Darin Ruf

Giants roster breakdown: Familiar names could get pushed by additions

Giants roster breakdown: Familiar names could get pushed by additions

The Giants took the field Sunday afternoon for infield drills, and for a second all looked normal. Well, kind of.

Evan Longoria was at third base, Brandon Crawford was at short, Donovan Solano was at second -- and Gabe Kapler was scooping balls at first base. It was an interesting sight, but Kapler was just helping out as Brandon Belt stood about 15 yards away working on gloving balls hit between first and second.

Move Belt over a few feet and you have the potential starting infield. The Giants are more set here than anywhere else, but they still will have plenty of variations when it comes to their infield. Belt could cede time to right-handed hitters. Solano will be joined at second by Mauricio Dubon, Yolmer Sanchez and Wilmer Flores. Crawford could find himself splitting time with a right-handed hitter, and Longoria could give plenty of starts up to left-handed bats.

The Giants have a lot of options. They also have a lot of infielders who seem locked onto the roster. Here's a rundown:

The Ones You Know

Belt is looking at his 10th consecutive Opening Day in the Giants lineup and Crawford his ninth. This is their first year under Kapler, though, and that could mean a key change. With a new regime fully in place, the Giants are going all-in on platoons. Both Brandons have had years when they've handled lefties well, but last year Belt had a .664 OPS against them and Crawford was at .598. That won't fly under Farhan Zaidi, Scott Harris and Kapler. Belt could lose starts to Wilmer Flores and Darin Ruf, and Crawford has Mauricio Dubon looming. It's a division with a lot of lefty starters, so it'll be interesting to see just how far the Giants go with splitting time.

Longoria could be in the same situation. He hit 14 homers against righties last year but had just a .303 OBP and .419 slugging percentage. Pablo Sandoval is fully healed from Tommy John surgery and could soak up some of those at-bats. Over the weekend, Sandoval became the most talked-about player in camp. He appears to have put on weight since the spring, but Kapler downplayed any concern Sunday.

"In this particular case, what we've all noticed about Pablo is that the ball is jumping off his bat, that his throws have nice carry," Kapler said. "He's demonstrated that he's healthy. That's the most important thing. Look, he's not going to bat leadoff for us (but) the expectation with Pablo Sandoval is he slugs, he drives the baseball, he's a good DH candidate for us, he's got nice soft hands. All of those things are present in camp and those are the things we're going to be focusing on."

Solano hit a very under-the-radar .330 last year and seems headed for more starts at second base, where Dubon ended last year as the potential long-term starter. Now, the Giants want to use Dubon all over the field. He's the best shortstop of the right-handed-hitting second basemen, so he could play a lot there against lefties. Dubon also looks like a good bet to get plenty of starts in center field.

[GIANTS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

The Newcomers

In early March, it looked like Sanchez vs. Solano could be a tough roster decision, but the Giants now can carry both, with the Gold Glove-winning Sanchez a nice piece on a roster that values versatility. He switch-hits and has a lot of big league experience at third base, with the ability to play short, too. Sanchez was just 3-for-26 this spring, but the Giants restructured his deal last weekend to keep him on the roster, and all indications are that he'll be at Dodger Stadium on Opening Day.

Flores became the first player to sign a multi-year deal with the Giants under Zaidi after posting a .317/.361/.487 slash line with the Arizona Diamondbacks last year. He's not a good defender, but he can play second and first, and he looms as a potential platoon partner with Belt. Flores' experience should also make him a nice pinch-hit option for Kapler late in games.

The Sleeper

Look, we've all seen older hitters come into Giants camp and have a huge spring, only to bust once the season started. Remember Chris Marrero?

Ruf was 12-for-28 in the Cactus League with three homers, five doubles and a triple, and he ironically has been helped by the long layoff. While the non-roster invitee waited for this all to get sorted out, MLB added a DH and four more roster spots, making Ruf a near-lock for the opener because of a very specific skill. The 33-year-old has a .921 career OPS against lefties (for comparison's sake, Pete Alonso was at .941 in his magical rookie year) and Zaidi and Kapler have talked him up as a DH option.

