Spring training is winding down. Opening Day is less than two weeks away now, and the Giants have trimmed their roster a great deal. Before we leave camp, though, I thought I’d take a look at some players who have really stood out. No, I’m not talking about Blake Sabol or Casey Schmitt–I covered them a couple of weeks ago. I’m going to focus on some more under-the-radar names. While there have been some disappointments (Kyle Harrison’s four innings were nothing to write home about, and Heliot Ramos is deep in the doghouse), several players have really made a nice impression over the past month.
It’s been a speedy spring for Bryce Johnson 🏎️ pic.twitter.com/xbBMDM22aa
— SFGiants (@SFGiants) March 17, 2023
- Bryce Johnson: You’ll remember I always loved Steven Duggar as a prospect and as a big leaguer. I loved Duggar because I’m a sucker for speed and defense, and I’m especially a sucker for great center field defense, having seen precious little of it since, oh, around Andres Torres in 2010. Johnson is that kind of guy, too, but his #1 calling card is as a speedster and base stealer. He’s stolen over 30 bases in three different minor league seasons, and in the Cactus League, he’s 9 for 9 in steals, which leads the major leagues. Johnson had four stolen bases in one game earlier this week. He’s fun to watch. And in a new era where base stealing may become trendy again (fewer pickoff throws allowed, bigger bases reducing the distance runners have to travel), being the best base stealer in the organization isn’t a bad credential to have on your resume. Johnson has spent the last two seasons in Sacramento except for a few games with the Giants in 2022. He was removed from the 40-man roster in the offseason, but he’s making a case for himself–if not to make the team out of camp, to be at/near the top of the list if/when the Giants need an outfielder from AAA. Here’s a good breakdown on Johnson’s camp performance, written after yesterday’s game.
- Sean Hjelle: Hjelle’s been kind of an afterthought since the day he was drafted in the second round in 2018. The most interesting thing about Hjelle has been, well, how tall he is (6’11”, tied for the tallest guy ever to play in MLB). He’s had a mediocre minor league career and seemed destined to join the long line of lackluster Giants’ starters drafted in high rounds (Andrew Suarez, Chris Stratton, Tyler Beede, Ty Blach, etc., etc.). Hjelle made his major league debut in 2022, and overall, that wasn’t great, either, but he had a couple of excellent outings late in the season, showing improved velocity, and striking out eight in five scoreless innings in his final appearance on October 4. Hjelle reportedly added 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason, and he’s had a great camp: four games, 12 innings pitched, 1.50 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 14 strikeouts. Hjelle was expected to start in AAA as rotation depth, and maybe he still will, but with the injuries to Cole Waites and Thomas Szapucki and the early demotions of Sam Long, Randy Rodriguez, and Jose Cruz, it seems like that last bullpen spot might actually be his, if there is one. (We thought Long looked awful last weekend, and as for Cruz–I was literally yelling at Kapler to come get him before he hurt somebody. To call Cruz “raw” is an understatement.)
- Tristan Beck: Beck was in the same “oh, whatever” category as Hjelle for me. Beck, who was obtained from the Braves in the 2019 trade involving Mark Melancon, was a Stanford guy. His minor league career overall has been as “meh” as Hjelle’s, with the exception of a solid season in Richmond in 2021. He was nothing special in Sacramento last year, either, but the Giants protected him on their 40-man roster. Beck’s spring stats aren’t as sparkly as Hjelle’s, but his stuff looked great. Beck has already been optioned, but he had a good camp, and this was one of his last pitches against the A’s last Sunday before he left the game when he was hit by a line drive.
- Keaton Winn: Winn seemed like another head scratcher when the Giants protected him on their 40-man roster. Like Hjelle, the Giants drafted Winn in 2018 (fifth round). His minor league stats won’t impress you, but he jumped three levels in 2022. Andrew Baggarly had a great feature in the Athletic about him a couple of weeks ago (Winn literally emerged from an Iowa cornfield). Here’s how Baggs described what the Giants like about Winn.
And now the 6-foot-4 right-hander is on their 40-man roster, pumping 98 mph fastballs in live batting practice this spring, and throwing a splitter that breaks so hard that even veteran big leaguers like Alex Cobb get bug-eyed as they watch from behind the cage.
“Dude, that was disgusting,” Cobb said to Winn as he walked off the mound Wednesday. “I’d like to give you advice, but I’ve got nothing to tell you.”
Winn’s combination of a high-velocity fastball, wipeout breaking pitch and cozy relationship with the strike zone has all the earmarks of a major-league contributor. And because he also can tunnel a sinking two-seamer and a work-in-progress cutter off those two premium pitches, the Giants continue to profile him as a future member of their rotation.
It will be interesting to see if the Giants start Winn in AAA, now that he’s on the 40-man. He only made six starts (30 innings) in AA last season. But the Giants tend to move pitchers more aggressively than hitters through their system.
So there you have it. Three guys drafted by the Giants in 2017-18, still the Evans era, and another 2018 draftee (Beck), acquired via trade by Farhan Zaidi in 2019. All have knocked around the Giants’ system for several years without making much of an impression–until now. And any or all of them might well contribute to the 2023 team. In the latest Giants Talk podcast, Alex Pavlovic reported that manager Gabe Kapler had made an interesting comment about the Beck/Hjelle/Winn trio. Two years ago, the Giants added three fireballing youngsters to the 40-man roster to protect them from the Rule 5 Draft–Kervin Castro, Camilo Doval, and Gregory Santos. Kapler said something along the lines of “We knew at least one of those guys was going to emerge, but we didn’t know at the time which one.” (Of course, it was Doval, with Castro and Santos no longer even in the organization.) Anyway, that’s what the addition of these three starters reminded Kapler of.
I’ve already been back into my My26ManGuy™ ballot at least three times to change my picks as the injury news keeps coming. Reading the article about Bryce Johnson, I saw that Austin Slater had to come out of Thursday’s game–the first time he’d tried to play in the outfield–with an injury. It’s still unclear whether Mitch Haniger will be ready for Opening Day, and what about Brandon Crawford? Alex says there is no way that Crawford will miss the chance to start at shortstop for the 12th consecutive year, especially since he’d get to face his brother-in-law, Gerrit Cole. Right now I’m guessing that Crawford will be on the Opening Day roster but Haniger won’t. With Haniger’s injury history, and the three-year commitment the Giants have made to him, they will wait another week or two if they have to.
If Haniger and maybe even Slater start the year on the IL, does that open space for Sabol and maybe even Johnson? Will they find room for Brett Wisely (who seems to be ahead of Isan Diaz on the left-handed middle infielder depth chart, since Diaz has been optioned already)? Will all six starters begin the season on the roster, or will someone (DeSclafani?) get slow-played on the IL? And what about the catcher thing? With 12 days to go before the opener at Yankee Stadium, there are more questions than I thought there would be at this point. But injuries in camp can do that.
My26ManGuy™ Contest Deadline!
Cubs at Giants, 1:05 p.m. at Scottsdale Stadium
Radio: KNBR; TV: NBC Sports App (Giants); Marquee Sports (Cubs)
Anthony DeSclafani starting for the Giants (hey! There he is!) Nice to see Villar back in the lineup, and oh, look–Bryce Johnson in CF and Blake Sabol in LF…and Wisely at SS.
Have a great Saturday, and thanks for reading. Lefty out.