Giants offseason preview: Big changes could be coming for infield

Big infield decisions loom for Giants after years of stability originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

SAN FRANCISCO -- It has been 10 years, just about to the day, since Sergio Romo threw one of the gutsiest pitches in MLB history to clinch a title for the Giants. What came next for their infield was just as incredible.

The Giants somehow made it through nearly the entire next decade with more than half of that 2012 World Series infield intact. But change is coming quickly.

Buster Posey announced his retirement a year ago, and Brandon Belt is about to hit free agency for the first time and possibly choose to follow Posey's path. Brandon Crawford remains, but he now faces perhaps his most unpredictable winter as a big leaguer.

All three were on the field when Romo threw that pitch, but the game eventually moves on, even if it's years after most would have predicted.

This week, we'll look at some of the changes coming for the Giants' position groups. We'll start with an infield that has had incredible stability since Opening Day in 2012, but might look quite a bit different on Opening Day in 2023:

Season Recap

In retrospect, one of the biggest mistakes the Giants made after winning 107 games in 2021 was counting on their infield to do it again.

Crawford finished fourth in the MVP balloting in 2021 but played just 118 games this year, his fewest in a 162-game season. Belt followed a 29-homer season with eight homers in just 78 games played. Evan Longoria was productive when on the field, but played just 89 games and went on the injured list with four separate injuries.

During his end-of-season Zoom call with reporters, Farhan Zaidi noted that some mistakes were made.

"I think one of our lessons from this year is going to be to manage the workloads for those veteran players and not rely on them too heavily," he said.

The Giants basically have not had a backup shortstop over the last decade, and they weren't prepared for Crawford to go down. With Longoria missing so much time, 10 different players got a start at third, including Kevin Padlo and Luke Williams. Eleven different players got a start at first.

There were offensive bright spots -- most notably Wilmer Flores and Thairo Estrada -- but overall it was a down year for Giants infielders, particularly on defense. They were worth negative Defensive Runs Saved at all five infield spots, with their second base defense ranking as second-worst in the Majors and their third basemen coming in as a bottom-five unit. That was a season-defining issue for a team built around a strong, grounder-inducing starting staff.

One area where the Giants were close to league average defensively was behind the plate, but they couldn't come close to replicating Posey's offensive production. Joey Bart's up-and-down rookie year included a brief trip back to Triple-A; he finished with a wRC+ of 90.

Will They Be Back?

The Giants paid for running it back with their 2021 infield, but they actually are kind of poised to do the same thing this offseason, just with some different pieces. The key is that some of this year's incumbents are much younger.

Crawford has one more year left on his deal, and Flores signed an extension in September. They're locked in, along with Estrada, who had a breakout season and was nominated for a Silver Slugger as a utility man. The J.D. Davis trade was a heist and he'll be back in some role. David Villar had a huge September and will come to camp pushing for a job, although the Giants are hopeful that they can build enough depth this offseason that Villar may start 2023 back in Triple-A.

Bart won the starting job back with a strong second half, and Austin Wynns made a very compelling case to return as his backup. Pitchers love throwing to him and his wRC+ put him just eight points below league-average as a hitter.

On the dirt, the big decisions are with three veterans. Longoria has made it clear he wants to return and Zaidi said there's a spot for him on next year's team. The Giants likely won't pick up the full $13 million option, but it wouldn't be a surprise if they announced a smaller one-year deal early in the offseason.

Belt had season-ending knee surgery and will retire if he doesn't feel right, but the early rehab has been positive. Zaidi said he would leave the door open to a reunion, calling Belt "everything we want in an offensive player in terms of the power and patience and at-bat quality." There is a sense around the club, though, that Belt likely has played his last game as a Giant. The Bruce Bochy-led Texas Rangers now loom as an appealing option for the Texas native if he wants to keep playing.

The 40-man is rounded out by Tommy La Stella, Jason Vosler, Donovan Walton, Taylor Jones and Colton Welker, most of whom will be let go this offseason to open roster spots.

The trickiest decision comes with La Stella, who is owed $11.5 million in the final season of a three-year deal. He played just 60 games last year with a .632 OPS and it's hard to see how he can handle second base in a non-shift world. That's a lot of money to eat or try and include in a trade, even for an exec who once managed to trade Mark Melancon's contract.

Biggest Offseason Question

Crawford has played nearly 13,000 defensive innings in the big leagues, every single one at shortstop. His defensive metrics were down in 2022, but in September, he proved over and over again that -- when healthy -- he's still as good as anyone in the league.

But here comes the awkward part. One of the main goals for the Giants this offseason is to get more athletic up the middle, and this is one of the better shortstop free agent classes in MLB history. You can make a strong argument that after Aaron Judge, the four best position players available are all shortstops. If the Giants miss out on Judge, the best way to add offensive punch and athleticism is likely going to be by signing a shortstop.

