6 and went yard in his first at-bat. The former seventh-round pick batted an even .300 in 15 games for skipper Bruce Bochy.

"When he got called up, the clubhouse cheered," Decker said. "Definitely a feel-good story."

Second base -- Ryan Cavan, San Jose (130 games): The third-year switch-hitter batted .270 and racked up 55 extra-base hits, including a system-high 38 doubles, and a career-high 90 RBIs. That said, his defensive improvement is a primary reason he's on this list.

Cavan committed 26 errors at Class A Augusta in 2010 but cut that down to five this year.

"When he came in, we told him that if he was going to get out of A-ball, he needed to tighten it up," Stanley said. "He took it on as a challenge. He is one of hardest workers we have in the organization. He may not have the foot speed of second base prospects in other organizations, but he understands the game."

"I just think he made a lot of careless errors [in 2010]. He realized, in the grand scheme of things, that he is a baseball player, not just hit a hitter," Skeels added.

Third base -- Adam Duvall, Augusta (116 games): Duvall batted .285, drove in 87 runs and totaled 56 extra-base hits, including 22 homers. As a result, the 2010 11th-round pick out of the University of Louisville was named a South Atlantic League mid- and postseason All-Star.

"I tell you, we didn't expect him to hit that many homers," Stanley admitted. "Especially in our ballpark in Augusta, it's a graveyard out there sometimes and, quite frankly, he did it without a lot of protection behind him."

Shortstop -- Joe Panik, Salem-Keizer (69 games): The Giants' first-round pick in June signed quickly and produced even faster. Panik, who spoke with last month, led all Giants farmhands with at least 300 plate appearances in batting (.341) and posted an impressive 28-to-25 walk-to-strikeout ratio. He spent all but one game in the lineup's first, second and third slots.

Panik went 4-for-5 with six RBIs on July 17 and also had some memorable moments defensively.

"He is one of most accurate throwers I have seen in our organization in a long time," Stanley said. "He may not be as acrobatic as [fellow shortstop prospect Brandon] Crawford, but he makes all the plays. He takes charge."

After taking Northwest League MVP honors, the St. John's University product batted .323 in 27 Arizona Fall League games, was selected to play in the Rising Stars Game and was named to the AFL's All-Prospect Team.


Gary Brown, San Jose (131 games): The 2010 first-round pick led San Francisco's full-season Minor Leaguers in batting (.336) and was the only player in the organization to reach triple digits in runs scored (115). He also paced his peers with a San Jose team-record 188 hits and triples (13). Each of those stats -- plus his 53 stolen bases -- ranked among the top three in the Cal League. Not surprisingly, the Giants' No. 1 prospect, was awarded the MiLBY for Best Class A Advanced Hitter.

His defense did not go unnoticed.

"He's a true shutdown center fielder," Skeels said. "He can get into the gaps and he's got a huge arm. [Opposing] third base coaches realized, 'If we run on him, we're going to get thrown out.'"

Added Heston, "He gets to balls some guys don't."

Does Brown have a weakness? He's pointed to his 74 percent success rate on the basepaths.

"As he moves up the ladder, they'll work with him on stealing bases," Stanley said. "Pitchers at Double-A and Triple-A will keep an eye on him, and he'll need to adjust."

The 23-year-old Cal State-Fullerton product went 11-for-50 at the plate in 11 AFL games before ending his long season prematurely due to illness.

Justin Christian, Richmond (73 games), Fresno (64 games), San Francisco (18 games): The lead-by-example vetran common to most Minor League rosters, Christian did a whole lot more than stand tall in the clubhouse. The 31-year-old batted .338 at Fresno, tallying 33 extra-base hits, 41 RBIs and 36 steals for the Grizzlies.

"Justin Christian was one of the most dangerous players in the league; he was a five-tool guy at Triple-A," Decker said. "Sometimes a change of scenery helps."

Decker also prodded Christian to make a change in technique. The former noticed the latter trying to slap at the ball, pushing it toward the opposite field. "What I told him," Decker recalled, "is, 'If you're good at pulling the ball, pull the ball; don't get away from your strengths ... ' Then he, all of a sudden, turns into this Rickey Henderson-type leadoff guy for us."

Christian appeared in 18 games for the big club, his second stint in the Majors during a weaving and winding career.

"He's a great example for our younger players," Stanley said. "He doesn't take anything for granted."

