Luis Matos

Matos, Luciano bulk up in effort to solidify Giants jobs

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- When Jorge Soler and Pablo Sandoval showed up in camp earlier this week, teammates and coaches immediately took note of their respective frames. Soler is the most physically imposing Giants slugger since Michael Morse was roaming the outfield, and Sandoval has slimmed down considerably in a bid to make a comeback at the age of 37.

Before the veterans arrived, though, others were turning heads with their offseason work. Catcher Patrick Bailey put on about 20 pounds after losing nearly that much last season when he wore down in September. David Villar dropped 15 pounds as he looks to get back in the third base mix. And a couple of 22-year-olds put on noticeable muscle in an attempt to lock down everyday jobs.

Marco Luciano added about nine pounds of muscle and Luis Matos put on about 14 pounds. While Luciano entered camp as a clear frontrunner to be the everyday shortstop, Matos is trying to break through in a corner outfield spot. The Giants are thrilled with the added strength from a player who raced to the Majors and then struggled to find his stride. 

"I'm really excited about the work that Luis did this offseason," president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said. "We had talked a lot about how last spring when we talked with him, we talked about controlling the zone and he had that ability and he just went out and did it. And this offseason we kind of challenged him on the physicality aspect and he's done it. It's just really impressive how he has taken these challenges and run with them."

There has never been any question about the hit tool for Matos, but he hit just two homers in 228 at-bats after a flurry of them in Triple-A earned him an early promotion. Matos had elite chase and strikeout rates but fared poorly in most batted-ball metrics, including hard-hit percentage, where he ranked last on a Giants team that wasn't teeming with power hitters. 

The Giants sent Matos home with a clear directive to get stronger and he focused on eating cleaner as he worked out. To get a jump start on spring training, he arrived in Scottsdale on January 19 for a camp at the club's minor league facility. 

"That was the goal, to get stronger, to get bigger. That was my main goal going into the offseason," Matos said through interpreter Erwin Higueros. "I can feel the difference this spring."

The early arrival had Matos -- like Luciano, Jung Hoo Lee, Casey Schmitt and other young hitters -- in camp when pitchers and catchers arrived on February 14. It was a smart approach for young players trying to impress a new staff that has promised to make evaluations with fresh eyes. New manager Bob Melvin said he's still getting to know Matos, but he noted: "there's a seriousness, it seems, this year."

"This is a high-profile guy in this organization," Melvin said. "I would think that even though he's young, he's thinking, 'This is my time now.'"

At the moment, the Giants don't have a clear path for Matos. The plan is for Michael Conforto, Jung Hoo Lee and Mike Yastrzemski to start in the outfield and Austin Slater always plays against lefties, but Melvin wants to see young players push their way into the mix this spring, saying often that "talent wins out." Slater is coming off elbow surgery and Yastrzemski has a left shoulder impingement, allowing for extra spring reps for players like Matos and Heliot Ramos, who is off to a great start in live BP sessions. 

The situation is much different at shortstop, where Luciano will get the first shot to fill Brandon Crawford's shoes. Zaidi made that clear at the end of last season, and while the Giants did look into trading for a shortstop and possibly moving Luciano to another position, he remains the starter. 

"I think a lot of it just comes from what we saw at the end of last year," Zaidi said of his faith in Luciano. "I think he showed a lot of poise both defensively and offensively when he came up. I think we're asking a lot from him just because there isn't a lot of upper-level experience, there's certainly not a lot of big-league experience.

"But again, from what we saw, we certainly think he can handle it. Even getting exposed to a new coaching staff and what they'll bring to the table this camp, I think that can just help him get further along."

Scouts around the league have long believed that Luciano will outgrow the position, but the Giants liked what they saw in a brief glimpse late last year. Luciano said he ate "lots of chicken" to bulk up a bit more, but he already has shown off his strength at the big league level. He ranked among the league leaders in average exit velocity and hard-hit percentage last year, but he'll need to make more contact to hold the job at short. 

Melvin plans to get Luciano on the field as often as possible this spring, which is exactly what the young shortstop wants. A year ago at this time, he was rehabbing from a back injury that seemed like it might derail his career, but he's fully healthy and ready to try and lock down a starting job. 

"Of course, that's what I want," he said through Higueros. "But that's not in my control. The only thing I can control is the way I work and my performance, and I'll try to make them see what I can do." 

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