By Chris Haft
Special to The Examiner
The Giants appear to be at a disadvantage as they begin defending their 2021 National League West championship.
Resident legend Buster Posey retired after last season, preferring domestic tranquility to absorbing a succession of foul tips off his skull — though raising two sets of twins will test any family’s tranquility. Put in terms of accomplishment and talent, that’s one Most Valuable Player and one Rookie of the Year Award winner gone.
Talented handyman Kris Bryant defected to Colorado in free agency. That increased the talent drain to two MVPs and two Rookies of the Year. Injuries increase the Rookie of the Year count to three, with third baseman Evan Longoria (right index finger) slated to miss the start of the regular season. Add outfielder LaMonte Wade Jr. (knee) to the injured list, and you can add a second Willie Mac Award winner to the contingent of wayward Giants.
Yet the Giants, who’ll open the season at home for the first time since 2009 when they welcome the Miami Marlins to Oracle Park on Friday, seem poised to contend for a playoff spot under the newly expanded postseason format. San Francisco broke the bank in 2021 with a franchise-record 107 victories under manager Gabe Kapler, who understands that pitching is baseball’s currency — and that he holds the keys to the mint with a largely intact pitching staff.
“Our goal is to do it again with a lot of the same guys we had last year,” All-Star shortstop Brandon Crawford told MLB.com.
Around the horn
Catcher. The Giants hope Joey Bart can realize the expectations that were heaped upon him when they selected him second overall in the 2018 draft. Bart will inevitably suffer in comparison to Posey, whose diverse skills made him the finest performer at his position in Giants history. The Giants drafted Bart while knowing they’d need a supremely talented player to succeed Posey; they just didn’t guess it would happen this soon. If Bart falters or simply needs a rest, Kapler won’t hesitate to summon backup Curt Casali, a skilled defender who’s expected to improve at the plate due to better health.
First base. Right knee inflammation kept Brandon Belt out of Cactus League action for virtually the entire spring exhibition schedule. But “the Captain,” who kept busy by performing baseball-related activities in camp, has maintained he’ll be ready for Opening Day. The Giants would be overjoyed if Belt can approach the power he displayed last year when he clobbered a career-high 29 homers in 97 games. He blew by his previous best of 18 in 2015 and 2017.
Second base. As a left-handed batter, Tommy La Stella figures to be the primary starter at this spot — that is, if he has recovered sufficiently from offseason Achilles surgery. Regardless of La Stella’s condition, Thairo Estrada, who hit seven homers in 52 games last season, continues to push for more playing time. Estrada is out of minor league options, but the 28-man roster limit that will be in place until May 1 will help the Giants stall as they ponder this and other personnel decisions.
Shortstop. Can Crawford top himself? He reached career bests in multiple offensive categories last year, including homers (24), batting average (.298), RBIs (90), OPS (.895) and OPS+ (141). Defensively, he was rangier than ever. But he’s 35, an age that will keep the skeptics talking.
Third base. Wilmer Flores likely will be the primary replacement for Longoria, who was expected to provide much-needed power. Not that Flores lacks pop. He matched a career high with 18 home runs last year while making 58 of his 139 appearances at third base. Jason Vosler is among the possible fill-ins here.
Outfield. Newcomer Joc Pederson joins Steven Duggar, Darin Ruf, Austin Slater and Mike Yastrzemski. It’ll be intriguing to see how Kapler blends Pederson, an ex-Dodger, into a group that has been largely intact the last few years. It’ll be just as intriguing to see how the Giants make room for Wade, one of their best clutch hitters last year, when he’s ready to return. None of these guys would admit it, but they’ll be looking over their shoulders at top prospect Heliot Ramos, wondering when the Giants will summon the 22-year-old slugger to the big leagues.
Designated hitter/bench. See above. An outfielder not stationed at a position probably will find himself receiving four plate appearances (or more) as the DH. Ruf looks like a prototypical DH. Duggar’s speed makes him ideal for pinch-running situations. Expect Estrada and Mauricio Dubon to play all around the infield and, in Dubon’s case, the outfield when necessary. Vosler proved last season he can give the Giants versatility.
On the mound
Starting rotation. Logan Webb, Carlos Rodón, Anthony DeSclafani, Alex Wood and Alex Cobb combine to form what could be one of the National League’s most effective contingents. Webb would have looked at home pitching alongside Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. Rodón possesses jaw-dropping stuff but has lacked durability, working 165 innings only once in seven seasons with the White Sox.
Bullpen. Though Kapler named Jake McGee the closer, Camilo Doval is likely to receive some late-inning opportunities as a right-handed complement to the veteran left-hander. Sidewinder Tyler Rogers remains an absolute marvel. Jarlin García, Dominic Leone, Zack Littell and others provide depth.
Chris Haft is a longtime Bay Area baseball writer who covers the Giants for The Examiner.