This is the third in a series of six articles reviewing the minor-league season in the SF Giants system. Today we continue with the lowest full-season team - the San Jose Giants, part of the Low-A West League. Check out previous reviews of the Dominican Summer League and Arizona Complex League seasons.
From 1988 through 2019, the San Jose Giants served as the High-A California League affiliate of the SF Giants. After Major League Baseball's downsizing of the minor leagues, San Jose remained a Giants affiliate and faced most of the same teams they had before, but they saw minor changes to the league as well as a different result at the end of the campaign.
The San Jose Giants finished just short of the North Division title
After over a decade without hoisting the California League Championship Trophy, the new version of the SF Giants' Low-A affiliate wasted no time in putting together a solid season. They scored 706 runs and allowed 516 in 120 games - coming in second-best in the division in both categories (the Modesto Nuts scored 722; the Fresno Grizzlies allowed 506).
In the end, the Giants finished with a 76-44 record - just one-half game behind a division-winning Fresno squad that played five fewer games thanks to coronavirus cancellations. San Jose actually had a better expected record than Fresno, with a run differential of +190 (expected 77-43 record) showing the Giants underperformed by a game while the Grizzlies, at +129 (expected 69-46 record), out-performed their expectation by five games.
The run differential proved prophetic in the playoffs
In the first year after the MiLB re-organization and coronavirus-canceled 2020 season, MLB dictated that full-season levels below Triple-A would play one playoff series for the league championship, with the two best records getting in - regardless of division alignment. That worked in San Jose's favor, as they finished with the second-best mark in the Low-A West by a comfortable margin: the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, affiliated with the Los Angeles Dodgers, beat up on a weak South division to the tune of a 67-53 record and missed the playoffs.
That meant it was Fresno against San Jose for the Low-A West title - a matchup with a lot of Giants history. Fresno, with the "Lil Giants", was the original California League affiliate for the SF Giants when they moved west in 1958, holding the affiliation until the end of the 1987 season at which it passed to San Jose. When affiliated pro baseball returned to Fresno in 1998, it was as the new Triple-A team for San Francisco, a partnership that lasted through 2014.
The best-of-five championship series was taken swiftly by San Jose. In the first game, played at Fresno's Chukchansi Park, the Giants plated singled runs in the first, fourth and seventh innings to back a strong start by left-hander Kyle Harrison: 6 1/3 innings pitched, four hits, one run, one walk and six strikeouts.
The 3-1 win was followed by a late comeback in Game Two. Trailing, 2-1, in the top of the seventh, Jimmy Glowenke and Patrick Bailey went yard for solo shots (for Bailey, the second in the game) for the lead. Yorlis Rodriguez added insurance with a home run in the eighth and San Jose took a 4-2 victory for a 2-0 series lead.
After an eventful first inning (San Jose taking a 3-2 lead after one frame) in Game Three, things settled down and stayed close until the late innings. A run in the home half of the fifth added to the Giants' lead, and the hosts broke things open with solo shots by Grant McCray in the seventh and Luis Matos in the eighth, followed by a Rodriguez run-scoring double later in the eighth, to put the finishing touches on San Jose's title.
Success in San Jose has historically been a good omen for the big club's future
The league title was the first for San Jose in over a decade. The 2010 club was the most recent to claim the trophy, following 2009's championship for a back-to-back feat. The 2005 and 2007 squads also won the California League. Many of the SF Giants' core performers and supporting players in their 2010-2014 dynasty were regulars on San Jose title teams, including Brandon Belt, Ehire Adrianza and Juan Perez in 2010, Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, Brandon Crawford and Conor Gillaspie on an outstanding 2009 team that went 96-44, Sergio Romo, Pablo Sandoval, Travis Ishikawa and Emmanuel Burris in 2005 and Ishikawa, Nate Schierholtz and John Bowker in 2005.
San Jose also won championships in 1998 and 2001, leading up to the only consecutive playoff appearances in San Francisco history (2002-03).
Many of the SF Giants' expected future core players played in San Jose in 2021
Fully half of MLBPipeline.com's SF Giants top-10 prospects took part in San Jose's championship season, with a handful more of the top-30 also spending time in Low-A.
The offense was led by four top-10 bats who spent at least part of the season in the Silicon Valley, the most notable being top prospect (and #5 in all of baseball) Marco Luciano. The Dominican Republic native was 19 while with San Jose, and he held his own at .278/.373/.556 with 18 home runs in 70 games played. Jairo Pomares, who checks in at #9 in the system, put up eye-popping stats in his 51 games with a .372/.429/.693 slash line, 22 doubles and 14 homers.
The #3 prospect, Luis Matos, was in San Jose for the full season, smashing 35 doubles and 15 round trippers with a .313 average, while also stealing 21 bases. Patrick Bailey, the SF Giants' first-round draft choice in 2020 and their eighth-best prospect, spent the second half of the season at Excite Ballpark, hitting .322 with 16 doubles and seven home runs in just 47 games, which helped recover some of his prospect luster after a rough start to his pro career at High-A Eugene.
Other notable players with a chunk of time in San Jose in 2021 included Ricardo Genoves (#18 prospect, .338 with six homers in 38 games), Brett Auerbach (#30, a utility man and 2020 undrafted free agent who batted .342 with 12 steals in 34 games to earn a promotion), #14 Luis Toribio, #17 Casey Schmitt and #26 Grant McCray.
On the pitching side, the top two hurlers on the SF Giants farm were with San Jose for varying lengths of time. Kyle Harrison, the lefty-tossing #5 prospect, was the team's ace with a 3.19 ERA and 157 strikeouts with just three home runs allowed in 98 2/3 innings pitched. The newest first-round selection, #7 prospect Will Bednar, was in town for two starts in his pro debut season.
Another left-hander, Nick Swiney, helped establish his #16 ranking with seven dominant starts. Swiney struck out 42 and walked 12 while giving up just two earned runs in 24 1/3 innings.
Ryan Murphy, a righty, came in at #21 on the MLB Pipeline list with a 4-2 record and 2.96 ERA in 15 starts before a promotion to Eugene. He whiffed 116 and walked just 18 in 76 innings pitched. Prelander Berroa (#23) and Carson Ragsdale (#25) tied for the team lead in starts with 24; Berroa K'd 135 in just short of 100 innings while Ragsdale paced the league with 167 strikeouts (San Jose, in fact, had the four best pitchers in the Low-A West in total strikeouts, and six of the top 11).
Out of the bullpen, Randy Rodriguez evoked comparisons to SF Giants rookie relievers Kervin Castro, Gregory Santos and Camilo Doval with a 1.74 ERA and a whopping 101 strikeouts in just 62 innings over 32 appearances.
A lot of talent came through San Jose in 2021, giving fans a glimpse of what could be the next wave of talent heading to the shores of McCovey Cove.