It’s impossible to replace one of the top prospects in the game. Or, is it?
At the 2011 trade deadline, the Giants traded their top pitching prospect, Zack Wheeler, to the Mets for one of the elite impact bats in the game, Carlos Beltran. Beltran hit the disabled list with a sprained wrist within weeks after the trade, playing in just 44 games as the Giants ultimately missed the playoffs.
Beltran left via free agency following the season. Meanwhile, Wheeler has gone on to become one of the elite prospects in the game. At the outset of the season, the 22-year-old right-hander was ranked the No. 11 prospect in the game by Baseball America, and the fifth best overall pitching prospect.
Well disheartened Giants fans, meet Chris Stratton. The right-hander was the Giants first overall draft pick in the 2012 draft — selected 20th overall out of Will Clark’s alma mater Mississippi State — and has quickly emerged as one of the top prospects in the organization.
And not only does Stratton bear an uncanny resemblance to Wheeler on and off the mound, the resemblance is so striking that Giants minor-league pitching coach Steve Kline has trouble telling them apart.
“It’s amazing, I always want to call him Zack,” Kline said. “When I see him pitching … I’m like, ‘Hey, Zack!’ They’re like: ‘No, no. He’s Stratt.’ And I’m like: ‘Oh, Jesus.’”
The two esteemed prospects have also posted similar results. Like Wheeler, Stratton is beginning his first full professional season at Low-A Augusta. Over his first three starts, Stratton has been sensational, posting a 2-0 record with a 1.08 ERA, including 6 2/3 innings of four-hit ball Thursday to help Augusta to its 10th win. At 10-4, the GreenJackets currently own the best record in the South Atlantic League.
Stratton may have been a candidate to start the year in High-A San Jose, but he missed a significant amount of time due to an injury that ended his 2012 season. After signing with the Giants in mid-June, Stratton posted a solid pro debut at short-season Salem-Keizer. But his season was cut short when he suffered a concussion after being struck in the head with a line drive during batting practice.
“He was working behind the center-field screen and he had stepped out to receive a ball at the same time that someone hit a line drive,” Giants vice president and assistant general manager Bobby Evans said. “So his back was turned to home plate … and it hit him right in the head.”
Rehabbing from the injury continued into the spring as Stratton got a late start in the preseason. After taking some months to resume baseball activities, the Giants decided to err on the side of caution in promoting him.
“I think it became more of a conservative approach with him, having missed the time he did with the injury,” Evans said. “So I wouldn’t put it past him to pitch his way out of [Low-A Augusta], but I think it was more strategic to at least start there.”
There’s nothing like a competitive fire to help a young player return to the field. And Stratton has quickly garnered a reputation as consistently exhibiting such fire.
“When he’s on the mound he wants to really compete,” Kline said. “He has a little swagger about himself when he’s out there. But he has a good feel for everything that’s going on around him. Especially with that concussion problem he had last year. Once he gets over that, then he can just become a really good pitcher. He’s got the weapons.”
He is also completely recovered from the concussion that cost him his offseason.
“No effects at all,” Kline said. “We make sure to put a couple players around him so if line drives are hit they can catch it for him.”
If Stratton does eventually receive a promotion to San Jose, it could give the High-A Giants a formidable tandem with Stratton and 20-year-old Kyle Crick — the organizations top overall prospect according to Baseball America.
However, Crick suffered a setback this week when the big right-hander departed Thursday’s game after the second inning with a left oblique strain. Crick was placed on the disabled list on Friday. There is currently no specific timetable for his return.
“Most [oblique injuries] are two-to-three weeks minimum, especially for a pitcher,” Evans said. “So we’ll just have to see.”