Mar. 03, 2017
The Most Interesting Back Up Infield Competition in the World
Continuity in the starting line up year-to-year has been a cornerstone of the San Francisco Giants success over the last half decade, and in 2017 that continuity is likely to, well, continue. The starting catcher, two outfield positions and we'll say three and a half infield positions (Things will have to get sideways for to not be at 3B on opening day) are all but etched in stone. That leaves us with the left field and back up infield competitions as the leading stories as spring training gets into full swing.
The left field conundrum has been spinning it's way through the typically barren offseason news cycle since November, but very little has actually changed. and will go head to head to win not only the bulk of the innings in left, but possibly a roster spot should the Giants ultimately decide to carry just four outfielders and utility man remains intact during spring training. Parker may hold the slight edge given the fact he is out of options and Williamson is not, but for my money the AC would like to have an extended Mac Attack in 2017.
Where things have gotten a little wacky, but nonetheless juicy is the competition for the (likely) two back up infield positions. The Giants have brought in two veterans with an All-Star pedigree in and , signed a relative unknown in former KBO slugger , resigned , and are even giving a last ditch shot at a major league roster. What might be surprising from an outsider's perspective however, is that the Giants have also retained two very serviceable incumbents in newly minted postseason hero and fan favorite .
It's highly unlikely both Gillaspie and Tomlinson will be left off the opening day roster, so what you have is at least five candidates with big league experience fighting for a roster spot that may not even exist. Five outfielders or 13 pitchers certainly seems more likely than seven infielders, and according to MLB.com Giants beat writer , Bruce Bochy is "leaning towards" five outfielders.
So why bring in so many big name veterans, players that may be hesitant to accept a minor league assignment at this advanced stage in their careers? Well for one, it is simply an embarrassment of riches for the Giants, who have become one of the model franchises in Major League Baseball, and a desirable destination for experienced players looking to contend. As Alex Pavlovic put it in this recent tweet, the team can never have too much depth, and a lot of players wanted a shot with the Giants.
not really, they're looking for depth and lots of guys wanted to come here— Alex Pavlovic (@AlexPavlovic)
Two, the Sacramento River Cats are relatively thin on the infield, so any of the candidates willing to accept a Triple-A assignment would be of use to the organization. While Rollins and Hill would likely opt to catch on to a big league roster elsewhere, Beckham and Hwang may be fine starting the season in the minors.
So, let's dissect this royal rumble a little more closely, shall we? Let's take a look our non-roster invitees:
The Encinal High product needs no introduction. No one is expecting Rollins to perform like the All-Star he once was, but if the J-Roll that managed a relatively productive and healthy 2015 with the Dodgers were to show up, the Giants might have to take a serious look at awarding him a roster spot.
2016 was Rollins' worst season to date, appearing in just 41 games for the Chicago White Sox and posting career lows in average, slugging and OPS+. Still, the switch-hitter could add value as a pinch-hitter, and could be a valuable presence for , who's looking to take the next step to becoming a premiere player in his own right, much like has over the past two seasons.
The 38 year-old has exclusively been a shortstop throughout his career, but will receive a lot of time at second base this spring. His ability to play both middle infield positions successfully is crucial to earning a spot that demands versatility.
The most recent addition to this clown car-esque infield competition could potentially become the favorite to knock either Gillaspie or Tomlinson off the roster. Hill is now 34, but has shown plenty of signs he can still be a productive big leaguer, posting a .283/.359/.421 slash with an OPS+ of 107 in 78 games with the Brewers in 2016. He struggled to the tune of a .218 average with just five extra-base hits following a midseason trade to the Red Sox, but remains a professional hitter who could provide power off the bench for the Giants.
Hill has spent the majority of his career at second base, but has spent significant time at third base over the past three seasons, and did play some shortstop with Toronto early in his career. That versatility combined with possessing the best bat among the NRI infielders could put Hill into the driver seat for an opening day spot.
The resigning of Beckham was nearly as curious as trading for him in the first place, as the 30 year-old former #8 overall pick of the White Sox had little to no impact with the Giants in 2016. He appeared in three games and failed to reach base over six plate appearances following his acquisition from Atlanta at the tail end of last season. In spite of a promising 2012 in which Beckham hit 16 homers and drove in 60 runs playing every day for the White Sox, his bat has never really come around to match the expectations of a top ten pick, and he hasn't cracked a .230 average since 2013.
Still, Beckham has played every infield position besides first at the big league level, and could add value as a defensive replacement. More than likely however, Beckham's greatest value may lie in his willingness to accept a minor league offer to help fill some gaps in Sacramento, while being at the ready should the Giants need him during the regular season.
Hwang is no doubt the dark horse of the competition, making his American debut following ten seasons in the Korean Baseball Organization. He posted a .286/.353/.436 career line with 115 home runs in the hitter friendly KBO, and is coming off a career high .335/.399/.570 slash with 27 homers for the Lotte Giants in 2016. At the very least, the Giants are getting a player in his prime, but whether or not the numbers will translate against MLB competition remains to be seen.
Hwang is said to be prepared to see time at both first base and the outfield, hoping to improve his utility and therefore his chances of winning a spot. He has also expressed a willingness to accept a roster spot in Triple-A, so while he remains a long shot to make the team by opening day, a situation may arise where we could see the first appearance by a Korean national in a Giants uniform.
Michael Morse & Kyle Blanks
No need for separate sections for each of these non-roster invitees, as chances are slim either will crack the roster. The organization has Morse listed as an outfielder, but it's hard to believe anyone thinks Morse can play anywhere near major league caliber outfield at this point. He will need to show some serious thunder with the bat in spring in order to get any consideration for a back up first base role, unless the NL decides to add the DH before April. My apologies go out in advance to any Morse Mamas out there who may be reading this.
may be a new face to fans who have forgotten his stint in San Diego (Not much to remember) or who blinked and missed his 21 game stint with the A's in 2014. Blanks was in spring training with the Giants in 2016 and spent the whole season on the River Cats roster but did not play all season due to a foot injury, and has struggled with injuries throughout his career. Like Morse, Blanks is a first base only guy, and it makes more sense to have him as the starter in Triple-A than begin the season with the big club.
Realistically neither Morse or Blanks provide the versatility to warrant a roster spot, and Bruce Bochy has the option of using both and Conor Gillaspie to spell starter Brandon Belt at first base. However given Belt's injury history, it might not be a terrible idea to have Blanks waiting in the wings in Sacramento.
I may have just typed a whole bunch of words that could amount to a pile of beans, because there's a very real chance that none of the above mentioned players will make the opening day roster, and Gillaspie and Tomlinson will reprise their roles as the infielders off the bench.
Thanks to Gillaspie's dramatic homer in New York last October, and Tomlinson's um, glasses and overall nerd swagger, both have won the ever important fan vote. Most folks will forget these other candidates existed by the end of April should #21 and #37 stay planted on the roster, and I for one wouldn't be upset to see that come to pass.
Gillaspie seemed to have found his niche last season, and while he will never be truly spectacular with either the bat or the glove, he's a "grinder" and one gets the sense he's never intimidated in the batter's box, no matter the situation.
The same could be said for Tomlinson, who's shown a knack for clutch hitting that's backed by numbers (8-20 as a pinch hitter, career .315 average with RISP) and can also play several positions. Capable of laying down a bunt and likely to put the ball in play, the 26 year-old still has a chance to blossom into an every day type player, and should he stay healthy will be difficult to keep off the team.
So as you anxiously tap your foot waiting for the real games to begin, look to the infield to provide some fun this March. The Giants random hero of the year may already be among us.