Pads recall Blake Tekotte

April 30, 2012

            On a weekend that both Bryce Harper and Michael Trout – the two top outfield prospects in the game – were called up from the minor leagues, don’t overlook the move San Diego made in recalling Blake Tekotte.

            You’re not going to find Tekotte’s name on any top-prospect lists. Baseball Tonight and MLB Network aren’t going to dedicate time on their daily reels every time he singles to right field. And, it’s a safe bet Tekotte won’t go on to achieve the perennial All-Star status expected of Harper and Trout.

            Still, there are reasons to love Tekotte. The reason I do is he was the unsung third man of a collegiate Big Three. Tekotte was the leadoff hitter for the 2008 Miami Hurricanes team that also featured Jemile Weeks and Yonder Alonso. In fact, the trio batted 1-2-3 in the lineup, combining for 50 home runs on the year.

            Alonso, with 24 homers, was the outright slugger on the team, though he once joked that in batting practice, Weeks would often claim to be the best power hitter in the lineup. Meanwhile, Tekotte was putting up a spectacular under-the-radar season, leading the Hurricanes with 88 hits, 27 steals, and an eye-catching 12 hit by pitches.

            Yet, while Alonso and Weeks were each selected in the first round of the 2008 draft, Tekotte didn’t go until round three. Since then, he’s been the same under-the-radar presence he’s always been – steadily climbing the Padres’ organizational ladder, while average 30 steals per year, while proving himself as a legitimate professional center fielder.

            Alonso and Tekotte have since been reunited, following the offseason trade that sent ace right-hander Mat Latos to the Reds in exchange for a ransom of prospects, including Alonso. And, if the Padres outfield continues to scuffle – Jesus Guzman, Cameron Maybin, and Will Venable are hitting a combined .215 on the year – don’t be surprised if Tekotte starts claiming some regular playing time in San Diego.


Hacker excited for first start

April 28, 2012

            The Fresno Grizzlies may have to put in a request with the big club to retire No. 51, as the last two players to wear the number in San Francisco have absolutely owned the Pacific Coast League this season.

            Last season, it was Justin Christian who sported No. 51 during his big-league call-up in September. In his return to Fresno this season, Christian has been one of the toughest outs in baseball. Christian entered into play yesterday tops in the PCL with 34 hits, and second in the league with a .420 batting average.

            And, Friday night, while making his first major league start, it was Eric Hacker who wore No. 51. Upon his call-up, Hacker was tied for tops in the PCL with a 4-0 record. It’s the second time in his career the journeyman right-hander has gotten off to a fast start with Fresno. In 2010, he was named the Giants’ minor-league pitcher of the year after leading the PCL in wins, posting an organizational best 16-8 record.

            At the time, the hurler’s mound presence prompted Fresno pitching coach Pat Rice to compare Hacker to one of the all-time greats – one Roger Clemens.     

            “They’re both big, physically gifted pitchers,” Rice said Friday via telephone. “I don’t know if he’s Roger Clemens by any stretch of the imagination, but he has some pretty hard stuff.”

            A tried and true minor-league journeyman, Hacker is in his second turn with the Giants organization. He spent 2011 with the Twins, then resigned with the Giants this offseason. The Giants’ starting rotation is notoriously one of the toughest in all of baseball for a minor-league pitcher to crack. However, when a rainout forced the team to play a doubleheader Monday in New York, the Giants required a spot start on the fly. So, Thursday night, Hacker got the call.  

            “He was trying to be cool. But yeah, he was excited, as anybody would be,” Rice said. “He’s been up there before, but your first start, you have to calm the nerves.”

            Entering into Friday’s 5-3 loss, Hacker was coming off a solid performance April 22 against Mariners Triple-A affiliate Tacoma. While he surrendered three runs over 6 2/3 innings to earn his fourth win of the year, he set the first 12 batters of the game down in order. And, he did so throwing to a catcher Giants fans should remember well – one Eli Whiteside.

            Whiteside – the backup catcher from the 2010 Giants World Championship team – is back in Fresno this year for the first time since 2009, when he established himself in the eyes of the organization as an outstanding team leader.

            “He really took control of the team,” Rice said of Whiteside. “It wasn’t that he hit that great or anything like that. It’s that he took care of things behind the plate…. He’s just a natural leader.”

            In addition to Hacker, there are two players at Fresno who have returned to the Giants organization this season. Left-hander Brian Burres – who was claimed off waivers by the Orioles from the Giants in 2006 – is off to a 1-1 start in four starts. Also, journeyman Todd Linden has returned to the Giants organization for the first time since 2007, after toiling in independent ball and the Japanese league over the past two seasons. Linden, 32, entered into play last night hitting .284 with 17 RBIs.

