With all eyes on the loss of Brian Wilson – the three-time All-Star is reportedly out for the year, and on the verge of his second Tommy John surgery to repair a blown out elbow – a look around the minors might fuel Giants fans with some optimism in the wake of injury to baseball’s most beloved bearded hero.
Triple-A Fresno closer and Giants top pitching prospect Heath Hembree has been impressive earning two saves in three scoreless outings to start the year. But, it’s been the offense that has been turning heads down on the farm. As of pregame Monday, Giants’ farm hands are leading their respective leagues in batting average at the organization’s two advanced minor-league levels.
At Double-A Richmond, Chris Dominguez is tied atop the leader board with a .415 mark (17 for 41). Meanwhile at Triple-A Fresno, Justin Christian is tearing up the Pacific Coast League at a .553 clip (21 for 38).
Christian is quite the comeback story, himself a survivor of not one, but two major arm surgeries. The former Aragon and Skyline College standout has battled shoulder injuries throughout his career, and had his career threatened by a pair of major shoulder surgeries – one in college, which cost him a scholarship at Auburn – and, another a year after he made his major league debut with the Yankees in 2008.
More recently, Christian’s fellow Fresno outfielder Roger Kieschnick likewise has rebounded from the doldrums of serious injury. For the past two years, the slugging outfielder has been slowed by a variety of ailments – from a back injury that cost him the second half of the 2010 season, to a foot injury that hampered him in 2011.
Now, the once heralded prospect is reestablishing himself with a fresh start at Triple-A Fresno. It’s still early in the season, of course, but Kieschnick is among the Pacific Coast League leaders in many offensive categories. Through 11 games, he entered play Monday leading the PCL in runs (12), second in slugging percentage (.800), tied for third with home runs (3), and fourth in batting average (.422). A marked improvement after hitting a combined .254 in 682 at bats over two injury-riddled seasons Double-A Richmond.
“It’s not as if this guy forgot how to play baseball,” San Jose manager Andy Skeels said.
Skeels was in a unique position to witness Kieschnick’s promotion from a loaded High-A San Jose in 2009 – where the slugging outfielder was a California League All-Star amid the team’s championship run. Along with Kieschnick and many of the organization’s other top prospects, Skeels transferred to Richmond in 2010 to helm the Double-A Flying Squirrels in their inaugural season.
Kieschnick was making the most of a fun but grueling season. Richmond’s ballpark The Diamond is renowned as one of the toughest hitters’ environments in baseball. But, the 2010 season was also a chance to be part of baseball history for a city rich in minor-league history, once having been a Triple-A town to the Braves for over 40 years.
“It’s definitely a fun place to play,” Kieschnick said. “It seems like the stands were always packed. They have great fans and a good baseball community.”
Then injury struck. Kieschnick suffered a major back injury – a season-ending stress fracture to his L-5 vertebrae. He returned from the disabled list in 2011, but was plagued by foot problems. The lackluster result at the plate was torture for Kieschnick, who had hit around the .300 mark every season dating back to his first year of high school ball.
“He had some health issues, and that interfered with a lot of his development,” Skeels said. “You know, when guys with nine or ten years in the big leagues get hurt, you can draw on that entire reservoir of knowledge, and experience, and wisdom, so when you finally do get healthy … you resume doing what you did before. When it’s a young player who doesn’t have that foundation yet, you’re trying to make adjustments and do things that you’ve never previously ever had to do before, and that’s definitely going to affect your performance.”
Having turned 25 this year, the Dallas native drafted out of Texas Tech in 2008 hasn’t had the chance to establish that reservoir of veteran knowledge. And, Skeels affirmed it was a frustrating experience for the hard-working Kieschnick.
“Roger is definitely a favorite of mine,” Skeels said. “This kid loves to play. He’s not going to get outworked by anyone. He’s a great kid, and he wants to do well. We’re hopeful that he continues with what he’s doing right now, because I think he’s impressing a lot of people early on.”
Renowned as a big bopper in college after hitting 51 home runs in three years at Louisville, Chris Dominguez has continued slugging at every stop of his minor-league journey.
In 2010 at Low-A Augusta, he hit 21 home runs. Then in 2011, after slamming 11 homers in the first half at San Jose, he earned a midseason promotion to Richmond. He added seven bombs to his season total, as well as totaling 22 doubles in 295 at bats. However, his batting average took nearly a 50-point plunge, and he finished the year hitting just .244 against Eastern League pitching.
That doesn’t seem to be a problem thus far in 2012, with Dominguez’s .415 average currently atop the league leaders’ board.
“This is probably the longest part of the schedule when it’s still very cold,” said Bobby Evans, Giants Vice President of Baseball Operations. “And the pitching is very tough in that league…. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anybody get so hot so fast coming out of spring.”