Giants Prospect Watch: Chris Heston

Chris Heston entered many people’s radars following a standout year in Double-A Richmond last season and in High-A San Jose the season before. This year, he’s starting in Triple-A Fresno, where he will have to prove that he’s ready for the bigs.

Chris Heston pitches against the Lancaster JetHawks on Jul. 30, 2011. (Photos by Lauren Chinn/@sfgiantsgirl)

Chris Heston pitches against the Lancaster JetHawks on Jul. 30, 2011. (Photos by Lauren Chinn/@sfgiantsgirl)

Baseball Prospectus’ 2013 Prospect Handbook lists Heston as the Giants’ 17th best prospect in the organization. Richmond is known as a pitcher’s park, so the transition to Fresno’s Chukchansi Park, a notorious hitter’s park in a hitter’s league, will help determine Heston’s status as a prospect. Heston is also on the Giants’ 40-man roster.

Heston put up decent numbers in San Jose and his numbers only improved in Richmond.

San Jose is also known for being a hitter’s league. Heston already showed that he had good numbers for a pitcher in a place where balls fly everywhere. According to FanGraphs, he put up a 7.5 K/9 with an 0.6 HR/9, while leaving 57% on base. Minor League Central has his GB% at 54.7% and LD% at 16.6%

In Richmond, Heston’s GB% dipped, falling to 49.3%, which is not necessarily bad. His LD% rose to 19.2%, however. His K/9 and HR/9 improved, going to 8.2 K/9 and 0.1 HR/9. He left 76% of runners on base and kept his BB/9 at 2.4.

Baseball Prospectus called Heston a ground ball machine, especially with runners on base. That’s exactly the type of player who has a chance to succeed in Fresno, where the environment plays a great deal in how the ball travels through the air. But he has some downsides.

First off, he’s too old for his league. Most prospects in the Pacific Coast League are about 23-24 while Heston is 25. While this is usually a deterrent for hitters, it may not be the case for pitchers. The Giants’ scouts have a good eye for pitchers. George Kontos, who turned 27 during the 2012 season, impressed many by being able to keep fly balls from leaving the park with a 0.28 HR/9.

23867_10152652758920083_2065821936_nAnd that’s the thing with a park like Chukchansi — if there’s a pitcher who is still somewhere in a prospect status, just at the brink of being too old to be considered a prospect, he can still have a shot by not being a BP pitcher. If Heston can continue being a ground ball machine with very little balls going through holes and keeps up the K/9 rate while the BB/9 rate is low, there’s a good chance he can make it to the bigs, a la Kontos.

A video on Heston’s page on MLB.com says that his fastball sits in the upper 80s to low 90s with good sink and also throws a curveball and a change-up. Baseball Prospectus calls his curveball his best offspeed pitch, which he uses for strikeout situations, and the change-up that BP says is ranked best in the system. A fastball with that velocity is solid, but it’s nothing that will be shown on SportsCenter fifty times a day (though, maybe that’s a good thing).

There’s going to be those that look at him with his spring training stats, but that’s not a thing at all right now. How can someone truly analyze a pitcher on 2.2 innings pitched, anyway? That’s merely a small sample size that can’t even begin to be dissected.

The bottom line is that Heston has a decent chance of succeeding if he keeps up his pitching the way his past two season have been. He was placed on the 40-man roster last November to prevent being taken in the Rule 5 Draft, so if the Giants need a spot starter or an extra arm in the bullpen, he’s already there.

Whether he impresses the brass enough to be a full-time big leaguer is up in the air. And would there even be a spot for him with the Giants? The rotation seems to be locked in for the most part, barring any injuries or a 2012 Tim Lincecum season (the sound you can hear is me knocking on wood as much as I can), and Dan Runzler is still on the 40-man, along with Eric Surkamp. Surkamp is still on the DL and won’t be back for a while because of Tommy Johns surgery, but the point stands — will there be space for Heston should he prove to be a viable MLB pitcher?

Who knows? He could end up being trade bait for something the Giants need by the deadline. He could end up being a fifth starter. But the chance of succeeding is decent enough that these questions could be asked.

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