Why rebuilding Giants were so appealing for two free-agent starters

Why rebuilding Giants were so appealing for two free-agent starters

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- After watching the bullpen lay waste to what should have been one of the best nights of his life, Matt Moore came back in 2017 and led the National League in losses. The Giants traded him to the Rangers that offseason, and after a rough year there and another one in Detroit that was wrecked by injuries, Moore has signed with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in Japan. 

You would not expect Moore to be on a list of players who view San Francisco as a stepping stone to greater success, but Drew Smyly turned to Moore as he sorted through free-agent offers. The two played together in Tampa Bay and became friends, and Moore helped nudge Smyly to the Giants. 

"He loved the organization, he loved what they brought to the table," Smyly said. "He loved it. He loved playing for them, he loved the city, he loved going to the park every day. He had a lot of good things to say."

A lot has changed in San Francisco since Moore was brought over in the blockbuster deal. There is a new president and a new general manager, and Gabe Kapler has replaced Bruce Bochy and brought a dozen coaches along. But much of what Moore loved about the organization remains, and now it's supplemented by a focus on analytics and more modern methods. Smyly has mentioned a couple of times this spring that the emphasis on analytics played a part in his signing a one-year, $4 million deal. That surely brought a smile to Farhan Zaidi's face. 

When Zaidi was hired, he talked of making San Francisco a destination for free-agent pitchers. The Giants know that -- even with new dimensions -- they never will be all that appealing to position players, but the ballpark should be a draw for any pitcher, along with catcher Buster Posey and, down the line, Joey Bart. The front office hopes that Andrew Bailey, Ethan Katz and Brian Bannister can boost that effort. 

When the Giants signed Kevin Gausman and Smyly, so much of the attention was on what they could mean to the rebuild. They are potentially Drew Pomeranz 2.0, veterans with good stuff who can bring back a nice young piece -- another Mauricio Dubon, perhaps -- on July 31. But there's a flip side to all that. Pomeranz turned his career around when the Giants put him in the bullpen and he kept that going in Milwaukee, leading to a $34 million deal with the Padres. The Giants believe they've put a staff in place that can help veterans find a second life, and Gausman and Smyly stood out as two who certainly have the pedigree to once again become consistent starters. 

"You have communications with (the coaches) about how they see you, how they evaluate you, how they see you getting better," Smyly said. "They don't give you the complete spill, but they tell you how they think you can improve, what you're really good at, what you might be slacking at and you just go from there."

Smyly met with Kapler, Bailey and Bannister before he signed and got a rundown of how the Giants could help him turn back the clock. The Giants did not have their staff in place by the time they signed Gausman to a $9 million deal in December, but he arrived at camp and found a group with plenty of fresh ideas. 

"I've been really impressed with Bailey and Bannister and Katz. They all seem like they really want to get the best out of you and they have a method to all the madness," Gausman said. "You feel pretty confident that every day they're going to put you in a good spot."

Gausman has been in the big leagues since 2013 but said he wasn't all that familiar with the newest analytics until he went through a full spring with the Braves last year. Sometimes the adjustments are simple, like pitching exclusively out of the stretch, as Gausman did last season and has continued to do. 

Sometimes it's more complicated, and the Giants have installed their own pitch lab to allow their pitchers to alter grips and arm slots. They are changing repertoires left and right. It's a common thing in camp to hear a pitcher say Bannister gave him a new pitch after showing him another big leaguer with a similar arm slot. 

"They are very analytically based," Gausman said. "To see it over here was pretty comforting."

Then there are the more obvious comforts for free-agent pitchers. Gausman, a Colorado native, is looking forward to playing in front of family and friends three times a year and starting at Coors Field for the first time. Smyly smiled and admitted it doesn't hurt to face a pitcher instead of the DH, and he liked his first taste of National League life last season. It was his first time regularly hitting himself. 

"I wasn't any good at it, but I really enjoyed being in the lineup," he said. "It takes you back to Little League."

