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Giants flush with arms in Minor League system

MLB Pipeline checks in from Spring Training camp, unveils team's Top 20 Prospects

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- If pitching wins championships, the Giants could be competitive for years.

Not long ago, the organization built a pitching-rich system, with names like Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner becoming anchors in a World Series-winning rotation, and many of the other pitching prospects were used in trades to bring in valuable big league pieces.

After having homegrown position players really provide a boost in San Francisco, with Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford all graduating to the big leagues, the Giants' system is once again flush with arms.

"If you look to our pitching, I think that's more of our strength right now," said Jeremy Shelley, the Giants' vice president of pro scouting and player evaluation. "You look at the [Class A Advanced] San Jose staff last year, guys like Kyle Crick, Clayton Blackburn, Ty Blach, Adalberto Mejia, who advanced and made the stride from low A ball up to San Jose and competed well in an offensive league. We'll see how those guys do in Double-A. Behind them, you have guys like Chris Stratton, Martin Agosta, Joan Gregorio."

All of those pitchers, the rotations that will be in Double-A Richmond and San Jose in 2014, are on the new Giants' Top 20 prospects list. There are actually 14 pitchers in the top 20 overall, from No. 1 (Crick) all the way down to No. 20 (Kendry Flores).

The prospects come in all shapes and sizes. The starters Shelley ticked off above may be the headliners, but there's some bullpen help on the way, too. Relievers like Derek Law and Heath Hembree, Nos. 10 and 11 on the list, could land in the San Francisco bullpen this year.

"We have strong arms, not only in the rotation, but you look in the bullpen," Shelley said. "We also feel we have some power arms in the bullpen as well that can complement the group of eight to 10 solid starters."

Most of those pitchers are about a year away from really impacting the big league roster, unless they're used in trades, like the Tim Alderson for Freddy Sanchez deal or the less effective Zack Wheeler for Carlos Beltran trade.

The position players on the list aren't true impact guys like the quartet mentioned above, but they are poised to be knocking on the door from Triple-A. Joe Panik and Gary Brown are both former first-rounders who could be called upon to help out should the need arise, along with catcher Andrew Susac. But they all seem more like role players. The real future is on the mound.

"The last few years, we've had some success with position players," Shelley said. "We've had some guys who have impacted our club in the World Series we won in 2010 and 2012. Now, you're seeing pitching take over a little bit more."

Three questions with Heath Hembree

Reliever Heath Hembree was a fifth-round pick in 2010 and made his Major League debut in 2013 This is your third big league camp. How is it different for you now compared to the first time you set foot in here?

Hembree: It's a lot different. I know a lot more of the guys on a better level. I know how things are run. I knew what to expect coming into Spring Training. I know how it's going to be. It's not overwhelming this time around. When you come in for one inning, right from the start of your pro career, is it harder to develop because the results are so immediate and obvious if you don't pitch well? You don't have the benefit of lots of innings to develop.

Hembree: Going one inning at a time, you want to have your best stuff. For me, it was just fastball, so I wanted to throw my fastball all the time. I didn't really get the opportunity to work on throwing my slider and my changeup, partly because I was stubborn about it. I just wanted to throw heat. Over the past couple of years, I've matured a little bit. I've started throwing my offspeed stuff a little bit more. Last year, once I started throwing my offspeed more, it helped me a lot as a pitcher. I feel like I've come a long way from last Spring Training until the end of September, so I'm just really looking forward to this year. When you're in the lower levels of the Minors, you can always come in with that fastball and get away with it. Is that something, at the upper levels, you eventually realized you had to do something different because the results weren't the same as when you first started?

Hembree: The first couple of the weeks, it worked, then guys started realizing, "He's just throwing his fastball," and they started hitting it. I needed that. I needed to get hit around, have some struggles and learn from it. It was good for me. It helped me learn to throw my secondary stuff and not just throw my fastball every time out. The down times I've had have been good for me.

Camp standout: Derek Law

Wherever Derek Law has pitched, he's missed a whole lot of bats, and he's done it without the typical accompaniment of walks.

The 2011 ninth-round pick did just that in junior college and during his first year-plus of pro ball. Law took things to a new level in 2013, pitching across three levels while striking out 13.8 per nine innings, compared to a 1.6 BB/9 rate. He kept it up in the Arizona Fall League, throwing 12 1/3 scoreless innings and fanning 16.

It's no surprise that Law's used that as a springboard and continued to open eyes in big league camp this spring. Using his 91-95 mph fastball and assortment of breaking stuff, he tossed 2 2/3 perfect innings in his first three Cactus League outings before allowing one run on one hit and two walks in his fourth.

Perhaps the key to Law's success is his unorthodox delivery, one that had some scouts concerned when he was as an amateur, but one that has served him well. It adds deception to his already solid stuff, making him even tougher to pick up.

"I just like how unique and how different he is," Giants All-Star closer Sergio Romo said. "The way he can stay himself and not change anything or have to be somebody different, his mechanics, the way he throws, the way it comes out. Plus, he competes, he's smart, he knows how to pitch. It's impressive to see him come in and not be fazed by what could be some kind of pressure, being a young guy trying to make an impression, trying to make a name for himself. Kudos to the job he's done so far. It's pretty cool."

Breakout candidate: Keury Mella

It doesn't seem fair that the Giants, with all that pitching moving up, should have more intriguing arms just getting started. But Mella, No. 19 on the Top 20, has the Giants very excited.

Mella won the Rookie-level Arizona League championship game with five shutout innings, capping off a very successful United States debut. Now he might be ready for a push to full-season Class A Augusta to start the 2014 season. He has the attributes -- size, stuff, mound presence -- teams covet, and he looks poised to rocket up the rankings with a strong 2014 in the South Atlantic League.

"Mella has a power arm, throws strikes and projects to have three Major League pitches," Shelley said. "He's someone we're definitely excited about."

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for and writes a blog, B3. Follow @JonathanMayoB3 on Twitter.
Read More: San Francisco Giants, Andrew Susac, Heath Hembree, Edwin Escobar, Ty Blach, Joan Gregorio, Derek Law, Keury Mella, Mike Kickham, Adalberto Mejia, Clayton Blackburn, Chris Stratton, Kendry Flores, Christian Arroyo, Kyle Crick, Martin Agosta, Gary Brown, Ryder Jones, Joe Panik, Josh Osich, Mac Williamson