Ex-Giant Mac Williamson recalls KBO stint as America watches league

Ex-Giant Mac Williamson recalls KBO stint as America watches league

Baseball fans were just happy to have some form of the game back this week, so it was easy to overlook the empty seats as the Korean Baseball Organization kicked off Monday night. But when Mac Williamson tunes in this week to catch a glimpse of his 2019 Samsung Lions teammates, that's the first thing that'll catch his eye. 

The former Giants outfielder ended last season in South Korea, hitting .273 with four homers in 40 games for the Lions. He learned how to quickly calculate how fast a pitch was when it would pop up as 145 kilometers per hour. He learned a new cuisine, new culture and got accustomed to a different power structure in the dugout, one based entirely on seniority. More than anything, he learned how important the fans are to KBO games.

During a phone conversation Tuesday from his North Carolina home, Williamson explained what Giants fans should know about the KBO games they're watching. 

"The fan experience in those games is really what sets it apart, and it's hard to duplicate that now because they don't have fans," he said. "They have a head cheerleader who makes up a cheer for each player. Every player has his own chant and song, so when you're hitting they are chanting that song and dancing the entire time you're hitting. It doesn't stop. They're chanting the entire time. Any time you do something good they're chanting that song.

"That's one of the biggest things that's different, in a good way, in their game, but it's not coming through obviously because they're not allowed to have fans. It's pretty cool when you have a packed stadium and they're all chanting in unison. I came back to spring training and it was a little weird when you're hitting and it's dead quiet."

Williamson was in camp with the Washington Nationals this spring, preparing to head to Triple-A in Fresno, ironically, when the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic shut the sport down. Like most affiliated with MLB, he planned to tune into a KBO broadcast on ESPN this week, just with much more personal ties. 

Williamson was excited to watch former teammate Ben Lively, who started for the Lions in their second game. Williamson and Lively were two of the three foreign players on the Lions late last season, along with Darin Ruf, who also returned to the U.S. this spring and was making a strong push for a spot on the Giants roster. Each KBO team is allowed three foreign players, but only two can play in any one game. 

The rest of the league is made up of the best South Korea has to offer, and there were some who really impressed Williamson, though he felt, in general, the league was comparable to Triple-A in terms of talent level and competitiveness. 

"There are definitely some talented guys there that can play in the big leagues," he said. "The biggest difference for me was a lot more of the pitchers in Korea have splitters than in the United States. I struggled with that, so that was the biggest adjustment from a gameplay standpoint. Their arsenal was just different in that way."

Williamson still managed to put up solid numbers in his stint there, although it was perhaps not the best season for an American slugger to land in the KBO. The league changed its baseballs before the season, essentially de-juicing them, and offensive numbers cratered. Ruf, for instance, hit 31 and 33 homers in his first two years there, but just 22 in 2019. 

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"I was laying into some balls that weren't even going to the warning track," Williamson said. 

That wasn't the only adjustment between the lines. Williamson recalled looking up after one early pitch and seeing 138 on the scoreboard. 

"I was really thrown off at first, it was weird," he said. "They were like, 'That's 86 (mph).'"

Williamson quickly adjusted and started doing the math in his head, but there were other aspects of playing overseas that would have taken more than a few months in Daegu, a large city in the southeast portion of the country, to get used to.

For instance, In the fifth inning, the normal between-innings break was extended so the field could be taken care of. Williamson would watch as bench players, coaches and even umpires would retreat to a back room for a smoke break as the infield was dragged. 

The Lions put Williamson up in a three-bedroom apartment with all expenses paid but utilities, and he got a generous meal allowance. But it wasn't always easy for the 6-foot-4 outfielder to find three square meals a day. MLB players are accustomed to grabbing some food early in the afternoon when they get to the park and crushing the spread after a game, but the Lions served just one meal a day right after batting practice, generally consisting of rice, pasta or some sort of fried or breaded chicken. 

[RELATED: How many homers would Willie Mays hit at Oracle Park?]

