High-A Dunedin off to hot start

April 19, 2014

When Blue Jays closer Casey Janssen made an April 15 rehab appearance at Toronto High-A affiliate Dunedin, part of him must have wanted to stay.

The minor-league Jays — not the Milwaukee Brewers — are off to the hottest start in professional baseball. Dunedin has posted a 13-2 record through its first 15 games and just three weeks into the season has opened up a four-game lead in the Florida State League North Division.

It’s fitting that Janssen returned to Dunedin this season. In 2005 when Janssen was a minor-league starter, he was part of an outstanding starting rotation that featured four first-round draft picks in Zach Jackson, Dustin McGowan, David Purcey and Ricky Romero, each of whom have since reached the big leagues.

But the 2005 Dunedin rotation had additional depth in Janssen, a fourth-round pick out of UCLA in 2004. The right-hander went 6-1 with a 2.26 ERA through 10 starts before being promoted to Double-A New Hampshire midway through the year.

This season, the minor-league Jays boast another crop out outstanding starting pitchers, though not nearly as high-profile as the staff of 2005 with only one first-rounder on the roster — right-handed reliever Justin Jackson.

The rotation is fronted by a trio of early-season standouts in left-hander Daniel Norris, a second-round pick out of Tennessee high school in 2011; left-hander Matt Boyd, a sixth-round pick out of Oregon State in 2013; and right-hander Taylor Cole, a 29th round pick out of Brigham Young in 2011.

The trio is off to a 7-0 start. Norris is considered to be the top prospect of the bunch, and has allowed just one run through 15 innings to post a 0.60 ERA in three starts. Boyd has been even better, proving untouchable through his first three starts yielding no runs through 17 innings while posting a perfect 3-0 record. And Cole has posted a 2.55 ERA through three starts and currently leads the Florida State League with 23 strikeouts.

In fact, the only loss incurred by a Dunedin starter this season has been by right-hander Jesse Hernandez. Hernandez yielded four runs (three earned) through six innings in a 5-2 loss to Brevard County April 11. Hernandez bounced back Friday by firing four shutout innings in a combined team shutout as the Jays downed the same Brevard County team 1-0.

Dunedin has won eight straight games heading into play Saturday night. The Jays send Boyd to the mound with the lefty bidding for his fourth win, as Dunedin goes for a series sweep against Brevard County in the final game of a four-game series.


Renda to DL with quad strain

April 14, 2014

Nationals prospect Tony Renda was placed on the 7-day disabled list April 11 with a strained quad.

Renda sustained the injury legging out an infield single in Nationals High-A affiliate Potomac’s 4-2 win over Carolina. According to Renda, the injury is not serious. He was rehabbing Monday but has not yet resumed baseball activities.

And he is already champing at the bit to get back onto the field.

“I’m the type of guy that if there’s a game playing I want to be in it,” Renda said.

Having played in 135 games for Low-A Hagerstown last season — the team played 137 total games — Renda isn’t accustomed to taking too many days off. But that’s when he’s at his best. A 5-foot-8 second baseman in the mold of Dustin Pedroia, Renda was a doubles machine in 2013, tabbing 43 two-baggers to lead the South Atlantic League.

For his efforts on and off the field, Renda was honored by the Nationals organization as the first ever recipient of the Bob Boone Award. The criteria of the award — according to a Washington Times article by Amanda Comak published Sept. 13, 2013; outstanding professionalism, leadership, loyalty, passion, selflessness, durability, determination and work ethic — reads like Renda’s resume.

“It was a very successful season,” Renda said. “To cap it all off with winning the Bob Boone Award for the organization … it’s a great feeling to get recognized for a good year. And to get that award is a really, really nice thing.”

Renda has left his mark at every stop as he’s pursued his passion as a baseball player.

His name is etched throughout the Serra High School-San Mateo record book as the Padres’ all-time leader in career hits (139), career runs (120) and career total bases (234). To put his Serra years into perspective, Barry Bonds hit for a .404 career batting average from 1980-82, ranking 11th all time. Renda ranks sixth all time having hit for a .434 career average from 2007-09.

