by DrLefty

For me, the starting gun of the baseball season has always gone off as the Super Bowl ends. Well, tomorrow is the Super Bowl, and on Wednesday, the Giants’ pitchers and catchers will report to camp in Scottsdale. So we’re almost there.

This has been such a strange offseason. Usually I’m so excited for “P & C Day.” But right now I’m feeling like “Wait…not yet. The offseason isn’t done!” I’ve been paying attention to the 49ers’ run to the Super Bowl and, to a lesser degree, the three-act play that is the Golden State Warriors’ season. As for the Giants, well, I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop. This can’t be all there is–can it?

But ready or not, camps open this week. So let’s talk about what is, not what we thought might be or what still could be.

 

Non-Roster Invitees

With the exceptions of 2021 (COVID) and 2022 (lockout), we’ve attended spring training every year since 2010. My favorite thing about the trip is getting to see prospects play in the games. In fact, we carefully time our trip for one of the early weekends of March–we’ll be there for the weekend of March 9-10 this year–so that we can see some of the more interesting prospects before they get reassigned to minor league camp. The Scottsdale trip is for prospects and sunshine and, OK, maybe day-drinking a margarita or two.  (SisterLefty would also like me to mention the insanely good chopped salad at Citizen Public House in Old Town Scottsdale. We’re all “We’re going to Scottsdale for a weekend to eat chopped salad!  I mean, to watch the Giants!” )

Best chopped salad ever–Citizen Public House in Scottsdale

 

With my prospect-oriented perspective, I always eagerly anticipate the Giants’ release of their non-roster invitee list for spring training. This seems to be happening later and later these days–I distinctly remember when we’d see the list in the latter part of January–but it finally dropped on Thursday. Feb. 8. And my reaction was “Wow, huh, already? Oh, yeah, I guess it IS time.” As I said, the unfinished business of the offseason is messing with my sense of time.

Anyway, here’s the list.  Compared with previous years, it’s a relatively small list of 25 players, who, of course, will be in major league camp along with the players currently on the 40-man roster. The Giants’ 40-man roster is full at the moment, which has led to speculation that they are postponing free agent signings until Wednesday, when they can stash Alex Cobb (hip surgery) and Robbie Ray (Tommy John surgery) on the 60-day IL.  The NRI list breaks down as follows:

  • 15 pitchers
  • 3 catchers (the Giants also have 4 catchers on the 40-man roster, but you need a lot of catchers in camp to catch bullpens for all those pitchers)
  • 3 infielders
  • 4 outfielders

The most important part of the list by far is the pitchers, and we’ll get to them in a minute. Of the three catchers, the most notable is Adrian Sugastey, a 21-year-old from Panama who is #25 on the Giants’ top-prospect list on MLB.com. Sugastey finished last season at High-A Eugene and played in the Arizona Fall League. He seems to be a hit-first catcher but with a strong arm. The three infielders are not interesting at all unless you count the primal scream I let out when I saw the name Donovan Walton. As for the four outfielders, top-10 prospect Grant McCray, whom the Giants fortunately did not lose in the Rule 5 Draft in December, is one I look forward to seeing in Scottsdale next month.

Now we turn to the 15 pitchers. Six of them are on the latest version of the MLB.com top 30 prospects list. Since these young pitchers, along with the ones who debuted in 2023 (#1 prospect Kyle Harrison, #16 Keaton Winn, and Tristan Beck), appear to be incredibly important to the Giants’ immediate future, let’s get to know them a bit better.

