In two days, Aaron Judge, the greatest power hitter since Barry Bonds who was momentarily thought to be the next face of the Giants franchise, will try to tee off on San Francisco’s homegrown ace Logan Webb.
Gerrit Cole will pitch to his brother-in-law Brandon Crawford. Former Yankees prospect Thairo Estrada will patrol the middle infield as one of SF’s most important position players. The Giants and Yankees, two of the sports’ oldest franchises, will ring in a swath of rule changes that will change the sport forever.
The coalescence of juicy narratives will tip off both the Giants’ 141st season and Major League Baseball’s campaign. With the Giants and Yankees beginning at 1:05 ET in the Bronx, their matchup is in the first slate of games on Opening Day. The Giants will have a national platform.
Here’s what you need to know about the Giants before they take the field — in Yankee Stadium and beyond.
What went wrong last year
On the heels of a franchise record 107 wins and National League West championship, the Giants sank from darlings of the sport to mediocrity.
In a stroke of front office mastery, San Francisco replaced Kevin Gausman with Carlos Rodón, who finished sixth in NL Cy Young voting and led baseball in Fielding Independent Pitching.
But behind Rodón, Webb, an impressive season from Alex Cobb and mostly solid production from the starting pitching staff, the Giants collapsed. San Francisco finished dead last in Fangraphs’ catch-all team defense metric. Giants outfielders posted -25 outs above average, tied with Philadelphia for worst in MLB.
The poor defense extended innings, drove up pitch counts, exhausted the bullpen and directly caused runs. Key relievers from 2021 like Dominic Leone, Zack Littell, Jarlin García, José Álvarez and Jake McGee either got injured or significantly regressed. None have returned, and some didn’t even make it through the entire season with SF.
San Francisco started the year 14-7, but then its shortcomings caught up with them. Injuries to LaMonte Wade Jr., Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, Tommy La Stella and Evan Longoria didn’t help.
After April, the Giants didn’t have a winning month until an 18-10 September surge that brought them back to .500, but nowhere near serious wild card contention.
In a year of disappointments, Webb took another step forward into legitimate ace status and infielder David Villar hit eight home runs in his last 26 games and closer Camilo Doval built off his 2021 breakout.
Wait, WHAT happened this offseason?
This winter, the Giants were Charlie Brown, and superstar free agents were the football.
The offseason promised to be a pivotal one for the franchise in need of a face lift, but a signature swing never materialized.
San Francisco made a concerted effort to pry Aaron Judge away from New York, but in the end a call from owner Hal Steinbrenner and a captainship swayed him to return. The dramatic decision included a seven-minute moment in which “Arson Judge” was reportedly heading to the Bay.
The Giants then pivoted to the other top-billed free agent on the market, Carlos Correa. This time, they actually did land the two-time All-Star, agreeing to terms on a 13-year, $350 million deal.
Eight days and an infamous press conference cancellation later, the deal fell through. Correa’s surgically repaired lower leg raised enough concerns to spike the deal, and later another deal in place with the Mets.
A bit more nuanced than Lucy yanking the football away from Charlie Brown, sure. But the end result was the same: the Giants on their back and kicking air, without a singular player to usher in the post-Posey era. Rats.
Even without Judge or Correa, the Giants still churned the roster. They turned over most of their bullpen from 2022, plus let Belt, Longoria and La Stella walk. Rodón also departed for the Yankees, teaming up with Judge.
In came Mitch Haniger, Michael Conforto, Ross Stripling, Sean Manaea, Taylor Rogers and Luke Jackson. Joc Pederson, a 2022 All-Star, also returned.
In all, the Giants signed six free agents for $174 million. That spending — excluding arbitration costs — ranked eighth in baseball.
“There’s a lot of enthusiasm for the group we have and what we can do, and (we) understand there’s going to be some skepticism because we had a couple of pursuits fall short,” president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said in January. “But we also did a lot of work, and we think we got better. So we’re excited to be able to start seeing the fruits of that once games begin.”
Spring training takeaways
Joc Pederson and Austin Slater prepared for the spring by training with Barry Bonds. Alex Wood tweaked his release point to improve his slider consistency. Casey Schmitt turned heads with his potentially transcendent glove. Joey Bart, not guaranteed a starting spot, has tried to maintain the demeanor that earned him the chance to succeed Buster Posey.
