Scrapping In The Red Dirt
by Jim Silva
Most teams have a question at some position on the infield, some battle to be resolved during spring training. But looking at the Giants team that finished 2nd in the NL West you’d need a crowbar to get yourself in as a regular on the infield. Here is a list of awards garnered by the Giants infield last season: runner up for Rookie of the Year, Silver Slugger, Gold Glove, All-Star Game starter (times two). It’s no wonder the Giants infield did so well in the post-season awards bonanza. The four regulars who played at an average age of 25.75 years old last season, average 4.25 WAR and most incredibly saved 42 runs according to DRS – that’s an average of 10.5 runs per position. That’s the kind of infield you marry after the first date! And that’s without including their God-like catcher, Buster Posey – add him in and it just gets even more stupid! It was a really boring spring training for Giants’ fans who like good positional battles, unless you get excited about a nice little utility infielder battle. The infield is certainly a good reason for Giants fans to get a little wiggle in their walk for 2016.
Brandon Crawford has been a favorite with the ladies for a few years now, but became a favorite with the Giants and baseball fans in general in 2015, his breakout season. The 2008 4th round pick has been an established glove man at short for four full seasons now and there were flashes of goodness from his bat like 10 triples and 59 walks in 2014. Last year Crawford took a big step toward stardom. BCraw’s best home run total had been the 10 he hit in 2014, but last season he cranked 21 long balls, nearly matching his total output from the previous three seasons. His doubles total also jumped from a high of 26 in 2012 to 33 last season, which combined with his added ten points above his career batting average and the spike in jacks contributed to his career best .462 slugging percentage – that’s 79 points over his career number. Not only did he have his best season with the stick, he flashed some pretty absurd leather winning the Gold Glove in the process. According to DRS (defensive runs saved) he saved the Giants 20 runs while putting up a dWAR (defensive wins above replacement) of 2.9. Add it all up and Crawford led all shortstops in 2015 with a 5.6 WAR season. Although regression to the mean is a real thing, Crawford is a legitimate stud to build an infield around – the Giants recognized this by handing him $75 million to play for them through the 2021 season.
Crawford’s double play partner was Joe Panik – has Chris Berman bestowed a nickname upon young Joe yet? Are there Panik buttons for Giants’ fans to hit when he steps into the box? Panik is not a full fledged star just yet, but he is a useful piece to have in your infield and in your lineup. He is likely to have a decent career as a starter for a few years before someone far more interesting comes along. That is not a knock on Panik. Not everyone can be Buster Posey or Hunter Pence – two interesting fellows and teammates of Joe’s. Panik is likely to smack 20+ doubles and come close to 10 home runs while playing league-average defense. That’s what he did last season, and that was an improvement on his rookie season – no falling to the sophomore jinx for the pride of Hopewell Junction, NY! Panik never incited excitement during his climb through the minors after being selected in the 1st round of the 2011 draft. The best things about his game are his hit tool – .312 batting average – his ability to make contact – only 42 strikeouts in 2015, and his clean glove work – only 2 errors for a .996 fielding percentage last year. His slash line of .312/.378/.455 fits nicely as the prototypical two hitter, which is where the Giants used him from May 2nd on. That kind of production isn’t sexy in the Barry Bonds sense of the word – he only hit eight homers and stole three bases – but make no mistake, Panik deserved his spot on the All-Star team for his excellent, consistent, extremely valuable table-setting work. There aren’t many teams on the planet that would turn his kind of production down – sexy or not.
The Giants corners started last season as areas of concern, but both gelled by season’s end into true assets. At first base, Brandon Belt had a 2014 he probably would like to forget after forging a slash line of .243/.306/.449 and ending the season early after thumb surgery followed by a concussion with lingering symptoms. Last season couldn’t have been more different as Belt turned into a middle of the order stalwart. His 2015 season actually looked almost identical to his breakout season of 2013. He isn’t a classic masher but still managed a .478 slugging percentage due to the 33 doubles he added to his 18 home runs. He gets on base – last year his .280 average and 56 walks combined for a .356 on-base percentage. He even managed to steal a career high nine bags while only being nabbed three times. His glove work was also a significant contribution as he finished 5th among all first basemen with 8 runs saved according to DRS. Like almost everyone who plays infield for the Giants, he isn’t a guy who makes you want to buy a fathead for your living room, but he contributes in enough ways to make you think about voting for him for the All-Star squad without totally feeling like a homer.
