Getting back to our review of the Giants minor league farm system, we find ourselves in the cool and crisp air of Connecticut. The Eastern League and Dodd Stadium — the home of the Defenders — has long had a well earned reputation of being a tough place to hit. The cold air, windy conditions, and field dimensions are often cited as reasons for the toughness.
The details of the strenuous relationship between the Giants and Connecticut are well known. Squabbles over the stadium and who should foot the bill for renovations, low fan attendance, and cool weather conditions are just a few of the problems. The contract between the Giants and Connecticut runs out after this season and the death rattle between the two may have already been heard. Prospects like Pablo Sandoval are expected to be skipped past AA and into the more friendlier environment of AAA Fresno.
Because of the pitching inclined environment and lack of Giants hitters past the lower levels, we’ll mostly find pitching prospects at this level but also a couple of surprising hitters making one last run at prospect status.
1B Travis Ishikawa – If one prospect has turned himself around this year at AA, it’s Travis Ishikawa. The 24-year-old first baseman was drafted in 2002 and had a breakout season as a 21-year-old in the California League in ’05. That year Ishikawa hit (.282/.387/.532) with 22 HR’s. In ’06 he was promoted to AA and that’s where Ishikawa began to have problems. He failed to hit in AA, like many other hitters, and ended the year with a line of (.232/.309/.403). ’07 wasn’t much better for Travis, he went back to AA and did so poorly that the Giants moved him back to the California League as a 23-year-old. That’s never a good sign and even more troubling was Ishikawa’s performance in the Cal League. He hit for a ton of power — blasting 13 HR’s in a little under 200 AB’s — but he was striking out like Rob Deer. Ishikawa was striking out 35.1% while repeating a level against younger competition. Red flags went up everywhere. He had always stuck out — generally around the 25% per PA mark — but never like this before.
The Giants sent Ishikawa back to AA this year and he’s made some noticeable changes. Firstly, he cut his K% down to 16.1%, signaling to me that he’s potentially changed his swing in order to make more contact. Ishikawa’s swing has always considered to be a little long. He also raised his BB% to an excellent 13.6%. He does have noticeable splits but it’s encouraging that he’s hitting even just slightly at Dodd Stadium. Overall his line currently sits at (.291/.380/.467). Because of his struggles against LHP he will most likely max out as a platoon partner at 1B. But, after where he was heading a couple of years ago, he’s made some nice adjustments to his game. Let’s hope that they carry throughout this season and that the Giants move him to AAA before the year is done.
C Adam Witter – I admit, I’m a fan of Adam Witter. He’s got some warts: age, defense, contact issues. But, he’s a catcher that can hit for some power and can take a walk. Because he was a 5th year senior that signed with the Giants, he didn’t get into the minor leagues until he was 23. In his age 23 season he crushed the younger competition of Northwest League. In the NWL he hit (.280/.362/.575) with 16 HR’s. In ’07 he moved up a level to the San Jose Giants and hit (.260/.342/.481). His K% raised from 17.5% in the NWL to 22.5% in the California League. He’s struggled this year in AA, hitting (.216/.348/.414) but if you squint hard enough, his away line isn’t too bad (.239/.373/.420) he won’t be a starter in the big leagues because of his defense but he could profile as a offense first backup catcher that can pop the occasional home run and take a walk. That has some value.
RHP Adam Cowart – I’ve let my love for Cowart be known on this site. I really do love the guy. Cowart was drafted in the ’06 draft in the far reaches of the 35th round out of Kansas State University. Why do I love Cowart so much? He doesn’t blow away hitters with a 97mph fastball and some still wonder if he’ll ever make it to the major leagues but Cowart succeeds by pitching in an unorthodox motion, a sort of slinging, sidearm, diving motion, that’s given hitters fits ever since he entered the minor leagues. He works in the low-80′s and features a changeup and a slider that aren’t remarkable. He gets by on having amazing command — he’s never had a BB% higher than 4.7 — and by getting hitters to pound the ball into the ground. In 326 career minor league innings, he’s allowed just 6 home runs. Even though he’s still starting in the Giants system, he profiles as Chad Bradford-lite. A reliever that will come in, throw strikes, get ground balls, and give RHB’s loads of trouble.
