Giants position battles to watch as MLB season gets ready to start

Giants position battles to watch as MLB season gets ready to start

When the Giants reported to Scottsdale Stadium in February, much of the conversation was about competition. Gabe Kapler wanted every player to feel like he had to earn a spot, and even some veterans took up that motto. Evan Longoria, for instance, talked early on about how he felt established guys were being pushed more to earn their at-bats and innings. 

Months later, the Giants will return for their final three weeks of spring/summer training that was interrupted for more than 100 days by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. There are questions about their ability to stay healthy, how they can properly social distance while playing a sport, and what will happen when players inevitably test positive. 

But there are not actually that many questions remaining about the roster.

The Giants released their initial list Monday, with 51 players in the 60 spots and the likelihood that many of the remaining nine will go to prospects. You can easily look it over and find 25 guys, at least, who seem like locks or near-locks to be standing on the line -- six feet apart -- on Opening Day.

There still are decisions to be made, though. Kapler is eager to get a look at players who have been told for three months to stay ready. Here are some position battles to watch as the Giants return to the field this week:

Backup catcher

This is the easiest one to wrap your head around, because it remains a two-man race. It's possible that Farhan Zaidi and Scott Harris will find another veteran before July 24, but with expanded player pools many organizations are carrying five or six catchers on their 60-man rosters, so there's not a lot out there.

Back in March, this was a race between Rob Brantly and Tyler Heineman and that remains the case. Brantly has more big-league experience and is a left-handed hitter, while Heineman is a switch-hitter who has done well in the minors. Neither was tearing it up in Cactus League games, and without another exhibition season, the Giants will have to make this evaluation based on what they already know. 

The Giants currently have just four catchers on their roster, but the fourth is a big name. Joey Bart is coming to Oracle Park initially, but isn't in the conversation for Opening Day.

"I have no doubt that he has the talent to help us win games this summer," Kapler told NBC Sports Bay Area last week. "Do I think that it's likely that his best path to his best career is starting with the major league club? I don't think that's his best path."

The Giants do not plan to carry a third catcher, although they can bring one on the road as part of the three-man taxi squad. It seems likely that the loser of Brantly-Heineman will get that role. 

The bullpen

The Giants could run out there on Opening Day with 17 pitchers if they wanted, but that won't happen because of guys locked in elsewhere. We'll get to them in a second, but it's possible they'll carry 16 position players, leaving 14 pitchers, and nine relievers once you get past the four veteran starters and Logan Webb. 

Tony Watson, Tyler Rogers and Trevor Gott were three locks in the spring. Tyler Anderson now is healthy and should be an easy pick, along with swingman Trevor Cahill and lefty Jarlin Garcia, who struck out eight in six scoreless appearances in the spring. 

With 30 spots to play with for the first two weeks, it makes sense to keep Rule 5 pick Dany Jimenez. Sam Coonrod had a good rookie year and Wandy Peralta also had a good spring, and in theory that can get you to a full staff right there.

But Zaidi and Kapler have made it clear they're going to lean heavily on guys who can go multiple innings, which looks good for former starters Shaun Anderson, Dereck Rodriguez, Trevor Oaks, Andrew Triggs and Andrew Suarez, among others. 

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This was a puzzle in March. With four additional roster spots, it's still a puzzle.

The only thing you can say for sure is that the pitching staff will undergo change potentially on a daily basis. It's a short drive from Sacramento to San Francisco, and some of these guys will become very familiar with it. 

Ninth infielder

That's right, I said ninth infielder. 

There are six easy picks in Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, Evan Longoria, Pablo Sandoval, Mauricio Dubon and Wilmer Flores. Zaidi sure gave the indication that Yolmer Sanchez is in a good spot, and Donovan Solano is coming off a season in which he hit .330. That's eight. 

The ninth man here is Darin Ruf, who primarily played first base in the spring but also can play the outfield. Giants officials have been talking him up as a DH, and with a .921 career OPS against lefties, he makes a ton of sense. 

I mean, it's pretty easy to get to nine locked-in infielders. It looks wild on paper, though, so perhaps there's a surprise cut in store. 

[RELATED: Kapler explains mindset in choosing closer]

Fifth outfielder 

Here's why the Giants could technically show up for their opener with nine infielders and four outfielders: Dubon is expected to see a lot of time in center, and with so many other infielders around, that may actually be where he fits best as an everyday starter. Ruf can play the outfield and Belt can play left.

You could start with four outfielders, with Mike Yastrzemski being the only one who plays there just about every day. But that leaves Jaylin Davis and Austin Slater on the outside.

Davis may be the player with the biggest swing in potential roles this season. It's not hard to picture a world where he grabs the job in right field, hits a few home runs early on and becomes a fixture. He's talented enough to do it, but the Giants may look around and decide that they can't give him that runway at the start of a 60-game season. 

It's a tough decision, one they have three weeks to make. 

