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Know Your Prospects: Zack Wheeler, RHP, San Francisco Giants

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Sometime tomorrow, Baseball America will roll out its prospect rankings for the San Francisco Giant’s organization. The best left-handed pitching prospect in Minor League Baseball, Madison Bumgarner, or the best catching prospect in the game, Buster Posey, will nab the team’s No. 1 spot.

I know this because, well, it really doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure it out and because my Dad and Step Mom are awesome and surprised me with a little pre-Christmas love. Now I can read all the B.A. analysts gushing about prospects in real-time:

Thank you!

But anyway, back to the San Francisco Giants. In recent years, the team has exponentially fortified its minor league system by uncharacteristically handing out large bonuses. As a result, General Manager Brian Sabean has had tremendous success securing above-average pitching prospects and impact bats at premier positions. Prior to the 2009 season, the organization was ranked fifth in Baseball America‘s talent rankings, the club’s highest mark in the publication’s history.

The organization won’t rank as highly this year, but its still got all the trappings of an impact system.

Behind Bumgarner and Posey, the team’s No. 3 prospect will be Zack Wheeler.

Wheeler, a 6’4″, 170 pound, right-handed power pitcher out of Georgia’s East Paulding High School was considered one of the few elite pitchers in the 2009 draft class. Scouts lauded Wheeler’s prototypical pitcher’s body, potential plus stuff, and poise.

And all the marks were earned: during his senior year at East Paulding High, Wheeler went 9-0 with an ERA of 0.54. During the first round of the Georgia state playoffs, he added a no-hitter and a two-hit complete game to his already impressive resume. He was named the 2009 Gatorade Player of the Year for the state of Georgia.

A consensus first round pick, analysts believed Wheeler would go somewhere between fourth and sixth in the draft; Baltimore, San Francisco, and Atlanta seemed to be the most logical suitors for pitching talent once the few impact bats were taken off the boards.

Would Baltimore pass on premier left-hander Tyler Matzek because of his lofty asking price and pursue Wheeler instead? Or would Wheeler fall to San Francisco? Or his home club in Atlanta?

Well, the Orioles (and a slew of other teams) passed on the pricey Matzek and instead opted for up-’til-then unheralded high school product Matthew Hobgood.

In the Giant’s tradition of going after right-handers in the first round (Cain, 2002; Aardsma, 2003; Lincecum, 2006; Alderson, 2007), Wheeler became the team’s natural pick.¬†He was chosen by the San Francisco Giants sixth overall in the 2009 draft.

And this is where things get interesting.

Zack Wheeler has yet to thrown a professional pitch, yet his stock is still incredibly high.

On August 17, 2009, the Giants signed Wheeler just minutes before the deadline for a record-breaking $3.3 million, the sixth highest bonus ever handed out to a high school draftee. The contract stipulated that he would be under control starting in 2010, a move that ensured another year of his service, but also meant he wouldn’t pitch in 2009.

Still, professional scouts aren’t letting the right-hander’s inexperience get in the way of their judgments.

Throwing from a low three-quarters arm slot, Wheeler’s fastball is easily his best pitch. It routinely sits 90-93 miles-per-hour, but he can rear back and touch 95. In a Giant’s audition in early 2009, it was reported that he actually reached 97, though that seems slightly high. It has tremendous sinking movement and bores in on the hands of righties, making it especially lethal.

Wheeler also possesses an above-average, 78-80 mile-per-hour curveball. It’s too hard to deem it a plus pitch right now because he so much trouble controlling it, but it should play well in the higher levels. Working on his other offspeed offering, a sub-par changeup, will be the main focus of his initial rookie campaign.

Coaches will also work with Wheeler on his inconsistent control, which is more a product of his delivery than of his stuff. Wheeler’s motion is far from unconventional, but he is still¬†prone to bringing his hands too far back and as a result his elbow flies open, wreaking havoc on his offspeed pitches. When his hands remain stable, he’s at his best.

But Wheeler should be coachable enough for those problems to iron themselves out; scouts praise him for his terrific makeup and concentration and he’s also been called a “baseball rat.” Wheeler is listed a just 170 pounds, but once his thin, wiry frame fills out, its highly likely that he will add a few more miles-per-hour to his fastball.

It’s risky to label a 19-year-old who hasn’t even pitched a professional game a future ace, but Wheeler certainly appears to have that upside.

For Giant’s fans, a fully developed Wheeler is part of a tantalizing vision. To go along with a dynamic offense, a starting five of Lincecum, Cain, Barry Zito, Bumgarner, and Wheeler could add up to the team’s first postseason appearance since 2003.

Zack Wheeler: the enigma that hasn’t pitched professionally, but could be the Giant’s third best prospect.

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