RHP Joe Martinez – Another fringy starter in the Giants system — do we have a ton of these guys or what — that’s had success. Throws in the upper-80′s with the ability to touch 90-91mph now and then. Features a curveball that’s his “strike out pitch” according to Baseball America. For a guy with fringy stuff, he’s been getting enough strikeouts at the lower levels of S-K, Augusta, and San Jose. He’s a strike-thrower, posting solid BB%’s at each level he’s pitched. His K% has taken a dip this year — making me wonder if most of his K’s were coming off hitters chasing his curve at lower levels — but he’s boosted his GB%. At the moment, 60% of balls hit into play off of Martinez have been on the ground, that’s a great rate. The Giants have moved Martinez slowly, taking him through one level at a time and they’ll most likely let him finish the year in AA. His FIP is currently 2.96 and if he finishes the year strong, I don’t see why he wouldn’t be moved up a level to AAA. He’ll most likely profile as a reliever or a 5/6th starter at the major league level. Martinez provides nice organizational depth.
RHP Kelvin Pichardo – Another relieving prospect in the Giants system. Amazingly, he was acquired in the Michael Tucker to the Phillies trade. Pichardo has a big arm that he uses to run fastballs into the mid-90′s and a curveball that can be a plus pitch for him at times. He blew through the lower levels of S-K, Augusta, and San Jose before making it to AA Connecticut in the second half of the ’07 season. He struggled with control, walking 16 hitters in 21 innings and the Giants left him at AA to start this year. He’s still had some control problems this year — BB% of 12% — and his K% has dropped to 18.8% when it was at a ridiculous 36% in San Jose. But, Pichardo is only 22-years-old and his arm has a lot of promise. Anyone that can throw in the mid-90′s has a good chance of making it to the majors. I think his upside would be late inning relief, maybe in the setup role.
RHP Sergio Romo – Romo dazzles opposing hitters with a variety of pitches coming out of a variety of arm slots and angles. On a pure “stuff” level, Romo’s “stuff” isn’t off the charts, it’s rather pedestrian. He works in the upper 80′s and his curveball is an average pitch but similar to Cowart, he has amazing control that allows him to spot his pitches wherever he wants them. Toss in some deception from his pitching motion — he sort of slings the ball in a low arm slot — and you’ve got Sergio Romo. He doesn’t walk hitters — BB% of 5.1 — and despite not having a huge velocity, has never had trouble striking out hitters — K% of 29.3 in AA this year. His ’07 line from San Jose is just ridiculous: 65.2 IP, 33 H, 9 ER, 15 BB, 104 SO. He briefly had some struggles in AA when he came off of a injury — I believe it was a knee problem — but since giving up 3 earned runs on May 31st, he’s made 5 straight strong appearances. Over those 5 appearances his line looks like this: 6 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 12 SO. That’s a positively small sample but I’d like to think he’s adjusted from his injury and is back to pitching well again.
The AA level doesn’t have the same talent or upside that the lower levels have, but it does have some players that could profile as the next members of the Giants bullpen array. Cowart, Romo, and Pichardo could all be relievers in the Giants bullpen at some point down the line. I think of the trio, Romo might have the most upside in the bullpen and I’d love to see him make it as a late inning reliever. Martinez might be more suited to a long relief role or be an occasional spot starter.
On the hitting side, Ishikawa and Witter aren’t perfect prospects but they do have some positives going for them. Ishikawa’s season this year in Connecticut has saved his status as a prospect. He might not project as a starting first baseman any more, but he could end up as a platoonmate for someone who can mash lefties. Or, he might not ever make it to the majors but even as a skeptic of Ishikawa’s, I’ve been happy with the adjustments he’s made.
Next, we’ll head to AAA Fresno (aka Scott McClain Country) and check out the last level of our Farm Review.