            Meanwhile, pitching prospect Eric Surkamp – who was expected to be the Giants’ first go-to guy out of the farm system this year – has yet to pitch in a game this season, after the left-hander was diagnosed with a strained left flexor tendon of his pitching elbow in March.

Ex-Giants prospect heating up

April 27, 2012

            At the outset of the 2009 season, Thomas Neal was a man on a mission.

            “I want to make it to the big leagues,” Neal said three years ago as a burgeoning Giants prospect. “But, when I get up there, I don’t want to just make it. I want to make an impact for 15 or 20 years and eventually help the team win a World Series.”

            But, with the Giants doing the unthinkable by winning the World Series the following year, not only was Neal still climbing the organizational ladder. The Giants also started opening eyes with a pair of top-flight outfield prospects in Francisco Peguero – who hit .329 with a .448 slugging percentage and 40 stolen bases in 2010 at Single-A San Jose – and first-round draft pick Gary Brown.

            And so it goes, in 2011 when the Giants were considering anything and everything short of duct tape to keep their big-league infield from collapsing amid a playoff push, Neal became expendable. On July 30, just before the trade deadline, Neal was dealt to the Indians for veteran shortstop Orlando Cabrera.   

            “It was a little shocking, but it wasn’t personal,” Neal said. “It was a business decision … and I think it worked out for both teams.”

            Now, Neal is once again on a mission. Despite hitting .295 at Triple-A Fresno in 2011, Neal’s power production tanked. He hit just two home runs in 220 at bats. As it turns out, a previous shoulder injury that required surgery in 2007 was troubling him throughout last season. 

            “It was something that just wasn’t right all season … and cost me some time last year,” Neal said “Now, it’s a matter of staying on top of it and making sure it doesn’t [get reinjured].”

            So, Neal reported early this year for his first full season with his new club. He was in Goodyear, Az. in January to strengthen his right shoulder. And, after a slow start at Double-A Akron, the 24-year-old slugger is starting to heat up. He has hit safely in six of his last seven games, including a 5-for-9 stint over his last two games in a pair of wins to help Akron to an 11-6 start. He is currently hitting .293 (12 for 41) on the year.

            “I’m getting close to where I need to be,” Neal said. “I feel a lot better than I did last year.”

            Despite switching uniforms, Neal isn’t exactly a stranger in a strange land. Akron is in the Eastern League, the same league in which Giants Double-A affiliate Richmond plays. In 2010, Neal hit .291 with 40 doubles there in the Flying Squirrels’ inaugural season. And, he has also reconnected with two other former Giants farm hands, with infielder Ryan Rohlinger and outfielder Ben Copeland both currently at Akron.

Giants winning Pagan WAR

April 26, 2012

            Angel Pagan hasn’t been all too impressive since joining the Giants. Granted, he is working with a handicap – Giants fans are inevitably bitter about the Carlos Beltran trade last season.

            Along with the offseason swap that brought Pagan to the Giants, that brings the total bill of both trades with the Mets to: Andres Torres, Ramon Ramirez, and Zack Wheeler for Pagan and 44 games of Beltran. Even if the careers of Torres and Ramirez absolutely implode in New York, the Mets still stand to get the better of the deal, and by far.

            Wheeler is off to an electric start at Double-A Binghamton this season. The Mets top prospect – formerly the Giants’ top pitching prospect – has yet to win a game in four starts, though this is par for the course of minor-league life in April. Otherwise, the right-hander has posted a 1.80 ERA over 20 innings, while striking out 24 against 11 walks, though six of the walks came in an erratic performance Wednesday against Blue Jays affiliate New Hampshire.

            If Pagan has some more innings like the third inning of the Giants disappointing 4-2 loss the Reds on Weddnesday, that out-of-balance trades theory may need to be reassessed. But, the reason the specific trade that brought Pagan to San Francisco makes sense is because of a different theory – that being: WAR theory.

            WAR stands for Wins Above Replacement, and is one of the most popular measures of individual ball players among sabermetric circles. For those of you who saw Moneyball, WAR is the equation to which the faux-fictional Peter Brand refers when explaining to Billy Beane his secret formula for evaluating players statistically.

            Like all baseball stats, WAR is represented by a number. It’s theoretical in the sense that there isn’t a uniform method in equating the stat. Baseball Prospectus is considered the authority on the matter, which uses a different equation than Baseball Reference. I’ll be using Baseball Reference’s numbers, because, as their name suggests, it is much easier to reference.

            In essence, WAR is represented by a number from roughly the low of -0.5 (one of the worst, which suggests a player actually cost his team a win) to the high of 9.5 (one of the best, which suggests a player was worth 9 ½ wins in a given season).

