The second week of December couldn't have been a comfortable one for Brandon Crawford.
The Giants traded for Zack Cozart -- although they never used him -- and made a run at Didi Gregorius, and when Gabe Kapler sat down in front of reporters at the Winter Meetings, he made a comment that raised some eyebrows.
"Brandon Crawford at times has been a plus defender up the middle," Kapler said. "I think he still has that capability to be a plus defender at shortstop."
It was not exactly a ringing endorsement of the incumbent known for his Gold Glove defense, although the two soon talked to clear any misconceptions. When Crawford reported to camp it was fair to wonder what his role would look like by the end of the year, particularly with Mauricio Dubon also in the mix.
Months later, his role is what it always has been.
Crawford turned in a bounce-back season and played his way out of an early platoon role, and as the Giants head into 2021, there's no doubt that the homegrown star is in line for his 10th consecutive Opening Day start.
There's a curious thing about Crawford's career. No matter the year, or how he's playing, or his health or his playing time, his average always ends up somewhere around .250, which is -- naturally -- his career average through 10 seasons. He hit .248 in his first two full seasons and has others at .253 and .254. In 2020, he hit .256 for the second time, but if you look at all his other numbers, you see a career year at the plate.
Crawford's .326 OBP was the second-highest of his career and his .465 slugging percentage was his best. His OPS+ of 116 was a career-high and his wRC+ of 112 was one point off his previous high.
As for that defense, Crawford was worth two Defensive Runs Saved a year after he registered negative numbers. He ranked 10th among MLB shortstops with three Outs Above Average. Crawford has never been a huge fan of defensive metrics, so let's also just say this: The eye test confirmed that he had another good year with the glove.
Crawford got nearly all of the reps at shortstop, with Dubon, Daniel Robertson and Donovan Solano also being mixed in. The group had a .269/.338/.457 slash line and ranked 11th in MLB in OPS and homers and 16th in fWAR.
The shortened season threw everything out of whack, but still, there probably wasn't any point during the offseason or summer break when you thought Crawford would play nearly nine times the innings at shortstop as Dubon, right?
The biggest surprise here might simply be that nothing really changed. Crawford sat more than normal over the first couple of weeks, with some notable hiccups from others defensively, but by about the middle of August he was back in an everyday role. It was no coincidence that the league's worst defense turned it around once Crawford got more playing time, with Evan Longoria and Brandon Belt coming back from early injuries, as well.
Dubon made just six starts at shortstop and didn't play an inning there after Aug. 15. That was certainly a surprise. Robertson, picked up from the Rays, ended up being the platoon partner with 37 innings at short in September.
This is more of a general complaint than a Giants complaint, but it's really a bummer that MLB doesn't find a way to release more information about top prospects. Have you seen a Marco Luciano clip since July? Nope.
Luciano is the best Giants prospect since Buster Posey, a potential superstar who was a standout through Summer Camp. There were some clips and photos that leaked out then from the team and beat writers, but there were no highlights from the alternate site and the Instructional League going on right now might as well be being played on Pluto.
At a time when every top middle school point guard or freshman running back has a dozen mix tapes and tens of thousands of Instagram followers, would it kill MLB teams to send out the occasional clip of someone like Luciano hitting a long homer or making a throw from deep in the hole? Maybe get your fans excited about the future? Is this so difficult?
Crawford always had solid power for a shortstop, but he took a leap in 2020. He homered once every 45 at-bats last year, but this year it was once every 21.5 at-bats. Even in 2015, when he hit 21 homers, Crawford only put one out once every 24.1 at-bats.
Crawford improved his exit velocity and launch angle, but not drastically. The biggest adjustment might have simply been his mindset. Crawford swung at the first pitch 49.7 percent of the time, the highest mark of his career by seven points and about 10 points above his career average. When swinging at the first pitch, he was 14-for-27 with four homers.
Prospect to Watch
The most important part of Luciano's development in 2020 might have been the fact that, by all accounts, he should be able to stay at shortstop. The 19-year-old had a very strong Summer Camp and did well at the alternate site in Sacramento, with team officials saying he showed increased maturity and really soaked up knowledge from older players, particularly when it came to developing a daily routine.
There's no question about Luciano's talent and makeup, and he could be a top 10 prospect across the game by the time players report to Scottsdale in February. The only real question right now is where the Giants start him next season. Luciano played just nine games in Salem-Keizer last summer, and the next step is generally Augusta. But development plans were thrown out the window in 2020, and Farhan Zaidi has said he'll be aggressive with prospects next season.
Given the strides Luciano made over the summer, it seems like a no-brainer to send him to San Jose as a 19-year-old and go from there. Could he be in the big leagues at some point next year? Juan Soto went from A-ball to the majors in 2018, so it's not impossible, but it's a much safer bet to assume Luciano spends next year in High-A and Double-A, setting up a 2022 debut.
The 2021 Plan
Crawford needs just 53 appearances at shortstop to pass Travis Jackson and set the franchise record, and while there may have been some doubt about that mark a year ago at this time, he's now just about a lock to get there next summer. As he goes into the final season of a five-year extension, Crawford once again has a stranglehold on the job, but there are a couple of questions moving forward.
For 2021, will the Giants have more of a platoon at short? Crawford wasn't completely hidden from lefties like some other Giants regulars, but his OPS was 200 points higher against righties, and he'll need more rest over 162 than he got over 60. Whether it's Dubon getting back in the mix or Robertson or someone else, the Giants will find a matchup play at short.
The bigger question comes next offseason. Crawford showed he still has plenty left in the tank, but his contract ends after next season and Luciano should be just about ready by then. There will be decisions to be made on both sides, but as of now, the Giants look a lot more comfortable at shortstop than they did when Kapler sat down at that podium last December.