Abiatal Avelino

Giants spring preview: Will new team's regime mix it up at shortstop?


Giants spring preview: Will new team's regime mix it up at shortstop?

After second baseman Joe Panik got called up in 2014, there was so much stability in the middle of the infield for the Giants that the organization started regularly using a nickname -- Crawnik -- as a marketing gimmick.

But Panik is gone, first to New York and now to Toronto. And the Giants' shortstop position, which was as set-it-and-forget-it as any in the National League, all of a sudden carries some intrigue. 

There's no doubt that Brandon Crawford is the starter, but Giants officials have talked often in the last six months of the need to get more production out of the middle infield, and it's not hard to read through the "we'd like to keep guys fresh" lines that get thrown out every once in a while when core players are asked about. 

The Giants will be at their best if Crawford shakes off a down 2019 season, but they're no longer going to wait around at any position. This week, we've looked at catchers, first basemen, second basemen and third basemen. Here's a preview of the spring coming up for the shortstops ...

Brandon Crawford 

Crawford already holds the Giants' team record with seven consecutive Opening Day starts at shortstop, and he'll stretch it to eight as he begins his 10th big league season. Crawford hit some milestones last year and had a memorable eight-RBI game at Coors Field, but overall, the numbers took a dip. 

Crawford's .228 average was his lowest since his rookie season and his .654 OPS was his lowest since 2012. He hit 11 homers and drove in 59 runs in 500 at-bats. The bigger problem for the Giants might be that the defensive numbers have slipped. 

Crawford's Defensive Runs Saved the last four seasons have shown a steep decline: 20, 9, 6, 0. The SABR defensive index had him ninth among NL shortstops and Statcast's Outs Above Average had him in the bottom half of the league. The eye test tells a slightly different story. Crawford remains remarkably trustworthy on all the routine plays, and he still mixes in the occasional game-saving stop. 

The Giants are in an interesting spot with Crawford, who just turned 33. He's still their best shortstop and he's not even two full years removed from an All-Star appearance. But for the first time since he grabbed hold of the job, Crawford has some serious competition.

If he has a .598 OPS against lefties again, Gabe Kapler is going to give a lot of those starts to others and turn to Crawford for late-inning defense. 

Mauricio Dubon

The man who was supposed to start at second base provided a spring training preview on Friday night:

The beat writers have been saying all winter that the Giants want Dubon in a super-utility role and the video above provides some actual visual evidence. But that role doesn't just mean getting comfortable on the grass. 

Dubon is a natural shortstop who spent the majority of his time there in Triple-A last season. The Giants will mix him in against lefties, and it's possible that Dubon at short and Donovan Solano or the switch-hitting Yolmer Sanchez at second becomes the default combination when a southpaw is on the mound. 

Dubon is a Crawford fan and is eager to learn his tricks. To Crawford's credit, he has been a very willing teacher, and the two seem to have formed a bond. 

[RELATED: Crawford shocked Giants were able to sign Gold Glove winner]

The Rest of the Field

On the 40-man roster, Crawford, Dubon and Solano are joined by Abiatal Avelino, who has fallen down the depth chart. Solano actually made 14 starts at shortstop last season and did just fine, but Dubon is the better defender and the more likely everyday option if Crawford gets hurt.

There is one possibility, however, where Solano might make a lot of sense; the Giants are lefty-heavy in the outfield and may need Dubon in center against some starting pitchers. 

Sanchez can handle short in a pinch but he has just 20 innings there the last three seasons. Something went seriously wrong if he's getting any starts as a shortstop. Cristhian Adames signed a minor league deal early in the offseason and also can play short.

Giants spring preview: Mauricio Dubon has new second-base competition

Giants spring preview: Mauricio Dubon has new second-base competition

Farhan Zaidi taught Giants fans last spring that it's never too late to add a starter to your Opening Day lineup. Connor Joe and Michael Reed had barely had time to unpack their duffels before taking the field at Petco Park to get the season started. 

By that standard, the addition this week of Yolmer Sanchez comes remarkably early, and it gives manager Gabe Kapler plenty of time to figure out what he wants to do at second base. The Giants let Mauricio Dubon take the starting job for a spin last September and the results were encouraging, but there are plenty of options as 2020 kicks off. 

Earlier this week, we looked at the race to be the backup catcher and the lack of any sort of drama at first base. Today, the focus is on second base, where the Giants will head to spring training with a true competition to see who will jog out to the infield at Dodger Stadium on March 26 ...

Mauricio Dubon

For all the talk about Mike Yastrzemski, the Dubon trade might have been Zaidi's best move in his first full year in charge. When Drew Pomeranz tanked as a starter, the Giants moved him to the bullpen and turned a few 97 mph fastballs and scoreless relief outings into Dubon, a 25-year-old middle infielder who has a legitimate shot at being a big part of the next good Giants team. 

Dubon was called up at the end of August and hit .279/.312/.442 while basically serving as the everyday second baseman. He showed surprising power, hitting four homers, and looked to have the potential to be one of the best defensive second basemen in the league. 

Dubon has a strong desire to get better and already has formed a bond with shortstop Brandon Crawford. If you extrapolate his numbers from September over a full season, he's a two-win player, which the Giants haven't had at second base since Joe Panik was an All-Star in 2015. 

So ... why does this article even bring up any hint of a competition? Why aren't the Giants just handing second base to Dubon and giving him a shot to lock it down for a half-decade? 

