Some years ago, as part of a featured television broadcast, newly assigned special assistant to the general manager Felipe Alou raved about two young prospects who had just been signed by the Giants. It was the first time many fans heard the names of Charlie Culberson and Nick Noonan.
The two have plenty in common. Both were supplementary first-round draft picks in 2007. Both were drafted out of high school and signed as 18-year-olds. And, perhaps most importantly, both are middle infielders.
This year, Noonan and Culberson were rolling at Triple-A Fresno, both as double-play partners and as roommates. But, when the Giants placed Ryan Theriot on the disabled list with an elbow injury in early May, they were forced to throw the untested Culberson into the big club’s beleaguered infield mix.
“It’s definitely a little weird,” Noonan said the day after Culberson’s major league debut. “Charlie was here in my apartment, and now he’s on TV.”
If Noonan is suffering any separation anxiety, he’s taking it out on opposing pitchers. In nine games since Culberson’s promotion, Noonan has been raking for the Grizzlies at a .371 clip (13 for 35) with two home runs and 14 RBIs. On the season, the left-handed hitting infielder is batting .321, including .333 against southpaws, and a team-best .452 with runners in scoring position.
That’s quite a turnaround after two subpar years that left the one-time top prospect toiling in obscurity. In 2009, Noonan was ranked in the organizational Top 10 by Baseball America, on a list that included a trio of soon-to-be World Series heroes in Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, and Sergio Romo. However, 2010 wasn’t as kind to Noonan, who hit just .237 at Double-A Richmond that season, before scuffling through most of 2011 by hitting just .223 while splitting time between Richmond and Single-A San Jose.
A lot of Noonan’s struggles were mechanical – casting the barrel of the bat, flying his shoulder open – things he’d work on day-in and day-out in batting practice. But, in game situations, he found himself flailing at dynamite sinker-slider stuff, with dreadful results.
“I’m trying not to guess pitches or trying to think during at bats anymore,” Noonan said. “I definitely lost a little bat speed the last couple years. I got kind of long with my swing…. Strength-wise, I never had an issue. Maturity-wise, I may have been a click or two behind. But, there’s no excuse for swinging at a pitch in the dirt.”
But, any lack of maturity was certainly to be expected. Noonan has long been one of the youngest players at the respective levels for which he’s played. In his two consecutive seasons at Richmond, he was the youngest player on roster throughout each year. This year, he is the youngest position player at Fresno. In fact, between San Jose, Richmond, and Fresno combined, there are just six position players currently on roster who are younger than Noonan.
“That’s part of the benefit of signing early,” said Bobby Evans, Giants Vice President of Baseball Operations. “You’re going to get into the system at a young age. But, it’s also a disadvantage, because you’re facing players that are older than you.”
Despite his struggles at lower levels over the past two seasons, Noonan earned a late-season promotion to Triple-A at the end of last season, hitting .297 over 13 games. The small sample size didn’t help Noonan’s dwindling stock, especially since Fresno’s Chukchansi Park is regarded as one of the most hitter-friendly environments in the Pacific Coast League. This year, however, Noonan has hit far better on the road, posting a .403 average in away games, as opposed to .269 at home.
“Development is not always about success,” Evans said. “He’s still a work in progress, but we’re encouraged.”
What’s more impressive, Noonan has rekindled his prospect star while making a defensive shift to shortstop. Until last year, he had played exclusively as a second baseman for three straight seasons. Last year at Richmond, though, he moved to the left side of second base. And, while he wasn’t getting many at bats to start the 2012 campaign as part of a crowded Fresno infield, he took over at shortstop when Joaquin Arias was recalled, and hasn’t looked back. Still, the Giants are currently looking to increase Noonan’s versatility by playing him at all three infield skill positions.
“I’ve just got to continue to get work at all three stops,” Noonan said. “You look at the Giants team that won the World Series … they had a bunch of guys that bounced around the infield.”
The Giants, of course, are content with current shortstop Brandon Crawford – who, years ago, was Noonan’s host on a high-school recruiting visit to UCLA – but, they are encouraging Noonan to stay sharp at multiple positions so he can more readily make the jump to the big leagues when the time comes.
“You never know what your big-league club is going to need when the bell rings, and you get the opportunity,” Evans said.
If and when the bell does ring for Noonan, just remember, you heard it from Felipe Alou first.