There’s a nasty bit of conventional wisdom in the baseball industry that players are never better than when they’re hungry. I am, admittedly, condensing down all the years of conversations I’ve sat in on and just plain listened to on sports talk channels (including the league’s own MLB Network Radio), to a very simple conceit, but I think it has that sting of truth in it that lends the idea some weight.
Players play their best when there’s a contract on the line.
Jump over to the Giants now and we find a host of players who are well fed and a three-year run of amateur-level professional baseball, though not strictly from those high-priced vets.
But given the ages and positions of Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt, Jeff Samardzija, and Johnny Cueto, they won’t be part of the solution to fixing this present mess. None of them will even be in pro ball the next time the Giants are even sniffing the 8th Wild Card (or whatever the new format winds up being), but their contracts, performance, and contract rights (no trade clauses) mean it’s virtually impossible to trade them at the moment, so, what’s a rebuilding team to do?
Everywhere you look this spring, the Giants will have a position battle. Yesterday, during the bottom of the 5th and top of the 6th of the Giants’ second Spring Training game (against the A’s), President of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi sat in with Jon Miller for an interview.
In it, he didn’t launch into some grand philosophy, but he stated it in virtually response. Here’s a partial transcript (mostly omitting Miller’s setup questions and some lines of questioning entirely):
It kicked off with a nice intro about how this has been another offseason featuring large scale changes for the organization. Zaidi added that not only did the coaching staff undergo significant turnover, but so did their spring training facilities:
Not only do we not know who anybody is, we don’t know where anything is.
Mike Yastrzemski, yesterday’s leadoff hitter, was also the leadoff player topic, with Miller inquiring if his spring playing time in center suggests the possibility that he could stick in center field permanently.
He played a lot of center fielder in the minor leagues. You know, He’s not your prototypical guy in terms of being a pure burner out there; but he has pretty good instincts, runs pretty well, gets really good jumps on the ball, and is just a really smart outfielder. We think he can give us solid average defense in center field and be a plus in the corner. Being able to do both gives us more options . . .
Alex Dickerson was another guy who surprised in 2019 and Miller wanted to know if the team still intends to keep him in their plans for 2020:
That was part of our motivation in going out and bringing Hunter Pence back was to allow those guys to kind of share the load in left field and don’t overwork Alex to the point where he does get hurt and wind up missing extensive time.
We’ve gotta play the long game with him and make sure that we don’t have too many stretches where his back is overly stressed and he winds up hurting himself.
The Giants are looking for offense anywhere they can get it, from being back Pence to signing Wilmer Flores —
The plan is to kinda just mix and match. We talked about Yaz and Dickerson, two left-handed hitters, going out and getting Pence and Flores — two righties — we think we’re going to see quite a few left-handed starters in our division this year, so with the extra roster spot it gives you a bit more opportunity to mix and match and I think we’ll see that. We may see a lineup against lefties and a lineup against righties and there’s going to be opportunities for guys to get in there every day, but you know the way I think the way it’s going to play out is that we’re going to have a bunch of different looks to throw out there against different starting pitchers.
Will Smith’s departure created a situation where the bullpen roles are undefined — no closer! Said Miller, “There might be some wide open competition in that regard. How do you view it?”
Yeah, we have a bunch of good arms. We saw some guys throw some really nice innings yesterday, between Rico Garcia and Matt Carasiti, Carlos Navas — you know, we’re throwing some more of our guys in that reliever competition today. As far as the closer role goes, Tony Watson, our veteran down there is probably more comfortable and more helpful to the team throwing the 7th or 8th inning; so, it leaves the closer role open. Trevor Gott’s an option for that. Shaun Anderson is another guy who could be in that role, and we may go into the season with that role not locked down and give some different guys some opportunities and try to match up. That’s going to be one of the biggest storylines in camp. We just have a wide open bullpen competition. We’ve got three, four spots that are open and available and hopefully guys step up and seize that opportunity.
