SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.–He didn’t have to face Christian Yelich or Domingo Santana, but on the first day of Cactus League play, Giants’ left-hander Ty Blach did have to contend with a handful of the Brewers’ regular starters.
“I thought it was great,” Blach said. “I saw the lineup about 30 minutes before the game and it’s always exciting knowing you’re going up against their best and able to come out on top, it’s always a good feeling.”
While Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy kept his regulars, save for Andrew McCutchen, on the bench, the Brewers brought Eric Thames, Lorenzo Cain and Travis Shaw over to Scottsdale Stadium to square off with a pitcher who entered spring training as the ‘front-runner’ for the fifth spot in the Giants’ rotation.
Blach threw first-pitch strikes to all seven batters he faced and allowed just one player to reach base. Cain’s two-out single in the first was the only blemish on Blach’s ledger, as he started off the spring with a solid outing.
“The hitters are a little behind still,” Blach said. “They haven’t had too many days of live BP or anything like that. It’s their first week of seeing live pitching, but it still gives you a little bit of confidence as a pitcher going into it.”
The Giants anticipate Chris Stratton, who will pitch on Saturday in Glendale, and Blach to earn the final two starting jobs in their rotation this spring, but prospects Tyler Beede and Andrew Suarez will provide stiff competition.
Blach said after his start he finally feels like he belongs at the big league level, and acknowledged it’s different entering camp as a front-runner for a job as opposed to chasing a role, like he did last season when Matt Cain secured the fifth spot in the rotation.
“I’m kind of fine-tuning some things, trying to tighten up the slider a little bit to where it’s a little more consistent and a little more of a swing-and-miss pitch or at least open some more opportunities for some different locations,” Blach said.
Suarez was the first reliever out of the bullpen on Friday, and he struck out the side in the top of the third inning. After struggling in two games as a non-roster invitee to camp last spring, Suarez said he was determined to start his outing with a strike.
“I made sure of it,” Suarez said. “But my first warmup throw was in the dirt. I was like, ‘Oh great,’ but I just relaxed after that and made sure I was throwing strikes.”
With a deceptive motion and a nasty slider, the southpaw is particularly hard on left-handed hitters and could carve out a role at the Major League level –either as a starter or a reliever– by the end of the year.
Suarez encountered a bit of adversity in his second inning of work when center fielder Steven Duggar got a late jump on a fly ball off the bat of Cain. Cain’s second single of the day wound up dropping between Duggar and left fielder Austin Slater, but Suarez rolled a 4-6-3 double play with Shaw at the plate.
After facing just a handful of Major League hitters last spring, Suarez was eager to compete against the Brewers.
“I was in the bullpen and they sent their lineup out there and I was hearing the names and it was good I got to face a lot of their guys,” Suarez said.
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.–During the first week of spring training, the Giants expect no fewer than four different players to patrol center field in Cactus League games.
Free agent signee Austin Jackson is the odds-on favorite to start on Opening Day against Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers, but highly touted prospect Steven Duggar, returning fan favorite Gregor Blanco, and the team’s best defensive outfielder from 2017, Gorkys Hernandez, will all battle for playing time.
As spring training rolls along, the Giants will have four or five players audition at shortstop, first base and behind the plate, but the reserves jockeying for opportunities behind Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt and Buster Posey understand where they fall on the depth chart.
In center field, that’s not the case. Each player competing to fill the void left when Denard Span was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays in December has a legitimate chance to carve out at least a part-time starting job, which should make for compelling theatre under the warm Scottsdale sun.
Though the main stage is in the heart of the outfield, Giants’ management will pay close attention to what’s taking place in the corners. In right field, the club plans to start Andrew McCutchen, a five-time All-Star and 31-year-old power hitter playing under a contract that will expire at the end of the year. In left field, manager Bruce Bochy is counting on the oldest player on the oldest team in baseball, Hunter Pence, who will also be a free agent once the 2018 campaign concludes.
