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In year with record amount of Giants, inside the art of the call-up

© Kamil Krzaczynski | 2022 Sep 10

It’s almost 10:00 p.m. on July 3 in Sutter Health Park, and David Villar has no clue why his manager wanted to see him in his office. 

Yeah, he alligator-armed a throw to first, but he also went 2-for-2 with a double. What could his manager possibly want from him? 

“Hey, how are you feeling?” Brundage asked Villar, with hitting coach Damon Minor lurking behind. “Everything good with your arm?” 

“I’m good, why?” Villar, just out of the shower, said. 

“Okay, we’re going to send you to Arizona tomorrow,” Brundage said. 

Those words are taboo for prospects. No minor leaguer wants to get sent to Arizona. That’s where players go for rehab, where development pauses. Villar couldn’t believe it. 

That’s when Minor interjected. The jig was up. He and Brundage had their fun. 

“The big league club’s in Arizona,” Minor said. “You’re getting called up.” 

A wave of emotions hit Villar, the 25-year-old rookie. He’d dominated Double-A last year and tore through Triple-A competition to start. Now he was going to hop on the next flight from Sacramento to Phoenix to make his MLB debut. 

First, his Triple-A teammates, waiting right around the corner from Brundage’s office, got to congratulate him with hugs, howls and high-fives. 

“I can tell you like it happened yesterday,” Villar told KNBR. “I’ll never forget it.” 

Sixty-five players have worn a Giants jersey this season, a franchise-record amount of roster churn. Villar, who has hit 34 home runs with the Giants and River Cats combined, has been the most exciting call-up of a season full of them. 

There have been stopgap trade appointees, internal promotions, waiver claim fliers and any other transactional stroke possible. Some call-ups are immediately optioned to Triple-A, others sent right to the big club. Some stick around with the Giants only for a game or two. Some get designated for assignment before many fans even realize they were on the team. Others, like Villar, prove their worth.

Promising yet disappointing Heliot Ramos made his debut three days into the season as the first Giant elevated from Sacramento. Ford Proctor became Lucky Giant No. 65 — forever included in the minutiae of the record books — on Sept. 24. 

The endless player conveyor belt of 2022 has been a defining feature of a disappointing season, tested behind-the-scenes staff and revealed shortcomings of a farm system. 

“I’ve been fortunate over my career to be part of a lot of different conversations,” Brundage, a minor-league manager since 1995, said. “I try to always make it something special. Because it’s something that will always be remembered…When it’s genuine, when it’s real, and when you know somebody’s really earned it. Really makes it special for the players.” 

For every move the Giants make, the rest of the organization has to make counter moves to fill their rosters. San Francisco’s roster churn hardly registers compared to Sacramento’s 97 total players. 

Even Brundage admitted that at one point, around the All-Star break, large swaths of his own clubhouse felt unfamiliar. 

“Got a little dicey around that time,” Brundage said. “And obviously, the shitty part of the job is releasing players as well. I know we’ve done our share of that. At the same time, we’ve acquired some good players in trades, waiver wire claims, things like that. That’s kind of what we’ve done with Farhan running the ship.” 

When the Giants decide to make a roster move, senior director of team operations Abe Silvestri and team travel manager James Uroz become two of the most important people in the organization. They spring into action. 

The chain of events often begins with assistant general manager Jeremy Shelley tipping them off to a potential move. When Brundage eventually gives the player the good news, he puts Silvestri, Uroz, and farm director Kyle Haines in a group chat. That’s when they can reach out directly to the soon-to-be Giant. 

They book a flight under either of their names, call a rental car company, and make sure the player has his baseball gear. Sometimes that involves tracking down a cell number from a random Triple-A team’s custodian. 

Silvestri and Uroz need to know where the River Cats are playing at all times. They have an algorithm they reference that ensures whether or not they’ll be able to get a player to their destination with enough time — six hours before first pitch for a night game, four for a day game. 

“Being two steps ahead of Farhan is what we do for a living,” Silvestri said. 

2020, Silvestri and Uroz’s first year in their roles, prepared them for anything. That was the year of close contacts, game postponements and false positives. Now the only stressful times come when a player doesn’t pick up his phone, which is rare. They’re batting 1.000 on the year, they said, on getting a call-up where he needs to be, with all his stuff, on time. 

That’s how Bryce Johnson arrives at his locker on one hour of sleep after taking a 7 a.m. flight from Tacoma. It’s how Luis Ortiz gets to Los Angeles a day after 115-degree heat knocked out power and air conditioning in Sacramento. How Andrew Knapp can play, get DFA’d, then return with his bags in tow just in time on the same road trip. 

Silvestri and Uroz are also eight-for-nine on getting the player’s family to the ballpark for their MLB debut, too. Players notice.

Last week, a traveling party from Beaumont, Texas got to Phoenix, Arizona to see Proctor’s first big-league hit. 

“My whole family was there, which was an awesome experience,” Proctor said Sept. 27. “So many people that helped me along the way. Had some coaches here today. It’s been a whirlwind, but obviously a dream come true. Just trying to soak it all in, enjoy it.” 

Breaking the player record is as much, if not more, a demerit as an accomplishment. If the Giants were more competitive, or if they had a stronger farm system to pluck talent from, they would have used far fewer than 65 players. 

