In January, all things are possible, especially when it’s major league baseball we’re talking about. In the NFL, you don’t see teams that were 2-15 the year before turn it around and win the Super Bowl the next. True upsets in the NBA playoffs–think eight seeds upsetting one seeds–are extremely rare. (In fact, if I’m not mistaken, the 2007 Golden State Warriors still are the only team to ever do it.)
In baseball, though? Plenty of worst-to-first stories (examples: 1996-97 Giants, 2012-13 Red Sox) or mediocre-to-sublime (2013-14 Giants, 2020-21 Giants). Baseball is a team sport and the season is long. Prohibitive preseason favorites can be felled by underachievement and injuries, and teams that were predicted by everyone to go nowhere can find a serendipitous combination of emerging prospects, veteran free agents who find a new home or a second wind, no-names having career years, and some pixie dust combination of good decision-making and luck. We don’t have to go too far back into Giants’ lore to find such a team.
The smart money is on the 2023 Giants being no better than the extremely disappointing 2022 team and perhaps even a bit worse. But “smart money” still refers to gambling, and the point of gambling is that there are no sure things. So what are the possibilities, good and bad, for the 2023 Giants?
Take the Over
Fangraphs released its ZiPS projections for the 2023 Giants this past week, and they were…surprisingly bullish. In fact, the writeup began thus: “The Giants are a good team.” (Here is an introduction to the ZiPS system by Dan Szymborski, who created it nearly 20 years ago, if you’re curious. Here’s the tl:dr version from the MLB.com glossary.) Szymborski went on to predict that the Giants will be an 85-90 win team, and yes, please. That would definitely keep me entertained through the long, hot summer.
So why does he make such an optimistic claim? Let’s look a bit deeper. Here’s what he says:
The Giants are solid just about everywhere (ZiPS is uneasy at catcher) and they have depth at nearly every position should injuries strike.
Well, that’s…a way to look at things, isn’t it? And you know–he’s right. Their roster is full of major leaguers with legitimate track records. Even the most borderline of those, such as David Villar, Thairo Estrada, LaMonte Wade Jr., and Joey Bart, have the back of a baseball card to look at now. Let’s review where things stand at the moment, at least as far as we know.
C (2): Bart, [Austin Wynns–assumed, at least until we hear something different]
IF(6): Wade Jr., Wilmer Flores, Estrada, Brandon Crawford, Villar, J.D. Davis
OF(4-5): Mitch Haniger, Mike Yastrzemski, Austin Slater, Michael Conforto, [Joc Pederson–really a DH]
Rotation(5-6): Logan Webb, Alex Cobb, Ross Stripling, Sean Manaea, Alex Wood, Anthony DeSclafani (more on there being six of them below)
Bullpen(7-8): Camilo Doval, Taylor Rogers, Tyler Rogers, John Brebbia, Scott Alexander, Jakob Junis + one more (I’m going to predict either Thomas Szapucki or Sam Long for now) + possibly another one from the rotation
If you look at that list, and I think it’s a pretty good guess at this point–it is “solid.” Not “spectacular,” but–solid. As I wrote last week, I think this is a well balanced collection of sluggers that could generate a lot of power. And, other than at catcher, Szymborski is also right that there is “depth.” Seven starters (counting Junis) likely to be on the major league roster on Opening Day (barring injuries). At least three more in the wings in AAA (Sean Hjelle and Tristan Beck, who are both on the 40, and top prospect Kyle Harrison). If nothing else, we shouldn’t have to see as much “opener” and “bullpen game” nonsense in 2023. Further, that rotational depth should help the bullpen, which got seriously overworked last season. The bullpen listed above will have a bonafide closer in Doval, another experienced one in Taylor Rogers, a couple of good set-up men in Brebbia and Tyler Rogers, and one or two long men in Junis and perhaps another from the starting pitcher list. At this point I’d guess that Szapucki will beat out Sam Long for the final bullpen spot because he’s out of options, but we’ll see. In any case, there will be more bullpen arms available in AAA (from the 40-man: Long, Cole Waites, Hjelle, Beck, and maybe others, depending where newer additions like Keaton Winn, Jose Cruz, and Randy Rodriguez are placed).