In January, Bochy phoned Pence, 34, to share the news of the Giants’ trade for McCutchen. Instead of needing to convince Pence, a career right fielder, to shift to left to accommodate McCutchen’s arrival, Bochy said the 11-year veteran jumped on board right away.
“He’s (Pence) such an unselfish player that’s willing to do whatever we think is best for the club,” Bochy said. “That’s who Hunter is. The character of the man and I mean, there wasn’t even a thought process when I was talking to him about it. He was so excited to get Andrew. That’s so important to have for a manager, those type of players who can give you that flexibility because it is service over self-interest.”
After posting a batting average (.260) and on-base percentage (.315) that were both 22 points below his career averages last season, Pence arrived to Giants’ camp this spring in impressive physical condition. He looks limber and more muscular, and his early batting practices convinced Bochy to start Pence in left field in the Giants’ first Cactus League game.
On Friday morning, though, Pence was scratched from the Giants’ lineup with a stiff neck. It’s an ominous sign for a player who’s battled injuries in each of the last three seasons, but it’s also a reminder that even if Pence navigates a 162-game season with a clean bill of health, the Giants must begin looking toward the future this spring.
When he’s not in the cages, Pence has spent much of his time shagging fly balls in left field. With 1,390 career games as a right fielder and 96 in center, Pence has never played a regular season Major League game in left. Though the transition from one corner spot to another might prove challenging, Pence thinks it’s easier than moving from center field to either left or right.
“Moving from right to left is a fun opportunity,” Pence said. “I’ve been in right field for so long, I look at it like I love a challenge and a change. Sometimes it feels really good and for me, this feels good. It’s exciting and I definitely loved right field and I’ll always have all of the knowledge from playing it for so long so that’s good, but now I get to get a little more work in left field.”
Pence is slated to become the 11th different Opening Day left fielder for the Giants in the 11 seasons since Barry Bonds retired, and because he’s set to become a free agent, the club will likely go 12-for-12 in 2019. When Pence is off the field this spring, as he will be on Friday against Milwaukee, the Giants have an opportunity to look at the in-house candidates who will compete for outfield roles in the future.
Austin Slater replaced Pence in Friday’s lineup, and the Giants believe he has the makeup to be an everyday player in the future. Slater hit .282 as a rookie with a .402 slugging percentage, but the club thinks tweaks to his approach at the plate will unlock more power.
Because he has Minor League options, even a red-hot spring might not be enough for Slater to start the year on the Giants’ 25-man roster. However, because neither Hernandez or Jarrett Parker project as regular starters, an injury to Jackson, Pence or McCutchen could create a window of opportunity for Slater.
Additionally, the Giants will also take a long look at their top hitting prospect, Chris Shaw, in left field this spring. Shaw isn’t regarded as a strong defender, but he has plenty of power from the left side of the plate and could force his way into a platoon role with Pence by the middle of the year.
With uncertainty clouding the Giants’ outfield situation beyond the 2018 season, it’s important for San Francisco that players like Shaw and Slater at least prove they can provide serviceable depth in the immediate future. For a franchise that will eventually need to become younger and more athletic, it’s unrealistic for the Giants to expect both Pence and McCutchen to return to the fold after free agency next season.
Though next year’s free agent market includes names of stars like Bryce Harper and Charlie Blackmon the Giants will certainly check in on, franchises are best-served when homegrown talent proves capable of taking over starting roles early in their careers. It’s why the Giants are so eager to watch Duggar perform in center, and why the coaching staff and front office will continue watching closely even after Pence and McCutchen come off the field during Cactus League games.
According to San Francisco Giants television analyst Mike Krukow, a former pitcher who spent 14 seasons in MLB, the limiting of pitching visits is fine by him. But he thinks the league is missing another, perhaps bigger opportunity to shorten games that could also potentially improve the league’s standing with advertisers.
Krukow’s solution: Add advertisements to the uniforms.
“I don’t like long innings during the playoffs, where there’s 2:45 minute breaks. I don’t like that,” Krukow told KNBR on Thursday. “To me, it’s obvious, if you want to speed things up, cut the innings back down to two minutes or 1:45 and put advertisements on the uniforms. I have no problem with that. I didn’t have a problem wearing a rum advertisement when I played in Puerto Rico.”
