There was a reason I scheduled a trip very early this season to scout the San Jose Giants in the high Class A California League. The team is so loaded with talent that it may not stay together for very long. Some of these players will be headed up the ladder fairly quickly.
The regular starting lineup in the infield is worth about $10.5 million in signing bonuses alone, between catcher Buster Posey, first baseman Angel Villalona, second baseman Nick Noonan, shortstop Brandon Crawford, and third baseman Conor Gillaspie. That's a fifth overall pick, two supplemental first-rounders, a fourth-rounder and a $2.1 million signing out of the Dominican Republic, if you're counting. I'll be talking more about the hitters in future columns.
I haven't even mentioned the top two pitchers in the starting rotation, who happen to be two of the best starting pitching prospects in baseball.
Madison Bumgarner, SP, Giants: The most impressive thing about this 19-year-old left-hander is how easy his velocity is. It was one of the reasons he was the 10th overall pick in the 2007 draft. When I scouted him during spring training, someone up in the press box who didn't know much about him asked me afterward how hard Bumgarner was throwing. Curious, I asked him how hard he thought Bumgarner was dealing, based on what he saw of his three-quarter delivery. He responded, "90 mph." Sorry, try 95.
Bumgarner led all of the minor leagues with a 1.46 ERA in low Class A last year, showing exceptional command and control at that level, allowing just three homers in 141 2/3 innings and posting a 164-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
"The biggest thing was just trying to find out what kind of pitcher I am," Bumgarner said, "learning you don't have to try and change everything just because of one [bad] start, and learning to go out there and do the same things each time."
There's a lot of length in his delivery, but it's loose and effortless. That's exciting because an easy, repeatable delivery is going to make that command and control much easier to sustain as he moves up. There's a slight head jerk at the end of it, but it's not a big concern.
His fastball has touched 97 mph, but he sits comfortably at 91-95 mph, throwing both two-seamers and four-seamers. His fastball drives down into the lower part of the strike zone with good sink and lateral movement, but he also has the juice on his heater to work up in the zone when he needs to. The length in his delivery means he shows the ball for a long time on the back side, giving hitters a good look. However, batters who have faced him tell me that once his arm comes forward, it's a little tough to pick up, and it's deceiving how quickly the ball gets on them. His arm strength and aggressiveness are impressive.
The southpaw is off to a good start this season, fanning 19 in his first 19 1/3 innings with just three walks, no homers and a 1.40 ERA.
Bumgarner's secondary stuff is still a work in progress, but he has definitely made some strides, especially considering his young age. He throws both a slider and a changeup, with the low-80s change being his second-best pitch at the moment, as he's gotten better feel for it. It profiles as a future plus offering.
He scrapped a curveball in favor of the slider last year, and it flattens out a lot because it's tough for him to stay on the top of the ball due to his arm angle, but he has flashed a good one at times, so the capability is there.
"They can all get better, that's for sure," Bumgarner said. "But they're coming along pretty well, and I'm feeling pretty comfortable with them now. I feel I can throw any of them in any count, so that's definitely a lot better than last year. The biggest thing for me this season is I need to be more consistent. There's a lot of stuff I need to work on, but that's the biggest."
Bumgarner got a little bit of time in big league camp this spring, just to get some experience, and he said, "That was the most fun I've ever had playing baseball."
You may have heard about the sequence in which he went right after Manny Ramirez and struck him out on three pitches, causing Manny to say, "He's great. He's nasty. Nineteen? Wow. That's unbelievable. He's great."
"That was pretty cool," Bumgarner said. "It was pretty special coming from him, definitely."
So how did he approach facing one of the best right-handed hitters in the game?
"One of our pitching coaches, Steve Kline, talked to me, and said, 'If you need to, don't even look him, pretend it's just another hitter.'
"But I looked at him. I couldn't help it. So I just tried to stay calm and said to myself, 'OK, we're going to find out how good you are.'"
Judging by the early returns, the answer is pretty darn good.
For more on Bumgarner's start Tuesday, check out the Minor League Update.
Tim Alderson, SP, Giants: You always know when it's Alderson on the mound, even without a scorecard, thanks to his 6-foot-7 frame and funky, herky-jerky delivery. It may not look conventional, but then again, neither were his numbers last year, when he posted a 2.79 ERA in a tough hitting environment at the California League, striking out 124 in 145 1/3 innings against just 24 walks, and allowing the ball to leave the yard just four times.
Alderson stabs the ball in the back, and then has a (searches thesaurus for appropriate synonym for funky and comes up empty) funky little kick that helps him drive the ball to the plate with a slight crossfire in a quick motion. There's a lot of deception in his delivery, but the most important thing is he has shown he can repeat it. A lot of pitchers with funky deliveries have problems with consistent command or finding the same release point, but Alderson has made it work for him.
To their credit, the Giants haven't tried to alter his motion at all, proceeding down the Tim Lincecum "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" path.
"Whatever was comfortable, they let us do it," Alderson said. "You can do your own thing if it's working, and if they see something, they'll keep it in the back of their mind until you ask them, or if you start to get wild with your fastball or your command's a little off, then they'll tell you to help you get back to where you want to be."
Alderson works anywhere from 88 mph to 93 mph depending on whether he's throwing his two-seamer or four-seamer, but he's able to get two kinds of movement on it. He can make it sink or cut depending on the situation, and it plays up a tad due to his motion. His money pitch is a hard, low-80s curve that's a tight downer and can get swings-and-misses. Still, there are things he needs to improve on this season.
"Fastball command down in the zone is huge," Alderson said. "You can have control but there's a difference between control and locating it where you want to. I also need to work on mixing up speeds and getting consistent movement on all my pitches."
His changeup is still in development, and that's the pitch he's going to need to help get left-handed hitters out at the upper levels.
"I know the changeup is going to be big," Alderson said. "The Giants have been trying to get both me and Madison to work on it a lot."
However, progress is slow, as he's still tinkering with grips. "It's kind of day to day. It changes all the time. It's whatever's working and feeling comfortable in the bullpen before the game, and I'm just trying to find a good feel for it."
One thing worth noting is that while I saw Alderson twice in spring training, I did not see him pitch in a game on this trip. He's back in the Cal League for the start of the year to avoid the cold weather of the Giants' Double-A club in Connecticut, as well as to work with Posey. One opposing coach in the league said that Alderson's velocity is down a couple of miles per hour at the start of the season, and while acknowledging his deception, the coach says that Alderson is tipping his pitches. He's given up 26 hits in 19 innings, with a 4.74 ERA and as many homers as he surrendered all last season, so there may be something to that. It's a situation worth monitoring over the next few weeks, but it does sound like just some mechanical issues that can be corrected.
Bumgarner has the stuff of a true ace at the top of the rotation. Alderson's ceiling isn't that high, but he does profile as a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter and may be closer to the big leagues. Both need to be on your radar screen for as soon as next season.
To see Jason's scouting report and radar gun readings on Stephen Strasburg, you must be an ESPN Insider.
Before seeing San Jose, I started my trip with an excursion to Tony Gwynn Stadium on the campus of San Diego State University to see some guy named Strasburg. You may have heard of him.