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State of the Giants farm system: Kyle Haines on Luis Matos, Marco Luciano, more

Heading into the trade deadline, the Giants looked poised to make a big splash as either a buyer or a seller. Instead, the team did a little bit of buying and a little bit of selling, satisfying no one.

Less than a year from winning their 107th regular-season game and securing an NL West title, the Giants are fielding an increasingly aging roster and facing perhaps an unsettled future. But while the Giants’ farm system hasn’t had the same level of headline-grabbing development success they did in 2021, when Marco Luciano, Luis Matos and Kyle Harrison all moved several rungs up the prospect ratings, there have still been many good stories down-on-the-farm. Two lower-profile homegrown players have made the big leagues (David Villar and Bryce Johnson), while lesser-known names like Casey Schmitt and Grant McCray have become legitimate candidates to be top-100 prospects. Oh, and that Harrison guy has still been pretty good.

On Thursday, I spoke with Giants farm director Kyle Haines about some of those successes, as well as some of the more disappointing developments. Below is our conversation, slightly edited for clarity.

I wanted to start with a couple of your guys who have been real development successes this year, David Villar and now Bryce Johnson in the big leagues. What does that mean for a player development staff when players like those two who aren’t No. 1 picks and had to grind their way through the minors finally reach the big leagues?

Usually, these stories are never quick movers through the minor leagues, so we’ve become very attached to these players, and they’re attached to us. Not just on a player level, they’re people that we’ve known for a long time — Bryce since 2017. A lot of us that are in PD remember him signing and five years later, you look up and he’s making his debut after so many times of rooting for him to do well because his character wins over and work ethic. Same with David. You see David go through a really tough first half in San Jose (in 2019), and then made some really encouraging adjustments in the second half, and then all of a sudden, you look up at the end of the year, he had a really bad first half and really dominant second half. And you see those adjustments take hold, his work ethic and focus, and the humility to make those adjustments.

A lot of players are very stubborn, unfortunately, and to see players who constantly every day are looking for ways to get better and make adjustments and they work and then they end up in the major leagues, it’s great. A lot of times, I always feel like with player development and so many times for scouting even, we get judged on the first- or second-round picks. To be fair, you probably should be judged on rounds three and four and so on, as well as your international and high school development stories, because that’s really the people you’re developing the most. The Buster Poseys develop themselves, but it’s the type of stories where the younger the kid or the lower the pick, usually that’s where it takes scouting and player development and the work ethic of the player combining to create this major-league player.

Speaking of adjustments, we talked back in the spring about Carter Aldrete and the improvements he’s made. Then he carried those into the season and is having a terrific year (.889 OPS and 16 HRs) and is already in Double A. For him to take control of his swing like that in the offseason, and come in every day and work with your guys, what does that mean to see a player do something like that?

I mean, you took the words out of my mouth. As soon as the offseason started, he came into our brand new Papago facility (in Arizona) that was still under construction in some regards, but the cages and the fields were available. He knew he was a good player, but he knew he needed to get better. And he deserves a ton of credit for coming in and just working relentlessly all offseason, and buying in on some changes. Then he took it into spring training and we kind of went “Wow.” He had arguably the best spring training of anybody along with Hunter Bishop, and then he took it from there into the season. You start to realize, after a couple of months, spring training wasn’t a fluke that you see sometimes. These changes are real, and they’re holding on and they’re not just a short-term fix. This is a real long-term change for him.

I think he’s always shown in the workouts going back to those high school days the player he’s capable of being but the consistency has probably never been to the level people had hoped. And now we’re starting to see that consistency come out.

Vaun Brown is probably the guy I get asked about the most. Tenth-round pick a year ago and he could legitimately be a 30/30 player by the end of the season (he has 21 HRs and 35 SBs). Did you see this coming at all last year when he was in Arizona, and when he was working out this spring or anything like that?

Well, in a way, yes. I think we’re all dreamers. Unfortunately, we’re also wrong sometimes when we envision these things for players. But I think going back to the draft, our scouts did a fantastic job on Vaun because they had a little more track record than probably every other team in baseball (with him). We knew the work ethic, we knew the tools. And then he started to produce. He’s a late bloomer in terms of producing on the field.

I remember the draft and he came in and his character right off the bat really stood out, his work ethic was just second to none. It still is, obviously. I always joke with people that his physique and how hard he works in the weight room and the way it takes his diet he could pass for Gabe Kapler’s long-lost little brother or something. Because he’s so chiseled, and how he is meticulous about his diet.

