In making two expected transactions Saturday, activating reliever Santiago Casilla from the disabled list and adding outfielder Jeff Francoeur to the roster, the San Francisco Giants also made an unexpected move and designated right-handed starter Chris Heston for assignment in order to accommodate Francoeur on the 40-man roster.
Heston, a 12-rounder in 2009, was widely considered the top pitcher in the Giants’ upper minors coming into this season. He led the High-A California League with a 3.16 ERA and made the All-Star team in 2011, and then repeated the same feats in the Double-A Eastern League in 2012, albeit with an even more dominant 2.24 ERA. This performance caused him to be ranked the Giants’ number eight prospect by MLB.com coming into this season.
He was added to the 40-man roster during the offseason and was highly scrutinized during big-league spring training, with many believing that he would be the first starter summoned if anyone in the Giants’ rotation went down. But he struggled to adjust to Triple-A this year, posting a 5.80 ERA in 19 starts and giving up 14 homers, two more than he had given up combined in the past two seasons. This was an unusual bump in the road for the 25-year-old Heston, as most pitchers fizzle out in Double-A rather than failing at the minors’ highest level.
Ultimately two factors, Heston’s pitching style and the events that have occurred this year, sealed Heston’s fate in the Giants’ organization. Heston is a pitcher who does not have overpowering stuff and relies on breaking balls to get him ground ball outs. Because of his style of pitching, Heston provides less opportunity for development than lefty Michael Kickham, who was on the same track as Heston in terms of development but features a more overpowering fastball and is more capable of getting strikeouts. Kickham beat out Heston when the Giants had to fill Ryan Vogelsong‘s rotation spot earlier this year. Though he has not performed well at the major-league level, he has intrigued the Giants’ brass enough that he has a firm grip on a 40-man spot, which made Heston more expendable.
The Giants take a calculated risk in letting Heston go. It’s not like they had no choice but to make the move; they easily could have let 24-year-old reliever Hunter Strickland go. The right-hander was in A-ball this year before undergoing Tommy John surgery, and will not be back until at least spring training. He had pitched well, putting up an 0.86 ERA through his first 20 appearances, but it’s a bold move keeping an injured reliever who is not considered a major prospect while cutting a healthy starter at Triple-A who is a top 10 prospect.
Heston’s time in the Giants’ organization will almost certainly come to an end in the next few days. Though he was designated for assignment and could theoretically be outrighted if he cleared waivers, there is almost no chance that every other MLB team will pass on a starter who was considered a legitimate prospect coming into the season. The best-case scenario for the Giants would be if they could orchestrate a trade in which Heston would be moved to a team higher up in the waiver order, preventing the possibility that he would be claimed by the teams at the bottom, and perhaps netting the Giants some prospects or money in return.