By Michelle Dingley
The first batch of September call-ups were announced on Friday: SS Brandon Crawford, INF Emmanuel Burriss, OF Darren Ford, 3B Conor Gillaspie and P Waldis Joaquin. All have spent some time with the big-league club this season, with the exception of Joaquin, who pitched with San Francisco in 2009 and 2010.
September is the one month of the year when it doesn’t matter how deeply the overvaluing of veterans is entrenched in the organization. This is the month where youth gets an opportunity to shine, or at least ride the bench with the big dogs. In a year when our veterans have been struggling mightily, the infusion of youth may be just what the doctor ordered. Just days ago, Brian Sabean, in his typical fashion, insulted most of our prospects, dismissing their value and ability to contribute at this level. When asked by sports columnist Tim Kawakami if he had considered bringing up prospects earlier in the season when the veterans were struggling, Sabean responded, “No, I mean, who were we going to turn to?” There was apparently no one in the farm system that he had faith in to perform in the majors. On Tuesday, Sabean was asked about Brett Pill, who was tearing up Triple-A. He said, “I think he’s got a base-hit swing, but how much damage within that swing he could provide, I’m not sure. If we all were sold with any of those guys [the top minor league prospects], they already would have been up here and trying to help us.” The day after this ambivalence, Pill’s contract was purchased and he showed up at AT&T Park. Apparently they found someone they could turn to after all.
Brandon Belt, the wunderkind who was rushed through the minors in one year and made San Francisco’s opening day roster, has been sent back down to Fresno multiple times. In the interview with Kawakami, Sabean called Belt “far from a finished product or an established major league player yet.” He remarked that the way Belt has been playing lately (5-for-29 with 11 strikeouts on this homestand) is “one of the reasons that he had to go back to the minor leagues.” Most – maybe all – of the Giants’ veterans have had similar stretches. Apparently when a veteran can’t get a hit to save his life, it’s just a little slump, but if someone who’s not yet proven is scuffling, he needs to get demoted. We’ll never know how the season would have gone if Belt had been up here for the whole year.
Brandon Crawford spent 50 games with the big-league team this season despite never previously playing in Triple-A. His glove was better than any other option we’ve had at short this season (probably the best in the last several seasons), but his downside was his bat: he had a .190 average when he got demoted. Sabean is concerned about his offense, and rightly so. Sabean seems to believe Crawford’s hitting will improve. He was quoted on the Giants’ official website, saying, “The more at-bats that he has against higher-level or better pitching, the faster he’s going to get straight mechanically and he’ll be a factor up here.” It seemed a bit insulting when Sabean said Crawford made it to the show “out of duress on our part. Did he earn his way? No.” Sure, Crawford was originally promoted because of injuries, but he remained on the team and got rather consistent playing time even when other players were available to take over at short. He earned his spot in the lineup. He was worth plenty when it comes to run prevention, even if his run production left something to be desired. Crawford proved himself to Bochy, even if he didn’t to Sabean.
Brian Sabean has definitively stated that future star Gary Brown will not be brought up this season. Sabean said on the Giants’ website, “I come from the old school. Years ago, before you went to the next level, you mastered the first level.” Currently in Class A-Advanced San Jose, Brown can’t do much more to prove he has mastered this level. He is getting the attention of Giants fans who don’t normally care about the farm system. The accolades are pouring in, seemingly more each day. In the past week, he was named California League Offensive Player of the Week, San Jose Giants Offensive Player of the Year, and California League Rookie of the Year. With his league-leading 177th hit, Brown broke the San Jose Giants’ single-season hits record set by Mark Leonard in 1988. He broke the record on August 29, with 7 games left in the regular season to add onto his impressive total. The speedster recently stole his 50th base. He is a fantastic player, but he is only in Single-A. Despite dashing our hopes that we might see Brown at AT&T this season, Sabean was complimentary to the young center fielder. “He’s certainly in our plans, probably sooner than we ever expected, but it won’t be this year,” Sabean told Kamakami. “In Brown’s case, yes, is he a speed factor, and is he going to be an above-average center fielder? He is. But he’s still learning how to hit, and it’s in the Cal League. It’s not at a higher level and it’s not certainly in the big leagues yet. We have to exercise patience with him.” He has also stated that Brown has “done exactly what he needed to do – put up a real big year, try to make him more ready when he gets moved up to whatever level.”