Why Giants GM Scott Harris wants Joey Bart to learn another position

Why Giants GM Scott Harris wants Joey Bart to learn another position

Buster Posey still is mulling over his plans for the 2020 MLB season, but the Giants do have a young catcher on the cusp of the majors in Joey Bart. The top catching prospect was expected to start the season in Triple-A Sacramento, however, with the minor league season canceled, Bart is a part of San Francisco's 60-man roster. 

That doesn't mean he will start in the big leagues, though. No matter what Posey decides, the Giants don't want to force Bart up

Before the No. 2 pick in the 2018 MLB Draft makes his debut, general manager Scott Harris would like to see two key parts of development grow for Bart.

“A couple of developmental priorities for him will be first to improve the game calling," Harris said Thursday on KNBR's "Murph & Mac" show. "Not that we’re at all concerned about his game calling, I just think there is a critical mass of games you need to catch at the minor league level before you’re fully prepared to call a game in the big leagues."

Bart actually called games at Georgia Tech, something that even Matt Wieters wasn't allowed to do from the sam college coach. Harris is right, though. Calling games is a skill that catchers must continue to grow and the Giants hoped that would happen for Bart in Sacramento. 

The second part to Harris' answer might be even more important for Bart and the Giants.

“The other thing we talked about quite a bit is we want to expose him to other positions on the field," Harris said. "Not because we are concerned about his catching at all, we already think he is a plus receiver and thrower, but because one of the main tenants of our developmental philosophy is versatility.

"We want to give our major league manager as many opportunities as possible to get our best bats in the lineup. We think the demands of the catching position are such that that it is a benefit of both the player and the team to be able to play multiple positions.”

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Since the Giants drafted Bart, he hasn't played anywhere on the field other than behind the plate. The same goes for his college career. Learning a new position would have been a perfect opportunity for Bart in the Arizona Fall League, but he fractured his thumb hitting in the AFL.

Now Bart will have Summer Camp to learn a new skill, making the name of spring training 2.0 that much more fitting. He will be in camp with Patrick Bailey, a fellow catcher who the Giants took in the first round of the draft this year. It wouldn't be a surprise if the Giants had Bailey work on another position as well. 

[RELATED: Why Bart, three Giants pitchers are intriguing Kruk, Kuip]

Versatility is the name of the game for the Giants and the rest of baseball right now. Bart is lacking it right now, though that soon could change. He has a strong arm behind the plate and moves well for his 6-foot-2, 238-pound frame. It will be interesting to see if the Giants simply hand him a first baseman's mitt, or if he learns another position like third base or the outfield.

“The more that Joey can move around, the more options that his major league manager is going to have to get his bat in the lineup, and I think that’s really important for his career and for the future of the Giants," Harris said. 

Bart could find his way to a major league game during this 60-game season. The Giants will make sure they feel he is 100 percent ready first, though. There's no doubt he holds a key to San Francisco's future success, and there's no reason to rush and open that door too soon.

Matt Duffy gives 'never say never' answer to future Giants reunion

Matt Duffy gives 'never say never' answer to future Giants reunion

The Giants have brought back many players for a second rodeo in the past.

Hunter Pence was their latest example this past offseason when the Giants signed the two-time World Series champion to a one-year contract, and he certainly won't be the last player to come back for Round 2 in San Francisco. Perhaps there could be another reunion for a fan-favorite in the future. 

"Never say never," Matt Duffy said Wednesday to KNBR's Mark Willard. 

Duffy, 29, signed with the New York Yankees on June 28. He signed a minor league contract with the Texas Rangers, but they released him before announcing their 60-man roster for Summer Camp. New York quickly swooped in and signed the infielder. 

The Giants called to "check in" over the offseason as well. But there is no reunion in place. At least, not yet.

[GIANTS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

"We did have some dialogue with the Giants this offseason, but it just didn't seem like the interest was there and as mutual as some other opportunities," Duffy said. "But yeah, like I said, never say never."

Duffy made his big league debut with the Giants in 2014, and instantly became a fan-favorite. He hit .267 over 34 games that year, then starred as a rookie the next season. Duffy finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting after he hit .295/.334/.428 with 28 doubles, 12 homers and 77 RBI in 149 games.

Unfortunately for Duffy, that has been his only full season in the big leagues. In 2016, Duffy was hampered by an Achilles injury and played in 70 games for the Giants. Then on Aug. 1, 2016 the Giants traded Duffy with prospects Lucius Fox and Michael Santos to the Tampa Bay Rays for left-handed pitcher Matt Moore.

[RELATED: Posey, Belt face inevitable risk amid coronavirus pandemic]

Duffy played 21 games for the Rays in 2016, but underwent season-ending Achilles surgery and missed the entire 2017 season. He hit .294 for the Rays in 2018, and only played in 46 games last year. 

Injuries have hampered Duffy throughout his career. However, if healthy, Giants fans certainly would welcome a reunion in the future.