Giants prospects could surprise in '09

Giants prospects could surprise in '09

The Rays' run last year was aided by contributions from rookies such as Evan Longoria, David Price and Fernando Perez. Which club stands to benefit most from its up-and-coming talent this year? Lisa Winston states here that the Giants could surprise some people with help from a recent influx of young players, while Jonathan Mayo argues that the Rangers' farmhands are poised to contribute in '09.

Sometimes it's not just "all about the rookies."

Case in point: The 2009 San Francisco Giants. This team is loaded with homegrown young talent, but many of these players lost their rookie eligibility in 2008.

Given the nature of the unprecedented situation last summer, though, we're going to take a few liberties here and will treat the Giants just as we would a rookie-laden team such as, say, the Texas Rangers.

In 2008, the Giants broke a club record when 16 players made their Major League debuts, ranging from shortstop Brian Bocock and catcher Steve Holm, who made the club out of Spring Training, to 2008 first-rounder Conor Gillaspie, a third baseman who became the first member of the "Class of 2008" to make the big leagues when he came up from short-season Salem-Keizer on Sept. 6.

It certainly hadn't been the game plan. But injuries and ineffectiveness forced a steady surge of reinforcements from Triple-A Fresno and even Double-A Connecticut and before long rookies were more the homegrown flavor in San Francisco than Rice-a-Roni.

Among the players from that influx who look like they could be here to stay is right-handed reliever Sergio Romo, MLB.com's Advanced Class A Reliever of the Year in 2007 when he posted a 1.36 ERA and fanned 106 batters in 66 1/3 innings at San Jose. He was pitching in relief at Double-A Connecticut when he got the call in mid-June.

"I didn't have any expectations that I would be in the big leagues last year. I just knew that to stay on the radar I had to keep pitching and doing what I do best," said Romo, who posted a 2.12 ERA in 29 games with the Giants, striking out 33 in 34 innings while walking just eight. "But all those callups? No one expected any of that."

Even with their 72-90 fourth-place finish in the National League West, the Giants were still somewhat in contention as late as August, 10 games out of first. And with a lineup comprised largely of rookies and first- or second-year players, they did play over .500 ball in August and September.

And played well. Romo and southpaw Alex Hinshaw certainly made cases to stick around in the Giants bullpen in 2009, with the latter posting a 3.40 ERA and 47 strikeouts in 48 games. And while neither reached the rookie maximum 50 innings, both exhausted their rookie eligibility by being up for more than 45 days prior to the Sept. 1 roster expansion.

Perhaps the top prospect who should be a key cog in the Giants lineup this year but is not in contention for 2009 NL Rookie of the Year honors is catcher/infielder Pablo Sandoval.

The 22-year-old hit .345 with three home runs and 24 RBIs in 145 at-bats over 41 big league games after joining the team from Double-A Connecticut in mid-August. He'd combined to hit .350 with 20 homers and 96 RBIs in 112 games in the Minors to that point.

The Giants want his bat in the lineup every day, but with veteran Bengie Molina in place behind the plate, for now, Sandoval will be at either first or third base.

Also expected to be a key factor this season in the middle infield is Emmanuel Burriss, the club's first-round pick in 2006 out of Kent State. After spending most of his 2007 season at Class A Augusta, Burriss jumped to Fresno to start 2008 and within a few weeks was in the Majors. He hit .283 with 13 steals in 95 games, and while the club has inked 33-year-old veteran Edgar Renteria to play shortstop for now, the speedy Burriss remains the heir apparent to the everyday job.

Add to that mix rookie first baseman Travis Ishikawa, who didn't debut in 2008 but saw brief stints in '06 and '08 and still maintains his rookie eligibility while projecting as the possible starting first baseman, and you see why it's hard to overlook this club as a bastion of young talent.

While veterans like Molina, outfielder Dave Roberts, shortstop Omar Vizquel, and infielder Rich Aurilia made a point of teaching the finer points of being a big leaguer on and off the field to their young teammates in 2008, Romo has already noticed a difference in camp this spring.

"They were on top of us younger guys last year," he said. "But so far this year they're letting us be ourselves, at least until crunch time. I think they've accepted the fact that we can help the Giants become winners and they want to help us fulfill our part."

And if pundits are counting the club out of contention in '09, the Giants prospects are singing a different tune.

"I think we're going to surprise a lot of people," Romo said. "Last year we surprised people by winning more games than they thought we would. People didn't expect us to be anywhere close to where we were."

And for 2009?

"That's the cool thing about us," he said. "We're unpredictable and you never know how extraordinary we can be. I think we're going to be the 'uh oh' sleepers to watch out for."

Several up-and-coming pitchers are on the verge of joining the next wave, which could come in the next few months. Among that group already in camp are Kevin Pucetas, the non-roster invitee right-hander who was the Cal League Pitcher of the Year in '08 with a 10-2 record and 3.02 ERA, and right-hander Joey Martinez, a prospect on the 40-man roster who led the Eastern League in ERA with a 2.49 at Double-A Connecticut.

And this roll call doesn't even take into account the can't-miss blue-chippers further down in the system, names such as 2007 first-rounder and San Jose teen sensation pitcher Tim Alderson, 2008 first-round pick catcher Buster Posey, or southpaw Madison Bumgarner, the 2007 first-rounder who led the Minors in ERA at Augusta last summer. They're unlikely to impact the big league picture in 2009 ...

... but, of course, we would have said that about Sandoval, Burriss and Romo at this time last year.

Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.