What an interesting year 2022 was for San Francisco Giants infielder/do-everything-guy Thairo Estrada. He entered Spring Training as a fringe roster guy whose status on the team was unknown. He ended Spring Training as a roster lock whose teammates gushed about him at every turn.
And then he ended the season having appeared in more games, and taken more plate appearances than all but two of his teammates, and amassing the most fWAR of any Giants position player.
Seen through that lens, it seems pretty easy to mark Estrada down for another 140 games in 2023, primarily at second base. But ... I have no idea.
The recent DFA’ing of Tommy La Stella means the Giants are unlikely to enter the season with a left-handed hitter who can handle second or third base. In all likelihood, the previously platoon-reliant Giants will start right-handed hitters at second and third base against right-handed pitchers, and it will stay that way until A) Isan Díaz performs well enough in AAA to force the issue, B) Brett Wisely performs well enough in AAA to force the issue, or C) Farhan Zaidi gets fed up with the righties enough to make a trade.
In theory, that opens up the door for Estrada to be the everyday second baseman. But will he be?
Despite having a strong 2022, Estrada had an offensive season that was only a hair above league average. His .260/.322/.400 slash line was good for a 103 OPS+ and a 106 wRC+, and the thing that brought those numbers down was having to face so many right-handed pitchers when he got shoved into an everyday role.
You might think that there’s no way around that issue, but you’re probably wrong. Because while Estrada struggled with righties last year, the other right-handed infielders more than held their own.
Here’s the wRC+ against RHP in 2022:
Thairo Estrada: 93
Wilmer Flores: 101
J.D. Davis: 119
David Villar: 90
Based on last year alone, the best offensive alignment against righties would be Flores at second and Davis at third. And adding further context only further supports the idea that Estrada should be benched against right-handed pitchers. For starters, Flores has historically been a very strong hitter against righties, posting a 110 wRC+ in 2021, a 106 wRC+ in 2020, a 100 wRC+ in 2019, and a 120 wRC+ in 2018, while J.D. Davis has a career 118 wRC+ against right-handers.
And secondly, Villar, despite having a mediocre debut MLB season against righties, actually hit them significantly better in the Minors, finishing 2022 with a 1.070 OPS against right-handed pitchers in AAA, against a .933 OPS vs. lefties.
In other words, there’s a pretty strong case to be made that, in a four-person battle for two positions, Estrada is in last place when it comes to hitting righties.
Lest you think I’m advocating for Estrada to be left off the roster entirely, I most certainly am not. He hit lefties (135 wRC+) significantly better than Davis (120 wRC+) or Flores (102 wRC+) last year, and is the only one of the four who can play shortstop when Brandon Crawford needs a day off. Add in his ability to also play the outfield, and he’s a tremendously valuable player to have around.
The question is whether the Giants should merely have him around, or have him as a daily fixture on the lineup card.
Estrada’s great equalizer is obvious: defense. He certainly appears to be the best defensive player of the four, and the numbers back it up ... but perhaps not as emphatically as you might think. Estrada was worth 2 outs above average in 1,164 innings last year, per Statcast, compared to -1 for Villar in 327 innings, -3 for Flores in 976.1 innings, and -3 for Davis in 285.1 innings.
Estrada got a lot of that value elsewhere, as he was worth exactly 0 outs above average at second base, despite spending the bulk of his time (775.2 innings) there. He’s an average defensive player, whose value comes primarily from the fact that he can slide to third base, shortstop, or anywhere in the outfield if need be.
In an ideal world, Estrada’s role seems clear: be a platoon option at second base, cover shortstop when Crawford needs a day off, and fill in across the diamond when injuries dictate a need. But the Giants, especially in a post-Carlos Correa reality, are not operating in an ideal world. And after the defensive disaster that was the 2022 season, it would be understandable if they opt for Estrada’s steady hands at second base six days a week over handing a more volatile glove, with a more versatile bat to someone else.
Time will tell. And in the interim I’ll do the one thing you’re never supposed to do as a writer: pose a question in the headline, with no answer in the body.