Zach Green

Giants spring preview: Evan Longoria will remain everyday third baseman

Giants spring preview: Evan Longoria will remain everyday third baseman

The Giants spent most of the past decade with remarkable stability around their infield, but the hot corner wasn't part of that equation. 

Once Pablo Sandoval departed for Boston, they tried Casey McGehee before stumbling upon Matt Duffy. He was sent out a year later, and guys like Eduardo Nuñez, Conor Gillaspie, Christian Arroyo, Ryder Jones and Jae-Gyun Hwang got a chance to be the solution before the organization dealt for Evan Longoria.

All of a sudden, there's not much for Gabe Kapler to think about it when it comes to that infield spot. Longoria is set to make his 11th consecutive Opening Day start, the longest streak among MLB third basemen, and the Giants re-signed Pablo Sandoval this week, again pairing the two veterans who made 153 starts at third last season even as both dealt with injuries. 

Earlier this week, we looked at the catchers, the first basemen and the second basemen. Today it's third base, where there's nothing to be decided when position players report to Scottsdale in a couple of weeks ...

Evan Longoria

The first year was a disappointment for all parties, but Longoria looked much more like his old self in 2019. In 129 games, Longoria slashed .254/.325/.437, good for an OPS+ of 102 that was his highest since 2016. Longoria joined Mike Yastrzemski and Kevin Pillar in the 20-homer club and did most of that damage during a torrid stretch as the Giants briefly snuck back into the Wild Card race. 

From July 1 to Aug. 31, Longoria batted .359 with 10 homers in 31 games. That was also the roughest stretch of Longoria's season in a way; he missed 19 games with plantar fasciitis in his left foot. 

Longoria struggled a bit with the glove when he first got to San Francisco, but last season he finished fifth among qualified third basemen with seven Defensive Runs Saved. Mix that in with the uptick at the plate and you have a player worth 2.4 WAR, which the Giants will happily take. 

Longoria turned 34 in October and he at times has been discussed in salary-swap deals, but for now, he's locked in through 2022 and there's nobody in the farm system that looks capable of pushing him for starts anytime soon. 

Pablo Sandoval

Stop us if you've heard this one before: The Giants are going to play the splits. Longoria crushed lefties last year but hit just .240/.303/.419 against right-handers. The Giants needed some left-handed help at third and they're turning to a familiar face. 

This is the third phase of Sandoval's Giants career, and it's perhaps the most surprising. He was one of Bruce Bochy's favorite players and everyone involved thought Bochy was allowing Sandoval to say goodbye when he got an emotional at-bat Sept. 1, after nearly a month off and with the knowledge that he'd be having Tommy John surgery. Well, a funny thing happened on the way to life as a DH. 

The Giants quietly kept tabs on Sandoval all winter, and when Gabe Kapler visited Miami after the holidays to meet some of his younger players, he spent time with Sandoval, too. Kapler came away feeling the same way about Sandoval that the previous staff did, and he'll lean on the Panda to provide the kind of energy and "I'll do anything for the team" approach that Kapler and his young coaches want. 

The intangibles are nice, but the Giants aren't bringing Sandoval back just to please season ticket holders. He slugged .507 last year, hit 14 homers and stood as perhaps the most dangerous pinch-hitter in the National League. The Giants are counting on a healthy Sandoval to be a contributor, whether that's on Opening Day, late April or closer to the middle of the summer. Sandoval expects to be back on the field months ahead of schedule. 

The Rest of the Field

Zach Green was mentioned in the first base preview as someone who had a pretty clear path to playing time if a corner infielder got hurt. That's changed since then, as Sandoval likely will be the primary backup at first and third. But third base is Green's main position, and he should be there quite often in Sacramento. 

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

Donovan Solano and Cristhian Adames played some third last year and Drew Robinson -- the third non-roster infielder along with Adames and Green -- has played there in the past. 

The player to watch though is another one added this week. Yolmer Sanchez has 187 big league starts at third base and was the starter for the 2018 White Sox, making 141 appearances at the hot corner. Sanchez was worth five DRS at third in 2018 and eight in limited time the year before. That could be a big part of his role with the Giants. 

Giants spring preview: Brandon Belt headed for a decade at first base

Giants spring preview: Brandon Belt headed for a decade at first base

There aren't many players around the league who get thrown into trade rumors by their own fans more than Brandon Belt does, but as the Giants prepare for their first spring under manager Gabe Kapler, the 31-year-old first baseman is headed for a milestone. 

If Belt is standing at his usual position on Opening Day at Dodger Stadium, he'll become just the third Giant to make double-digit Opening Day starts at first base and the first to do it 10 consecutive seasons.

Willie McCovey never made 10 consecutive Opening Day starts at first base for the Giants. Will Clark and J.T. Snow didn't, either. Barring an injury, Brandon Belt, survivor of the #BeltWars, will stand alone with that distinction. 