For as much promise as Dubon showed at second, the Giants believe his true ceiling can be reached if he becomes a super-utility guy, someone capable of shifting positions two or three times a game and letting Kapler maximize matchups elsewhere. The Giants will take a look at him in center field and some of their people believe he can be an above-average defender there, giving Zaidi his new version of Chris Taylor or Kiké Hernandez. 

Dubon still could be a 155-game player, just in a unique way. Imagine him starting a game at second, then sliding over to short in the sixth if Kapler wants to keep Crawford from facing a tough lefty reliever. Or starting a game in center against a left-handed pitcher, then moving back to the infield if Steven Duggar pinch-hits against a righty. Those are the types of things the Giants are contemplating. 

Dubon might not be the starting second baseman every day, but he'll get plenty of time there, and between his talent, energy, and personality, he's a strong bet to become the next fan favorite. 

Donovan Solano

Players who have batted .400 on the road in a season over the last 40 years: Ichiro Suzuki and Donovan Solano. That's it, that's the list. 

A non-roster invitee who hadn't been in the big leagues since 2016, Solano was one of the better stories of the season, batting .330 in 81 appearances and posting an OPS+ that was 17 points above league average. Solano hit both lefties and righties and batted an MLB-best .394 against fastballs, so he figures to be a valuable weapon for Kapler in the late innings. 

Solano had never done anything close to any of that in the big leagues before and he turned 32 in December, so the Giants certainly aren't looking at him as some sort of found starter, but he's a solid hitter who can handle second and short, and he should see plenty of time as the Giants go righty-heavy against some of the division's left-handed aces. 

Yolmer Sanchez

You probably don't know much about Yolmer Sanchez, but there's a decent chance he's one of your favorite new Giants after a few weeks. 

Sanchez won a Gold Glove with the White Sox last season but was let go because they didn't think his bat would justify what he was due in arbitration. The Giants scooped him up, and while they surely have ideas of how they can get a little more out of him at the plate, it's that glove that could put Sanchez in the lineup regularly. Sanchez led AL second basemen with 11 Defensive Runs Saved last season and has been worth 8.2 WAR the last three years thanks to his defensive work. 

Sanchez has a career OPS+ of 80 and was at just 73 last season, but he's a switch-hitter who can play second, third or short, so there's certainly a spot for him on this roster. Sanchez's platoon splits bounce around a bit, but he had 11 homers from the left side in 2017 and eight in 2018. If he can find that form, he's a perfect fit alongside Dubon and Solano. 

Kean Wong

Speaking of lefties, the Giants claimed Wong from the Angels early in the offseason and never let him go. The younger brother of St. Louis' Kolten Wong, Kean is a former fourth-rounder who still is just 24 years old. He has a .287/.342/.383 slash line in the minors, and while there hasn't been much power in his career, he did hit 10 homers and 29 doubles in Triple-A last season, so perhaps there's something to tap into. 

Wong can play third base, too, and has some outfield experience, so he's another one who should get a look as a utility guy. With Crawford, Dubon, Sanchez and Solano all likely headed for the Opening Day roster and Pablo Sandoval not far behind, there's not much room for Wong at the moment. But he's on the 40-man, and if it stays that way, you'll certainly see him at some point in 2020. 

[RELATED: Giants reportedly interested in reunion with Pence]

The Rest of the Field

The lasting memory of Abiatal Avelino in 2019 was a poorly-timed sprint through a stop sign. He had a .759 OPS in the PCL but he's still just 24 years old. 

The Giants liked what they saw from Cristhian Adames and re-signed him to a minor league deal. He'll be in camp as a non-roster invitee, and he's another one who can handle both second and short. 

The other middle infield option from the non-roster crew is Drew Robinson, who mostly played the outfield for the Rangers and Cardinals but was listed as an infielder with the Giants. His versatility is his calling card. Robinson, 27, has started at center, left, third and second in the Majors, although he has just a .655 OPS in 253 career plate appearances. 

Sacramento River Cats, Giants' Triple-A affiliate, win 2019 PCL title

Sacramento River Cats, Giants' Triple-A affiliate, win 2019 PCL title

The Sacramento River Cats had the fewest wins of any division winner in the Pacific Coast League this season. But that didn't matter on Friday night.

The Giants' Triple-A affiliate beat the Round Rock Express 7-5 to sweep the Pacific Coast League championship series.

The 2019 PCL title is Sacramento's first since 2008 when the River Cats were affiliated with the Oakland A's.

The achievement also ended a long, long drought for Giants' Triple-A affiliates.

Infielder Abiatal Avelino and outfielder Mike Gerber came through in the top of the eighth inning to give the River Cats a lead they wouldn't relinquish.

Avelino drove in the game-tying and go-ahead runs with a single to right field, while Gerber added an insurance run with an RBI groundout.

Switch-pitcher Pat Venditte threw a scoreless inning and was credited with the win.

Now, the River Cats will face the International League champion Columbus Clippers in the Triple-A Championship game on Tuesday in Memphis, Tenn. It's a one-game, winner-take-all clash for the Triple-A crown.

While the Giants have fallen on hard times at the major league level, things are starting to look up in the minors. In addition to the Sacramento's PCL title, the San Francisco has a handful of promising prospects making their way through the system.

[RELATED: Bart projected as top-10 prospect]

Things are starting to look up for Farhan Zaidi and Co.