Photo Credit: Carlos Avila Gonzalez | The San Francisco Chronicle
We finally made it! We’re at the top of the position pyramid — and no surprise, the deepest, bestest, eye-poppingest position in the organization, according to Yours Truly, is the position with the best prospect in the system. This is a position that, even beyond the supremely gifted Marco Luciano, is littered with high-end young talent coming in from the international market in the last couple of years. Most of that talent is far, far away, but it could well be the core of that “next wave” of talent that will hopefully keep the system well-regarded past this initial burst of talent. Still, I probably wouldn’t have boosted the shortstop depth chart above the positions we’ve been looking at the last few days without the presence of Will Wilson. The former Angels 1st round pick, obtained at the low low cost of Zack Cozart’s remaining contract, has had an excellent spring both in major league camp and the alternate site, and it’s clear that he is held in very high esteem by the braintrust (high enough that Susan Slusser somewhat shockingly suggested him as a possibility to replace Donovan Solano on the active roster).
I have to say that my thoughts about shortstop were recently jolted by a piece that Travis Sawchik (co-author of “The MVP Machine”) wrote about the Reds. That whole post is worth your time, but let me get to the meat of it for our purposes: while balls in play have been in free-fall lately, the lost opportunities aren’t affecting all positions equally. As batters seek to adjust to the crazy velocity and movement they’re seeing from modern pitchers by trying to go over the defense and into the stands, the players seeing the biggest decline in defensive chances man the middle of the infield:
Interestingly, 3b is mostly holding steady (possibly due to shifts that frequently put them up the middle) but SS and 2b are both seeing their chances disappear. This is actually a long term trend, but it has greatly accelerated this century and even this decade.
It’s little wonder that teams are viewing this data and thinking that they can get away with less defensive ability at this traditionally glove-first position. The Reds literally don’t have a true shortstop on their roster, playing 3b Eugenio Suarez there regularly with little backup. Cleveland has gone without a true CF. And I’ve talked quite a bit on various podcasts about the Giants’ roster construction, which is thin on up the middle defensive talent, but deep on offensive versatility.
This is the way the game is going. Reggie Jackson once said of baseball: “if you’re gonna stand in the corner, you’d better lean on the pole.” The modern game is extending that requirement to the middle of the field as well. Everybody needs to lean on the pole these days. As Sawchik summed it up, you want to play SS today? You’d better hit!
And this leans me to another excellent bit of reading I had lately, this from my friend Phil Goyette who produced a fascinating piece for Baseball America recently, in which he built a formula that takes known minor league statistics and tries to estimate a minor league equivalent for Barrel Rates, the Statcast number which is quickly dominating our discussion of major league hitting. Barrels, in the big league world, are a combination of exit velocity and launch angle that historically produce the most offensive value (hit it hard and get it in the air leads to great results). While teams are also getting some of this same information on their minor league players, us plebes are stuck gleaning through more traditional statistics, but Phil has found that a combination of Isolated Slugging, Fly Ball rate (FB%), and Home Run per Fly Ball (HR/FB) can produce a fairly reliable facsimile. After putting in a few other controls to account for the offensive environments of different leagues and parks, as well as accounting for player’s age relative to their level, Phil gave us something of a Barrels Leaderboard for the minor leagues in 2019. Putting it all together, what shortstop prodigy might you guess had one of the very best Estimated Barrel Rates in all of minor league baseball the last time such a thing exists? Well, he’s #1 on our Depth Chart! Yep, Marco Luciano definitely leans on the pole, and if he keeps on leaning on it, he could well turn into one of the best shortstops in the game in a few years (Oh, and don’t sleep on Heliot Ramos having one of the best estimated barrel rates for AA in 2019!)
Ranking the Prospects!
We’re going deep with the rankings this time! Which just reflects the depth of up-the-middle talent that the Giants have invested in lately. No other position that we’ve covered represents as great a financial investment in the future of the Giants as shortstop — not even catcher, where Joey Bart and Patrick Bailey represent nearly $11 million worth of investment. Of course, it helps that Wilson is boosting up the shortstop investments with the $12+ million dollars owed to Zack Cozart that it cost to acquire him. But beyond Wilson, there are a lot of seven-figure or near-seven figure deals on this list. Luciano, of course, tops those signings, having agreed to a deal worth $2.6 million. The three Venezuelans who have topped the last two J2 classes — Aeverson Arteaga, Anthony Rodriguez, and Diego Velasquez — combined for $2.7 million in signing bonuses. And coming up in this year’s international class, Ryan Reckley from the Bahamas is expected to get more than $2 million in signing bonus from the Giants. That deal likely won’t be official until next January, which is why he’s an asterisked #8 here — he’ll probably zoom up these rankings once he’s officially in the fold. Taken all together, that’s over $20 million of investment in just these eight shortstops alone. The Giants know that putting resources into up-the-middle talent is a winning strategy! (Oh, and while we’re on the topic, it’s worth comparing the $12.67 million the Giants were willing to pay to acquire Wilson against his $3.3 million signing bonus, or Luciano’s $2.6 million to get a picture of how artificially constrained those markets are).
