Did Giants do enough to upgrade defense?
This story was excerpted from Maria Guardado’s Giants Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Baseball is back.
Spring Training kicks off this week, with Giants pitchers and catchers set to hold their first workout on Thursday at Scottsdale Stadium.
Despite whiffing on Aaron Judge and Carlos Correa, the Giants still committed $193.65 million to seven free agents who they believe will help them improve from their disappointing .500 finish in 2022.
FanGraphs’ ZiPS projection system has San Francisco placing third in the National League West with 88 wins in 2023, only three games behind the Dodgers and Padres; Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections aren’t quite as rosy, forecasting 82 wins for the Giants.
Several factors will determine whether the 2023 Giants end up hitting their ceiling. Defense will be chief among them, particularly given the new restrictions on infield shifts.
The Giants were repeatedly burned by poor defense in 2022, when they ranked 28th in the Majors with minus-33 Outs Above Average and 30th with minus-53 Defensive Runs Saved. Their inability to convert enough ground balls into outs frequently undermined their talented starting rotation, which led the NL with a 3.43 FIP last season.
Still, it’s unclear if the Giants did enough to address that glaring weakness over the offseason.
President of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi repeatedly said he planned to prioritize adding up-the-middle players with more range and athleticism, but the Giants didn’t end up landing any free agents at premium positions after their agreement with Correa fell apart.
Veteran infielders Brandon Belt and Evan Longoria -- two of the club’s better defenders -- are gone, and there’s little depth behind 36-year-old Brandon Crawford at shortstop. Without a true center fielder, the Giants are expected to lean on Mike Yastrzemski and Austin Slater to split time in the middle of the diamond, leaving newcomers Michael Conforto and Mitch Haniger to patrol the corners.
“I don’t think we have a Gold Glover at every position,” manager Gabe Kapler said at FanFest earlier this month. “I think we’re going to have outfielders playing the outfield. Last year, we had some guys -- just because we needed to get some offense in the lineup -- playing out there when it wasn’t ideal. This year, I think we’re going to be a better collective defense [in the] outfield.”
Conforto is coming off right shoulder surgery, but he should be an upgrade over Joc Pederson, Darin Ruf and Yermín Mercedes, who combined to post a Major League-worst minus-20 OAA in left field in 2022. Pederson could still see time in the outfield this year, but the Giants plan to limit his exposure by giving him more at-bats at designated hitter.
“I think some of this comes down to a consistency of defensive alignment and not having any real defensive liabilities,” Zaidi said last month. “When we kind of go around our defense now, we kind of see everybody being average or potentially above-average defensively. If we can have that kind of floor defensively, it’s going to be a big improvement over last year. That’s where the improvement is going to come from.”
Better health will also be key for Crawford and LaMonte Wade Jr., who is expected to have a chance to seize the everyday job at first base now that Belt is with the Blue Jays.
“Obviously, Brandon is a great defensive first baseman, but we saw it when we first put LaMonte over there in ‘21,” Zaidi said. “He’s really athletic and brings a different dimension to that spot. With him, it’s just going to be a matter of health. He’s had a great offseason. He’s feeling really good, moving around well. If you can put that kind of athlete at first base, he has a chance to be a real asset. That’s what we’re hoping for.”