Marc Delucchi kicks off Around the Foghorn’s SF Giants prospect week with an essay on the state of the organization’s farm system.
Since Farhan Zaidi was hired as the SF Giants president of baseball operations, the organization has turned its stock around. Aging veterans like Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford found resurgent success in 2020, while Zaidi has acquired players like Donovan Solano, Sam Selman, and Mike Yastrzemski that could contribute to a contending team. Still, the franchise is searching for star power. Without making a blockbuster move, Zaidi has forced Giants fans to look to the minors for the next face of the franchise.
Given recent developments, that’s not as bad a bet as it was just a few years prior. In fact, heading into this season, the farm system is stronger than it ever was over the past ten years. There’s an argument to go back even further. While I have only been writing about Giants’ prospects for the past two years, I’ve been quite familiar with the organization’s prospects since their top-ten list included players like Marcus Sanders, Eddy Martinez-Esteve, Fred Lewis, and Craig Whittaker. Having followed this system so closely for so long, it’s easy to see how much deeper this organization is now than it was at any point in at least the past two decades.
SF Giants Farm System Concern: Where’s the Pitching?
Before I dive into why I’m so high on the Giants farm, it’s fair to address the obvious weakness: starting pitching. Some industry sources believe there are no mid-rotation starters or better in the system right now. The Giants have gone in a unique direction at the minor and major-league level with pitching acquisition, clearly targeting secondary offerings over fastball velocity. That’s played a role in the dearth of big-time pitching prospects, but the bigger cause is much more straightforward.
The Giants have not used a first-round pick on a pitcher since they selected Phil Bickford in 2015. Before the signing of Esmerlin Vinicio in the 2019-20 IFA cycle, the system had not signed a highly-regarded pitcher internationally either. While plenty of prospects emerge from unexpected places, the best place to get high-upside talent remains at the top of the draft and international free agency. The Giants prioritized hitting, and their system has paid the price.
It’s hard to know if that’s a franchise dogma, a la the Cubs under Theo Epstein, or just a side-effect of their individual evaluations. Regardless, the Giants have added several pitchers, especially in the middle rounds of the draft. As the organization has prioritized player development and emphasized techniques like those popularized at Driveline Baseball, they remain confident that they’ll emerge with some strong starters in a couple of years that few see coming. The jury is still out on that.
State of the SF Giants Farm System: Stars vs. Starters
The top prospects like Joey Bart, Marco Luciano, Heliot Ramos, and Luis Matos will rightfully garner the most headlines and attention from fans, but that’s not unprecedented. From 2009-2010, Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey ranked among Baseball America’s top 14 prospects in baseball, with four other prospects in the organization ranking among BA’s top-100 over that span. The difference is at every level below the top.
For most of my lifetime, every top-31 Giants prospect ranking was filled with mid-twenties performers, pitchability starters with limited upside, and multiple relievers without elite stuff. Prospects with those profiles obviously have value, but they tended to get far more attention than they deserved in the Giants system because of how thin the rest of the organization was.
At this point, the back half of any Giants top-31 prospect list can stand on its own against most other teams’. At certain positions, like catcher and throughout the outfield, the Giants have an embarrassment of riches from the MLB level through the lowest levels of the minors that stack up against, and might even exceed, every other organization in the league.
Of course, the improved depth won’t change the biggest issue for the MLB roster. The Giants’ top 31 prospects this year will probably have more MLB contributors than their top 31 in 2010* when only three players ever had significant playing time with the Giants, but those three players were Posey, Bumgarner, and Crawford. One star can erase a sea of busts. Ultimately, the Giants’ future rests on developing that caliber of player. Barring a surprise, that puts pressure on players like Luciano and Bart. If either one of them reaches their ceiling, we could very easily look back at this farm system like that 2010 group.
SF Giants Prospect Development: Who Deserves Credit?
