The San Francisco Giants’s Most Intriguing Minor League Signings
Keeping up with the Holiday’s we are going to do a San Francisco Giants themed “Twelve Days of Christmas.” This series will include everything from wishes, to reflections, historical remembrances. Enjoy!
On the Fourth day of Christmas, we examine the most intriguing minor league contract signings of the San Francisco Giants offseason.
Lost in the media coverage of the league’s marquee free agents are the plethora of ballplayers who sign minor-league contracts on a daily basis. Every offseason, teams reach agreements with hundreds of players, hoping to find the diamond in the rough who can produce at the major league level. In recent years, the San Francisco Giants have established a track record of finding unrecognized talent in players such as Andres Torres and Gregor Blanco. While the signing of Mark Melancon has undoubtedly been the storyline of San Francisco’s offseason, the front office has been proactive in signing players who have flown under the radar.
San Francisco’s first official move of the offseason was re-signing Kyle Blanks to another minor-league contract, who missed all of last season due to injury. In 933 career plate appearances, Blanks has totaled 33 home runs and 111 RBIs with a slash line of .241/.322/.416 and a career WAR of 3.6, yet to play more than 90 games in a single season.
Standing at 6’6” and weighing in at 265 pounds, Blanks embodies what it means to be a Giant. The San Diego Padres drafted Blanks in the 42nd round, but the towering first-baseman quickly rose through the ranks of the farm system, turning heads after only his first full seasons in the minor leagues. Baseball America declared Blanks the No. 1 prospect in San Diego’s system after a 2008 season in which he slugged 20 home runs with a slash line of .325/.404/.514. Blanks was on his way to becoming a star, the perfect bat to place in the lineup alongside another young star on San Diego’s roster by the name of Adrian Gonzalez. Just when the sky appeared to be the limit, the injury bug derailed his career.
San Diego called up Blanks in 2009, and he lived up the hype, complementing an .869 OPS with ten long balls, but his season was cut short due to a tear in his right plantar fascia. That damage in his foot foreshadowed the ongoing battle between Blanks and his body, as in subsequent years, the once-budding superstar would fall victim to a right elbow injury, a left shoulder injury, a left and right Achilles injury, a left calf injury, and a cyst.
For all the bad luck Blanks has endured throughout nearly his entire career, he’ll still have the opportunity to battle for a shot at the major league roster this upcoming spring because of what he can bring to the table. He has a career 108 OPS+ in the majors and a track record of putting up big numbers in the minors while walking at an above-average clip. In addition to the pop in his bat, Blanks can play both first base and left field.
Bruce Bochy won’t start Blanks over Belt or Williamson/Parker at their respective positions, but having the 30-year-old on the roster provides the Giants with a much-needed power threat off the bench. Bochy likely would have selected Blanks for Ehire Adrianza last season if he remained healthy, and he may just claim a final spot this season with a solid spring.
A fellow minor-league free agent signing who the Giants recently added to the 40-man roster is Orlando Calixte, a shortstop out of the Dominican Republic who originally signed with the Kansas City Royals at 18. Calixte spent the last three seasons in the Royals’ farm system. He had his cup of coffee with the big league club in 2015, appearing in only two games with three trips to the plate. He spent last season in both Double-A and Triple-A, more so with the latter, posting a slash line of 274/.324/.420.
Despite his slender frame, weighing in at around 180 pounds, Calixte has slightly above-average power, racking up 11 home runs in both 2014 and 2016, as well as 8 in 2015. Calixte is a threat on the basepaths as well, swiping 41 in the past two seasons at both the Double-A and Triple-A level. The shortstop accompanies his offensive tools with an excellent glove, arm, and range. On the big league roster, Bochy would likely place him in a super-sub role, as he has played in the outfield during his time in the minors as well.
Calixte game is not without its weaknesses, as he will need to improve at the plate, most notably his discipline. Average wise, he has not hit exceptionally well and has a concerningly high strikeout rate and low walk rate, but he showed signs of improvement, striking out less and walking more while setting his minor league career-highs in both batting average and on-base percentage in 2016. He struggles with off-speed pitches, which constrains his possible upside.
While on the subject of middle infielders, San Francisco re-upped on Ali Castillo after a solid 2016 campaign at the plate. After slowly moving up the New York Yankees’ farm system for six years, San Francisco picked up the light-hitting stop on a minor-league deal last season. Castillo had success at both the Double-A and Triple-A level, posting a slash line of .313/.351/.374 in 411 PAs.
Standing at 5’10” and 165 pounds soaking wet, Castillo isn’t known for the pop in his bat, but by his excellent glove. The shortstop has had the best glove in New York’s farm system for some years and can swipe his fair share of bases given a chance. In 2013, Castillo was the MVP of the Eastern League Playoffs for the Trenton Thunder, leading the squad to a 6-0 postseason and championship.
Shifting away from position players, the Giants reached an agreement with a former elite starting pitcher in Josh Johnson. From 2009 to 2012, the two-time All-Star was the foundation of the Florida/Miami Marlins starting rotation, posting a 2.99 ERA in 101 starts with a K/9 of 8.4 during that span.
In 2010, Johnson had a strong case for the Cy Young Award, leading the league in ERA, ERA+, and FIP while allowing a league-low 0.3 HR/9. During the All-Star game of that year, he pitched two perfect innings, striking out Derek Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki in the process. Injuries have plagued Johnson’s career, and since 2011, Johnson has only been healthy for one season, undergone three Tommy John surgeries in that span, and has not appeared in a major league game since 2013 with the Toronto Blue Jays.
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San Francisco’s signing of Johnson has no risk, and while improbable, it it not outside the realm of possibility for Johnson to display bits and pieces every now and again of his former self. Johnson relied heavily on his fastball in his prime, which sat around 94 and 95, but at this stage in his career, Johnson will have to rely on control along with his once deadly slider and changeup.
Johnson most likely won’t see a major league roster in 2017, but another former Marlin in Bryan Morris. The right-hander has been a reliable reliever for both the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Miami Marlins in the past couple of seasons, posting a 2.80 ERA as well as an eye-opening 58.5% ground-ball rate, which helps mask mediocre strikeout and walk rates.
Before the right-hander’s 2016 season was cut short due to a season-ending back injury, he had a 3.06 ERA and struggled with giving up both walks and home runs. At 30, Morris still innings left in his arm and is a solid low-cost signing, giving Bochy a little more depth for his bullpen. His minor-league contract included an invitation to Spring Training, and a string of nice outings may land him on San Francisco’s Opening Day roster. His pitching style of inducing ground balls is perfect for San Francisco’s infield.
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