The guy throwing bullets to Belt from the opposite corner is Matt Duffy – no not the one who plays for the Astros. This Matt Duffy was a scrawny 18th round pick in 2012 – a slick-fielding shortstop who hit like your grandma AFTER the hip replacement. Well, whatever Kool-aid homeboy drank, send some our way because he broke out last season like nobody’s business and had a legit All-Star season. Nobody was surprised (except everybody) that he would take to third base so well, saving the Giants 12 runs for 4th best in the majors behind some dudes you’ve probably heard of: Nolan Arenado (18), Adrian Beltre (18), and Manny Machado (14). To get himself to that level in one season at the position makes you wonder what he might do when he actually gets comfortable over there! His bat made him look like a young up and coming third baseman too. Duffy drilled 28 doubles and 12 home runs while maintaining a high batting average to finish with a nifty .295/.334/.428 slash line. Looking at his .336 BABIP (batting average on balls he puts into play) shows it to be in line with his career numbers, so it is reasonable to expect some growth, as opposed to regression. Duffy’s home run numbers might be the only aberration as his total of 12 long balls last year fell just one short of his minor league career total (from three seasons) of 13. While it is possible that he developed real power, it is hard to see his 170 pound frame as that of a legit slugger. His 12 steals in 12 attempts does look real as Duffy has always been a high percentage base stealer. Getting a WAR of 4.9 out of the blue is quite the gift so Matt Duffy is kind of like the Giants’ Santa who took over for the Kung Fu Panda.
Oh yeah, that exciting battle for the utility spot? It is likely to boil down to a choice between Kelby Tomlinson (the favorite coming into camp), Hak-Ju Lee, and Ehire Adrianza. Tomlinson has played more second than shortstop in the majors, but put up a 1.0 WAR season last year for the Giants in only 193 plate appearances. Most of Tomlinson’s value was in his bat last year – he profiles a lot like Panik or a powerless version of Duffy, with his batting average and speed being his best skills. A .303/.358/.404 slash line from your utility infielder is nothing to sneeze at. Adrianza has been the nifty glove man who has played all the infield spots except catcher in his time with the Giants. Only 25 last year, his only offensive value came from the 15 walks he drew in 134 plate appearances. His career slash line of .211/.290/.294 in 260 plate appearances over three seasons is pretty much what the Giants can expect. His minor league numbers are better, but not that much better. He has been a decent base stealer in the minors, but that skill hasn’t translated to the majors. To make him worth keeping, his defense has to be special, and while it is good, he is likely to get bumped by almost anyone with a good glove because his bat is so atrocious.
The last guy in this most exciting of races is Hak-Ju Lee. Lee is fast and a good fielder, but his bat has looked pretty weak and full of holes the last couple of seasons at AAA. He is only in the conversation because of a decent spring where he posted a .286/.375/.286 slash line. He is a high percentage base-stealer and is an actual shortstop. He has barely played second base so that could hurt him, but not if the Giants believe that he can get on base and use his mad base-stealing skills.
Tomlinson and Adrianza made the big club out of spring training, but Lee is tearing it up at triple-A, so if either of the two major leaguers slip, Lee is making a strong case to take the middle infield backup job. It’s a nice problem to have and only underscores the Giants depth.
San Francisco’s infield is loaded for bear this year. Even with a little regression, they are going to be tough because they can field and hit with the best of them. If they are not the best infield in all of baseball then they are certainly one of the best. Look for the black and orange pitching staff to benefit from the slick glove work on the infield as well as the run scoring ability.