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Exploring the outfield depths

An area of strength or a question mark heading into 2024?

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Colorado Rockies Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco Giants still have some work to do after signing Jung Hoo Lee to his six-year deal* (Yoshinobu Yamamoto? Blake Snell? Cody Bellinger?) and after that they’ll still have some work to do. That could, perhaps should, be a trade because — and I’m sure you already knew this — the team has a lot of outfielders on the roster right now.

But which ones are playable, which are tradeable, and which might even be DFA-able? Let’s explore this depth and see just how far down it really goes. Is the team well positioned based on what they have or is it simple quantity over quality?

For the purposes of this post, Jung Hoo Lee is the starting center fielder and so isn’t worth a deeper examination of his utility on the roster. Figure that he’s your Opening Day leadoff hitter who will play against lefties and righties.

And then, since I fear you might not stick around for the whole post, watch these highlights of Jung Hoo Lee. First:

And then, sure, there’s this at bat against Yoshinobu Yamamoto...

... but then there’s this video, the thing I really want you all to see:

Yes, there are the hitting highlights! But also many defensive highlights! The hustle! The rizz! ... Fall Out Boy! ...

Okay, with the good stuff out of the way, let’s explore the team’s situation:

Mike Yastrzemski - LHB

While his best days are behind him, Yaz still has some value in a corner outfield spot. His post-COVID year line of .223/.314/.430 (.743 OPS) in 1,471 PA hovers around league average (104 OPS+ / 106 wRC+), but with the departures of Brandon Belt, Joc Pederson, and Evan Longoria, his .207 ISO makes him the best power hitter currently on the roster (min. 300 PA since 2021).

It’s not all about hitting, of course, and in terms of defense and baserunning it’s best to call him “average at best.” Last year, he was +1 Outs Above Average in RF (346 innings) and 0 in CF (351.1 innings) and LF (86.1 innings). In 2021 & 2022 combined, he was +4 in CF and +3 in RF. FanGraphs rates his defense as worth -3.2 runs over the past three seasons and +6.8 runs for baserunning, which combined brings him to about average. Statcast shows his baserunning values at about 50th percentile, too.

He was worth between 1.5-2 wins above replacement last season and projections have him in about that range for next year (his age-33 season). The Giants agreed to a 1-year, $7.9 million deal with him to avoid arbitration and I think that deal makes him largely untradeable, even with the remaining arbitration years.

Enough fans revere him to make trading him a little too painful. He also wouldn’t be easy to replace, even in the event they signed Cody Bellinger for centerfield and/or right field. He is probably the best outfielder currently on the roster. Playable.

Michael Conforto - LHB

It doesn’t take hindsight to see that the Giants were always spending a lot for a player who would give them very little, and his .239/.334/.384 (.718 OPS) is about what should’ve been expected. It was roughly equivalent to his final year in New York (2021: .232/.344/.384). And then he had shoulder surgery in what would’ve been his age-29 season.

I mention all of that because sometimes you will see people and prognosticators wishcast a team to reach a certain win total based on a player’s career averages and in the case of Conforto I think it makes more sense to toss out the career average and consider him an entirely different player. Before the COVID year, he was a great corner outfielder in terms of defense with about average speed. He had power.

He was never a good hitter against lefties (career .684 OPS), but he used to crush righties (career .856 OPS). He had nagging injuries like all old, slow vets, but he did flash a couple of decent months in 2023.

May: .289/.371/.544 (.916) | 105 PA | 7 HR 18 RBI 11 BB 20 K
Aug: .300/.400/.433 (.833) | 70 PA | 2 HR 3 RBI 10 BB 14 K

He’s settled into the role of “platoon galoot.” He is Joc Pederson’s heir apparent. Hopefully, he learned enough Pusoy to carry on the tradition, because with that $18 million price tag for 2024, he is not leaving that Giants clubhouse and with just one year left on his deal it makes sense to just run him out there and see what happens. Playable. Barely.

Mitch Haniger - RHB

If this player is alive, it will come as a great surprise to me, a skeptic. It makes perfect sense that a 32-year old oft-injured corner outfielder’s career would come to a screeching halt the moment he arrived in San Francisco. The team has been the final resting place of so many players throughout the past 30 years.