  1. LHP Carson Whisenhunt (#3) was the Giants’ second-round draft pick in 2022. He missed his final college season at East Carolina due to a PEDs suspension, and this caused him to fall in the draft. (The Giants, you’ll remember, picked last in every round that year because they’d had the best record in baseball in 2021. That seems like a million years ago, doesn’t it?) Whisenhunt started the 2023 season in San Jose but quickly moved to Eugene and then to Richmond. He ended up pitching 58.2 total innings before his season ended with a sprained elbow, but they were sensational: a 2.45 ERA with 83 strikeouts and a 1.17 WHIP.
  2. LHP Reggie Crawford (#8) was the Giants’ first-round pick in 2022. Drafted as a two-way player, his path to the majors appears to be as a pitcher, and on the Giants’ NRI list, he appears only as a pitcher. Crawford was recovering from Tommy John surgery when the Giants drafted him, so they handled him with kid gloves in 2023. He only threw 19 innings combined for San Jose and Eugene, but they were impressive: 2.84 ERA and 32 strikeouts. He can hit 100 MPH on the gun and may profile as a high-leverage lefty reliever in the future.
  3. RHP Mason Black (#9) was the Giants’ third-round pick in the 2021 draft. He split his 2023 season between Richmond and Sacramento and ended up with 155 strikeouts over in 123.2 innings. Because he’s already put in time in AAA and is more stretched out than the other young guys on the list, he may be among the most likely to make his MLB debut this year or even to surprise people and crack the Opening Day roster.
  4. RHP Hayden Birdsong (#10) was the Giants’ sixth-round draft pick in 2022, a year where the Giants went extremely pitching-heavy, drafting only one position player (Wade Meckler) in the first ten rounds. Birdsong, 24, also shot through the system like Whisenhunt did, starting in San Jose and ending the year in Richmond. In 100.2 innings, he had 149 strikeouts.
  5. RHP Landon Roupp (#15) was the Giants’ 12th-round pick in 2021. He made a sensational pro debut in 2022, ending that season in AA Richmond, but he appears to have been injured for part of 2023, as he only appeared in 10 games and 31 innings. Over his pro career, he has pitched 146.1 innings with a 2.4 ERA and 208 strikeouts.
  6. RHP Carson Seymour (#23) is the only one on this list who was not drafted by Giants. He was obtained in the 2022 trade that sent Darin Ruf to the Mets for J.D. Davis, LHP Thomas Szapucki (who is also a NRI this year, attempting a comeback after thoracic outlet surgery), and Nick Zwack (who spent last year in AA Richmond). Seymour spent all of last season with AA Richmond, throwing 112.2 innings with 114 strikeouts and a 3.99 ERA.

 

In addition to the six top-30 prospects on the NRI list, a couple of other notable names are righty reliever Nick Avila and LHP Daulton Jefferies. Avila is interesting for two reasons. First, the Giants lost him in the 2022 Rule 5 Draft, but he was then returned by the White Sox right before the 2023 season began. Second, Avila pitched the whole 2023 season in Sacramento and had a 14-0 (!!!) W-L record, which you won’t be surprised to hear led all of the minor leagues. All of Avila’s wins, however, were “vulture” wins, awarded because River Cats’ starters almost never went five innings to qualify for a win. So in would come Avila in the fourth inning or so, and if the River Cats had the lead, he’d get the win. To be fair, though, he had a good year: 3.00 ERA (which is exceptional these days in the PCL), and a 1.15 WHIP.

Jefferies, a local guy from Merced who played college ball at Cal, spent parts of three (unimpressive) seasons with the A’s. He missed the 2023 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in September 2022. Other than his local roots and his history with Giants’ manager Bob Melvin (who was still managing the A’s in 2020-21, when Jefferies first debuted), it’s hard to gauge what the Giants especially see in him.

 

So Where Are We?

You might be wondering about now why I’m belaboring this discussion of the NRI list, and your first guess might be “Well, what else does she have to write about this week?” That guess would be accurate, but there’s a little more to it. Because the Giants have done so little in the offseason to date (more on that in a minute), they truly are, at this point, counting on these youngsters, especially the pitchers, to take major steps forward. Last year at this time, the Giants were 7-8 deep with mediocre veteran starting pitchers, so the NRI list wasn’t all that important. All of that “depth” (Alex Wood, Anthony DeSclafani, Ross Stripling, Sean Manaea, and Jakob Junis) is gone now, having signed or been traded elsewhere. The only pitchers remaining from last year’s initial rotation are the injured Cobb and ace Logan Webb.  So the young guys on the 40-man roster (Harrison/Winn/Beck plus new additions Kai-Wei Teng and Trevor McDonald, reliever Erik Miller, and the somehow-still-here Sean Hjelle) and at least some of the NRI pitchers are extremely central to any hopes the Giants have for a meaningful 2024 season.

