Giants

Giants' camp competition to be Buster Posey's backup is two-horse race

Giants' camp competition to be Buster Posey's backup is two-horse race

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- You'll hear it often over the next six weeks: The Giants are embracing competition. 

But when it comes to the race to be the backup catcher, this isn't quite a wide-open field. The Giants planned to have three players compete to be Buster Posey's backup, but Aramis Garcia had hip surgery last week and likely will miss the entire season. Garcia might have been the frontrunner entering the new year, but manager Gabe Kapler said Tuesday that two newcomers to the organization, Tyler Heineman and Rob Brantly, will now fight for that Opening Day job. 

Heineman and Brantly are both in camp as non-roster invitees. The Giants also have Chad Tromp, top prospect Joey Bart and 20-year-old Ricardo Genoves on the non-roster list, but for now, this appears to be a two-horse race. 

"Obviously it's a blow to lose Garcia. It's also an opportunity for somebody to step up and take control of that backup position," Kapler said Tuesday a few hours before catchers reported for physicals. "If we break with either Brantly and Buster or Heineman and Buster, it'll give us a good opportunity to face a tough right-handed pitcher and get Buster off his feet once in a while. Obviously, no matter who the backup is, our game plan will be to have Buster on the field as much as possible."

The Giants do not appear poised for a repeat of last summer, when Stephen Vogt proved to be one of their more reliable hitters and at times nearly was in a timeshare with Posey, who struggled to reach his past heights at the plate. But Brantly and Heineman do have something in common with Vogt, now with the Arizona Diamondbacks. They both hit left-handed, with Heineman also being a switch-hitter. 

Heineman, 28, got 11 at-bats with the Miami Marlins last year. He tore up the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, posting a .400 on-base percentage and hitting 13 homers and 17 doubles. Heineman has 208 walks and just 266 strikeouts in eight minor league seasons, so he fits well with what the Giants are teaching their hitters. 

Brantly is also known for having a good sense of the strike zone and he posted a .404 OBP in Triple-A last season. The 30-year-old has a slight leg up on the competition having spent last season in the Phillies organization. Kapler said Brantly is an excellent teammate and smart game-caller. 

The real intrigue comes further down the line. 

Genoves, signed out of Venezuela, was added to the non-roster list Sunday to give the Giants another glove. He put up good numbers in Salem-Keizer and Augusta last year before the Giants sent him to the Arizona Fall League. Tromp is just 24, which is young for a non-roster catcher, and the Giants are excited about the organizational depth they have in those two.

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Then there's Bart, who is on track to be the next face of the franchise. The 23-year-old is supposed to start the year in Triple-A and Farhan Zaidi and Kapler both have said Bart needs more reps, but there's little doubt he'll be one of the stories of camp. Bart is not part of the competition to back up Posey, but his locker is just about 10 feet away in a new clubhouse. 

"That is by design," Kapler said. "We want those guys to be spending time together."

Why Giants manager Gabe Kapler doesn't want Brandon Belt to change his approach

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Why Giants manager Gabe Kapler doesn't want Brandon Belt to change his approach

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Shortly after the Giants announced that Gabe Kapler would be their next manager, Brandon Belt looked down at his phone and saw a funny text from Evan Longoria. 

The veterans have a group chat in the offseason and Longoria sent Belt, Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford and others a video of Belt squaring to bunt on a 3-1 count against the Phillies in 2018. In the video, Kapler smiles and says, "With a 3-1 count, you're hitting fourth for the Giants, (bleeping) swing!"

 

Belt enjoyed the video and said he understands where Kapler was coming from, particularly since the game was played in the launching pad that is Citizens Bank Park. He hasn't had a chance to tease Kapler about it yet, but said he will at some point this spring. When he does sit down with his new manager, Belt will find someone who may be his biggest ally in 2020. 

Kapler has made no secret of the fact that he likes Belt's approach, pointing specifically to his first baseman during an otherwise awkward introductory press conference and again at FanFest. On Thursday, Kapler sat down in front of reporters and cameras and asked if he could start with some of his own impressions before taking questions. 

"I think Brandon Belt looks really good in the batter's box," Kapler said, his eyes lighting up. "He's kind of an assassin in there in that he's not passive at all, he's very aggressive, but if a pitch doesn't look like he can drive it he's just laying off. When something hangs and he gets a good pitch to hit, he's really taking a good, healthy aggressive pass. 

"I just think we value his approach at the plate so much and I think it's going to play very well for him in spring training but ultimately in the season."

And with that, the new manager of the Giants planted his flag firmly on one side of the Belt Wars. 

The first baseman has been the most polarizing Giant of the championship era. Supporters point to his high on-base percentages, ability to wear down an opposing pitcher, numbers away from power-suppressing Oracle Park, and a glove that has had him get Gold Glove consideration. Critics tend to grumble about slumpy shoulders and the fact that Belt, who has the physique of your classic slugging corner infielder, has never hit 20 homers in a season. 

Belt long ago gave up on trying to bring fans over to his side, but he knows there have still been detractors. Even behind closed doors there were disagreements among the staff, with some quietly complaining that the front office gave Belt a massive extension while imploring him to "get the bat head out" and pull the ball more often. 

Kapler has come in and told Belt to do what he does best. He wants him to have good plate appearances and keep the ball in the middle of the field, which is his natural swing path. More than that, he has said he wants younger Giants to follow that approach. 

