Giants spring preview: Last outfield job up for grabs

Giants spring preview: Last outfield job up for grabs

SAN FRANCISCO — Three springs ago, Jarrett Parker opened eyes with a Cactus League grand slam that cleared the batter’s eye at Scottsdale Stadium. Last July, Mac Williamson scorched one off the scoreboard at Chase Field, a few miles from the Giants’ spring home. 

The two sluggers have always looked comfortable in the desert, but the intensity will be stepped up when position players report to camp later this month. Parker and Williamson have been Plan A in left field throughout the offseason, but it turns out there’s a twist. This isn't a Parker and Williamson situation. It's likely Parker or Williamson on the Opening Day roster. On a conference call with beat writers recently, general manager Bobby Evans said the Giants aren’t looking at a timeshare. 

“In a perfect world, one guy would win the job,” Evans said. “You’re not necessarily looking for a platoon. You’re looking for one guy to win the job.”

The job, held by Angel Pagan a year ago, is one of few available for the Giants. They need to sort out the bullpen pecking order, decide on a bench, and see if Ty Blach can unseat Matt Cain, but no competition is as intriguing as the one in the outfield. Parker and Williamson are similar players, power-packed corner outfielders who have shown flashes but have also spent plenty of time on the shuttle from Triple-A to the Majors. 

Parker, 28, is a left-handed hitter with a .267/.371/.494 slash line and 11 homers in 205 big league at-bats. He had a memorable stretch in 2015, hitting six homers over nine games, including three in one game against the A’s. The 26-year-old Williamson has the better minor league numbers, but he has batted just .222 in 144 scattered big league at-bats. His resume also includes an intriguing stretch; in the five weeks before the trade deadline last year, Williamson posted a .407 on-base percentage in 27 appearances (20 starts), hit five homers, and made several diving catches in the outfield.

The Giants see plenty of talent in both, which is why Evans held firm in his belief that his 2017 left fielder was already on the roster when the offseason kicked off. The Giants have not added an outfielder on a big league contract, instead focusing on non-roster invitees. That leaves Parker and Williamson as the frontrunners for the job alongside Hunter Pence and Denard Span, and both players hold an edge that could matter when rosters are cut down two months from now. 

Parker is out of options, so the Giants would have to subject him to waivers if Williamson (who can still be optioned to Triple-A) wins the job. Williamson should benefit from the simple fact that he bats right-handed and the rest of the lineup leans to the left in a division where the reigning-champion Dodgers are heavy on southpaw starters.

The competition will be decided over 40 days in Scottsdale. For now, here’s a look at the rest of the outfielders who will gather at Scottsdale Stadium to battle for one open starting spot and two bench jobs … 

ON THE 40-MAN ROSTER: 

Gorkys Hernandez: He’s the only outfielder on the roster other than the four already mentioned, and he’s likely the heir apparent to Gregor Blanco, who is now a Diamondback. Hernandez can provide the same defense/speed profile, albeit from the right side (which is helpful given the rest of the lineup). It would be a surprise if Hernandez is not the fourth outfielder. 

NON-ROSTER INVITEES: 

Michael Morse: The Giants listed him as an outfielder on their non-roster release, but Morse has played just 35 innings in left since leaving in free agency after the 2014 season. To be a fit for the opening day roster, the 34-year-old will need to show he can still handle a start in left, because there aren’t many at-bats to be had at first after Brandon Belt’s All-Star campaign. If he can, it’s clear what else he brings: A big bat off the bench and a bigger personality, one the clubhouse could use after several years of losing energetic players to free agency and retirement. 

Justin Ruggiano: The veteran has three homers off Madison Bumgarner and he’s a career .275/.338/.527 hitter against lefties. Again, that's a skill that would fill a huge need given the makeup of the NL West. The Dodgers starting staff will have at least three left-handers (Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill, Julio Urias) and also could include Hyun-jin Ryu and Alex Wood at some point. 

Chris Marrero: The former first-rounder hasn’t played in the big leagues since 2013, but after hitting 23 homers in the minors last season, the right-handed-hitting outfielder/first baseman will get a long look this spring. He’s exactly the type of waiting-for-his-breakout player that has succeeded in Giants camp in the past, and Evans made a strong push to sign him early in the offseason. 

