Did Giants solve their biggest issue in offseason?


There are more ways than ever before to measure how players and teams fare defensively. 

You can choose between Defensive Runs Saved or Outs Above Average. You can look up the jumps an outfielder is getting, the arm strength on a throw from short, the pop time of a catcher or how far any of them traveled to snag a ball that was hit in the air. You can easily find sprint speeds and framing numbers and the odds that any line drive is turned into an out. All of that is before you even get to the proprietary methods every team has. 

But when trying to figure out if the Giants are going to be better defensively this year than in 2022, perhaps all you need is a simple explanation from their manager.

"We're going to have outfielders playing the outfield," Gabe Kapler said at FanFest earlier this month.

The line was part of a much longer answer in response to one of the most important questions of the offseason.

The Giants failed to get their top two targets, but still added six free agents while committing nearly $200 million to the roster. They feel they have a better roster than they did a year ago, and some players and members of the front office have even noted they feel better about their collection of talent than they did at this time in 2021.

But there's still a big question hanging over the offseason work: Did the Giants meaningfully fix their biggest issue from an 81-81 season?

The 2022 Giants had a lot of flaws, but more than anything, they were undone by their awful defense. They ranked dead last in the Majors with negative 52 Defensive Runs Saved, and the eye test matched the metrics on just about a nightly basis. 

At the end of the season, Kapler and Farhan Zaidi talked about the need to get younger and more athletic, which would help fix the defense. From ownership on down, team officials spoke openly about the vaunted class of shortstops and the center field options. Zaidi mentioned on multiple occasions that moving Mike Yastrzemski back to right field could bring out additional value, and at the Winter Meetings, Kapler spoke passionately about improving everywhere. 

"We need to be better at converting ground balls into outs, so we're going to be really diligent about working on that (too). Just like it has a cascading effect when you play s--tty defense, it also has a cascading effect when you play really good defense," he said in December. "We're going to get more athletic in the outfield and more athletic on the dirt and as a result I think we're going to be protecting our pitchers better and we're going to see the wake of that."

There's no doubt that the Giants will be somewhat better defensively, but as they prepare to open camp, it's still unclear if they've adequately patched up their biggest issue. Asked directly after most of the offseason work was done, Zaidi pointed out that the Giants won't have a bunch of Gold Glove candidates, but should benefit from "more subtle" improvements. 

"We have a lot of confidence that we're going to be a better defensive team and a lot of that comes from making plays consistently," he said. "It's not necessarily highlight-reel defense, but consistent playmaking. We've got a lineup and roster full of guys who can do that on a day-to-day basis."

Zaidi offered about $360 million to Aaron Judge to play center field and then $350 million to former Platinum Glove winner Carlos Correa to be the shortstop, which would have moved the team's best current defender to third. He chased several center field options aside from Judge, most notably Cody Bellinger, who would have given the Giants an elite glove in the middle of the field. 

But ultimately the Giants are counting on addition by subtraction. Mitch Haniger and Michael Conforto are both above-average options in the corners, and Conforto in particular is replacing a group in left that was the worst in the Majors. At negative-27 DRS in left field alone, the Giants had by far the worst collection in the Majors. 

Joc Pederson (negative-12) was responsible for a lot of that and now will be the designated hitter. The Giants also got 17 starts in left field from Darin Ruf, eight from Estrada, seven from Yermin Mercedes and two from Jason Vosler. They chased offensive production and it backfired often. 

So, back to what Kapler was saying ...

"We're going to have outfielders playing the outfield. Last year we had some guys, just because we needed to get some offense in the lineup, playing out there when it wasn't ideal," he said. "This year I think we're going to be a better collective defensive outfield."

The Giants didn't reach their goal of moving Yastrzemski and Austin Slater back to corners, but they believe they'll be fine as a partnership in center, and both have at times fared well out there. Conforto has been a good right fielder for most of his career and should be a plus defender in left field. Haniger has a strong arm and has rated above-average in right throughout his career. 

The Giants should be dramatically better at chasing down fly balls, but that won't be the most important element for a pitching staff built around guys who like to get the ball on the ground. Brandon Crawford currently is their only sure thing defensively on the infield, although Kapler is optimistic about his new starters, even in an environment without shifts. 

Thairo Estrada rated poorly by Defensive Runs Saved but was right at league-average by Outs Above Average, and he certainly passed the eye test most nights. He'll start this year with a more consistent role, and the Giants believe that will allow him to focus on being a good defender at second. 

The biggest questions are at the corners, where the Giants are replacing Evan Longoria and Brandon Belt. While both had trouble staying on the field, they were by far the roster's best options when healthy. They'll be replaced by David Villar and LaMonte Wade Jr., both of whom are relatively inexperienced at the big league level.

Wade may have the biggest shoes to fill. While Belt lost range because of knee injuries, he remained a vacuum on high throws and ones in the dirt.

Kapler said he thinks Wade has always been pretty good at first when healthy and has "a chance to be rangy" over there.

"With our inability to shift we're going to need to have more range on the right side of the diamond," he said. "Estrada can do that for us and LaMonte can, as well. LaMonte is a really accurate thrower and I think he's going to be fine for us at first base. Not having to force some of our corner guys to play the middle is going to be helpful for us."

It makes sense on paper, but there's one thing the Giants can't plan for. In talking about the defense, Kapler first mentioned having better health, and that will be crucial at shortstop. There's not a lot of depth behind Crawford, the team's best defender and best hope to compete for a Gold Glove.

Crawford was limited physically for much of 2022 but turned in one of the best defensive months of his career in September. Now 36, he will be by far the oldest everyday shortstop in the big leagues, but he feels strong after a winter of working out at team facilities.

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Had the offseason gone a different way, Crawford would have been getting reps in at third base this week. But he'll be back at shortstop, again leading the way for a defense that probably won't provide many highlights for social media, but ideally will keep the season from going off the rails again.

For a second straight year, the Giants are built around a strong rotation. This time around they're hoping that playing fewer guys out of position and raising the floor at most spots is enough for the team's true strengths to lead the way back to October.

"I think it's just making the plays that we're supposed to make, not worrying about the spectacular play or trying to do too much with the ball," Crawford said. "It's just kind of secure the ball and get the outs that you're supposed to get.

"I think with the potential of our lineup to score runs, by just securing the ball and getting the outs that we're supposed to, we're going to score enough runs to be able to win a lot of games."

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