SAN FRANCISCO -- The San Francisco Giants sensed that a renewed emphasis on player development and scouting would hasten their efforts to fill the considerable void left by Barry Bonds' departure following the 2007 season. They probably didn't dream that their new direction would lead them down the right path so quickly. The Giants' renaissance, which has thrust them into the National League Wild Card race and has them still clinging to hopes of winning the West division title, is being led by players drafted by the club and developed within its system.
Moreover, each is 25 or younger: right-hander Tim Lincecum, a two-time All-Star and the NL's reigning Cy Young Award winner; right-hander Matt Cain, who joined Lincecum on the All-Star squad this year; and the free-swinging Pablo Sandoval, who has established himself as a captivating, if unorthodox, hitter. Building from within furthered the Giants' attempts to improve through outside sources. The upgrade embodied in Lincecum and Cain, who were first-round Draft picks in 2006 and 2002, respectively, prompted center fielder Aaron Rowand to sign with the Giants as a free agent in December 2007. "I knew the pitching. And I remembered how difficult the pitching was to hit," Rowand said. "You win with pitching." San Francisco's next wave of talent has already begun to arrive. Buster Posey, widely considered the Giants' top position-player prospect, was summoned after only one full Minor League season to provide catching depth after rosters expanded Sept. 1. Posey isn't expected to play much while the Giants remain contenders, but manager Bruce Bochy hopes to give the 22-year-old a start or two before the season ends. Left-hander Madison Bumgarner, who posted a 12-2 record with a 1.85 ERA at High A San Jose and Double-A Connecticut, replaced Lincecum for an emergency start on Tuesday. The 20-year-old allowed two runs in 5 1/3 innings, flashing the skill that made him one of the Minors' brightest pitching stars. "The team hasn't won in five or six years or so, and I think you're getting a chance to see some of the guys more than you would if the team had kept winning," veteran Giants infielder Rich Aurilia said. "From the time I started here, they have made a lot of strides in how they draft people and develop talent. That's something you hear all teams say, but I think there's more of an emphasis on that now than there was in the past." Earlier this decade, the Giants stunted their own growth by signing Major League free agents -- and forfeiting high Draft choices -- to complement Bonds, the all-time home run leader who was viewed as the franchise's best hope to bring them a world championship. San Francisco didn't own a Round One selection in the First-Year Player Draft in 2004. One year later, the Giants couldn't draft a player until the fourth round. They opted to sign the likes of Michael Tucker, Moises Alou and Armando Benitez instead. "The core of Draft picks was sacrificed in a sense, just because of what we were trying to do to build around the big-league club with veteran players," vice president of baseball operations Bobby Evans said. The turnaround began with the 2006 Draft. "I'm surprised it didn't take that long," said Felipe Alou, a special assistant to general manager Brian Sabean. This time, the Giants had a first-round choice, 10th overall. They used it to select Lincecum, who reached the Majors 11 months later. San Francisco's "sandwich" pick was infielder Emmanuel Burriss, this year's Opening Day second baseman. "That was the beginning of a major emphasis on the Draft," Evans said. This emphasis continued in 2007, when the Giants had six of the first 51 picks. Their haul included Bumgarner, infielder Nick Noonan and right-hander Tim Alderson, who was sent to Pittsburgh shortly before this year's Trade Deadline for second baseman Freddy Sanchez. During the 2007-08 offseason, the Giants strengthened the organization with a transaction that involved no players -- at least not immediately. They hired John Barr, a highly regarded and successful talent evaluator, as scouting director. His first Draft last year featured Posey, along with infielders Brandon Crawford and Conor Gillaspie and outfielder Roger Kieschnick. Barr helped continue a renewed effort into international scouting that became noticeable in August 2006 when the Giants signed 16-year-old Angel Villalona, projected by some as a budding Andres Galarraga, to a $2.1 million bonus -- then a franchise record for an amateur. Outfielder Rafael Rodriguez received a $2.55 million bonus last year. Intensifying the organization's push into foreign markets was nothing short of essential, Evans said. "When you look at your competition from other clubs and you look at their Class A and Double-A clubs, you see the strength of those clubs often comes from a strong international scouting and development effort," Evans said. "So I think that was one of the reasons there was a stepped-up effort internationally. ... Brian led us in a transformation of our thinking, that the international market is not necessarily a place where you get bargain-basement deals. You need to go out and sign the best players." By at least one objective yardstick, the Giants have progressed handsomely. Baseball America, which focuses on the Minor Leagues, amateur baseball and player development, ranked the Giants fifth among the 30 Major League organizations this year. That's far above the Giants' ratings of 18th in 2006, 20th in 2007 and 23rd in 2008. Performance of Minor League affiliates doesn't always accurately reflect the quality of the talent therein. But the Giants have found significance in the success of their farm clubs. From 2006-08, San Francisco's affiliates posted an aggregate record of 1,294-998 (.565), second only to the Yankees' 1,436-1,057 (.576). Five of the Giants' seven outposts reached the playoffs last year; five made it again this season. "Winning in the Minor Leagues helps create an environment for development," Evans said. "It's not necessarily a measure. It's one way to evaluate the strength of the system, but it's far from the only way. Developing players in a winning environment is important because you want to develop players who expect to go the ballpark every day to win. And that hopefully carries all the way through to the big leagues." Experts outside the organization don't rate the Giants' other prospects as highly as Posey or Bumgarner. Nevertheless, the Giants appear to have gathered an array of players who could ultimately find their way to San Francisco, including Villalona, Gillaspie, Noonan, Crawford, Kieschnick, Rodriguez, outfielder Thomas Neal and pitchers Waldis Joaquin, Dan Runzler (like Posey and Bumgarner, also currently with the Giants), Clayton Tanner and Craig Clark. That's hardly a complete list. By contrast, naming the leading Giants-in-waiting would have been much easier just a few years ago. "Before, I believe you could count with one hand the guys who you think had a shot," Alou said.
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.