How Giants' improved minor-league system affects trade deadline decisions

How Giants' improved minor-league system affects trade deadline decisions

SAN FRANCISCO -- The biggest question for the Giants -- buy or sell -- wasn't even a question a month ago, or just about every day since Farhan Zaidi took over in November. 

The organization was in a world of hurt at all levels, and for about eight months, much of the talk at Oracle Park centered around how to make this team competitive in 2020 and good by 2021. But a couple of funny things happened along the way to the Great July Sale of 2019. 

The first one is obvious, and has been in front of your face for three weeks. The Giants are suddenly good. After sweeping the Rockies and taking three of four from the Mets, they're entering this week at .500, 2 1/2 games out in the Wild Card race. 

But the second factor is one you might have missed unless you really go deep with your fandom. Seemingly just as quickly, the Giants have built a farm system that looks respectable, and that will matter as Zaidi and Co. put together a deadline plan.

The Giants still need plenty of future help, but they're not quite as desperate as they were on Opening Day. Zaidi no longer should move anything that's not nailed down in order to bolster the system. Much of the next core already appears to be on the way. 

Joey Bart (ranked 19th) and Heliot Ramos (68) were joined by shortstop Marco Luciano (71) and outfielder Hunter Bishop (98) on Baseball America's most recent top 100 list, giving the Giants four top prospects on a rankings list that often has included just one player from the organization. 

Luciano, in particular, has changed the upside of the farm system. Just 17 years old, he's hitting .344 in rookie ball with eight homers in 96 at-bats. It's early, but if his development continues he could be a franchise-altering prospect, and he's part of a crowd coming from rookie ball and Salem-Keizer. The strength of this system is at the lower levels. 

The  Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, a short-season team, won the Northwest League's first-half title for the first time by going 25-12. Bishop, this year's first-rounder, is there already, along with other intriguing prospects like 21-year-old Franklin Labour (14 homers in 33 games) and 19-year-old Alexander Canario (eight homers in 27 minor league games this summer). 

Bart and Ramos lead a San Jose team that has some pitching starting to emerge with Sean Hjelle, Jake Wong and others. The Double-A roster is a bit barren, but Triple-A Sacramento -- a disaster in recent years -- is in first place and already has sent Shaun Anderson, Tyler Beede, Mike Yastrzemski, Conner Menez, Zach Green and others to the big league roster. 

If you take a step back, this is a farm system that's looking like a normal one again, and that certainly should change the math for Zaidi. 

For most of this season it seemed he needed to trade not just Madison Bumgarner, Will Smith and Sam Dyson, but also guys like Pablo Sandoval, Kevin Pillar and Reyes Moronta. When Zaidi traded Tom Murphy for a 20-year-old lottery ticket, that seemed like a good template, because the Giants came into this season needing as much minor league inventory as they could get. Things have changed quickly, and the system's rise has matched the big league club's surge.

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There certainly are still plenty of holes. The Giants need more young pitching (who is the future ace of this staff?), could use an outfielder or three much closer to the big league level and have a huge hole when it comes to middle infield prospects. 

But this front office has proven fully capable of finding contributors -- Alex Dickerson, Donovan Solano, etc. -- and pushing younger players, and it turns out the previous regime left the cupboard a bit fuller than we thought. Add it up and the Giants aren't nearly as desperate at the deadline as they once were. 

Why Giants might not name their closer before end of spring training

Why Giants might not name their closer before end of spring training

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Giants finally will play a baseball game Saturday, getting Gabe Kapler one step closer to the day when he'll have to make quick decisions in the late innings of a close game. Kapler is replacing the man who did that better than anyone, and he'll be at an immediate disadvantage. 

Bruce Bochy had a Core Four for a while, but even in his final year he entered the season with Will Smith, Tony Watson, Sam Dyson, Reyes Moronta and Mark Melancon set as late-innings options. Watson still is here. After that, it's rookies, non-roster invitees and a collection of starters who may only be able to make this club as versatile relievers. 

The Giants plan to lean into that, and there's a chance the Opening Day bullpen primarily is made up of guys who can go three innings at a time. But you still need a closer, someone who will take the ball with a one-run lead in the ninth. You still need that one person that everyone else works to get the lead to.


Maybe not. 

"If somebody grabs hold of that position and makes it unequivocally clear that that person is the right player for that role, sure, I think there's some value in naming a closer," Kapler said. "If it doesn't work out that way, it's interesting -- flexibility works both ways. We have to be flexible enough to say right now we don't have to name somebody a closer. I think that decision will be made for us as we go through camp."

The Giants have one obvious candidate, Watson, who saved 30 games for the Pirates but has not done it in two seasons in San Francisco. Shaun Anderson got a taste late last year and has expressed an interest in closing, but the Giants are stretching the former top prospect out as a starter right now. Trevor Gott is making interesting adjustments this spring and was a closer in college and the minors, but he has just one big league save.

The Giants want Gott to be versatile enough to pitch at any time, too, and they could find that Anderson and Watson, or other incumbents, are best used in higher-leverage spots. For years, teams have talked about the fact that it doesn't really make sense for your best reliever to be kept on ice until the ninth. The Giants could be poised to actually go all-in on that method.  

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Regardless, team executives quietly are optimistic about the group. They believe they've put together a collection of good arms, and Andrew Bailey, Ethan Katz and Brian Bannister have received strong early reviews for the work they're doing in altering pitch mixes and grips. A young bullpen doesn't necessarily have to be a bad one. It also doesn't have to be one with a set hierarchy. 

"I think the game is changing dramatically and relievers know that there are fewer of those surefire 'you're the seventh, eighth and ninth (inning) guy' throughout baseball," Kapler said. "Those are actually more rare now than anything else. I do think players in general like to know their role and in a perfect world we can lay that out for them. We don't have relievers in our 'pen that are married to any role and I think that's fun and unique about our camp. We don't have one reliever that has to pitch in any particular role."

Dereck Rodriguez to start Gabe Kapler's first game as Giants manager


Dereck Rodriguez to start Gabe Kapler's first game as Giants manager

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Gabe Kapler announced his starter for Saturday's Cactus League opener and then later noted, "I wouldn't read anything into" the decision. But it's still a big deal for the organization, with Kapler making his debut, and the game could be a pretty important one for the pitcher chosen to throw the first pitch. 

Dereck Rodriguez will kick things off against the Dodgers on Saturday, weather permitting. Two years after he broke through, Rodriguez is on the outside of the rotation race, with the far more likely scenario being a bullpen job. But even that race is crowded, and Rodriguez will be one of the first to get a shot to impress.

Asked about his conversations with Rodriguez, Kapler said he doesn't think the 27-year-old right-hander needs any extra motivation. 

"My sense is that he's pretty self-critical and is tough on himself, and I think some of the up and down has been tough on him," Kapler said. "Frankly there hasn't been as much velocity in 2019 as there was in '18. He's made some progress this spring with that. He's had a little bit more velocity in his bullpens."

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Rodriguez's average fastball velocity dropped about one MPH from 2018 to 2019. His ERA jumped from 2.81 to 5.64. Kapler said that Rodriguez, like many of the younger pitchers in camp, needs to focus on flexibility and being able to do both roles. He's expected to throw two innings Saturday.

Kapler plans to have Buster Posey, Evan Longoria and Brandon Belt in that first lineup. The plan has tentatively been for Brandon Crawford to play, too, although the shortstop missed a couple of days earlier this week because he got sick.