Nick Noonan is having the best season of his six year minor league career this year while playing for the Fresno Grizzlies. Yesterday he turned in what will likely be one of the best offensive performances turned in all season as he went 4-5 with a double, two home runs and a whopping eight runs batted in.
The Giants supplemental round selection (32nd overall) in the 2007 draft, Noonan signed for $915,000 and quickly made the organization look brilliant for drafting him. Making the jump from high school to pro ball, all he did was hit 0.316/.357/.451 with 18 SB, 12 BB and 20 SO in 52 Arizona League games. He carried the torrid start to his career into the Giants instructional league that fall and cemented himself as one of the organization’s Top-10 prospects. In fact Baseball America tabbed the 2B/SS as the team’s 6th best prospect in their 2008 Prospect Handbook while giving him positive marks for his smooth swing, solid approach, above-average speed and excellent instincts. Heading into his first full season, Noonan was drawing comparisons to offensive minded second basemen like Chase Utley – with less power – and Todd Walker – who was just finishing up a solid 12-year major league career.
That’s heady stuff for any prospect. It’s also tough to live up to.
Noonan spent the entire 2008 season playing 2B for the Augusta Greenjackets (A) and hit 0.279/.315/.415 with 27 2B, 7 3B, 9 HR and 29 SB in 119 games. It wasn’t a performance on par with what he did the year before in the AZL but it was a consistent, yeoman’s effort for a 19-year old in his first full professional season. Baseball America bumped him up to 5th in the Giants Top-30 for their 2009 handbook citing that – among other things – his “game awareness is off the charts.” He also earned positive marks for his improved defense, but with 98 SO and just 23 BB he clearly lost a bit of his selectivity at the plate.
With no real reason to hold him back, the Giants bumped Noonan up to San Jose (A+) for the 2009 season. Despite playing in the offense inflating environment of the California League, he slipped statistically for the second straight year. He wasn’t terrible with the bat in his hands and hit 0.259/.330/.297 with 41 extra-base hits in 124 games, but more was expected of him. One positive sign however was an increase in his walk rate from 4.3% to 9.1% while his SO% barely moved (18.4 to 18.3%).
2010 saw Noonan move forward another level, this time to Richmond in the Eastern League, where he would spend his entire season. Unfortunately the bloom came off the rose as he tried to make the difficult jump to Double-A and scuffled. In 101 games with the Flying Squirrels he hit a paltry 0.237/.280/.304. After topping 40 extra-base hits in each of the two previous seasons he managed just 17 in 2010. His SO% (18.2) again remained essentially unchanged but his BB% – one of the best indicators of progress from his time with San Jose -dropped back to 5.4%.
Not surprisingly, Baseball America dropped him all the way to 23rd in their Top-30 heading into the 2011 season and John Sickles didn’t include a profile of Noonan in his 2011 prospect book which typically goes about 40 players deep in each system. Without question Nick Noonan’s standing as a prospect was on life support.
2011 was a tough year for the young middle infielder. Still just 22-years old he hit 0.229/.311/.310 with 23 XBH in 112 games across three levels but the silver lining was that he did his best (0.297/.366/.378) in a 13 game stint with Fresno. It was a time of transition in the field as well as the plate. He saw his first game action at 3B (24 G) in his pro career and returned to his roots as a SS (85 G) for the bulk of the season.
Entering this year Nick Noonan had completely dropped off the prospect map, but based on what he’s doing in 2012 he just might be reigniting his career. After his noteworthy Sunday afternoon, he’s hitting 0.326/.378/.459 and has 13 XBH in his first 37 games. His selectivity and strong approach at the plate appear to have returned. He’s reduced his SO rate to 11.4% and pushed his BB% back up to 8.1%. Noonan is also once again making his presence felt on the basepaths. After stealing a combined total of 20 bases between the 2009 and 2011 seasons, he’s swiped five for Fresno while being caught just once.
Having just turned 23-years old at the start of May, he has plenty of time to become the player so many scouts and experts envisioned over five years ago. And Noonan, after all this time is finally starting to turn his potential into results while playing 3B and SS with the Fresno Grizzlies. All the tools are still there and now that he’s generating results, his major league debut may not be too far down the road.