Austin Slater: Players and coaches who were called up from Sacramento last September raved about Slater’s bat, and he’s an intriguing dark horse now that the Giants have decided to go young in left field. An eighth-round pick in 2014, Slater has a .305/.369/.439 slash line in three big league seasons. He hit 13 homers in 68 games after a promotion to Triple-A last season.

Steven Duggar: Giants executives rave about him, and he’s a regular on lists of the organization’s top 10 prospects. He’s a plus-plus runner and hits from the left side, giving him a much different profile than most recent Giants outfield prospects. Duggar played 70 games in High-A and 60 in Double-A last season, batting .302 with a .388 on-base percentage, 10 homers, 28 doubles and eight triples. He's not ready for the big leagues, but spring training will give him a chance to make a lasting impression on Bruce Bochy and his staff. 

Wynton Bernard: The 26-year-old is coming off three seasons in Detroit’s system after two with San Diego. He plays all three outfield spots and has plenty of experience in center, which would give him a leg up on others if there’s an injury to Span or Hernandez. In 104 games at Double-A and Triple-A last season, Bernard hit .279 and stole 23 bases in 28 opportunities. 

A WILD CARD OPTION?

At some point, you can bet that Bochy will be asked about playing Belt in left field, but it’s a plan the Giants have shown no interest in now that Belt is an All-Star and Gold Glove candidate at first. Evans is a big believer in a strong defense, and he has said repeatedly that the best option on a nightly basis is to have Buster Posey behind the plate and Belt at first.

There still is an infielder to keep an eye on, though. Ryder Jones, a former second-round pick, started to take fly balls last year and he’s certainly athletic enough to make a switch. It’ll be interesting to see if Jones, still just 22 years old, gets any meaningful time in left this spring. 

'These are moments you love.' Jae-gyun Hwang homers in MLB debut

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USATSI

'These are moments you love.' Jae-gyun Hwang homers in MLB debut

SAN FRANCISCO — Jae-gyun Hwang spent years dreaming of this day, of stepping onto the green grass in a big league stadium and then digging his cleats into the dirt alongside the plate. He never imagined hitting a homer in his debut, though, and he certainly never pictured what would come next. 

Hwang was pulled into the clubhouse shower a few minutes after a 4-3 sweep-clinching win over the Rockies and surrounded as teammates emptied cans of beer on their new third baseman and cheered so loud that they could be heard from the press conference room. There are many quirky traditions in the KBO, where Hwang was a superstar, but the list does not include beer showers. Any confusion didn’t last long. 

“We had his translator in there with him,” Nick Hundley said, smiling. “We said, this is what you get when you hit a homer in the big leagues.”

You get something else, too: Another day in the lineup. Bruce Bochy has a tongue-in-cheek rule that if you hit a homer, you play the next day. The Giants, however, expect to get starting third baseman Eduardo Nuñez back from the disabled list on Friday in Pittsburgh. What will Bochy do with a 29-year-old rookie who hit a 417-foot laser shot in his third MLB at-bat?

“I have a loophole,” Bochy said. “We’re off tomorrow.”

Bochy might not have to use the loophole. Austin Slater, the starting left fielder, was still feeling tightness in his right hip Wednesday and Nuñez could move over to left for a few days, allowing the Giants a longer look at Hwang. It’s an audition that seemed to never be coming as late as Tuesday morning. But Conor Gillaspie showed up with back spasms, and with Christian Arroyo on the minor league disabled list, Nuñez a few days away, and Aaron Hill recently released, the Giants turned to Hwang. 

It’s the kind of break that you need to make your mark, but you also need talent and confidence in your own abilities, and Hwang oozes both. 

The Giants had hit just 20 homers at AT&T Park this season when Hwang stepped to the plate in the sixth. Hundley’s was the third in the past 15 home games, and it helped them head into the late innings tied up with the Rockies. Hwang had earlier driven in a run with a groundout and in his third at-bat he started by taking two balls from lefty Kyle Freeland. 

“My focus is always the same: Hit in my zone,” Hwang said through interpreter Mark Kim. “Because I’m a rookie, I figured once I got to a 2-0 count it might be a fastball down the middle, and that’s what happened.”

