This is the fifth in a series of six articles reviewing the minor-league season in the SF Giants system. Today we continue with the Richmond Flying Squirrels, the longtime Giants' Double-A affiliate now in the Double-A Northeast League . Previous reviews covered the Dominican Summer League, Arizona Complex League, San Jose Giants and Eugene Emeralds.
Just two short steps from the Majors, Double-A baseball is a unique experience where prospects rising through the system can almost taste The Show (many players, such as Pablo Sandoval, have skipped Triple-A, going straight from Double-A to their MLB debut), older players who dominated at lower levels are levelling out and most of the players with Major League experience are on rehabilitation assignments, rather than serving as depth options as happens in Triple-A.
Since 2010, many difference-makers for the SF Giants have suited up for the Richmond Flying Squirrels, who moved from Norwich, Connecticut, after 2009. Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, Joe Panik, Tyler Rogers and Logan Webb have made stops in Richmond, Virginia, on their way up to the big leagues, with Matt Cain and Jeff Samardzija, among others, making rehab starts for the team.
After a 2020 season canceled by the coronavirus pandemic, the 11th edition of the Flying Squrrels took the field at The Diamond in Richmond in 2021 - this time as members of the Double-A Northeast League's Southwest Division. Previously members of the Eastern League, the Flying Squirrels ended a run of four consecutive sub-.500 finishes with a 57-56 campaign under manager Jose Alguacil, the former first-base coach for the Giants.
The team finished fourth in their division, missing the playoffs
Despite a season where they ran 13 games out of first place and 12.5 out of a playoff spot, the Flying Squirrels put good performances and top Giants prospects on the field. Outfielder Heliot Ramos, the Giants' #4 prospect according to MLBPipeline.com, began the season with the team and stayed until a mid-July promotion to Triple-A. Ramos batted just .237 but took his fair share of walks and bashed 10 home runs in 62 games.
The best offensive season came from the team's home run leader, third-baseman David Villar. The 2018 11th-round draft pick out of South Florida hit .275/.374/.506 with 20 round trippers and 58 RBI. Outfielder Diego Rincones raked with .290 average and 10 homers in 51 games after a promotion from High-A Eugene, but #15 prospect Will Wilson, an infielder, struggled with a .189 batting average and five home runs in 51 games following a decent first-half stretch with Eugene
The top starting pitcher for Richmond, at least until his trade to the Cubs as part of the package for Kris Bryant, was Caleb Killian. The right-hander put up a 2.43 ERA in 11 starts, with 64 strikeouts and eight walks in 63 innings pitched. Sean Hjelle, the 6-foot-11 righty and #13 on the Giants' top-30 prospects, made 14 starts before a promotion to Triple-A and struck out 69 batters in 65 2/3 innings with a 3.15 ERA.
Left-handed pitcher Sammy Long began the season with Richmond, whiffing 22 in 15 innings over four starts to earn a bump up to Triple-A; just over a month after the start of the MiLB season he was in the Major Leagues with the Giants and impressing many with a swingman role.
Out of the bullpen, Norwith Gudino shut down games in May and June - going five-for-five in save opportunities with a 1.44 ERA in 17 games - to earn a job with Triple-A Sacramento. In his absence, Patrick Ruotolo stepped in and saved 11 games in 14 chances with a 2.68 ERA, striking out 50 against just five walks in 37 innings. Ronnie Williams, Matt Seelinger, Joey Marciano, Frank Rubio, Jose Marte and R.J. Dabovich also turned in ERAs below 4.00 in double-digit relief appearances.
Some of these players are sure to repeat Double-A with Richmond next year in hopes of gaining more consistency to reach the Major Leagues. With the addition of plenty of talent coming from the Single-A level, Richmond is shaping up to be a strong contender for the league title in 2022.