No team in the California League can match San Jose's success on the mound over the last two decades. A remarkable 10 Giants hurlers have won the California League Pitcher of the Year award since the team's inception in 1988 while San Jose has led the league in ERA seven times over the last nine seasons. Now looking ahead to this year, the San Jose Giants could feature one of their most prospect-laden starting rotations in recent memory.
A bevy of exciting young arms are projected to join the club in April as the Giants look to continue their tradition of producing top flight starting pitchers. Baseball America recently noted that San Jose should have "one of the minors' most talented rotations" as former first round draft picks Kyle Crick and Chris Stratton along with last year's playoff star Clayton Blackburn are all strong candidates to begin the season in the California League.
Crick would be the rotation headliner this spring if he were to open the year in San Jose. Last season as a 19-year old in Class-A Augusta, Crick fashioned a 2.51 ERA in 22 starts to go with a 7-6 record and a whopping 128 strikeouts in 111 1/3 innings. Crick also allowed just one home run for the entire year while limiting the opposition to a paltry .193 batting average. For his efforts, Crick has been named the #1 prospect in the entire San Francisco Giants organization according to Baseball America and MLB.com. Crick was selected in the supplemental first round in 2011 out of Sherman High School in Texas.
Crick possesses an electric arm with a fastball that reportedly sits anywhere between 92 and 98 mph. A pitcher with enormous potential, Crick also features a hard curve ball that was rated the top breaking pitch in the South Atlantic League last year according to league managers. With the continued development of his change-up, Crick figures to have all of the tools to eventually become a #1 or #2 starter in the big leagues down the road.
Crick did issue a team-high 67 walks last season (5.4 per nine innings), but with improved control and consistency of his pitches, he could shoot through the Giants farm system in the coming years. For now, it's almost certainly a spot at the top of San Jose's starting rotation.
While Crick is essentially a lock to join the SJ Giant starting rotation after his terrific 2012 in Augusta, Stratton will have to prove he's ready for a promotion to the California League with an impressive showing during spring training. The 20th overall pick in last year's draft out of Mississippi State University, Stratton debuted professionally with the Short-Season Salem-Keizer Volcanoes. Pitching in a limited role after a heavy workload in college, Stratton made eight appearances (five starts) with the Volcanoes totaling just 16 1/3 innings. He posted a 2.76 ERA and struck out 16 batters.
Stratton worked himself into the first round of the draft after a season at Mississippi State that earned the right-hander 2012 SEC Pitcher of the Year honors. In his final collegiate season, Stratton went 11-2 with a 2.38 ERA over 17 games. He struck out 127 batters compared to just 25 walks in 109 2/3 innings while holding the opposition to a .211 batting average.
Stratton isn't quite as overpowering as Crick, but can still throw his fastball in the 90 to 95 mph range. With a plus-slider, a solid change-up and a developing curve ball, Stratton, like Crick, projects as a pitcher who could advance quickly through the system. Given his tremendous success in an elite college baseball conference last spring and subsequent draft position, Stratton would seem to have a great chance at opening the 2013 campaign in the San Jose starting rotation.
Crick and Stratton would be new faces to San Jose Giants fans at the start of the season, however Blackburn has already shown what he can accomplish in the California League. After a stellar regular season in Augusta that saw the right-hander rank second in the South Atlantic League with a 2.54 ERA over 22 starts, Blackburn was promoted to San Jose for the playoffs. The 19-year old was thrust into the Game 1 starting role versus the Modesto Nuts and he did not disappoint. In seven spectacular innings, Blackburn allowed just one run on three hits with nine strikeouts to pick-up the win.
Blackburn is a control-artist on the mound as he issued only 18 walks compared to a league-best 143 strikeouts in 131 1/3 innings last season with the GreenJackets. Armed with a sinking fastball that sits in the upper 80's to low 90's, Blackburn surrendered only three homers for the year and owned the highest groundout rate of any hurler on the Augusta staff. With an above-average curve and change-up, Blackburn has been praised for his advanced feel for pitching. While Crick may be grabbing more of the headlines with his #1 prospect ranking and status as a former first round pick, it was Blackburn that earned the promotion to San Jose for the playoffs and then produced one of the finest postseason performances in club history. Look for Blackburn, a former 16th round draft pick, to anchor the Giants starting rotation at the beginning of the season.
In case that's not enough star power, the San Jose rotation could feature a few more top prospects this year. Left-handers Edwin Escobar and Adalberto Mejia both enjoyed solid 2012 seasons with Augusta GreenJackets and appear poised for promotions to the California League.
Escobar, who was acquired via trade from the Texas Rangers in 2010, struggled in Rookie-ball two seasons before taking a huge step forward in the GreenJackets rotation last year. Over 22 starts, the southpaw ranked third in the South Atlantic League with a 2.96 ERA while also collecting 122 strikeouts compared to just 32 walks in 130 2/3 innings.
Escobar's fastball will generally reside in the low 90's while he changes speeds effectively with a solid curve ball and change-up. The Giants organization feared losing Escobar to another organization in the Rule 5 draft last December, so he was protected on the big league 40-man roster.