Williamson said he was grateful Ruf was there to suggest all the best places to find more Americanized food on the road, and a team translator would often help the foreign-born players order takeout through an app. After home games, it was a little easier to cook up a familiar meal at his apartment. 

"They did have a Costco there," Williamson said, "Which was awesome."

What Giants' first week back was like for Buster Posey's understudy

What Giants' first week back was like for Buster Posey's understudy

At 10:30 a.m. last Wednesday, as he sat in a hotel room a short walk from Oracle Park, Tyler Heineman pulled out his phone and found a GIF of Stewie from "Family Guy." He sent it out to Giants fans with a short message on Twitter.

The catcher, signed as a minor league free agent over the offseason, wasn't kidding. Over the course of the afternoon, Heineman answered dozens of questions from Giants fans.

Heineman told one fan his best memory on a field was hitting his first big league homer. He clarified that he eats mac-and-cheese with a fork, not a spoon. He said his favorite player growing up was David Eckstein, agreed to go on a random podcast and noted that Jacob deGrom is the toughest pitcher he has faced. He also said he believes in soulmates. 

This lasted deep into the afternoon. Welcome to life in the MLB's 2020 bubble. 

The season is not technically being played in a "bubble" in Arizona, as was once proposed, but for the Giants who have descended upon Oracle Park for Spring Training 2.0, it might as well be. 

Heineman couldn't leave his hotel room because he was awaiting a coronavirus test result taken during intake screening for all players, coaches and staffers. He got the word that Thursday afternoon that it came back negative, but he still didn't leave his hotel room until Saturday, when he was due at the field for the first Giants workout. In the days since, Heineman has made the five-minute walk to the ballpark to hit, lift and catch bullpens -- and then come right back to his room. 

"The most important thing for me is to be able to play," he said this week via text. "I have no reason to leave my room except to go to the field. If I'm able to go to the field every day, that is enough for me. I can hold off on doing something for a few months until baseball is over."

That last line is one the Giants would print on their jerseys if they could. Manager Gabe Kapler has stressed to players the importance of staying at home and not doing anything that puts them at risk. Buster Posey hammered that message home on a team-wide video call last Thursday. The team leader asked the players not to be selfish because you never know what someone's home situation is, a message that seems to have resonated, likely because of what Posey himself was dealing with. 

On Friday, Posey announced that he will not play the 2020 season because his family is adopting twin girls who were born prematurely. That decision has put Heineman and Rob Brantly, previously vying for the backup job, in the spotlight. Heineman, a switch-hitter, is all of a sudden in position to start July 23 at Dodger Stadium against Clayton Kershaw. 

The Giants are counting on Heineman far more than they were two days ago, and the 29-year-old is doing everything he can to stay available in what he deemed the biggest year of his career even before he knew about the catching situation. Heineman provided NBC Sports Bay Area a glimpse over the last week into what that entails, and the sacrifices players are making to ensure a 2020 season amid a pandemic. 

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Like every ballplayer, from Mike Trout to A-ball outfielders, Heineman spent most of the last four months staying ready and following updates on Twitter. He had been working out in the Los Angeles area with his brother Scott, a Texas Rangers outfielder. They were together when word came on June 23 that the game was officially back. 

"We had heard rumors about all this stuff and (commissioner Rob) Manfred mandating a season," Heineman said. "Once we saw that it was back, we didn't want to get too excited. We had heard so many things throughout the three months about baseball coming back, and then, okay, there's a labor dispute. And then baseball might come back but then something else is going on and has been leaked. I tried to stay as even-keeled as possible until I got official word."

That came from the Giants later in the week. In the meantime, Austin Slater, the team's MLBPA representative, sent out a group text informing players that July 1 would be the testing date, but that it could be earlier for pitchers and catchers. 

While some players around the game posted images to Instagram of packed suitcases in previous weeks, Heineman didn't start that process until the official invite to Spring Training 2.0 came. He got ready to drive up the coast to San Francisco, but first he had a stop to make. 

