Hot and Cold Starts – Which to Believe

So, the season is underway…well, barely underway, for most of minor league baseball, and already, we’ve seen a lot very interesting performances, particularly from the various pitchers up and down the system getting into their first game(s).

There’s a tendency for fans to have “First Impression Syndrome” from these debuts, so here’s a handy guide for which starts, both hot and cold, to believe and which not to:

BELIEVE – Sean Hjelle’s Hot Start

One of the earliest of the hot starts was Sean Hjelle, who went 3.2 shutout innings in his debut with just one walk allowed and five strikeouts.  Hjelle struggled significantly in Triple-A after his promotion late last season, but there were many factors that could explain this.  Notably, Hjelle’s start was on the peak of a heat wave, which should make fly balls easier to hit hard and far, while one of Hjelle’s weaknesses last season were home runs.  Hjelle’s contact was not very hard hit, and all grounders, which is what you’d want.  Hjelle won’t be unscored upon all season, but bet that he has a very good season, and pushes the case for a big league promotion.

DON’T BELIEVE – Will Bednar’s Wildness

2021 first round pick had a reputation for being a very under-control pitcher before being drafted, so what happened in his first game?  Over 3.2 innings, Bednar hit five batters, and walked two, although he did allow only one hit, it’s not like many batter felt comfortable in the box.  While you don’t get comments from players after games, there’s plenty of reasons for sudden loss of control, from nerves to not having a good grip from a blister or something else.  Whatever it is, there’s more reasons to think this was a bad day and not a harbringer of a bad season.

BELIEVE – Aeverson Arteaga and Alexander Suarez’s Slow Starts

In his third game of the season, Arteaga finally got his first hit, which was a home run, but he’s still 1-for-11 with eight strikeouts.  Alexander Suarez is 0-for-8 with no walks, and three strikeouts.  Neither of this is entirely unexpected.  Both are young players (19 and 20 respectively) making their full-season debuts, facing the most advanced pitching they ever have.  And for Arteaga in particular, his hot AZL may have raised expectation a bit too high.  These guys aren’t going to be this bad all season, but don’t get to down on them for some humbling starts.  This is what is to be expected, and what to look for is how they adapt.

DON’T BELIEVE – Eugene’s Top of the Lineup Woes

Eugene has a monster roster of talent, as anyone paying attention knows, but the first couple of games haven’t been overwhelming.  Noticeably, through Eugene’s first three games (one that isn’t in the books yet), the top two hitters in the lineups, Luis Matos and Hunter Bishop, have struggled.  Matos is 2-for-11 and Bishop is 1-for-10, counting the suspended game.  Don’t believe that this will continue.  Both players are staying competitive in their at-bats, with each having one walk and just three strikeouts.  Expect both of them to start getting on base more soon.

BELIEVE – San Jose’s Piggyback Starters

San Jose has a lot of starters, and they are employing a piggyback role to start the season.  With pitchers under strict pitch counts, two starters are scheduled to go most games, so there will be one reliever with multiple innings in most games.  That’s the piggyback starter.  So far, that’s been Seth Lonsway (4 IP, 6 K), Landen Roup (3.0 IP, 5 K), and Nick Sinacola (3.0 IP, 4 K), and they’ve been some of San Jose’s best pitching.  Don’t ignore them just because they aren’t getting the starts, they’re going to be big to watch.

DON’T BELIEVE – The ultra-hot starts by Schmitt and Gigliotti (too much)

This is more of a “limit your expectations” thing.  Casey Schmitt has started his season (including the suspended game) going 4-for-7 with three walks to no strikeouts, with a double and home run.  Richmond’s CF Michael Gigliotti is 5-for-8 with a home run, a walk, just one strikeout, and three steals.  These are great and very reassuring starts for two prospects coming back from disappointing years for varying reasons.  But…don’t expect them to continue hitting over .500, or even over .400, for very long.  Things will even out.  But hopefully both will continue breakout seasons, and Gigliotti in particular becoming Zaidi’s latest savvy minor league pick up.

DON’T BELIEVE – First Appearance Relief Blow-Ups in Richmond

Relievers have a tough time working down bad appearances, but it happens.  It’s especially tough when it’s a first appearance in the season.  R.J. Dabovich had one of those in the season opener, working the 9th in a game with a huge led, but he allowed three runs in on four hits with three strikeouts.  But that appearance was marred by a weather delay just before it that may have thrown him off.  More recently, Blake Rivera got hit hard in his first game of the year, including two home runs.  But also take note that both pitchers got three strikeouts in their single innings.  Things should turn around for both.

