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. 

Giants notes: Blach shows resiliency; another option in center?

Giants notes: Blach shows resiliency; another option in center?

CHICAGO — John Lackey's night started with a leadoff homer. Ty Blach's night started with a 13-pitch battle. Neither one is a positive for a pitcher, but Blach didn't view it that way. He actually appreciated Ben Zobrist stretching him out.

"It's good to have a battle like that and get you locked in," Blach said. "It gets you focused and you'll be like, I can execute and get guys out. It's good. It's a good battle."

There, in a nutshell, is so much of what Bruce Bochy loves about his young left-hander. The Giants have found Blach's arm and resolve to be remarkably resilient. He wasn't bothered when they moved him to the bullpen and he didn't get too high when they moved him back to the rotation. He is the same after seven shutout innings or three poor ones. Bochy smiled when asked about the Zobrist at-bat, which ended in a strikeout looking. 

"How 'bout that?" the manager said. "He won that at-bat. It seems like the advantage goes to the hitter, seeing all those pitches. He kept his focus and got a called strikeout and here he is pitching in the eighth inning."

After needing 13 pitches for one out, Blach got the next 23 on 81 pitches. Bochy thought Blach tired a bit in the eighth, but the deep effort allowed Bochy to mix and match in the bullpen, and ultimately he found the right mix. Hunter Strickland and Mark Melancon closed it out and got Blach his second win.

--- From last night, Joe Panik's huge night helped give Blach an early lead. With the help of Ron Wotus and his shift charts, he also put on a show defensively.

--- We're trying something new right after the final pitch: Here are five quick takeaways from the 6-4 win.

--- The options game sent Kelby Tomlinson back to Triple-A on Wednesday when the Giants activated Melancon, but his latest stint in Sacramento comes with a twist. Tomlinson started his third consecutive game in center field on Monday. The Giants are getting a bit more serious about their longtime plan to make Tomlinson a super-utility player. 

“Tommy is a valuable guy in the majors and if we can give him some experience in the outfield, it gives you more flexibility and versatility,” manager Bruce Bochy said. 

This is not Tomlinson’s first foray into the outfield. He did work there in the offseason after the 2015 season and he has played 25 big league innings in left field the last two seasons. This is Tomlinson’s first real experience with center field, and while in the past he has said that the transition isn’t as easy as some might think, Bochy is confident Tomlinson can figure it out. He certainly has the speed to be a semi-regular in the outfield, and the Giants aren’t exactly brimming with quality center field options behind Denard Span, who is dealing with his second injury of the season. 

“It’s a little different now,” Bochy said when asked about Tomlinson’s past experiences in the outfield. “He’s in Sacramento doing it, and knowing there’s a possibility we could need help in the outfield.”

If the switch doesn’t come in handy this season, it could in 2018. Bochy compared Tomlinson’s infield-outfield ability to Eduardo Nuñez, who has found regular playing time in left but is a free agent after the year. 

--- Hunter Pence did some light running in the outfield before Monday’s game. Bochy said Pence is still about a week away from being an option.

--- Bochy has said it a few times now when asked about the standings, so it’s officially a new motto for a team that got off to a brutal start: “We’ve put ourselves in a great situation for a great story.”

--- They're starting to get a little grumpy around here with their team hovering around .500. Perhaps the Cubs thought they could fool a few on the way out of Wrigley.

Panik takes step in right direction, helps Giants build lead Cubs can't overcome

Panik takes step in right direction, helps Giants build lead Cubs can't overcome

CHICAGO — The Giants gave Mark Melancon $62 million to make sure they don’t have an NLDS repeat, and the closer did shut the Cubs down in the ninth Monday. There’s a far cheaper solution to those big problems, however: Score so much that a late-inning implosion doesn’t matter. 

The Giants gave up four in the eighth inning in their first meeting with the Cubs since that infamous Game 4 meltdown, but thanks in large part to Joe Panik, the cushion was large enough. Panik, back atop the leadoff spot with Denard Span aching, reached base four times and had three extra-base hits. He came into the game with a .172 average over his previous 14 games, but he took John Lackey deep to lead off the night. 

“The last couple of days in St. Louis I started feeling better,” Panik said. “I started feeling a little better and today it clicked. It’s definitely a step in the right direction. I felt good. The swing path felt good. It’s going back to staying on the ball and not trying to do too much.”

With the wind rushing out toward the bleachers, there was no need to try and muscle the ball. The Giants hit a season-high three homers and added four doubles. Brandon Belt and Justin Ruggiano also went deep as the lead was stretched to 6-0. After Ruggiano’s blast, a familiar feeling set in.

Ty Blach had been brilliant through seven, but Javier Baez took him deep in the eighth. Derek Law entered and gave up a two-run shot to Ben Zobrist. Just as in Game 4, Bochy started wearing out the track to the mound. Steven Okert faced one batter and plunked him as Hunter Strickland and Melancon started to heat up. Strickland got the call, and after falling behind in the count, he got Willson Contreras to ground into a double play, stranding a pair. 

“No lead is safe on a night like this,” Bochy said of the wind. “It’s not surprising when the other team answers.”

It probably wasn’t surprising to the players on the field. It did, however, bring back bad memories.

“You’re human,” Panik said. “You’re human, but with the bullpen we’ve got, we have confidence that they’ll shut it down.”

As the Cubs rallied in the eighth and again the ninth, a half-dozen key plays from earlier loomed larger. Panik was sent from second by Phil Nevin on a hard single to left and he cut the corner at third perfectly, scoring the second run of the night. Blach helped kill one potential Cubs rally by cutting behind Albert Almora in the sixth. The center fielder had dropped a one-out bloop into right and he made a hard turn. Blach followed him to first, fielded a throw from Ruggiano, and threw Almora out at second, eliminating a baserunner ahead of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

“We work on that all the time,” said Blach, a former minor league Gold Glove winner. “I saw him rounding pretty hard so I tried to sneak in. We were able to catch a guy sleeping.”

Blach was being modest. It is not a play most pitchers make, not in a 5-0 game. It was simply one of many defensive highlights for the Giants, who did just about everything right until the eighth. When the bullpen started to wobble, the lead was large enough that it didn’t matter. 

The win was the eighth in 10 games for a team that’s threatening to get back into the postseason chase. For all that’s gone wrong, the Giants are just 3 1/2 games behind these Cubs. They’ll try to get another one back Tuesday in a reminder of what could have been: Johnny Cueto against Jon Lester.

Earlier this season, Panik would have hit seventh or eighth against Lester, but Bochy said he’ll get another night atop the lineup. The manager said Panik earned it with his first career night with three extra base hits. After the first leadoff homer of his career — and probably life — Panik doubled twice. That helped build the lead, but it led to some ribbing hours later. As Panik addressed reporters, Matt Cain snuck up behind the scrum.

“Ask him why he didn’t try for third on his second double,” Cain whispered.