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2013 San Jose Giants Season Preview: Corner Infield

Giants could see a returning player at first base this season
March 5, 2013

The San Jose Giants season preview series continues this week with a look at the first and third base positions.  The possibility exists that a returnee could anchor first base for the Giants this year, but which player?  Meanwhile, with Adam Duvall headed to Double-A after his record-breaking season, there will be a new face in San Jose over at the hot corner.

Ricky Oropesa garnered nearly all of the starts at first base last year for the Giants and put together a solid rookie professional campaign.  The former third round draft pick ranked fifth in the California League with 98 RBI's and was second on the Giants with 16 home runs.  His 30 doubles also led the club while he proved to be durable throughout the year playing in a team-high 134 games.  Baseball America has rated Oropesa the top first base prospect in the San Francisco farm system.  With all of those numbers, it would seem to be automatic that Oropesa would earn a promotion to Richmond.  However, it's not quite that simple.

Oropesa's somewhat pedestrian .263 batting average could give the organization some pause as to whether he's ready for the rigors that is Eastern League pitching.  He also struggled throughout the year to make consistent contact as evident by a whopping 150 strikeouts. 

Despite the impressive run production totals, it was often an up-and-down season for Oropesa.  He excelled throughout June hitting .327 with six homers before a dreadful month of July that saw the slugging first baseman bat just .157 with two home runs.  Oropesa recovered to hit .291 in August and then earned a spot in the high-profile Arizona Fall League where against mainly top Double-A and Triple-A pitching, he finished with a .234 batting average and a pair of home runs in 15 games.

Further complicating matters is the presence of Angel Villalona.  Once regarded as the top power-hitting prospect in the San Francisco Giants organization, Villalona has endured a tumultuous road off the field in recent years.  After signing a then-club record $2.1 million bonus as a 16-year old in 2006, Villalona began to work his way through the farm system, including a 17-homer season with Augusta in 2008.  He was San Jose's starting first baseman in 2009 when as the youngest player in the California League (18), he hit .267 with nine home runs and 42 RBI's in 74 games.  Villalona suffered a season-ending leg injury in July and while at home in the Dominican Republic a couple of months later, his life was turned upside-down when he was accused of murder. 

While the charges were eventually dropped, Villalona spent two seasons out of baseball before returning to action last year in the Dominican Summer League.  Against much younger competition last summer, Villalona hit .303 and connected for seven home runs in 44 games.  San Francisco has protected Villalona on the 40-man roster and he's now just returned to the United States for the first time in 3 1/2 years. 

Villalona and Oropesa (as a non-roster invitee) are both currently playing in big league spring training games.  They'll each probably be sent down to minor league camp in the coming days, so that they can receive regular playing time before opening day.  It would seem likely that the two players won't end up on the same minor league team come April allowing each to play regularly at first base and continue their development. 

It's almost impossible to accurately predict where Villalona is going to start the season given the unprecedented nature of his situation.  With his spot on the 40-man roster (which can sometimes result in a more hurried ascension through the system for a player), would the organization consider pushing Villalona up to Richmond?  If that happens, might Oropesa then return to San Jose?  Or perhaps Villalona will just pick up right where he left off 3 1/2 years ago which means he'll be back manning the first base position at Municipal Stadium (thereby clearing the way for Oropesa in Richmond).  Could Villalona even be sent down to Augusta (Class A) or held back in extended spring training?  It's difficult to predict, but the most likely scenario at this point would seem to have either Oropesa or Villalona starting at first base with the San Jose Giants in early-April.  With this year's projected San Jose squad not featuring many true power hitters, the presence of one of these two big bats in the middle of the lineup would be a tremendous lift for the club.

Outside of the two sluggers, there aren't many other first base possibilities for the San Jose Giants this year.  The versatile Alex Burg has some first base experience, but with 24 home runs and a combined a .272 batting average over the last two seasons in the California League, it's probably time for an opportunity in Double-A.  Ben Thomas was the primary first baseman in Augusta last year, but after hitting just .243 with five home runs in 100 games, he elected to retire from baseball.  Joe Rapp played first base for the Short-Season Salem-Keizer Volcanoes in 2012 and put up some solid numbers.  San Francisco's 28th round draft pick last year, Rapp led the Volcanoes with 11 home runs and 42 RBI's while also producing a .272 batting average.  He did strikeout a team-high 73 times (in just 64 games), however, and is probably headed to Augusta this season.  If neither Oropesa nor Villalona end up in San Jose, then Rapp might be considered for San Jose's starting first base position.

A first-third combo option for the San Jose Giants this season is Garrett Buechele.  A 14th round draft pick in 2011, Buechele spent all of last year with the Augusta GreenJackets where he split time between the two positions.  In 75 games overall, he finished with a .251 batting average, 10 doubles, three homers and 27 RBI's.  Buechele is a natural third baseman, but showed some versatility by playing in 32 games at first a season ago.  He's yet to enjoy a lot of success at the plate as a professional (two-year career average of .249), but will compete for a spot on San Jose's opening day roster this spring and could provide infield depth. 

Jose Cuevas is another third base possibility for the Giants this season.  Cuevas was the Arizona Rookie League MVP in 2011 when he hit .337 with nine home runs and 46 RBI's in 46 games.  The former 29th round selection though struggled in Augusta last year as he batted only .212 in 99 games.  Cuevas has some power (his six homers were actually tied for second on the GreenJackets) and saw substantial playing time at third and second base last year while he can even play some shortstop if needed.  Whether he can earn a spot on San Jose's team this year after producing a subpar batting average in the South Atlantic League remains to be seen.

With no top third base prospects in his way, it's certainly possible that former Cal star Mitch Delfino could jump from Salem-Keizer (where he finished last season) to the hot corner in San Jose.  Delfino was San Francisco's 20th round draft pick last June and after signing his professional contract, eventually became Salem-Keizer's primary third baseman.  His offensive production may not jump off the page as Delfino hit .269 with 12 doubles, no homers and 19 RBI's in 41 games, but the Cloverdale, CA native excelled in the fall instructional league after the season and has put himself in contention for a spot on San Jose's roster. 

In his final season at Cal last spring, Delfino led the Golden Bears with an impressive .355 batting average while also contributing five home runs and 38 RBI's in 52 games.  With a strong spring, Delfino could take hold of San Jose's starting third base job.

2013 San Jose Giants Corner Infield Candidates
(2012 regular season statistics are listed)

* Garrett Buechele, 3B/1B
Augusta: .251, 3 HR, 27 RBI, 1 SB

* Jose Cuevas, 3B/2B
Augusta: .212, 6 HR, 33 RBI, 18 SB

* Mitch Delfino, 3B
Salem-Keizer: .269, 0 HR, 19 RBI, 2 SB

* Ricky Oropesa, 1B
San Jose: .263, 16 HR, 98 RBI, 1 SB

* Joe Rapp, 1B
Salem-Keizer: .272, 11 HR, 42 RBI, 1 SB

* Angel Villalona, 1B
DSL-Giants: .303, 7 HR, 34 RBI, 0 SB

2013 San Jose Giants previews will continue next week with a look at the outfield.

San Jose Giants Season Preview: Middle Infield

San Jose Giants Season Preview: Starting Pitchers