Heliot Ramos’ big debut

Easily, the biggest surprise of the week was Heliot Ramos getting promoted to the big leagues in less than a week of the minor league season, and after only two games in the MLB season.  The reasoning came from reliever John Brebbia going on the bereavement list, and the team decided to give Heliot Ramos a chance rather than bring up another pitcher.

Of course, Ramos had a sensational first game on Sunday.

Two hits, and he got to show off his speed…and there’s more to come, as fans will appreciate Ramos’ power to all fields.

What’s interesting about this debut is whether it will last.  Obviously, it’s unknown about Brebbia’s status and when he’ll return, but it usually won’t last long.  With the move, the Giants now have 14 pitchers and 14 position players, but to start the season, with the starters on pitch counts, pitching could be an issue.  The Giants also now have 5 full-time outfielders (along with Dugger, Pederson, Slater, and Yastrzemski), but also three utility players who play both infield and outfield (Dubón, Ruf, and Williams).  They also have very few players with options.  Tyler Rogers will be headed to the paternity list this week as well, which will add to the shuffle.

Also, rosters will move from 28 players to 26 until the end of April, and LaMonte Wade, Jr. won’t be on the injured list for too long, hopefully.

It’s possible the Giants could send down the recently acquired Williams if Ramos pushes the envelope to stay when Brebbia comes back.  Perhaps the Giants could even cut some of their borderline players that are out of options, like Duggar or Dubón, but I wouldn’t count on that so early.  Chances are Ramos’ time in the majors won’t last long this stint.  There just isn’t a lot of flexibility on the roster yet.  That may change with time, but I think we’ll see Ramos back in Sacramento later this April.

The big question will be whether or not this taste of the majors has whet Ramos’ appetite to force the Giants to call him back up, or whether it disrupts his early season rhythm and it takes him time to get back into it when he returns to Triple-A.

The Season Opening Injury List

Not all season-openings news is full of hope.  A couple of significant prospects won’t be on rosters to start this minor league season.

Pitcher Ryan Murphy should be starting his season in Double-A, but he’s having reported back spasms, and is expected to miss around the first couple of weeks of the season.  Murphy was one of the revelations of the Giants’ new pitching depth in 2021, so it’s worrisome to see something like this, but hopefully he’ll feel better and stronger soon.

Meanwhile, fellow pitcher Carson Ragsdale will be on the IL to start the season thanks to thoracic outlet surgery…which is a new one for me.  It’s unclear when the surgery occurred, but according to John Hopkins Hospital, the recommendation for people (non-athletes) is to not overexert themselves for three months, so we may not see him for a while.  The Giants snatched Ragsdale, the Phillies’ 1st round draft pick in 2020, for reliever Sam Coonrod, and Ragsdale was one of the leaders of all of minor league baseball in strikeouts last season.

Two other notable injury listings, for reasons unknown, were Norwith Gudiño and Sam Delaplane, who were place on the injury list two days into the Triple-A season for Sacramento.

Interesting Starts and Reliefs

Pitchers and their development are an interesting situation.  How they end up, whether they are starters, relievers, or closers, often is not how their roles work in development, so it’s very interesting to follow how they are used in the minors.  Three pitchers and their positioning were worth noting this week.

On the ‘expected’ side of things was Blake Rivera, who made his first appearance of the year.  Rivera was drafted as a starter, but had been predicted to head to relief with his hammer curve.  He had stuck out primarily as a starter through last year, but in his Double-A debut, he was in the Richmond bullpen.  This could be a move that sticks for him long-term.

On the surprise side, Randy Rodriguez made the start in Eugene’s second game of the season.  Rodriguez broke out last season in San Jose with a 1.74 ERA in 32 relief appearances.  The last time Rodriguez started a game was in 2018 in the Dominican Summer League.  Over the last two seasons, Rodriguez averaged 1.8 innings per appearance, but whether that will turn into a starter long-term is a question.

Finally, we’ve got Esmerlin Vinicio in San Jose.  Last year, Vinicio was one the Giants’ most effective starters in the Arizona Complex League.  He made his debut in San Jose not just as a reliever, but in a closer role.  Now, there’s not much to read into being the 9th inning guy in one game, but it is interesting that Vinicio initially was not part of San Jose’s piggyback rotation, even with a packed pitching staff.  And certainly, out of the top 2019 signings, he wouldn’t have been the pitcher expected to be used in a 9th inning role.  Keeping an eye on how he’s used going forward will be interesting.

