It’s been a weird … time for the Giants, going back at least the last decade-plus to include their three World Series titles. The squads that captured those titles never seemed to have an entirely sustainable sort of success, with a patchwork, seemingly happenstance structure of contributors. Eventually, the juggling act of always finding the next player to step up dropped; the team’s only two division championships of the last decade were in its first three years, before the Dodgers’ run of dominance commenced. There was always that “three championships to zero” cachet, but one always had the sense that was due to end eventually.
So it became critical for the Giants, as they careened toward the 2020s, to build the sort of consistent machine that powered the franchise down the 5. Enter Farhan Zaidi, previously the number two in the Dodgers front office, in November 2018. To some degree, the team’s course was set at that point, with Brandons Crawford and Belt, Buster Posey, and Johnny Cueto signed through 2021, and with Evan Longoria having been brought in ahead of the ‘18 season via trade and contracted through 2022. With each of those players having suffered skill loss to some degree and with their salaries only climbing at the ends of their contracts—each is owed more than $15 million this year, none were likely to bring on significant value via trade—better to work around them, hope for resurgences as their remaining commitments dwindled, and in the meantime try to plug every hole with a consistent player who could contribute to the next contending Giants team.
That’s basically been the team’s M.O. in the two completed years under Zaidi’s guidance. Take the outfield, where the Giants basically had no commitments or immediate prospects after the 2018 season. San Francisco rotated through 19 players in the outfield the following campaign, trading for Kevin Pillar to hold down center early in the season and rotating the cast at the corners throughout. A number of players had brief auditions, posting fewer than 50 innings in the outfield: Mike Gerber, Stephen Vogt, Yangervis Solarte, Connor Joe, Michael Reed, and Abiatal Avelino. Then there were players who got more significant consideration, such as Jaylin Davis, Joey Rickard, Mac Williamson, Alex Dickerson, Austin Slater, Steven Duggar, and most notably Mike Yastrzemski. The majority of these players, you might notice, are either out of the organization or have seen their future outlook with it diminish almost entirely. The time allotted to them is more than balanced by the few legitimate finds.
Languishing in the minor leagues of the Orioles’ organization for years, Yastrzemski was 28 in March 2019 when the Giants acquired him in a minor league trade and wasted little time bringing him into the lineup. Yastrzemski has to this point strung together a complete season (636 PA) at the major league level, and certainly looks the part of an everyday player—his slash line is .281/.357/.535, good for a 112 DRC+ and 3.3 WARP. For 2020, Yastrzemski became the cornerstone around which the outfield turned (with Pillar having been non-tendered), accumulating almost 30 percent more innings on the grass than any other Giant. Dickerson looked good by the traditional numbers in 2019, coming over after being designated for assignment by San Diego and finishing the season with an .820 OPS. A 22.7 percent strikeout rate and 6.8 percent walk rate, however, resulted in a 67 DRC+. Whether or not it appeared replicable, though, Dickerson had earned another chance, and his .947 OPS earned him a much more amenable 129 mark. Slater, meanwhile, came up in the Giants system and struggled in stints in all of 2017-19. It was his year, too, in the short season, as he posted a .914 OPS and a 118 DRC+. If there’s a throughline in these players, it’s that each continued earning chances despite ages well beyond the typical breakout profile—this year, Yastrzemski will be 30, Dickerson 31, and Slater 28 (in baseball age). Each also has a chance to be a significant contributor if you take another throughline, their above-average DRC+ projection via PECOTA.
When analyzing the PECOTA 2021 spreadsheet, BP’s own Matthew Trueblood had this observation:
There are 11 players on the Giants’ depth chart with projected DRC+ figures of 100 or higher, tying them with the Yankees and Blue Jays for the most such players in the majors.
You’re probably familiar with the offenses of the Yankees and Blue Jays, which are fearsome in their own ways: baseline and potential, to sum them in singular words. The Giants would appear a surprise there, particularly given the paltry offenses they’d become known for at the end of the last decade. Should it be a surprise? Well, consider a few things. The Giants had a 105.8 team DRC+ in 2020, sandwiching them at sixth in the league (coincidentally between the Yankees at fourth and the Blue Jays at seventh). The aforementioned Dickerson, Yastrzemski, and Slater breakouts were second through fourth in DRC+ for the team, with Brandon Belt (147 DRC+) and Donovan Solano (110 DRC+) having career years around them. Throw in Wilmer Flores (117 DRC+), largely unshackled from the chains of defense, and you’re reminded this was no feeble lineup. How much of it is repeatable? First, let’s look at those players—12, rather than 11, with the acquisition Thursday of LaMonte Wade Jr.
