Top Ten Prospects: San Francisco Giants
Complete Index of Top 10s
By John Manuel
Baseball America's Top 10 Prospects lists are based on projections of a player's long-term worth after discussions with scouting and player-development personnel. All players who haven't exceeded the major league rookie standards of 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched (without regard to service time) are eligible. Ages are as of April 1, 2004.
The Giants proved they could win without manager Dusty Baker in 2003, claiming the National League West division title for the second time in four seasons. Since 1997, San Francisco has been in contention for a playoff berth every September.
As long as 39-year-old Barry Bonds is around and playing anywhere near his MVP level, that should continue. The Giants’ object is to surround Bonds with as much big league talent as the team can afford—and win now. To that end, general manager Brian Sabean and Dick Tidrow, who as vice president of player personnel oversees both the team’s scouting and player-development operations, haven’t been afraid to sign free agents and trade prospects to keep the Giants at a consistently competitive level.
It’s in the eye of the beholder to judge the Giants’ track record in player development.
On the one hand, the Sabean/Tidrow regime has consistently produced enough talent for trades to keep the team at or near the top of the NL West. On the other hand, most of the prospects they’ve traded haven’t developed into legitimate major leaguers with other teams. However, the Giants’ draft fortunes have picked up since 1998, when they had five of the first 41 picks yet produced no big leaguer of more substance than Nate Bump.
In 1999, San Francisco nabbed righthanders Kurt Ainsworth and Jerome Williams with its first two picks. Williams had an excellent rookie season in 2003, while Ainsworth was traded to the Orioles for Sidney Ponson. In 2000, the Giants nabbed power arms Boof Bonser and Ryan Hannaman, using them in separate deals this year to net Ponson (Hannaman) and all-star catcher A.J. Pierzynski (Bonser). In 2001, San Francisco found Jesse Foppert in the second round. While he appears to be a keeper, he had Tommy John surgery and may not pitch in 2004.
The Pierzynski trade this offseason provides graphic evidence of the strengths and weaknesses of the organization’s player development department. Its pitching-focused drafts have netted enough arms to provide the big league team with the likes of Foppert, Williams and Kevin Correia, while leaving enough spare parts to bolster the offense with trades.
The lineup has needed all the help it can get though, because the Giants haven’t developed an everyday big leaguer since drafting Bill Mueller and Chris Singleton in 1993. Catcher Yorvit Torrealba and corner infielder Pedro Feliz, both international signees, were solid role players for the 2003 club, and Feliz could win a starting job in time. The Giants also have hope for recent draftees Lance Niekro (1999) and Todd Linden (2001) to reverse the trend, but there are few position players of note in the farm system and the team’s top three affiliates all struggled in 2003. San Francisco attempted to address this with a 2003 draft that was more focused on position players than usual.
Tidrow, a former big league pitcher, has shown greater acumen for finding power arms than he has finding quality bats. But as long as he finds players Sabean can trade to support the aging Bonds, the Giants’ game plan will continue to work in the short term.
Top Prospect: Merkin Valdez, RHP
Age: 22 Ht.: 6-3 Wt.: 170 Bats: R Throws: R
Background: Though the Giants had developed Russ Ortiz from college middle reliever to big league frontline starter, they weren’t afraid to deal him when he became too expensive. So they sent Ortiz to the Braves for lefthander Damian Moss and Valdez in December 2002. Valdez was known as Manuel Mateo and believed to be nine months younger than his true age when he signed for $7,500 in 1999. While he has a ways to go to match Ortiz as a big league 20-game winner, the trade worked out for the Giants. San Francisco used Moss to get Sidney Ponson from the Orioles for the 2003 stretch run, while Valdez established himself as the Giants’ clear No. 1 prospect with a dominating year at Class A Hagerstown. He won the strikeout crown in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2002, then repeated the feat in the South Atlantic League in his Giants debut.
Strengths: Valdez has the rare ability to invite consistent weak contact with his fastball. With his combination of velocity and command, the Giants say he compares favorably to last year’s No. 1 prospect, Jesse Foppert. Valdez throws a two-seam heater that the Giants rate a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale due to its excellent sink and consistent velocity. When he worked as a starter for Hagerstown, his fastball sat in the 92-95 mph range. In a late assignment to the Arizona Fall League, he ran it to 96-98 in short relief stints. He’s not afraid to work inside and attacks lefthanders successfully. The Giants rate his slider as a 60 pitch, though it tends to be less consistent than his fastball. Valdez generally does a good job of staying tall, throwing downhill and keeping on top of his slider. His changeup remains in its developing stages, but the Giants were encouraged by the flashes he showed in instructional league, when he threw it for strikes.
Weaknesses: This was just Valdez’ first full season, so he could use more innings of experience to refine his overall game, particularly his changeup and slider. He can be guilty of rushing his delivery and overthrowing. He missed a start in the spring when he was trying so hard to ramp up his velocity that he pulled his groin. He sometimes alters his delivery for his offspeed stuff, hurting his consistency. All of these are correctable flaws, however.
The Future: It could be now. Added to the 40-man roster, Valdez will compete for a big league bullpen job in spring training, following Foppert’s example. While Foppert was a college draftee, he wasn’t a full-time pitcher until his junior season at the University of San Francisco, and Valdez’ experience level is similar. If he’s allowed to develop more in the minor leagues—likely at high Class A San Jose to start until the weather warms up at Double-A Norwich—Valdez still could jump to the majors sometime in 2004. With more refinement, Valdez profiles as a front-of-the-rotation starter.