Depth Charts: Left-Handed Starters
Strategies at work
Photo by Peter DaSilva/MLB Photos via Getty Images
The fun thing about discussing the Giants left-handed starting depth is that it not only includes a couple of the bigger young star prospects in the system, but it’s also an interesting window into organizational philosophies and priorities. Going into last summer’s draft, the high school pitching class was a bumper crop of huge velocity arms: Mick Abel (15th pick, Phillies), Nick Bitsko (#24, Rays), Justin Lange (#34, Padres), Jared Jones (#44, Pirates), Jared Kelly (#46, White Sox) and many many more flamethrowers who dotted a special high school class. All of these kids were pumping upper 90s gas as 18-year-olds, earning them top round selections and signing bonuses in the $2-4 million range to buy out their college commitments.
The Giants cooly regarded all of these blazing arms with wicked breaking balls like the sad, picked-over end of a sales rack at Ross Dress for Less, calmly avoiding the entire upper end of the market, and then dropped $2.5 million on lefty Kyle Harrison out of De La Salle High School. As bold draft statements go, it was every bit the “We’ll Build Our Own Board, Thank You” pronouncement as the previous regime’s Joe Panik or Christian Arroyo gambits had been. Certainly Harrison was well regarded — he entered the draft as Baseball America’s #71 draft prospect and was committed to one of the finest NCAA baseball programs on the West Coast. But that regard took the conventionally backhanded description of a “polished lefty” with a lot of “pitchability.” Harrison was decidedly NOT the type of arm that most observers saw garnering a $2.5 million bonus to dissuade him from a potential career at UCLA. He was the arm you take home to introduce to your mother, in other words, not the one you empty the savings account for.
If the Giants weren’t necessarily playing Wizard Chess, they were certainly proclaiming that they see things differently. But what, precisely, was that something different? Let me side track for a moment. ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel, writing about the current aces across the MLB landscape, said this regarding Cleveland’s Shane Bieber:
He's the example of the more progressive approach to pitching development Cleveland is on the bleeding edge of right now. The philosophy is for teams to focus on acquiring pitchers with strong command and athleticism, then have them develop more velocity and off-speed quality largely by using data.
And this is from Harrison’s draft scouting report at Baseball America:
Though he doesn't have the velocity of other top prep pitchers in the class, Harrison is a good athlete and strike-thrower, with a clean delivery and a fastball that plays up thanks to its natural movement.
Those two descriptions seem to bear a striking resemblance to each other. Judging by the 2021 draft, it feels like the Giants are telling Cleveland to shove over on that bleeding edge and let some company in. Harrison’s work with the Team USA 18U Gold Medal team showcased his ability to command three pitches repeatedly, to compete at a high level, and to pound the strike zone. The one thing missing from the package is high velocity and sharp bite on the breaking pitches. If “pushing the stuff envelope” is something the Giants are convinced they can teach, then Harrison can take on the appearance of an undervalued, potential ace. And, of course, the fact that he showed up at Instrux a few months later firing 97 makes it hard to stop stoking the fires of the imagination.
We have to load that up with caveats, naturally. This is a fresh arm that hasn’t pitched all summer going in short stints of a couple innings, not an arm going out every fifth day and piling up innings. That said, the strategy of taking a solid starting package of floating the stuff upwards does make sense, opposed to the traditional player acquisition strategy of taking guys with power arms and trying to teach them…well, everything else about pitching.
The other element of Harrison’s selection that is interesting is really on display in the above video. Look at that arm angle! The Giants, as shown in their major league acquisitions lately, are trying to corner the market on funky release points.
Harrison may not be Alex Wood levels of funkiness, but this is definitely not an arm angle that you’ll find in the center of the Bell Curve:
The low-slot release should add deception and unusual movement to his repertoire. The young lefty seems to be something of a Bellwether Trial on everything this Giants regime values in pitching. He’s honestly the single most interesting draft choice the Giants have made under Farhan Zaidi to my mind, and his development is going to be one of the stories I’m watching most closely in the coming year.