I’m not sure what remains to be said about Luciano at this point. We’re all just waiting to see if he can repeat something like the incredible success he had at rookie ball as he heads into the higher challenges of full season ball. But just to emphasize the point of that success, let’s repeat a few of his numbers from that 2019 debut. First and foremost, the power he showed as a 17-year old was startling as he posted a .295 Isolated Slugging mark on top of an already impressive .332 batting average. As mentioned on Wednesday with Heliot Ramos, one of the most impressive marks of raw power in young hitters is the ability to go the other way with impact. Here was Luciano’s 17-year-old spray chart:
Truly impressive. Luciano also showed the beginnings of a discerning eye at the plate, allowing a no-doubt intimidated opposition to walk him 15% of the time. The strike out percentage was a reasonable 22% (reasonable in today’s game). And those are the three marks that I’ll be watching most from a statistical standpoint — does he maintain the reasonable strike out rate, keep his impressive walk rate up, and continue to show top end Isolated power. I’ll also be watching the defensive actions, but he certainly looked like he could handle the position in his spring training action. There’s no limit on Luciano’s ability to soar this year. He’s stated that he wants to be in San Francisco in a year, and while that seems like an overly ambitious bar, he’s not a kid I’d want to bet against.
Given two years of appearances in big league camp games, summer camp, and alternate site reports, it’s somewhat startling to think that Will Wilson is still awaiting his professional debut as a Giant. I mentioned above that Susan Slusser went so far as to suggest him as an injury replacement for Donovan Solano, and while I certainly don’t think that’s likely to happen — Wilson’s only played 20 games at the Rookie ball level in his pro career — it says something about how highly the front office values his skills that such a suggestion could even be made from such a respected source.
Wilson ended up getting more ABs than any of the major prospects in spring camp for the Giants, and he saw extended action at shortstop. While he did have some struggles on the left side in those games, it’s clear the Giants believe in his ability to handle all of the infield spots and we’ll likely see him move around a good bit. The Giants have also worked with him on his swing path over the last year, after noting that he hit far too many balls on the ground in his pro debut in the Angels system. With the Giants he’s been focusing more on getting balls in the air and was highly successful at doing that in spring training, though several terrific opponent catches were the end result of some of those swings (hey, it’s the big leagues, as Kuip would say).
The long look that Wilson is getting at the Alternate Site (along with Hunter Bishop) has me wondering if they might think about jumping him from rookie ball all the way to Double-A. It seems like too far of a stretch, especially in the face of their stated desire to make conservative placements to start the year. But it’s noticeable that Patrick Bailey is back in Scottsdale and Wilson’s still at the Alternate Site. The Giants really appear to love this kid. I’m still guessing a Eugene placement to start the year, but let’s keep a close eye on him in May — a hot start and Richmond might not be far away.
The loss of the 2020 minor league season gives us something of an anomaly, as the Giants will have the top signees from each of their past two international classes debuting together in the AZL. In 2019, the top of the Giants signings were a pair of Venezuelan shortstops, Aeverson Arteaga and Anthony Rodriguez. Though Arteaga got the slightly higher bonus ($1 million compared to Rodriguez’ $800k), I’m actually reversing their order here, and my reasons for doing so go back to the point I made at the top. Of the two, Rodriguez currently looks like the more impactful hitter, while Arteaga is the more natural defender but has some questions about how much he’ll hit.