Most of all, this spring served as a training ground for the new rules.
Pitchers and hitters alike have had to adjust to the introduction of a pitch timer, which speeds up the game and cuts down idling between deliveries. Baserunners have feasted with the clock and limit on pickoff attempts, with the Giants leading the Cactus League in successful stolen bases. Catchers have tried to counter with more back-picks, which has become an emphasis in Scottsdale.
On the diamond, some intriguing players have popped. Blake Sabol, SF’s Rule 5 acquisition, came in raw as a catcher but improved behind the plate. And in the batter’s box. Sabol’s 46 at-bats this spring were the third most on the club, and his 1.105 OPS was the best among qualifying players. He posted a .348 batting average, .475 on-base percentage and hit three home runs.
Conforto, who was one of the best hitters in baseball from 2017 to 2019, looked a lot like his prime, pre-injury self.
Brett Wisely, a utility player the Giants traded for in November, started a game at shortstop and finished it in center field. His defensive versatility could make him a valuable bench option.
Bryce Johnson, a glove-first, switch-hitting outfielder, led both spring leagues in steals. And Sean Manaea has flashed substantially increased velocity from his offseason work at Driveline.
What could be the lasting impact of spring for the Giants, though, is health. Center fielder Austin Slater is going to miss Opening Day with a hamstring strain, and he only appeared in three Cactus League games due to an elbow injury, meaning he might need even more time to ramp up. Brandon Crawford dealt with left knee inflammation, a concerning development since the 36-year-old was hampered by the injury for much of 2022. And new outfielder Mitch Haniger suffered a mild oblique strain.
The Giants open their season with a three-game series against the Yankees and then a three-game series in Chicago against the White Sox. Both series feature an off day, meaning San Francisco has two rest days in the first week of the season, allowing them to potentially carry fewer pitchers on the roster than it normally might.
The Giants’ home opener is set for April 7 against Kansas City. That’s the first leg of a six-game home stand, with the Dodgers coming to Oracle Park as the Royals leave.
For the first time ever, every club plays every other club this season. The balanced schedule configuration has the Giants playing 52 National League west divisional games — down from 76. The interleague matchups increase from 20 to 46.
The new schedule allows fans to see more of the most exciting players, and iconic franchises, in the sport.
The Boston Red Sox come to town in late July. The Giants will see their former ace Kevin Gausman in Toronto in June. Early August features a trip to Anaheim to see Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout. Young phenoms Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson are set to make the trip to San Francisco in the first week of June.
And because the Giants play in the NL West — with the contending Dodgers and Padres, plus upstart Diamondbacks — fewer divisional games may ease their path to the postseason. But probably not by much.
Nineteen of San Francisco’s first 31 games come against playoff teams from last year (Dodgers, Astros, Padres, Yankees, Cardinals, Mets). If SF can get through the first month of the season around .500, they could be in decent shape.
What’s different about the team this year?
Given the additions and departures, the Giants should look much different than they did last year.
For one, the defense should improve. Shifting Pederson, rated as one of the worst defensive outfielders in baseball, to a more full-time designated hitter role will be addition by subtraction. More continuity in the outfield, too, will help.
Another major difference, hypothetically, will be a reduction in platooning. The Giants led MLB in pinch hit at-bats last year — leading second-place Oakland by 53 — when they mixed-and-matched at almost every position.
Haniger and Conforto, when healthy, are expected to play every day. Thairo Estrada, too, projects to play regularly. Villar, at least to start, will get a chance to play against both lefties and righties. Brandon Crawford might rest more frequently, but his glove is always tough to take out of the lineup.
Fans can come to Oracle Park and feel confident those players will be in Gabe Kapler’s starting nine. Oh, and they can come for reduced beer prices, too.
Reasons to believe in 2023
Internally, the Giants are confident that the assembled roster is stronger than that of last year’s, and possibly more talented than the 2021 group as well.
Be it Pederson, Haniger, Conforto, Villar or possibly Wade, San Francisco has a terrific shot at ending its 30-homer drought that started in 2004. And a regression in power was one of the biggest reasons for SF’s downfall in 2022 compared to 2021.
