Giants hopeful Mike Yastrzemski can fill another 2021 roster hole

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Alex Pavlovic
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Giants hopeful Yaz can help fill another 2021 roster hole originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

You surely remember the ball Tommy La Stella hit last season that ended up just out of Mike Yastrzemski's reach. Yastrzemski went back on it and thought he had a chance, but he could do nothing but react with disappointment as the ball did its damage and then rolled away from the outfield wall. 

This isn't a story about La Stella's walk-off, though. 

Two nights after he hit a homer to right at Angel Stadium, La Stella drove a fastball to deep center off Johnny Cueto at Oracle Park. Yastrzemski, now playing center, went back on the ball with the pace of a man who knew he would get to his spot, but when he hit the warning track and reached his right hand in the air, the ball clanked off his glove. La Stella cruised into second with a double as Yastrzemski chased the ball down, briefly turning his head and displaying his annoyance.

As Giants executives and coaches thought about their center field situation this offseason and pondered Yastrzemski's ability to be a part-time solution, they kept coming back to plays like that one. The defensive metrics didn't paint a pretty picture of Yastrzemski's overall work in center, but the Giants view that as small-sample-size noise, noting that a handful of missed opportunities could have gone the other way.

"I think Yaz was a better defender last year than some have given him credit for," manager Gabe Kapler said earlier in camp. "In particular, I think he got good jumps and took some pretty good routes to the baseball. There were a couple of plays that he had a chance to complete, either because he dove for the ball, the ball popped out of his glove, or he may have been around the wall and juggled the ball at the last second. I think those things are going to correct themselves.

"He's a very aware and very gifted player, especially when it comes to eye-hand coordination -- we see that with the bat -- so I think we're going to see him complete more of those plays."

Yastrzemski, as you would expect from someone who became a late-blooming star, is not leaving it up to chance. He said he'll adjust his routine this spring and increase the concentration level in the outfield. Kapler calls it getting "through the finish line" on tougher plays. Yastrzemski said he plans to change the way he trains.

"I think (I'll be) really focusing on finishing plays during batting practice," Yastrzemski said. "Instead of going out there and taking 10-15 reps of half-hearted effort and saying 'Oh, I can go make this play' and just jogging at it, it's about really taking it like a game rep. You're taking five reps at 100 percent versus taking 10 reps where five of them are at 100 percent and five of them are at 75 percent. It's making sure that they're at full speed the entire time."

The Giants are counting on the improvement after a quiet offseason as far as the outfield is concerned. They shunned big-name options and instead traded for LaMonte Wade Jr., who can play center but might be a better fit in a corner spot. Kapler repeatedly has mentioned Yastrzemski and Austin Slater as guys he would like to see in center more often, and he'll need the depth. 

While Mauricio Dubon did a nice job defensively as the everyday center fielder down the stretch last year, the Giants likely will use Dubon in more of a utility role. If, for example, Kapler wants to give Brandon Crawford a day off against a tough lefty, he may find that his best backup plan is to have Dubon at short and Yastrzemski in center with Slater and Darin Ruf in the corners. 

Yastrzemski played 186 innings in center field last year, although nearly all of them came over the season's first three weeks. Defensive Runs Saved had him as roughly league-average, but Statcast's Outs Above Average ranked him 31st out of 33 players who got at least 50 plays in center field. 

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Yastrzemski said he's comfortable out in center, and he's eager to attack what was one of the few holes on his resume last year. He turned into an MVP candidate at the plate, and the next step is matching those contributions on defense. It's a reminder that there's always something to prove, and that's just the way Yastrzemski likes it. He said he has more peace of mind than in previous camps, but he's not allowing himself to get comfortable. 

"This game is wild and you have to prove yourself every day," he said. "Most importantly, you have to prove it to yourself that you're doing what you need to do to be ready for the season."

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