The San Francisco Giants built their championship teams around a homegrown core that was supplemented by some shrewd bargain-bin pickups.
Buster Posey, Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner, and Matt Cain were all first-round picks who were at the center of the title-winning clubs. Pablo Sandoval was signed as an amateur free agent and developed by the Giants. Brian Wilson, Sergio Romo, and Jonathan Sanchez were late-round picks who played key roles in getting the Giants back into contention.
The Giants also used their farm system to supplement the roster via trades. Former first-round pick Tim Alderson was dealt for second baseman Freddy Sanchez in 2009, top prospect Zach Wheeler was dealt for Carlos Beltran at the 2011 deadline, supplemental first-round pick Charlie Culberson was traded for Marco Scutaro in 2012, and catching prospect Tommy Joseph was the centerpiece of the deal which brought over Hunter Pence.
One area where the Giants have consistently procured cheap talent is minor-league free agency. Prior to the 2009 season, the Giants singed minor-league free-agents Juan Uribe and Andres Torres. Uribe and Torres were key contributors to the 2010 championship team. Torres posted an .823 OPS, 67 extra-base hits, and 26 steals in 2010 while playing a stellar center field. Uribe filled in for a struggling Sandoval and the oft-injured Edgar Renteria on the left side of infield in 2010. He posted a .749 OPS and blasted 24 home runs. He hit what proved to be the NLCS clincher off Ryan Madson in Game 6, an opposite-field bomb that sent the Giants to the World Series.
The next winter, general manager Brian Sabean brought back Ryan Vogelsong, whom he had drafted in the fifth round of the 1998 draft. Vogelsong had been released from a Triple-A club in 2010, and he appeared to be washed out. He hadn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2006, and his lifetime ERA was 5.86. Vogelsong made the All-Star team in 2011 and posted a cumulative 3.05 ERA over the 2011-12 seasons. He also was the staff ace during the 2012 postseason as the Giants won their second championship in three seasons. The Giants won all four games Vogelsong started as he posted a 1.09 ERA.
Prior to the 2012 season, Sabean added two more minor-league free agents in Joaquin Arias and Gregor Blanco. Arias has been a key reserve over the past two seasons while Blanco took over the starting left field job in late 2012 after Melky Cabrera was suspended for performance enhancing drug use.
If the Giants are going to back on top in 2014, they’ll likely need some help from their non roster invitees. This year, it could be the farm system rather than minor-league free agency which produces hidden value.
Among the club’s non-roster invitees, minor-league free-agent relievers Kameron Loe, Sandy Rosario, Juan Gutierrez, Rafael Dolis, and Dan Runzler appear to have the best odds of cracking the roster in spring training. The Giants bullpen has openings behind Romo, lefties Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez, and setup man Santiago Casilla. Top prospect Heath Hembree and incumbents Jean Machi, George Kontos, and Yusmeiro Petit will compete for jobs in the bullpen as well.
On the position-player side, infielder Brandon Hicks and outfielder Javier Herrera could follow in the footsteps of Uribe, Torres, Arias, and Blanco. Hicks, who was drafted in the third round of the 2007 draft by the Braves, has a lifetime minor-league OPS of .770 and he can play all four infield spots. He’ll head to camp behind Arias and Tony Abreu on the depth chart.
Herrera, who hit .296/.376/.485 at Double-A Richmond last year, faces an uphill climb for a roster spot as well. Blanco, Juan Perez, Roger Kieschnick, and former top prospect Gary Brown will compete with Herrera for the two back-up outfield spots.
This year, the Giants have several top prospects in camp starting with No. 1 prospect Kyle Crick, who is joined by Clayton Blackburn, Ty Blach, Derek Law, Andrew Susac, Joe Panik, and Mac Williamson. None of the top prospects in camp are likely bets to break with the big club, but they all could see time with the Giants in 2014.
Crick, Blackburn, and Blach are likely to join fellow top prospect Edwin Escobar in the Double-A rotation. If Vogelsong or Tim Hudson were to struggle with health again, one of those four prospects would be an option to get the call. Law could be a bullpen option after posting a 2.57 ERA and 188 strikeouts in 140 minor-league innings since the Giants drafted him in ninth round back in 2011.
Susac is close to being big-league ready after hitting .256/.362/.458 at Double-A Richmond last year. He’s arguably the top position player in the system. If Hector Sanchez doesn’t show improvement behind the plate, Susac could emerge as Posey’s backup in 2014.
The Giants didn’t add much in the way of new blood this winter, with Hudson and Michael Morse the only new faces acquired on the free-agent market. If the Giants flounder again early in 2014, Sabean could test some of his top prospects sooner than expected. After a disappointing 2013 season, Sabean likely won’t be as patient. Minor-league free agency has been a boon for the Giants in recent years, but this season, it could be the prospects who show up earlier than expected to deliver value for San Francisco.