Ranking the Prospects!
Pity poor Seth Corry. Dude is coming off one of the most dominant runs in 21st century prospect pitching, and he can’t even rise to the top of my rankings! That is unfair and, quite probably, just plain ol’ dumb. But what can I say? I’m not writing a 1,000 word introduction on the fascination of Kyle Harrison just to rank him 2nd!
Still, it’s worth remembering how great Corry looked the last time he was on a field of play. Let me just quote Jim Callis’ appearance on the There R Giants podcast. Here was Jim on the topic of Corry:
To me I see an athletic lefty who figured out his delivery, who’s got a plus curveball, the changeup and the fastball can flash plus and they’re solid pitches. I see a three-pitch lefty who’s figuring things out. I really like him. You know it’s one thing to throw strikes; it’s another thing to throw strikes and miss bats. And he did that, he threw strikes AND he missed bats — he wasn’t just laying it in there. For me, he’s a Top 100 guy.
Jim not only has Corry on MLB’s Top 100 list, but also as the #5 prospect in the Giants system. And, of all the prospects on this list, he’s the one with a pro résumè that announces his presence with authority. So, let’s speak of the man with respect! If he heads to Eugene and repeats anything like his 2019 performance in Augusta, he’ll have Giants fans salivating for his debut the same way they are for Heliot Ramos these days.
Sam Long is the mystery man of this list, and I’ll be honest, I’m really not sure what to do with him. And, at this point, we have no real idea whether the Giants are planning to utilize him as a starter or not. Gabe Kapler mentioned him as a starter earlier in camp, but he was never used for any length in the camp games. He has started in the past but that doesn’t necessarily mean the Giants won’t try converting him to shorter stints to let the high velocity play at maximum impact. For now, just because it would be fascinating to see, I’m penciling him in as a starter and that would make him the easy #3 in this rankings even if that velocity dips a little bit from the 97 he was throwing in camp. The idea that he can be our pitching version of Yaz — found money that the rest of the industry just blithely left laying in the road — is too tantalizing to dismiss until cold, hard reality forces it upon me.
The Giants didn’t just go with one funky left-hander in the 2021 draft, as NC State’s Nick Swiney gave them a pair! Like Harrison, Swiney wasn’t a guy who made his case with velocity. In fact, his fastball mostly played in the 88-91 range in college, which is almost Rueter-esque in the modern game. He consistently rang up huge amounts of swing and miss during his college career, however. He was particularly deadly with his changeup — a pitch we know the Giants love — and also showed an above average breaking ball. In his first two years, Swiney had real issues getting together with the strike zone and, consequently, was used primarily out of the pen. In his shortened junior year, however, he pitched strictly as a starter and his leap forward in command over the previous years was almost as dramatic as Seth Corry’s. After walking 49 batters in 57 innings his freshman and sophomore years, he posted a 42 K to 6 BB ratio in 28 innings as a starter to begin his junior year. If that’s the pitcher the Giants are getting, the 2021 draft is going to be remembered fondly by Giants fans. Here he is putting the coup de grâce on his college career with a 15 strikeout performance against Purdue:
Esmerlin Vinicio feels more myth than man at this point — we’ve been talking about him for two years now and nobody has seen him pitch this entire time. The Giants didn’t even let him get into any action in the Tricky League — the informal league for J2 players the summer they sign — as they preferred to focus on nutrition and strength for the slender left-hander. It sounds like that approach was still mostly holding sway at Instrux last Fall, where Vinicio again was rarely seen. But after two years of building up the body, hopefully 2021 is the year in which we finally see the pitcher with the smooth delivery and lightning fast arm we’ve been hearing whispers of all this time.