It’s already happening in baseball leagues around the world and even in the NBA, where about a dozen different teams are sporting advertisement patches on their jerseys. The NHL, for what it’s worth, has decided to hold off on adding ads for the time being after it became a topic of discussion.
It would surely lead to an interesting debate if Manfred ever put it on the table. If it meant chopping off 30 seconds during the regular season to a one minute between innings in the postseason, that would make quite a dent. Perhaps even more so than limiting pitching visits would. Purely looking at it from that perspective, it might be worthwhile to Manfred.
On the flipside, the league and team owners would undoubtedly be in another battle with the players, who would want their cut in whatever deal is made to put ads on their uniforms. Given the rising tensions stemming from a slow moving free agent market and reservations some players have about the initial pace-of-play changes, that’s not a battle the league is likely to pursue anytime soon.
Nonetheless, it’s definitely something to file away in the event that the league isn’t satisfied with the results of this year’s pace-of-play changes. A pitch clock would certainly come first, but ads on uniforms could actually be in MLB’s future.
MESA, Ariz. — There was a time when Nick Noonan’s name was mentioned alongside the likes of Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner as future stars for the San Francisco Giants. But as Posey and Bumgarner moved on to major success, Noonan’s career was stuck on neutral.
A first round pick by the Giants in 2007 out of Parker High in San Diego, Noonan was quickly anointed as their second baseman of the future. He didn’t quite live up to those high expectations.
Noonan remained in the minor leagues for six years until getting his first crack at the big leagues in 2013 when he made the Giants Opening Day roster as a backup infielder. After batting just .219 in 105 major league at-bats that year, Noonan was designated for assignment the following season.
The past four years, Noonan has been on a tour around the country. The organizations he’s played for include the Yankees, Giants again, Padres, Marlins, and Brewers, only returning to the majors for short stints in 2015 with the Giants and 2016 with the Padres. But when the A’s came calling with a non-roster invitation to spring training, Noonan jumped at the chance to potentially come back to the Bay Area.
“I was kind of excited. The other side of the bay, I’ll try that one out,” Noonan said.
While he started out as a second baseman, Noonan has played all four infield positions over the past few years. That type of versatility is valuable to any club, and it’s the reason manager Bob Melvin expects to get Noonan a considerable amount of playing time this spring.
“He’s gonna get some time backing up games. Maybe a couple of starts. He can play all the infield positions, which works in his favor,” Melvin said. “The first game he’ll be in there somewhere to back up. You’d love to be able to start, especially for a guy that’s been in the big leagues and is a little bit older at this point in his career, but he’s gonna get enough at-bats for us to get a good handle on him.”
It won’t be an easy road to Oakland for Noonan. The A’s have their infield set with Matt Olson at first, Jed Lowrie at second, Marcus Semien at short, and Matt Chapman at third. Even with Noonan’s versatility, the A’s already have a super-utility man in Chad Pinder locked into a roster spot.
Noonan, 28, understands the situation he’s in.
“I just wanted get myself in good shape this offseason. Come into camp ready to go, be aggressive, play hard and hopefully leave the coaches with a tough decision,” Noonan said. “My goal is to make it tough on them.”
A positive for Noonan entering this spring is the confidence he brings coming off a solid season in the minors. Noonan combined to hit .275 with seven home runs and 104 RBIs while stealing 12 bases with Triple-A affiliates of the Marlins and Brewers.
“I think consistency is probably my key,” Noonan said. “I’ve been playing the game for 11 years now, so there’s not much I haven’t seen. Just looking to have a good, consistent spring and show them my playing style.”
The White Sox are ready to move on to the next phase of spring training: games against real competition. Starting Friday, the Sox are scheduled to play 32 exhibition games in 32 days before taking a quick break in advance of the season opener against the Royals on March 29 in Kansas City.
