SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- In past springs, Austin Slater has reported to Scottsdale Stadium toting a panoply of gloves in anticipation of splitting time between the infield and outfield for the Giants.
That won’t be the case this year. Manager Gabe Kapler said the Giants intend to use Slater strictly as an outfielder, partly because of the depth they’ve accrued in the infield, but also because of health reasons.
Slater, 28, was limited to designated hitter duties after sustaining a flexor strain in his right elbow last August, but he said he feels healthy after receiving a platelet-rich plasma injection in the arm over the offseason.
“Elbow is feeling great,” Slater said during a Zoom call with reporters on Thursday. “I was making some throws in the outfield today. The process was on and off. Some rehab, and then I kind of hit a plateau, so I ended up getting a PRP shot, which then kind of put me back to square one. But five, six weeks after the PRP, I was feeling pretty close to 100%.”
While the elbow injury prevented him from playing defense for most of last season, Slater still emerged as one of the Giants’ breakout hitters in 2020, batting .282 with a .914 OPS, five home runs and eight stolen bases over 31 games.
“He took all the steps last year,” Kapler said. “When we first started camp, we saw him as a platoon bat for us, and he was so good that we continued to give him opportunities against right-handed pitching. He had great at-bats against right-handed pitching. They didn't always end with something great happening, but oftentimes he worked good at-bats and looked dangerous against righties as well.”
Slater, who posted a 1.127 OPS against lefties last year, still figures to draw most of his starts against southpaws, but he could have more opportunities to work his way into the Giants’ lineup if he shows that he can handle center field this spring. The Giants are trying to identify viable center-field options behind Mauricio Dubón, so if Slater, Mike Yastrzemski or LaMonte Wade Jr. prove capable of playing the position, Kapler will have more flexibility when putting together his lineups in 2021.
Dubón, for example, could spell Brandon Crawford at shortstop against lefties, allowing the Giants to start Yastrzemski and a pair of right-handed hitters like Slater and Darin Ruf in the outfield.
“I've played center field in the past, so it's not something that's completely foreign to me,” Slater said. “I will say, of all the positions, center might actually be one of the easiest to pick up. You don't really deal with slice or different angles off the bat. You're seeing everything pretty much straight on. But then again, you’ve got to be better with your routes and your breaks and things like that. There'll be a little adjustment, but I don't see it being a major stretch for me.”
Of course, better health will be paramount for Slater now that the DH isn’t expected to return to the National League in 2021. As the Giants’ player representative, Slater serves on the MLB Players Association’s executive board and was involved in the decision to turn down MLB’s proposal for the universal DH and an expanded playoff format last month.
Does he believe that the universal DH could still be a possibility for this season?
“I guess anything's possible,” Slater said. “A lot of it depends on, does the league come out with a proposal now and give us time to process and talk among players and see if this is a good thing or not?
“Last year during Summer Camp, they figured out the expanded playoffs, so I'm not going to rule it out.”