The outfield seems a bit thin if injuries strike, and it’s not like Haniger and Conforto don’t have substantial and recent injury histories. On the major league roster, there is Pederson (shudder) and Wade Jr. (less of a shudder than Pederson, but that’s not saying much), and on the 40-man, there’s only Heliot Ramos, who has quite a bit to prove before he gets a legitimate run in the major leagues, and Luis Gonzalez, who seems likely to start the year in AAA. (I don’t know what to think about Rule 5 Guy Blake Sabol, who’s listed as OF/C. There doesn’t seem to be a spot for him on this roster.)
We all know that we have to light candles and pray for 36-year-old Crawford to stay healthy and rediscover that same Fountain of Youth he found in 2021. Behind him and Estrada in the middle infield are…well, no one on the major league roster, unless you count Flores or Villar as guys who can play 2B in a pinch. On the 40-man, there is Brett Wisely, acquired in the fall in a trade, but he’s out of options, so…and Isan Diaz, who can play a bit of SS, but… The Giants still have Will Wilson, who was not protected from the Rule 5 Draft but also wasn’t claimed, and top prospect Casey Schmitt, who’s primarily a 3B but played some SS in high A last year. It’s a precarious situation.
And, of course, the catcher situation as of today is worse than “precarious”–it’s downright negligent. Grant Brisbee wrote a piece about this in The Athletic a week or two back, basically saying “OK, maybe the offseason wasn’t snazzy, but it was mostly OK…except for this one thing–and it’s a pretty important thing.” I’m willing to eat the words I’m about to type if Farhan Zaidi comes up with some great solution to this catcher situation between now and Opening Day, but right now, it looks like what is becoming typical Zaidi hubris: We can just pick up some guy off the scrap heap, put a coat of paint on him, and we’ll be fine. (Other examples: “Darin Ruf is a middle-of-the-order everyday player”; “Yermin Mercedes is fine in left field”; “We’ll just go get some guy from the Cubs’ AAA team if both our shortstops are hurt at the same time”; and I could go on.)
Anyway, so the team is “solid” and it has “depth.” If you look at the ZiPS projections for the hitters who are likely to be on the Opening Day major league roster, the projections are for all of them to be at over 100 OPS+ (which is league average) except for Crawford (99, which is close enough) and Bart (84, aargh). The rest of them range from 103 (Estrada) to 113 (Davis!), with a bunch clumped around 110-112. Again, that is not flashy, but that’s a lot of “solid depth” among the everyday hitters. The WAR leader is predicted to be Yastrzemski at 2.7. He also led the Giants in position player WAR in 2022.
As for starting pitchers, the predicted WARs are as you would expect: Webb (3.7), Cobb (2.3), Stripling (1.9), Wood (1.9), DeSclafani (1.9), Junis (1.1), Manaea (1.0). Again, not flashy, but “solid depth.” Here is Szymborski’s conclusion:
I think the Giants are an 85-90 win team, which is close enough to possibly win the division. Still, I suspect that a surprise NL West title would come more from disasters in Los Angeles and San Diego than this team’s upside. It’s a real shame that Correa didn’t work out, because it was just about the perfect signing for them. Unfortunately for the Giants, ZiPS being off by 30 wins in 2021 isn’t actually predictive of future overachieving.
I think this is an optimistic but arguably fair take. Things would have to break right. Crawford and Bart can’t get hurt, someone’s going to have to be able to field the ball at first base, the sluggers need to slug–you get the idea. The balanced schedule, which limits their exposure to the juggernauts down south, should help a bit, even if their April schedule is horrendous.
Take the Under
As I said above, everything would have to break right for the 85-90 win prediction to come true or even close. There are a couple of ways in which things could break very wrong, and you don’t have to look too far to find them. These are somewhat in order of importance, though it’s hard to tease them out because everything’s connected (e.g., bad defense extends innings, which leads to short starter outings, which burns out the bullpen, and the hip bone is connected to the thigh bone…).