The Giants also might have the deepest starting rotation in baseball. Webb, Cobb, Stripling, Wood, Manaea, Anthony DeSclafani, Jakob Junis, Sean Hjelle and Kyle Harrison give the club nine capable starters if all goes well. Bye bye, bullpen games.
The defense should improve (it would be nearly impossible to be worse). The bullpen hierarchy appears more stable. The lineup is longer and sturdier in the middle.
So, no, the Giants don’t have a superstar position player. But a ton would have to go wrong for the Giants to be worse than 2022.
Reasons for concern
The main culprit for a down spiral would likely be injuries. The Giants have assembled a deep roster to protect against poor health luck, but much of that depth comes with injury risk of its own.
Haniger (oblique) and Slater (hamstring) are starting the year on the injured list, removing half of the expected outfield corps immediately. Luis González will also miss half the year already in another blow.
Conforto, the other pivotal outfielder, is healthy now but missed all of last season due to shoulder surgery.
In the infield, Wade missed much of 2022 with a variety of ailments, mainly a long-term knee problem. Crawford also hit the IL twice due to knee inflammation that has already cropped back up this spring. At 36, Crawford is the oldest regular shortstop in baseball and a horrible bet to play 150 games.
Beyond that, there’s at least a minor concern to consider when it comes to how the rule changes impact SF’s pitching staff. If the Giants are going to contend for the postseason this year, it’ll be because their pitching leads the way.
But what if Webb and Cobb, two of the most prolific ground-ball pitchers in baseball, take a step back without infield shifts? What if the contact-prone Tyler Rogers suffers similarly? What if the pitch timer makes Camilo Doval a 97-98 mph closer rather than a 102-mph flamethrower?
Regardless of the rules, bullpens are notoriously fickle. What if Taylor Rogers looks like he did in Milwaukee, not San Diego? What if the NL-high innings load catches up to John Brebbia?
One of the most valuable things that superstar players provide is certainty. You know exactly what you’re going to get every day out of players like Correa and Judge. For the Giants, there’s more variability.
Between 2017 and 2020, Michael Conforto’s 129 wRC+ ranks 30th in MLB. Carlos Correa, in that stretch, posted a 130 wRC+. Nolan Arenado was at 131.
Conforto has looked athletic in right field. He has a strong throwing arm and should provide stability in the corner opposite Haniger.
The 30-year-old should still be in his physical prime despite missing 2022. His combination of plate discipline (87th percentile walk rate) and power (80th percentile max exit velocity) make him an analytics darling — and a nightmare matchup for pitchers. He has neutral platoon splits and could contend with Pederson for the team-lead in Splash Hits.
In his best three seasons, Conforto averaged 30 home runs. With him humming in the middle of the lineup, the Giants offense could return to the power production of 2021, when the club led the National League in homers.
Honorable mention: LaMonte Wade Jr., who’s expected to play 70% of the time at first base and whom the Giants are hoping can replicate his 2021 breakout performance with much-improved health.
What the projection models are saying
Fangraphs ZiPS projects the Giants to win 83.6 games, which would amount to an 84-78 record. It also gives San Francisco a 41.7% chance to reach the postseason even with the third best record in the NL West.
Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA is more pessimistic. PECOTA predicts SF will finish 81-81 again, with 20.1% playoff odds.
Betting markets agree with the latter model. Draftkings set SF’s win total over/under at 81.5.
Last September, a downtrodden Joc Pederson said “I don’t enjoy not playing meaningful baseball.” He missed the playoffs for the first time of his career in a season in which the Giants were out of the hunt for almost the entire second half.
Unlike last year, the Giants will play competitive baseball into September. Their deep pitching staff will carry them over the course of a 162-game season and help preserve the bullpen, and defensive improvements will go a long way. A 30-homer season will emerge and exciting prospects Casey Schmitt, Patrick Bailey and Kyle Harrison will debut.
But a fun, dramatic season won’t amount to a playoff one. The Giants still have to contend with the Dodgers, Padres and upstart Diamondbacks in the division. The race for wild card spots — even with expanded playoffs — will remain extremely crowded.
Last year, the Phillies needed 87 wins to earn the final NL playoff spot. An 85-77 season would be an improvement for the Giants — and a worthwhile, engaging campaign for the fanbase — but it won’t be enough.