Tyler Graham, Fresno (127 games): During his third straight year spending time at Triple-A -- he got more than 400 at-bats for the first time as a pro -- the Oregon State product batted .273 and scored a career-high 82 runs. Graham, 27, snagged a coveted spot on the Giants' 40-man roster on Nov. 18, protecting him from the Rule 5 Draft. His speed is a significant reason: He stole a system-best and Fresno-record 60 bases in 72 attempts.

"He hasn't always had an opportunity to play every day, but he has [become], over the course of three years, our best base-stealer at any position," Stanley said. "He's fearless. Everybody knows what he's going to do and he says, basically, 'Stop me.'"

Added Decker: "He's a green light guy. Even when they're looking to stop him from stealing, they can't."

Honorable mention goes to Francisco Peguero, who batted .312 in 87 games between San Jose and Richmond. The 23-year-old is the Giants' No. 2 prospect.

Utility -- Edgar Gonzalez, Fresno (137 games): Gonzalez led all Grizzlies in batting (.315) -- if not for Christian (.338), who spent more time at Double-A -- and smacked 30 doubles and 14 homers while piling up 82 RBIs. His versatility kept him in the lineup: He played at least 23 games at three infield positions (second base, third base and shortstop) and in the outfield.

"He's a professional hitter," Stanley said of the older brother of Red Sox All-Star Adrian Gonzalez. "If I had a runner at third base, he'd be one of the top guys on my team I'd want at the plate."

In fact, Gonzalez batted .343 with runners in scoring position with RISP and two outs. Numbers like these left some wondering why the Giants didn't promote him after injuries and instability crumbled their middle infield.

"His most valuable [trait] was his attitude," Decker said. "He could have really got frustrated when he didn't get called up, and he didn't."

Right-handed starting pitcher -- Chris Heston, San Jose (24 games): Heston won 12 of 16 decisions and compiled a 3.16 ERA in the hitter-happy Cal League and fanned 131 ovr 151 innings. In a 1-0 victory on May 21, the sinkerballer held Stockton to three hits over eight shutout innings.

"He's got a huge upside," Stanley said of the 2009 12th-round pick. "His secondary pitches are getting stronger. To pitch in the big leagues, you have to be able to pitch backwards, because sometimes you don't have your best fastball."

Heston emerged in a rotation flush with talent: Craig Westcott (13-4, 3.42 ERA), Kelvin Marte (12-6, 3.47 ERA) and Andy Reichard (9-4, 3.38 ERA) all ranked in the top five in the league in ERA.

"It was fun because me and Craig are real good friends. Anytime that we were pitching, we were always rooting the other one on. And we also had Kelvin Marte. We all competed against each other," Heston told "Anytime everybody is pitching well, you want to go out there and do better; that's healthy competition. You go out there and you want to do a little better than the last guy."

Left-handed starting pitcher -- Eric Surkamp, San Jose (one game), Richmond (23 games), San Francisco (six games): San Francisco's No. 5 prospect went 10-4 with a 2.02 ERA to earn Eastern League mid- and postseason All-Star honors. Surkamp, 24, struck out 165 over 142 1/3 innings before making six Major League starts -- his first -- to end the campaign.

"Going to the big leagues, pitching him in big games like that is going to be a great confidence-builder for him," Stanley said of the 2008 sixth-round pick. "He's going to be a real important part of our Major League staff soon."

Relief pitcher -- Heath Hembree, San Jose (26 games), Richmond (28 games): No word works better here than domination. Hembree posted a 0.74 ERA and a 44-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 24 2/3 innings for San Jose, then logged a 2.83 ERA and a 34-13 ratio in 28 2/3 frames for the Flying Squirrels. Employing a 94 mph fastball with movement -- a straighter version peaks at 98 mph -- the 2010 fifth-round pick recorded 38 saves between those two stops.

"He's one of those guys every organization would love to have," Stanley said. "He likes to be in that [closer] role, he's a guy that loves to challenge [batters]."

Opponents batted .188 against the 22-year-old right-hander who ended the year as the Giants' No. 7 prospect.

"This kid is a lot of fun to watch. As a manager, he makes you real smart," Skeels said. "He was a kid we were excited about in Spring Training, but you never know with first [full-season] guys. He really had a big breakout year for us."

Veteran right-hander Danny Otero also deserves a mention. In 56 games between Richmond and Fresno, the 26-year-old went 4-4 with 13 saves and a 2.31 ERA, striking out 76 in 74 innings.

Andrew Pentis is a contributor to