I think we dreamed on it, because the tools are real. And I’ve had so many scouts from other teams go, “How in the world did you guys find this Vaun Brown guy?” and, you know, old-school scouting is still in play. Not every star player is very well known to everyone as much as people tend to believe nowadays. And Vaun has all the tools to be a five-tool player.

People make a lot about age when it comes to developing players and Brown is already 24. I know you’ve done this a long time and you’ve seen players come in at different ages. He obviously was a senior when he signed. Does that dictate how quickly you try to move people through or do you look more at the actual playing experience to determine when you would want to move someone?

I think the playing experience is the key, not the physical year next to their birthday (on the player page). The actual playing experience, making sure that it’s level appropriate for them to grow is the key. We would not want to hold down Marco Luciano from an advanced level of play based on the year next to his name. And we also don’t want to advance somebody too quickly who has an older age next to their name. It’s really just level-dependent.

Vaun played at Florida Southern, which is an outstanding Division II program, don’t get me wrong. But I know after the first month, a lot of people would scream to promote him (from Low-A San Jose). And you’re like, “We’re worried about growth, we’re not worried about how fast we can get them to Eugene or Richmond or Sacramento.” We’re worried about, let’s make sure he’s ready for San Francisco and make sure that his experience levels are appropriate for his growth. So many of these position players, too, they all missed 2020. So I think even the position players are a little bit at more of a disadvantage there because they basically have all missed a year of a crucial part of their experience.

Have you seen that a lot? I know you look at Heliot Ramos, and people are kind of like, “Well, why isn’t he blowing up Triple A?” but even if he was at the alternate site, he did miss a full year of development, and he’s still only 23. What kind of effect do you think that had on someone like Heliot?

I think in reference to Heliot, this year in the draft, I was shocked how many 23- and 24-year-olds we were talking about. It felt like everybody was like a six-year senior in college. Heliot, he would have been potentially a senior in college this year, and we’d have been talking about him in the draft, maybe the draft last year. It’s kind of hard to believe how much that is true, because so many of these kids enter college so old now or get delayed. But I really do think that for position players in general, that 2020 year really did affect a lot of them. And I think we see it in a lot of slow starts not just in the Giants’ (system), but also throughout baseball.

There’s a lot of position players who are extremely talented that have had slow starts last year and this year, or struggled to get going at certain levels that maybe without a missed year maybe they seamlessly transition to other levels a little easier. So, I think that that probably does play into it a little bit with Ramos. I really do. Missing your age-21 season, as you’re moving quickly up the ladder as he was, it would put all stress on anyone.

How do you feel like he’s been able to handle that this season? He got a chance to go up to the big leagues so early in the season, get a taste of that, and I know it’s always difficult for players when they come back down, even if they know they’re not going to be there that long. Just from a mental perspective, how do you feel like he’s been able to handle that?

He’s always handled it great. He’s always so positive and he’s got energy and a smile, and it’s kind of contagious. Mentally, he’s handling it well. He knows he’s maybe had more ups and downs and more downs than he’d like, he knows that. But at the same time, his spirit’s never been broken. He’s happy-go-lucky as he’s ever been.

You had Joey Bart also going back and forth. It looks like he’s kind of finding his groove a little bit up at the big-league level. I know that he did a lot of work on his swing and approach when he went back down to Triple-A Sacramento. What did you have your guys working on with him that sort of keyed him being able to get back up there and do well?

There were a few adjustments that were made. Without going into drastic detail and boring everybody, but, in general, he needed a platform to be able to make these changes where the stress of performing wasn’t in the way. If you noticed, from the time he was optioned to the time he first appeared in a game (with Sacramento), we actually were very careful about introducing him to live action and having results attached to the changes. I think that was probably just as key as actually any physical change we made was that the environment he was allowed to make it didn’t have the pressure of needing to get a hit for the major-league team that particular night or even the Triple-A team. I think to just take him away from competition and giving him a fresh week to 10 days and then introduce him slowly to the Triple-A pitching and then gradually back to the big leagues was really impressive, I thought, with how he handled that.

And then Joey just was a true pro. Most guys would not have been as positive as he was through the whole experience. And he was nothing but excited and positive about making some changes and growing and he bought all in.

Is there an update on how Marco Luciano is progressing with his back injury?

You have perfect timing on your call to me. As long as he feels good when he shows up here in about two hours (on Thursday) he’s gonna play in the Arizona League tonight. He’ll be the designated hitter tonight.

