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.
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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
Signed: Domincan Republic, 1999
Signed by: Felix Francisco (Braves)
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.
2. Matt Cain, rhp
Age: 19. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-3. Wt.: 180.
Drafted: HS�Germantown, Tenn., 2002 (1st round).
Signed by: Lee Elder.
Background: Cain has blossomed from No. 2 pitcher on his high school team (behind Conor Lalor, now at South Carolina) to No. 2 prospect in the Giants organization, and he was pushing for the No. 1 spot before a stress fracture in his elbow sidelined him midway through the 2003 season. Cain showed he had returned to health with seven dominant innings in instructional league.
Strengths: Cain might have a better arm than Valdez, and he profiles better as a starter. He starts with a 92-97 mph fastball that he throws on a good downhill plane. He also throws a power downer curveball with good velocity (77-80 mph). When it�s on, it has late break and good depth and is a true strikeout pitch. The Giants laud his aptitude and maturity.
Weaknesses: Cain has shown a feel for a changeup with late movement but hasn�t used it much. He also tends to get under the ball and rush himself in his delivery, which puts stress on his elbow. The Giants are confident he�ll grow out of that as he matures physically.
The Future: One of the South Atlantic League�s youngest players in 2003, Cain dominated at times anyway. If he can stay healthy, he�ll be pushed aggressively and could reach Double-A sometime in 2004.
3. David Aardsma, rhp
Age: 22. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-5. Wt.: 200.
Drafted: Rice, 2003 (1st round).
Signed by: Tom Koronek.
Background: The closer for Rice�s 2003 College World Series championship team, Aardsma broke 1997 No. 1 overall pick Matt Anderson�s career and season saves records in two seasons after transferring from Penn State. If he makes the big leagues, he�ll move ahead of Hank Aaron in the all-time alphabetical listing of big leaguers.
Strengths: Aardsma throws his fastball anywhere from 93-98 mph, and it has explosive late life. He switched from a slider to a knuckle-curve that many Rice pitchers throw, and it�s a plus pitch at times. His changeup is major league-ready.
Weaknesses: Aardsma�s closing background has hindered the development of his breaking ball; he only recently ditched his slider. He started at Penn State, and some scouts think he has the stuff and size to succeed in a rotation. Others cite his �pie thrower� delivery, which puts a lot of strain on his elbow, as precluding him from having the needed durability.
The Future: Aardsma showed big league closer stuff during his debut in high Class A. He should move quickly to San Francisco after a short apprenticeship in Double-A in 2004.
4. Dan Ortmeier, of
Age: 22. B-T: B-L. Ht.: 6-4. Wt.: 220.
Drafted: Texas-Arlington, 2002 (3rd round).
Signed by: Todd Thomas.
Background: Ortmeier has been on the radar for some time, but still ranks as somewhat of a sleeper. He was drafted out of high school in 1999 (27th round, White Sox) and was a two-time all-Southland Conference selection. He started 2003 as a DH primarily while recovering from left shoulder surgery.
Strengths: Ortmeier has the organization�s best combination of tools and skills. His swing is consistent and smooth from both sides of the plate. He shows a quick enough bat to hit inside pitches and lashes line drives from gap-to-gap. He also made strides with his two-strike approach. He runs well enough to play center field, though he profiles best in right.
Weaknesses: Ortmeier�s shoulder injury sapped some strength from what had been a plus arm, though it should bounce back. Some club officials fear his all-out playing style could work against him in the form of more injuries in the future. He hasn�t learned to pull the ball yet for the power teams want from their corner outfielders.
The Future: Ortmeier has the potential to hit .280-.300 with 20-homer power from both sides of the plate. He�ll try to prove he�s on track to that kind of future projection in 2004 at Double-A Norwich.
5. Todd Linden. of
Age: 23. B-T: B-R. Ht.: 6-3. Wt.: 220.
Drafted: Louisiana State, 2001 (1st round supplemental).
Signed by: Tom Koronek.
Background: Linden was the Pacific-10 Conference batting champion and the Cape Cod League�s top prospect in 2000, then led Louisiana State in home runs after transferring in 2001. He has moved rapidly through the system since signing late in 2001, when he negotiated his own signing bonus after a needlessly protracted holdout.
Strengths: Linden has good raw power and projects to hit 30 homers in the major leagues. He generally holds his own against lefthanded pitching. Though he�s a bit bulkier than when he signed, he still has good athletic ability, runs well for his size and has an average throwing arm.
Weaknesses: One club official summed up Linden�s offensive plan thusly: �He swings very hard in case he hits it.� That wild approach was exploited by Triple-A pitchers. His high leg- kick swing can get out of sync in a hurry, leading to slumps and strikeouts.
The Future: The free-agent signing of Michael Tucker and the re-signing of Jeffrey Hammonds throw two more obstacles in Linden�s way to San Francisco. He�ll likely return to Triple-A Fresno for 2004.
6. Kevin Correia, rhp
Age: 23. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-3. Wt.: 200.
Drafted: Cal Poly, 2002 (4th round).
Signed by: Lee Carballo.
Background: Big league injuries and his good command made Correia the first player from the 2002 draft to reach the majors. He didn�t even play baseball while at Grossmont (Calif.) JC in 1999, but transferred to Cal Poly and was its top pitcher in 2001 and 2002.