In three years at Cal, he lead the Cinderella Golden Bears team of 2011 to the College World Series. And since being drafted in the second round by the Nationals in 2012, he has totaled 243 hits in 214 games.

The quad strain Renda suffered last Friday was a result of hustling for his third hit to cap a 3-for-4 night. It was his fourth multi-hit performance in eight games. He is currently hitting a cool .375 (12 for 32) and, despite not having any home runs, owns a healthy .438 slugging percentage.

“Every ball that I hit I try to drive and put into a gap somewhere,” Renda said. “I’m not necessarily trying to put it over the fence. I’m just trying to get that ball into the gap and run.”

That’s a day in the life for Renda. That’s why his being out of action for three straight days and counting is such a miscast.

As for the last time he went three days without playing baseball?

“There really hasn’t been,” Renda said. “It’s tough to sit and watch. But I’ve got other work to do. I need to get this quad right so I can play the rest of the year.”


Green off to fast start in PCL

April 9, 2014

History couldn’t quite repeat itself for Grant Green.

The former A’s prospect, now with Angels Triple-A affiliate Salt Lake, came up with two on and two out in the ninth inning Wednesday night as the Bees trailed Giants affiliate Fresno 10-7.

With Heath Hembree on the mound attempting to close it out for the Grizzlies, the history between he and Green loomed large, as in a similar situation last season Green hit a two-run home run to tie a game in the ninth.

This time around Green almost did the same, hitting a booming 415-foot fly ball to the deepest part of Smith’s Ballpark that Grizzlies center fielder Gary Brown ran down at the wall for the final out of the game.

Even more remarkable was the at bat to set up Green as the potential tying run. In the preceding at bat, Bees No. 2 hitter Taylor Lindsey ran up an 11-pitch at bat, fouling off five straight pitches before finally drawing a two-out walk to prolong the game.

The fireballing Hembree earned his second save of the year and has yet to give up a run through three outings this season.

Green, though, has been one of the hottest hitters in the Pacific Coast League this season. In fact, all the former Oakland first-round draft pick has done is hit since being traded last July for Alberto Callaspo. Last year at Salt Lake he hit a cool .333 (8 for 24) before being called up to the major league squad where he produced a solid .280 average. This season, he ranks third in the PCL with 11 hits while hitting for a .423 average.

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MiLB Gameday graphic of Grant Green’s long out to end Wednesday’s game against Fresno. The Grizzlies just held on to win it 10-7.


Biagini lands in San Jose

April 7, 2014

Joe Biagini describes the personality of the 2014 San Jose Giants’ pitching staff as more of a college team. That’s high praise, being as Biagini hardly got to enjoy his college career.

As a sophomore at College of San Mateo in 2010, Biagini underwent Tommy John surgery which effectively ended his tenure with the Bulldogs. By the numbers as a junior transfer at UC Davis, he didn’t have much fun, posting a 7.47 ERA over 13 relief outings.

Something peculiar happened during that 2011 season though, as the right-hander experienced a sever spike in velocity. A self-described weak kid growing up, Biagini topped out at 88 mph with his fastball on a good day while at CSM. By the end of his junior year at Davis though, he was touching 94 mph.

It was then Biagini — who was born in Menlo Park but moved to Santa Clara at age 4 — started getting some serious attention from major league scouts. And it was the team for which he grew up rooting that landed him, as the Giants selected Biagini in the 26th round of the 2011 draft.

“It didn’t really hit me right away. It was kind of a surreal experience,” Biagini said. “I felt honored to be worthy of playing for the Giants.”

After spending two seasons in Giants Low-A affiliate Augusta, Biagini was promoted to High-A San Jose to start the 2014 season. He made his debut with the minor-league Giants Monday at Lancaster, dealing to the tune of two hits through six shutout innings. Departing with a 1-0 lead, he ultimately took a no-decision as Lancaster rallied for two runs in the bottom of the ninth against reliever Tyler Mizenko to walk off on a two-run double by cleanup hitter Rio Ruiz.

Opposing teams figure to be hard-pressed to score against San Jose’s pitching staff this season though. San Jose is composed of most of the staff from last year’s Augusta team which ranked fourth in the South Atlantic League with a 3.45 team ERA and finished with best overall record in the league. The headline act in San Jose this year is 2012 first-round draft pick Chris Stratton, who earned his first win of the year in San Jose’s 7-1 opening-day win at Rancho Cucamonga.

