Giants' focus on player development includes massive facilities upgrade

Giants' focus on player development includes massive facilities upgrade

For months, the Giants were coy about the new dimensions of Oracle Park, preferring to keep all information private until a press release with renderings went out shortly after the Winter Meetings.

But some eagle-eyed hikers at Papago Buttes in Phoenix might have unknowingly gotten a sneak peak of the changes to Triples Alley.

The Giants are just breaking ground on a state of the art minor league facility in the shadow of the Buttes, where Phoenix turns into Scottsdale. The complex, which is a three-mile drive from Scottsdale Stadium, will have the latest in baseball technology, a sprawling new weight room and modern rehab facilities that the Giants believe will vault them from the bottom of the league to the top in terms of minor league facilities, but the coolest feature might be a very simple one. 

The Giants plan to have six fields at their new facility, one of which will have the exact outfield dimensions of Candlestick Park. An adjacent field is being built with the new dimensions of Oracle Park. 

The nod to Candlestick adds a bit of nostalgia, but for the Giants, the upgrade to Papago Park is all about the future. From the big-league roster to the coaching staff, the Giants are putting a heavy, heavy emphasis on player development, but you can't seriously do that when your existing facility is cramped, outdated and forces players and coaches to fight for parking spots with a local gym.

The Giants moved into their Indian School complex in 2007 and immediately found that it was being surpassed by other organizations that train in the Phoenix area. Salt River Fields (where the Diamondbacks and Rockies train), Camelback Ranch (home of the Dodgers and White Sox) and the Cubs' Sloan Park dwarf what the Giants are working with in every way, but the organization has started to break ground on a new facility that will be ready when minor league camp begins in March, 2021. 

To keep up in what has become an arms race of sorts, the Giants are investing more than $50 million to rebuild Papago -- where A's minor leagues used to train --  from scratch. 

"We're not going from league average to something new," farm director Kyle Haines said. "We're going from the smallest square footage minor league facility in all of Major League Baseball to this."

When it's finished, Papago will give the Giants a year-round facility in Phoenix that will match or exceed what their division rivals have done in the area. They'll have two more fields than the current facility and they are being placed strategically for players' benefits, making it easier for prospects to get their work done and for coaches to schedule workouts. (The current facility leads to some long walks and includes a porta-potty as the nearest restroom for prospects playing in camp games.)

There will be more bullpen mounds and new batting cages in addition to meeting rooms and gathering spaces for players and coaches. 

The Giants are working with a fresh slate, literally tearing the old facility down and rebuilding from scratch, so much so that some trees were temporarily removed and put off to the side so that they could later be replanted around the current construction.

"We kept a couple of existing field footprints, but to be able to level the building and say what do we need, that's something we've been wishing for for a long time," Haines said. "To be able to build it in our vision -- obviously you can't do everything -- but the fact that you don't have to work around existing facilities and structures is incredible."

While team officials are hesitant to discuss the technological advantages they'll have, the upgrades there are said to be significant. The Giants started working on this project four years ago and many of the plans were drawn up by the previous administration, but Farhan Zaidi made additions when he took over the baseball operations department and Scott Harris has been involved in planning since coming on as GM in November.

Zaidi saw firsthand what upgraded facilities looked like when he moved from the A's to the Dodgers. Harris was with the Cubs as they built Sloan Park, which includes a Pitch Lab, a building containing bullpen mounds, Rapsodo machines and Edgertronic cameras. Zaidi said working on the new minor league facility was a point of emphasis when he took over. 

"Coming from the A's in 2014, we had an older facility, so it was kind of an education for me to be at Camelback Ranch with the Dodgers and seeing what that investment can do and how it can facilitate player development," Zaidi said. 

The facility goes hand in hand with everything else the Giants are doing. Last year they had two baseball operations analysts -- Michael Schwartze and Jack McGeary -- in the clubhouse and traveling with the team, and both were part of the interview process for new coaches. The young staff is well-versed in areas like biomechanics, and the Giants are hopeful that the new faces allow them to more adequately develop players at the big league level.

They have added instructors in the minors and a second rookie league team in Arizona. 

Zaidi plans to be aggressive with the promotions of top prospects, but those players haven't always been set up to succeed. Their spring training and offseason workouts come at an outdated facility, and team officials have noted in recent years how some of their better prospects have marveled at the weight rooms, fields and clubhouses of rivals while playing in the Arizona Fall League. 

