The start of the San Francisco Giants season is right around the corner. Like, right around the corner.
Seriously, go see for yourself. Check the calendar. That “30” on the March page, the one with three big orange circles around it? That’s when the Giants start the season against the New York Yankees. The battle we’ve all been waiting for. East Coast vs. West Coast. Aaron Judge vs. Arson Judge.
It’s a 10:00 a.m. game by the way, and I know what your next question is: Brady, is that too early to have a baseball beer?
No, gentle reader. No it is not.
Anyway, this is the time of year where we usually have a pretty good idea as to what the Opening Day roster will look like, but still have two or three questions. And on Thursday morning we did. But on Thursday night Giants President of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi swung by the broadcast booth to talk about Spring Training.
There’s an odd misconception that this iteration of the Giants brass is overly secretive. In reality, they’re usually fairly candid, except when they have a competitive advantage to gain. They might not reveal tomorrow’s starter, but they’ll tell you exactly why they optioned a player and what that player needs to do to get another look.
Thursday was case in point, with Zaidi being even more open than usual. He dropped lots of interesting tidbits — including that they’re expecting Casey Schmitt to be in the Majors soon; that Schmitt will play both third base and shortstop; and that they expect their depth to come from the Minors this year, rather than the waiver wire and trade market.
But most notable was Zaidi essentially confirming the rostering of three fringe players ... three fringe players who bring the total of expected players on the roster to the 26 that they’re allowed to carry.
In other words, we can predict with reasonable confidence what the roster will look like on Thursday morning. So let’s take a closer look at the three players that Zaidi discussed.
Sabol is unquestionably one of the most unique players that the Giants have had in camp in recent memory. He’s an outfielder turned catcher who is dedicated to catching but hasn’t yet learned how to do it, and he’s torn the stitches off the baseball at every level, but his (very bad) former team gave up on him before he made his MLB debut.
If he were a Minor League free agent, he’d be supremely Giantsy.
But he’s not a Minor League free agent. He’s a Rule 5 draftee. Which means he needs to be on the active roster or else he’ll be returned to the Pittsburgh Pirates for one crisp $50,000 bill.
Ever since the Giants nabbed Sabol in December, trading for him after the Cincinnati Reds drafted him, I’ve maintained that his only path to making the roster was to prove he could be Joey Bart’s backup.
In the long run, that remains true (Zaidi admitted that for Sabol to stick on the roster, he’ll have to be someone they trust as a catcher). But in the short term, I was dead wrong. It turns out there was a second path to the roster: hit the crap out of the baseball and slyly put banana peels in front of teammates.
Sabol — who is hitting 14-39 with three homers, four doubles, and 10 walks in Spring Training — stands to be a big beneficiary of injuries to outfielders Austin Slater and Mitch Haniger, which will keep them off the field for the first two series, at a minimum. Zaidi all but confirmed that Bart and Roberto Pérez will split time (about 50-50, no less) behind the plate, and also that Sabol will be somewhere on the diamond to ring in the first game of the season.
With the door opened, Sabol will have to eventually prove he can catch at the Major League level, and I presume the Giants will slide him behind the plate as soon as a score gets lopsided. But given the way the Giants aggressively use the Injury List, it seems likely that Sabol will have plenty of time picking flowers in the outfield grass before his livelihood depends on taking Bart or Pérez’s spot.
And since he’s a left-handed hitter, and righty Gerrit Cole will be on the mound for the Yankees for Opening Day, it’s safe to assume that Sabol won’t just be on the roster ... he’ll be the 17th starting left fielder in 17 seasons.
I’m in danger of getting kicked off the Giants beat because I never did the mid-February Predict the Giants Opening Day roster article that is mandatory when you cover a baseball team. But if I had, it probably would have featured four categories: “locks,” “strong chance,” “on the bubble,” and “long shots.”
Bryce Johnson would not have been in any of those categories.
If I really wanted to get my word count up I might have added a fifth category, “not gonna happen, but...”
Bryce Johnson would not have been in that category, either.
Johnson entered camp on nobody’s radar. And when I say “nobody,” I’m pretty sure I mean Zaidi and Gabe Kapler in addition to you and me. After all, this was a guy who got added to the roster last season for just long enough to collect his first Major League hit, and then was designated for assignment. He passed through waivers, was outrighted, and was viewed as a AAA body. Not even a AAAA body. Just a AAA one.
Nothing pointed to Johnson being a factor in March, or even at any point this season. He’s 27. He hit below league average in AAA last year. He hit a hair above league average in AAA the year before. A 57-game sample in Low-A six years ago is his only time ever being an offensive weapon as a professional.
But here we are.
Slater’s injury opens up a need for the Giants to add a center fielder. Mike Yastrzemski figures to start there against every right-hander, but Yaz hit .179/.250/.325 against lefties last year, .170/.254/.259 the year before, and is .083/.214/.167 against all pitchers this spring. The Giants would trade for Madison Bumgarner to put in center before they’d make Yaz starting against lefties part of the game plan.
Enter Johnson, a hyper-athletic center fielder who hits from both sides. He’s done well at the plate this year, hitting 13-36 with four doubles and four walks.
But most important is what he does when he’s on base: he’s swiped 12 bags in as many attempts. The next closest player has eight.
Not the next closest on the Giants. The next closest in baseball. Colorado Rockies prospect Zac Veen has nabbed eight bases (and been caught once), but has also played in 20 games to Johnson’s 14. No one else has more than six stolen bases.
Between his glove and his legs, Johnson doesn’t need to be a good hitter to be a good player. If he can hit 85% as well as the average Major Leaguer, he’s basically Cody Bellinger. I implored the Giants to spend the roughly $20 million that it would take to sign Bellinger this offseason.
Zaidi’s proclamation that Johnson will be around to take Slater’s starts (and possibly some of Haniger’s, with Yaz moving to a corner) is a win for anyone who watched the Giants play defense last year, or who was frustrated with the fact that they only had two players with good speed on their roster ... with Slater being one of those two.
There may be no player in any of the 30 Spring Training camps who has seen the rule changes in baseball for this season and used them to his advantage as well as Johnson has. It’s pretty cool.
The playing time that Hjelle got down the stretch last year, combined with his strong spring — he’s given up 14 hits, two walks, and three runs in 15 innings, with 18 strikeouts — made it clear that he’ll play a role this year. Zaidi just revealed that he’ll play a roll immediately.
It’s an interesting arrangement the Giants will have. They look prepared to carry eight different pitchers who have come up as starters. Will they convert some into traditional bullpen roles? Will they go the way of the Minors and piggyback starters?
Who knows. What we do know is that Hjelle — who has quickly become one of the most enjoyable players in the organization — will be a part of it.
And so ...
The Opening Day roster
Here’s what it likely will look like on Thursday.
LaMonte Wade Jr.
Don’t take this roster to Vegas and bet your life savings that they’ll all be at Yankee Stadium. Zaidi could get enticed by a trade and send someone (Flores feels like the obvious candidate) packing. Crawford has been dealing with knee soreness all camp and could move backwards. Cobb just had an injury pop up. Junis could feel redundant enough that they trade or DFA him and opt for a more traditional reliever.
But it feels like we know the 26. Largely because Zaidi just told us.