Kapler brought up Ruf on Sunday when talking about the day's standouts, saying he had nice at-bats against lefty Andrew Suarez. He later said he wants Ruf to get comfortable at first base and in the outfield. If he hits lefties as he did in Philadelphia for so many years, Ruf could get a lot of at-bats.

The Depth

Abiatal Avelino and Zach Green would have started this season with Triple-A Sacramento and now likely will spend their summer up there as injury replacements. Both have big league experience, but they're still younger than you'd think; Green is 26 and Avelino is 25. There's time for each to still carve out a big league role at some point.

Green is particularly intriguing. He hit 25 homers in 252 at-bats in Triple-A last year and only an injury kept him from seeing time in the big leagues down the stretch. He was right there with Ruf this spring, going 7-for-16 with three homers. 

[RELATED: Cueto, Samardzija lead experienced rotation]

The Future

Over the holiday weekend, the Giants added Luis Toribio and Will Wilson to their player pool. Toribio is a sweet-swinging lefty who plays third base and posted a .433 OBP in his first full minor league season. The Giants chose Hunter Bishop over Wilson last year in the first round, then scooped up the latter in December by taking on the Zack Cozart contract from the Los Angeles Angels. Maybe they would have felt differently had they known Cozart's salary would be so out of whack this year, but they're still thrilled to have Wilson, who is in camp with college teammate Patrick Bailey.

The final infielder in camp might be the most exciting player in the whole organization. Marco Luciano is just 18, but after posting a .302/.417/.564 slash line in rookie ball he stands as a top 20 prospect in all of baseball. You'll find evaluators who think Luciano will be a top-five prospect next spring.

Luciano will spend his season working on his game in Sacramento, but he's apparently making the most of a couple of weeks at Oracle Park. Someone who was at the early workout (media wasn't allowed) Sunday told me Luciano put on a show in BP, prompting a couple of older players to ask who the guy in the batter's box was. Bench coach Kai Correa confirmed that the display was electric:

MLB 2020 season rule changes, oddities for Giants: Everything to know

MLB 2020 season rule changes, oddities for Giants: Everything to know

Baseball is back! 

The question now is how long it lasts. 

The Giants will report to Oracle Park next week for the start of Spring Training 2.0, which will kick off not with a round of BP, but of tests for COVID-19. 

It's a whole new world the sport is jumping into, and it's understandable if you have a lot of questions. The owners and players spent months exchanging proposals before MLB finally announced a 60-game season, and there was a lot of confusion in the process.

Here, I'll try and provide some answers ... 

Wait, is this safe?

That's the biggest question facing the game, and really always has been, even as owners and players bickered for three months. The Giants tried to be safe, tried to practice social distancing and keep everything clean -- but on Friday they had to shut down their Scottsdale Stadium facility after a player showed coronavirus symptoms. The tests came back negative, but real fear remains. 

There are a lot of people within the game who would prefer not to play this season, citing massive upticks in positive test results and hospitalizations in cities getting ready to welcome 60 baseball players and dozens of coaches and staffers. On Wednesday, as the Giants were preparing to send out a press release stating that Spring Training 2.0 would be held at Oracle Park, the governor of California was sounding alarm bells. Gavin Newsom said COVID-19 cases increased 69 percent in California from Sunday to Tuesday.

"We've seen a lot of those numbers are reflected in increases in the Bay Area," Newsom said. "That's part of the state that's moved last into this new phase. They have moved more slowly and now have experienced an increase in the last number of days."

What are the Giants going to do about that?

While they haven't released full details, the Giants are planning to build new batting cages and bullpens at Oracle Park to spread players out and use both clubhouses. They have talked of changing air filtration systems and turning existing rooms into auxiliary clubhouses and gathering spaces for players and coaches. Manager Gabe Kapler told NBC Sports Bay Area that he expects to wear a mask during games. Players will be tested for COVID-19 at least every other day, and likely much more than that.

