Looking back at the 2019 Giants, with an eye toward the future. Previously: Jeff Samardzija, Brandon Belt, Sam Coonrod, Trevor Gott, Evan Longoria, Joey Rickard, Donovan Solano, Kevin Pillar, Alex Dickerson, Fernando Abad, Stephen Vogt, Madison Bumgarner, Will Smith, Pablo Sandoval.
The months following the season have been kinder to Austin Slater than the last month of the season.
The corner outfielder/utility player, who had emerged as a serviceable, flexible defender and potent bat with good patience, hit a wall — or, more accurately, a lot of air and not many walls — in September, when much of the goodwill he had earned was risked. In 48 plate appearances, the 26-year-old reached base just seven times, on six singles and a walk. He struck out 19 times, turning an encouraging season into one that raises questions.
It seems as the Giants are not scared off. Non-tendering Kevin Pillar presents more opportunities for at-bats for Slater. As does letting Joey Rickard go, another righty bat who saw time against southpaws.
The Giants are still in the hunt for a righty corner-outfield bat, but Slater’s splits — the fact he hammers lefties — and his position versatility goes a long way toward ensuring he’ll have another chance to stick on the team in 2020.
If September didn’t quite do it, the first five months of 2019 displayed there is potential in Slater’s bat. Using a new leg kick — part of a rejiggered swing brought about because so many of his batted balls were heading south — Slater killed Triple-A pitching in Sacramento, then made his season debut July 1. It wasn’t just Alex Dickerson and Evan Longoria carrying the offense for the next two months, over which the occasional No. 2 hitter starred, slashing .281/.396/.529 in 144 plate appearances. His 34 hits included five homers, nine doubles and three triples. For a long while, it wasn’t just southpaws he dominated. After hitting 63.1 percent of his batted balls into the ground in 2018, the number shrank to 52.3 this season. His 37.4 percent hard-hit rate rose to 45 percent. Balls were going higher and harder.
The late-season nosedive coincided with the Giants moving him around the field. He typically played right through his time with the Giants, then appeared in seven games in September at first base as well as taking pregame ground balls at second. At Triple-A Sacramento, the Giants had diversified Slater, who played every position but shortstop, catcher and pitcher last season as a River Cat.
If he has trouble balancing playing everywhere with being ready at the plate, that would be an issue — especially next season. Another factor working in Slater’s favor is the 26th man that will be added to rosters next season. Farhan Zaidi will get creative with the added flexibility, which could mean carrying an extra swing pitcher or carrying another bat who can sub in everywhere. That sounds like Slater.
With the Giants ditching Pillar, they have sent the message next season is about development. Slater, whose in-house outfield competition is Jaylin Davis, will see his at-bats. Just how many will be in part decided by his external competition — names like Nicholas Castellanos, Marcell Ozuna and Yasiel Puig loom in free agency — but whomever they bring in, Slater’s glove is flexible enough that his intriguing bat (for much of the season at least) will find its way into lineups.