Aeverson has shown soft, quick hands, quick footwork and a strong, accurate arm. His father was a professional basketball player so he has athletic genes. Currently, the right-handed hitter is best described as whippy with the bat, but there are questions as to how much he’s going to be able to impact the ball. That’s why I’ll give the ever-so-slight edge here to the switch-hitting Rodriguez, who produces easy hard contact from both sides of the plate. Currently, that contact is geared for line drives, but he’s projectible enough to grow into more power as he ages. This year’s model, Diego Velasquez, may be something of a combination of the other two. He’s grown and matured significantly since originally agreeing to sign with the Giants (about 3-4” in height and a good amount of muscle addition as well), but he still projects to stick at SS. You may remember, we published an in depth scouting report on Velasquez, provided by international scouts Lukas McKnight and Tom Shafer earlier this year.
And speaking of previous posts, I wrote up Ghordy Santos and Dilan Rosario together in an “under the radar prospects” combo last month. The talented pair of infielders should be fighting to earn their way onto the über-talented San Jose roster and I’d love to see both make it there. Santos may well be the most gifted defensive shortstop in the system and has some genuine pop. He could use some steady reps, so hopefully he’ll get in a full-season of games this year. If one of the pair is held back in XST, I’d expect it to be Rosario, who flashed impressive power in his pro debut back in 2019, but was also quite raw in all phases of the game.
Ryan Reckley isn’t really ranked because he won’t be a Giant for another year, but I’m keeping a spot warm for him here so that we don’t forget about him. The native of the Bahamas is yet another switch-hitter, with a quick, slashing swing, and potential plus speed. He’s the classic “quick twitch” athlete who shows exciting tools on both side of the ball. If you want to go ahead and just envision another Jazz Chisholm (another from the growing contingent of Bahamian natives)… well, maybe that’s a little rich, but it’s the right direction to cast your dreams.
This is obviously a youth-heavy group, but there’s a ton of talent in the lower levels. All but Velasquez (who wasn’t officially signed yet) participated in last fall’s Instructional camp, and all but Wilson (at the Alternate Site) are in minor league camp right now. While the Giants are thin at the top two levels (depending on where Wilson lands), the Single-A and Rookie ball levels will be an absolute scramble for playing time.
Normally a 4th round pick out of a prestigious university would be penciled in for a starting position somewhere, but Louisville’s Tyler Fitzgerald will almost certainly be behind Wilson on Eugene’s depth chart (though he should see plenty of time at 2b). Fitzgerald is a slick fielder who profiles best as a utility infielder, but again, major league utility infielders are expected to hit these days. Simon Whiteman possesses possibly the top speed in the organization, which isn’t a bad tool to have in an organization that is currently fielding the slowest team in MLB.
Jeff Houghtby was the 10th pick in the 2019 draft out of University of San Diego. He was reputed to be the best fielding prospect in the Cape Cod League in 2018, but had always been a light hitter prior to a breakout junior year. He’s another who could really struggle to find a playing time niche in the absolutely packed Single A infields.
The rookie levels should also provide interesting viewing. In addition to the three bonus babies, the AZL squads should also have Jean Peńa, a $300,000 signing back in the 2017 J2 class. Peńa has shown real power, particularly in the DSL, but, like Rosario, it’s come between a flurry of strikeouts. Sammy Rodriguez was a surprising inclusion in minor league spring training — the only player other than Velasquez from January’s round of international signings who got the nod to come to Arizona to prepare for the year. Edison Mora was yet another player drafted out of the Puerto Rican Baseball Academy. He was one of the very youngest players eligible for the 2018 draft and has struggled to catch up to pro ball in his two summers in the AZL.
I’ve mostly been restricting the Depth Charts to the domestic side, but there’s a lot more of these kids down in the Dominican camp — and remember, the Giants are on track to field two DSL teams this year, so there will be plenty of opportunities. Obviously not all of these kids will stick at the position but it’s a clear emphasis of the international scouting department that really is filling the system with exciting talent.
So there we are! The very top of the organization’s positional pyramid, as it should be, is the best position on the diamond. Will any of these guys challenge Brandon Crawford’s claim as the greatest San Francisco Giant shortstop in history some day? And who will claim your attention this summer?
Previously on “Depth Charts”
The long, LONG off-season is almost over. One more week of “off-season” posts before we get things going on May 4. And just to remind all of my readers, whether you’ve been with me all year or just joined recently, once we hit the regular minor league season, these newsletters will become daily M-F. I’ll sum up all the action taking place every day in the system in my old Minor Lines style. Daily posts will go out to my subscribers only, but I’ll have a weekly wrap up post (on Tuesdays) that will go out to everyone on the email list for free. And occasionally, I’ll add an extra Saturday post that will be free to all readers as well. I hope you’ll join me in our daily journey through the season, a season I just can’t wait to get started!