“You can tell when you watch [Stratton] pitch that he just has something that throws hitters off,” Biagini said. “He is very unique.”

Biagini said he is in awe of many of the pitchers with whom he has come up through the ranks of the Giants’ farm system. Nine hurlers on the current San Jose staff pitched for the 2012 Short-Season Salem-Keizer team with which Biagini began his professional career.

“I feel pretty comfortable with most of the guys. Most of the other pitchers and I were together in Short-Season [in 2012]. I immediately noticed how close the team was. … This team definitely has a close-knit group.”

While Biagini has had his ups and downs throughout his career — he currently owns a 9-14 career record with a 5.16 ERA — the big 6-foot-4 right-hander owns what may just be one of the best senses of humor in the minors. When asked what he brings to the table amid a pitching staff with so many talented weapons, his response was an immediate laugh and a questioning tone as he said: “A smile?”

Playing in the Giants’ system is the second time in Biagini’s life he has pitched for the same organization as his father, Robert. Not only was his dad a minor-league pitcher for the Giants in 1981 and ’82, but he also played at CSM. While his father having played for CSM wasn’t the bottom line in his decision to enroll there, it was Robert who recommended the program to his son after Biagini graduated from The Kings Academy.

“I’ve never wanted to say (I went to CSM) just because he went there,” Biagini said. “But he knew the program. He knew the legendary John Noce. … But it was more of a baseball decision. It felt like the right place for me at the time.”

Now recovered from the arm injury which derailed his career with the Bulldogs, Biagini is having more fun than ever.

“I was excited about being in with this group,” Biagini said. “If you ask anybody, [the camaraderie] is actually more like a college team.”


Look at Angel run!

April 12, 2013

With all eyes on Kyle Crick’s first home start at San Jose Friday night, it was offense that stole the show.

Crick’s outing was cut short against Diamondbacks High-A affiliate Visalia, much in part to some sour defense. The big right-hander departed after 3 2/3 innings after surrendering five runs – though only one run was earned. Visalia extended its lead to 7-0 in the fifth.   But San Jose came roaring back with a five-spot in the bottom of the frame, sparked by the bat, and the legs, of Angel Villalona.

Villalona led off the inning with a sharp single to left. After advancing to second on a walk to Chris Lofton, Villalona flashed some surprising speed on the base paths when the big first baseman tagged on a medium-deep fly ball to right off the bat of Jeff Arnold.

It seemed to defy all previous scouting reports when Villalona went sprinting into third base with an athletic pop-up slide. Granted, most of those scouting reports are from three years ago, when Villalona was a big-bodied 18-year-old

It’s now hard to imagine that amid the prolific San Jose roster in 2009, many considered Villalona one of the most exciting prospects in the mix. Just a year previous, he was considered the top prospect in the Giants organization. Heading into 2009 only Bumgarner and Buster Posey were ranked ahead of him.

Villalona had a decent showing that season, batting .267 with nine home runs and 42 RBIs. Solid output, considering Villalona, at 18, was the youngest position player in the California League that season.

The knock against him had nothing to do with his baseball tools. It was his work ethic at which scouts scoffed. Sure, he was considered a hulking man-child. But the fear among scouts was something of a worst-case-Pablo-Sandoval-scenario. Add to the fear that Villalona seemed to lack the passion gene, and at 6-foot-3 had much more body to tame than Sandoval.

But now, after a long legal drama unfolded for Villalona in his home country of the Dominican Republic, the one-time prospect may finally be ready to emerge from the massive dark cloud that has loomed with every mention of his name for the past three years. And if one 90-foot increment is any indication, Villalona may at long last be ready to exhibit the massive talent which the Giants took a chance on by signing him as an international free agent in 2007.


Big Mac goes off for San Jose

April 4, 2013

The San Jose Giants return two familiar faces to the heart of their batting order this season.

Second baseman Ryan Cavan is back in San Jose after his 90-RBI season with the team two years ago. And former top prospect Angel Villalona returns for his first professional season since 2009, when he was part of the famed San Jose team that produced Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, and Madison Bumgarner.