            Now, the Giants are renowned as being an organization that doesn’t embrace the use of sabermetric data in day-to-day baseball operations. However, a concise case for replacing Torres with Pagan can be made with the players’ given WAR figures from 2010. Both players are similar, in the sense that they both had career years in 2010, followed by a disappointing season in 2011. But, in isolating their upside with their WAR values of 2010, Pagan (5.1) was worth a half game more than Torres (4.6). Career wise, Pagan (10.3) is nearly twice as valuable as Torres (5.9).

            Both of these season and career discrepancies are fairly significant. And, now that Torres has landed on the disabled list, it puts Pagan on pace to be largely more valuable in 2012.

Sanchez rehabs in San Jose

April 24, 2012

            Freddy Sanchez is not having any trouble seeing the ball.

            In his first at bats of the season with San Jose Monday night, Sanchez backed up the talk that his shoulder injury hasn’t affected his swing. In his first of four scheduled rehab starts at Municipal Stadium this week, the contact throughout a 1-for-3 night was loud. His first time up he drove a soaring fly out to the left-field warning track. In his next at bat, he smoked a worm-burner back up the middle for a single.

            “I hadn’t seen a live pitch in a week,” Sanchez said. “So, I came out just hoping to make contact, to be honest with you. This is my spring training.”

            But, once again, the bat is not the issue. It’s the throwing arm. And, debuting as a designated hitter doesn’t help to dispel any concern that the Giants World Series hero of two years ago is damaged beyond repair.

            According to Sanchez, Giants manager Bruce Bochy communicated to him that the rehab timetable is roughly three weeks. That’s the soonest he will rejoin the big club.

            But, Sanchez’s true test is yet to come. Since dislocating his shoulder June 10 of last year while attempting to make a diving backhand at AT&T Park, his ability to play baseball has been derailed by his inability to throw. It’s only as recently as the outset of spring training that the second baseman was even able to play catch.

            This week, he’s hoping to take the critical step in returning to San Francisco’s lineup from surgery last August to repair the torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. Due to a three-hour flight delay Monday from Arizona to San Francisco, Sanchez wasn’t able to work out defensively prior to the game. He is tentatively scheduled to take groundballs Tuesday. And, if all goes well, he will get his first start at second base on Wednesday.

            “Sometimes it just takes a little longer to get warmed up,” Sanchez said. “But, I’ve been throwing a lot, and it’s just a matter of it holding up throughout the whole game.”

            San Jose manager Andy Skeels is no stranger to the day-to-day of managing a player going through shoulder rehabilitation. Former Giants prospect Thomas Neal, who underwent shoulder surgery in 2007, played for Skeels for three years at three different levels.

            It was a long road back for Neal. And, even though he got his career back on track – Neal hit .337 with 22 home runs at San Jose in 2009 to earn team MVP honors – the shoulder still hampers him. In his first spring training with the Indians, after being traded by the Giants last season for veteran shortstop Orlando Cabrera, Neal reported to camp early this year to work on strengthening his throwing shoulder.     

            “For big-league guys I think it’s a slightly different deal,” Skeels said. “Everybody in San Francisco really wants Freddy to get healthy as fast as he can. At the same time, you can’t get out in front of what nature’s own schedule happens to be. So, it’s that tough push-and-pull between wanting to get him out there as fast as you can, and also making sure he doesn’t get out there before he’s really ready.”

            One things for sure: Giants fans are really ready for him to return. When Sanchez was announced for his first at bat Monday, he received a heartfelt ovation from the upwards of 1,400 in attendance at Municipal Stadium. It was by far the biggest ovation for any single player in San Jose this season.

            Even early on, the fanfare was evident. During batting practice, one autograph seeker asked every player in a Giants jersey if he was Freddy Sanchez. Catcher Dan Burkhart finally stopped and signed for the excited fan. It can neither be confirmed nor denied that Burkhart signed Sanchez’s name.

Stanford wins wild one

April 22, 2012

            The Sun Devils brought the dessert heat with them to Sunken Diamond, and the climate boiled over into a cooker of a baseball game Saturday, as Stanford walked off with a dramatic 8-7 win.

            Stanford third baseman Adam Blandino scorched a line drive down the third-base line to deliver the clutch RBI single in the bottom of the ninth to win it. Blandino was 3 for 5 with a home run and four RBIs in the game, adding to a recent tear in which the freshman has gone 7 for 12 with four homers and 10 RBIs over his last three games.