Mejia was only 18 years old when he began last season in the Augusta starting rotation. After two dreadful starts to begin the year, Mejia was sent to the bullpen for a couple of months where he was able to gradually get back on track. The left-hander returned to the rotation in mid-June and thrived in that role for the remainder of the year. Overall, Mejia led Augusta with 10 wins last season to go with a solid 3.97 ERA. Another pitcher with above-average control, Mejia walked only 21 batters with 79 strikeouts in 106 2/3 innings. He possessed a 3.22 ERA after returning to the rotation in June, including a 1.58 mark over his last six starts of the regular season.
Mejia's fastball has good life and movement and he'll usually throw the pitch between 89 and 93 mph. He complements it with an above-average change-up and a developing slider. After finishing last year strong combined with his ability to throw strikes consistently, it would not be a surprise if Mejia earned a promotion to San Jose, even at just 19.
If there's room in the Giants starting rotation and he shows enough during spring training, it's also possible that 2012 second round draft pick Martin Agosta could begin the year with San Jose. Agosta has little professional experience as he worked just 10 2/3 innings late last summer in the Arizona Rookie League after signing his professional contract, but he also is considered one of the top starting pitching prospects currently in the system.
Agosta dominated as a starting pitcher at the collegiate level for the Saint Mary's Gaels last spring where he compiled a 9-2 record with a 2.18 ERA in 14 starts. The right-hander struck out 95 and walked 27 over 103 1/3 innings. With a low 90's fastball that reportedly tops out at 96, a good slider and cutter, Agosta has the tools to move quickly through the organization. The development of his change-up will be critical if he's to remain a starting pitcher down the road.
The San Jose rotation this year could have a youthful feel to it given the ages of these starting candidates (Mejia 19, Blackburn, Crick and Escobar 20, Agosta 21, Stratton 22). Crick (#1), Stratton (#3), Blackburn (#6), Mejia (#10), Escobar (#14) and Agosta (#15) are all ranked among the top 15 prospects in the organization according to Baseball America.
Other starting pitchers from last year's Augusta team that are candidates to join the San Jose rotation include Bryce Bandilla, Chris Marlowe and Paul Davis. Bandilla endured a pair of stints on the disabled list last season that limited the hard-throwing lefty to just 11 appearances (nine starts) with the GreenJackets. However when he was healthy, Bandilla, a former fourth round draft pick, impressed with a 3.05 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 44 1/3 innings.
Marlowe began the year in the GreenJackets rotation and made 14 starts before finishing the campaign working in relief. A former fifth round pick, Marlowe logged a 4.20 ERA overall and averaged over a strikeout per inning (86 SO in 83 2/3 IP). Baseball America considers Marlowe to have the best curveball of any pitcher currently in the San Francisco Giants farm system.
Bandilla and Marlowe were both relatively high draft picks as each throw pretty hard and are considered strikeout pitchers. With Bandilla's injury issues last year and Marlowe enjoying more success late in the season as a reliever, the more likely scenario could have these two pitching out of the bullpen, presumably in San Jose.
Meanwhile, Davis went back-and-forth between the Augusta rotation and bullpen last year making 15 appearances in each role. The right-hander was a solid contributor recording a 3.69 ERA overall while his 114 2/3 innings were third on the club. Davis could fill a similar role in San Jose this season.
It's unlikely that there will be carryover from last year's San Jose starting rotation to this season's. Taylor Rogers (12-11, 4.13 ERA) and Kelvin Marte (2-1, 3.47 ERA) were two anchors to the Giants rotation late in the year and are logical candidates to fill similar roles in Richmond this season. Ryan Bradley (10-7, 4.90 ERA) and Jack Snodgrass (10-8, 4.62 ERA) each had ups-and-downs with San Jose, but figure to compete for spots on the Flying Squirrels pitching staff this spring, either as starters or relievers.
2013 San Jose Giants Starting Pitching Candidates
(2012 regular season statistics are listed)
* Martin Agosta, RHP
AZL-Giants: 5 GS, 0-0, 4.22 ERA
* Bryce Bandilla, LHP
Augusta: 11 G, 9 GS, 2-4, 3.05 ERA
* Clayton Blackburn, RHP
Augusta: 22 GS, 8-4, 2.54 ERA
* Kyle Crick, RHP
Augusta: 23 G, 22 GS, 7-6, 2.51 ERA
* Paul Davis, RHP
Augusta: 30 G, 15 GS, 6-8, 3.69 ERA
* Edwin Escobar, LHP
Augusta: 22 GS, 7-8, 2.96 ERA
* Chris Marlowe, RHP
Augusta: 30 G, 14 GS, 1-9, 4.20 ERA
* Adalberto Mejia, LHP
Augusta: 30 G, 14 GS, 10-7, 3.97 ERA
* Chris Stratton, RHP
Salem-Keizer: 8 G, 5 GS, 0-1, 2.76 ERA
2013 San Jose Giants previews will continue next week with a look at the middle infield.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.