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Position preview: third base

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David Villar moving to his left to field a grounder Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Today’s position preview for the 2023 San Francisco Giants features the position that may intrigue me more than any other: third base.

Here are the other position previews so far:

Players who played third base for the Giants in 2022

Evan Longoria — 68 games
Wilmer Flores — 34 games
Jason Vosler — 29 games
David Villar — 27 games
J.D. Davis — 18 games
Luke Williams — 8 games
Tommy La Stella — 6 games
Mauricio Dubón — 3 games
Thairo Estrada — 3 games
Kevin Padlo — 3 games

Roster locks for 2023

David Villar
J.D. Davis
Wilmer Flores

Other third basemen on the 40-man roster

Isan Díaz
Brett Wisely

Players in the system who might factor into the position

Casey Schmitt
Will Wilson
Tyler Fitzgerald
Shane Matheny
Sean Roby

Third base is a funny position for the Giants. The have a plan for how they want to start the season. They have a plan for how they want to end the season. And they have a plan for what to do if neither of those plans come to fruition.

The plan for starting the season centers around David Villar, which means he’s the most important player at the position. The season-ending plan is far, far from guaranteed, and the contingency plan is irrelevant if the season-opening plan succeeds. So the season-opening plan is the most important. Which means Villar is the most important.

Let’s start with the uncertainty of Villar. He has the distinction of being the only player on the entire Giants roster who A) is projected to make the Opening Day roster, B) has options, and C) could potentially have those options exercised.

Sure, players like Mike Yastrzemski and Camilo Doval technically have options, but they obviously won’t be used. And yeah, the Giants might claim that Joey Bart’s spot on the roster isn’t guaranteed but we all accept that that’s merely a public motivational tactic, right?

Villar has options, and the Giants could actually use them. That’s a staple of previous Giants rosters, but a rarity on the current team.

It would take a bad spring for the Giants to use those options. The Giants wasted no time in the Scottsdale sun hiding how they felt about Villar. No sooner had the right-handed slugger reported for camp than Gabe Kapler publicly threw the team’s (hopeful) support at Villar, stating, “I think we do see (Villar) as the incumbent. (We) hope he takes it and runs with it and could be an everyday guy.”

It’s easy to see why the Giants have that hope. Villar decimated AAA pitching a year ago and, after a mediocre first cup of coffee with the Giants, obliterated MLB pitching in his second go-around, hitting 25-93 with 8 home runs, 4 doubles, and 5 walks (.897 OPS) after being called up in early September. He’s young and has a history of being healthy and durable, and his passable third base glove glints with flecks of gold when held up next to the Giants two other third base options, who are the team’s worst defensive players that don’t have a name that rhymes with Spock Leaderson.

Perhaps best of all, Villar provides a potential opportunity to rid the Giants of platooning at yet another position, something they’ve eagerly been seeking out. In AAA Sacramento last year he hit righties significantly better than lefties (1.070 vs. .933 OPS) with a tremendous power advantage: 21 of his 193 at-bats against righties went for homers, compared to 6 of his 105 at-bats against lefties. He struggled against right-handers in his first MLB stint, but his successful September was built, in part, on excellence against righties.

Even with the slow start, Villar finished 2022 with the fifth-best wRC+ on the Giants (125), and three of the four names ahead of him were players who were strictly platooned. He enters 2023 with not just a chance to earn the everyday third basemen job, but with a chance to be the team’s best offensive player.

But nothing is certain, and there’s only so much confidence you can have in a player with just 181 MLB plate appearances. We’ve seen this story many times before, and while it sometimes ends with hardware and shirseys being opened on Christmas morning and a name on a brick behind the stadium, it also sometimes ends with an extended stay in the Minors, a disappointing return to the Majors, and a designation for assignment. We all remember Jarrett Parker and a few dozen similar names.

If that happens, the Giants have J.D. Davis — the only non-platooned name who had a better offensive season than Villar last year — and Wilmer Flores waiting in the wings. Davis in particular is interesting, as he has no platoon splits and is, reportedly, making defensive improvements now that he has a training camp with the new coaching staff. The Giants prefer the flexibility of slotting him in wherever, rather than pigeonholing him at third every day, but as far as contingency plans go, he’s a damn fine one.

And then there’s the hopeful end plan: Casey Schmitt.

A year after a breakout campaign in which he won the Minor League Gold Glove award at third, all signs point to Schmitt starting 2023 in AAA. It would be perhaps the most notable case of fast-tracking a position player by the current front office, as Schmitt has just 127 plate appearances in AA (he did make his AAA debut last season, though only after the AA season ended).

If you want to dream about Schmitt, I won’t stop you. He’s the best defensive prospect in the organization — and probably the team’s best defensive prospect since Brandon Crawford — and he hit .342/.378/.517 in AA last year. It’s early days, but he’s been tearing the stitches off of the ball in his first big league camp. It’s pretty easy to see him pounding on the Oracle Park doors before Father’s Day.

But prospectdom is fickle. Schmitt’s sample size of success is still small, and there are a few worrying signs, like the 4.7% walk rate in Richmond, or the .432 BABIP. A month or two of excellence in AA is not always indicative of future success, as Diego Rincones and his .290/.373/.505 season in AA in 2021 are quick to remind us.

Schmitt is worth checking the Minor League box scores every single morning for, but for a team with eyes on a return to the postseason, he’s not worth counting on. Few, if any prospects are.

But the beauty of the Giants is that all three of their plans can succeed. Villar can continue to murder baseballs with his bat, and there will still be hundreds of plate appearances for Davis and, to a lesser extent, Flores. Schmitt can force his way onto the roster and Villar can move to second, first, or even a corner spot in the grass.

There are a lot of good ways this could play out. Root for some of them to happen.