            With the win, Stanford can now overtake Arizona State in the Pac-12 standings with a series sweep on Sunday. Ranked No. 10 in the nation, Stanford (7-7 in conference, 24-10 overall) is in fifth place in the conference standings, percentage points behind the fourth-place Sun Devils (9-8, 24-15), currently ranked No. 20. UCLA, Oregon, and University of Arizona entered play Saturday in a three-way tie for first place.

            Stanford starter Brett Mooneyham looked dominant early on. Since starting the year 5-0, the big left-hander had dropped three in a row while struggling with his control, walking 11 in 17 innings over the three-game slide.

            But, two extra bullpen sessions during the week aimed at tightening up his mechanics served Mooneyham well. He allowed just two hits the first two times through the order, and settled all 16 at bats through the first four innings on five or less pitches. However, while he walked just one through six innings of work, he grew a bit erratic as the afternoon wore on, hitting three batsmen.

            Still, when Stanford broke a 3-3 tie in the bottom of the sixth with a four-run rally to cap Arizona State starter Trevor Williams’ worst start of the year, it seemed the Cardinal might secure a win for the struggling Mooneyham. The bullpen could not stave off the Sun Devils’ offense, though.

           Arizona State rallied back yet again with three in the seventh, and one more in the ninth to tie it at 7-7. However, an all-out effort by Stanford left fielder Stephen Piscotty on the game-tying double by Michael Benjamin prevented the go-ahead run from scoring for the Sun Devils.

            With Piscotty shading towards the left-center alley, Benjamin’s double was crushed down the left-field line. The tying run scored easily in the person of catcher Max Rossiter. But, Piscotty showed off some fleet-footed hustle to cover the ground and hurry the ball back to the infield, keeping the back runner in check at third.

            Piscotty has served as Stanford’s third baseman for most of the year. But, a slew of injuries have caused Cardinal head coach Mark Marquess to shake things up defensively. Regular center fielder Jake Stewart, who has been out a week with a leg injury, is still day to day. And, shortstop Lonnie Kauppila was lost for the season after suffering a knee injury last weekend against Oregon.

            Stanford sophomore A.J. Vanegas notched the win in relief after blowing the save in the ninth. The right-hander’s record improves to 3-0. Vanegas was scheduled to start Sunday’s game. However, he was electrifying over two innings of relief, topping out at 97 mph with his fastball. Stanford’s Sunday starter is now listed as TBA.

Giants shake déjà vu in NY

April 21, 2012

            Game 2 flashbacks anyone?

            Albeit we’re only in April, but tonight’s dramatic win feels like redemption for the infamous 10-inning loss to the Mets in the 2000 National League Division Series. With the score in tonight’s game hanging in the familiar balance of a 4-3 Giants lead in the 10th inning, with both the tying and winning runs for the Mets in scoring position with one out, the memory of that heartbreaking 5-4 loss on a fateful October night at Pac Bell Park loomed with the foreboding feeling of déjà vu.  

            Then emerged Clay Hensley to become the third Giants pitcher this season to nail down a save.

            Hensley is the latest in what has become one of general manager Brian Sabean’s signature acquisitions – a free agent signed to a minor-league deal late in the offseason who emerges as a force to be reckoned with on the big-league pitching staff.

            Of course, last year it was Ryan Vogelsong, who started the 2011 in Triple-A Fresno before debuting with the big club a year ago Wednesday. Vogelsong proceeded to scrap his way onto the All-Star team before finishing fourth in the National League with a 2.71 ERA.

            In 2010, Santiago Casilla made his way across The Bay, likewise by signing a minor-league deal. Casilla also started the year in Fresno, and was virtually untouchable in a handful of appearances before having his contract purchased by the big club in late May. In that legendary World Series Championship season, Casilla loomed large. Of the 11 pitchers the Giants carried on their postseason roster, Casilla actually had the best winning percentage with a 7-2 record, and also paced all Giants relievers in wins. And, though he only pitched in four games that postseason, he hurled a key 1 2/3 innings in a 3-2 Game 4 win to clinch the NLDS.

            Perhaps history remembers Brandon Medders as an underwhelming precursor to the Giants’ ultimate redemption of 2010. But, don’t overlook the hard-throwing middle man as a crucial pickup. Like Casilla, Medders was a master at earning relief wins by keeping the Giants in games. He led all ’09 Giants pitchers in win percentage with a 5-1 record, and contributed more relief innings than anyone for San Francisco with the exception of Brian Wilson.

             It’s still early, of course, but Hensley already looks like he is on his way to becoming such a jewel plucked from the proverbial scrapheap. The 32-year old – that was originally drafted by the Giants in the same 2002 draft class as Matt Cain before being traded to San Diego a year later – has already earned a win and a save in six appearances this season.