"We're going to have some level of confidence that the people in the building are not ill and don't have the virus," Kapler said on the Giants Insider Podcast. "Now, it's not a guarantee and so that's why we really have to respect social distancing, use personal protection, our masks, and we just have to be cognizant of staying separated whenever possible."

How will they enforce all of that?

At last check, the guidebook given by MLB is 108 pages and covers everything from spitting to shower preferences. But there will be gaps, and team officials expect to adjust on the fly. 

The bigger concern is life away from the ballpark. This is no bubble, like the NBA is doing, and teams have no choice but to trust that players will take the proper precautions elsewhere. That more than anything is the major concern in baseball circles. All it takes is a couple of players going to a bar after a game and being exposed to the coronavirus and you might see half your roster get taken off the field within a few days. 

What will those rosters look like?

Each team will start with 30 players, with 30 more on a taxi squad. After 15 days, the active roster will be down to 28. A month into the season it will be the now-standard 26. Three taxi squad members can travel to road games but one must be an extra catcher. The Giants hope to carry some of their top prospects on the taxi squad so they have somewhere to play all summer. One lock is Joey Bart, who will be involved but likely won't be on the opening day roster. 

Wait, what about the minor leagues?

That season is unofficially canceled already, but there's some talk that the Arizona Fall League could be massively expanded or new instructional leagues could pop up. The Giants hold a development camp for minor leaguers in January and that could be a popular solution for clubs. 

What does the schedule look like?

To limit travel, the Giants will play 10 games apiece against the Dodgers, Padres, Diamondbacks and Rockies and six against the A's, their geographical rival. The rest will be against AL West opponents. That's not great for their hopes. The Astros and A's should be two of the better teams in baseball, the Rangers are improved, and the Angels have a loaded lineup. 

What does the playoff race look like?

Chaos.

That's what we're looking at here, but it just might be the ladder for some less talented teams to get into the postseason. The Giants, for instance, hope to platoon and mix-and-match their way into a late September race. Even a .500 start over the first month would put them right there over the final four 30 games, and remember, as mediocre as last year's team was, the Giants were the hottest team in the majors in July.

It has never been more important to get off to a hot start, and last year's 60-game standings prove it. 

A year ago at the 37 percent mark, the eventual champion Nationals were nowhere near the postseason. They famously started 19-31 before getting hot. The A's and Cardinals also would have been left out, and Kapler's Phillies would have been champions of the NL East. In 2018, the A's, Dodgers and Rockies -- eventual playoff teams -- were all on the outside through 60 games. 

Remember how crazy hot the Mariners were in 2018? Maybe not, because they didn't make the playoffs, but through 60 games they were AL West champs.

Anything can happen over 60 games, so prepare for the wildest playoff race you've seen, with the real possibility that there are multiple play-in games just to figure out the division winners and wild card spots. 

Important sidebar: Can Pablo pitch?

Technically, yes. MLB will reverse a new rule limiting how position players can pitch. Sandoval is 100 percent healthy, but you won't see him on the mound, not after Tommy John surgery.

I'm a longtime Giants fan, which other rules am I going to hate?

The DH has come to the National League, and the Giants expect most of those at-bats to go to Hunter Pence, Alex Dickerson, Sandoval or lefty-masher Darin Ruf. That'll take some getting used to, but it's necessary for health reasons. Starting pitchers aren't expected to go more than three or four innings initially, so MLB is trying to limit the number of times relievers take hacks after not grabbing a bat for three months. 

That sucks for one baseball writer in particular:

The bigger concern for most fans may be extra innings. MLB is adopting the minor league rule, meaning a runner will be placed on second from the 10th inning on. It's lame, but it could provide a big edge for the Giants. 

[RELATED: Billy Hamilton could provide advantage for Giants]

Speaking of the fans, will they be allowed at games?

