Giants searching for right-handed hitters to balance lefty-heavy lineup

Giants searching for right-handed hitters to balance lefty-heavy lineup

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. --  A month into camp, it's pretty easy at this point to picture an Opening Day lineup. The only question marks coming in were in the outfield, and Steven Duggar, Mac Williamson and Gerardo Parra are currently headed for the starting spots.

That could change any moment with a trade or free agent addition, but at the moment, the Giants are trying to figure out how to fill out the roster around that group. Farhan Zaidi likes positional versatility, but he said recently that another issue is on his mind. 

"One thing that's an area of concern for us is making sure we're protecting the left-handed bats in our lineup," Zaidi said. "We have, in all likelihood, three left-handed infielders and one or maybe two left-handed outfielders, and you want to feel like you have right-handed bats coming off the bench that can either platoon or spell those guys, or come in against a tough lefty late in the game. 

"The handedness is as much of a challenge as making sure we're covered defensively."

In a division full of good left-handed starting pitchers, the Giants could have a regular lineup featuring five left-handed hitters. The bigger issue is trying to find a way to complement them with bench pieces. Pablo Sandoval, Yangervis Solarte and Alen Hanson are all switch-hitters who hit much better from the left side. Sandoval and Hanson both posted a .439 OPS from the right side last season.

It's hard to see what the immediate solution is. The Giants do not have a Kiké Hernandez type who mashes lefties and can pay anywhere. They do have Cameron Maybin in camp, although he has gotten off to a slow start and doesn't have a track record of success against lefties.

Zaidi likes Drew Ferguson, and an Austin Slater, Anthony Garcia or Henry Ramos could find a role balancing the outfield. 

The best way may be to rely on a different kind of in-house solution. Brandon Crawford, Joe Panik and Brandon Belt have all shown they can handle lefties for stretches in the past, and the Giants always could give Buster Posey more time at first, with Aramis Garcia catching. 

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Posey is still being slow-played, which showed over the past week as the Giants struggled against a series of lefty starters. 

"That's kind of showing up in some of these games, the need for right-handed bats," manager Bruce Bochy said. "You're hoping the Williamsons and Slaters and different guys at some point of the year -- even Maybin, who didn't have great numbers against lefties last year -- will step up for you."

Why the Giants brought in umpires for second round of bullpen sessions

Why the Giants brought in umpires for second round of bullpen sessions

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- When Andrew Suarez kicked at the dirt on the bullpen mound Saturday and looked in at his catcher, most of what he saw was similar to every other bullpen session of his life. There was one key difference, though: An umpire in full uniform crouched behind the catcher. Saurez fired a fastball and the umpire emphatically pointed a finger to his left, signaling a strike. 

"It was different, but I liked it," Suarez said. "You get a good feel for the plate."

The Giants have made a lot of subtle changes to drills under Gabe Kapler and a 13-person coaching staff. Pitchers fielded pop-ups Sunday, an extreme rarity in a sport where the default move for a pitcher is to get out of the way and let an infielder take over. The outfield drills more closely resemble the NFL combine, with cones meticulously set up and coaches focusing on change-of-direction. But the biggest difference through a week of camp has been the addition of three real professional umpires to bullpen sessions.

The Giants brought the umpires, who live locally, in for their second round of bullpen sessions. They have four mounds going at a time and pitchers could opt out if they preferred to just throw to a catcher, but they seemed to enjoy the extra touch of intensity. Gabe Kapler said it was something he did in Philadelphia. 

"The concept obviously is to try to create heightened awareness and add a little competition to it," Kapler said.

When Andrew Bailey met with coaches earlier this month, one thing the new pitching coach preached was making sure every pitch of every bullpen session had a purpose. The Giants record every session and pitchers can stop to watch video or get the spin rate or velocity on a previous pitch. The hope was that the addition of umpires would ramp up the intensity a bit, but Kapler said it wasn't just designed for pitchers. 

"The catchers are getting some feedback," Kapler said. "The bullpen sessions are as much for the catchers as they are for the pitchers, and you see how much attention and emphasis our catching coaches are putting on receiving. I think it's been good so far."

Why Austin Slater took grounders at shortstop during Giants' workout

Why Austin Slater took grounders at shortstop during Giants' workout

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Brandon Crawford took his turn, showing off his usual defensive skills while taking a set of grounders at shortstop on a back field at Scottsdale Stadium. Then came Maurico Dubon, and then Kean Wong and Austin Slater. 

Wait, Austin Slater? 

This is Camp Versatility, but even by that standard, it was a bit surprising to see Slater getting work in as a shortstop Friday morning. He then moved on to work at second base, and manager Gabe Kapler said Slater wasn't just having fun. He'll get reps at all four infield spots this spring, along with his usual work in the outfield. 

Slater, getting ready for his fourth big league season, is into it. But what exactly is his position right now?

"I'm a Right Handed Batter's Box," he said, laughing. 

The Giants, as you might have heard a time or two, are going all-in on platoons, and Slater could be a big part of that. He had a .838 OPS against left-handed pitchers last season and could be a nice counter to Alex Dickerson and Mike Yastrzemski in the outfield and Brandon Belt at first base. 

But platoon life isn't just about the other day's starting pitcher. The Giants know they have a talent deficit. They hope to gain an edge by literally exploiting every platoon advantage they can over nine innings.

There could be times when Slater pinch-hits for Belt, or for Crawford, with a more natural shortstop like Mauricio Dubon sliding over to short and Slater getting a few innings at second base. 

"The mentality is let us over-prepare right now and see how the roster stacks up," Slater said. "I enjoy doing it."

Slater has 23 big league starts at first base but just a handful of innings at second and third. But he has nearly 900 minor league innings at second base and last year the Giants had him try third 11 times in Triple-A. He has always done extra infield work during batting practice, so this is just a natural extension for the 27-year-old. It could also be his best way onto the roster. 

It'll be an interesting spring for Slater defensively, but the real work will be done in the cages. He has more raw power than most on the roster but just nine homers in 544 plate appearances. 

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Slater made swing changes last offseason to try to increase his launch angle and is continuing to work on that this spring. He lit up when talking about the three new hitting coaches, saying they already have a good understanding of what he's trying to do.

The Giants can do all they want with defensive positioning to get Slater on the field more often, but they do need to see that pay off with more power production for the lineup. 

"I think we want to create the best possible path for Austin, so when he drives the ball he drives it in the air," Kapler said. "He definitely has raw power, dating back to his time at Stanford. We know about the pedigree and we just want to see that come out frequently in games."