Coming off their third World Series title in the last five years, it would be easy to think that the San Francisco Giants don’t have a lot to be worried about. But after a slow offseason, which saw the reigning champions miss out on free agents James Shields, Yasmany Tomas, Pablo Sandoval and Max Scherzer, the Giants are looking to fill some potential holes.
While San Francisco was able to fill the void left by Sandoval at third base with the free agent signing of Casey McGehee, there are questions still remaining about what the Giants will do about their left field situation.
During the 2014 season, San Francisco used several players in left field, including Michael Morse, Juan Perez, Gregor Blanco and Travis Ishikawa. While Morse left via free agency for the Miami Marlins, the Giants still have Perez, Blanco and Ishikawa on the roster along with the addition of Nori Aoki, who comes to the Bay Area after leaving the Kansas City Royals to come to the world champs, and a potential spot for former first-round pick Gary Brown.
The Giants have had only two players play more than 100 games in left field since seven-time MVP Barry Bonds played his last game in 2007. Melky Cabrera looked to be any easy replacement in left field for the Giants after an all-star performance during the first half of the 2012 season. But after playing 101 games in left field, Cabrera was implicated in a PED scandal and was suspended for 50 games, with San Francisco deciding not to reinstate him on their roster. Cabrera was released and has since found a home in Toronto.
Former prospect Fred Lewis also played 101 games in left field during the 2008 season.
The Giants opening day left fielders over the past seven seasons have been Dave Roberts (2008), Fred Lewis (2009), Mark DeRosa (2010), Pat Burrell (2011), Aubrey Huff (20212), Andres Torres (2013) and Morse.
San Francisco will add another name to the list of left field starters when the 2015 season begins. But the question remains, who should be the starter in left field?
Source: Jamie Squire/Getty Images North America
An easy response would be to play Aoki, who the Giants signed to a one-year, $4.7 million contract with a team option for 2016. But it is never that easy as the Giants would be asking Aoki to play a position that he has only played 18 times in his whole career, a total of 97 innings. This is not something beyond San Francisco’s doing as the team asked Ishikawa to start in left field during the MLB playoffs after playing just eight games in the majors at the position. While Ishikawa faired admirably for his unfamiliarity to left field, it is apparent a season of Ishikawa in left field would not be beneficial to the Giants hopes of repeating in 2015.
So, who should be San Francisco’s starter in left field during the 2015 season? Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy has always had a gift for selecting the best players to fit within the team concept, which has played a significant role in San Francisco becoming a recent, if unsuspecting, dynasty.
As Spring Training begins, Bochy will have five players to take a close look at for the starting left field spot.
As mention previously, Aoki would be the frontrunner for most casual fans. The San Francisco brass signed the 33-year-old outfielder during the offseason with the hopes he could contribute offensively. During the 2014 season, Aoki slashed .285/.349.360 for the Royals. He is a player that lacks power but fits into the Giants ways of putting the ball in play. Aoki had 491 at-bats last season, striking out just 49 times, while walking 43.
The former Royal right fielder is not a burner on the base paths, but he does possess adequate speed. Aoki stole 17 bases last season, but he was caught eight times.
There are two simple questions that the Giants need to address when it comes to Aoki being the starter in left field. First, will he be able to handle the position considering his relative inexperience playing there. Since debuting with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2012, Aoki has played a total of 18 games in left field. And secondly, are the Giants comfortable starting a player who was removed by his former team late in games for defensive purposes?
Let’s look at Aoki’s inexperience playing left field.
Switching positions can be a daunting task for anyone, let alone switching to the expansive left field of AT&T Park and other parks in the National League West. Aoki has plenty of speed to cover the terrain, but there are questions by some concerning the routes he takes to fly balls, this was apparent during the Royals playoff run when Aoki found some puzzling ways to chase down balls in the outfield.
A look at Aoki’s defensive sabermetric ratings shows that while he has never made an error playing left field, his range factor is far below the league average. During the 2014 season, Aoki played a total of 21 innings in left field, a small sample size to say the least. According to numbers calculated based on BaseballProjection.com, Aoki had a range factor per nine innings (RF/9) of 1.29, well below the American League average of 2.01. Range factor uses the formula 9*(Putouts+Assists)/Innings played to determine a players true contribution to his team.
When in the National League, Aoki’s RF/9 for left field during 2012 season was 1.66, which was also below the league average of 1.84.
If not Aoki in left field, then who?