Giants

Why Giants top prospects Joey Bart, Heliot Ramos exceeded expectations

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Ali Thanawalla

Why Giants top prospects Joey Bart, Heliot Ramos exceeded expectations

Throughout the Giants' minor league system, a lot of champagne was popped this season. Five team affiliates are headed to the playoffs, and yet, San Francisco's top two prospects weren't a part of the celebrations. 

Catcher Joey Bart and center fielder Heliot Ramos spent the majority of their seasons with the San Jose Giants in Class A Advanced. San Jose claimed a playoff spot in the California League on the last day of the regular season Monday, but the young stars had already moved up to Double-A Richmond. 

And while the Flying Squirrels won seven of their final eight games, they went just 32-40 on the regular season and missed the Eastern League playoffs. There's a much bigger picture than reaching the playoffs in Double-A when it comes to Bart and Ramos, though. 

Both prospects entered the season with sky-high expectations. To the delight of Giants fans and the front office alike, both met or exceeded those expectations. 

Bart, 22, came into the season with a bar set impossibly high to reach. After crushing 13 homers with a .983 OPS in Class A Short Season for the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes last season, the No. 2 pick in the 2018 MLB Draft spent nearly all of spring training with the big league club. Down in the desert, it was clear the Giants might have another star catcher in their future. 

In his first big-league camp, Bart hit .350 (7-for-20) with one home run, two doubles and seven RBI over 15 games. He impressed the club so much that he was given the Barney Nugent Award, which is handed out annually to the player who performs the best in his first major league camp.

A number of Giants fans began wondering when they would see Bart in San Francisco. Could it be as soon as this season? What happens to Buster Posey? These questions popped left and right, but the Giants made the wise decisions of lowering expectations and starting Bart and Ramos together in San Jose. 

Bart hit .265 with 12 homers, 10 doubles and a .793 OPS in 57 games with San Jose. He did so while also fracturing his left hand and getting in the squat for nearly 440 innings. The 6-foot-2, 235-pound catcher opened eyes with his defense, too, and was named Best Defensive Catcher by Cal League coaches

When he was promoted to Double-A Richmond in early August, Bart hit below .200 through his first 12 games. Then, he caught fire.

Bart was named the Eastern League Player of the Week to end the regular season. He hit .538 with a homer, four doubles, a triple and six RBI in his final seven games of the regular season. Over 22 games with the Flying Squirrels, Bart hit .316 with four homers, 11 RBI and a .912 OPS. 

Though Bart fared better in Double-A than Ramos, the younger of the two was the Giants' best prospect this season. 

Ramos, who still is a teenager until Sept. 7, experienced a frustratingly down year in 2018. He burst onto the scene shortly after the Giants took him with the No. 19 pick in the 2017 draft, but hit just .245 with a lowly .313 on-base percentage the next year for Single-A Augusta. The 19-year-old outfielder focused on laying off balls in the dirt and seeing pitches deeper while playing Winter Ball, and it showed. 

Ramos raised his on-base percentage 72 points in San Jose, up to .385. He walked 35 times in 124 games last season, and registered just three fewer in 77 games with the Giants. Though his strikeout rate was nearly identical to last season, Ramos consistently worked deep counts from opposing pitchers. 

Before being promoted to Double-A on the same day as Bart, Ramos hit .306 with 13 homers, 18 doubles and an .885 OPS in San Jose. Like Bart, too, Ramos dealt with an injury (knee) which he had to overcome.

Ramos was named the Giants' Team MVP and was recognized by Cal League coaches as well. He took home three different honors: Best Power, Best Defensive Outfielder and Most Exciting Prospect. 

At the time of his promotion to Double-A, Ramos was the youngest player in Flying Squirrels history. Though he hit .242, Ramos did knock another three homers and six doubles in 25 games with Richmond, and finished the year on a six-game hitting streak.

To put the Eastern League in perspective, too, this season was the league's 10th-lowest ERA (3.54) in league history and sixth-lowest since 1990.

[RELATED: Giants prospect Ramos ends breakout 2019 with a bang]

Bart and Ramos will continue to play together as the two are now slated to join the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League, which begins Sept. 18. They started the season in San Jose together, went up to Richmond together and now will do so in the desert. 

While the two missed out on the celebrations this season, if the Giants are popping champagne in the coming years, Bart and Ramos likely will be right in the middle of the festivities.

Cubs' Theo Epstein explains why Scott Harris will succeed with Giants

Cubs' Theo Epstein explains why Scott Harris will succeed with Giants

The Giants took plenty of criticism last week for their decision to hire Gabe Kapler as manager, but the week's other big move was met with positive reviews. One of the people who complimented Farhan Zaidi's decision to hire Scott Harris as general manager was the executive who had hoped to keep him around. 

At the GM Meetings in Scottsdale, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein told reporters that he was thrilled for Harris and knew it "was an opportunity he couldn't turn down -- a No. 2 (job) of another storied franchise in his hometown." Harris served as assistant general manager of the Cubs before Zaidi hired him last Sunday. 

"We're thrilled for him, but it was bittersweet," Epstein told NBC Sports Chicago. "We loved working with him and he was a big part of our culture and guys around the major-league team love working with him. It will leave a pretty significant void that we'll have to fill. We'll distribute a lot of his responsibilities around to a few different people internally and re-evaluate as we continue to look outside, if there happens to be the right fit outside the organization, too."

