Giants offseason preview: Aaron Judge not only change needed for outfield

Judge isn't only change Giants' outfield needs after rough year originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

SAN FRANCISCO -- For 11 consecutive seasons, Brandon Crawford has started at shortstop for the Giants on Opening Day. And for 11 consecutive seasons, Crawford has looked out to left field and seen a new starter.

Back in April, Joc Pederson became the 16th different player to start the first game in left field in the last 16 years, and the streak likely will continue in 2023. Pederson is a free agent and the Giants would like him back, but he may have to get in line when he seeks their attention. When it comes to the outfield, this winter's headlines will be dominated by Aaron Judge.

The Giants hope to bring the likely American League MVP back to California, and that promises to be the main focus of their offseason. But there are other questions to be answered, including in the outfield. Yesterday we looked at the infield situation and what the Giants might do before spring training. Today, the outfield:

Season Recap

Pederson was everything the Giants could have hoped for, but overall it was a disappointing year for the group. Giants outfielders ranked 10th in the Majors in wRC+ and 11th in homers, but they were right in the middle of the pack (16th) in fWAR because of poor defense.

The Giants rated negatively at all three outfield spots and got negative-27 Defensive Runs Saved from their left fielders, putting that group a distant 30th in MLB. Giants left fielders were the second-worst position group in the majors defensively, trailing only Nationals shortstops.

The infield defense was bad all year, too, but the Giants were consistently burned by catchable balls dropping in the outfield for singles or doubles. In September and October alone, they let 24 more balls drop in the outfield than an average MLB trio would, per Mark Simon of Sports Info Solutions.

Pederson was terrible defensively but was the lineup's most dangerous hitter. He led the Giants with 23 homers and a .874 OPS.

Austin Slater had a .366 on-base percentage and did his usual damage against lefties, but he hit just seven homers and at one point went 72 games without one. Mike Yastrzemski has seen his wRC+ drop from 158 to 105 to 99 over the past three seasons, but he did hit 17 homers, and strong defense and baserunning led to another two-win season.

Luis González was a revelation early on and once won Rookie of the Month, but he slumped in the second half and finished with a .254/.323/.360 slash line and just four homers. LaMonte Wade Jr. dealt with knee discomfort and struggled most of the year, finishing with a .207/.305/.359 slash line.

Those five got the majority of the outfield time, although the Giants did try 15 others, from prospect Heliot Ramos to fill-ins like Stuart Fairchild and Jason Krizan.

Will They Be Back?

Pederson hits free agency for the third straight winter, but Slater, Yastrzemski and Wade all are arbitration-eligible at reasonable rates and González has years of team control remaining. The 40-man roster also includes Ramos, glove-first center fielder Bryce Johnson and veteran Austin Dean.

As far as the 2022 outfielders go, there are two big questions for the Giants. The first is what to do, or try to do, with Pederson.

A Bay Area native, he quickly won over the clubhouse and fan base and Farhan Zaidi said he hoped to discuss an extension before the end of the season. Those talks went nowhere and Pederson made no secret of his disgust for an 81-81 season as he was kept out of the playoffs for the first time as a big leaguer.

"I like playing in the playoffs. I signed up here after this team won 107 games expecting to compete again," he said in September. "Things didn't go our way, it happens, but I don't enjoy not playing meaningful baseball."

The Giants plan to make the moves needed to get back and Pederson could again be a perfect fit -- with a caveat. He was worth negative-15 Defensive Runs Saved, with most of that damage coming in left field, and his conditioning was an issue in the second half.

If the Giants make other moves to bolster their lineup, they should try and bring Pederson back on a short-term deal to be the DH against righties. Starting him back in left and squeezing guys like Yastrzemski and Slater back to center wouldn't be fair to the pitching staff, as 2022 showed.

The second big question includes three of Zaidi's best finds. There's a world where the Giants sign Judge and move Wade into a platoon with Wilmer Flores at first base, but otherwise, the front office probably need to cut bait with one of the lefty outfielders. There are too many offensive and defensive limitations with that group as a whole, and the roster would be more flexible if the Giants could find a trade for one of them.

Biggest Offseason Question

This is an easy one: Can the Giants lure Judge to the West Coast?

Over the final weeks of the season, most within the organization still felt it was unlikely the Yankees would let him get away, but you never know in free agency, and the Giants will certainly be front and center in the rumor mill.

Judge would be a transformational piece, putting the league's best hitter in the heart of a struggling lineup and giving the Giants a face-of-the-franchise to boost ticket sales and fan interest. The offseason will be defined in large part by whether or not the Giants convince the Linden native to leave the Yankees.

The Future

It was an odd year for Giants outfield prospects, as their best ones took notable steps back, but two newcomers emerged.

Luis Matos, their top outfield prospect, hit just .211 in High-A and missed time with a quad injury. The Giants aren't quite sure what happened after a breakout 2021 season and their underlying metrics on Matos remain strong. They sent the 20-year-old center fielder to the Fall League in hopes of getting him back on track.

Ramos stunningly made his debut in early April but had just two hits in 20 big league at-bats and posted a .654 OPS in a hitter-friendly Triple-A league. He'll return there in 2023 and team officials have already made it clear that they won't be swayed by a big spring this time around. Hunter Bishop was on the field more consistently but still is looking for the consistent production that made him a first-round pick.

On the flip side, Vaun Brown had a breakthrough season, hitting .346 with 23 homers and 44 stolen bases and earning two promotions. He was a bit old for the first two levels he dominated, but he'll start next season as a 24-year-old in Double-A, with a shot to push for a 2023 big league debut.

Grant McCray, 21, put it all together in San Jose and posted a .908 OPS before a promotion to High-A Eugene, where he had a .387 on-base percentage. He's a couple of years away, but he's now the Giants fourth-ranked prospect overall and their second-ranked outfielder after Matos.

Free Agents To Watch

Aside from Judge?

It's, uhh, not a very inspiring class, although Mets center fielder Brandon Nimmo would solve a lot of problems. A speedy left-handed hitter with a long history of getting on base at a high clip, Nimmo hit 16 homers in 2022 and led the NL with seven triples, which is always intriguing when you're talking about a player potentially making Oracle Park his home.

Nimmo was worth six Outs Above Average in center field and his addition would push Yastrzemski back to right -- where he's a Gold Glove-caliber defender -- and Slater to a corner. The Mets want him back and, given the lack of options on the market, he should get a very, very healthy contract.

It will be the type of deal the Giants might find uncomfortable, but if they can't lure Judge or swing a blockbuster deal -- hello, old friend Bryan Reynolds? -- the best way to truly improve the outfield is probably to overpay for Nimmo and hope for bounce-back seasons from some of the incumbents.

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