Only the last-place Reds, Pirates and Angels have used as many or more players than SF this year. The first-place Astros have used 45 and the indomitable Dodgers have deployed 52. Continuity can be a signal of roster strength. 

San Francisco’s previous record for players used came in 2019, when the Giants finished 77-85. 

But there can still be value in trying out a bunch of players — namely castoffs from other organizations — that the front office targets. Without giving them a runway to succeed, the Giants may have never gotten contributions from LaMonte Wade Jr., Mike Yastrzemski and Luis González. 

“Sometimes it’s worth it to churn through some players to find those diamonds,” manager Gabe Kapler said.

And if the roster stayed more static, the Giants would have missed out on memorable moments like Cole Waites becoming the first Zaidi-era draftee to debut, Lewis Brinson’s three-home run weekend in Dodger Stadium and Proctor’s grand slam. 

It also makes for feel-good moments like Jason Krizan finally debuting after 1,132 minor league games. 

“When he first got here, he hadn’t been activated yet,” Silvestri said. “But he was here on taxi. We gave him a locker. I think it was an off-day, and I walked into the clubhouse and he was sitting all by himself, just staring. I walked by him, like ‘hey, have you not been here?’ He’s like ‘bro I just went out on a big-league field for the first time in my life.’” 

That all doesn’t necessarily justify so much turnover at the back-end of the roster. For every Yastrzemski, there are three Mike Fords, Dixon Machados and Kevin Padlos. 

There’s a cost to the margin-spending. The Giants traded pitching prospect Prelander Berroa to Seattle for Donovan Walton because they felt they needed middle infield depth. Berroa won Texas League Pitcher of the month and rose to Double-A. Walton committed two errors and hit .158 in 24 games. 

If the Giants had more upper-minors infield talent, they could have simply elevated from within and held onto the promising Berroa. 

“We’re trying to capture the upside of a player emerging as a consistent major league talent,” Kapler said. “Sometimes when you’re not having that pipeline of success from the minor league system, maybe it hasn’t matured to the level where it’s a constant feeder. Sometimes acquiring those players from outside, as minor league free agents, in trades, can give you the opportunity to supplement until that pipeline is mature.” 

And sometimes, when digging for diamonds, you only mine rubble. 

After all the Brundage chat, the congratulations, the text messages, the travel itinerary, comes the clubhouse entrance. 

Whether at home or on the road, the Giants treat a call-up’s arrival as an occasion. 

If the new Giant is a pitcher, he’ll often meet with pitching coach Andrew Bailey at his locker for a quick debriefing. If he’s a position player, a coach may stop by and drop off a game plan sheet. Either right before or right after their pow-wow, the daps ensue. 

The biggest greeting embraces usually come from 15-year veteran Evan Longoria or gregarious ace Logan Webb. The enthusiasm is by design. 

“I’ve had conversations with Kap about this, with (Ron Wotus) about this,” Longoria said. “Like how can we get the most out of everybody, both individually and collectively as a group, how can we build a better culture and a better attitude in here?”

When Longoria and other Giants veterans came into the league, not all clubhouses were as welcoming. Some organizations were better than others, but there are stories of light rookie hazing, of unfavorable treatment for young players, of dysfunctional culture. The young players are, after all, there to try to take the older players’ jobs.

But the Giants have made a conscious effort to flip that awkward dynamic. Longoria is convinced it can lead to wins.

“One of the things is trying to make anybody who comes into this clubhouse feel like they’re a part of this group — right from the get-go,” Longoria said.  

“And I think especially when you have that many players, sometimes you only have like two or three days to get the opportunity to introduce yourself. The way that we’ve done it this year, we’ve had guys come up, pitch a couple innings, make a couple starts, go back down. Guys make a couple spot starts in the field, go back down. But those two days could be the difference between two wins. If that guy’s in the lineup, we want him to feel comfortable.” 

If Longoria has never met a player, he’ll introduce himself. If they’ve already been acquainted, he’ll welcome them back. And when Longoria does it, seemingly everyone else follows. 

It’s human nature, Longoria said, to want to feel part of the group. To be included. 

“I know if I came in here and i was an up and down guy, sitting in the corner over there and nobody talked to me, and I felt like, ‘fuck, I’m in the lineup today but nobody’s even said a word to me,’” Longoria said. “It’s really hard to contribute that way. It’s really hard to have success. And so that’s kind of why I’m going to make sure, that I — if it’s a guy I don’t know, I’m going to introduce myself; if it’s a guy I do know, I’ll welcome him back. I think it plays such a huge role in the way the team performs on the field.” 

Ka’ai Tom and Mike Ford were up for one game. Austin Dean played three. Michael Papierski and Stuart Fairchild had five-game stints. They all get the same treatment. 

“Having Longo, Craw, Belt, all these other guys that have been around — they’ve given me a lot of tutelage, lot of advice,” Villar said. 

At this point in Longoria’s career, young players’ success can be energizing. Villar’s second-half turnaround or Proctor’s first hit reminds him of the joys of baseball and of when he first got called up with the Rays in 2008. 

In some ways, Longoria learns from the young guys as much as they learn from him. This year, for better or worse, there has been a record amount of opportunity for teaching moments. 


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