The human body isn’t a mystery. There is a lot of people out there who have a pretty good idea on how the dang thing tends to work—I’m not one of them, but I do have a skin-deep understanding of the basics:
1. We all get old.
2. The body doesn’t work as well when that happens.
The San Francisco Giants just announced that typically stalwart shortstop Brandon Crawford will be shut down from baseball activities for a week after feeling discomfort in his left knee—the same knee he had problems in 2022.
Giants say Brandon Crawford has some left knee discomfort, will not do baseball work for a week. He doesn’t really need much spring training but there’s also not a lot behind him on depth chart.— Alex Pavlovic (@PavlovicNBCS) March 13, 2023
Crawford’s left knee acting up shouldn’t be shocking. He’s 36 years old and has played a high-impact position for 12 Major League seasons. Even with an incredible run of good health over his career, once joints or muscles or ligaments start to go, they’ll always be a concern. Hunter Pence was the picture of health and consistency for his career, playing in at least 154 games every season from 2008-2014, then he broke his arm in a Spring Training game in 2015, missed the start of the season then dealt with a series of ailments that limited him to 52 games that season. He was able to climb back up to 134 games in 2017, his age 34 season, but the appearances dropped off precipitously after that.
Ostensibly, the front office and coaching staff knew that they wouldn’t be able to count on Crawford for 140-plus games in 2023. Rest is best—he performed well at the end of last year with a healthy knee, and in order to keep that going, he’d have to proceed cautiously, drive the speed limit, ride the brakes by scheduling off-days and platoon-play when facing left-handed pitching.
I say this was expected—yet San Francisco’s depth at short is as deep as my knowledge of physiology. Looking at the projected 26-man roster on Fangraphs, the contingency plan is Thairo Estrada…and that’s kind of it.
When Estrada slides over to the left side of the infield, his role at second is filled by any number of comme ci, comme ça options of corner infielders.
David Villar logged 154 innings at second last year, but only 15 of those were in a Giants uniform which isn’t much of a sample size to provide any definitive data. He could be fine there if he got significant work in, but the front office seems pretty set on establishing him at third.
Wilmer Flores has the most experience at 2B with nearly 2,000 career innings at the position, though his 441 innings spent in 2022 left him with a dubious DRS (defensive runs saved) of -9. His infield experience and utility around the diamond were essential to the Giants in 2021 and 2022. That’s to say, the team didn’t necessarily excel because of his ability to patch holes in a pinch though his experience helped mitigate some potentially harmful scenarios. Plan A wasn’t for Flores to field 440 innings at third—it just had to happen. He wasn’t the wind in their sails, but Flores kept the ship afloat.
2023 is the same—plan A is to have Wilmer Flores be the right-handed DH platoon. If he sees the infield, it won’t be in the middle of it.
I should note Estrada’s 700 + innings at 2B buried him in a deeper hole than Flores with a DRS of -12. Standard caveat: Individual defensive metrics are notoriously volatile, and I think fans can and should trust what they see on this one. Estrada is a better, rangier second baseman than either Flores or Villar, which is more valuable in 2023 with the new shift and positioning restrictions.
Again, fans done seen what they saw, and there is good reason to not feel totally great ye-haw about Estrada defensively after ‘22. I really dig his style, the way his shoulders drop as he scoops the baseball and slings it to first (contrast to Flores’ inexplicable and hilarious over-the-shoulder lob to first), but there were some consistency concerns. Those alarm bells start to ring louder if he’s captaining the infield at SS on a routine basis.
If Crawford’s knee gives out, or nags him like it did last year, affecting his swing along with his defense, the Giants need to figure out something that does not include an Estrada / Flores middle infield.
Luckily, the Giants have prospects in this area. Both Isan Díaz and Brett Wisely are on the 40-man roster who have the ability to play both SS and 2B. Both also hit from the left-side which would help level out the righty-heavy infield.
Isan Diaz’s family reacts to his first career home run! pic.twitter.com/ih11OfsDEB— Baseball Quotes (@BaseballQuotes1) August 5, 2019
Wisely has no big league experience and only 5 games at the AAA level in the Tampa Bay Rays organization. Díaz got MLB reps in the 2019, 2020, and 2021 seasons, and his prospect report is much shinier than Wisely with better fielding ratings and a potential burst in power.
Both players are having good starts this spring with Wisely drawing praise from manager Gabe Kapler. Joey Bart said he was his “pick for player of the camp.” Most of Wisely’s spring starts have come at short, but he started in centerfield on Sunday’s game against Oakland. If Wisely could give Kapler bench depth at multiple positions—especially with Mitch Haniger’s recent oblique strain—we might see him in San Francisco sooner rather than later.
Brett Wisely - San Francisco Giants (1)* pic.twitter.com/P3TNj6ICvI— MLB HR Videos (@MLBHRVideos) February 28, 2023
Wisely / Estrada; Estrada / Díaz—these could work in short stints. Both have minor league options and the front office can use them alternatively, effectively extending the limit of optioning a player 5 times in one season to 10.
What if Crawford’s health sidelines him for a significant amount of time? If our SS finds himself on the 60-day IL (thus off the 40 man roster), I’d imagine Kapler would want a more long-term solution. If that happens, maybe Estrada has proved himself at short. Great! Or maybe Wisely or Díaz have established themselves as effective depth pieces that can consistently contribute at the Major League level.
Or maybe it’ll be time to bring MiLB gold-glover Casey Schmitt into the fold to lock down the infield’s left side.
Casey Schmitt! Are you not entertained? pic.twitter.com/XHIXd6HE0O— Giant Prospective (@giantprospectiv) February 25, 2023
This worrying could all be for naught. Brandon Crawford resting for a week is out of the utmost caution. 7-days of playing Halo and binge-ing “Farmer Wants A Wife” might be the coup de grace to his finicky knee.
I’m all for hope and optimism in March so maybe this won’t be an issue during the regular season…probably not though.