"Their reaction is, 'Why can't the Giants have that?'" Haynes said. "The hope is that not only will we have that, we'll have something better."

The facility will be home to the next generation of top prospects, but it also will serve another important purpose. Big leaguers currently rehab their injuries at the Indian School complex. It was Johnny Cueto's home for months, and he found himself at a facility that was nowhere near what the Giants offer at Oracle Park. Many of the team's players -- including Brandon Crawford and Evan Longoria -- live in the Phoenix area and now will be able to use the Papago facility as a year-round training ground and a weight room. 

[RELATED: Examining Giants' position battles as camp nears]

The Giants are also upgrading Scottsdale Stadium, with a multi-story building currently going up where there previously was a tent in the parking lot. The spring experience will be a much better one for big leaguers, but the organization is hopeful that Papago becomes a year-round destination for its best players and top prospects. 

"It's a very big investment by the organization," Zaidi said. "The emphasis that we're going to have on player development and taking our young talent and making sure that by the time it gets to the big leagues they're playing at the highest level, that's obviously going to be a main focus of ours in the coming years."

Joey Bart, Mauricio Dubon hit homers in Giants' spring training opener

Joey Bart, Mauricio Dubon hit homers in Giants' spring training opener

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Maybe the finish line of this rebuild isn't as far away as it first seemed.

The Giants waited nearly three hours for the rain to clear Saturday so they could get their Cactus League opener in, and it was worth it when a couple of young hitters stepped to the plate against the Dodgers. Mauricio Dubon went deep to left with his first swing of the spring, and four innings later Joey Bart also smashed a homer to right with his first swing of 2020.

Dubon showed surprising power as a rookie, hitting four homers in 104 at-bats after his promotion from Triple-A. He said he has spent a lot of time this spring working with new hitting coach Donnie Ecker on an adjustment to lower his leg kick, which should allow him to see the ball better. In addition to the solo shot, Dubon had an RBI single to center. 

Bart is in theory here to get reps before heading to Triple-A, but the Giants don't have a locked-in backup catcher and plan to be aggressive with a promotion early in the year if Bart's bat warrants it. Thus far, he's had an impressive camp. 

Bart primarily is working on defensive adjustments and trying to show the ball to umpires more efficiently, but his batting practice sessions have been loud, with the new staff marveling at how easily Bart goes the opposite way. In his first at-bat after replacing Buster Posey, Bart nearly came out of his spikes while lining a shot to right. 

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"It's always good to see Joey stay through the baseball to the right side," manager Gabe Kapler said. "We've seen that swing result since camp began, driving the ball to the air to the right side. It's nice to see that show up in ballgame."

Bart drew a four-pitch walk in his second at-bat to load the bases for Drew Robinson, a non-roster invitee who flied out to left. The Giants lost Kapler's first spring game 10-4.

Five Giants position battles to watch as Cactus League season begins

Five Giants position battles to watch as Cactus League season begins

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- As he met with reporters on the first day of camp, Gabe Kapler noticed a few of them trying to read the small writing on his office whiteboard. The new Giants manager laughed and said there was no pertinent roster information written up there. 

Two weeks later, there's not really any more clarity. 

There have been standouts, sure. A home run in live batting practice here, a pitcher lighting up a bullpen's Rapsodo machine there. Kapler has made sure to compliment one or two individual players during nearly every post-workout media session. He likes a positive camp, but also a competitive one. 

The Giants have redesigned basic camp drills to make sure players are competing with each other, but the intensity can't fully ramp up until there's another team on the field. Today, the Giants face the Dodgers (weather permitting), kicking position battles into another gear. Here are five to watch over the next month:

Backup catcher

With Aramis Garcia out for six to eight months, Tyler Heineman and Rob Brantly have been working in the same group as Buster Posey. President of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi acquired two catchers over the final week of his first spring with the Giants and may do it again, but for now, it's Heineman vs. Brantly in the bid to back up Posey. 

Both can hit left-handed, which is a plus, and neither provides much pop, but they're solid defenders who work a count and don't strikeout. Brantly has more big league time and spent last season in Triple-A for Kapler's Phillies, but Heineman can switch-hit. Thus far, it looks like a dead heat. 

Second base

For a guy who came to camp as a non-roster invitee and had two incumbents ahead of him, Yolmer Sanchez sure is getting a lot of time with the other starters during drills. A switch-hitter who won a Gold Glove last year, he looks pretty locked into a spot and could be a nice platoon partner with Mauricio Dubon, who has moved all over the field. 