On Trevor Gott’s offseason recovery:
He’s doing great. He’s thrown a couple live BPs and he’s gonna get in a game here shortly. [...] He’s been up to 95 in those live BPs.
On Brandon Guyer:
He’s been in that role [right-handed platoon bat] for a couple of different teams. For the Rays, had some good years as a specialist to come in and be productive against lefties so, you know, we may see him in here on the major league side.
On Rob Brantley:
Yeah, he played for the Phillies last year and had a really nice year in Triple-A, so, Gabe Kapler had him in camp and got to know him a little bit and that was a big motivating factor for Rob signing with us. Not just that we’re going to have an opportunity — the backup catcher role is one of the several competitions we have in camp — but his familiarity with Gabe I think gave him an added comfort level signing with us.
“... And managers — they like to have left-handed hitting catchers, don’t they?”
They do. You know, obviously, it worked great for us with Stephen Vogt last year. It gives you some different options with a right-handed hitting front-line catcher like we have in Buster; so, that configuration of the roster worked really well and that gives Rob a little bit of a leg up in that competition.
“Ryan Howard hit a home run yesterday. Were you surprised? Is he a little bit bigger? Has he been trying to get stronger, more powerful?”
Yeah, he, I think last offseason, coming into camp in 2019, he was definitely more physical. He seems to have maintained that. You know, he went oppo yesterday, and that was all the more impressive, to hit it out to right field at Scottsdale Stadium’s no small feat; so, definitely an impressive start for him in this camp.
About the dimensions at Oracle Park having changed . . .
They have, yeah, with the bullpens going out in center field. That fence is going to be brought in a few feet. It’s also going to be a little bit lower, so, you know, we may see, you know, more acrobatics by center fielders going over the wall to take away homers; so, it’s gonna be fun to see how that plays out. I mean, we’ve done a lot of simulations. There’s definitely gonna be more offense in the park with that fence coming in, but, you never really know until you kind of go out there and play some games. So, it’s going to be fun to see how that dynamic affects the ballpark over the course of the season.
“Brandon Belt had to be excited to hear the fences were going to be coming in a little bit.”
Yeah, I mean, it wasn’t quite the — uh, you know — we didn’t quite get out there in Triples Alley as much — but he hit some balls to center field, too, so I think he’s happy to see that fence coming in a little bit.
“I did see in Bill James’ offseason book that Belt had more outs on long fly balls 390-400 feet or 400+ feet than any hitter in either league last year.”
(chuckling) Right. He had — you don’t want to keep harping on having “bad luck”, but it really felt like that was the case last year. I mean, he hit so many balls to the warning track or right to the wall where you figure, “Man, if he’d done that in the last city, that ball would’ve been out!” So, again, I think it’s a good thing when you’re hitting that many balls that far, and hopefully, he cashes in a few more of those this year.
There’s nothing apparently wrong going on here — the Giants aren’t one or two free agents away from being a .500 team nor do they have a revolving door of league average from the jump prospects ready to stir into the mix. What they do have is time, roster space, and a new attitude that promises the formerly entrenched players absolutely nothing.
That not only means platoons, but it means “AAAA” guys have a greater chance to make the team. It means a discard like 2019 AL Gold Glove Winner Yolmer Sanchez has got a shot to transform his non-roster invite into a guaranteed deal, too.
We all assume Zaidi’s one to rejection the conventional wisdom of hundreds of years of baseball, but it’s just as likely that he would use it as a starting point to seek out the next great inefficiency. If baseball players really do perform better when there are no guarantees, then the path of least resistance towards discovering the next Max Muncy, Chris Taylor, or Mike Yastrzemski is to maintain a perpetual pressure cooker.
Baseball has always been a hyper competitive sport where guys have to fight to earn a chance and fight even harder to keep what they’ve won, but on most teams, once veterans become established, they sort of escape the immediacy of the pressure cooker. They’re pressure cooker-adjacent. The roster churn has only ever applied to the 18-25th spots of a roster. This year, we might just see the Giants turn that churn up to 11 and make 3-26 a neverending competition.