And, lastly, let’s take a moment to appreciate — truly appreciate — Conner Menez. Though he seems to have fallen off the mental map, what he’s already accomplished is fairly remarkable. Going from 14th round pick out of a college that’s little known outside of Santa Clarita to a big league debut in just three years is the produce of hard work, internal drive, and a pretty special left arm. Conner somewhat mysteriously disappeared to the Alternate Site after 11 pretty effective innings at the start of 2020, and he now appears to be filling the “break glass in case of emergency” role as the 7th or 8th starter option in the organization. I’m not that eager to talk about a guy whose grandfather I saw play in the big leagues, but even though he makes me feel old I’m hoping Menez gets more shots at a big league career.
….and the rest…
This is an interesting depth chart because there’s not a lot here after the major prospects. Richmond looks likely to run with an all right-handed rotation, while Eugene brings the 1-2 power combo of Corry and Swiney but is right-handed beyond that pair. San Jose has some interesting options after Harrison. Chris Wright was a 12th rounder in 2019 out of tiny Bryant College in Smithfield, RI. Wright has some classic elements of a late bloomer, coming out the northeast (he also went to high school in Rhode Island) and being a two-way player throughout his college career. He had a miserable Cape Cod League season at the plate, hitting just .187, which perhaps ended his two-way dreams. But he was terrific on the mound, striking out 21 of the 48 players he faced on the Cape while walking just 5. The Giants are going to give him a chance to start and he’s the type of profile that can pop, seemingly from out of nowhere. Though, as seen in this video, like Swiney, his fastball is below average in terms of velocity:
Juan Sanchez was terrific for the DSL Giants in 2018 as the anchor of their rotation. In 2019, he split time between starting and relieving and I can see him in a similar role in San Jose this summer if he makes the leap. There’s likely to be plenty of piggy-backing going on with the A level rotations and Sanchez makes sense as a swing guy for the San Jose staff. It’s possible, however, that his former DSL and AZL teammate Sonny Vargas could push in front of him and nab a role in San Jose. Vargas has mostly been an “arm strength” kid so far in his career, occasionally showing big strikeout stuff, but intermingling it with lots of hits, walks, and runs. Still just 20, he’s another potential pop up candidate if his physicality and athleticism has trended in the right direction over the past year. Luis Castillo and Marvin Brown both had reasonably encouraging pro debuts in the DSL in 2019 (though the ERAs weren’t so shiny). They should each have a chance to come stateside this year for the difficult transition to domestic ball.
Notes from the Camp
The Giants beat the A’s Alt camp group at Sutter Field in Sacramento yesterday 9-3, behind the hitting of Steven Duggar and Jason Vosler. Duggar went 4 for 5 with three singles and a double and scored two runs. Duggar had hit a home run the previous day in Stockton.
Vosler finished a home run shy of a cycle in yesterday’s game, scoring two runs and knocking in three.
Catcher Ricardo Genovés came off the bench to hit a two-run pinch hit home run in the 9th for the final score.
Giants pitchers struck out 15 A’s in the game. That included LHP Alex Wood, who struck out five in four innings of work. Dominic Leone struck out the side in the 7th inning and Conner Menez struck out 5 over the final two frames.
Thanks to faithful Flying Squirrels fan Ray we have a full roster for the minor league camp in Scottsdale as well:
Most of the guys I’ve been including on the Depth Charts are here, though there are a couple of notable absences from players who were at least at AZL level in 2019 and are, to my knowledge still in the organization: LHP Jesus Gomez (who was in an earlier draft of this post), RHP Jesus Toña, 2b Anyesber Sivira, and infielder Omar Medina.
Players in the last two international classes who are at camp and working towards making their pro debut in the AZL include many of the top signings of the last two classes: SS Aeverson Arteaga, Anthony Rodriguez, Diego Velasquez, and Samuel Rodriguez, C Adrian Sugastey, LHP Esmerlin Vinicio, RHP Manuel Mercedes.
Perhaps the one mild surprise out of that group was Sam Rodriguez getting the call over both Ramon Peralta and Derwin Laya, but all three were top signings from this year’s class. Interestingly, all four of these shortstops hail from Venezuela.