Harris' decision was a loss for the Cubs, who have had other notable departures in the front office since winning the World Series in 2016. There has been speculation within the industry that Epstein will leave the Cubs when his contract expires, which could have led to Jed Hoyer taking over that job and Harris getting Hoyer's GM responsibilities. 

[RELATED: What are Giants' biggest needs as hot stove begins?]

Harris loved his time in Chicago and called working for Epstein and Hoyer a dream situation for anybody looking to break into the game. He was hired as a 25-year-old in 2012, but seven years later Zaidi called with an offer that was too good to turn down.

"He's got incredible work ethic. He's got significant intellectual capacity, but he's very down to Earth, fun to be around," Epstein said of Harris. "He doesn't tell you how smart he is. He's one of the guys everyone loves going to to share things and pick their brain. He's got a good feel around managing up, managing down, managing laterally, (a) good feel with the players and uniformed personnel. He'll do a really good job over there."

MLB free agency: What are Giants' biggest needs as hot stove begins?

MLB free agency: What are Giants' biggest needs as hot stove begins?

SAN FRANCISCO -- As Farhan Zaidi and Gabe Kapler spent nearly an hour discussing the more controversial aspects of the Giants' manager hire, new general manager Scott Harris sat to Kapler's left and took it all in. Other than his own introductory remarks, Harris was mostly silent, but Zaidi smiled and looked at his GM when a reporter asked Zaidi how he planned to "attack free agency."

"Scott?" Zaidi said, laughing. 

Harris took the question, but he didn't give up much more than Zaidi would have. 

"We're excited to have the three of us in place and to start having those conversations that are full of debate, that are full of challenging each other," Harris said, "To make sure that we're targeting the right players and Gabe feels comfortable deploying those players in the right way to allow them to succeed."

More than anything, Kapler simply needs better players. Zaidi and Harris jumped right in to that process, flying to Scottsdale after the Kapler press conference despite the fact that they had already missed most of the first three days of the four-day GM Meetings. Zaidi and Harris have spent plenty of time over the last month discussing their future plans, but they planned to set up meetings in Scottsdale to start zeroing in on specific free agent targets. 

Who are those players? We know one who is off the list. Closer Will Smith signed with the Braves before Kapler could even move into his office, leaving a big hole in the bullpen. That's where we'll start in this early look at what the Giants need in free agency:

Bullpen

The closer right now is ... maybe Tony Watson? Maybe Shaun Anderson? Tyler Rogers and Sam Coonrod showed flashes as rookies, Trevor Gott is healing well, and guys like Jandel Gustave, Sam Selman and Andrew Suarez should be part of the mix. But that's not a good bullpen on paper. 

The Giants will need to add, although as we saw last year, they're more likely to do so with minor additions and trades -- like the Gott move. Don't expect them to spend big on what's left of the relief market. One of the best arms still out there, Drew Pomeranz, is already familiar to them. They're more likely to find the next reclamation project than sign a player looking for big money. 

Backup catcher

Stephen Vogt is wildly popular and had a very nice year as Buster Posey's partner, but he has talked of trying to win a World Series. He is smart enough to know San Francisco is not the place to do that in 2020. 

Vogt liked San Francisco and may return, but if he signs with a contender, the Giants will need a bridge to Joey Bart. Aramis Garcia is an option, but if Zaidi wanted to go with Erik Kratz last opening day over Garcia, it seems likely another veteran is brought in a year later. 

Lefty infielder

The Giants used more platoons last season and could use a left-handed hitter to take some at-bats away from Evan Longoria and Mauricio Dubon. Longoria had a .722 OPS against righties last season and Dubon is still unproven. Pablo Sandoval did some heavy lifting at third base last season, but he'll miss most of 2020 after Tommy John having surgery and is a free agent. The other backup infield option, Donovan Solano, also hits from the right side. 

Kean Wong, claimed off waivers earlier this month, hits left-handed, but he has just 18 big league at-bats. 

Righty outfielder

Mike Yastrzemski and Alex Dickerson (if he can stay healthy) should go into next season looking at meaty roles, but the Giants don't have much from the right side other than Kevin Pillar. Austin Slater's numbers took a nosedive in the second half and Jaylin Davis struggled in a September cameo. Joey Rickard is a candidate to be non-tendered. 

The Giants need outfield help in general, but they're especially lacking in right-handed pop. Zaidi tried plenty of fringe options in 2019. He has the financial wiggle room to take some bigger swings this offseason if he wants to. 

[RELATED: Giants continue Triples Alley work, move bullpens off field]

The Bumgarner situation

If it feels like we've hit on all corners of the roster here, it's because, well, yeah, the roster has a lot of holes. 

The biggest one is now at the top of the rotation, where the Giants very well may be looking for a way to replace their longtime ace. Bringing Bumgarner back would actually pretty much set the rotation. The Giants could feel pretty comfortable going into next spring with Bumgarner, a healthy Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija, Tyler Beede and Logan Webb, followed by the group of Suarez, Dereck Rodriguez, Tyler Anderson and any depth options Zaidi is able to scoop up. 

But pull Bumgarner out of that group and you have a big hole, especially because Beede is still mostly unproven and Webb will have an innings limit. Internally, Zaidi and Harris likely have already decided how hard they'll go after Bumgarner. If they're not intent on bringing him back, they'll need rotation help.