Giants fans were tantalized in 2020. For the first time since winning three World Series titles in five years, every game of the season mattered — even if the schedule was shortened to 60 games due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the Giants came up one win short of earning a playoff spot, there was plenty of optimism following Gabe Kapler’s first season as manager.
Big moves coming, right? Time to go after the rival Los Angeles Dodgers, right?
Not so fast, says Farhan Zaidi, the Giants’ president of baseball operations.
Now In the third year of rebuilding the Giants, Zaidi knew the team wasn’t just a player or two away from being a neck-and-neck challenger to the Dodgers or the emerging powerhouse San Diego Padres in the National League West.
Zaidi, knowing what an attractive destination the Giants are, has created financial flexibility, which really comes into play after the 2021 season. Currently, the Giants have just three players signed beyond this season: third baseman Evan Longoria, second baseman Tommy La Stella and reliever Jake McGee. Catcher Buster Posey and starting pitcher Johnny Cueto each have contract options for 2022, while shortstop Brandon Crawford and first baseman Brandon Belt will be free agents. Together, those four are making nearly $76 million in 2021.
Instead, Zaidi has sought pieces to keep the Giants competitive and is playing the long game.
That is why Kevin Gausman is back, and Anthony DeSclafani and left-hander Alex Wood solidify the starting rotation, as well as Matt Wisler and John Brebbia to the bullpen, all on one-year deals. McGee and La Stella received two- and three-year contracts.
With Giants pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Wednesday, with position players following Feb. 22, there aren’t major items for Kapler to decide this spring. Still, there is competition for significant roles.
Here are the key things to watch with the Giants this spring:
No. 5 starter: Jeff Samardzija, Drew Smyly, Trevor Cahill, Tyler Anderson and Andrew Suarez are gone and DeSclafani and Wood are in. Combined with Cueto and Gausman, that leaves one starting spot open. Logan Webb will be the leader for the No. 5 role. Tyler Beede, who had Tommy John surgery in March and missed all of 2020, could return sometime in May. Zaidi will be on the lookout for a veteran to add to the mix this spring.
Bullpen: There has been lots of retooling here. McGee, a left-hander, could be the top choice for closer, although Kapler might choose a committee option here. Wisler and Tyler Rogers should play big roles, with Jarlin Garcia and Wandy Peralta likely locks for Opening Day. After that, names such as prospects Caleb Baragar, Sam Selman and Rule 5 pick Dedniel Nunez will get long looks. A few minor-league free agents could also work their way into contention. Brebbia is expected to be ready sometime after the All-Star break following Tommy John surgery.
Backup catcher: No, this won’t be Joey Bart — at least not to begin the season. Curt Casali and Chadwick Tromp will be the options behind Posey. Casali is the front-runner, having spent six years in the majors, the last three with the Cincinnati Reds. Tromp, who made his major-league debut with the Giants in 2020, has options left and can be sent to the minors.
All eyes are on Bart, who made his major-league debut in 2020 due to injuries. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 draft struggled offensively, but did show an ability to do damage when he made contact. Bart struck out 41 times in 111 plate appearances. Zaidi wants Bart to get more seasoning at Triple-A and is likely to stay in the minors until September call-ups, unless Posey gets hurt.
Another heralded prospect, outfielder Heliot Ramos, could be ready at some point this season, with Hunter Bishop probably a bit further away from being called up.
Right-handed starters Sean Hjelle and Tristan Beck and lefties Seth Corry and Kyle Harrison could make a strong impression in spring. While all four are ticketed for the minors, they could play a role at some point in 2021.
Zaidi has built plenty of flexibility into the Giants’ roster for Kapler to employ. Posey can play first instead of Belt against tough left-handers, La Stella can slide over to third to spell Longoria, Wilmer Flores and Donovan Solano can play anywhere on the infield, Mauricio Dubon can bounce between the infield and outfield, Darin Ruf can play first or a corner outfield spot, while Mike Yastrzemski can play any outfield spot.
Added into that mix this spring are outfielder Lamont Wade Jr., a lefty bat who puts the ball in play, and infielder Jason Vosler. Kapler will tinker with different looks to see what works best.
One veteran Kapler will be watching is Posey, who opted out of the 2020 season after he and wife Kristin adopted newborn twin girls who were born prematurely. Posey could be worked in slowly when exhibition games begin.
Finally, but perhaps most importantly, Kapler must also figure out whether the Giants have enough starting pitching to navigate the 162-game schedule as Wood and DeSclafani battled injuries in 2020. But the Giants, in pitcher-friendly Oracle Park, have developed a reputation of helping pitchers bounce back. Cueto had a career-worst 5.40 ERA in 2020, his first full season (albeit shortened) back from Tommy John surgery in 2018.