Yesterday we looked at the catchers who will be in camp for the Giants, led by Buster Posey, who also is poised for his 10th consecutive Opening Day start. On Wednesday, it's the first basemen, and it's not a big group ... 

Brandon Belt

Gabe Kapler had one of the more fascinating introductory press conferences we've ever seen in the Bay Area, but late in that hour, he made a point of mentioning one of his key players. 

"I've thought a lot about Brandon Belt (and) how impressive it is to watch him take an at-bat, independent of the outcome of the at-bat," Kapler said in November. "He tends to look over pitches and make really good swing-or-don't-swing decisions."

Kapler isn't alone here. Throughout the organization, the Giants are teaching their young hitters to be more patient and have a better sense of the strike zone. A common thread through just about all of the non-roster additions over the last 14 months has been solid to high on-base percentages.

Belt, who finished 15th in the NL in pitches per plate appearance even in a down year, has plenty of fans in this new regime, and the Giants intend to accentuate his strengths, which is a bit of a change of pace from a staff that was frustrated with Belt's lack of aggression at times. 

That's part of the reason trade whispers have never made any sense. Belt, who was hampered by a knee injury much of last year, is coming off the worst statistical season of his career. Farhan Zaidi and Scott Harris would have been selling low, and that's not what those two do.

With a new staff, hopefully some improved health, and ballpark changes that should help Belt more than anyone, the Giants are optimistic. 

But ... they're also ready to be quicker with adjustments, and this new staff is ready to be far more aggressive with platoons and days off when the matchup is a poor one. Belt has a .815 OPS against righties the past three seasons, but it's just .668 against lefties. If that continues, Belt will find himself starting a lot more games in the dugout. 

Darin Ruf

That last sentence is why Ruf, who will be in camp as a non-roster invitee according to The Athletic, might be more interesting than your average 33-year-old returning from the KBO. Ruf was a part-timer for the Phillies for most of his five seasons there (he was not there when Kapler was the manager) but he always hit lefties.

He has a .299/.379/.542 slash line in 271 career at-bats against lefties, with experience at first base and in the outfield. 

The Giants have preached versatility since Zaidi took over, but they also now have a 26th roster spot to play with and can more easily carry a lefty-masher on their bench. 

Ruf spent the past three seasons in the KBO, where he hit 86 homers and compiled a .313/.404/.564 slash line. That league isn't anywhere near the level of competition as the big leagues, but the Giants clearly saw something they liked. 

Zach Green

Green was one of the more interesting non-roster invitees last spring, a 24-year-old who had hit 20 homers the year before as a Phillies minor leaguer. The Sacramento native took full advantage of whatever happened to the PCL last year, crushing 25 homers in 252 Triple-A at-bats. 

Green, who primarily plays third, actually got 16 plate appearances for the Giants right before and after the trade deadline, but he had just two hits and struck out six times. In September, the Giants placed Green on the 60-day injured list with a hip impingement to clear a roster spot for Wandy Peralta.

Green was then outrighted off the 40-man roster in November, but he signed a minor league deal and returns to a good situation. 

The Giants have a much-improved farm system, but they have very little talent at the corner infield spots in the upper levels of the minors. If Green can pick up where he left off, he should be an everyday starter for the River Cats and could be one injury away from significant big league playing time.

[RELATED: Giants spring preview: What Posey's back-up race looks like]

The Wild Card

Amazingly, Belt is the only true first baseman on the 40-man roster, but there are others with experience. Buster Posey made just three starts at first last year and it doesn't sound like the Giants want that to change in 2020. Keep an eye on Austin Slater, though.

He can handle first defensively and the Giants want to find more ways to get his right-handed bat in the lineup. 

What you need to know about Giants' non-roster invitees

What you need to know about Giants' non-roster invitees

In 2012, the Giants put out a press release that highlighted the inclusion of top prospects Gary Brown and Joe Panik on their list of non-roster invitees. If you dug deep in that release, you found the names of two others who weren't at all known in the Bay Area but would play a key role in championship runs. 

Gregor Blanco and Joaquin Arias were non-roster invitees that year. Ryan Vogelsong, Andres Torres and Santiago Casilla count as other success stories from the championship years, and even this version of the Giants has found some non-roster gold. Dereck Rodriguez was an unknown in camp two years ago. Donovan Solano was a non-roster invitee last spring. 

You already know all about Joey Bart and probably Sean Hjelle, but the odds are good that at least a couple of the others announced Monday will become contributors for the 2020 Giants. At the very least, given the level of roster churn under Farhan Zaidi, you're likely to see quite a few of these guys get a shot of some sort this season. Here's what you need to know about the 18 guys invited to camp on Monday ... 

Joey Bart: He needs no introduction. Bart is the organization's top prospect and one of the best prospects in baseball, period, and the Giants are eager to get him to the big leagues after a strong 2019 and a brief demolition of the Arizona Fall League. Bart should be the story of camp, and given that Buster Posey usually sees just a couple dozen spring at-bats, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Bart behind the plate every other game in the Cactus League. Bart should start the season in Triple-A but it won't be long before he's in San Francisco. 