San Jose manager Andy Skeels is throwing his most inexperienced position player into the fire though. Sandwiched between Villalona and Cavan in the heart of Thursday’s opening-day batting order was big Mac Williamson. And the 22-year-old slugger did not disappoint.

Beginning his first full year of pro baseball, San Jose’s newest cleanup hitter powered the Giants to an 8-7 win over Visalia. Williamson went 3 for 5 with a double, a home run, two RBIs, and three runs scored. That’s quite a debut, considering he entered the season with just 131 professional at bats to his credit.

“[Being in the opening-day lineup] was very exciting,” Williamson said. “Obviously last year I had a very short stint in the short-season up in [Salem-Keizer]. I didn’t play very much, so to be able to jump a level – skip (Low-A) Augusta and come all the way up to High-A – then to actually be in the middle of the lineup … it’s pretty special.”

Williamson certainly fits the bill of a cleanup hitter. A 6-foot-4 corner outfielder, he was the first position player to be drafted by the Giants last year as a third-round selection out of Wake Forest. In fact, he was the only position player the Giants drafted in the early rounds, as the organization tabbed seven pitchers in the first eight rounds.

Between two short-season levels, Williamson belted nine home runs in 2012 pro debut. This after leading Wake Forest in home runs for two consecutive years, including 17 bombs last seasons to pace the Atlantic Coast Conference. He totaled 36 home runs in three seasons for the Demon Deacons.

Yet his career as a prolific college slugger began with disappointment. Originally recruited as a two-way player, Williamson never even got to take the mound as a collegiate pitcher. As a local prep star at Wake Forest-Rolesville, he was once ranked by Baseball America as the top pitching prospect in North Carolina.

A catcher for most of his life, Williamson only began pitching his junior season. Prior to that, he had been discouraged from ever doing so by his grandfather Willard Renn, because Renn was a firm believer that pitching wasn’t healthy for young players.      

So, following his breakout junior season on the mound, while pitching for a summer showcase league, Williamson started experiencing discomfort in his shoulder. An initial MRI revealed no injuries, so he soldiered through his senior high-school season, moving from behind the plate to the outfield to rest his arm on his non-pitching days.

But by the time the 2008 MLB draft rolled around, as his shoulder discomfort continued to progress, the one-time top prep arm in North Carolina went undrafted. Then in the fall of his freshman year, an MRI revealed a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. He took a medical redshirt in 2009, and hasn’t pitched or caught ever since.

“I think what it came down to was a lack of knowledge of how to properly take care of my arm, and how to properly take care of my body,” Williamson said.

Fitness had already become serious business to Williamson even before the injury. In high school, he began to improve on an admittedly abysmal 60-yard-dash time. As a high-school freshman, Williamson said he ran it in 8.3 seconds: “Which is like walking backwards,” he said.

Williamson said he improved that time to 6.4 seconds prior to his redshirt junior season at Wake Forest in which he was drafted by San Francisco. This after he effectively had to try out for an outfield spot two years prior. But after a murky 2008 season spent rehabbing following labrum surgery, Williamson found new life as a power-hitting corner outfielder.

“I wasn’t asking for any promises (to play the outfield as a redshirt sophomore), just for a chance to prove myself,” Williamson said. “And the rest is history. They gave me a chance to earn the spot, and I ended up starting every game from then on out. And here I am.”

Now Williamson is looking to continue proving himself. That’s not something a player can do in one game. But a 3-for-5 debut is a good start.


Bochy’s son closing at AA

June 23, 2012

            Those who winced through Brian Wilson’s season-ending outing on April 12 witnessed the atypical effects of a torn ulnar collateral ligament.

            Wilson’s velocity dropped noticeably while he pitched in obvious discomfort. While it was surprising that Wilson finished the game, it was little surprise when the Giants’ All-Star closer underwent Tommy John surgery a week later.

            However, the effects of elbow injuries are not always so obvious. Just look at Giants prospect Brett Bochy. Two years ago at the University of Kansas, the right-handed reliever was one of the most dominant closers in the nation. After earning his fifth save of the year for the Jayhawks on April 1, however, a recurring bout with elbow soreness finally caught up with him.    