Strengths: A good athlete, Correia throws strikes with three average pitches. His fastball usually sits in the 88-92 mph range, and he has good sink on his fastball and changeup when he�s going right. His slider has fringe average movement, but he usually throws it where he wants it. He�s aggressive and fearless.
Weaknesses: Correia doesn�t have a plus pitch, and unless he develops one he�s destined for the back of the rotation or the bullpen. His relative inexperience shows with inconsistent mechanics, which lead to him leaving his fastball and slider up in the zone.
The Future: Correia will come to spring training with a chance to become the No. 5 starter. If he doesn�t, he could return to Fresno to start or stick in San Francisco as a middle reliever.
7. Travis Ishikawa, 1b
Age: 20. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 6-3. Wt.: 190.
Drafted: HS�Federal Way, Wash., 2002 (21st round).
Signed by: Matt Woodward.
Background: The Giants weren�t sure if Ishikawa was ready for a full-season league in 2003 but decided to send him to low Class A rather than keep him in extended spring training. After many strikeouts and struggles, he matched his regular-season output with an organization-record six homers in 60 instructional league at-bats in the fall.
Strengths: Ishikawa received a $955,000 signing bonus because the Giants believe in his bat. He has a smooth lefthanded swing that remind some in the organization of John Olerud, and he has more raw power. A high school wide receiver, Ishikawa has good actions around the bag at first base.
Weaknesses: Ishikawa was overmatched in low Class A, leading to some confidence problems. He didn�t have a consistent approach at the plate, leading to hot and cold streaks. He took some of his bad at-bats into the field, helping account for 16 errors.
The Future: Ishikawa needs to re-establish his confidence back at Hagerstown. He�s off the fast track, but not off the radar, with a San Francisco ETA of late 2006.
8. Craig Whitaker, rhp
Age: 19. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-4. Wt.: 170.
Drafted: HS�Lufkin, Texas, 2003 (1st round supplemental).
Signed by: Tom Koronek.
Background: Whitaker catapulted into the first round of the 2003 draft with an April no-hitter that featured 14 strikeouts and concluded with a mid-90s fastball. He signed for $975,000, eschewing a scholarship offer from Texas A&M.
Strengths: Whitaker isn�t quite a classic Texas fireballer, but while he lacks the sturdy build of the Nolan Ryan/Roger Clemens/Kerry Wood/Josh Beckett lineage, he has the electric fastball. Long, lithe and lanky, he pumps easy mid-90s heat with a quick arm action. His curveball has as much potential as his fastball. When he stays on top of it, it�s a potential 70 pitch on the 20-80 scouting scale, with excellent power and depth.
Weaknesses: �Raw as rain,� in the words of one Giants staffer, Whitaker has a lot to learn about the craft of pitching. He has to be more consistent with his delivery to avoid the elbow pain that sidelined him after just five innings of Rookie ball. His changeup needs work.
The Future: Whitaker is behind Matt Cain at a similar stage of their careers, but his ceiling is just as high. If he has a strong, healthy spring training, he could start 2004 in low Class A. More likely, he�ll go to extended spring before heading to short-season Salem-Keizer.
9. Fred Lewis, of
Age: 23. B-T: L-R. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 190.
Drafted: Southern, 2002 (2nd round).
Signed by: Tom Koronek.
Background: Lewis remains one of the organization�s more raw players, owing to his playing more football than baseball at Mississippi Gulf Coast JC. He spent one year at Southern and made as much progress between instructional league in 2002 and 2003 as any Giants farmhand.
Strengths: The fastest runner in the system, Lewis� speed rates a 65 on the 20-80 scouting scale. He worked extensively with former Giants outfielder Darren Lewis (no relation) to improve his reads and jumps in the outfield and to become a better baserunner. Club officials say Lewis� 2003 numbers don�t do justice to the juice in his bat and his good raw power. He earns comparisons to former all-star Devon White.
Weaknesses: Lewis drew a good number of walks in his first full season, but the Giants say that happened by accident. His inexperience leaves him with little feel for the strike zone, which is why his raw power hasn�t translated into game power yet. He has work to do turning his speed into stolen bases and making more consistent contact.
The Future: Lewis needs time to mature physically and emotionally. He�ll move up to high Class A in 2004 and could be ready by mid-2006.
10. Brian Buscher, 3b
Age: 22. B-T: L-R. Ht.: 6-0. Wt.: 201.
Drafted: South Carolina, 2003 (3rd round).
Signed by: Lee Elder.
Background: Buscher comes from a baseball family, as his father, uncle and brother all played professionally. Brian was drafted twice and starred at Central Florida CC before transferring to South Carolina. He helped lead the Gamecocks to back-to-back College World Series trips and won the 2003 Southeastern Conference batting title at .393.
Strengths: Buscher has a consistent approach at the plate, using a short swing to hit line drives from gap to gap. He doesn�t give away at-bats, is hard to strike out and is always taking extra swings in the cage. Defensively, he�s reliable at third base with an accurate arm.
Weaknesses: Buscher didn�t hit for power in his pro debut because he doesn�t pull the ball well right now. Down the line he projects to hit 10-15 homers annually. He doesn�t run particularly well.
The Future: Buscher could move quickly if he starts turning on balls and showing more pop. The Giants, who see him as a lefthanded-hitting Joe Randa, already have challenged him by starting his pro career in low Class A. He could begin 2004 in Double-A with a strong showing in spring training.