Luis Matos, next rookie sensation?
What a difference a month makes, huh? On April 22, the Giants were playing flat-out putrid baseball. They were 6-13. Since then they have gone 20-12 to arrive at their current 26-25 record. In the “Putrid Baseball” column from that date, I called out three players specifically, plus manager Gabe Kapler for poor handling of a wretched bullpen. Two of the three, Logan Webb and Taylor Rogers, have since righted their ships. The other, Brandon Crawford, has not.
Going into today’s play, the Giants are 15-9 in May, and, after last night’s 15-1 blowout of the Brewers, are over .500 for the first time all season. Their run differential is up to -1, and they’re just a half-game out of the final wild card spot. It is quite a remarkable and rapid turnaround–it’s not even Memorial Day yet. It’s worth remembering that the Giants had a pretty brutal schedule over the first six weeks that included two East Coast trips and a disastrous Mexico City trip. Andrew Baggarly said before the start of the season that, because of the tough early schedule, if the Giants made it to Mother’s Day not completely buried, maybe they had a shot. Well, on Mother’s Day, they were 17-23, but thanks to a relatively slow start by other NL West teams, they were not in an excessively deep hole. And since Mother’s Day, they’ve gone 9-2.
The best story and perhaps the biggest surprise so far has been the contributions of multiple rookies. Right now there are seven rookies on the active roster: Casey Schmitt, Patrick Bailey, Blake Sabol, Brett Wisely, Bryce Johnson, Tristan Beck, and Ryan Walker. Their combined WAR per Fangraphs as of today is 1.2. Now, I’m cherry-picking a bit with this stat because other rookies (Sean Hjelle, Cole Waites, and Cal Stevenson) have been on the roster at points, and their combined WAR is -0.1, but let’s give credit to the front office for having the right rookies on the roster now and the wrong rookies back in AAA (or elsewhere, in the case of Stevenson). With the exception of Sabol, none of these rookies were necessarily expected to be on the major league roster at this point in the season. In the case of Bailey, he started the year in AA!
Now, it’s best not to get too excited about the early successes of rookies because they will have their bumps in the road as the league adjusts to them. (Well, unless you’re talking about Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner in 2010, of course.) Probably the bigger development over the past several weeks is that the offseason free agent acquisitions have started contributing. The combined WARs of Joc Pederson, Michael Conforto, Mitch Haniger, Taylor Rogers, Ross Stripling, and Sean Manaea are just -0.1–but two weeks or so ago, their combined WARs were -2.0. Conforto has been red-hot and carrying the team offensively, and Haniger had a very encouraging game last night in Milwaukee, including a two-run homer, four RBIs, and three legs of a cycle. Rogers threw his glove in trash on April 12 and has given up just one earned run in 15 subsequent appearances. Manaea’s last two appearances, both on this road trip, have been very encouraging. You could argue he saved the game in the bullpen shutout on Thursday. (Stripling and Pederson are both on the IL at the moment, so we’ll leave them out of today’s discussion.)
In addition, a really bad bullpen has righted the ship (0.88 ERA in the past 11 games, during which the Giants have gone 9-2), and I think it’s fair to give Kapler credit for making better choices there. It’s also worth noting, as Andrew Baggarly pointed out in his latest piece, that Manaea and Taylor Rogers have had to embrace different roles than they were expecting for the bullpen to be more successful. They deserve credit, too. We should also mention that closer Camilo Doval has been so good in May (10 for 10 in save opportunities, and I hope I’m not jinxing him) that he should be in serious consideration for NL Reliever of the Month honors (which would be his third win if it happens).
Meanwhile, top center field prospect Luis Matos was promoted to AAA and has done very well there. Matos is an elite defender in CF. Top pitching prospect Kyle Harrison had a dominant performance in his last start, with nine strikeouts, one walk, and no hits in four innings against the Oklahoma City Dodgers (he’s a Dodger-killer!). Another breakout prospect, AAA shortstop Tyler Fitzgerald, returned from the IL and has a .949 OPS in AAA this year. And you could add other AAA and AA names who could or should get opportunities at higher levels this season. Having seen the contribution of rookies to the Giants’ success so far–both in WAR and in positive energy–it’s hard not to get greedy and want to see more of that.
On April 22, the path for this season looked obvious: The Giants should be making plans to sell everything not nailed down at the trade deadline. How about now? Should they be thinking like sellers, buyers, some combo of both, or neither?
The happy (and interrelated) combination of better results on the field and emerging young prospects changes the math entirely–at least for the moment (I have trust issues)–about being sellers or buyers in 2023. Perhaps the Giants should still do some selling–but for the primary purpose of solving some roster problems, not just to dump decent inventory to get more prospects. Some examples:
- It could make sense to trade Pederson. He has an expiring contract and his value to the Giants as a platoon DH is limited, but another team might covet his postseason resume. The Giants would probably have to send some cash with him because his contract is absurd, but maybe they’d get a prospect back. More importantly, trading Joc opens up the left-handed DH spot for Conforto and/or Sabol–which in turn could open up room to promote Matos.
- It could also make sense to trade Alex Wood. Trading Wood frees a spot in the rotation for Harrison or even Keaton Winn. (I assume Harrison has a spot regardless when they think he’s ready, especially since they’re going with regular bullpen games right now.) They won’t miss Wood’s 4-5 innings that much, especially if Manaea’s turnaround is sustained.
