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Prospect Park: Eleven to watch in ’11

April 27, 2011

First off, let us apologize for the title.  So cliched, we admit.  Not taking it back, though.

There have, as always, been plenty of “top prospect” lists and prospect rankings floating around the various corners of the internet since Spring Training.  We thought we’d do things maybe just a bit differently and put together a list of prospects on the verge.  These are guys who we think are poised for a break out year of one type or another, which doesn’t necessarily mean they’re our “best” prospects (though they’re all well regarded and hardly sleepers for the most part).  These are, however, the guys we think are ones to keep an eye on for some exciting developments this year.

As is the case this time of year, the typical warnings of small sample size apply in many cases.  Your mileage may vary.  Check with your physician before beginning any exercise program.  Please keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.

And we’re off!

Gary Brown
We like vroom, and Brown’s got it.  The Giants’ first round pick last year, Brown is going in to his first full professional season with the kind of flair that could have him advancing through the minors as fast as he moves around the bases.  With 15 stolen bases in the first 18 games of the season and seven walks to the tune of a .420 OBP, Brown has the makings of a lead off man of the future.  He hasn’t been hitting for much power, but it is also pretty hard to argue with a three-run inside the park home run.

Justin Fitzgerald
We do admit to Britt having a biased fondness for Fitz as a former UC Davis Aggie, but it’s also hard to argue with his stuff.  With a 1.88 ERA in his first three starts, he’s got our attention.  Seven walks over 14.1 IP is something we’d like to see go down, and we’d like to see his K rate go up a bit, but the good news is that he’s holding opponents to soft contact and hasn’t given up a HR yet this season.  One thing we like is his durability, with similar numbers over the past two seasons despite a significant increase in IP.  A good season this year can move his stock up to compete with rotation mate Eric Surkamp.  And on that note…

Eric Surkamp
Probably the most compelling thing about Surkamp is his K/BB and K/9 (and his fanclub).  The kid can deal, to the tune of 11 K/9 and 4.34 K/BB career and 14.2 K/9 and 2.63 K/BB in this young season so far.  He’s got a wicked change and curve in his arsenal, which we imagine is helping out the K rate.  He had to miss some time last year with a hip injury, but he does seem by all accounts to be rehabbed successfully.  His velocity on his fastball is the missing link here, and if he can bring that up just slightly he could very well move definitively ahead of Zack Wheeler as our pitcher of the future.

Zack Wheeler
Wheeler is one of the most touted prospects in the system and so far at San Jose this year he is proving that’s deserved.  He’s yet another one with an impressive K/9, and his high velocity fastball is likely to be a good compliment to Surkamp’s breaking ball finesse in the big show’s rotation in years to come.  He’s young still, so look to see how he handles the increase in IP he’s likely to see and the Cal League’s hitters’ ability to make adjustments to his pitching.

Brandon Crawford
For Crawford this season could well be more “make or break” than it is “break out”.  At 24 he is, terrifyingly by our perspective, nearing his sell-by date as a prospect.  The good news is that he’s been defensively ready for the bigs for some time now.  The bad news is that his offense has been rough, no doubt aided by a broken hand last summer and now a broken finger this spring.  If he can stay healthy and can pick up his offensive production by even just a small margin, he’s the likely successor to Miguel Tejada.  If not, he runs the risk of losing that spot to an outside player.  He’s a big favorite around these parts, so we’re very much hoping he does well in Fresno this year once he’s back from his broken finger.

Thomas Neal
Already a Twitter favorite, Neal is another one who is waiting to put all the pieces together to make things happen for himself.  There’s less of a ticking clock for him than for Crawford with the OF crunch the big club is currently dealing with (and looks to potentially be dealing with down the line).  We’d like to see more power manifest itself at the plate, but we like his range and versatility defensively.  If he can have a strong year at the plate, he could potentially find a way to force his way into the roster next season.

Charlie Culberson
With a talented second baseman already on the roster, there are questions about whether Culberson’s prospects internally are particularly strong.  The potential X factor there is the long term durability of Freddy Sanchez.  Don’t get us wrong, we love Freddy and wish him the best, but his shoulder is a continual concern and we do have to wonder just how long it will hold up with every day play.  Culberson is off to a strong start with a .284 average, but his OBP of .299 and SLG of .378 leave something to be desired.  If he can increase his OBP, he’s a good potential front of the order hitter with a solid glove that could potentially find himself on the roster either to replace someone like Mark DeRosa or Mike Fontenot or even, at the outside, Freddy Sanchez.

Heath Hembree
You want a new closer?  You’ve got a new closer potentially right here.  Hembree has good velocity and strong strike out stuff, retiring 13 of 33 batters faced thus far at San Jose while allowing only one run.  This is over 7.0IP, so the small sample size cautions are particularly strong in this case, but given the durability of closers and the youth of Hembree, it’s nice to see the potential for not just strong starting arms, but a legitimate set-up man/closer profile in the system.

Francisco Peguero
“Toolsy” is a description floated about Peguero frequently, and it seems accurate from all that we’ve seen and read.  He’s seen time at all three outfield spots, though primarily in RF and CF, and has a solid batting profile that could put him as an Andres Torres style quick outfielder/front of the order hitter.  The question with Peguero is how quickly he’ll be able to come back from his off-season knee surgery that is scheduled to keep him out until at least May.  Peguero has seen several seasons in the system already and has yet to advance beyond San Jose, but he’s young enough still that that alone isn’t cause for concern.  A lingering knee injury may prove to be.

Roger Kieschnick
We have to admit, the first time we heard Kieschnick’s name during Spring Training the reaction from both of us was “who?”, but we’ve liked what we’ve seen of his offense.  We’re wondering if he won’t end up traded to an AL team to be used as a DH, as that seems to be someplace he’s comfortable, but by all accounts his OF defense isn’t objectionable at all.  Still, we have to wonder where the place for him may prove to be.  A strong season this year could put him on the map enough to force himself towards the front of the pack of the OF competition.

Ryan Verdugo
Verdugo, who already has the pretty excellent nickname of “Dizzy” thanks to Bochy himself, has proven to be much more consistent thus far this season than we initially expected. In the past he’s been your typical high strike out, high walk lefty reliever with nasty stuff. That was enough to make him a favorite of Maiya’s. Oh, priorities! Now though, he’s starting, and has walked only 2 people in 16.1 innings to give him an 8.00 K/BB. The chance of him keeping his walk rate that low is nearly non-existent, but as that rises his strike outs should as well. As he’s already 24, and has been bouncing around various levels of A ball for the past few years, Verdugo needs to pull things together as a starter this season and turn some heads. His best case scenario is probably a Jonathan Sanchez-esque line, which would certainly be enough to raise his stock and move him up through the system.

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