Asked about Kapler, Belt paused and said he didn't want to make it seem any previous coaches had been unsupportive. But there certainly is something different about the way Kapler talks about Belt. 

"It's something that I've always believed about myself. It's just now coming from somebody else," Belt said. "To say that it doesn't really affect me at all, honestly, I think I would be lying. I think it does. I put a lot of work and effort into honing my craft, and to see the organization I play for and my teammates appreciate that, it does mean something. I don't hold any resentment towards anybody else because they didn't share that with me the whole time. It's just something I had to know about myself. 

"Whether other people liked it or not, I had to know that's what made me successful and I had to stick with it. There's a lot of baseball knowledge in this clubhouse coming from the coaches or whoever, but for me I had to know my own limits and had to know what I did well, and that's what I knew that I did well, so I stuck with it. That's what made me a successful baseball player, and now it's just being more vocalized, I guess."

The support has come in ways that don't always have to be vocalized. Since Farhan Zaidi took over in 2018, Belt's name has come up often in trade rumors. But those aren't leaking from the Giants, and there doesn't appear to be any legitimacy to any of them. The Giants believe Belt should hit in the middle of the lineup for them. Their hope is that in a couple of years the entire group has the same grinding approach. 

"There have been times when he's been elite at the plate and hasn't gotten the credit that he deserves for just how productive he's been from an all-around perspective," Kapler said of Belt. 

Kapler pointed to two years in particular, 2013 and 2016. Belt had a 139 OPS+ in 2013, ranking ninth in the NL in a metric that adjusts for ballparks. Three years later, he ranked eighth at 135. Kapler noted that Belt didn't hit a bunch of homers in those seasons but still was elite per advanced metrics. 

"Power production doesn't have to come in the shape of 30 homers," he said. "It can come with extra-base hits, and then obviously his ability to reach base and grind pitches down is really what we're looking for from Brandon.

Last year, though, there was a drop off. Belt's OPS+ dipped to 98, putting him below league average for the first time. He had a solid .339 OBP, but slugged just .403, the lowest of his career. 

Looking back on it, Belt said he never fully recovered from knee surgery in September of 2018. He was noticeably hobbled throughout the summer and there were times when the staff wondered if Belt should sit out. This spring, he said he feels the best he has since the first half of 2018, when he had a .862 OPS and was for a while on pace for 30 homers. 

If Belt can be that guy again, he could be one of the rare everyday players in Kapler's platoon-heavy lineups. The Giants brought in Wilmer Flores on a two-year deal and have made no secret of the fact that he's an option at first against left-handed pitching, but Kapler said he would wait to see how Belt is swinging this spring before making any determinations. He pointed out that Belt has in the past hit lefties better than righties. 

That versatile version of Belt is the one Kapler calls elite, and that has been communicated from manager to player. Belt said his first conversation with Kapler was nearly entirely about their families and getting to know one another, but subsequent talks have included a message that Kapler isn't shy about sharing publicly.

"He said, 'From watching you from afar, I really appreciated what you've done and how you go about your at-bats,'" Belt said. 

There was that one exception, and Belt laughed as he said he would soon bring it up with Kapler. But the manager should have a good rebuttal ready. After trying to bunt and instead taking an Aaron Nola curveball for a strike, Belt swung away. He lined a single down the right field line. 

Giants catchers have blast with familiar drill that includes new twist

Giants catchers have blast with familiar drill that includes new twist

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Giants have tried to make their workouts shorter and more efficient, allowing players a little extra time every day to hang out with their families or hit the golf course. But for one group, the day can still be a hell of a grind.

Nobody works harder in camp than the catchers, who report on Day 1 with pitchers and spend hours catching bullpens between their own drills. When they're done with all the heavy lifting, they get their turn to hit in the cage, using up whatever energy the early afternoon sun hasn't zapped away. 

But on Wednesday, the six catchers in Giants camp got a few minutes to laugh.

New bullpen coach Craig Albernaz led a drill that on the surface looked very familiar. Every spring, catchers work on tracking and gloving pop-ups shot into the bright sky by a pitching machine. But Albernaz mixed it up this time, putting the catchers into teams of two and making them share one glove as they chased pop-ups:

"Man, it was a blast," non-roster invitee Chad Tromp said.

Tromp, who came over from the Reds, said he had never done the drill that way before. Neither had Rob Brantly, a veteran who has been in the big leagues with three organizations since debuting in 2012. Brantly said it was a lot of fun, but pointed out that there was a method to the madness.

"It's just a fun drill that you do but you build a relationship with the other guy," he said. "You immediately start strategizing."

Brantly was paired with fellow non-roster invitee Tyler Heineman, with Tromp joining 20-year-old Ricardo Genoves and Buster Posey teaming up with Joey Bart. They had a very interested observer as the drill got more intense. Gabe Kapler walked over to watch and said he appreciated the drill because guys were competing and communicating. 

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Those are two themes of camp, and they were on full display as catchers threw a glove back and forth. Tromp and Genoves caught the most pop-ups and won the mini-competition, which was a welcomed break from monotony for the group and ramped up the intensity on a hot day in Scottsdale. 

"There's a lot of pressure," Tromp said, smiling. "You have a second guy and you have to tell them where to go and where to look. It's something we don't usually do and it puts you in a panicked situation pretty quickly."