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The San Francisco Giants: Opening Day 2016 – Hitters

The Giants Cove is about to officially open the 2013 season with a series of posts about the National League, the Giants' strengths and weaknesses, and the possibilities for a San Francisco return to the 2013 postseason.

Giants Cove researchers, scouts, and experts (who work out of a secluded complex not far from the CIA building in Langley, Virginia) are predicting a rocking MLB year all around. Their advice: load up with Cheetos and other basic survival supplies, upgrade to a liquid crystal surround-sound 80" 3D television, and prepare for seven months of baseball ecstasy.  

But first a word from our future sponsors: the Giants' starting line-up on Opening Day 2016 at AT&T Park

It has only been four years or so since the San Francisco Giants really began to straighten out their fractured minor league system. A decade of neglect and trading away the few promising draft picks they accidently stumbled on led to a minor league organization in permanent decline.

The main strategy was to draft pitchers in the assumption that they made the best trade bait– every team always wants pitchers, right? The plan was to then pick up cheap, slightly over the hill veterans, find a couple of under valued positions players, and hope to slap it all together around Barry Bonds each year.

Given that Bonds is one of the top players in the history of the game, that's not the worst course of action. No, the worst course of action was not being able to multi-task by conducting an effective draft each year and insuring the ongoing development of home-grown position players.

But that's all in the distant past (and the more distant, the happier the Giants front office will be). Give CEO and Team President Larry Baer and GM Brian Sabean credit for taking stock, identifying the problems, and doing what was needed to turn this massive supertanker around.

San Francisco's minor league system is still rated in the bottom third of all MLB organizations but they won't be there for long.

Which brings us to Opening Day 2016. This is an artificial line-up featuring players drafted and developed by the Giants from their new era minor league template. Reality will be quite different from this group of prospects: over the next three years San Francisco will sign some number of free agent position players, they will make trades, and they will accelerate the development of certain minor league players ready to move up.

The following position players are high profile prospects (and several current stars) well-known among Giants devotees. It's intriguing to think about their potential but it is unlikely these players will ever all be on the same field together:

Opening Day 2016 – Batting Line-up

1. Gary Brown CF
It seems that Gary Brown has lost a little momentum since he started in the Arizona Rookie League and Salem-Keizer in 2010. A+ ball at San Jose in 2011 brought an eye-catching .925 OPS in 638 plate appearances (PA), but Brown hit a bump at Double A Richmond last season with a .731 OPS in 610 PA. Not uncommon when you move up the MLB food chain.

Gary Brown is still a high end prospect. For Brown the glove and speed are there, so this is all about handling the bat. Oddly, he was hit by pitches 42 times over the last 2 seasons.
 
2. Joe Panik 2B
Panik played shortstop in 191 of his 199 games in 2010-11 at Salem-Keizer and San Jose. I still think he'll move to 2B sooner or later. Panik has a nice .803 OPS in two years, and more walks (58) than strikeouts (54) last year at A+ San Jose. 2013 will be a pivotal development year for Panik who needs to break out and show what a hitting machine he can be.   

3. Pablo Sandoval 1B
Hard to imagine that Sandoval will remain at third base in the long term. The weight issue looks more and more like a Prince Fielder deal. Figure Pablo Sandoval to increase his power numbers as he gets older, which might move him to 4th or 5th in the 2016 batting order.

4. Buster Posey C
For all those holding their breath since 2010 in anticipation of Posey moving to 2B or 1B, please exhale now. Not only will Posey be the starting catcher for the next 8 years, the Giants will have more and more options each season to rest him.

As MLB inter-league games increase and expand, sooner or later the National League will adopt the DH for inter-league home games as well as away games in American League parks. Whether that will be the slippery slope that leads the NL to fully adopt the DH is a question for another time.

The important point here is that the expansion of inter-league games gives San Francisco increased opportunities to play Posey at DH and rest his body.

And the result could be a restructuring of the NL's traditional 25-man roster. Any NL team whose starting catcher is key to their offense, like Buster Posey or Brian McCann of the Braves, will want to DH their starting catcher whenever they can. In order to do that, those teams will now need a second high end catcher on the 25 man roster because that "back-up" catcher, who filled in once or twice a week in the past, will now see significantly more at bats throughout the season.  

5. Johnathan "Mac" Williamson RF
My under the radar pick is Mac Williamson, one of the most promising power hitters in the Giants farm system. Sure, he's 22 and has a very long way to go in his development but that .596 slugging percentage in 29 games last season at Salem-Keizer is tantalizing. And I get it– that's a ridiculously small sample, but the fact that the Red Sox drafted Williamson in 2011 (he decided to stay in school) speaks volumes about his potential.

6. Brandon Belt / Francisco Peguero LF
Francisco Peguero's window to make his move up the chain is beginning to narrow. He is 24 this year and has been affiliated with the Giants organization since he was 18. In 105 games with the 2012 Fresno Grizzlies he put up a .691 OPS, then was brought up to San Francisco  where he only got 16 at-bats and did not impress. Peguero brings real speed on the bases and a very good glove.

Belt is also 24 and has two partial seasons with the Giants, including the 2012 World Series. His total at bats in 2011-12 (598) roughly constitute a starter's full season. His 3.5 WAR is starting quality+ and his XBH (56 in 598 AB) compare well with players like Andre Ethier (57 XBH in 556 AB), Marco Scutaro (43 XBH in 620 AB) and Hunter Pence (54 XBH in 617 AB).

Brandon Belt should be a starter in the Giants line-up in 2013 and well past the 2016 season. 

7. Chris Dominguez 3B
Dominguez at third is all about power and run production potential. There are two problems here: first, Chris Dominguez is already 26 years old (29 in 2016) and it could be that this ship has sailed.

Add to that, after four minor league seasons his power and run production have been going down year after year.  In 92 games at Double A Richmond and Triple A Fresno last year, his OPS was .590. His 97 strikeouts project to 167 SO in 625 at bats.

Dominguez is one of the long shots in this line-up. Unless he steps up quickly and unless Sandoval's conditioning goes way south (and east, and west, and north) the Giants will stick with Pablo long term at third base.

8. Brandon Crawford SS
In assessing Crawford, it's a little like Brandon Belt– whatever you say about his 209 total Major League games, and 631 AB over the 2011-12 seasons, Brandon Crawford was the starting shortstop for the 2012 World Champion Giants.

Brandon Crawford has shown progress in his time at the Major League level, and he has yet to reach his full potential. Crawford's two year .632 OPS is not acceptable, but it has gone up each year (.584 in 2011, .653 2012), as has his BA (.204 in 2011, .248 in 2012).

We know Crawford may be one of the two or three best defensive shortstops in the game, but he can also hit. How much production he needs to create at the plate in order to justify that outstanding defense will always be the question here. I argue that a team built around pitching in maybe the best pitchers' ballpark in the Majors needs the best defense it can get to fully succeed.

Here's what we can expect from Brandon Crawford between 2013 and 2016: gold glove defense, a range factor that Giants starters and relievers will celebrate, and timely hitting with surprising power– he whacked 43 XBH in those 631 at bats.

Twenty-three year old prospect Ehire Adrianza brings a great glove but just looks like he won't be productive enough at the plate to break through.

Next: Opening Day 2016 – Starting Staff and Closer

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