Rule 5 pick Sabol in the thick of key roster battle

Former Pirates prospect competing for Giants' catching job in spring camp

February 23rd, 2023

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- knows he wasn’t necessarily viewed as a “sexy” pick heading into the Rule 5 Draft in December, but he was fairly confident he’d be selected after being left unprotected by the Pirates.

On the day of the Draft, Sabol tuned into the audio feed on his phone and waited anxiously to see if his name would be called. He was thrilled when the Reds ended up taking him with the fourth overall pick, but his stint with the organization lasted less than 90 minutes. Almost immediately after the Draft was over, the Reds flipped Sabol to the Giants in exchange for right-hander Jake Wong and cash considerations.

“Cincinnati Reds legend,” Sabol joked last week. “Never lost a game in a Reds uniform.”

Now in Giants camp, Sabol is expected to have a chance to compete with incumbent Joey Bart and non-roster invitees Roberto Pérez and Austin Wynns in the wide-open catching competition this spring. Sabol, 25, is perhaps the most intriguing candidate of the bunch, as he’s a left-handed hitter who was drafted as an outfielder but took up catching again three years ago.

Sabol caught at Aliso Niguel High School in Aliso Viejo, Calif., and remained behind the plate at USC. Most pro scouts felt his athleticism and plus bat would be better suited for the outfield, prompting him to switch positions after he was selected in the seventh round of the 2019 MLB Draft by Pittsburgh.

Still, Sabol never stopped loving catching. He sensed an opportunity to return to his favorite position prior to the 2020 season, when the Pirates were struggling to find enough backstops during Spring Training.

“I was like, ‘Hey, I’d love to throw my hat in the ring. I hear you guys are looking for a catcher,'" Sabol recalled. “[Pirates farm director John Baker] was like, ‘In all my years of baseball, you’re the only person that ever volunteered to play catcher.'"

Sabol has logged only 94 appearances behind the plate in the Minors, but the Giants are viewing him exclusively as a catching option this spring. Despite his relative inexperience at the professional level, Sabol was among the top framers in the Minors last year and continued to impress with the bat, hitting .284 with an .860 OPS, 19 home runs and 10 stolen bases in 123 games between Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis. 

"He's been a really good offensive player in the Minor Leagues, and our hitting coaches are really excited about what they've seen so far," said president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi. "He's done a good job, and [manager Gabe Kapler] and the staff have set him up well to develop relationships with the pitchers, because that's probably the most important thing at that spot as a rookie, that our pitchers are comfortable throwing to him.”

To prepare him for camp, the Giants encouraged Sabol to connect with the club’s pitching staff over the offseason and start building trust with his new teammates. He managed to chat with most of them, though he struggled to get in touch with John Brebbia, who later apologized and explained that he’s easier to reach via email than by text. 

Sabol also had the opportunity to speak with franchise icon Buster Posey, who joined the Giants’ ownership group last fall. 

“I was really lucky,” Sabol said. “I got to talk with Buster on the phone for about 45 minutes. I really just asked him all these different questions, which was a really cool opportunity. He said his line is always open for me, so I’ll definitely be using him as a resource.”

Since he’s a Rule 5 pick, the Giants will have to carry Sabol on their 26-man roster for the entire season or offer him back to the Pirates. For Sabol to stick, he’ll have to prove that he can be an offensive contributor and handle the defensive demands behind the plate. The Giants have seen progress with his receiving, but they’d like to see him make more strides with his ability to control the running game, as he threw out only 16 of 92 baserunners trying to steal in the Minors.

“I’m always going to put my best foot forward and give it everything I have,” Sabol said. “With the Pirates, if you asked anyone over there, I was always a 110 percent type of guy. I’m just out here living the dream. I plan on playing for a lot more years after this.”