Giants excited to open up with marquee series against Judge


NEW YORK -- The executives at Major League Baseball's headquarters in Manhattan are not generally known for having a sense of humor, but the person who put the finishing touches on the 2023 schedule certainly decided to have some fun with the Giants and New York Yankees. 

The organizations were long known to be the two frontrunners for Aaron Judge's services once he hit free agency, so when the schedule was released last August, everyone knew Judge would be at Yankee Stadium on March 30. The only question was which dugout he would be standing in.

The Giants put forth the best effort they ever have for a free agent, only for Judge to decide not to come home, but to stay in a city that has become his home. The Giants expected that might be the case all along, and Judge himself made it clear in the aftermath that he never wanted to leave the Yankees.

Months after that decision, there will be no hard feelings, president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said last week. 

"I think it's going to be fun," Zaidi said. "He's the opposition now. We tried to sign him but he's the opposition now. I think, if anything, it provides a little extra motivation for us and for the guys on this team. I think we've got a really good vibe in our clubhouse right now and I think guys feel really good about the group of players that we have. I think athletes always look for any additional source of motivation and any sense that people feel like he was a player we needed and we can't win without him, I think that just creates extra motivation.

"Yankee Stadium is an awesome place to play, period. To be there Opening Day, I think it's going to be special. And then to do it with a couple of guys (we pursued) -- a guy who was on our team last year in Carlos (Rodón), and unfortunately it doesn't sound like he's going to be able to pitch -- but I think the fact that we were pursuing a couple of the same guys (as the Yankees), it's just going to provide extra motivation."

The Giants won't be lacking in that department this season, but there is some urgency to latch onto the sources of motivation and get off to a quick start. The day before the Giants flew to New York for their opener, an email was sent out by the organization promoting the fact that tickets are still available for the home opener next Friday.

There won't be much buzz at Oracle Park at the start of the season, especially if the Giants don't have a strong opening road trip. That wouldn't have been the case had Judge agreed to return to Northern California. 

The pursuit of the reigning American League MVP was a baseball play, first and foremost. Judge told the Giants he wanted to play center field, and his arrival would have given the heart of the lineup its most imposing presence since Barry Bonds, while also balancing out the outfield defense. 

But Judge also would have sold tickets. Lots and lots and lots of tickets. He would have been a game-changer in the team store, where the Giants were disappointed last season to find that their former players were outpacing the current ones in jersey sales. 

The Giants made an offer in the exact same range as the nine years, $360 million it ultimately took for the Yankees to bring Judge back, and perhaps one day they'll look back -- after seeing where the Shohei Ohtani and Juan Soto markets end up -- and regret not being even more aggressive. For now, they're happy with how they pivoted. 

Like Judge, Michael Conforto is a West Coast guy who became a fixture in New York. The Giants brought him in to fill out their outfield, and Conforto looked like their best position player for most of the spring.

Zaidi said he believes the rotation will be the strength of the team, with Ross Stripling making his debut on Sunday after Logan Webb and Alex Cobb start off the season. Sean Manaea will fit in at some point behind him and Taylor Rogers looks poised to be a big help after a dominant spring. Mitch Haniger will start the season on the IL but could join Conforto in the heart of the lineup as soon as next Thursday. 

It's not a group built around star power, but the front office added plenty of depth, a word that was mentioned often in camp. Manager Gabe Kapler said this is the best initial roster he's had in his four seasons in San Francisco, and Webb marveled at how many layers of defense there are on the pitching staff. He also provided a different outlook on how the Giants can succeed even if people on the outside don't generally see it. 

"I think we're going to be very scrappy," Webb said at the end of camp. "I think that's a good word for the group."

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That is not how anyone would have described the Giants had they signed Judge, but what's done is done, and they'll spend the next three games trying to figure out how to keep the MVP and a powerful lineup down. 

The work started early for Kapler and his staff, who lined up three right-handed starters for a lineup led by Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, with rookie shortstop Anthony Volpe looking to join them when he makes his much-anticipated debut on Thursday. It is a series that was always going to be in the spotlight, and Kapler hopes his players embrace that. 

During his own playing career, he took Mike Mussina deep at the old Yankee Stadium and homered off Andy Pettitte at the new one. He knows how special this weekend will be for an organization that's kicking off the season in New York for the first time since moving to San Francisco in 1958. 

"I'm very excited about opening up in New York and having that opportunity," Kapler said. "And more importantly, giving the players on our roster a chance to experience that level of intensity on the first day of the season."

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