Smyly will take those hacks for a team that isn't projected to be very good, but that was another factor the Giants used to their advantage. During both pursuits, they were able to truthfully tell a veteran that he would be in the Opening Day rotation. 

"More than anything, it was about where I thought they would give me the best chance to re-establish myself as a starter," Gausman said. 

That's what every pitcher like Gausman or Smyly wants, and while the Giants hope to build a young and deep rotation, you can bet they will always leave a little wiggle room. The organization learned an expensive lesson when the prior regime spent heavily on free agent pitching. It's not a bad idea to leave some spots open for veterans who need a fresh start, and it should be easy to sell them on coming to Oracle Park. 

"It's no secret that the way I pitch I get a lot of fly balls, so I think the park only helps," Smyly said. "The West Coast, the air, I think it's definitely going to save a few home runs versus playing in Philly where the ball flies, and in Texas. It can only help, but you still have to go out there and make good pitches."

[RELATED: Giants' Dubon likely to get 'quite a bit' of outfield time]

For Smyly, the ballpark was the cherry on top. The Giants may not be an appealing home for hitters in a similar boat, but they offered everything the lefty was looking for. 

"I wanted to stay starting," he said. "I feel like I could easily transition into a bullpen role like Pomeranz did last year -- I know that's a possibility -- but right now I feel I can still go down and have a starting role."

Giants: What you need to know about top Giants' prospects in camp

Giants: What you need to know about top Giants' prospects in camp


The simulated game at Oracle Park on Wednesday afternoon got the Giants a bit closer to being ready for their 2020 opener, and it also gave a huge glimpse of the future. 

Joey Bart and Patrick Bailey served as the two catchers for the early innings, Heliot Ramos was roaming the outfield and Will Wilson played at second base alongside Brandon Crawford. All four also got their turns at the plate.

The next wave is coming fast for the Giants, and they took advantage of the expansion of rosters to get most of their top prospects into camp last week (Hunter Bishop still could be on the way once he recovers from COVID-19). The players will spend the next two months in Sacramento, honing their craft every day and taking part in intrasquad games with plenty of former big leaguers. 

Here's a rundown of the top prospects who will be part of the player pool, and other minor leaguers who have been added to camp over recent days:

Marco Luciano

The most exciting young player in the system, Luciano is widely considered a top 20 prospect in the game and there are some evaluators who think he could be top five by this time next year. Signed out of the Dominican Republic two years ago, the shortstop made his professional debut last year, batting .302/.417/.564 in 47 games, with 10 homers and 13 doubles. 

Luciano doesn't turn 19 until September, but he's the type of prospect who could hit his way to the big leagues before he can legally enter a bar. He isn't close to big league-ready, but he'll benefit greatly from three months of reps he couldn't get elsewhere, and he should skip a level or two when the minor league season returns. 

Luciano already is turning heads, and he has been one of the most-talked about players in camp the first week because of swings like this one (turn your sound up): 

Joey Bart

Bart is the heir apparent to Buster Posey and impressed in his month in big league camp. He was 7-for-16 with two homers in Cactus League games before getting sent to minor league camp two days before spring training shut down. 

Two hand fractures slowed Bart's progress last year, but he reached Double-A, tore up the Fall League -- a 1.290 OPS and four homers in 10 games before an injury -- and was set to start April in Triple-A. The Giants had planned for Bart to spend a couple of months there at least, but even with no minor league season, he's not really in the mix for an Opening Day job this month. 

"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," manager Gabe Kapler said on a recent Giants Insider Podcast.

Bart is in a fascinating spot. With extra roster spots and a DH, the Giants very easily could carry him at some point this season. On the other hand, Posey likely will get a higher percentage of starts than normal given how much of a sprint this is, and the organization could opt to keep Bart from accruing service time in 2020.

