When the Giants traded Matt Duffy I was a bit gutted. He was one of my favourite Giants players and I liked that he was understated, hardworking and homegrown. I understand they needed Matt Moore to shore up the starting rotation but there’s little doubt that Eduardo Nuñez represented a bit of a climb down from Duffy. Sure, Nunez offers speed and baserunning upside, but Duffy’s an elite level defensive player (Adrian Beltre and Manny Machado are the only 3B to have contributed more defensively to their teams in the past two seasons in terms of Defensive Runs Above Average) and he would have been rookie of the year in 2015 if somebody called Kris Bryant didn’t exist.
Water under the bridge now, though, and there’s no doubting the Giants are a more solid rotation with Matt Moore at 4 or 5. A lot has been written this winter about what the Giants will do at third base, and whilst Eduardo Nunez will start there is an interesting tussle developing over who will nail down the backup third base slot. The Giants have signed both veteran Aaron Hill and Jae-gyun Hwang (link) to minor league contracts and invited them to Spring Training to join Conor Gillaspie and Gordon Beckham in a fight for the role.
Aaron Hill will be 36 by opening day and is not one for the long term but he’ll be hoping to impress in Spring Training. Largely disappointing for Boston in the second half of 2016 he did nonetheless bat fairly well against National League pitching for the Brewers before his trade to the Red Sox, with a .359 OPS and homering once every 30 at bats. He has shown in the past he can hit for power and get on base and has played across the infield throughout his career.
Another experienced head who offers versatility across the infield, Gordon Beckham possibly offers the least upside of all the candidates, coming off a below-average 2015 and 2016 for the Braves and the White Sox. He struck out twice as often as he was walked last year so he has a lot to do to impress the decision makers at the Giants this spring.
Conor Gillaspie is perhaps the front runner for the backup role, given his experience of the club and what could be generously be described as a renaissance of sorts in 2016, coming off a poor 2015 with the White Sox and the Angels. He fares considerably better against right-handed pitching than against lefties and this could be factor in Bochy’s decision making. His lack of defensive versality relative to the other guys in the hunt could count against him, too, as he has played 95% of his games in the big leagues at 3B.
Jeff Sullivan wrote an excellent piece on Jae-gyun Hwang in November, extolling his virtue as a well-disciplined hitter in the KBO with consistently above league-average batting average who had recently added power and improved his strikeout rate. It is difficult to know how the KBO compares to MLB – Hwang’s OPS in 2016 was .949, and for context MVP Eric Thames hit 1.101 last year and has been rewarded with a $15million 3-year deal with the Brewers. Previous batting imports from Korea have yielded mixed results but with a $1.5million contract the Giants could get a lot of value from Hwang even if he has only a moderately successful first year.
Who is most likely to get the backup job then? What is on offer defensively is relatively unimportant, as there has already been such a significant climb down from Duffy to Nunez in terms of DEF, so the question for Bochy seems to be who offers more upside with the bat. Gillaspie is widely touted to get the nod alongside Kelby Tomlinson as the infield second string, and he is popular given his postseason heroics last season. It is a bit surprising that the Giants have signed so many veteran guys to minor league contracts and perhaps this hints at an internal insecurity about either the health of infielders (there are still unresolved issues around Panik’s concussion last year) or a lack of belief in their quality. I think in terms of upside it comes down to a toss up between Hill and Gillaspie. Hill has done it in the past and shown as recently as the beginning of 2016 that he can do it against National League pitching. Gillaspie has done it when it counts, in the postseason in a Giants jersey, and that might resonate with Bochy. Personally I would love to see Hwang have a positive spring and be rewarded with a shot at the majors this year. There are question marks about translating his KBO success to the majors, but he has genuine power, plate discipline and a touch of the unknown that would make him an exciting player to track in 2017.