Gabe Kapler

Kapler balancing Giants' present, future amid youth movement

Giants manager Gabe Kapler feels like he's now balancing player development with winning as many games as possible. 

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SAN FRANCISCO -- The youth movement in San Francisco has happened quickly, and for as exciting and energizing as it is for the Giants, it also can be complicated at times. Friday night's game was a perfect example of the balancing act manager Gabe Kapler is now trying to master. 

As he has done often the last couple of weeks, Kapler started four rookies. But with two outs in the ninth and the tying run on second base, he sent veteran Michael Conforto up to bat for Patrick Bailey, who hit the ground running after his promotion and had a .310 average at the time.

For the staff, this was a relatively easy call. Conforto leads the team in homers and has years of proven big league success. But it also took a key opportunity away from a rookie who looks like he might be the catcher here for the rest of the decade. 

When the Giants hired president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi in 2018, he said repeatedly that the team would rebuild its farm system while still pushing to compete as deep into the season as possible at the big league level. But this current situation is still relatively new for Kapler. 

He has made pinch-hit appearances, platoons and lineup changes into some of the major cornerstones of his time in San Francisco, but until the last month, he almost never has had to think about taking at-bats away from players who are potential foundational pieces.

The previous three years, it was mostly a right-handed veteran hitting for a left-handed veteran, or vice versa. It was a better option hitting for a player who had just arrived on waivers and might be gone in a week or two. 

A day after sending Conforto up for Bailey, Kapler nodded when asked if it feels like he's now balancing player development with winning as many games as possible. 

"I think so. I think so," he said. "[Bailey] will get a lot of big at-bats, and he's had some big ones for us so far. I do think the responsible thing, when you have Michael Conforto available, a guy who hit a bunch of homers for us in May and has a long track record of success at the major league level -- when you have that player available, it's the responsible thing to give him an opportunity to help us win."

The moment was notable in part because Kapler, for the most part, has leaned in the opposite direction since the top prospects have started to arrive. Casey Schmitt's emergence has cut deeply into Brandon Crawford's playing time at shortstop, with the team's longest-tenured player sitting three straight games on the last road trip. Crawford also has lost time to rookie Brett Wisely, and he's not alone.

Wilmer Flores was the DH on Saturday, making just his third start since May 21. Before the game, Kapler felt the need to meet with Flores, who then had three hits and earned another start Sunday. He noted he has put Flores in some tough spots by mostly having him face late-inning relievers lately. 

Kapler, who had a similar role at times in his career, told Flores that he knows what he's going through. He said Flores hasn't complained once, adding that he respects how professional he has been in a challenging situation. 

"In an ideal world, Wilmer is playing regularly, at least several times a week, and we haven't even been able to guarantee him that," Kapler said. "With Joc [Pederson] coming back, it makes it even more challenging. When Thairo [Estrada] comes back, it makes it even more challenging. Probably the thing that has been most influential in our inability to get Flo the type of regular reps that he deserves is the emergence of Casey and his ability to play all over the place, and our need to get Wisely at-bats. 

"We need to see [Wisely] play. He's an important piece of our future and we want to see him play as well. Getting him reps has become important."

It's easy to see why Schmitt hasn't come off the field in a month: Even with a mini-slump last week, he's batting .295 and gives the Giants good defense at three infield spots. 

Wisely has a .547 OPS, but the Giants believe he, too, can be a difference-maker. Kapler talks passionately about how toolsy the infielder/center fielder is, saying he changes direction "as good as anybody I've seen," has power to both sides of the field and possesses a quick bat.

"He just hasn't had a lot of upper-level minor league experience," Kapler said. "So it's not a surprise that he's had some struggles here, particularly at the dish. I don't think it's an indication of the player that he's going to be going forward."

Like Schmitt, Wisely is just 24, and other young players could be on the way later this summer. Luis Matos is seemingly getting three hits a night in Triple-A, and shortstop Tyler Fitzergald quietly has put himself on the radar. The Double-A roster is led by Marco Luciano and Vaun Brown. 

RELATED: How Zaidi grades Giants' 2023 season through start of June

For the first time since being hired before the 2020 MLB season, Kapler is seeing a wave of young talent arrive in his clubhouse, and while that might lead to more balancing of playing time, that's a good problem to have. 

If there are Giants veterans upset about playing time, they're not letting it show. Crawford, in particular, has been a willing teacher and leader, even as the changing roster and his own early struggles have led to more nights on the bench and several games recently where he has been hit for in the late innings. 

As for the young players who might be missing occasional opportunities for late heroics and growth, Kapler said that's not a concern. It's the reality of the Giants getting younger while being right in the wild-card race, and he believes those chances will come.

"It is a bit of read-and-react, and everything is a little bit situation-dependent," he said. "When you're balancing development with winning tonight's game, it's [about] how much better of a chance does this veteran player that's sitting there for us give us than this young player who is developing and this at-bat is going to be valuable? 

"But what I would do is I would take a step back and say Casey Schmitt, Pat Bailey, Blake Sabol, all of these guys are going to get big at-bats along the way. There's going to be no shortage of opportunities for them to take those down."

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