|Name||DRC+||PA projected||2020 DRC+||2020 PA||2020 OPS|
|Tommy La Stella||110.4||473||125||228||.819|
|Buster Posey||107||439||86 (2019)||0||.688 (2019)|
|LaMonte Wade Jr.||104.6||67* (with MIN)||89||44||.626|
|Jason Vosler||100.3||135||has not debuted||0||–|
It’s unsurprising to see PECOTA project strong performances, albeit minor steps back, for all of Belt, Yastrzemski, Dickerson, and Slater. Per our depth charts team, Belt and Yaz are expected to play full-time (with the occasional extra day off for the nearly 33-year-old Belt), with Dickerson soaking up around as many plate appearances as possible for the left-handed half of a platoon and Slater likely needing to force his way into the lineup every day. Part of the problem is someone has to play center field, and it’s an open question whether Yastrzemski, who in 2020 logged 20 innings in left, 227⅓ in right, and 186 in center, is up to the task. His lack of a single September inning in center might read as an answer, but Mauricio Dubon hogging every inning there makes the narrative more complicated.
FRAA was a believer in the 26-year-old Dubon (as were Outs Above Average, if you prefer Statcast on defense), though a 96 DRC+ limited him to a two-win pace. He’s projected for only a 91 DRC+, but the team’s reliance on him in September makes it likely he’ll have the inside track on the job. Especially if none of the better-hitting options can’t cut it in center, it’s hard to see the team’s outfield as open these days. Darin Ruf, who technically got four-corners usage in 2020 (one inning at third!) will soak up some plate appearances on the margins, and since the Giants have used a roster spot on him all winter, perhaps Jaylin Davis will get a chance to show if his bat is as major league–ready as PECOTA thinks. Duggar is projected as better than his career DRC+ (79 versus 65), but that’s not saying much. Wade Jr., coming over from a Minnesota outfield he was neatly boxed out of, would appear to be on the outside looking in by the Bay, too, but a fifth outfielder job might be more than he would have had as a Twin. Plus, it could kick Duggar down the depth chart, only a good thing as PECOTA is concerned.
You know most of the infield—Belt won’t match last season’s 1.015 OPS in his walk year; if he can even split the difference between that and his .810 career mark he’ll likely nab multiple seasons in free agency next winter, though he seems unlikely to touch his $17.2 million salary from his current contract’s final four seasons in any case. Crawford saw his offense drop to nearly untenable levels in 2019, but rebounded to his typical just below-average levels in 2020, continued slick defense making him nearly the same two-win infielder he has long been. If the Giants are in a dealing mood come July, it’d be surprising not to see Belt traded, though it’s just as likely we see Crawford finish out his tenure unless a team is really keen to fill defensive holes. Then there’s Longoria, to whom the Giants are committed an additional year—in fact, coming into this winter his was the only contract the team had on the books past the coming year.
Longoria was in the field at third for 426⅔ of 517⅔ Giants innings in 2020, pairing a 97 DRC+ with negative scores in the baserunning and fielding metrics, leaving him at replacement level. If you prefer Outs Above Average to FRAA, Longoria has defended well in the last two seasons, with the metric assigning him +3 runs in each campaign, though it was in accord with FRAA’s negative appraisal that resulted in a below-replacement 2018. Even if you believe in the 35-year-old’s defensive ability, it’s hard to see more than a two-win profile there. The Giants owe him an average of $19 million over the next two seasons, so he’ll be around. If 2020 is any indication, infield utilities like Tommy La Stella, Flores, and Solano will spell him without a clear singular backup.
That leaves second base, making it a perfect time to hone in on the trio of utilities. Solano got two-thirds of the reps at the keystone in San Francisco last year and used the first starting gig of his career to win a Silver Slugger. You could point out the .326 average (fifth in the NL) was powered by a .396 BABIP, but that was all of 13 points below his 2019 mark, so he would appear to have earned another shot in 2021. PECOTA isn’t a believer, assigning the 33-year-old a 91 DRC+ in its projections. The Giants appear to be more inclined toward PECOTA, having brought on La Stella on a three-year deal.
To be clear, importing the breakout infielder seems an obvious call—if it was the third year that got La Stella on board (at $18.75 million total in a heavily backloaded pact), I think the Giants will be patting themselves on the back in a few years. PECOTA isn’t fully accepting of the matching 125 DRC+ marks from his last two half-seasons, but La Stella’s improvements seem real, and his fringe utility at third (plus Belt’s entrenchment) mean second base seems his only path to full-time play. That puts Solano in something of a superutility role, or, in the increasingly likely case the NL plays 2020 without a DH, in competition with Flores for that distinction. Ruf having acquitted himself well in his return stateside (he spent the 2017-19 seasons with the KBO’s Samsung Lions) also complicates the chance for any of the utility choices to soak up time Belt isn’t occupying the cold corner. At this point, you’re probably getting the picture of a complicated puzzle in putting together a lineup, and you wouldn’t be wrong to observe the Giants offensive unit most strongly resembles the Dodgers without star power.