"Right now we're going to be open on everything," Zaidi said. "Craw played really well defensively, particularly down the stretch. We've talked about workload with him as an issue that I do think hurt us a little bit this year, relying on him a little bit too heavily at shortstop and shortstop depth has been a concern for us over the last couple seasons.

"At minimum we need to create more good shortstop options so we don't need him to play 150 games a year, but beyond that we'll just have to be open to anybody who can positively impact this team going forward."

The front office didn't sit down with Crawford before the end of the season to discuss what this all might mean, and it doesn't necessarily have to get awkward in 2023. The DH spot adds flexibility and some of the potential options -- most notably Trea Turner -- have experience at other spots.

The Giants chased shortstop Trevor Story last year with a plan to play him at other spots, but there will be more difficult questions if they push for a big-name shortstop this offseason. Do they ask Crawford to consider moving in what may be his final season? Do they sign a Gold Glove winner like Carlos Correa and ask him to play second or third for a year? Aside from Judge Watch, this may be the most fascinating part of the offseason.

The Future

It's been a dry spell for a farm system that once churned out the Brandons, Joe Panik and Matt Duffy in the span of a few years, but help may finally be on the way.

It was a down season overall for Giants hitting prospects, but Casey Schmitt broke out and reached Double-A, where he hit .342 in 29 games. Schmitt ended his season with five hits in 15 at-bats in Triple-A, and overall he had a .293/.365/.489 slash line and 21 homers across three levels. Oh, he also happens to be one of the best defensive prospects the Giants have ever had.

A second-rounder out of San Diego State in 2020, Schmitt regularly draws comparisons to Matt Chapman. One NL scout who watched him this summer said he's the best defensive third baseman he's seen in the minors since a young Nolan Arenado.

Schmitt's glove is big league-ready right now, and if he keeps improving at the plate early next season he should debut in 2023. In an ideal world, the Giants would bring Longoria back for one more year and then at some point transition to Schmitt for years to come.

The top position player prospect in the organization, Marco Luciano, missed most of the summer with a back injury and posted a .798 OPS with 10 homers in 57 games in High-A. Luciano is making up for lost at-bats in winter ball, but the 21-year-old is almost certain to spend most of 2023 in Double-A.

Most evaluators now feel he's poised for a position change, too, which is one reason the Giants may look at shortstop options this offseason.

Villar relatively was an unknown prospect this time a year ago, but he had a huge September and finished with nine homers in 156 at-bats. He's certainly a big league-caliber hitter, but the Giants are still trying to figure out where to best use him defensively.

The player to watch in the minors in 2023 is Aeverson Arteaga, a 19-year-old who hit 14 homers in Low-A this season. Scouts view him as the best pure shortstop in the system and he could be the long-term answer at the big league level one day if the Giants don't add in free agency.

Free Agents To Watch

It's an absolutely loaded shortstop class. Correa is the best of the bunch but Turner is a perennial MVP candidate, and adding him would also weaken the team the Giants are trying to chase down.

Xander Bogaerts is likely to opt out of his Red Sox deal and look for nine figures after posting a six-win WAR season. Dansby Swanson posted a career-high 6.4 WAR at the perfect time and hits free agency as a 28-year-old.

The baseline for this year's shortstops likely will be the $140 million that Javier Baez and Story got last offseason, but they'll be aiming much higher. The last two massive shortstop contracts went to Francisco Lindor ($341 million) and Corey Seager ($325 million).

With Flores, Davis, Villar and possibly Longoria and Schmitt in the mix at third base next year, the Giants don't need to jump into that market. Most of that group, plus LaMonte Wade Jr., can handle first base too, so don't expect the Giants to add there.

The one sneaky position to watch this offseason is second base, either in free agency or the trade market. Estrada was an offensive standout but rated poorly by defensive metrics, and Flores will be one of the Giants most impacted by the new rules on shifts. He's expected to spend most of his time at first base.

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The second-base market this offseason is brutal, unless the Giants want to bring in Jean Segura to allow certain beat writers to tweet out his celebration GIF every time he hits a double. This is where a trade may be needed.

If the Giants can find a rangy second baseman in a trade or convince one of the free agents to move from short to second for a year, they can move Estrada around -- Gabe Kapler has talked of him being an elite weapon in a utility role -- and solve a lot of issues for a rotation currently led by Logan Webb and Alex Cobb.

Aaron Judge will suck up most of the oxygen in the room this offseason, but behind the scenes, the Giants will spend just as much time trying to figure out how to get more production on both sides of the ball from their infielders.

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