Is this going to be a couple of games on, a couple of games off progression for a little while?

Yeah, it’ll be probably a couple of weeks before we even consider putting him back with an affiliate. He’s going to transition to DH first, then transition to some innings in the field, and then get up to nine innings in the field, and then back-to-back days, etc. And then, hopefully, we’ll see him back in Eugene soon.

It’s been a while since he was in Eugene, but just given everything that went on that first month and a half or so in that league with the weather and everything else, how impressive were the adjustments that he made from the time that he was there at the end of last year to what he was able to do at the start of this season?

Our kids who are from the southern half of the U.S. and our international kids, they’re not used to playing in any cold at all. And playing through rain and cold is rough on everyone. The fact that he did what he did (.867 OPS in 146 ABs) despite the more pitcher-friendly conditions early in the season that a lot of the other offensive players in the league had to battle, I think when you combine the two, it was incredibly impressive. You can look at his numbers right now, and they look really impressive by themselves, but when you look at the environment, that first six weeks in that league are so pitcher friendly — I don’t know if it’s that friendly for the pitchers, either, but it’s definitely not hitter friendly. It’s definitely more of a run suppression environment. But he was really impressive.

I know a lot of people over-analyze maybe the slow start to High A (last season), but that’s the reason there’s every level to the minor leagues. There is a reason not every level is the same. We all want Marco to fly through the minor leagues. But whether it’s Marco or others, I think we’re seeing that there is a difference between the levels, and they need to go through ups and downs at each level. And Marco went through some downs there last year, and this year made some adjustments and got the experience to succeed there.

Obviously, Luis Matos has had a season statistically that has probably been disappointing for him. How has he been able to handle that? Since he came back from his injury, what do you see as realistic goals for him for the final month of the season?

I just don’t want to see him try to make up for months of disappointment by trying to go 3 for 4 every day. I think if we can just see what Matos is capable of being every day and have a good consistent finish to the year, we’ll take that as a positive. Definitely the slow start, we mentioned the weather, we mentioned the injury, and then he comes back and all of a sudden he looks up and he’s pretty deep in the season and probably doesn’t feel like he has a lot of time to make up for the slow start. But I’ve seen a lot of people who do. I flashback to Nate Schierholtz in August one year back years ago and remember how he looked bad on Aug. 1, by the end of year, he looked up and he had a great year. I think we’re hoping for something like that. It’s still possible. He’s shown flashes of being the Luis Matos of last year, it just hasn’t come out nearly as consistently as we saw last year.

He’s obviously a very aggressive hitter, and his ability to touch the ball anywhere is what makes him so special. But do you think that a season like this is helpful at this stage of development because there is that recognition that not every pitch is worth hitting? Maybe it’s not as obvious in Low A when it’s easier to make hard contact on all those kinds of pitches.

I hope so. I hope it’s a benefit in the long run. That’s what I keep telling myself. But obviously, it’s just been a disappointing year for him. I don’t know too many hitters who haven’t went through some type of really tough stretch in their life. And the international kids I just feel awful for them because people forget guys like Dansby Swanson were awful at Vanderbilt as freshmen, and no one remembers it because (college baseball) really is not on the platform that the international kids are asked to perform on. As soon as they have one down year, or have that growth year, people are really quick to criticize. But some of the other kids who are their same age are able to have a down year in college and then rebound for their junior year and then succeed going forward. But I really do believe that most good hitters have to go through some tough stretches in their career for ultimate growth in the long term. And hopefully, this was one of those.

Jairo Pomares seems like he’s getting into a groove finally. What was the biggest thing for him to get back to the power that he was showing last year?

He saw his free swinging wasn’t going to work, as well. I mean, it was tough because his approach in Low A was — I mean he was Barry Bonds, every day it was like he’s hitting a home run. But he’s starting to learn pitchers a little better and realize that they make adjustments to him, and he’s got to make adjustments back. So I think that’s probably something most hitters have to go through. He’s swung the bat better recently. I almost could do a copy and paste of Luis Matos, a little bit. But, maybe for long-term growth, we’re gonna have a short-term step back here with Pomares.

Casey Schmitt is one of those players that I love, just because they can do things on both sides of the ball so well. Is there a thought that he could possibly make it up to Double A by the end of the year with how well he’s played all season with Eugene?

Yeah, I don’t think we would dismiss that. But I think right now, we’re just excited about how much growth he’s had this year. There’s no reason to believe he can’t continue to grow in Eugene, as well. I think he’s doing a fantastic job and it’s not imminent that he needs to move anywhere else. Right now, he’s doing a fantastic job of growing and also learning shortstop, doing a fantastic job there.

