Near the very, very top of the list of things we know about this version of the Giants is that the front office and coaching staff love versatility. They talk about versatility all the time. They seek it in the offseason and in trades. They push players to be more versatile during the spring.
And yet, when Austin Slater -- one of the more intriguing chess pieces Gabe Kapler has -- showed up to Scottsdale Stadium this spring, the Giants told him to put that infield glove away. Gone are the days of wondering if Slater could play second base in a pinch, or maybe a corner spot. Kapler, noting how many infielders are in camp and the fact that Slater has dealt with injuries, said he'll only be an outfielder from now on.
But ... he'll be a versatile outfielder.
"Now, as an outfielder we want him to have versatility and to play all three spots," Kapler added. "And we want to focus some attention on him in center field during this camp."
Slater has played just 3 1/3 innings in center in four seasons in the big leagues, but it's a spot where the Giants are short on depth. Mauricio Dubon is the starter, but also pretty clearly the best backup option at shortstop if Brandon Crawford needs a break for some reason. The Giants did not go out and add a big outfield piece this offseason, instead trading for LaMonte Wade Jr., who could see time in center.
Steven Duggar still is around and brings the best glove, but as Kapler has talked about the position the last couple of weeks, he has mentioned often that Mike Yastrzemski was better out there than the numbers showed and that Slater has the ability to play all three spots. Slater is one of the fastest players on the team and has a good arm, when healthy.
That last part is the key this season. Slater has twice had elbow pain pop up late in a season, and last year he was limited to DH duty the final six weeks because of a flexor strain. Slater tried to rehab in the offseason but said he hit a plateau. He then had a platelet-rich plasma injection that he said got him "pretty close to 100 percent."
Slater is throwing in workouts right now and hoping to pick up where he left off last season, when he briefly became one of Kapler's go-to hitters. Before he got hurt, Slater was batting .347 in 19 games with a 1.111 OPS, four homers and six stolen bases. It was the breakthrough Slater has waited for in recent years as he repeatedly tweaked his swing to better elevate the ball. Asked what the next step is, Kapler said Slater, an option to lead off against left-handers, already is there.
"He took all the steps last year," he said. "When we first started camp we saw him as a platoon bat for us and he was so good that we continued to get him opportunities against right-handed pitching and he had great at-bats against right-handed pitching. They didn't always end with something great happening, but oftentimes he worked good at-bats and looked dangerous against righties as well.
"We want to get him as many reps as possible, but we also want to be cognizant of keeping him healthy. We're just going to try to thread that needle."
Slater's numbers took a slight dip in September, but he still finished with a .282/.408/.506 slash line, powered mostly by his demolition of lefties. He figures to get most of the starts in left field against southpaws, and if he continues to battle righties -- he had a .352 OBP but slugged just .383 -- he could fill a lot of gaps for Kapler.
For a player who still doesn't have a 200-at-bat season, the goal will be staying healthy enough to take advantage of his natural skills. Slater is looking forward to a spring full of work in center, saying he already feels comfortable out there. For once he can focus most of his energy on outfield defense, knowing the super-utility-man experiment is over and the swing changes are a thing of the past.
"The swing feels great," he said. "It feels like I left it in a great spot last year."