Positional Battles to Watch at San Francisco Giants Spring Training

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<> at AT&T Park on August 28, 2016 in San Francisco, California.

With pitchers and catchers set to report to the San Francisco Giants Spring Training facility in Scottsdale, Arizona on February 13th, certain questions remain unanswered with regard to the outlook of the team’s 25-man opening day roster. Although the Giants usual core group will be back, there are a handful of positional battles that have yet to be resolved. Spring Training will go a long way in determining who sticks with the big league club.

Positional Battles to Watch at San Francisco Giants Spring Training

After being hampered by the injury bug throughout much of the second half of last season, a primary goal for Brian Sabean and Bobby Evans this off-season was to add organizational depth and get younger across the diamond. This will result in a healthy amount of internal competition for the final few roster spots this spring, as the Giants look to supplement their existing core with an infusion of younger players.

Last off-season, the Giants added three key pieces to mix in Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija and Denard Span. As a result, Spring Training was used predominantly to transition them into the clubhouse smoothly – and especially for Cueto and Samardzija – develop new chemistry with Buster Posey. This spring will be a little different, in that the Giants will return much of the same roster from last season. While Sabean and Evans did make one marquee off-season signing this past winter with veteran Mark Melancon, he will slot into his usual closer role fairly seamlessly. Therefore, this spring will largely be about evaluating the progress of their younger players scratching and clawing for a place in the big leagues. More specifically, a few spots in particular are up for grabs:

Left Field

The Giants’ left field opening is arguably the most intriguing of the positional battles this spring. After letting Angel Pagan walk and electing not to fill the void via free agency, the Giants will let two homegrown prospects compete for the job in Mac Williamson and Jarrett Parker. Both split time between Triple-A Sacramento and the big club last season, filling in admirably for the injured Pagan as well as Hunter Pence. Williamson and Parker both have more than enough raw power, as is evidenced by this 460 foot bomb off the bat of Williamson and this 454 footer as part of Parker’s torrid four-homer series in Oakland back in 2015. The question will be who can keep the strikeouts down and average up sufficiently enough to stay in the lineup.

As an insurance policy, Evans and the Giants brass also bolstered their outfield depth, bringing back fan favorite Michael Morse as well as inking journeyman Justin Ruggiano each on minor league deals. Morse, in particular, was an interesting signing considering his history with the team, but at the age of 34 doesn’t appear likely to pose a significant threat for the left field opening. The expectation is that Williamson will have the upper hand, but it should be noted that a hot spring from Parker, Morse or Ruggiano could make things interesting.

Fifth Starter

We know for certain that the Giants top four starting pitchers will consist of Madison Bumgarner acing the staff followed by Cueto, Samardzija and Matt Moore. What we don’t know is who will round out the five-man rotation. Matt Cain has been an invaluable piece of the Giants puzzle for more than a decade now, but the 32-year-old hasn’t looked the same the past two seasons. A first round pick of the Giants back in 2002, it won’t be easy to tell Cain his time in the rotation is up, especially considering the $20+ million committed to him for 2017. But should Cain’s struggles continue this spring, they do have other options to turn to within the organization.

The Giants have high hopes for left-hander Ty Blach, and at 26 years of age he will have every opportunity to make the leap up to the big leagues. Of course, Bruce Bochy won’t soon forget Blach’s clutch spot start on the second last day of the 2016 regular season, throwing eight scoreless innings and picking up the win against the Dodgers to keep the Giants in the final NL Wild Card spot. Albert Suarez certainly has a chance after pitching effectively in a collection of starts and relief appearances last season, plus the Giants are more familiar with him than they are with Blach. Top prospects Chris Stratton and Tyler Beede are also compelling options, but will most likely be headed down to Sacramento at least to start the campaign for some more seasoning. Look for Blach to round out the starting staff, while Cain and Suarez vie for the long-relief bullpen role.

Third Base

In their year-end press conference last October, the Giants front office stated a desire to incorporate a more aggressive approach on the basepaths in 2017. Eduardo Nunez certainly fits that bill, swiping 40 bags a season ago to go along with a career high 16 homers and 67 RBI. The job is Nunez’s to lose, although no one is going to forget Conor Gillaspie‘s playoff heroics anytime soon. The general sense is that Bochy likes having Gillaspie to bring off his bench as a pinch hitter or late game defensive replacement, but he could see a bigger share of starts at third should Nunez struggle out the gate.

Utility Outfielder

Gregor Blanco held the utility outfielder role for the past five years, but like Pagan, the Giants chose to move on this past winter. It is possible that the Giants could keep two of Williamson, Parker, Morse or Ruggiano up with the big club, but the problem with that is all four are corner outfielders, leaving Span as the only natural center fielder on the active roster. For that reason, Gorkys Hernandez is most likely to fill the void. Hernandez competed and lost out to Blanco last spring for this same role, but as a September call-up showed off his stellar outfield defense both late in the regular season and in the playoffs. Plus, he would also give Bochy a legitimate speed threat off the bench as a pinch runner.

Bullpen

It was no secret that the bullpen was a major area of weakness last season, and therefore a primary concern for Sabean and Evans over the winter. Ultimately, they decided to let go long time stalwarts Javier Lopez, Santiago Casilla and Sergio Romo, who all underperformed and showed signs of their age in 2016. But while it’s certainly going to seem odd looking at a San Francisco bullpen without them, the reality is that all three proved time and time again last season that they can’t be relied upon to get the job done late in games any longer.

As a result, the Giants will enter 2017 with a great deal of uncertainly with respect to not only the personnel replacing Lopez, Casilla and Romo, but also in terms of which returning arms will be placed in the specific roles. As we know, Bochy has always been a manager who likes to carve out certain duties for each guy in his pen and consistently use them in each of their respective situations accordingly. But beyond Melancon solidifying the ninth inning role, the rest appear to be up for grabs.

Two important X-factors in the bullpen are Derek Law and Hunter Strickland. Law and Strickland undeniably have excellent stuff, but have been troubled by a lack of consistency thus far in their young MLB careers. The task for pitching coach Dave Righetti this spring will be to harness that talent and turn them into reliable late-inning relievers. Needless to say, much of the success of the Giants bullpen will hinge on whether Law and Strickland are able to take on the added responsibility and pitch effectively in high pressure situations.

On the flip side, veterans Will Smith and George Kontos are more of a given, and will add stability to the middle of the Giants bullpen. As for the southpaws, Josh Osich and Steven Okert will compete for the lion’s share of left-on-left match-ups, although both are likely to make the opening day roster as the only two left-hand specialists in the Giants pen.

Last but not least, two farmhands to keep an eye on this spring are right-handed flamethrower Ray Black and 6’ 7” giant Joan Gregorio. Black has touched up to 104 mph on the gun, so if he can find any sort of command to go along with the velocity it could push him onto the roster. Gregorio, on the other hand, possesses an effective fastball-slider combo to go along with a significant advantage in downward leverage that comes with his towering stature.

The even year magic ran out a season ago, as the Giants bowed out of the NLDS to the eventual World Series champion Chicago Cubs. But as the Cubs proved on many occasions during their championship run, the valuable contributions made by the 24th and 25th men on your active roster cannot be discounted. So although the Giants solid core group of players remains in tact heading into 2017, finding the right combination of complimentary pieces will be equally imperative in order to first contend for the NL West pennant, and then play deep into October.

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