It was 3 a.m. on Sept. 5 when San Francisco Giants outfielder Steven Duggar woke up in his hotel room in Phoenix. He was in agony.
Duggar moaned deeply and low, propped up in his bed, as the nerve block on his surgically-repaired left shoulder finally wore off.
“It was the worst things I’ve ever felt,” Duggar said on Friday, as he made his first public appearance since his season-ending surgery at the Giants’ media day at Oracle Park. The club opens spring training on Feb. 13, and he’ll be there, completely healthy. “For me, man, it’s just this journey with myself. I’m trying to find and be the best player I can be, whether that’s being the best defensive center fielder on the field that day or being the best center fielder, period.”
San Francisco is still looking to add two outfielders — one of whom could be Bryce Harper — to its youthful quartet of Duggar, Chris Shaw, Austin Slater and Mac Williamson. Of those four, Duggar had just started to show the most promise last year, before a SLAP tear in his left labrum ended his rookie season. Now healthy as he readies for his first spring training under a new organizational paradigm with a rebuilding team, Duggar has to make up for lost time.
“If I can be someone who’s indispensable, that’s kind of the goal,” Duggar said.
The organization’s No. 4 prospect headed into last season, Duggar’s quick bat, along with his speed, athleticism and instincts — he made a smart read for a run-saving throw off a ball that made a flat bounce off replacement sod, sown because of an Ed Sheeran concert the night he got injured — made him an ideal starting center field candidate and leadoff hitter for years to come. He’s more tools-y than Slater, but not quite as polished, and a better contact hitter than Shaw. By mid-July, he got his first call-up, and went 5-for-6 in stolen bases in 41 games.
“You’ve got to love what he brings defensively, his speed, the bat, he’s a good player,” said manager Bruce Bochy. “He’s a really good player, and he’s only going to get better. My biggest disappointment was him going down. We actually were playing decent baseball until he went down. I think we really missed him.”
Before diving back into second base, and taking a hard tag from Colorado Rockies second baseman Ketel Marte on Aug. 28 of last season, Duggar had shown that he was just starting to get comfortable at the plate.
“The adjustments that I made along the way, with [Rick] Schu and Zo (Alonzo Powell), talking with Buster [Posey] and Craw (Brandon Crawford), certain things, even Joe [Panik], I can go down the line, they all gave me advice on what they thought would help, and help along the way,” Duggar said. “That part was exciting, because you started to see everything finally come to fruition. Preparation, that started becoming more of a factor, so I just started studying.”
After going through an 0-for-10 slump, he had six hits in his last 18 at-bats over his last five games, with a triple, a homer and four RBIs in that span, and a .980 OPS. He had finally begun to put together the nuggets he’d collected as far back as spring training.
“He’s one that’s not afraid to ask questions, whether it’s about his swing or whatever,” said Crawford. “He’s somebody I’ve worked with in the cages and stuff last spring training. He was asking my mindset on certain things, with my swing. I enjoy it. I enjoy when young guys ask questions like that.”
Then, with what seemed to be a simple shoulder dislocation, his first big league season was over. With Duggar, the Giants were two games over .500. After he went down, the same week the Giants traded Andrew McCutchen and lost Buster Posey to surgery, San Francisco went 6-27.
As Duggar lay alone in his hotel room — his soon-to-be fiancé still at school, his mom back home working — Duggar wasn’t worried about getting back in time for spring. He wasn’t worried that his swing would be impacted. He knew the operation, which saw five anchors placed in his shoulder to repair the tear, was a success. Dr. Gary Waslewski told him it went even better than anticipated. The pain, though, that was something else.
“I knew my shoulder was good, but man, when that nerve block wore off … it was one of the worst things I’ve ever felt,” he said. “I just thought my shoulder wasn’t attached to my body. It was horrible. It was one of the worst pains I’d ever felt. I’m sure guys who have had the labrum surgery before, they’ve all said the same thing, but I didn’t know it was like that.”
Luckily for Duggar, he had time on his side. With the tear occurring late in the season, and his surgery exactly a week later, he had an entire offseason to rehab. By the end of December, he was throwing. By Jan. 6, he was headed down to rehab at the Giants’ facility in Scottsdale.
While the injured shoulder was on his glove side, he still had to slowly introduce playing catch. No diving or stretching, and certainly no reaching.
“At first, it was, ‘Just hit me in the chest,’” said Duggar, the best defensive outfielder in the organization.
As he rehabbed, Duggar sought out “The Crew,” a group that’s grown up through the system together, including Shaw, Slater and left-handed pitcher Andrew Suarez, his roommate at Triple-A Sacramento and his spring training roomie, who he spoke to every other day.
“Look at that guy, he’s just always very calm, and he doesn’t worry,” Suarez said. “It’s not his throwing arm, so it was fine, but he works hard. I thought he was going to be fine, regardless.”
The two are rooming together once again in Arizona, and have been workout buddies as they ramp up for spring training.
“I have to wait on him,” said Suarez, who joined Duggar in Arizona earlier this week to begin throwing. “The last few days, I would finish my work, go out there, and he still has an hour and a half left. He has a lot of things he works on.”
“Really growing up, essentially,” Duggar said. “This is a hard game to play, and these are the best players in the world. I need to give myself every opportunity to be successful, so that’s kind of where I went to.”
This offseason, with the arrival of new president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, the organization got a new look, and a new philosophy. Zaidi made it a point this December to go visit Duggar as he rehabbed.
“One of our goals in 2019 is to kind of cement him as a guy on the 25-man roster,” Zaidi said. “Being a guy who’s a tremendous defender, and also has some upside with his bat, for us to lock down positions with younger players that are going to be here for a long time, I think that’s got to be a priority of ours.”
After progressing his hitting from a 50-percent swing with a fungo on a tee, to taking full batting practice on Thursday, Duggar is ahead of schedule.
“Swing’s not far off,” he said. “Everything’s kind of come together.”
“That’s what I’m hoping,” said Bochy. “I hope he’s ready to assume that spot in center field. Doesn’t mean we’re not going to keep that competitive, but I love this young kid.”