I was asked this about a dozen times on Twitter right when baseball returned, and was initially surprised. But I understand that there's a lot of confusion about which businesses are open and which ones are not. 

Teams do not expect to have fans at games this season, and if the trend lines keep going the way they are, there's a good chance the 2021 season starts without fans, too. The Giants already have pushed back all events involving big ovations. For 2020 at least, you'll need the TV broadcast to watch your Giants. 

Farhan Zaidi explains why Giants likely to stay 'in-house' for DH

Farhan Zaidi explains why Giants likely to stay 'in-house' for DH

The Giants spent every day of the offseason going over possibilities for 2020, and by the time they reported to Scottsdale in February, they felt they had a pretty good idea of what their Opening Day roster would look like, how they would manage platoons, and how they could get creative with their pitching staff. 

Over those hundreds of hours of conversation and simulation, they never could have pictured the current roster discussion. A global pandemic has shut down the sport, shortened the season, and led to the introduction of the designated hitter in the National League, likely for good. 

It has long been a lock that the universal DH would be part of any sort of 2020 season, and while the owners and players don't agree on much, they seem aligned on keeping that in place through next season. The collective bargaining agreement expires after that and it has generally been assumed within the game that a universal DH would be put in place as part of the next agreement. 

On Wednesday's "Chalk Talk at Home" YouTube show, broadcaster Jon Miller brought that possibility up to president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi. 

"I think that's a fair, logical train of thought to have," Zaidi said. "I could certainly see it going that way."

The Giants didn't prepare for having a DH in 2020 -- and it certainly will be a slight disadvantage if they do end up playing the AL West a lot -- but they have some easy solutions. Hunter Pence and Alex Dickerson were set to platoon in left, but both could use breaks from the physical strains of playing the field. Zaidi mentioned Pence as an option, along with Pablo Sandoval, who will be fully recovered from Tommy John surgery if the season resumes.

Zaidi also twice brought up a veteran who came back from South Korea and entered Giants camp as a non-roster invitee, going 12-for-28 with three homers and five doubles in Cactus League action.

"With some of the performances we were getting in spring training you were wondering how we were going to get at-bats for everybody, and this may create opportunity," Zaidi said. "Take a guy like Darin Ruf, whose primary position is first base and we obviously have Brandon Belt over there. Maybe this opens up more at-bats for him."

Ruf is particularly appealing against left-handed starters, and the NL West is full of them. Over five previous big league seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies, he never established himself as a full-time starter, but Ruf did post a .299/.379/.542 slash line against left-handed pitching. He could be a big part of the DH mix.

"I think we're going to stay in-house," Zaidi said. 

(A quick note on that: It does not necessarily preclude a run at Yasiel Puig, who would be signed as a true outfielder, not a DH option.)

[GIANTS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]


Regardless of what the Giants do, this will be a huge adjustment for fans and an organization that watched Madison Bumgarner launch bombs for the past decade. Long-term, Zaidi and general manager Scott Harris will have to put together rosters with a slightly different look, although they've always had that in the back of their minds. 

When the Giants took a catcher in the first round for the second time in three years by drafting Patrick Bailey, Zaidi mentioned that having a DH down the line could help ease the logjam. But it's still something that'll take some getting used to.

[RELATED: Giants could benefit from this aspect of shortened season]

"I spent the first 10 years of my MLB career in the AL (with the A's) and was a little bit of a DH snob," Zaidi said. "Since then I've really seen the light. I love the National League style of play, I love the strategy that goes into it, the fact that every time you have a rally it seems to funnel to that pitcher's spot. Managers have decisions to make and the pitchers that can swing the bat give you a huge advantage. I think there's just a lot of fun strategy-wise. I've learned to really appreciate that style of play, but there's another side to this. 

"It obviously creates more offense, it lengthens the career for some guys who maybe get to the point of their career where they can't go out and play a position every day but they can still hit, and that's something that fans want to see. It's going to change the strategy a little bit for us but it's something that the players, from the sounds of it want, and I think it's certainly manageable for us."