- They might consider trading Mike Yastrzemski or Austin Slater, who are not exactly two sides of the same coin. Yaz is a good defensive outfielder at all three positions, hits for power, and seems to be back to his 2020-21 strike zone recognition. Slater has stolen 45 of 50 bases in his career and is one of the best hitters in the game against lefties. Slater is making $3.2 mil this year and will be a free agent after 2024. Yaz is earning $6.1 mil and will be a free agent after 2025. They’re both valuable players and good Giants. But they’re both over 30, and Slater especially is very injury-prone. And, more to the point, the Giants have some good young outfielders who will be in the mix soon–Matos, Vaun Brown and Wade Meckler in AA, and Grant McCray in High A. There’s also Sabol, whom the Giants seem to want to keep, and who should be an OF/DH and not a “real” catcher.
- Finally, it might be necessary to trade a right-handed infielder. Schmitt seems like he’s here to stay. J.D. Davis can DH if Schmitt is playing third, but maybe either Davis or Wilmer Flores could/should be moved. Not only do they need a roster spot if they want to carry three catchers when Bart is back (including Sabol), but Fitzgerald, Isan Diaz (on the 40-man and back in action this week), and David Villar could make a case to be promoted/return to the big leagues. And don’t forget that Marco Luciano, who’s still a shortstop as of today, is on the 40-man and in AA.
You will notice that I did not mention trading Bart. I agree with the comments that have been made here that Bailey is a superior defensive catcher and should be Catcher #1. But Bart is a legitimate major league catcher who gives them good coverage when Bailey needs a day off or is injured. We’ve seen what happens when you rely on a star catcher and then he gets injured/opts out during the pandemic/retires unexpectedly. Having two solid catching options plus a third who can strap on the gear in an emergency (Sabol) sounds prudent to me. Do I have to remind everyone again what happened to the 49ers’ quarterbacks this past season?!
The Giants have been playing so well that they are right back in the playoff conversation. Now, a lot can happen between now and the end of July–good or bad. But if they’re still relevant as postseason contenders, what kinds of holes might they try to fill via trades? Here I’m talking not just about selling off extra veteran pieces to make room for youngsters this year and next year but actually trying to strengthen a position of need. What might that be? Here are a few musings.
- They have too many outfielders, to the point that Grant Brisbee was saying in an article this week that there would be no room on the roster for Matos even if he absolutely seems ready. But the outfield, as currently constructed, is not all that good. Yaz is an asset, especially if he’s hitting again. Slater is limited and can’t seem to stay on the field. Conforto is raking now, but similar to Joc last year, giving much of his offensive value back on defense–and more importantly, he’s likely to be gone next year after he opts out. Mitch Haniger seems OK defensively but hasn’t hit much yet–until last night. Sabol…well, they seem to be keeping him, and we don’t want him catching. Anyway, even though they have too many outfielders, they could use upgrades. Matos could be an upgrade, but so could a trade acquisition be if the Giants were buying.
- They have too many starting pitchers, but I don’t think the rotation is all that good beyond Webb and Alex Cobb. Anthony DeSclafani was off to a strong start, and he may be an OK #3, but he’s not going to strike fear into the hearts of a playoff opponent. Wood, Stripling, and Manaea have limited value to the 2023 team, and if either Stripling or Manaea actually pulls it together, they’ll be gone next year, anyway. So one of those spots is going to Kyle Harrison in due course, but the Giants could arguably use another high-quality starter. Jim Bowden had a list this week of the top-25 pending free agents, and a lot of them were starting pitchers. Unfortunately, a lot of them are on contending teams that probably want to keep them. But maybe that Ohtani guy might be available? OK, maybe Lucas Giolito or Eduardo Rodriguez (White Sox and Tigers, respectively) or…?
- The bullpen has made a dramatic turnaround since May 15 (the day we arrived on Maui), culminating with a sparkling combined shutout in Milwaukee on Thursday and a 3.1 inning bulk inning “save” by Beck last night. More help is on the way, perhaps, with free agent acquisition Luke Jackson having started his rehab assignment in AAA. But I’m always loath to count on pitchers being useful right after Tommy John surgery. Remember what a mess John Brebbia was in 2021? But if, for example, the Padres wave the white flag and decide to shop Josh Hader, wouldn’t that be a nice pairing with Doval? (Spoiler: The Padres will not wave the white flag and trade Hader to the Giants. But maybe there’s someone else out there.)
Other than getting Kris Bryant at the deadline in 2021 and making a flurry of moves in 2019 that ended up producing pretty much nothing that lasted, Farhan Zaidi has been pretty passive at the trade deadline, most notably holding onto All-Stars Pederson and Carlos Rodón last year. Even though it makes sense to me that the Giants should move some veterans to make room for youngsters, possibly even getting some useful prospects in return, I’m guessing that Zaidi won’t want to “mess with team chemistry” if they’re playing well in late July. So Matos and Harrison and others will just have to wait for someone to get injured. These things tend to work themselves out. On an encouraging note, Zaidi wasn’t hesitant to promote Schmitt and have him take playing time away from Crawford, so I also don’t see him letting underperforming veterans block Harrison or Matos when it’s time.
Anyway, the Giants are way more interesting this last weekend of May than they were on April 22 when I wrote that they were “putrid.” For that we can be grateful. And we can grab our popcorn and wait for what comes next.
Giants at Brewers, 1:10 p.m., American Family Field
Logan Webb vs. Corbin Burnes
Webb is actually having a better year than Burnes is at this point, but Burnes is a former Cy Young winner. The Giants have already beaten him once this year (May 5 in SF).
Oh, sorry to inform you that MrLefty and I fly back to California on Monday. The Giants are 9-2 since we arrived here. If the season goes right back to “putrid,” you can blame us. Lefty out.