This is probably a little too bold, but he reminds me of Matt Chapman. I always try to look for stars in our system, and the one guy that never gets talked about is Casey Schmitt. They talk about him like he’s some utility player. But this guy might be maybe Matt Chapman. That’s his ceiling. It’s being something like that.

It was pretty cool to see him at shortstop. Do you feel like that’s a realistic position for him? He’s obviously going to be special at third base, but could he be a major-league shortstop?

I think the knock on him for shortstop is kind of the same knock — I’m not comparing the players — but the body type it’s kind of like Brandon Crawford’s, where I think people are like, “Oh, he’s not a shortstop,” but his hands are so good, and his instincts are so good. It would not surprise me if he could be an adequate shortstop in the major leagues, but he’s so elite at third base. I guess, if there’s one underlying benefit with Marco being out this long is that Casey’s really added shortstop to the repertoire, and given flexibility in the event that in future years, if we do end up in a bind at shortstop, that maybe he can be an option there, either if he’s already on the team, or in Triple A and fill in until Plan A is ready.

Hunter Bishop hasn’t been in the Eugene lineup for the last couple of weeks. Is he dealing with another injury?

Yeah, he had a little slight oblique (strain), but his rehab is going really well, so I think we’ll still see him by the end of the year.

He also got off to a slow start, but did really start to pick it up. And I think maybe because of the slow start, people haven’t realized how well he was hitting before he got hurt. But how encouraged were you by the things that you were able to see, since you really haven’t gotten to see him on the field for a long stretch really since his draft year?

I think it goes back to earlier, we were talking about how that missed season probably affected position players much more than pitchers. And I think Hunter is a great example of that because he also had 2019 cut short in Salem, and he didn’t get the full year there. And even though he was at the alternate site, he had the well-known COVID-19 issue and was delayed to start and then an ankle issue. Then last year, he pretty much missed the whole year. He’s missed so many bats. It’s hard to say that about a college kid, but really his baseball playing experience, he’s kind of like 19 or 20 years old, because he was playing football in high school so much.

I think the slow start was completely attributed to the lack of experience he has had up to this point. Once he was able to get his feet underneath him, I think he showed flashes of that player he’s really capable of being. Other than that slow April, he played fantastic. He was on pace for quite a few home runs (13 in 249 ABs so far). Obviously, the strikeouts were still a little high (106), but other than that he was kind of dominant when the ball was in play.

Do you still feel like he’s going to be able to be an everyday center fielder type?

Oh, yeah, he can still run it down out there. He’s got as many physical tools as maybe anybody in minor-league baseball, running speed and power. He’s more than adequate in center field.

How have you felt about Patrick Bailey’s season in Eugene? The numbers are what they are (.706 OPS), but how are you feeling like he’s progressing both at the plate and behind it?

I think the one thing we’ve got to work on is his right-handed swing a lot more. He’s a switch-hitter, and his numbers as a right-handed hitter are significantly lower (.317 OPS) than his left-handed swing (.820 OPS). Which I’d rather have that than the opposite since there are way more right-handed pitchers, but I mean, versus right-handed pitching and catching, he’s played really well. When you look at the overall numbers, they are kind of skewed by the lack of production versus left-handed pitching. Something for us to really focus on to make sure that he turns into that everyday catcher is his ability to continue to grow versus the right-handed pitching, and then fix some issues in his right-handed swing.

In looking at the San Jose team, Grant McCray has just had a fabulous year. I know it took him a little while in Arizona right out of high school to get his feet under him. But what is the growth development that you’ve seen from him since last season in the Rookie League until now?

Just the consistency of the at-bats is there. He’s much more physical and more powerful as well. You would never surprise me saying he would have hit this many home runs (15 in 364 ABs so far) at some point in his career, but I didn’t think it was going to come this fast. He’s worked really hard in the weight room and physically matured a lot from kind of a skinny, gangly athlete to this strong physical kid who can hit a home run, can hit a single and steal second base. He’s maybe one of the biggest risers in all of minor league baseball this year, I think, prospect-standing-wise. And he’s a legit five-tool player who’s worthy of mention along anybody on our list.

How has Aeverson Arteaga handled his first season with a full-season affiliate?

