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Why Posey feels hopeful about 2021 in final contract year

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The championship window for the Giants closed with a ninth-inning meltdown in the fall of 2016, but it wasn't until the last 18 months that the dynasty truly started to break apart. 

The Giants released Joe Panik in August of 2019 and a month later Bruce Bochy managed his final game. That offseason brought an end to Madison Bumgarner's legendary run, and in 2020, Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval were designated for assignment. Pence has joined Bochy, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Ryan Vogelsong, three-quarters of the Core Four and others in retirement. 

If you cheered through the torture, the comebacks, the parades, Rally Zito and the rest, it might feel like there have been a lot of goodbyes recently. But this stretch could pale in comparison to what's ahead over the next year. 

Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt are entering the last season of extensions that kept them from ever getting close to free agency, but the biggest spotlight will be on Buster Posey, who is about to start the final season of a nine-year contract he signed after winning his second title and being named National League MVP. At the time, it was hard to ever imagine the Giants without Posey, but there's a very real possibility that in nine months the front office will decline Posey's $22 million option for 2022 and pay him a $3 million buyout, sending one of the most important figures in franchise history into free agency for the first time. 

After a year off to take care of twin daughters his family adopted last summer, Posey is returning to uncertainty for the first time in his career. 

 

"It's kind of appropriate for the time, I guess. It's the way it's felt for everyone for a year now," Posey said over the phone last week. "It's the unknown. Right now I think the main thing is to try to enjoy the small things that we take for granted and try to win games."

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In a normal year, that might mean lingering in the clubhouse for a few extra minutes after games at Oracle Park, or adding a couple extra dinners on the road with longtime teammates and friends. But Posey knows better than most that a lot of that isn't possible. 

Two weeks before the 2020 season started, Posey opted out to stay home with adopted twin girls, Ada and Livvi, who were born prematurely. At the time he said it was an easy decision, in part because there was still so much uncertainty about the virus, and whether MLB players could safely get through a season played during a pandemic. As he watched from home, the Giants came within a game of making the postseason, and they did so while going 60 games without a positive COVID-19 result. They were extremely strict about protocols, and players with young children of their own said during the year that they appreciated the way everything was being handled. That didn't lead to any second-guessing for the face of the franchise, though. 

"I still feel good about the decision," Posey said. "When I made the decision I mainly was basing it off the unknown. I didn't know how it would turn out. I'm very happy it turned out the way it did for everyone involved, but I don't regret the decision myself. If I had a crystal ball, sure, I would have played."

A season later, Posey has considerably more information. The numbers around the country and in California remain jarring, but the Giants showed they have a good handle on keeping players and staffers healthy, and vaccinations are ramping up across the country as spring training approaches. Most importantly, Ada and Livvi are happy and healthy in a bustling house that includes nine-year-old twins, Lee and Addison, who are doing daily virtual classes. Buster and Kristen Posey have their hands full, but since the season ended, the father of four has found plenty of time to drive over to Oracle Park for workouts. 

This is a staff that still is nearly entirely new to Posey, but those who have seen him at the ballpark this offseason rave about how he looks physically and the kind of work he's putting in. After taking a summer off for the first time in three decades, Posey said he is doing more than he typically would. He is hitting with more intensity and has done more defensive work than in past offseasons.

 

The Giants were optimistic last spring, with even Bruce Bochy saying Posey was swinging more freely and doing a better job of driving the ball when he stopped into camp for a few days. But it's hard to know exactly what they'll get at the plate from Posey, who had a .320 on-base percentage and just seven homers in 2019. 

Will Posey look like a player who is another full year removed from major hip surgery and has had extra time to refresh his body? Or will he look like one who turns 34 a few days before the opener?

"This is my first time ever experiencing almost being 34, so I can't tell you if it feels any different," he said. "I feel good. I feel like my body is moving well. That was a big point of focus with the new staff last year, just the efficiency of the body and moving well."

Posey said the thing that stood out in his limited time with the new hitting coaches was that they're "not a one size fits all group," noting that Donnie Ecker, Justin Viele and Dustin Lind work to understand each player's specific skill set and adjust accordingly. He watched from the couch as that helped the offense, which for a couple of years did not have much around Posey, turn into a top-five unit, with fellow veterans Crawford and Belt having career years at the plate. 

The Giants are hopeful that a similar bounce is waiting for Posey, who has been a key part of the messaging this offseason. Put Farhan Zaidi, Scott Harris or Gabe Kapler in front of a microphone and you're likely to hear them say it shouldn't be forgotten that they're adding a huge piece this offseason with Posey returning. 

He is coming back to a team that is still in the midst of a rebuild, but it's one that's better than it was when he left, and that should take some pressure off. Even as he struggled to find his old form at the plate, Posey hit second, third or fourth in 92 percent of his starts in 2019. He won't have to carry as heavy a load with Kapler now leaning on Mike Yastrzemski, Alex Dickerson, Wilmer Flores, Donovan Solano and other newcomers. 

Posey may also soon find that he has more help behind the plate than at any point of his Giants career. Joey Bart will start the season in the minors, but the goal is for Bart to quickly hit his way back to the big leagues, forming one of the game's best catching duos. 

The Giants mostly tried to let Posey focus on his home life last summer, but Posey said he did touch base with Bart occasionally, highlighting the good things he was doing and providing encouragement. The overall numbers for Bart weren't pretty, but that reminded Posey of his 2-for-17 cameo in 2009 and .225 average in that year's Arizona Fall League. 

 

"That was about as strange a situation as he could have been thrown into last year, but hopefully he got good experience that he can learn from," Posey said of Bart. "When I got called up I had less than 20 at-bats but didn't have much success and then went to Fall League and really struggled, and that gave me a chance to self-evaluate and figure out the adjustments that I needed to make. Sometimes that's the best thing for us, to have some low points and grind through them."

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Bart's struggles in his debut are part of the reason why it's so hard for anyone to predict what the future will look like for Posey. When he opted out, you could see the franchise handing the keys to Bart in 2020, further transitioning in the final guaranteed year of Posey's contract, and then moving forward with Bart and fellow first-rounder Patrick Bailey. 

The current 2021 plan, though, is similar to what it's been for a decade. Posey is the opening day starter and will be the main catcher. While it's hard to see that option year being picked up, a successful season could very easily lead to a new deal that keeps Posey around for a couple more years and turns one of the young catchers into a trade chip. 

Posey has said in the past that he wants to retire a Giant, but once again, he's dealing with the unknown. There are a lot of ways this can go in 2021, but as he prepares to return, Posey still has the same preference.

"I want to be in this uniform for the entirety of my career," he said. "Now, is that set in stone? No. But that would be ideal for me."