SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Nick Noonan and Charlie Culberson were joined at the hip – or at least across the middle infield – since the day the two high school kids from opposite coasts were taken by the Giants as supplemental first-round picks in 2007.
So last July, when they sat down for a fan Q&A session at Triple-A Fresno, they both met one question with stunned silence.
“What if one of you gets traded?”
“We both kind of paused a second,” Noonan said. “Neither of us really thought about that possibly happening.”
You probably know what happened next.
“The next day, he was traded,” Noonan said, smiling. “And two days later, we were in Colorado Springs playing against each other.”
The Culberson trade brought the Giants many happy returns. The Colorado Rockies sent over veteran second baseman Marco Scutaro, who hit .360, went 14 for 28 in a mythical NLCS performance and drove in the tiebreaking run in the World Series-clinching victory.
Scutaro re-signed for three years. But the Giants might have a sudden opportunity for Noonan, who reestablished himself as a valuable player with a solid season at Fresno last year.
Just a week after the Giants optioned Noonan to Fresno, he’s back in big league camp and getting a look for a utility infield job that nobody else has stepped up to grab. (The Giants released veteran Wilson Valdez; 24 hours later, the Florida Marlins picked him up. And Tony Abreu’s knee has limited him to one game all spring.)
Noonan hit a home run Friday against the Rockies (and Culberson) at Salt River Fields and he’s back in the lineup at second base on Saturday.
He doesn’t have an official locker in the Scottsdale Stadium clubhouse, but he’s playing in front of the big league coaching staff. And that’s the most important thing.
“It’s awesome for me,” Noonan said. “When I went down, they told me, `This wasn’t because you didn’t play well. We just need to get you playing time. We don’t know what’s going to happen.’ There’s a week to go and I still don’t know.”
The Giants probably see Noonan as a fallback option. They’re holding out hope that Abreu might get healthy in time. They’re also actively looking for a spare infielder on the waiver and trade landscapes.
For now, Noonan has earned the opportunity to get a look. That’s something he wouldn’t have been positioned to get a year ago at this time. He hit .212 with a .288 slugging percentage and just three home runs in 260 at-bats for Double-A Richmond. The Giants sent him to Fresno to finish the season, but it wasn’t a promotion so much as a change of scenery for a player who was getting beaten down.
That’s when then-Frenso manager Steve Decker had a long talk with Noonan that began with an open-ended question.
“I’ve known Nick from day one, so I asked him, `When we drafted you and you were considered a top prospect, what were you good at?’” said Decker, now the Giants’ organizational hitting coordinator.
Noonan replied that he was a pretty good fastball hitter, especially to his pull side gap. So Decker gave him a challenge: “If you get a fastball middle, be ready to hit it to your pull side gap.”
“He has not been late on the fastball since,” Decker said. “He finally figured out … you never come to a fight without your best weapon.”
Noonan had a nice couple weeks to finish the 2011 season and then carried it into 2012 , hitting .296/.347/.416 for Fresno to put himself back on the prospect map.
He also excelled at three infield positions, becoming an everyday shortstop after Joaquin Arias joined the major league club. It’s not just the Giants who noticed. Noonan was among the Giants’ most requested minor leaguers in trade talks at the July 31 deadline.
“I kind of let it all hang out,” Noonan said. “I didn’t second-guess myself when I was hitting or fielding. I just told myself, `Be aggressive and if you mess up, you mess up.’”
Noonan improved with more reps at shortstop, learning to anticipate better with his backhand and improving his throwing accuracy. And with the bat, the left-handed hitter used a better approach and came prepared to hit the fastball.
“Hitting the fastball is 99 percent of it,” Giants farm director Fred Stanley said. “He’s back to where he was three years ago. He drove the ball and hit the fastball, that’s the biggest improvement.”
Because he was drafted out of high school in the San Diego area, Noonan still has time on his side. He’ll turn 24 in May, and he’s on the 40-man roster. So a call-up – or a spot on the opening-day roster – can be accommodated easily enough.
Noonan and Culberson have played on both sides of second base together. Now, with Culberson still in big league camp with the Rockies, there might come a day soon when they’ll play across from each other at AT&T Park and Coors Field.
“It’s been so great to have a close friend that you’ve known since the day you started your career,” Noonan said. “There’s always that one person you can walk into a clubhouse and start a conversation with. But we still talk all the time, and he’s got a good chance over there. He’ll work as hard as he can, I know that.
“I always know that about Charlie.”
Scutaro (back tightness) said he wanted to play Saturday but was told to rest for another 24 hours.
As for Pablo Sandoval (ulnar neuritis in right elbow), he did “baseball work” in the broadest definition of the term. He caught throws from the infield and flipped them to designated fungo hitter Ron Wotus. Sandoval is getting more treatment today and said he wasn’t sure when he’d be cleared to start throwing. We should know more after the game.