While Zaidi has been in charge as the system has evolved from a leaguewide laughing stock to sleeper, almost all of the top prospect talent was acquired under Bobby Evans. In fact, in the year prior to his firing, Evans had invested heavily in expanding the Giants player development apparatus in many ways that Zaidi would continue once he took charge. Bart, Ramos, Luciano, Matos, Gregory Santos, Luis Toribio, Seth Corry, and many other top prospects in the system were all acquired during Evans’ tenure.
Giants fans have been quick to give Zaidi credit for the system’s transformation, but he probably deserves a different type of praise. He recognized what the organization was already doing well and only made supplemental changes upon his hiring. While John Barr is no longer the team’s scouting director, Michael Holmes made sure to reach out to him as soon as he was hired and has kept Barr involved in the team’s amateur draft process. Kyle Haines, who Zaidi tagged as his farm director, was already quickly rising through the Giants’ organizational ranks under Evans. International scouting director Joe Salermo was hired by Evans as well.
It’s undeniable that Zaidi’s regime has emphasized different things in development. The player development coaching staff has seen much more turnover than their player acquisition counterparts. Thus far, that has been a recipe for success.
SF Giants International Prospects Driving Shift
It’s easy to point to better quality drafting as the cause of the Giants’ prospect surge. Indeed, the rise of Ramos, Corry, and Bart has obviously helped the system’s standing. However, it has been a transformation internationally that has been far more impactful.
For those familiar with the Giants system, international free agency rarely netted impact prospects for the organization. It wasn’t a side-effect of cheapness or lack of effort. The Giants signed a number of the top international prospects to big bonuses, but none ever materialized. Except for Sandoval, the Giants have had zero homegrown international players play everyday roles on the roster in the past decade.
That seems to have changed. In the 2015-16 cycle, the Giants signed Lucius Fox (who was later sent to the Rays in the Matt Moore trade) with a signing bonus that topped $6 million and added Diego Rincones, Ricardo Genoves, and Kervin Castro. Both Genoves and Castro rank among the system’s top 31 prospects, and Castro is currently competing in big-league camp.
As a side-effect of Fox’s signing bonus, the Giants were prevented from signing any international prospects for more than $300,000 signing bonus for the following two years. Yet, even with those restrictions, the international staff still managed to ink Toribio, Alexander Canario, Yorlis Rodriguez, and Juan Sanchez. Toribio and Canario have legitimate everyday upside while Rodriguez and Sanchez remain intriguing players to watch.
All of that work set the stage for the Giants 2018-19 class. Less than three years after the signing period first opened, the organization’s group of signings has already shown the potential to end up one of the best classes in MLB history. Highlighted by the trio of Luciano, Matos, and Jairo Pomares, all three performed exceptionally in their professional debuts. In my rankings, Luciano and Matos already rank among the 40 best prospects in baseball, while Pomares ranks in the Giants’ top 31.
Yet that wasn’t all. Unheralded players like Rayner Santana and Victor Bericoto both made impressions of their own in 2019. Santana already ranks among the organization’s top 31, and Bericoto is another teenager to watch this year.
If the Giants are going to maintain a sustainably strong farm system, they will need to consistently find good players internationally. The 2018-19 class will probably be impossible to replicate. Still, the fact that they’ve found prospects like Genoves, Castro, Canario, and Toribio in other years as well suggests they have built the scouting infrastructure for more sustainable international success.
SF Giants Farm System Stock: Up
The loss of the 2020 minor-league season was a major blow for every MLB organization. However, the Giants have a disproportionate amount of their future resting on developing their internal prospects, which means whatever the long-term effects of last year’s cancellation are, they will disproportionately impact San Francisco.
I’ve been bullish on the Giants farm system for some time. Heading into last year, I believed the Giants were primed for a number of major breakouts that would push their system into most top-five organizational prospect rankings. The reports from Instructs on the limited number of players seemed to bear that out to a limited extent. Still, it’s hard to know without the scale of a full minor-league season. If we get that in 2021, it should give rise to some of the most exciting minor-league teams in Giants history.