I think he’s doing great. He’s still showing some power (10 HR in 373 ABs so far). He’s more than holding his own with the bat at a very young age (19) while playing a great shortstop. That jump from Rookie ball to Low A is really big it feels like to a lot of players, and he handled that really, really well I thought overall. He hasn’t dominated by any means, but at the same time, considering his age and the players he’s playing against, and he’s able to anchor down shortstop, as a true shortstop. he’s done a fantastic job.

Looking at the pitching, we talked about fast risers and I think an argument can be made that Kyle Harrison is the best left-handed pitching prospect in baseball right now. How surprised are you with how quickly he’s been able to become this good coming out of high school and now dominating Double-A hitters at this point in his career?

We thought with him being left-handed with good stuff, throwing strikes, those guys tend to move fast, but I think how quickly he dominated some Double-A hitting, that’s not easy to do. Even for some elite guys, when they were coming up, they didn’t do what he’s done at moments in Double A. There are games when he’s locked in the other team can’t even hit the ball. And that’s some really good offensive players he’s making look foolish. It’s been really impressive, and his demeanor and professionalism is just — he’s so mature for a high school kid. He’s so mature beyond his years.

I’ve heard a lot of great things about Eric Silva (Giants’ 2021 fourth-round pick). His ERA in San Jose (5.17) doesn’t jump out at you, but everybody kind of comes out of his starts buzzing about him. How has he handled being a 19-year-old in full-season ball?

Originally we probably had some thoughts about leaving him in Rookie ball. If we’d done that he probably would have dominated. But I think the stuff, he’s able to handle the ups and downs and still grow. And we’ve seen that. The ERA isn’t what you ideally want by any means, but at the same time, the underlying stuff under the hood is special. This guy has a chance to jump toward the top of our pitching group and his growth this year has been really good.

I think Dan Runzler (San Jose pitching coach) has done a great job with him and the whole staff there. Any growing pains he goes through are going to help him in the long term. Yeah, you want to see dominant production currently, but the growth steps he’s made this year will make him way better long-term than just letting him dominate Rookie ball.

Are there injury updates for Will Bednar and Ryan Murphy at this point?

Not at this point. They’re not throwing yet. The outlook is good. It’s just going to take some time.

Would either of them be a candidate to pitch in the Arizona Fall League, if they’re healthy at that point?

I think that’ll be a discussion, for sure. Once we can get them healthy and throwing, then we’ll kind of determine if that’s the best course of action or some other sort of development is a better option, but I think they’re definitely candidates at this point.

Nobody knew what the impact of the missed 2020 season was going to have on pitchers. It seemed like last year guys got through it mostly OK in the system, but there have been a few more injuries this year. Do you feel like there was a little bit of a cumulative effect of not having the competitive innings in 2020, having the competitive innings last year, and then coming back this year, that it’s caused some of that?

Absolutely. Knock on wood somewhere, but a lot of the injuries haven’t been too much of the arm variety. Overall, it’s really been lower backs and obliques and soft tissue stuff. With that usually it is just general stress, probably related to competition, really trying to push the limits of their capabilities. You can throw bullpens all you want, you can go throw in lab settings, all you want. But until you get the crowd and the stands and the music playing and the adrenaline takes that next step up, you’re not going to fully experience those stresses on the body. And I think missing some time for the pitchers, they’ve been great about keeping the arms in shape. But, I think we’re starting to see a little more of the nagging back and legs from the long bus rides that they haven’t had to take in a while to the stresses of playing a full minor-league season with full adrenaline going into a competitive atmosphere.

Will any of the new draft picks get into games before the season is over? Or do you kind of anticipate them making their debuts next year?

The hope is to get almost everybody into a game, and they’re just probably going to take a little while. We’re not going to over-evaluate any performance by any means. It’s just been so long (since they were playing their high school or college seasons).

Reggie Crawford (Tommy John surgery) obviously can’t throw right now in a game, but is there a thought that he might be able to hit at all this year?

Oh, yeah. The hope is that he’s going to do a progression. We’ll make sure that his rehab from Tommy John (surgery) is the priority and then around that, we’ll try to get him in there and DH him. Through the workouts so far, it’s an incredibly impressive bat. I know everybody talks about the 100 mph lefty arm, but the bat is real, too. It might be something that we try to give a legitimate look at here, as well.

Have you developed a true two-way player before?

No, no, Luis González doesn’t count. (Laughs) We never have. I think (Shohei) Ohtani showed us that if you can find somebody who can impact both sides, it’s pretty interesting.

(Photo of Luis Matos: Shelly Valenzuela / San Jose Giants)

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