There are plenty of storylines surrounding a Sox team that continues to rebuild, but here are 10 intriguing players to keep an eye on throughout the Cactus League season, beginning with Friday’s game against the Dodgers at Camelback Ranch:
Micker Adolfo, OF
Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2013 when he was 16, Adolfo’s development has been slowed by a lack of plate discipline and injuries. Now more selective and finally healthy, Adolfo appears poised to start moving up through the ranks of the minor leagues. The 6-foot-3, 200-pounder has looked impressive during batting sessions, crushing balls with consistency. The Sox believe Adolfo’s talent is on a par with top prospects Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert.
Jake Burger, 3B
The Sox’s top pick (11th overall) in the 2017 draft can hit a baseball far. Very far. While watching Burger deposit baseball’s over the fence, keep an eye on his work at third base. At 6-2, 210, Burger doesn’t look like the prototypical third baseman and many project him at first or DH. But looks can be deceiving as Burger has worked hard to improve his footwork. He also has a strong arm, so he figures to remain at third as he works his way toward the majors.
Ryan Cordell, OF
The center-field job appears to be an open competition, and Cordell wants it. A back injury sidelined Cordell for much of last season, including the entirety of his time with the Sox after they acquired him from the Brewers for Anthony Swarzak on July 26. Cordell didn’t start swinging a bat until December but said he is completely healthy. If so, Cordell’s all-around game — the 25-year-old has above-average speed, power and arm strength — could put him in the mix.
Alec Hansen, P
Hansen won’t be hard to miss — he stands 6-8. Despite not playing high school baseball until his junior year, the Sox’s second-round pick (49th overall) in ’16 draft features a mid-90s fastball. That, plus his height and an occasionally devastating curveball allowed Hansen to lead all minor leaguers with 191 strikeouts in 2017. Hansen made two starts at Double-A Birmingham last season and will begin ’18 there, where he will work on his command.
The veteran said he is healthy after missing much of 2017 following July 13 nerve repositioning surgery — the second major arm injury of his career. Jones was released from his rehab in December and said he is ready to play a major role in the rebuilt Sox bullpen. The 32-year-old right-hander could challenge Joakim Soria for the closer’s role. Jones had three saves in 2016 to go along with a 5-3 record and 2.29 ERA.
Michael Kopech, P
The flame-throwing right-hander is considered a future ace. Kopech, 21, can consistently reach 100 mph with his fastball and is working hard to further develop secondary pitches, such as his slider and changeup, to keep hitters off balance and end at-bats. Kopech, who is likely to start the season at Triple-A Charlotte, is scheduled to start Monday’s Cactus League game against the Athletics.
Eloy Jimenez, OF
Those oohs and ahhs you’ve been hearing have come from fans and team staff watching the Sox’s top prospect take batting practice. Jimenez, whom the Sox acquired last summer from the Cubs in the Jose Quintana trade, is a physical specimen and can hit the ball a mile. Jimenez’s lightning-quick bat speed allows him turn around any pitch thrown his way, and his raw power reminds many of Hall of Famer Frank Thomas.
Yoan Moncada, 2B
Moncada has been handed the reins to the Sox’s second-base job and he will look to build off a strong September that helped him finish with a .231 average, eight home runs and 22 RBIs in 54 games. At 22, Moncada is still a work in progress both at the plate and in the field, and the Sox expect him to reach another level in both spots. Improved plate discipline will be a key.
Luis Robert, OF
Signed by the Sox to a $26 million free-agent contract in May, the Cuban is considered the team’s future center fielder. Another physical specimen at 6-3, 185, Robert’s compact swing produces superior bat speed and that translates to impressive power. Robert can also run and said this week he is working with Sox instructors to improve the accuracy of his arm. Just 20, Robert has arguably the most raw talent in the organization.
Charlie Tilson, OF
Injuries have derailed Tilson’s path to the majors, but the Wilmette native said he is healthy and ready to take the next step with the center-field job in his sights. Tilson missed all of 2017 with right ankle and foot injuries but said he hasn’t lost a step, which is good thing considering speed is his best asset. If Tilson can make it through the spring without suffering another setback, he could challenge Adam Engel and Ryan Cordell for the starting job in center.