Anyway, Gabe Kapler relegated him to platoon duties at the end of last season, even though he wasn’t considered a platoon bat until he ran into Farhan Zaidi’s calculations:

vs RHP — .249/.322/.456 (.778 OPS) in 1,904 plate appearances
vs LHP — .275/.349/.490 (.840 OPS) in 762 plate appearances

To put that in perspective, let’s look at Haniger’s career from his first full season in 2017 through his final full season before ending up on the Giants (2022). In that timespan, there were 83 right-handed hitting major leaguers with at least 1500 plate appearances against right-handed pitching. Haniger’s .797 OPS over that stretch (remember, which is better than his career line because I’ve lopped off his 2016 rookie year and his 2023) is 31st-best. He’s sandwiched between Nick Castellanos (.800) and Matt Chapman (.796). But the Giants turned him into a platoon guy.

Maybe the coaching staff change can invigorate the cremains of this former slugger. An improvement in hitting won’t make him a good defender, though. He’s a career -8 runs above average and that’s even as a corner guy. And, there’s the whole age-injury combination that probably makes my thought about considering Conforto an entirely different player from his career averages more applicable with Haniger.

If you do that, he’s a .800+ OPS right-handed side of a platoon DH situation. The average annual value of the three-year deal he signed with the Giants last offseason is $14.5 million, but in real dollars — as in, the actual check (or series of checks) the team will have to cut — he’s set to make $20 million in 2024 and $15.5 million in 2025. That’s a lot for a guy who would be extremely limited based on that platoon.

But he’s not going anywhere (his opt out after this season is for funsies), and the chance of him being the second Tommy La Stella of Farhan Zaidi’s brief tenure (by Sabean standards) is highly probable. Nobody is trading for $20 million and the Giants would probably have to take on most of that contract this season and next just to move him. It’d be a farce.

It’s hard to mark him Playable, but it’s not impossible. Besides, there’s no chance the team DFAs him this year.

Austin Slater - RHB

Yesterday was Austin Slater’s 31st birthday (a belated Happy Birthday, SLAAAAAAATERRRRRRR!), which means he’s now an outfielder in his early thirties.

[In case you didn’t know how I categorize ages: if you’re 30, you’re 30. You’re only “early thirties” 31 to 33. Then, you’re “mid-thirties” from 34 to 36. “Late thirties” 37 to 39.]

He’s always been a platoon guy, but when you look at his ability to mash left-handed pitching over the years, “platoon guy” feels like an insult. He’s had 787 plate appearances against lefties since 2017 (his first season), making him one of just 79 right-handed hitters with at least 750 plate appearances against left-handed pitching over the past seven seasons. Slater’s career .836 OPS against LHP is 37th-best in MLB. He’s sandwiched between Tommy Pham and Randal Grichuk. A bit down on this list are Matt Chapman (.811 OPS) and Wilmer Flores (.810) and a bit ahead of him are Tim Anderson (.853) and George Springer (.852).

With Brandon Crawford’s free agency, he’s now the longest-tenured Giant, and it’s tough to say that he has a definitive role on the team in 2024. Last month, I wrote this after the Giants signed him to avoid arbitration:

Slater’s age and injury history seems to be catching up to him — he wasn’t quite the lefty-masher of yore, but he was still very good at that function. An .800 OPS against left-handed pitching is nothing to complain about, it’s just tough since it follows seasons of .824 (2022) and .894 (2021). His defense didn’t seem to really pass the eye test, either. All that said, $4 million for a veteran platoon guy who might chip in with a win or two if everything breaks right is “market rate” and a good deal; and, because of that low price, he could be a trade chit. Let us never forget what Farhan Zaidi & Scott Harris got for Darin Ruf.

Maybe my eyes grade too harshly, because he’s basically an average defender — even in CF. Statcast tagged him with a +1 outs above average there. His baserunning and speed are basically average. You wouldn’t option him if you could (and the Giants can’t) because of his years of experience. He’s a useful player to have, and at $4 million, a bargain. But if the Giants need roster space, he feels like the logical first to go. Tradeable.

Blake Sabol - LHB

Now, you might think that the Giants keeping him on their roster all year in order to shed the Rule 5 yoke for 2024 would make him untradeable since he can now be optioned, but I contend that it makes him an attractive chit in a trade situation. The Giants did the hardwork of breaking him in — this is the exact moment when a savvy GM would want to swoop in and snatch some surplus value.

He had a .744 OPS against right-handed pitching, which isn’t great (79th out of 132 — min. 250 PA), but look at that .180 Isolated Power. That’s 71st out of 132 which is, again, not great, but in 295 plate appearances? Rowdy Tellez had 299 plate appearances vs. righties and posted a .174 ISO — that’s despite playing in Milwaukee and against the NL Central. He just signed a 1-year deal with the Pirates for $3.2 million (with $800k in incentives). A player with his power profile and “utility” (he rates very low as and outfielder and catcher, but he can, technically, exist in those positions) could in theory be valued about as much as Austin Slater or Rowdy Tellez. A rebuilding team might even decide to platoon Slater and Sabol in left field. Playable OR Tradeable.

