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A sandwich of outfielders

The Giants need an outfield identity, and they’re only going to get it by bringing in a fresh face.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Arizona Diamondbacks Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

What’s the collective noun for a group of outfielders?

“Team” is basic. An “outfit” of outfielders might be too on the nose. I like “basket” in homage to Willie Mays’s basket catch, but that’s already claimed by fruit, or I guess, anything you put in a basket. A garden? A web? Or maybe just a catch—cognate, and play on cache— “a catch of outfielders.”

Trying to think a bit outside the box, I did some digging, and there is no official collective noun for a group of giants, but a handy site dedicated to collective nouns ” suggested words like “magnificence” or “clash” to “emphasize [the fantasy creatures’] larger-than-life presence when they congregate together.”

Magnificence or clash or the popular “murder” are certainly the vibe teams want when grouping outfielders together. The Braves had a clash of outfielders, the Cubs with Cody Bellinger, Seiya Suzuki and Ian Happ, or the Padres with Soto and Tatis, qualified as a magnificence—but those descriptors might be a stretch for our 2023 San Francisco Giants.

Outfield play was not a strong suit of last season’s squad. They dwelled in the nether regions of most consequential offensive and defensive rankings: outs above average, wRC+, fWAR. The cohort was made up of corner outfielders, designated hitters, or prospect Hail Marys. Luis Matos’ routes in center undermined his steeze, and he struggled to bat balls beyond his own defensive range. Anticipated big bats like Mitch Haniger and Michael Conforto were disappointments. Austin Slater was hindered by his hammy and just had surgery on his elbow. Mike Yastrzemski served up meat-and-potatoes baseball—his specialty. In this new era of dynamism and speed, San Francisco’s outfield highlights consisted of back-up catcher Blake Sabol courting chaos or DH platoon Joc Pederson mermaiding after a sliding catch.

Maybe “a cellar of outfielders” is more appropriate, or a merry-go-round, a circus, a rut, a slog, a slouch, a crutch, a jam, a juggle, a flop?

There were 16 different players who played in the outfield last season with only four of them no longer on the team. Joc Pederson, AJ Pollock, and Bryce Johnson are free agents, and of course, many of us are still reeling from Cal Stevenson’s DFA in mid-May. Thairo Estrada, LaMonte Wade Jr. and Sabol play primarily other positions and are more depth options than anything else. Slater and Yastrzemski are arbitration-eligible and could be a serviceable right-left platoon in a corner—both quickly aging out of center. Mitch Haniger is entering his second year with the Giants, we’ll probably see an uptick in his performance mainly because it’s not hard to improve on god-awful. He might just be awful!

Michael Conforto, who led the team with 873 innings played in the outfield, announced on Monday that he was opting into his $18 million second year—it feels like he has the biggest chance to not only bounce back from mediocrity but breakout. Then there are players like Matos, Heliot Ramos, Wade Meckler, Tyler Fitzgerald, and Brett Wisely who last season needed to be balled up and sewn together to make one somewhat intriguing Major League outfielder. Matos will probably grade better as a defender next season given his experience in ‘23 and base-level athleticism and hopefully put on some bulk in the offseason to give his swing more pop. Ramos has yet to grow out of the big league nerves, but he continues to hit the ball hard. The other three provide depth, speed, and patches in a pinch. There are also prospects like Vaunn Brown and Grant McCray who don’t have any big league experience but are starting to gather at the gates. The caveat of course is that one proven big leaguer in hand is worth about 3 or 4 or 10 prospects in the bush.

If the season started tomorrow, the Giants could field an outfield and it’d probably be better than last year’s—a standard not specifically challenging to eclipse—but it’d also make us fans levitate 10 feet into the air and gyrate uncontrollably as we are collectively exorcized of all hope, patience, and joy.

Even with the sizable loaf of outfielders we have now, it’s just not enough. Or it’s plenty, it’s just the wrong kind of plenty. Like a buffet of all-you-can-eat oyster crackers. Or a wardrobe made up of only khaki pants. Plain, bland, serviceable won’t cut it. There needs to be variety as well as quality, you need something dynamic. Two slices of bread do not make a sandwich—you gotta put something between ‘em.

