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Report: Giants interested in Harrison Bader for CF

MLB Network’s Jon Morosi ties the Giants to both Bader and Jung-Hoo Lee.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

In what’s not surprising news, the San Francisco Giants have been linked to two of the non-Cody Bellinger centerfielders in free agency. I’ve given Harrison Bader the headline, though, because it’s the first time I can recall the team being linked to him by any source beyond a “free agent roundup and predictions” post.

Now, that doesn’t preclude Cody Bellinger or even Kevin Kiermaier from being in the mix, but it does show that the Giants are casting and wide net, with perhaps more of a focus on defense... because hoo-boy, can Harrison Bader not hit.

His career line of .243/.310/.396 (.706 OPS; 635 games, 2,108 PA) has been worth just a 92 OPS+ — 8% worse than the league average during his career. Some of this is weighed down by his Yankees career. Prior to being traded by the Cardinals to his childhood team at last year’s deadline, Bader had a career .720 OPS in 523 games with the Cardinals, or about a 97 OPS+. His injury-marred and performance-plagued Yankees career was brief and bad: in 98 games, just .237/.274/.353 (.627 OPS) in 359 PA (72 OPS+). He ended 2023 on the Reds, and went 5-for-31 in 14 games.

People out there have been scared by Cody Bellinger’s weird Statcast irrespective of his results in 2023, and so going along that line, there’s absolutely nothing in Bader’s results or underlying measures to indicate he’s going to be able to hit at all even with a change of scenery. Bader’s 85.9 mph average exit velocity was in the bottom 4% of the league, and that’s following a 2021 of 86.2 mph and 2022 of 83.4 mph. His .271 wOBA was in bottom 5% of the league as well, and his 4.9% walk rate bottom 6%. He did have a max exit velocity of 110.2 mph, though, which would’ve knocked out Mike Yastrzemski for 11th-best on the 2023 Giants.

But he’s such a good defender. Actually elite.

By Statcast’s Outs Above Average measure, he was at +9 in centerfield last season, and if you look at his career since 2018 you get this: +19, +13, +3 (COVID year), +14, +7, +9.

By SABR’s Defensive Index measure, which is a combination of other measures and used as a factor in Gold Glove Award voting, Bader’s +8.3 trailed only Kevin Kiermaier (+8.6) in CF. In 2021, he was the best overall defender in the NL (+14.4) and second-best in MLB behind Carlos Correa (+15.8). FanGraphs had him at +6.9 Defensive Runs Above Average in 2023.

He has some good baserunning value and an 85h percentile sprint speed, too, but he’s not getting on base very much. Basically, he’s a 1-win player whose value comes almost exclusively from his elite defense. Given how their transactions went last offseason, the Giants should value him at $18 million dollars a year...

He and Kiermaier should be in the mix, though. If the Giants fail to land Ohtani and Yamamoto and Bellinger, then the pivot isn’t to blow it out on one or two big trades — which, rationally, probably aren’t to be had anyway — it’s to strengthen the team’s strength, and that’s it’s pitching. And for every acquisition that’s not Yamamoto, it makes that much more sense to bolster the team’s defense up the middle. Lee sort of fits the mold here, too, because it’s unclear how his bat will play (at least in his first season), but the defense should hold up switching leagues.

Still, if you’re wondering why we’re hearing about Matt Chapman and Harrison Bader primarily and not any of the other more interesting players, I’m with you. I’m sure that has a lot to do with their agents versus the agents of other, better players, but at the same time, for fans (like me) who still haven’t gotten over not pairing Vladimir Guerrero with Barry Bonds, every name that sounds like a compromise to a big offseason either frustrates or infuriates.

It’s important to remember, though, that there’s no order to these things. Getting Bader or Chapman this week doesn’t wipe them out with other moves, it’ll only feel that way. At the same time, this sounds like the offseason we wanted, with the Giants being in on basically every free agent. Harrison Bader is not Aaron Rowand 2.0 (unless they sign him to a 5-year deal for some reason), he’s closer to Kevin Pillar in terms of value albeit with some vaguely Gabe Kapleresque vibes in terms of presentation.

Pitching, defense, and just a little bit of hitting is how the Giants were able to accomplish anything meaningful this century, and since we and the team have all accepted that top of the market hitters would rather die than play at Oracle Park, better to double down on this.