The minor leagues are less about season long averages and more about potential. What can you do? And how can an organization make that possibility a consistent reality? Marco Luciano can do a lot. His power has been a known entity by the San Francisco Giants since signing him for 2.6 million dollars months shy of his 17th birthday in 2018.
The young shortstop was touted as the marquee prospect driving San Francisco’s revival on the international scene. When he arrived in the United States from the Dominican Republic, Luciano set a goal for himself that he wanted to make it to the Major League level in three years. The optimism of youth not yet battered and worn by the ways of the world—that came soon enough. A hernia surgery delayed his first professional at-bats, a global pandemic wiped out his sophomore season, a stress fracture in his lower back suffered during winter ball in the Dominican Republic delayed his start to Double-A Richmond in 2023 and a hamstring strain suffered after his initial four-game stint in the MLB sunk his numbers at Triple-A and robbed him of big league plate appearances.
Each step up on the organizational ladder was met with a period of struggle and adjustment for Luciano. On one hand, this is expected for a young player who has been well-below the average age at each level he’s played at, as well as learning to be a functioning adult human in a foreign country under a massive amount of scrutiny and expectation. On the other, the world of competitive sports is a meat grinder, not a trampoline. He’s shown off his potential with the bat in fits at all levels of play. On-base streaks, homer binges—he’s had those, but for one of the top prospects in the Giants organization, one can’t help but hope for some smoother transitions, some video game numbers impossible to ignore.
Luciano doesn’t have those. His minor league numbers before his Major League debut at the end of July were respectable, but not necessarily boastful. Digging deeper into his yearly stats, his .800+ OPS seemed to be kept afloat by his performance in Rookie and Single-A ball while solidly in the .700s between Richmond and Sacramento. His progression through the minor leagues has been both sluggish and hurried. Injuries and COVID kept him off the diamond and slowed his development in some ways, accruing only 280 games since 2019 before his Major League debut. Only 6 of those came at the Triple-A level. In 24 ABs, he batted .292 with 2 HRs, 3 RBI, 5 R, a spike in performance coupled with a shortstop dearth in San Francisco that shot him up to the Giants. The lauded arrival of A.J. Pollack sent Luciano back down again where his numbers flattened (.242/.340/.422) before a hamstring injury delayed his promotion for another month.
By season’s end, Luciano has only played in 18 games and logged 78 PA at the Triple-A level, logging a .738 OPS. Luis Matos, who has had a similar career trajectory as Luciano, has had twice that exposure with a 1.080 OPS. The outfielder also had 400 more professional plate appearances than Luciano since 2019.
Marco Luciano got on base five times today with three singles, a double, and a walk as he leads the Flying Squirrels to a win today against Harrisburg. pic.twitter.com/ga8zSFGwPE— Giant Prospective (@giantprospectiv) June 25, 2023
Success or experience at one level doesn’t always translate to another, nor is there a fail-proof blueprint to working your way through a team’s farm system. The comparison to Matos is to point out how many reps Luciano has been robbed of already throughout his young career. It does feel like with the current struggles of the Giants, Luciano has been somewhat rushed through the system, forcing him onto an expedited schedule that feels a tad removed from his current reality as injury-prone and relatively green. That being said, it’s a positive sign when a player can respond to competition and elevate. Luciano has been younger and less experienced than most of his opponents at each level he’s played at and has shown an ability to rebound from initial struggles, adjust to his environments and perform solidly (note: not exceptionally). That characteristic alone carries a lot of clout because it means talent, no matter how raw, can be shaped by discipline, perseverance, and competitiveness. He’s young, dealt with a lot, and coachable—a dangerous combo. His time in the FastTrak lane has come with a toll and frustrating slow downs, but it still got him where he wanted to be. Not quite in three years but still with some MLB firsts before his 22nd birthday. His 14 games and 45 PA with over two stints with the Giants didn’t come with any major fireworks (.641 OPS, 0 HR, 3 2B) but showed an ability to get on base (.333 OBP with 9 H and 6 BB) while playing decent defense.
How about Marco Luciano's 8th-inning double last night? pic.twitter.com/9klSMhcLqn— SFGiants (@SFGiants) September 26, 2023
Now he’s the shortstop.