Heineman had seen his parents just twice during quarantine, and he stopped by after getting word that the game was resuming. His dad bought sandwiches and they sat a proper distance apart in their backyard for a couple of hours, saying their goodbyes. Aside from those rare visits with his parents, Heineman had worked out regularly with his brother and seen his sister a couple of times, but that was about all the outside contact he had. 

Next, came the really hard part.

Heineman's wife, Liz, is a physical therapist in Los Angeles and is staying there to continue to work through the season. The couples' four-month-old dog, Butters, also is staying in Los Angeles. The Heinemans, who got married last year, don't know when they'll next see each other, but they tried to embrace the positives. 

"We were able to spend three extra months together, we moved into our new place together," Heineman said. "When it was time to go, it was more of an excitement thing. She was excited that I was able to go to work again and she's looking forward to watching me do what I love. She's ready to have me back whenever that is. If it's after September, we're both still very lucky that we did get to spend three extra months together."

Those three months came after an intense spring in which Heineman and Brantly competed for a big league job. Heineman thought of that on the drive up, but also thought quite a bit about all the safety protocols that were looming. The new reality hit him hard when he checked into a hotel room near the ballpark. 

"It started to get a little nerve-wracking," he said. "I'm walking over to the park to get tested and it's extremely nerve-wracking. They were really strict about enforcing rules."

Heineman had not been tested over the previous three months. He had no reason to ever feel that he should be. But when players arrived in San Francisco last week, they were given an exact time to get to the ballpark for the first of many tests. Heineman arrived at a gate on Third Street at 3:20 p.m. last Tuesday. There were three other people in his group and they spread out to four corners of the testing site. Everyone involved wore a mask, and the players were first given a blood test for antibodies. 

Heineman's came back negative in 10 minutes. He then took a saliva test and was told the results would be back in one or two days. From there, it was right back to the hotel. As he gave a phone interview the next day, he was still awaiting his test result. 

"You're a little freaked out because technically you don't know if you have the virus," he said last week. "You could be asymptomatic. What makes it a little easier is you know that every MLB team and player is doing this same intake testing. It's giving the game of baseball a chance to come back. It allows us to go into the clubhouse with a stress-free mindset, knowing you got tested and you'll get tested every other day or every day even. You don't have to be super worried."

As it turned out, Heineman had nothing to worry about. "A weight off my shoulders," he said of the initial negative result. By Saturday, he was catching bullpens at Oracle Park.

"It felt amazing," he said. "I thought I would be nervous about all the protocols, but just being able to play catch on a big league field made me not even care about the added stuff we have to do in order to play."

Heineman said it was weird not being able to give high-fives or fist bump a teammate, but it's something the Giants will get used to, along with all the testing. Many players were tested the first Saturday, Sunday and Monday, even as the Giants saw a delay lead to the cancelation of one workout. Thus far, team officials are happy with the way everything has gone -- the Giants have three confirmed positive tests in camp -- and the buy-in they're seeing from players. 

[RELATED: Posey gets it right again with toughest decision of career]

There's a lot of talk of Netflix and video games -- Heineman brought his PlayStation 4. Players can be seen leaving the park every day with prepackaged meals, and they're becoming familiar with the best local options for delivery in the evening. It has been less than three weeks since the Giants were told they could return and just one week since they took the field for the first time, but so far, so good. 

"I think we are all on the same page and understand that it's up to us to stay safe and follow these guidelines put in place by MLB," Heineman said. "Otherwise, there will be no baseball."

Giants' top prospects should usher in bright new era in near future

Giants' top prospects should usher in bright new era in near future

When MLB announced there would be a 60-game season, the projections weren't great for the Giants. Caesar's Sportsbook gave San Francisco the fifth-lowest win total (24.5) in the league, and ZIPS' projection (25) was just slightly better than that.

Realistically, the Giants weren't going to compete. And if they did, it was going to be a major surprise.

That was before Buster Posey made the decision to opt out of the 2020 MLB season on Friday. If San Francisco was going to struggle with him, imagine what it could be like without him.

So, yes, it's understandable if Posey's decision removed what little realistic optimism Giants fans had for this abbreviated season. With everything currently going on in the world, it would be easy to focus on the bad.

