Pitchers and catchers officially report to Scottsdale for Giants camp on Feb. 15, signaling baseball season’s blossoming.
So attention turns to the 2023 San Francisco Giants — and, if president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi has it his way, to players on San Francisco’s roster, not ones it failed to sign.
Many Giants are already down in Arizona training, but with activity officially ramping up this week, here’s a look at some major questions to track during spring training.
Wait, what’s going on with the rule changes?
Now that the Super Bowl’s in the past and the discourse about officiating is over, we turn to getting beat over the head with talk about new rules.
By now, you know what’s coming. Every interview at FanFest featured obligatory questions about them. Pitch clock, shift limit, pickoff wrinkles, bigger bases (a detailed breakdown can be found here).
The rules are going to change how the sport is played and how fans experience games. How drastically things changed will become more clear during spring exhibitions.
In public appearances, the Giants have been cagey about exactly how they plan to approach the new rules. As they should be. Keeping any competitive advantages close to the vest makes sense. And the Giants organization has earned a reputation for seeking out edges on the margins whenever possible.
But they can’t keep state secrets forever. Every inning of Cactus League play could provide hints at the Giants’ plan of attack.
Spring training will likely be a testing ground for all sorts of innovation. Will pitchers ask for new balls on purpose to get a free step-off? Will there be more stealing? Will left-handed hitters’ batting averages surge? Will defenses get creative more in the outfield than in the infield without the shift?
Never before have Cactus League games become such a source of intrigue.
How much will a traditional spring benefit Brandon Crawford?
The lockout-disrupted 2022 offseason prevented Brandon Crawford from starting the season in tip-top shape. His play, and health, reflected that.
Crawford trained last winter, and his work ethic isn’t in question, but he didn’t have the benefits of working with San Francisco’s training staff or using the team’s facilities. For one reason or another, the atypical offseason adversely affected the 36-year-old shortstop more than others.
After finishing fourth in National League MVP voting in 2021, Crawford didn’t hit over .240 in a month until August. A nagging injury sidelined him in June and July, and he never returned to 2021 form.
Expecting Crawford to produce like he did for the 107-win Giants is unreasonable. But getting consistent production for the duration of the season would be pivotal. Crawford can still pick it — he showed that late in the year, and specifically in the Rockies series — and the Giants don’t have any real insurance behind him.
Even though they were ready to move Crawford off the position for Carlos Corea, the Giants will rely on Crawford and Thairo Estrada, again, up the middle. In a shiftless world, their defensive range will be paramount. Crawford, the oldest shortstop in MLB, will need to have his legs under him from the start.
Can LaMonte Wade Jr. bounce back?
The Giants expect LaMonte Wade Jr. to start at first base against right-handed pitchers. They think his 2022 blip was more of a fluke than his magical 2021 campaign. They’re confident he can hold up physically.
What if they’re wrong?
San Francisco has an arsenal of potential right-handed options at first base. But Wade is the only lefty on the roster capable of holding down the position, and even he grades poorly among defensive metrics there.
Wade, when healthy, is a solid athlete and should have range to be an effective first basemen. Focusing on the position throughout the entire spring should help.
But he hit .207 last year. Knee, hamstring and other injuries limited him to 77 games. If that’s the type of value Wade is going to produce in 2023, the Giants could be in trouble at first.
San Francisco needs just about everything to go right to compete in the National League West. That starts with Wade, suddenly a major X-factor.
Can the new outfielders significantly improve SF’s defense?
The Giants’ outfield posted -25 outs above average last year, tied with Philadelphia for the worst in baseball.
Joc Pederson was second on the team in innings played in the outfield, with 779. He played 114 games in the field and just 20 as a designated hitter. Those numbers might flip, which could be the biggest boost possible for the Giants’ outfield defense considering he was tied for the fourth worst defender among outfielders last year, per OAA.
But Pederson wasn’t the only problem. Yermín Mercedes, LaMonte Wade Jr. and Darin Ruf each spent substantial time in the outfield and graded out horribly.
The Giants’ stated objectives this winter was getting younger, more athletic, and better defensively. Neither Michael Conforto nor Mitch Haniger — assuredly the two biggest answers to those goals — aren’t reputationally great fielders. But if they can hold their own in the corners, stability alone could go a long way.
Haniger and Conforto will get to work with the Giants’ coaching staff and prove just how much they’re ready to help improve San Francisco’s weakest unit from last year. The two additions are expected to contribute as everyday players, and how they perform in camp could forecast whether or not the Giants achieved one of their most pressing offseason needs.
How might the catching depth chart play out?
There aren’t many question marks on the 26-man roster. The biggest, though, is who makes up the catching position.
Last year, the Giants had a rotating door of catchers. Joey Bart got sent down to Triple-A Sacramento for a midseason reset, and not even a scorching August (.888 OPS) could save his stat line. Austin Wynns, seen initially as a stopgap solution, emerged as a reliable game-caller and the preferred backstop for Carlos Rodón. Curt Casali, Michael Papierski, Andrew Knapp and even Ford Proctor and Mercedes were called upon.
With an expected increase in activity on the base paths, having a strong defensive catcher could be paramount.
The Giants are going into camp with Bart, Wynns, former Gold Glove winner Roberto Pérez and converted outfielder Blake Sabol competing.
Pérez’s track record may give him the inside track, but his injury history is concerning enough that he was available on a minor-league deal. Sabol was a Rule 5 acquisition, so he’ll have to remain rostered.
One of Pérez or Wynns will almost certainly join Bart on the Opening Day roster. More than anything, the Giants need Bart to develop further. But having steady depth behind him is necessary. Spring should clear up the position’s concerns, if only in the short-term.