Giants Analysis

Giants will be a lot more fun in 2024, but will they be better?

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SAN FRANCISCO -- Forget all of the strikeouts, the bullpen games, the balls that trickled under gloves and the fact that they had such a disappointing second half that they fired their manager. For the 2023 Giants, the most embarrassing part of the season might have taken place off the field.

The Giants drew about 2.5 million fans to Oracle Park while going 79-83, finishing 17th in the big leagues in attendance. For an organization that has the sport's best ballpark, an affluent and long-supportive fan base, and no concerns about rainouts or snow, that's a jarring ranking.

They have been hit harder than most in MLB by remote work, and their ambitious Lot A project made it harder for fans to commute to games, but the real issue over the last two seasons was pretty simple: The Giants have played a somewhat unappealing brand of baseball. Even the players looked around in September and thought to themselves, "Are we boring?"

"The criticism was fair," pitcher Alex Cobb recently said. "We need to be more exciting."

Cobb has played in Tampa Bay and Baltimore but also with Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani. He's the oldest player on San Francisco's roster and probably the best positioned to give a 20,000-foot view. As he stood in a hallway at Scottsdale Stadium earlier this month, he smiled when asked about what's to come this season. 

"This lineup looks exciting," he said. "[Jung Hoo] Lee is a star. [Jorge] Soler gets in the box, and I almost get nervous for the pitcher because he's swinging so hard, or the third baseman. I would hate to be playing third or pitching when he's up, because it just looks like he's such a presence in the box and is going to literally tear the cover off the baseball.

"You look around the whole diamond, and you can see excitement."

In addition to Lee and Soler, the Giants added Matt Chapman, an everyday player who might be the best defensive third baseman in baseball. They committed four years and a rotation spot to Jordan Hicks, who throws as hard as any pitcher in MLB history. Last week, they capped a big winter by signing Blake Snell, the reigning Cy Young Award winner.

Expectations are sky high for Kyle Harrison, the best left-handed pitching prospect in the game. His dominant spring was matched by fellow 22-year-old Luis Matos, who was one of the team's best hitters throughout the Cactus League season. The hope is that 22-year-old shortstop Marco Luciano will join them as a foundational piece, too. 

While upgrading the roster, the Giants also changed out the stereo system at Oracle Park and installed colored LED lights that can turn off and on during games. They are the first MLB team to install spotlights, borrowing a feature from the NBA.

Oh, and they also hired a much less polarizing manager, who brought a franchise legend back to San Francisco to be his third base coach and hired a popular 2010 World Series champ as his hitting coach.  

The 2024 Giants no doubt will be far more watchable.

But how much better will they be? 

By just about any standard, president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi had a strong offseason, but the Giants can't yet be fully confident about how that will play out between the lines. They felt good about their offseason haul one year ago, too, but within weeks, it was clear that many of the additions would underperform.

This year's group has higher-upside talent, but, importantly, it also appears to fit together in a much more cohesive way. 

Giants executives appeared humbled by last season's collapse, which forced Zaidi to fire a close friend -- Gabe Kapler -- at the start of the final series. They shredded multiple pages of their playbook, focusing on longer-term contracts while finally addressing the glaring lack of athleticism and defensive ability.

"We have a front office that is willing to make adjustments, right?" Cobb said. "We've had a couple of years of being slower and base-to-base and not really prioritizing defense, and with that came a lot of criticism of the team. A lot of people could have just dug their heels in and wanted to prove that this is the right way to do it and they have a vision and they're going to execute it. They decided we needed to get younger and more athletic, and they were willing to look outside of what we thought the last couple of years.

"The moves they made encompassed that, but also some of their original visions of just hitting the ball hard and having good plate discipline. But they got younger with Lee, they got defense with Chapman, they got power with Soler. They did a really good job of bridging both of those things."

Most of the offseason work was done on the position player side, but last week, the Giants added the best pitcher on the market, agreeing to a two-year, $62 million deal with Snell. He is a rarity on their staff in that he primarily relies on his ability to get strikeouts, not groundballs, but when he needs the gloves, they'll be there and will be a big step up from the previous two seasons.

For all of the Giants' troubles at the plate last summer and the complaints about the way pitchers were used, the biggest on-field culprit over Kapler's final two seasons was the inability to even play an average brand of defense.

The Giants ranked 28th in Outs Above Average in 2022, and while they jumped up to ninth last season, they also committed an MLB-high 117 errors. Beyond the numbers, they at times seemed to simply have an aversion to helping their pitchers, even though it was a constant topic of discussion. Too often, the search for offense led to someone like Joc Pederson or Yermin Mercedes grabbing a glove.

Chapman brings a Gold Glove to third base, and Nick Ahmed might do the same at shortstop. Throw in catcher Patrick Bailey, a Gold Glove finalist as a rookie, and second baseman Thairo Estrada, who should have been one after ranking second in the Majors in OAA, and the Giants should have one of the best defensive infields in the league. 

The outfield is where the real difference will be seen, though. 

Lee's arrival pushed Mike Yastrzemski back to right, where he was a Gold Glove finalist in 2021 after mastering the tricky nooks and crannies at Oracle Park. It shifted Michael Conforto to left, where he should provide at least league-average defense. Lee also will allow Austin Slater and Matos to play the corners.

While the 2023 Giants had a lot of players who "could" play center field, it was clear that some of them really shouldn't have been doing it at the big league level on a nightly basis. If Lee can live up to the hype, the whole alignment will be in much better shape. The early returns have been positive. 

"He looks very good out there. He's very comfortable, he glides, he's smooth, he gets off his marks really well," said bench coach Ryan Christenson, who coaches the outfielders. "I've been very impressed with every part of his game so far. This guy is a student of the game, and he wants to learn. It's just very impressive."

Lee hit .343 in his first MLB spring training, and while the Giants didn't set him loose often, they expect him to steal plenty of bags this season after dialing it back over his final two years in the KBO. If the 25-year-old can hit for average, play strong defense and steal bases, he could give the Giants a Rookie of the Year. 

Lee also could become a star in the Bay Area, where the fan base is aching for an exciting position player who will be around long enough that his jersey can be safely purchased. It was no coincidence that in the team store this spring, his No. 51 was displayed between Willie Mays and Webb, who made the leap to local stardom in 2021. 

A few months later, Buster Posey retired. Brandon Belt moved on the next, and Brandon Crawford now is a St. Louis Cardinal. With their longtime faces of the franchise gone, the Giants have made Webb the center of everything they do, putting his face on the side of the building at Third and King and basing this offseason's commercials around their ace.

Many of the organization's marketing campaigns have fallen short in recent years, but Webb has done his part, finishing second to Snell for the Cy Young Award last year and fully embracing a role as a team leader. This year, he's hopeful he has plenty of company.

The Giants believe they'll be vastly improved, and most preseason projections have them as a wild-card team. But they know that, at the very least, they'll be a much more interesting team to watch. After the way the last couple of seasons went, that might be nearly as important.

"I just hope that we're able to convince our fan base enough that we are going to be a fun team to watch," Cobb said.

"We believe in ourselves, and we hope they do, too."

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