[GIANTS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

Heliot Ramos

Outside of Bart, Ramos, the first-rounder in 2017, is the most likely of the hitting prospects to see Oracle Park in 2020. He wasn't in big league camp, but team officials hoped he might go to Double-A or Triple-A and play his way into a September call-up. Those won't exist this season, and Ramos will need a lot of injuries in the big league outfield to get an opportunity. It's hard to see how the Giants would want to start his clock in a 60-game season. 

Still, this is a great opportunity for Ramos, who hit 16 homers across two levels last season and finished his year in Double-A. He's still just 20, but he'll now get a summer to work more closely with established big leaguers and more seasoned coaches. It's possible that Ramos will continue progressing to the point that next spring he heads to Scottsdale competing for a big league job. 

Patrick Bailey 

Taken with the 13th overall pick just a month ago, the catcher was thrown right into the fire. Kapler said there was a lot to like about the way Bailey caught veterans in Wednesday's simulated game.

"Patrick has a lot of energy in his body," Kapler said. "I really, really like his setup, his flexibility in his ankles and hips. I think what is most impressive is his body language and his poise. A lot of people noticed that. It wasn't just my perspective. People were commenting on how poised and natural he was behind the plate and not rattled at all from the first real intense competition."

As an advanced hitter and game-caller, Bailey could start his professional career in San Jose next year and quickly move to Double-A. It might not be long before he's pushing to join Bart in the big leagues:

Alexander Canario

The 20-year-old isn't as well known as some others, but should be. Canario is ranked fifth in the system by Baseball-America and sixth by MLB Pipeline. He has tremendous raw power and bat speed, leading to 16 homers last season in 59 games. 

Canario is raw, and he has struck out a lot in the minors, but that also makes him someone who could benefit more than anyone from three months with higher-quality instruction.

"He hasn't played at a high level yet, there's a lot of development yet to occur," Kapler said. "With Canario, it's much more about getting the experience and being around the instructors."

Luis Toribio

Ranked sixth in the organization by BA and seventh by Pipeline, Toribio is yet another teenage prospect with huge potential. A third baseman, Toribio has the "best approach in the system," according to Baseball-America. In 118 minor league games, the left-handed hitter has a .428 OBP and 98 walks to 121 strikeouts. 

"He has plus defensive actions with a chance to hit for power and average," farm director Kyle Haines said of Toribio, who won't turn 20 until the day after this season ends. 

Will Wilson

The Giants considered taking Wilson with the 10th overall pick in last year's draft, but they took Bishop and the shortstop from NC State ended up going 15th to the Angels. When the Angels later wanted to dump Zack Cozart's $12.6 million, the Giants were happy to take it on -- with Wilson being the cost of doing business. 

The 21-year-old had a .275/.328/.439 line in 46 games last summer and comes to camp hoping to join former Wolfpack teammates Bailey and Nick Swiney en route to the big leagues. 

"He is a well-rounded player with versatility," Haines said. "A chance to be a plus offensive contributor while playing the middle infield."

Camilo Doval

Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2015, Doval hasn't been considered a top prospect, but he appears to have had a breakthrough. The 23-year-old has a fastball that reaches triple digits and a good slider, and while he hasn't pitched above A-ball, he came to minor league camp this year and opened eyes with his bullpen sessions. 

"He was lightning in minor league camp," Kapler said.  

Giants officials have continued to gather around Doval over the past week. A right-handed reliever can zoom to the big leagues with two good pitches, and Doval might have that in him. Kapler compared him to Seranthony Dominguez, who was Philadelphia's closer for part of the 2018 season. 

"It's really a big arm," Kapler said of Doval. "Our minor league staff is especially excited about Camilo and we've all spent a lot of time watching video. It's a fastball-slider combination that, from a stuff perspective, is going to play at the major league level. He needs more experience in a camp like this and that experience is not limited to what he does on the mound, but also his ability to work with catchers, know our bunt plays and prepare to help us. 

"Whether that's the outset of the season or another time down the road, it's really good for us to get eyes on him. I don't anticipate anything more than what I just said, which is seeing what happens and what transpires through camp. But a lot of people on the minor league side are really excited about him."

