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Posey among Giants group helping Rule 5 pick Sabol settle in

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The dry erase board on the concourse at Scottsdale Stadium was not wiped clean after the final game of the Arizona Fall League season. It survived the winter weather and a night of thunderstorms earlier this week, so if one of the new Giants takes a short walk from his locker, he'll see his name in the lineup, batting sixth and playing catcher.

Blake Sabol was in Scottsdale last fall as a Pittsburgh Pirates prospect, hopeful that he would be added to their 40-man roster. He returned this week having reached that goal, although he did it with the Giants, who technically are his third big league organization in the last four months. Sabol was taken by the Cincinnati Reds with the fourth pick of the annual Rule 5 Draft at the Winter Meetings in December, but before he could start thinking about buying a Joe Burrow jersey or whether he would actually try Skyline Chili, he was traded to the Giants

"A Cincinnati Reds legend," Sabol said earlier this week, laughing. "I never lost a game in a Reds uniform."

While a 100-loss team would seem to offer a much easier path for a 25-year-old chasing his MLB debut, Sabol is in Giants camp with a real shot to put himself in the mix on Opening Day. Both president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi and manager Gabe Kapler said this week that the catching competition is truly wide open, with four players competing for two spots and the ensuing playing time.

 

Joey Bart is the only true catcher on the 40-man roster and comes in with an edge, and veterans Roberto Perez and Austin Wynns offer similar glove-first profiles. Sabol is a wild card. He's the only left-handed option in the group and has an intriguing resume as a minor league hitter, but he has just 93 starts behind the plate as a professional.

When Sabol was acquired, Kapler and his staff put together a plan to -- as Kapler put it -- make sure Sabol wasn't "drinking from a firehose" at the start of spring training. They wanted him to get to know the staff before camp opened, so Sabol was given numbers for just about all of the pitchers he will be expected to pair up with if he makes the team. Last week, he also was put in touch with Buster Posey. 

The connection was a natural one for a staff that has the best catcher in franchise history as part of the ownership group. Sabol said he spoke to Posey for about 45 minutes, with some of the lessons being things he never had thought of before. 

"The biggest thing I took away from it is the body language," Sabol said. "He told me the cool thing about catcher is that every position faces you, so if you miss a block or you strike out, you've got to be the same guy, because the entire game, everyone on defense and on the mound is staring in your direction. They're seeing how you react. He was like, 'I'm telling you, when things went sideways in my career but I was able to keep my head up and it didn't affect me, my teammates rallied around me. They were like, it's okay, we're good.'

"I think that's something for me to keep an eye on," Sabol continued. "It made sense to me. I had never really thought about it, that everyone is staring at me and they're looking to the catcher for guidance."

It may be hard for Sabol to come anywhere close to matching Posey's stoicism. Sabol has an outgoing personality and has had a smile on his face throughout camp, but he knows that he's here to work on the most complicated position on the field. It's not uncommon for teams to try and put good athletes behind the plate after the draft, but Sabol did take a somewhat unusual path back to the squat. 

Sabol grew up about 20 minutes from Angel Stadium and was an All-American in high school before playing at USC. As he prepared for the draft, the message from pro scouts was consistent: He was a good enough athlete to move to the outfield, where his bat might allow him to move quickly. 

The Pirates now have two of the top 10 catching prospects in the game, but before the 2021 MLB season, their cupboard was bare and they were looking for players who could make a position change. Sabol, drafted as an outfielder, heard that a teammate who had never caught before was being asked to move. He always regretted making a position change, so he got in touch with farm director John Baker. 

 

"Hey, I'd love to throw my hat in the ring," Sabol told him. "I saw you guys are looking for a catcher."

"In all my years of baseball, you're probably the only person that's volunteered to play catcher," Baker replied. 

Sabol started 28 games behind the plate in 2021 and then 65 last year, when he ranked as the second-best pitch-framer in the organization. That ability is one thing that caught the Giants' eye, along with his success at the plate. In three minor league seasons, Sabol has a .372 on-base percentage and .478 slugging percentage. 

"He's been a really good offensive player in the minor leagues, and our hitting coaches are really excited about what they've seen so far," Zaidi said. "He's done a good job and Kap and the staff have set him up well to develop relationships with the pitchers, because that's probably the most important thing at that position as a rookie, that our pitchers are comfortable throwing to him. He's done a lot of work there in the offseason and the early days leading up to the official start to camp."

Sabol twice visited Scottsdale in January to catch guys like Logan Webb and Anthony DeSclafani. He burned through the cell numbers the Giants gave him, and he was mostly successful. It took a while to get in touch with Sean Manaea, but the two have since bonded over the fact that they're both half-Samoan and could form the first Samoan battery in MLB history.

John Brebbia was another holdout, although that was just a miscommunication. When they met in person this week, Brebbia explained that it's easier to reach him by email. 

"Brebbia is a green texter," Kapler explained, smiling. "You never even know if he's getting your messages."

Sabol will spend all spring playing catchup against three more experienced options, but the toolset is there. The Giants are working with him on his catch-and-throw skills, but the ability to frame sets a good baseline. They're confident the bat will be there, although that might not be enough.

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Because he's a Rule 5 pick, Sabol must make the Opening Day roster or be offered back to the Pirates. The Giants could keep him as a third catcher/outfielder, but that's not their preference, and it would be hard to make that roster math work. While Sabol can play both corner outfield spots and brought his first base glove to camp, nearly all of his time will be spent behind the plate as the Giants try to gather more information. 

Zaidi admitted that making the roster as a Rule 5 catcher is "probably not the easiest" thing, adding that Sabol has a "higher bar to climb, but I know he's really excited."

 

As he stood in front of a locker in the big league clubhouse on Thursday, Sabol confirmed that last part. 

"I'm just out here, I'm living the dream," he said. "I'm just a kid living the dream."

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