OK, now let’s review what the Giants have and haven’t done. First, as I outlined in more detail last week, they’ve offloaded a lot of players via trade or free agency. Second, they’ve several free agents: outfielder Jung Hoo Lee, backup catcher Tom Murphy, and RHP Jordan Hicks–and added Ray in a trade. In isolation, none of these moves, neither from the “subtraction” list or the “addition” list, seem like bad moves, even if one is legitimately dubious about Hicks being converted to a starter and cautious about when/how Ray might return. There’s nothing wrong with what they’ve done. They just haven’t done enough. We’ve belabored this quite a bit over the last weeks and months, but the shortstop position still looks very tenuous, with no real backup plan for Marco Luciano, the starting rotation seems thin, at least until Cobb and Ray return, the bullpen has several question marks, they could still use defensive upgrades, and they absolutely could use a middle-of-the-order slugger. Will any of those issues get solved before Opening Day? Right now it feels like…maybe? But probably not?

I’ll finish this by excerpting from a couple of recent external evaluations that echo what I just said. The first is from The Athletic, doing a “report card” on each team’s offseason. The Giants got a “D”:

 

Offseason needs
• Front-end starting pitcher ❌
• Shortstop ❌
• Center fielder ✅
• Right-handed bat ❌
• Left-handed bat ✅
Here’s an excerpt from the write-up:

[A need] was a front-end starting pitcher, and they got more questions than answers, instead. Robbie Ray might be that front-end pitcher, but he won’t be back until the second half. Jordan Hicks gets his chance to stick in a rotation while Alex Cobb and Ray get healthy, and he can become a high-leverage relief arm if the experiment doesn’t work, but the Giants’ rotation outside of Logan Webb has a low, low floor. There’s a high enough ceiling, but it would require a heckuva parlay to reach it.

 

Jung Hoo Lee gives the Giants a charismatic, young and exciting player with athleticism. He slaps the ball all over the field, which makes him a welcome contrast to the lumbering, three-true-outcome heroes the Giants typically feature throughout the lineup, but if he’s the only offensive upgrade, it’ll be a disappointment.

The Athletic also observes that, as of right now, the Giants’ payroll has gone down nearly $33 mil–and that’s notwithstanding a big contract for Lee and picking up Ray’s $25 mil salary.

A “D” may be a harsh grade–as I said, it’s not that the Giants have made bad moves but that they haven’t made enough of them–but I can’t argue with their evaluation of what the Giants needed and what they didn’t get.

The other evaluation was shared the other night by channelclemente, and it’s from Fangraphs:

…the Giants…are spinning their wheels without accomplishing much of anything. They didn’t sign many free agents this year after talking a big game about rebounding from missing out on Aaron Judge by making a huge push for Shohei Ohtani. They’re also spending much less in 2024 than they did in 2023; they’re down nearly $50 million in payroll. They have a below-average infield and a league average outfield, even with the addition of Jung Hoo Lee. Their pitching staff is thin — it’s Logan Webb and then a lot of question marks. Their bullpen is hardly an asset; it’s been intermittently good in recent years thanks to swingmen bulking it up, but a lot of those guys left this winter. Robbie Ray’s eventual return will help, but even then, I don’t like the construction of this team much at all.

 

Surely, this isn’t how the Giants planned it. Their 107-win 2021 campaign was clearly a high-water mark, but it wasn’t supposed to be the last time they contended. Right now, though, this team looks lost at sea…The farm system’s not great, either.

So this is how outside evaluators see the Giants, and it’s…pretty much how I see them, too, at least as of today. This could change a lot in the coming weeks, depending on how the remaining free agent dominoes fall and how the current cast of characters looks in spring training. If Harrison looks like the real deal, if Luciano is raking, if Michael Conforto looks like he’s poised for a great contract year, if the Patrick Bailey/Murphy catching tandem looks rock solid, and if the new manager and coaching staff are exuding great vibes…then maybe we can be more optimistic than it feels appropriate to be right now. The great thing about baseball is that you never know–especially in February.

Meanwhile, enjoy the Super Bowl (GO NINERS) and Valentine’s Day, and Happy Pitchers and Catchers Week!  (As Taylor would say, “Tis the Damn Season.”) Lefty out.