Luis Matos - RHB

If you’re looking for an Austin Slater replacement with upside, then you’re thinking about Luis Matos. He looked bad in centerfield last season and by the laser-guided measuring system of Statcast, he was even worse than what we saw (-4 outs above average; -2 in LF as well!), but he won’t turn 22 until June! So... you know, maybe this is just a prospect still trying to figure things out. His platoon split was stark, too:

vs. RHP (154 PA): .215/.261/.299 (.560 OPS)
vs. LHP (99 PA): .310/.408/.417 (.825 OPS)

The sheen on him is a bit negative, though, so I’m not sure it would make the most sense to trade him. A deadline deal makes more sense if he’s able to continue developing and with Lee you have to imagine there’s, like, 5% less urgency in making sure he can play center; plus, if he does struggle, the team can option him. Playable.

Brett Wisely - LHB

Tyler Fitzgerald - RHB

Wade Meckler - LHB

Playable. In the past, these three might become the third or fourth player in a larger trade but we are not seeing as many trades like that these days because everyone values their own farts prospects more than the other guy’s. Plus, they’re optionable so they’re not gumming up the roster. They are interesting depth.

Heliot Ramos - RHB

This is the hardest one to figure. He’s optionable, so, the Giants don’t really have a crunch with him. But they’ve also diminished his value quite a lot by jerking him around. He won’t turn 25 until September, though, and so maybe the Humm Baby coaching staff can turn around the trajectory of his Giants career. I go back and forth on this, but if he doesn’t fit the organization’s preferences and they have enough galootish corner guys already, he seems like a logical trade guy or, if a bad enough spring, waived. Tradeable OR DFA-able.

LaMonte Wade Jr. - LHB

Thairo Estrada - RHB

I only mention them because they played left field in 2023 (J.D. Davis did not). If the Giants sign Cody Bellinger, LaMonte Wade Jr.’s spot on the roster would seem debatable, though. Thairo Estrada, meanwhile, is an elite second baseman and shouldn’t play the outfield. Playable.

So, if you remove all the optionable guys (Sabol, Matos, Fitzgerald, Meckler, Ramos, and Wisely), that leaves the Giants with Lee*, Haniger, Conforto, Yastrzemski, Slater... Wade Jr... and Estrada. And, if you consider Haniger and Conforto really just emergency backups and primarily the DH, then the situation gets a little weirder:

Lee
Yastrzemski
Slater

Uhh... hmm. That’s... probably not what you want. But I guess if we look at it from a wins above replacement perspective, perhaps it becomes less dire:

CF: Jung Hoo Lee - 2-4 WAR
RF/LF: Yastrzemski/Slater/optionable dudes - 3-5 WAR
DH: Haniger/Conforto - 2-3 WAR

That’s just a guesstimate based on ZiPS (for Lee) and Steamer Projections (for the rest). The Giants’ outfield was worth +1.8 fWAR in 2023 (28th in MLB). Their DH +1.3 (9th in MLB).

Looking at that, it seems Lee makes the Giants’ defense better just by pushing the galoots off the field and moving their aging other guys to the corners, thereby maximizing everyone’s value. A 5 to 9-WAR outfield would push them into the middle-third of the league (according to 2023 results). The DH will probably be about as productive as 2023.

At the same time, it’s a little thin. It’s not difficult to imagine Yastrzemski and Slater hitting the IL and the optionable dudes scuffling as fill-ins. It’s not difficult to imagine Mitch Haniger La Stella-ing his way through another season with either injury or ineffectivness or Conforto having one or zero hot months instead of two, and if either DH has to play in the field very much? Oof. Yikes. But also, what is the typical outfield alignment? Does the team plan to simply platoon Slater/Matos & Sabol in left?

It’s not difficult to imagine this being the best the Giants can do, either. It’s a little harder to imagine any of the prospects panning out, but it’s still well within the realm of possibility. I’d still rather the Giants make a move for another bat, even if I agree that the team’s best chance to improve this offseason is by blowing out the budget on pitching. Doesn’t have to be Cody Bellinger to strengthen the depth, but somebody. Just one more dude.

*-although, at the time of this writing, the deal is pending a physical. Which... can you imagine? lol. lmao even.