ORACLE PARK — After a one-hour delay on his four-and-a-half-hour flight from Atlanta, after checking into a San Francisco hotel and getting his wife settled, Tyler Austin walked the warning track at Oracle Park on his way into the clubhouse shortly before 1 p.m. on Monday. The new San Francisco Giants outfielder and first baseman — acquired in a trade with the Minnesota Twins — wanted to soak everything in. He’d only ever seen the park on television.
Even after talking with manager Bruce Bochy and president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, Austin — who slugged 17 home runs in limited at-bats last season for the Twins — wasn’t 100-percent clear on his role with the Giants, but he did know that Barry Bonds didn’t have any trouble hitting home runs here.
“I’m just coming in, trying to put the ball in play, and hit it hard, and whatever happens, happens,” said Austin, a 6-foot-2, well-muscled 220-pounder out of Conyers, Georgia.
Like the Giants have done with new outfielder Kevin Pillar, Austin is switching divisions, leagues and coasts, so, for now, he will play the position at which he’s most comfortable — first base — and move Brandon Belt to left. Eventually, though, the Giants hope that Austin is somewhat of a long-term solution to a pair of problems that have plagued them arguably for two seasons: the lack of a consistent outfield, and the lack of a right-handed power bat.
“I talked to Belt about it last night, and he doesn’t have a problem with it,” Bochy said of his Gold Glove first baseman, who did not play any outfield this spring, but has played 495 innings in left field over the course of his big league career. “He’s the one who’s always telling me he’s the most athletic guy on the team.”
Like the move last week to acquire Pillar, the move to acquire Austin — who hit eight of his 17 homers last season against lefties in just 89 at-bats (11.1 at-bats per home run) — was a move that Zaidi wanted to get done before spring training. It just so happened that in the case of both trades, the original teams didn’t want to part with either piece.
“We were looking for a defense-first right-handed bat in the outfield, and somebody that brought some thump, especially against left-handed pitching,” Zaidi said. “We just couldn’t get those deals done before the season started, and we’ve obviously happy to have these two guys now.
“Getting a defense-oriented outfielder and somebody who can play center field like Pillar, was something we felt was a need throughout the offseason, and we were able to address that, and somebody who can provide power against left-handed pitching, this was kind of the configuration we’ve been looking for for a while, so hopefully, these guys can settle into their roles.”
What made Austin available was the fact that the Twins needed room on their roster for righty reliever Chase De Jong, in order to prop up a suddenly-overtaxed bullpen, and that they had both C.J. Cron (1B/DH) and Nelson Cruz (RF/DH). Austin — who had made the Twins’ Opening Day roster and has played primarily first base and designated hitter with both the Twins and Yankees over the last season-and-change — had become expendable.
When he became available, San Francisco had to cut short Rule 5 pick Connor Joe’s first experience in the big leagues, and after he started 1-for-15, designated him for assignment.
“I’ve seen people refer to this as the Connor Joe Experiment, which sounds all well and good, but he’s not an experiment; he’s a real person who worked his ass off to get here,” Zaidi said. “It’s … disappointing that we weren’t in position to give Connor Joe more of an opportunity and more rope. I saw his improvement last year, first-hand. I think he was very deserving of this opportunity.”
Zaidi, who previously also traded for Joe while the general manager for the Los Angeles Dodgers, made a point of saying that, as with Michael Reed, he put Joe into a tough spot.
“It’s partly a roster need issue, and when you have a Rule 5 guy, or out of options guy, you kind of need one of three things to kind of keep the situation live,” Zaidi said. “You need either kind of immediate performance and immediate returns, you need your team playing well — where you can buy that player a little bit more time — or, if you’re in kind of a full rebuilding mode, you need to work your way through that. Unfortunately, none of those applied in this case.”
Five of San Francisco’s seven losses in its first 10 games have been decided by two runs or fewer. The Giants are near the bottom of the National League in the percentage of their runs scored via the home run (36%), and ranked second-to-last in the National League in runs scored. Joe would not have helped solve those issues. Austin, though, can at the very least provide some right-handed thump, though where that thump comes from is a work in progress.
Like Belt, Austin did not play the outfield this spring, but had more experience in the outfield than Joe. Both are capable, with Austin’s sprint speed last season clocking in at 27.2 feet per second (about league average), and Belt’s at 25.9. Austin has played 12 big league games there, 327 minor league games there (mostly in right) and is comfortable with either corner spot, having played left field in the Arizona Fall League in 2014 and 2015. He hasn’t played the outfield, though, since 2017, hence him starting at first on Monday, while Belt starts in left.
“As Tyler re-familiarizes himself with the outfield, we may move him back out there to get Brandon’s defense at first, but in the short term, this kind of made the most sense,” Zaidi said.
In short, Belt felt more comfortable in the outfield than Austin did, at this juncture, though in all likelihood, what fans will see until Austin gets settled will be a piecemeal approach: Belt will start in left, Austin will get his three at-bats, then Belt will come in to play first and Gerardo Parra will be the first bat off the bench and come in as a late-inning defensive replacement in left.
“He’s going to be over there until he reaches some level of comfort with the outfield, and obviously, in our park, left field is a little more contained, so hopefully he gets to that point,” Zaidi said.
The Giants were willing to sacrifice Belt’s Gold Glove defense at first in order to add some pop to a lineup that was largely bereft of it, ranking last in the National League and third-to-last in the Major Leagues with six team home runs. The only issue is the fact that Austin’s strikeout rate — 36.9% of his plate appearances in the Majors — is a bit of a concern. In the minor leagues, though, his K rate was at 22.3%.
“Usually, power is going to come with some of that, and obviously, power is a big need of ours right now,” Zaidi said. “That comes with the territory. You’ve got to make trade-offs somewhere.”
A 13th-round pick in the 2010 draft, Austin had middling success against left-handers early in his career. hitting .292 against them in Double-A in 2013 and .266 in Double-A in 2014. After hitting just .188 against lefties in 2015 (15-for-80), he went 23-for-63 (.365) in Triple-A in 2016 and 17-for-45 in 2017 (.378). In his 371 career Major League at-bats, Austin is hitting a modest .278 against lefties, but just .208 against right-handers. He’s slugging .603 against lefties, versus .400 against right-handers. With teams lining up their left-handers to take advantage of a porus Giants lineup that is lefty-heavy and hitting just .208 on the year, a right-handed bat was needed. As a bonus, he has all-fields power, but Zaidi said his pull-side power will play well in Oracle Park.
None of the bats in the Giants’ big league camp this spring brought those kinds of numbers against left-handers, or even in general, and certainly didn’t inspire confidence this spring. Mac Williamson, Austin Slater and the powerful Chris Shaw were underwhelming in Scottsdale, with Shaw hitting .217 (though he only struck out six times in 23 at-bats and had two home runs, and could wind up coming back up at some point this season), Slater hitting .185 in 12 games (27 at-bats) and Williamson hitting .237 with 18 strikeouts and one home run.
“He was a highly-thought-of prospect with the Yankees for a long time, and it’s really in the last couple years that hte performance has caught up to the potential and the tools,” Zaidi said. “He’s still a relatively young guy, and hopefully, he can be in this uniform for a long time.”