Farhan Zaidi in his end of the year press conference either cleared the runway for him to be an everyday infielder in 2024. Zaidi made a similar statement at the end of 2022 about David Villar, who had about 140 more plate appearances in the MLB, and the third baseman didn’t make it out of May the following season. It’s unclear whether Zaidi’s comments are a vote of confidence, a challenge, a curse, or a mix of all three? Again, Luciano has played only 32 games above the Double-A level. Of all the big prospect debuts for the Giants in 2023, we saw Luciano with a bat in his hands the least. Patrick Bailey logged 353 plate appearances, Schmitt 277, Matos 253, even Wade Meckler had 64.
His 45 isn’t nothing, but it’s the closest to nothing and a lot less than the front office was hoping for this season. Still, his feet are officially wet and based on patterns established over his brief professional career, that’s important for him. He’s not a cannonball right into the deep end type player, but someone who takes his a little time getting used to the water’s temperature before dunking his head. Some MLB clips to study and an off-season of mental and physical preparation for the highest level after a name drop from the President of Baseball Operations is a good start for a rookie.
"We want to give Marco Luciano a chance to be the everyday guy next year."— SF Giants on NBCS (@NBCSGiants) October 3, 2023
— Farhan on the Giants' vacancy at shortstop pic.twitter.com/TPzhmhekp0
Of course, the Major Leagues are Mavericks in February while the minors are an indoor pool at a Holiday Inn where conditions are primed for comfort. Now Luciano has got to deal with 25 foot crests. The can do must be streamlined into do. Potential doesn’t have much legs without results. “Every opportunity to be the everyday shortstop” is loaded with subtext. Opportunity in professional sports is a limited resource. Grace is even dearer. Villar’s .056 batting average in May got him bounced back down to Sacramento, though extenuating circumstances also made that move more feasible. J.D. Davis was swinging a hot bat and had upped his defense considerably at third.
As it stands today, San Francisco doesn’t quite have that safety net at short which means Luciano might have a longer leash than Villar. There are in-house options to patch-and-play if need be. Schmitt and Tyler Fitzgerald can play shortstop, but they’re still unproven at the Major League level. Thairo Estrada has a fair amount of experience at the position but his excellent glove work at second might mean the Giants are not so keen to tinker.
A trade could get them the depth they need—Tommy Edman is mentioned as a potential target in the article by Taylor Wirth—but that comes with cost and risk. In terms of free agency, it’s not the most enticing situation for an established player knowing that they could very well just be a place-holder. A utility man like Kiké Hernandez could be a solution: an option at short if Luciano struggles with the ability to fill in elsewhere if Luciano excels. Or the front office could visit the old rent-a-wreck lot. Cheap, no strings attached with no real chance of sticking around—à la Paul DeJong last season. A filler with a screw-it, he might hit a homer every now-and-then vibe. It’s barely acceptable as a last-ditch effort to maintain postseason relevancy, and certainly not something a front office wants to spend any time orchestrating in the off-season.
Maybe Zaidi’s comments could be interpreted more as an aggressively pseudo-encouraging shove while wiping his hands of the matter. With rotation needs, a deficit of outfield pop, and Japanese stars home and abroad to court, Zaidi has his hands full, so figure it out, Marco.
The bluntness might be crass and unsophisticated in terms of analysis but it’s an accurate feeling for many. San Francisco fans need Marco Luciano to figure it out, to just work at the Major League level. We’re a beaten up bunch, spiritually downtrodden after an exodus of once-stars aging before our eyes and leaving the Bay with no clear scions; playing the bridesmaid but never a bride to sought after free agents year after year—and we know “co-favorites” is just a place-holder for “runner-up.”
The faithful have been tested and need a win, preferably without fuss or worry. A talent on our organizational watch-list since the age of 15, cultivated since age 17, a name and a face occasionally spotted on a distant center field camera for the past four years, a grainy Sasquatch in a half-empty stadium wrapped in mystery, questions, concerns, possibility—can you imagine the joy Luciano would bring if he took the field next season and just handled it? No injuries, no brutal slump necessitating a trip to Sacramento and a plan-B defender—he wouldn’t even have to be dominant, just decent. Other more veteran bats (and hopefully some new faces) can do the heavy lifting in the lineup. A low batting average would be fine as long as some of the power is there. We’ll forgive some tendencies to expand the strike zone, and a more limited range than Brandon Crawford in the field obviously because he’d be ours and he’d be doing alright. Imagine last season without Patrick Bailey lifting us up? Apologies if this comes off as greedy, but can we have that again? Can we just have a homegrown position player stick around and perform? Is that too much to ask, Marco Luciano?