San Francisco's present might not offer a ton of hope. But luckily for Giants fans, there is plenty of reason to be excited about the not-too-distant future.

One could argue the Giants' farm system is in as good of a spot as it has ever been. It was identified as one of the five most improved in all of baseball back in January, as president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi has spearheaded a rapid turnaround. The system is loaded with high-quality prospects, and unlike previous times when pitching was the obvious strength, most of San Francisco's current top prospects are position players.

The Giants know how important pitching is as well as any team in the league. That's how they won three World Series titles in five years. Well, that plus some timely hitting. In the seasons since, though, they've struggled mightily on offense, which has resulted in multiple years of better draft position.

Nothing is guaranteed, but it sure seems like San Francisco has capitalized on the opportunity that was created out of that offensive deficiency and directly addressed it.

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As things currently stand, the Giants have five prospects ranked within MLB Pipeline's Top 100. That's more than they've ever had since started ranking prospects.

Catcher Joey Bart leads the way at No. 14 overall, while 18-year-old shortstop Marco Luciano is one of the fastest climbing prospects in all of baseball, currently ranked No. 35. Outfielder Heliot Ramos, a 2017 first-round pick, lands at No. 65, and he's followed by 2019 first-round pick Hunter Bishop at No. 71. Finally, Seth Corry, one of only two pitchers currently ranked among San Francisco's top 10 prospects, comes in at No. 99.

All of those prospects are projected to reach the big leagues at some point during or prior to the 2022 season.

Then there's 20-year-old outfielder Alexander Canario, the Giants' sixth-ranked prospect, who likely just missed being included in the Top 100. It's probably only a matter of time until he is, and he might have the highest offensive ceiling of any prospect not named Luciano within San Francisco's system. 

Canario currently is projected to make his big league debut in 2023, as are 19-year-old third baseman Luis Toribio and 18-year-old outfielder Luis Matos -- the Giants' seventh and eighth-ranked prospects at the moment. Pipeline cites Toribio as possibly being "the best pure hitter" in the system, while Matos was singled out by Giants director of player development Kyle Haines as currently being underrated, but will be heard from down the line.

Filling out the remainder of San Francisco's top 10 prospects are ninth-ranked pitcher Sean Hjelle and 10th-ranked infielder Will Wilson. The 6-foot-11 Hjelle offers tantalizing potential, while getting Wilson -- the Los Angeles Angels' 2019 first-round pick -- at the Winter Meetings was a major steal.

Hjelle and Wilson are projected to make their big league debuts in 2021 and 2022, respectively, while San Francisco's current 11th and 12th-ranked prospects already have. If getting Wilson was a steal, acquiring 11th-ranked Mauricio Dubon was the equivalent of highway robbery. And 12th-ranked Logan Webb has been turning heads -- particularly Posey's -- in Summer Camp.

Many of those prospects, particularly the position players, likely would have been ranked much higher in previous years. But now, the Giants boast depth that most other teams envy.

And, that doesn't even include San Francisco's 2020 first-round pick, Patrick Bailey. As soon as he begins his professional career, the power-hitting catcher likely will fall somewhere between No. 5 and No. 7, inevitably nudging a great prospect out of the Giants' top 10.

So over the next one to three seasons, San Francisco is likely to experience a massive influx of highly-skilled, young talent, something that the franchise has been lacking since ... let's just say it's been a long time. That talent could form the backbone of a team that could contend, not just for one season, but possibly for the next decade. Or, it could be used to acquire a current star.

[RELATED: Posey's decision might make Giants revisit plans for Bart]

The Giants now are in a position where they can compete on a prospect level in any potential trade discussions for an already-established star. Of course, moving forward, they'll also be in far better financial position to compete for top free agents than they have been in recent years -- in which case they wouldn't have to sacrifice any prospects.

So, yes, the 2020 season likely wasn't going to be a very successful one to begin with, and Posey's absence should only exacerbate that. But the Giants' not-too-distant future could be very, very bright, and fans should focus on that whenever in need of some optimism.