- The defense: In an episode of Giants Talk and in Andrew Baggarly’s “Mailbagg” column this week, the beat writers made the very fair point that the front office failed to deliver on what they explicitly said was their top offseason priority: to improve the defense up the middle (and to get younger and more athletic in so doing). Yes, they may have incrementally improved the outfield defense by (hopefully) removing Joc Pederson from it, but otherwise, the “defense up the middle” (Bart, Crawford, Estrada, Yastrzemski, Slater) is exactly the same as it was, player-for-player, as it was the day the 2022 season ended. As for getting “younger,” they cut ties with Evan Longoria and Brandon Belt, but it’s hard to argue that either of those decisions will lead to improved infield defense. As we saw last season, bad defense can poison everything else. In the Giants Talk episode, Alex Pavlovic and Cole Kuiper were musing that the “strategy,” according to manager Gabe Kapler, is that the same guys “need to be more athletic” or as Cole put it, “catch the ball better.” Alex did mention that he’d seen Joc Pederson in person at last week’s 49ers game and that Joc appeared to be in better shape. But “catch the ball better” sounds more like wishful thinking than a plan.
- The rotation: OK, I just said above that the rotation has “solid depth”–and they do. That’s good. But they’re also lacking the top-of-rotation presence next to Webb after the departures of Kevin Gausman after 2021 and Carlos Rodon after 2022. Is it good enough? With a better bullpen that’s not overworked behind them and maybe more run support from the increased presence of sluggers–maybe it’s good enough, at least to have a competitive regular season. For a possible postseason run, though?–For that, I’d think either someone on the list needs to be a big surprise, or Kyle Harrison needs to channel Madison Bumgarner’s rookie postseason in 2010, or…some amazing trade that I can’t really imagine right now (Ohtani? LOL).
- OK, more about the rotation: What about those six guys? Alex and Cole discussed this in the second Giants Talk episode this week. The “correct” answer is that “these things tend to work themselves out”–e.g., DeSclafani might need more time to ramp up before starting the season, someone else gets injured–but Alex thinks it’s possible they’ll actually go with a six-man rotation if everyone’s healthy, including giving Webb extra rest. He points out that most of the starters were signed to contracts to be starters (with the exception of Webb, all of them are on two- or three-year deals for starter money and will expect to start). Wood and DeSclafani both have previous experience/success out of the bullpen in their pre-Giants days, but you’d think they’d want Wood in the rotation to get another lefty in the mix in addition to Manaea, and DeSclafani was not signed to a pricey three-year deal to be the long guy in the bullpen. This is where “depth” could conceivably be a weakness, if they feel pressured to keep pitchers in the rotation to avoid grumbling. I don’t see Webb pitching less frequently as a positive development. In a spring camp where there are likely to be few surprises, this is an interesting development to watch.
- The catching situation: I mean…seriously. Grant is right. Everything else could be going swimmingly, and an injury to Bart or Wynns could lead to an immediate crisis. Are we really OK with “TBD” as the answer to ‘who’s the next catcher up if someone gets injured?'” And bear in mind that Wynns is not actually even on the 40-man roster as of this moment, though we assume that’s temporary (until reliever Luke Jackson can be put on the 60-day IL during spring training).
Go Niners! (And it’s almost baseball season)
Like the rest of the Bay Area, I’ve been so excited about the 49ers in the playoffs (and secondarily puzzled by the enigmatic Golden State Warriors) that it’s honestly snuck up on me how close we are to baseball season. I think there’s more to it, though–I think it’s that this is the first “normal” baseball offseason in four years, so I kind of forgot what it feels like. But one week from today, Fan Fest will happen at Oracle Park. In less than three weeks, players will start reporting to Scottsdale. And six weeks from today, MrLefty, BrotherLefty, SisterLefty, and Brother-in-LawLefty will be there (for the first time since 2020, right before everything shut down)!
It’s been a long, strange offseason, but I’m getting excited about having real baseball to watch and to read and write about. And go Niners! Lefty out.