Depth Charts: RH Starters
Define "depth" exactly....
Photo Credit: Bill Mitchell | Baseball America
Hey, a belated congratulations to Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, and Brandon Crawford for becoming the 6th, 7th, and 8th players in SF Giants history to start in 10 different Openers. Pretty incredible to have that group increase by 60% in a single day. The last decade’s been an extraordinary ride for Giants fans and I feel privileged to have seen it. And last week in Scottsdale, dozens of young Giants gathered together to begin that same journey that Buster and the Brandons started back in 2009/10. Will any of theirs lead to the same “Forever Giant” destination? Here’s hoping….
Questions for a Monday morning: Is it good depth? Or is it just deep depth? We have some names to go through here, for sure. But do these names raise expectations and hopes — especially at a position where traditional thought says you need about five good prospects to end up producing one good major leaguer? It’s always easy to scoff at the prospect value of guys who project as “just” back-end starters. There’s value in solid, cheap 4th starter dudes. That’s even true for championship teams — it was good to have Jonathan Sanchez! And especially in this era when, as Farhan Zaidi has said, teams need 8 or 9 starters to get through a season, the value of having guys you can plug into rotation spot without expectations of depleting the bullpen before the day is out can be easy to understate. That said, when you look around the baseball landscape, it becomes apparent that it’s incredibly difficult to make a career out of being a back-end starter. There’s value in having guys like Ty Blach or Dereck Rodriguez or Chris Heston around. But if the performance doesn’t rise above that “5th starter” station, pretty soon teams start circling those names and target the spot as an upgrade opportunity. Then they move on.
For starters to anchor themselves in a roster in a way that ensures their existence for a few years, the performance has got to get to predictably above average, if nothing else. That’s what Logan Webb is right this very moment trying to convince the Giants (and us!) that he’s capable of. And it’s the bar that several of the guys we’re going to discuss today will need to clear if we’re going to be able to look at them and say: There R Giants!
Ranking the Prospects!
As I said, there are a lot of names to get through today!
Tristan Beck and Sean Hjelle are basically a “pick ‘em” pair at the top. Teammates in San Jose throughout much of 2019, the two are roughly equal to each other in terms of experience and ETA. Hjelle is a year younger and was the one who managed to get a toe-hold in Double-A before the 2019 season ended. But Beck got the Arizona Fall League nod and looked terrific there, so experience feels like a wash. I’d expect both fo open the year in Richmond, with the chance to move up to Sacramento quickly if they get off to strong starts. There, they’d be working for opportunities to grab some spot starts in San Francisco in the second half of the season — especially if the Giants end up moving some pieces at the trade deadline. Where Beck gets the tiniest of nods for me over Hjelle is that his current pitch mix lines up exactly with the organizational philosophy for pitching. His fastball works best at the top of the zone and he tunnels a true 12-6 curve right out of it. It’s a simple mix but he’s definitely selling what the Giants are pushing, or buying what they’re selling, or trying what they’re buying … something like that. Hjelle’s über-weird plane makes his fastball much more of a release-angle anomaly, but he tends to work down in the zone with it, as he does with his knuckle-curve and burgeoning change. It remains to be seen if that’s the best path to success for his repertoire or if further tweaking will be needed to maximize the effectiveness of his stuff. They’re a 1A/1B pair for me, but, for now, I see an easier transition path for Beck.
The problem with both Hjelle and Beck is that they’re dancing right on the 50 line — all of their offerings tend to hover in scouting grades in that 45-55 range. In other words, every pitch they offer settles in right at that just above average, average, or slightly below average range. That’s a highwire act that is easy to fall off when pitted against major league hitters. The command will need to play way up to make the overall package work over the long haul. The same can be said for the Taiwanese right-hander Kai-Wei Teng, who’s a year younger than Hjelle and lacking the experience of both of the college draftees. Teng brings a more complete package of pitches than either Beck or Hjelle offers, but none of them projects to be above average, so the command is really going to have to nail that 60 future projection that Fangraphs hangs on him for it to work. This gets us back to the question posed at the top of how long guys can make a career out of being a back-end starter. It’s just hard to stick around that average line.
In between that group I’ve put young Gregory Santos, which is a weasely little hedge of a bet, because I really don’t know what to do with him. Farhan Zaidi, in talking about Santos’ inclusion on the 40-man, repeatedly referred to the ability of single-inning relievers with big stuff to move quickly, suggesting that’s how the Giants see Santos’ future. But I have heard suggestions that they might give him one more chance at starting, or at least grooming him for a “bulk innings” role down the line, and that makes sense given that he brings some of the loudest stuff in the organization. We’ve heard that he touched triple digits, and Santos has always flashed a nasty breaking ball — that’s been a consistent feature of his appearances for years.