Hwang blasted it and briefly held his bat in the air, posing as the ball soared to the bleachers. He dramatically dropped the bat and started his first journey around the bases as the dugout exploded. 

“When it comes to bat flips, you don’t plan it,” Hwang said. “It comes naturally. I don’t know what I was thinking. It just happened.”

Hwang’s bat flips in South Korea were so legendary that YouTube videos made their way overseas. He had promised not to flip his bat in the big leagues, saying that he doesn’t want to get hit in retaliation. There are pitchers on Hwang’s own team who don’t approve of flips or drops, but his manager said he doesn’t care one bit. 

“I want these guys to be who they are and he’s just been a lot of fun to be around,” Bochy said. “He’s a great guy and he’s very popular in that clubhouse.”

Hwang’s work ethic this spring won teammates over, and he showed a willingness to jump right into the fray, whether he was making jokes or the butt of them. On St. Patrick’s Day, he entered Scottsdale Stadium with a green fedora and a green Tinker Bell shirt that read “I’m so fly … I never land.” Throughout the spring he handed out chocolate pies from boxes above his locker. During his time in Sacramento he regularly took teammates to Korean BBQ restaurants, where he was recognized as a celebrity. Hwang is so famous in his native country that multiple networks scrambled to air the Giants game at 4:45 a.m. Those in his hometown of Seoul either woke up to watch or woke up to celebrate. 

Thousands of miles away, Hwang focused on his new reality. As he packed to head to Pittsburgh, he exchanged a signed jersey for his first home run ball. The only No. 1 jersey Hwang had was the one on his back, so a fan walked away with an old Matt Duffy jersey instead. 

If Hwang can keep showing that power stroke, he’ll return in a week to a ballpark eager to cheer a new contributor. For now, the Giants are just happy to have another spark. 

“They were so excited for him and happy for him,” Bochy said. “They all know what he’s been through. He’s given up baseball in Korea to play here and he reaches his dream and hits a homer. It’s a special moment. These are moments you love.”

Instant Analysis: Five takeaways from Giants' first sweep of 2017

Instant Analysis: Five takeaways from Giants' first sweep of 2017

BOX SCORE

SAN FRANCISCO — Some veteran Giants quietly grumbled Wednesday morning about how many potential homers got knocked down by the thick, seagull-filled air late Tuesday night. A day later, under a bright blue sky, the Giants made the park look small. 

Nick Hundley hit a two-run shot and Jae-gyun Hwang’s first MLB hit was a no-doubter to left, backing up a strong day for the pitching staff. The Giants won 5-3, sweeping the same Rockies squad that broomed them at Coors just a few days ago. 

The three-game winning streak is their first in nearly six weeks and the sweep is the first of the year. Here are five things to know from Jae Day at AT&T Park … 

—- Hwang’s homer screamed out to left at 108 mph and traveled an estimated 417 feet. He hit 53 homers his last two seasons in the KBO. The power is legit, and that poke certainly earned him an extended look, even with Eduardo Nuñez due back Friday or Saturday. Hwang is the 17th Giant to have his first hit be a homer. Adam Duvall (2014) was the last one to do it. Among current Giants, Hwang joins Brandon Crawford (2011).

—- Ty Blach faced some trouble early but managed to walk off with 6 1/3 innings under his belt and just one earned run. Blach was charged with two unearned runs, including one that came on his two-base throwing error. 

—- A day after Cory Gearrin got an at-bat, George Kontos was sent up with two outs in the bottom of the seventh. He fouled one pitch off before striking out. So many fans gave up on this season over the past six weeks, and then Gearrin and Kontos strolled to the plate in a span of 15 hours. This is the best game in the world. 

—- With Mark Melancon the DL and Sam Dyson in need of a day off, Bruce Bochy got creative. George Kontos carried the lead from the seventh to eighth, and Steven Okert took it from there until the ninth. Hunter Strickland entered with two outs in the ninth and got Ian Desmond to fly out. 

—- Austin Slater returned to the lineup and went 1 for 3 with an 11-pitch walk. It’s clear that Slater’s hip is still a little tight — he jogged on a grounder deep to the hole at short, and he certainly would have beaten that out a week ago. With the way Slater is hitting, though, no point in risking it.