“A sandwich of outfielders”—and the Giants don’t have a sandwich until they figure out what goes in the middle.

Cody Bellinger is the hot pastrami on the market. You throw that between two pieces of bread, there’s no question what kind of sandwich it is. A resurrected bat with a savant understanding of how to hound a fly ball—if he takes over centerfield at Oracle, the outfield is in good hands. Spotrac is putting his value around 22 million per year. Jim Bowden of The Athletic (subscription required) is predicting $144 million over 6 years for the 28 year old. Totally manageable while allowing the Giants to pursue starting pitching.

Jung Hoo Lee, the 25-year old outfielder who spent the last 7 years in the KBO, is the only other impact on the Giants radar. He’s never batted below .318 in a season and has a career OPS just shy of .900. In the World Baseball Classic, he batted over .400 with an OPS over 1.000. Looking at his numbers, the power seems to come and go a bit with Lee, but what doesn’t waver is his bat-to-ball skills. If Bellinger is pastrami, Lee is…I don’t know, but probably something a little more subtle and ten times more sophisticated.

The adjustment from East Asian professional baseball can be tough for some, especially in terms of hitting velocity, but if the bat doesn’t necessarily catch-up right away, Lee’s ability to play above-average defense in centerfield will keep his value afloat. Another hitch: he’s coming off a shortened season after fracturing an ankle that some thought might put his posting by the Kiwoom Heroes in jeopardy, but Zaidi still seems very high on him. Some projections have him fetching $60 million over 4 years.

Adding quality ingredients lifts the value of its supporting elements. A well-brined pastrami takes the pressure off the bread being more than it needs to be (nothing fancy, always rye). Matos could push over to a corner spot, which would help his range, while shifting Conforto to a primarily DH role, which probably suits him better anyway. He missed three weeks after straining his hamstring chasing a fly ball in Philadelphia. We don’t want to rely on his glove, and we need his bat—it has a much better chance of breaking out if it can avoid the perils of the field.

Drop Bellinger or Lee in center and the shuffle begins. Flexibility and creative thinking abound when a safety net is provided. The outfield bottomless pit becomes depth used to attract starting pitching. An offer isn’t extended to either Slater or Yaz, or both are sent to the trading block. Even Haniger and Conforto could also be used to sweeten a prospective deal.

Unfortunately for us, the word got out about those two impact players. Google Bellinger and Lee and you’ll find their names linked to half the league. The market is thin, and I’m sure the organization is feeling that pinch. They’re in an uncomfortable position in which something has got to happen and the reality is nothing will.

What is the plan if we end up with neither? There are names like Harrison Bader or Jorge Soler or Kevin Kiermier or Teoscar Hernández who are technically outfielders and free agents, but very few of them are true center fielders and they all come with caveats. Bader has been plagued by injuries. Soler is more DH than anything. Kiermier is glove with little bat and Hernández is the opposite. All of them are smallish fish in small ponds, pursuing them as back-up plans feel like lateral movements or worse. If we’re at that point, why not throw Matos and Ramos the keys and see how they handle it? Or just pray that Haniger and Conforto rediscover their groove and mash 50+ homers between them?

Another way the Giants could make this outfield sandwich is by trade. T.J. Friedl on the Cincinnati Reds would be an interesting target to pursue. Friedl was ranked 9th in outfielders in WAR (Fangraphs) last year, in his late-20s and a Pleasanton native who provides positives with both his glove and bat. He didn’t light up the circuit board in terms of Statcast numbers but he checks a lot of boxes in terms of his plate-approach and would’ve been the best all-around outfielder by a decent margin if he wore the orange-and-black last year. St. Louis Cardinals Lars Nootbar could be another option.

Both would cost some bodies—Conforto or Haniger or Yaz or J.D. Davis along with an arm. For some smoldering fans, that price tag for a younger, athletic player under team control isn’t hard to stomach. What would be hard is another year of bland pieces of bread sold to us as sandwiches.