SF's 2020 strategy centers around matchups

July 22nd, 2020

SAN FRANCISCO -- On Thursday, the Giants will face off against the Dodgers in Los Angeles, marking their first regular-season game under new manager Gabe Kapler.

Kapler’s managerial debut with the Giants will come later than expected due to the three-month shutdown brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic. He chuckled last week when asked about playing in empty stadiums with piped-in crowd noise, a moment that encapsulated the unpredictable turns this season has taken in response to a global health crisis that has upended the country’s sense of normalcy.

“I'm laughing because I never thought I would ever be asked to answer questions about crowd noise,” Kapler said during a Zoom call with reporters. “You want to be a manager -- answering questions about crowd noise being pumped into your stadium, I never expected that.”

More unexpected developments could be ahead for the Giants, who will already look markedly different this year without catcher Buster Posey, who announced that he has elected not to play in 2020 after adopting twin girls who were born premature.

Player development will remain the primary objective for the Giants as they continue to build toward the future, but the truncated 60-game schedule could make contention more viable and give them an opportunity to make a surprise run at the playoffs.

“We know that we just have to get hot,” said Evan Longoria, who is expected to open the season on the injured list with a right oblique strain. “We have to put together a good month and a half, two months, and just kind of get on a roll early and feed off of that.

“There is a ton of belief that that could happen. I think everybody, every team has that optimism, and that’s the uniqueness of this season.”

What needs to go right?
It’ll be hard to compete with the sheer depth of the Dodgers, who are favored to win their eighth consecutive National League West title this year, but the Giants plan to rely heavily on platoons to help bridge the talent gap and create more favorable matchups that could allow their offense to produce at more consistent levels than they did last year. Longoria, Mike Yastrzemski and Brandon Crawford might be the only players who come close to playing every day, as expanded rosters and increased positional flexibility will give the Giants the ability to construct tailored lineups for opposing right- and left-handed starters.

Hunter Pence, Wilmer Flores, Donovan Solano, Darin Ruf and Austin Slater figure to make the bulk of their starts against southpaws, while Alex Dickerson, Brandon Belt, Crawford and switch-hitters Pablo Sandoval and Yolmer Sánchez should draw plenty of at-bats against righties.

“The lineups that we put out versus left-handed pitching will be different than the lineup that we put out versus right-handed pitching,” Kapler said. “You're not going to see us put a lineup out there every night that looks familiar from the night before.”

The rotation could be solid, as veterans Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija will be joined by newcomers Kevin Gausman and Drew Smyly, who have both looked sharp in Summer Camp action at Oracle Park. The bullpen is a major question mark, and it will likely be packed with swingmen who will be leaned on to eat up innings behind the starters. Tony Watson is the only reliever with significant back-end experience, so the Giants will need promising arms like Trevor Gott, Tyler Rogers, Sam Coonrod and Rule 5 Draft pick Dany Jiménez to show that they can handle high-leverage situations and protect late-inning leads.

Big question
When will Joey Bart arrive?

Posey’s decision to sit out the season seemed to create a path for Bart to make the Opening Day roster, but the Giants have been adamant that they feel the 23-year-old catcher needs more development before he’s ready to be promoted to the Majors. Non-roster invitees Tyler Heineman, Chadwick Tromp and Rob Brantly will compete for the two catching spots, but there’s no question that Bart has been the most impressive backstop in camp this summer. The 2018 first-round Draft pick is expected to open the season at San Francisco’s alternate training site in Sacramento, Calif., where he’ll be able to continue playing in intrasquad games and log the reps the club feels he needs after missing time with two hand fractures last year. Still, the opposite-field power and strong throwing arm he showed during scrimmages suggested that he can help the Giants win now.

Prospect to watch
As Longoria put it, Bart “is the closest that we have in terms of breaking through at the big league level and being an impact player right out of the chute.”

On the schedule
One of the quirks of the 60-game schedule is that teams will play 10 games against each of their divisional opponents, but the home-road splits will not be balanced. As such, the Giants will play seven of their 10 games against the Dodgers in Los Angeles, making the road ahead all the more difficult.

"It kind of feels like Christmas morning where you open a present and you're not sure if you like it yet," Kapler said when the schedule was released.

Team MVP will be ...
Longoria. Assuming his oblique injury doesn’t prove to be a major setback, he should be a stabilizing force amidst the constant roster fluidity the Giants will likely experience this season. With Posey out, San Francisco will be relying on Longoria to be a consistent producer in the middle of the lineup and serve as a steadying voice in the clubhouse. Yastrzemski could be in the mix here, too, if he continues to build off his breakout rookie campaign from last year.

Team Cy Young will be ...
Cueto. The 34-year-old right-hander will be entering his first full season back from Tommy John surgery, and he has been tabbed to pitch on Opening Day for the Giants, a show of the stature he holds within the pitching staff. Cueto, who kept his arm in shape during the layoff by throwing live bullpen sessions against former San Francisco teammate Eduardo Núñez in the Dominican Republic, has looked sharp throughout Summer Camp and will be aiming to return to the All-Star form he enjoyed earlier in his career.

Bold prediction
Jaylin Davis will have a breakout season.

Davis, who was one of three prospects acquired from the Twins as part of the Sam Dyson trade last summer, crushed 35 home runs in the Minors in 2019, but his prodigious power didn’t immediately translate to the Majors after he debuted with the Giants in September. The 26-year-old slugger went 7-for-42 with 11 strikeouts and one extra-base hit, a walk-off homer against the Rockies’ DJ Johnson on Sept. 25. Still, San Francisco remains high on Davis, who possesses elite bat speed and regularly drives the ball out of the park during batting practice. He’s had a quiet Summer Camp thus far, but if he can make enough contact, he could develop into a key piece of the Giants’ outfield for years to come.