Noonan a hit in first start

For years it has been one of the Giants’ best kept secrets. But now the cat is out of the bag. Nick Noonan can hit.

Once regarded as one of the top prospects in the Giants organization, Noonan has been something of an afterthought to baseball prospectors since his subpar showing at Double-A Richmond in 2010. But even though he batted just .237 that season, his talents, albeit indirectly, loomed large in San Francisco’s first World Championship.

During the pivotal trade deadline of 2009, the Giants were in the market for a veteran second baseman. They were essentially in a battle for second place in the NL West, having utilized a revolving door of organizational second basemen in Emmanuel Burriss, Kevin Frandsen, and Matt Downs. And the word on the street was the Giants were taking a good, long look at then-Marlins second baseman Dan Uggla as a potential trade target.

That same 2009 season was the year of the mighty High-A San Jose Giants team that featured future stars Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, and Brandon Crawford. By the time the July trade season arrived, however, Posey was untouchable to trade suitors, while Crawford and Bumgarner had been promoted to Double-A. Yet the Marlins still had scouts at San Jose for consecutive games as the rumors that Uggla was bound for San Francisco seemed fast becoming a reality.

One NL scout on hand marveled at the bat of Noonan. Although his defensive skill set remained a question, his bat seemed destined to eventually play in the big leagues. His contact was loud. The ball jumped off his bat. And for a wiry, young middle infielder, he possessed plenty of projectable gap power.

Any negotiations between the Giants and Marlins reached an impasse. Uggla remained a Floridian through that year and the next. (He was ultimately traded to the Braves following the 2010 season.) And while any precise trade proposals are unknown, it seemed the Marlins had a keen positive evaluation of Noonan. Yet the young second baseman remained a Giant.

By “young,” we’re talking one of the youngest players in the California League. Noonan was the second youngest position player to play the entire season in the league that year. The youngest was his teammate Angel Villalona. Still, Noonan held his own, hitting .259 with 26 doubles en route to helping San Jose to a California League championship.

Meanwhile, the Giants did ultimately score a veteran second baseman at the trade deadline, acquiring Freddy Sanchez from the Pirates for highly touted pitching prospect Tim Alderson. And the rest is history, as a year later, Sanchez played a monumental role in the Giants’ 2010 World Series triumph.

Most of the following two seasons were a scuffle for Noonan, as his batting average dipped dramatically at the pitcher’s paradise of Double-A Richmond. After his poor showing in 2010, he slipped further into the abyss while repeating the level by hitting .212, with a meager .288 slugging percentage.

But then came a late season promotion to Triple-A Fresno, where Noonan swiftly began realizing the potential that had caused the Giants to draft him as a first-round compensation pick out of the San Diego prep Francis Parker School in 2007. He hit .297 in a short stint at the hitter’s paradise of Fresno in Aug. 2011 – though the small sample size of 37 at bats did nothing to reestablish him as a top prospect. Over a full season in 2012, however, Noonan affirmed his performance by hitting .296 in 490 at bats, while proving his versatility by playing three different infield positions.

Noonan’s minor-league path is reminiscent of another second baseman out of Southern California – that being Phillies great Chase Utley. Also a wiry-strong left-handed hitting second baseman, Utley’s first season at High-A Clearwater of the Florida State League in 2001 – where he hit .257 with 25 doubles – is eerily similar to that of Noonan’s 2009 season at San Jose. And two years later, Utley broke into the big leagues at the age of 24 – the same age Noonan is now.

It’s obviously way too early to gauge Noonan’s success by the numbers. Nonetheless, it is quite fun to say the rookie is currently batting .455. Although that is sure to diminish, Noonan’s first big-league start on Thursday is now etched in stone – 3 for 5 with two runs scored – with a nifty eighth-inning double-play assist that loomed large in the Giants’ 7-6 comeback win over the Cubs at Wrigley.

Perhaps the only downside to Thursday’s breakout performance is that the cat is now out of the bag. Nick Noonan can hit. And it’s precisely that hitting talent that could make Noonan the next big-league success to emerge from the depth of talent of the 2009 San Jose Giants.

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