Good Luck on your Future Endeavors, Heath Quinn

Disappointing news for Heath Quinn, and those who had a lot of hope for the talented outfielder.

Heath Quinn was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2016 draft, one of the two outfielders drafted at the top of the draft that were hoped to turn around the Giants’ long history of not developing outfielders.  The Giants had sacrificed their first round pick when they signed Jeff Samardzija.  Drafted ahead of Quinn was Bryan Reynolds…who turned out okay, just not for the Giants.  Quinn was hot in his 2016 debut, but injuries limited him in his first full pro season to 75 games in High-A San Jose.  Quinn came back to San Jose in 2019 and hit .300/.376/.485 in 96 games.  He managed 91 games in 2019, still doing well in San Jose, but struggling in his Double-A debut.

Unfortunately, 2020 cost him his age-25 season, and once again, he was injured to start 2021.  A strained oblique meant he didn’t debut until June 17th, again at High-A.  Quinn played 35 games in Eugene, and 13 back to Double-A, where he hit .213/.225/.362.

Unfortunately, he’s just another young player that injuries completely sapped.  It’s still sad to see it happen.  Good luck with whatever is next, Heath.

Highlights of the Week

How could we not start with Heliot Ramos’ first home run of the season…in his first plate appearance of the season?

With power that’s far better than camera equipment, Rayner Santana had an absolute moonshot for his first home run with San Jose.  There’s a lot of promise in that power from the young catcher.

Mason Black’s fastball was too fast for the rough camera in Modesto, but this slider was caught by it.  It’s easy to see the promise here.

One of the quietly impressive hitters in Sacramento is Luis González, whom the Giants claimed off waivers in August of 2021.  He’s been hitting well, and knocked out a game-winning hit in extras.

You know that here at GiantFutures we love defense!  So here’s Ka’ai Tom leaving a baserunner utterly confused and turned into an out.

And let’s wrap up with how the Giants top prospects have impacted the big leagues.

The Reading/Listening List

There’s been a lot going on, but the best thing to pass along is going to be this article from Maria Guardado about a different kind of development that the Giants have offered their minor leaguers: learning Spanish.

Obviously, there are a huge number of players coming from Latin America who are learning English on top of everything else they are handling as they work their way through the minors.  To see the Giants encouraging and enabling their U.S.-born players to learn Spanish the other way, and to see that players are excited to do that, is huge.  Not just in diversity, but in ways to help players connect as a team and really build with each other.

Hitter of the Week: Casey Schmitt

Maybe I should put more consideration into a guy who’s gone more than three games, but it’s worth acknowledging what Casey Schmitt has done in his first two+ games this season.  After a disappointing offensive season in San Jose, Schmitt started off the season very well, going 4-for-7 with a double and a home run, a walk, and not a single strikeout.  In the team’s third game, that was suspended, he was 1-for-2.  That performance won’t be added to the stats until the game is finished around late May or early June, but clearly, Schmitt is doing good stuff early in the season, and has started answering the questions that were around him last season.

Pitcher of the Week: Mason Black

All of the Giants’ minor league starters were on shortened pitch counts, so there weren’t any long outings, but Mason Black had the most impressive, and in his first start of his pro career.  Black allowed just one single while striking out seven across 4.0 innings in a fantastic first start.  His fastball was mid-90’s with some serious bit on his slider.  It will be very interesting to follow him as he continues.

The Wrap-Up

If you’re new to the Prospect Round-Up this season, you might not know that aside from the Giants, I unreasonably love two things about baseball: uniforms and stadiums.  And I like to talk about what’s going on with them here in the Wrap-Up, even if it doesn’t always relate to Giants.  Usually, the minor leagues offer….a lot of uniform things to talk about.  But today, I want to talk about one in MLB…the latest City Connect uniforms for Houston.

I generally have not liked the various City Connect jerseys, and I have been pretty opaque about my feelings about the Giants City Connect jerseys (that they are uninspired).  But damn, Houston did a good job.  My father always kept me interested in space-type things, and they took this the right way.  Check out the team’s official announcement page for more details about the little details they did.  From colors to those pant numbers to the font…all well done.

That’s a relief, because Houston’s Triple-A affiliate Sugar Land’s rebrand to the Space Cowboys was…lukewarm at best.

And hey, the Space Cowboys opened the season against Sacramento, so there’s your Giants tie-in.  And it’s the only time they’ll play each other this season.

So that’s all for this first week-ish of minor league baseball.  See you next week!