There was a moment in the 2017 Giants season when not everything was awful. No, please, come back, I can explain. It was the end of June, which was year seven of the 34 different 2017 seasons we were forced to watch last year, and Austin Slater was hitting .338. He had a fine .391 on-base percentage and .475 slugging percentage. He would hit a home run in his next game — one of the only two runs in a 2-1 extra inning win — and push his slugging percentage to exactly .500.
The 2017 season was dreck, but this Slater kid, man. He was worth watching. His emergence would leave the Giants with one fewer hole to fill, and they could focus on the other 48 holes. There was no way to tally up all the disappointments of the season, but here was one bright spot.
One week later, Slater fell into the jaws of 2017, where his season will be slowly digested over a thousand years. He went 2-for-21, got hurt, came back, and went 4-for-17 in a brief September cameo before reaggravating his injury. His last extra-base hit was that July 1 home run, and combined with the injuries and absence, that lead to rumors like this:
The Giants really want Jay Bruce for some reason, idk, he hits dingers, leave them alone, they’re trying
The assumption of the offseason is that the Giants will, at a bare minimum, get a corner outfielder. They’re likely to get a corner outfielder and a center fielder, but they have Steven Duggar as a backup plan if they spend too much money or prospect capital on a power-hitting left fielder. And just like that, the dream of Slater filling one of those 48 holes was dead.
Shouldn’t we have more faith in what Slater did? Shouldn’t this be a low-cost solution in left field that allows the Giants go spend all of their money on a center fielder?
Probably not. How the Giants are viewing Slater makes sense, even if it’s at least a touch unfair. Here’s what’s working against him:
That part where Slater had an .885 OPS and it dropped 145 points in just 10 games before the end of the season? That’s a pretty good size that we’re dealing with sample-size gremlins. Slater was electric in his first 24 games, but the problem with that is that it was ... 24 games. Terrell Lowery hit .441/.548/.647 in 24 games for the Giants in 2000 and never made another major league roster.
That doesn’t mean that Slater wasn’t promising. His performance did at least partially suggest that his minor-league numbers weren’t a fluke. But his 117 at-bats didn’t really tell us a whole bunch that his minor-league numbers didn’t. He wasn’t completely overmatched, and his high-contact stylings would seem to indicate that he has a high floor that would limit his downside.
Still just 117 at-bats, though.
The high floor up there is a good thing, but there’s also a low ceiling. What Slater is right now is a line drive, gap-to-gap guy who might be good for 25 doubles and 10 home runs, but he’ll need to keep his average up if he wants to be really valuable.
Just like everyone on the Giants last year, give or take. That didn’t work out too well.
It can work out! Everyone forgets that the GIants had one of the best lineups in baseball in 2015, a top-to-bottom collection of gap-to-gap hitters who were all hitting roughly as well as could have been hope. Most of those guys are still here, too. But last season showed us what happens when those gap-to-gap hitters stop finding the gaps. It’s uuuuuuuugly.
The lesson is something like this: It’s fine to have your second baseman chasing outfield gaps*. It’s a bigger problem to have a corner outfielder doing it. That’s where the Giants have traditionally got a chunk of their power, from Pat Burrell to Michael Morse to Barry Bonds. If the Giants could be sure that Slater would hit .310/.390/.440, they would absolutely love to pencil him into the lineup. As soon as that average drops, it becomes a lot less tenable. Is .280/.360/.390 cool from your left fielder? What about .260/.340/.380? How long does he get to hit .250/.330/.360 before you stop waiting for the .310/.390/.440?
Slater does a lot of things well, it would appear. But he doesn’t do the one thing that would buoy his value even when his average ebbs and flows.
* Unless he’s Eugenio Velez and he’s supposed to be playing defense. Stop that, Eugenio!
The Giants can’t afford to whiff
This is the big one. Forget the power, forget the sample size, forget the part where Slater is fine in the outfield but no threat to win a Gold Glove. The Giants’ entire plan is built on a foundation that would not pass inspection. There are a bunch of 2x2s where there should be 2x4s, and it looks like they used staples instead of nails, and is that electrical tape? Not even duct tape? At least use the duct tape.
But they have no choice. They have to go all in with the imperfect tools and materials because a complete rebuild wouldn’t do anyone a lot of good. The Giants with four or five additional prospects and no Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey would still stink in 2020, most likely, but they would have ticked off everyone in the process and triggered a PR/sales nightmare. Maybe those five prospects become the next Bumgarner and Posey. Maybe they become the next Alderson and Villalona.
The Giants don’t want to find out, and I don’t blame them. They want to MacGyver one last roster, and as long as they’re going to have one of the highest payrolls in the league, they might as well buy the premium duct tape. They can’t hope that the real Slater is the one from the first couple weeks.
The best part of the strategy to push Slater down the depth chart? They still have him on the depth chart. The Giants might trade for Domingo Santana or Christian Yelich or both, and they might be diagnosed with finger mumps and miss the whole year. If that happens, Slater would be a seemingly qualified replacement. He’s a fine fourth or fifth outfielder with potential to be more.
The Giants can’t gamble that his progress will be linear, though. They’re all in for 2018, and while the strategy might cause flames big enough to raise the temperature of the Bay, there’s not going back now. There’s no room in that strategy for “Eh, I guess that’ll unproven youngster will do for now, and maybe we’ll get lucky.”
If this all fails, there’s plenty of room for “Alright, I guess we should give Slater a shot after all.” That’s what I’m anticipating. But here’s why the Giants aren’t starting with that strategy in the first place.