Caleb Baragar 

A lefty reliever who was taken in the ninth round of the 2016 draft, Baragar is coming off a solid season with Richmond. He had a 3.57 ERA and about a strikeout per inning across three levels last year and pitched for Sacramento in the Triple-A postseason. Kapler said Baragar's fastball is what stands out.

"It's the ability to compete, it's the ability to get in the zone and stay in the zone," he said. "And it's adding another left-hander to our mix."

Sam Wolff 

You probably recognize Wolff's name, and not just because he was in big league camp the last two springs. The 29-year-old right-hander came to the Giants in the Matt Moore trade with the Rangers after the Winter Meetings in 2017.

Wolff had flexor tendon surgery that year and was still rehabbing when traded, and he missed some time last year, too. When on the field for Double-A Richmond, he had a 1.78 ERA and 10.7 strikeouts per nine. As an advanced reliever who piles up strikeouts, Wolff is possibly more likely than anyone on this list but the next guy to debut in this weird season. Kapler said the Giants considered naming him to the initial player pool list that was released last week.

"He's older but is an established minor league pitcher with really good stuff," Kapler said. "One of the things that we thought about with our bullpen is that, because we don't have a lot of established veteran relievers with long track records of success, we wanted to open up the pool. That's why you're seeing Caleb and Wolff here. We want to see if we can catch somebody kind of hot with really, really good stuff and we want to create as much competition as possible."

Tyler Cyr

The 27-year-old Bay Area native has been in big league camp twice and made three Cactus League appearances this year before getting reassigned. He was back as part of the initial player pool and has jumped into the bullpen competition. 

Cyr looked like he would debut in 2018 but an elbow fracture cost him a season. He returned to Double-A last year and had a 2.05 ERA and 10.6 strikeouts-per-nine before joining the Sacramento River Cats for their postseason run. 

Chadwick Tromp

One of six catchers in camp, Tromp, a native of Aruba, was a minor league free agent who signed after seven seasons in the Reds organization. The 25-year-old had shoulder surgery in 2018 but came back last year to post a .389 OBP and hit seven homers in 26 Triple-A games. He has shown improved plate discipline at the upper levels of the minors, and provides catching depth that's always needed. 

Brandon Belt sidelined by heel pain as Giants' MLB opener approaches

Brandon Belt sidelined by heel pain as Giants' MLB opener approaches

On the first day of intrasquad games the Giants were without two key players, and another was slightly limited. 

Gabe Kapler said Brandon Belt is out at least five to seven days with right heel pain. Hunter Pence took his swings Wednesday but did not play the outfield because he has minor foot pain, though the Giants expect him to be a full go soon. Buster Posey missed the day with the same personal issue that caused him to miss Friday's workout. 

Belt's pain, which he has had in the past, is by far the most concerning. The Giants have just 15 days until their opener at Dodger Stadium and their starting first baseman is in a walking boot. Kapler said it was ‚Äúpremature to make an assessment" for the opening series. He said he spoke with Belt and the first baseman was confident he would be okay. 

If Belt is not ready by opening day, the Giants do have some first base depth. Wilmer Flores, Pablo Sandoval and Darin Ruf all could handle starts there. 

[GIANTS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

Belt had been working out with Group 2, which includes Brandon Crawford, Evan Longoria, Posey and Donovan Solano. The Giants played a simulated game in the afternoon at Oracle Park, but they did not have players stationed at every position. Because they generally had infielders set up for every inning, coaches took turns fielding at first base. 

[RELATED: Watch Luciano hit monster home run in live BP]

Belt spoke with the media on Sunday and expressed optimism about the upcoming season. He said he feels good about safety protocols put in place and has talked to several doctors about whether this plan is a good idea. Belt also said he was excited about the short season.

"It could be a year that maybe a team that wouldn't get in otherwise gets in and they go on a hot streak and maybe win the World Series," Belt said. "Our goal is the same no matter if we're playing 162 or 60 -- we're playing to win ballgames and get in the playoffs and ultimately win a World Series."