Dubon is one of the most impressive athletes on the roster, and he has looked remarkably fluid while fielding fly balls. Perhaps that's his ticket because otherwise it gets crowded. Wilmer Flores is a lock to make the team, and with Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford and Evan Longoria, that makes four infielders before you get to Sanchez, Dubon and Donovan Solano, who had a sneaky-good 2019 but has an option remaining, which could squeeze him out. 

Dubon's ability to play the outfield could allow the Giants to carry all seven infielders, although they'll run into a further crunch when Pablo Sandoval is fully cleared. 

The outfield

Here's what we know: Mike Yastrzemski will be on the team, and Hunter Pence and Alex Dickerson look headed for a platoon in left. But that leaves a lot of dudes fighting for two spots, maybe just one if Dubon becomes more of an outfielder.

Jaylin Davis has been talked about a lot and is showing off his power in BP, but there has been some talk of letting him start the year in Triple-A and play every day. Davis is an option in center, though, and if he tears up the Cactus League, he could end up being the starter there quite often. 

Yastrzemski has spent a lot of time doing drills in center, where the Giants also have Steven Duggar and Billy Hamilton. The latter is a hell of a bench option in a world with 26 roster spots. If Hamilton shows anything at the plate, he should be part of an outfield that lacks experience in center and has defensive question marks in left. 

You can see how the math starts to get hairy for some of the younger players. Duggar is making big swing changes and Chris Shaw is working to close a hole, and both have a lot of depth in front of them. Austin Slater has spent much of his time this spring doing infield drills, but there are a ton of bodies at second and Flores is the right-handed bat for the right side of the infield. 

At the end of the spring, it's often an options game, and Slater, Duggar, Shaw and Davis still have them. It wouldn't be a shock to see the Giants go with Yastrzemski, Pence, Dickerson, Hamilton and one more outfielder to start, knowing they'll shake it up by the end of April. 

Fifth starter

The Giants signed Kevin Gausman and Drew Smyly as starters, and neither has done anything to lose that status. Gausman had an impressive live bullpen session Friday. 

"What stood out about Gausman's live BP session today was the movement on his breaking ball," Kapler said. "It's a pitch that our pitching coaches are working hard on him to get the shape we want, and he came out firing with that pitch today."

Dereck Rodriguez will start Saturday and Andrew Suarez on Sunday, but Kapler was adamant that nothing should be read into that. Both are internally viewed more as long relievers/bullpen options. 

There are others like Tyson Ross and Trevor Cahill in camp, but after two weeks, it's clear how much this staff thinks of Tyler Beede's ability, and he should enter the spring games as the frontrunner to start one of the first five games of the year. Logan Webb has plenty of fans, too, but he will be on an innings limit this year and those usually are implemented in April, not September. 

The bullpen

The Giants have 31 non-roster invitees in camp and 17 are pitchers. You could literally throw a dart in any direction in the clubhouse and hit a reliever who might make the club. 

Tony Watson is a lock and may become the closer if the Giants have one. The staff is excited about Trevor Gott's stuff and he's out of options, so there's your second reliever. The Giants will carry eight, and after those two it gets hazy.

Farhan Zaidi loves a good roster shuffle, but he also has too much respect for veterans to bring guys in without a real shot. Nearly all of last year's late additions made the squad, including Nick Vincent, who is back. Jerry Blevins comes to mind as someone who has too much experience to simply be here as a camp arm. If those guys throw well, they figure to be ahead of the pack. 

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Jarlin Garcia was picked up late and is out of options, so a solid spring probably puts him on the roster. There are plenty of live arms on the 40-man, but guys like Sam Coonrod, Jandel Gustave and Wandy Peralta have options remaining, and that's a killer in late March. 

Then there's the pack of starters: Rodriguez, Suarez, Ross, Cahill, Trevor Oaks, etc. Could the Giants stash a couple in the bullpen to protect their inventory?

Finally, there's a true wild card, someone who may end up telling us a lot about what's important to the Giants right now. Tyler Rogers had a dominant September, has nothing left to prove in the minors, and is making teammates look silly in live BP. In a merit-based system, he should be headed for the Opening Day bullpen ... but he also has all three options remaining. Will the Giants go with their eight best, or will they prioritize keeping as many arms in the system as they can at the end of camp?