Brown is a very good player, but he is a bit green and has a few things to work on before getting to the majors. Though I am a big fan of his, I am not complaining that he isn’t on the expanded 40-man roster. The complaint is that Giants management has been inconsistent when it comes to who they promote and when, with the motivation mostly coming from big-league necessity and not the player’s ability. With Zito and Sanchez on the DL and Dan Runzler not pitching very well, the Giants needed a fifth starter. They turned to an unproven talent from Double-A, someone who had never even pitched in Spring Training: Eric Surkamp. Surkamp had not only never faced big-league bats, but neither Sabean nor Bochy had ever witnessed him throw. Despite his lack of experience, the Giants took a chance on him. He wasn’t perfect in his debut, but he was quite good – good enough to secure another start, which is something Runzler couldn’t do. Surkamp was easily our best starting pitcher prospect and he deserved the opportunity, but without the injuries, he wouldn’t have even been moved up to Triple-A. It brings to mind what Sabean had said about Crawford: his promotion to the bigs was “out of duress on our part. Did he earn his way? No.” Apparently our best pitcher in Double-A is worth taking a chance on in the majors, but our best hitter in Single-A doesn’t deserve to be moved up one level.
The movement of players up and down through the minors must be difficult to manage. Every player has his own timeline. Nonetheless, some of these guys seem to have been mishandled a bit. High on that list is Brandon Belt. After rushing Belt through the minors, management yo-yoed him up and down, not giving him a chance to get acclimated to the majors. Every time he struggled, he was sent down.
Hector Sanchez rose from San Jose all the way to top. Because of our need for a catcher who could hit after Buster’s injury, Sanchez was fast-tracked through the ranks. That didn’t seem necessary, since the Giants signed Max Ramirez, who has some big-league experience, to a Triple-A contract in June. The assumption was that Ramirez would be moved up to the bigs once his bat was up to par. He owns a .316 average with Fresno, but he’s batting .276 overall in the minors this season. Still, experience is what Sabean seems to value. He wants players to “[master] the first level” before getting moved up. Sanchez was rushed up before he has a chance to “master” anything. When Sanchez got his cup of coffee with San Francisco, he barely even got a chance to play, only having a handful of at-bats and catching a couple of innings. Why rush him up if he isn’t going to be used?
Gary Brown hasn’t moved at all. A quality defender with a good arm and tremendous speed, a batter who hits for average and has some power, Brown has spent the whole year in San Jose, watching Hector Sanchez and others get promoted. Brown easily could have been promoted to Double-A at some point in the year. If he struggled, he could have been sent back down. It’s unlikely his psyche is so fragile that he could not take that. He probably is still in San Jose because there are so many outfield prospects in line ahead of him. We really don’t need to fast-track a center fielder. Now that Thomas Neal has been traded, however, we have one less outfielder who’s almost ready for the show. Plus, you never know when you’ll need another bat, or at least a pinch-runner.
With the September call-ups coming in right on the heels of Aaron Rowand and Miguel Tejada’s departure, suddenly our team seems much younger. The Giants have always been more focused on veterans than youth, at least when it comes to position players. Hopefully Sabean and the others who make personnel decisions will re-evaluate this outlook in the offseason. We have a very good farm system, filled with quality arms and position players. We should take advantage of them. Some will be ready sooner, some later, but we can’t be afraid to see what they can do. Fans have seen what high-quality rookies can do for a team. They provide speed, energy and enthusiasm that is often lacking in a team heavily stocked with veterans. Look at Jemile Weeks of the A’s, Paul Goldschmidt of the D-backs, and basically the entire Astros team. Or you can just look back to last year, when our own Buster Posey was named Rookie of the Year.