The San Francisco Giants have been one of the top teams in the Majors in May, and you can point to the contributions of nearly 20 players if you want to explain why. But perhaps none have propelled the team quite as much as their largest external free agent signing (by average annual value) this offseason: Michael Conforto.
After struggling in April in his first month back following a season completely lost to injury, Conforto found the approach and swing that made him one of the game’s most dangerous hitters from 2017 through 2020. He hit 26-90 in the month, with seven home runs, two doubles, 11 walks, and just 20 strikeouts, for a .916 OPS and a 148 wRC+.
And then, during the Giants loss on Tuesday to the Pittsburgh Pirates, Conforto injured his heel. The Giants were optimistic that night, but when they got to the ballpark Wednesday morning, their tune had changed.
Giants are less optimistic about Michael Conforto’s heel than they were last night. He has a pretty noticeable limp going and is getting an MRI and X-ray right now.— Alex Pavlovic (@PavlovicNBCS) May 31, 2023
That sure makes it sound like Conforto is headed for the Injured List, but the Giants might not make it official for a while. They weren’t going to make a move before Wednesday’s game — half because they didn’t have all the medical info, and half because the didn’t have time to get a new player to San Francisco — and Thursday is an off day. They don’t start their weekend series against the Baltimore Orioles until late on Friday night, so they can take their sweet time announcing any move (as a reminder, IL placements can be made retroactively, so there’s no harm whatsoever in not making a move until the last moment).
UPDATE: It now sounds like Conforto might be able to avoid the IL.
Conforto has a heel bruise, and he said it's *not* a bone bruise - he is legit day-to-day. Doesn't think it's an IL thing.— Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) May 31, 2023
If Conforto is placed on the IL, the Giants will have a decision to make as to how to replace an everyday player. There are four clear options — here they are, in order of least likely to most likely.
4. A trade, waiver claim, or journeyman Minor Leaguer
This would have been the move last year. The Giants became well known in recent years for adding players they didn’t particularly want, for two simple reasons: 1) they had a gap that needed to be temporarily filled, and 2) they didn’t want to waste a 40-man roster spot on someone they couldn’t DFA on a whim. Last year the Giants had a whopping 15 position players that they added to the active roster, played for fewer than 25 games, and then designated for assignment.
Some of those players, like Lewis Brinson and Donovan Walton, had a chance to stick if they could perform. One of those players, Bryce Johnson, found his way back on the 40-man roster this year. But most of them, like Mike Ford, Ford Proctor, and Michael Papierski, were very clearly added to be temporary players on the 40-man roster.
You can’t do that with prospects, because you have to commit to a 40-man spot for the foreseeable future. It’s why they added Austin Wynns to the roster for one game this year, before they knew Patrick Bailey was ready.
The Giants are no longer in that business. Unless one of their injured players is more injured than we know, and can be shifted to the 60-day IL (which opens up a 40-man spot), the Giants really don’t have any filler to open up a spot. And they have enough internal options that it seems unlikely that they’d want to use a fringe player as patchwork.
3. Luis Matos
The Giants have been promoting from within this year, as the farm has reached a point where it’s ready to contribute. When Alex Wood went on the IL, Tristan Beck made his MLB debut. When Brandon Crawford’s injury lingered, Casey Schmitt made his MLB debut. When Joey Bart hit the IL, Patrick Bailey made his MLB debut. When Ross Stripling was placed on the IL, Ryan Walker made his MLB debut.
Those trends all point towards Luis Matos — the No. 4 ranked Giants prospect in our community rankings — getting the call.
Matos would be a tremendously exciting addition to the roster. After scuffling in High-A last year and losing some prospect shine, he tore through AA to start the season, and earned a promotion to AAA, where he’s hitting .340/.386/.472, with excellent defense in center field. As I documented earlier in the day, his strikeout rate is 4th-best out of 837 qualified Minor League hitters ... despite being in AAA, and having turned 21 in late January.
He looks like the real deal. And he’s on the 40-man roster.
So why is he so low on this list?
Despite the timing of those aforementioned debuts, the Giants have made it clear that they’ll only call up top prospects when they’re ready to be staples of the roster, and not patchwork. Do they think Matos, who will play in just his 13th AAA game tonight, is that? Possibly. But possibly not.
And even if they do, they might prefer that Matos force the issue, if for no other reason than that the outfield is full. The team already has three proven and healthy regulars in Mike Yastrzemski, Austin Slater, and Mitch Haniger, with Haniger being an everyday player. They’re comfortable with Johnson and Brett Wisely in center, and with Blake Sabol or LaMonte Wade Jr. in left field. Unless Conforto’s injury looks like a long-term thing, they’ll be back to Haniger and Conforto in the corners, with Slater and Yaz platooning center soon enough.
Of note: Matos is the only outfielder on the 40-man that the Giants can call up. The only others that aren’t on the active roster are Heliot Ramos and Luis González, who are both on the 60-day IL.
You could also throw another 40-man rostered position player into here, which is to say David Villar. But it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll be back so shortly after being optioned, given how much he’s struggling.
2. An injury return
The Giants currently have four prominent players on the 10-day Injured List. Bart, Stripling, and Joc Pederson are eligible to return, while Thairo Estrada will be eligible early next week.
It doesn’t seem like any of the players are ready to return, and it seems likely that Bart and Pederson will have rehab assignments before being activated. But if either of those two feel fully healthy on the Thursday off day (the Giants don’t have to travel), then they might just jump into the lineup in place of Conforto.
1. A pitcher
Edit: I’m dumb and forgot that the league changed the pitcher limit back to 13, not 14, so the Giants can’t do this unless there’s another move.
The Giants don’t always swap like-for-like. Just yesterday, they activated reliever Luke Jackson, while optioning infielder David Villar. The day before that, they activated an outfielder (Slater) at the expense of a pitcher (Beck).
Even if they lose an everyday position player, they might prefer to simply add another pitcher. The Giants currently have an even split, with 13 pitchers and 13 position players on their active roster. They’re allowed one more pitcher, but can’t go beyond 14.
You could make the case that the Giants don’t need another pitcher, since they’re bookending the Orioles series with off days. But Baltimore is seventh in the Majors in runs per game, and eighth in wRC+. Another arm would make sense, whether it’s the long arm of Beck or Sean Hjelle, or the MLB debut of reliever Randy Rodríguez.
If none of these options sound great, it’s because they aren’t. Losing one of your best players is, it turns out, a bad thing.