            “I had been pitching pretty well,” Bochy said. “Everything was going well. Then I got a sore elbow. I thought is was tendinitis, and it turned out to be Tommy John. Then I got [the surgery] done … and [the doctor] said it had looked like it was an injury that had happened for a while, and just started to flare up.”

            Even with the foreboding injury flaring up, Bochy’s high velocity was consistent. He was throwing strikes, and most importantly, he was getting results. Overpowering as a junior, Bochy allowed just nine hits through 23 innings, while striking out 34 against seven walks.   

            “It wasn’t really something I felt on one pitch, but it got to the point where it was pretty painful, but I was still pitching with it,” Bochy said.

            Going under the knife just three months prior to the 2010 draft, Bochy’s stock took a big hit. The 6-foot-2 right-hander ultimately fell to the Giants in the 20th round, while he was still trying to reestablish his full range of arm motion following surgery. It wasn’t until he arrived at minor league camp in 2011 that he was able to throw from the mound.

            “I felt great right when I came back,” Bochy said. “Standing out on the mound, I felt like my stuff was back, and everything was back. As far as bouncing back in back-to-back days, that took awhile to come. Last year I didn’t have that as much. This year I feel great.”

            Bochy took an even-keel approach to his rehab. For Giants fans familiar with the demeanor of his father Bruce Bochy, Brett is cut from the same stone. The approach served him well. He saw immediate success in his rehab year of 2011 at Low-A Augusta, appearing in 35 games while tallying 10 saves to compliment a 1.38 ERA.

            This season, Bochy skipped a level with a promotion to Double-A Richmond. He didn’t immediately assume the closer’s role for the Flying Squirrels, but soon earned the job by starting the year with eight consecutive scoreless appearances. He currently has eight saves along with a 1.62 ERA.

            “He’s a guy who nothing bothers him on the mound,” Richmond pitching coach Ross Grimsley said. “I asked the question to him in spring training: ‘How do you handle the pressure that comes with your dad being the manager of the big league club?’ … He just said he had a good time playing, and it shows. The pressure of his dad being the manager, he doesn’t show it one bit.”

            Bochy’s repertoire is tailor made for the bullpen. He consistently locates a low-90s fastball, and backs it up with a slider-changeup combo.          

            “He throws strikes. He’s deceptive. [Batters] don’t take good swings off of him most of the time,” Grimsley said. “He just does everything you want a guy to do that comes out of the bullpen.”

            It’s been a topsy-turvy season for the big-league bullpen. In addition to Wilson’s injury, veteran right-hander Guillermo Mota is serving a 50-game suspension. While Dan Otero and Steve Edlefson each struggled amid early-season call-ups, the current promotions of right-handers Shane Loux and George Kontos are showing promise. Also, left-hander Dan Runzler has been moved up to Triple-A Fresno as part of his rehab assignment as he rebounds from a lat injury.

            Should there be any more obstacles for San Francisco’s relief corps, though, the front office will need to get creative. The only other available pitcher on the 40-man roster that has yet to see major league action this season is Hector Correa, who is currently at High-A San Jose. The recent signing of Brad Penny – who recently amped up with four relief outings in eight days at Triple-A Fresno – gives the Giants a  veteran option. Otherwise, any more personnel issues would force the Giants to either make a deal or dig deeper into their farm system.

            Grimsley mentioned an additional trio of relievers who, along with Bochy, have been standouts at Double-A this season – left-handers Tom Vessella and Chris Gloor, and right-hander Daryl Maday. However, he couldn’t give a clear projection for the respective timetables of Richmond’s pitchers.      

            “As of now, it’s hard to say,” Grimsley said. “You can’t tell. If somebody starts throwing a lot of strikes, and they’re around the plate, and they can handle themselves the way you’d hope a guy would handle himself in the big leagues … but at this point, no, there’s probably not a spot for them.”

            Just as with his approach to rehab, Bochy is even keel about where he pitches. It doesn’t seem it matters to him where he pitches, or what role he ultimately assumes. He just wants the ball.

            “Whatever role they want me to pitch in, I’m comfortable with,” Bochy said. “So, whatever the Giants have planned, I’m willing to do.”