Even at catcher, the Giants have multiple solid options, having brought on Curt Casali to back up Buster Posey. Even if his ratings behind the plate are middling, the longtime backstop (often in backup roles) for both Tampa Bay and Cincinnati has posted DRC+ above 100 in each of the last three seasons, a rarity for any catcher. Posey had the worst season of his career in 2019, but after opting out of the 2020 season he’ll come back as refreshed as possible for a player with so many miles on his frame. Even if the longtime fan favorite struggles in his return, the single season remaining on his commitment ensures the relationship isn’t likely to turn sour as the franchise sets its eye on another star, Joey Bart. Let’s look at the team’s probable lineups for 2021.
|v. RHP||proj. DRC+||v. LHP||proj. DRC+||Bench (v. RHP)||proj. DRC+||40-man||proj. DRC+|
|Yastrzemski RF||115||Slater LF||109||Slater||109||Wade Jr.||104|
|Dickerson LF||122||Yastrzemski RF||115||Flores||109||Davis||103|
|La Stella 2B||110||Flores 2B||109||Solano||91||Vosler||100|
|Belt 1B||118||Belt 1B||118||Casali||106||Duggar||79|
|Posey C||107||Longoria 3B||90||Ruf||106||Tromp||76|
|Longoria 3B||90||Dubon CF||90|
|Dubon CF||90||Casali C||106|
|Crawford SS||92||Crawford SS||92|
A few observations:
- Since moving to San Francisco ahead of 2018, Longoria’s splits are as follows:
|Evan Longoria, 2018-2020||PA||OBP||OPS|
- In a full season combined across 2019-20, here are La Stella’s splits.
|Tommy La Stella, 2019-20||PA||OBP||OPS|
It’s probably too soon to slot in Longo for the short side of a platoon, especially in light of Belt’s resurgence across the dirt. If this trend continues, however, expect some of that playing time for La Stella, Solano, and Flores to come at third, despite none being much of a defensive asset there.
- Longoria, Crawford, and Dubon all project for above-average showings on the whole in 2021. However, there’s not that much reason to think they’ll far outstrip their collective 2.3 WARP projection, and that’s across 1,487 plate appearances. San Francisco doesn’t really have anyone except Crawford at short, and his 1.2 WARP outlook is the rosiest, but if all of those players are handed nearly 500 plate appearances and don’t outstrip their hitting projection, it’s a big chunk of the lineup doomed to mediocrity. If the Giants are looking to contend for a Wild Card slot in 2021, as their conscientious offseason suggests, it wouldn’t be a shock to watch them tinker at third base and in center field.
- Casali and Posey aren’t likely to split time based on platoon splits, but it would be unsurprising to see Posey limited to 110–120 games and Casali take significant time, so his inclusion against southpaws gestures toward that. Given Casali’s track of durability and Posey’s break from the grind in 2020, they’ll ideally not have to roster a third catcher until or unless Bart (presumably due to see time in Triple-A, where he has never played) breaks through.
- The Giants really could have benefited from the designated hitter—Flores (22 appearances) and Slater (14) had significant chunks of their playing time come at DH, with Ruf (8) getting the nod a few times as well. Most likely, the lack of the DH will simply mean the whole trio will collectively see more time in the field, if perhaps less time overall. The Giants will probably take stomach a little worse on defense, because offense tends to be more valuable these days.
- There’s a lot of talent on the margins here, even if most of that hitting ability is concentrated in the outfield corners and at first base. Jason Vosler, a former Cubs and Padres prospect to whom the Giants signed a major league contract at the offseason’s onset, goes against that tendency with his primary deployment at third base (as well as his left-handed bat). Presumably, he’ll be on the roster, though it’s unclear how a 26-man roster also featuring La Stella, Flores, and Solano actuates that scenario. If the DH remains AL-exclusive for one final year, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Flores traded across leagues for a prospect flyer—he remains just 29 and is earning $3 million in 2021 with a $3.5 million club option the following season.
It’s no secret the NL West contains likely the majors’ two best teams, and neither of them are the Giants. While a number of franchises have commenced hack-and-slash rebuild efforts, in some cases still failing to coalesce to an evident future contender, the Giants have pursued quiet competence by continually making minor moves in pursuit of that ideal. One could argue that the organization’s extant commitments pushed them in that direction, but the team has nevertheless constantly pursued upside from any possible avenue: free agency has netted Drew Pomeranz and Kevin Gausman, the trade market and waiver wire Yastrzemski and Dickerson, the international market Ruf. They get the credit for pursuing the best team possible, given the circumstances. Now, for two consecutive trade deadlines they’ve had to weigh trading strong performers for prospects against an outside chance at a playoff berth, and it seems eminently possible 2021 will bring the same dilemma. It’s a simultaneously enviable and unenviable position for the front office to be in as its outlook to the future begins to bear fruit, but it demonstrates just how capable the Zaidi regime has been in building something that will work in the here and now, even with that eye to the future. The Dodgers should be paying attention to what their former employee is helming upstate, and so should baseball fans.
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