ORACLE PARK — When the San Francisco Giants broke camp two weeks ago, they had one — maybe two — Major League-caliber starting outfielders in Steven Duggar and Gerardo Parra. Austin Slater failed to impress and was sent down. Mac Williamson — whose early promise last season was snuffed out by a concussion — was waived on the eve of Opening Day, and was then outrighted to Sacramento. Big-league retread Cameron Maybin and Rule 5 pick Drew Ferguson fizzled.
So, new Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi did what he does best: He got to dealing. He brought in former Twins farmhand Michael Reed for outfielder John Andreoli, and traded for Connor Joe — with his .363 minor league on-base percentage — for the second time (he did so during his stint as Los Angeles Dodgers GM). Then, the Toronto Blue Jays finally popped and dealt center fielder Kevin Pillar.
Zaidi, on his first day on the job, announced his proclivity for so-called “incremental” deals. He made another on Monday, dealing minor-league outfielder Malique Ziegler for a right-handed bat with power potential — Tyler Austin of the Minnesota Twins and designated Joe for assignment. The move gives the San Francisco outfield yet another different look in a season that’s bound to be full of them.
When Zaidi inherited the Giants roster, he inherited several good-but-not-great outfield prospects in Williamson, Slater and the powerful Chris Shaw. None of the three acquitted themselves well in spring training. Shaw hit .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 hit .185 in 12 games (27 at-bats) and Williamson hit .237 with 18 strikeouts and one home run.
Neither Maybin nor Ferguson could shore up what was, at that point, a one-man outfield (Duggar). Gerardo Parra was a defensive upgrade, but for an offense that was going to struggle to score runs, he was a 4.0 offensive wins-above-replacement player for a career spanning nine years. He would be a salve in left, but not the Giants’ salvation.
The 26-year old Reed, had hit .342/.423/.520 in 2018 between Double-A and Triple-A, but went 0-for-8 with six strikeouts after starting on Opening Day (along with Joe, primarily because a left-hander was on the mound). He was waived, and then signed a minor league deal and headed to Sacramento. Joe — who got his first Major League hit over the weekend — had a .408 on-base percentage at Double-A and Triple-A last season, but with the Giants, he went 1-for-15.
While San Francisco was able to keep Reed in the system — as Zaidi had hoped — it’s unlikely thye’ll be able to keep Joe, who was taken in the Rule 5 Draft by Cincinnati from the Dodgers. He must now be traded, and if not, put on waivers. If he clears waivers, because of his Rule 5 status, he must be offered back to the Dodgers.
What Austin brings is a power bat with passable outfield defense, someone who could fill in at both corner spots on the infield (where Joe’s strength was) and platoon with Parra in left while Duggar and Pillar figure out center and right. Austin hit 17 home runs last year in 268 plate appearances with Minnesota and the New York Yankees. No San Francisco Giant hit more than 16. He hit one homer every 11.1 at-bats against left-handers last season (though he hit .236 against them in 101 plate appearances) and is a late-round draft pick with plus athleticism who has 30 assists in 327 minor league games in the outfield.
While Zaidi likes to retain roster flexibility, Austin won’t give him that. He has five years of club control left, but doesn’t have any minor league options left. He’s not the answer in left anymore than Parra is. It’s not a perfect move. Most of the moves Zaidi has made this season — and the moves he’ll make going forward — will furrow more brows than they raise, but that’s all part of a system reset San Francisco desperately needed.
It’s highly likely — in fact, almost a certainty — that Zaidi isn’t done dealing, and within another two weeks, Austin, too, could be packing. Those incremental moves — getting a hair better, transaction by transaction — was how Zaidi helped build out a Dodgers team that’s won the last two NL pennants, and in his introductory press conference, he cited Max Muncy as the poster child for those moves. Mucny didn’t start out hot: He went 2-for-18 in his first eight games, including four starts. The question is: Which of the parade of outfielders will get that much run, and how many trades away is he?