But for one reason or another, we’ve never really seen Santos put all of those elements together and show that level of stuff consistently over a starter’s workload. A guy throwing a hundred with a hammer breaker sounds great! But is that 100 in inning 1 and 92 by inning 3? Is it a hundred a time or two in May, but nowhere to be seen by June? We don’t know the answer to these questions with Santos because his two domestic seasons have been marred by unfortunate IL stints. In Salem-Keizer he suffered a traumatic line drive to the head (the same thing in the same place threw Chris Stratton’s career into turbulence for years). The following year in Augusta, Santos spent most of the year on the IL due to seemingly minor shoulder aches (if such a sentence even makes sense when applied to a 19-year-old pitcher). The idea of Santos sounds like the single best pitching prospect in the Giants organization, if you squint your eyes and tilt your head just right. But we still have more questions than answers with the actuality of Santos, so, until we know more about his role and his ability to harness his stuff to fit that role, I can’t boost him above the more accomplished arms at the top of the list. As Jim Callis said on the podcast, there’s only so high you can blow a guy up over a couple of innings at Instrux.
Once we pass Teng on this list, we enter the realm of pure speculation. Trevor McDonald, the Giants most highly paid pitching selection of the 2019 draft is still more myth than reality, with just 4 professional innings to his credit. The 20-year-old tantalizes with rumors of his ability to spin a breaking ball and the growing velocity (hitting 94-95 at Instrux). But, as with Santos, we haven’t really seen it all in action yet over a starter’s load of innings. And you may recall that when Josh Norris was on my podcast, he mentioned that McDonald has a funky armslot/armstroke that really isn’t like any starting pitcher you can think of in the big leagues. The Giants appear to be collecting funky release points, though, so it’s unclear if this is feature or bug in McDonald’s case.
Matt Frisbee and Caleb Kilian fit together in my mind, as lower round selections from D1 colleges with more stuff than that profile might suggest. Frisbee, as Mark Sanchez mentioned on the pod (boy, we get lots of useful information on those things, don’t we?), built his own workout facility during the pandemic and packed on some lean tissue, as Gabe Kapler would say. He was already the leading strikeout artist on a San Jose staff that featured Hjelle, Beck, and Wong. If the increased strength boosts the velo up a bit, there’s a pitcher there who could certainly pique the Giants interest. Kilian came out of Texas Tech featuring a pretty good low-90s fastball that can touch higher and an average curve and change. I wouldn’t be shocked to see him put up a 2021 something like Frisbee’s 2019 — providing High-A Eugene with a steady, solid presence that opens a few eyes along the way.
At the back end of my rankings I have three flavors of mystery. Jose Marte is a mystery because his nasty (the good kind!) stuff keeps resulting in nasty (the bad kind!) results. Jake Wong is a mystery because he underwent surgery of some kind in October and little has been heard of him since. And Manuel Mercedes is a mystery because he’s yet to show his high velocity stuff (which Ben Badler believed could climb as high as 100 with a little more physical maturity) outside of a Tricky League field in the Dominican Republic. The next six months should bring greater clarity in all three cases.
I won’t belabor the depth charts, but there are a couple of things worth pointing out. First, the RH Starter rankings really should have a Super Secret #1ZZ or something at the top, because post-prospect Tyler Beede is very much in this whole mix and should be the first guy out of this group that we see in the big leagues this year. And thinking about Beede (and Logan Webb, for that matter) as “still a prospect” makes the whole position seem, at least, a little more impactful, which I suppose is an object lesson in the limitations of labels. He really is a prospect because he’s still working towards manifesting his potential, or at least some portion of it.
Secondly, it’s worth noting that there’s simply a whole lot of names here! Too many, in fact, for some of these rotations to carry, especially when you factor in that there will be some left-handers angling for spots too. I have six RHP listed in Richmond and five in both Eugene and San Jose, but clearly space will need to be made for Seth Corry, Nick Swiney, Kyle Harrison, and Chris Wright somewhere as well (we’ll get to them at a later date). That could mean that not all of these guys are going to make it, or not all of these guys are going to make it as starters. Or it could just mean that we need a bigger boat, and following a year without any game action, a wise system might need to employ a range of pitching options — piggyback starters, bulk innings munchers, you name it — to cover a long season’s worth of innings.
One name that would make a lot of sense in a bullpen — so much sense, in fact, that I’m going to discuss him when I get to the right-handed relievers — is Blake Rivera. I still think his future is, like Doval and Kervin Castro, that of a dominant single-inning reliever. But I list him here because I think the Giants aren’t ready to pull the plug on his starter experiment just yet.
Lastly, don’t just skim over the names on these depth charts — there’s some interesting guys on here, even if I haven’t discussed them at length. Forty-man member Ashton Goudeau has a fastball that has played better than its velocity indicates, no doubt due to spin rate and other pitch characteristics. Eric Longenhagen mentioned that he talked to folks who saw Keaton Winn pitching at 95-97 at Instrux last fall, while others saw him more 90-93. Obviously a world of difference sits between those two ranges. Aaron Phillips has always seemed like a late-bloomer type, and while his fastball has mostly been pedestrian, he features a gorgeous downward-breaking curve. Conner Nurse and Jesus Ozoria have both shown encouraging signs in Rookie ball, though time is running short for both of them. And Ryan Murphy is a strike thrower with a variety of pitches, and the organization certainly values that skill.
Previously on “Depth Charts”
Players are gathering, workouts are underway. Time is getting close, folks!