Tyler Heineman: The 28-year-old actually scooped the Giants on Monday, announcing his signing on Twitter. 

Chad Tromp: A 24-year-old from Aruba, Chadwick Tromp had a .286/.389/.610 slash line in 26 Triple-A games last year with seven homers. He was slowed by shoulder surgery in 2018, but he's young for an available catcher and has flashed improved plate discipline as he has reached the upper levels of the minors. The Giants don't have any catching depth behind Buster Posey, Aramis Garcia and Bart, so there's a real opportunity for both Heineman and Tromp to compete with Garcia but also lock up a Triple-A job. 

Cristhian Adames: The versatile infielder played 10 games for the Giants late in the year, going 7-for-22. He was outrighted to Triple-A after the season and signed a minor league contract, just like ... 

Zach Green: The corner infielder was placed on the 60-day DL in early September with a hip injury, which cost him a shot at a call-up but also got him a month's worth of service time and big league pay. The Giants signed Green and Adames at the same time in November, providing some infield depth. The 25-year-old hit 25 homers in 297 plate appearances in Triple-A but went just 2-for-14 in the big leagues. Right now, he doesn't have much competition behind Evan Longoria. 

Drew Robinson: The Giants signed the 27-year-old back in October. Robinson has played every position but pitcher and catcher in the minors. 

Joey Rickard: The 28-year-old made 26 appearances for the Giants last season but was non-tendered in early December. The staff liked Rickard's defense last year and he could again have a path to outfield time given how left-handed the current outfield mix is. 

Jamie Westbrook: Taken by his hometown Diamondbacks in the fifth round of the 2013 draft, Westbrook has a .280/.334/.431 slash line in seven minor league seasons. He's a right-handed hitter who had 16 homers and a .358 OBP across two levels last season. 

Matt Carasiti: The right-hander made his big league debut for the Rockies in 2016 but has bounced around, including a year with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. Carasiti got back to the big leagues with the Mariners last year, starting five games as an opener and relieving in six others. He had a 4.66 ERA in the big leagues and a 3.53 ERA in the minors. 

Tyler Cyr: This completes a nice comeback for the Bay Area native. A right-hander who was in camp two years ago, Cyr was set back when he needed surgery to repair an elbow fracture. He missed most of the 2018 season but came back last year to post a 1.97 ERA in 38 appearances, with more than a strikeout per inning. Still just 26, Cyr looks to be back in the bullpen mix he was about to join before he got hurt. 

Rico Garcia: The Giants picked up the right-hander early in the offseason but then non-tendered him. The 25-year-old had a 4.24 ERA and 9.5 strikeouts per nine as a minor league starter and made two late-season appearances for the Rockies. 

Sean Hjelle: Perhaps the biggest news out of Monday's non-roster announcement was Hjelle's inclusion. A second-round pick in 2018, Hjelle will draw a lot of attention. He's the organization's best pitching prospect and he also happens to be 6-foot-11. Hjelle repeats his delivery well and has a good feel for pitching, and he cruised through Low-A and High-A last season before getting knocked around a bit in six Double-A starts. Overall, Hjelle had a 3.32 ERA in his first big league season. He should start this year in Double-A, but the Giants want to be aggressive with their best prospects and Hjelle could reach the Majors this year. 

[RELATED: Why Sean Hjelle stood out to former Giant Ryan Vogelsong]

Trey McNutt: A 30-year-old right-hander who pitched in an independent league for two years, McNutt was with the A's organization last year. He's currently tearing up the Mexican Winter League, with 24 strikeouts and one run allowed in 15 2/3 relief innings. McNutt has a fan in Matt Daniels, the organization's coordinator of pitching sciences: 

Sam Moll: The only left-hander on the list, Moll had a 2.39 ERA as a reliever for Richmond and Sacramento last season. Moll was taken in the third round by the Rockies in 2013 and made 11 appearances for the A's in 2017. 

Carlos Navas: The 27-year-old made 15 appearances for Sacramento last season, posting a 5.08 ERA as a swingman. 

Andrew Triggs: The 30-year-old has started games each of the past three seasons for the A's, and he has a 4.53 ERA in 45 big league appearances. The Giants have plenty of pitchers already in the mix for rotation spots, but they're thin at the Triple-A level. 

Raffi Vizcaino: Signed out of the Dominican Republic, the 24-year-old has been in the organization for seven years. Vizcaino pitched well out of the bullpen for San Jose and Richmond last season, although walks have always been an issue. 

Sam Wolff: The right-hander had flexor tendon surgery while in the minors with the Rangers in 2017 and was included in the Matt Moore trade while rehabbing. Wolff missed time last year, too, but he had a 1.78 ERA in 25 relief appearances. Wolff has averaged double-digit strikeouts per nine at every stop he has made in the last three seasons.