SAN FRANCISCO — It was such a familiar sight: Hunter Pence, socks pulled high and a big smile on his face, running to the wall in center before games and waving to fans all the way there and back.
But in 2015, Pence had a much different routine. Injured for most of the season, Pence was often the first position player into the dugout, and he would sit there quietly with his thoughts as teammates prepared to take the field without their emotional leader. During games Pence was a fixture on the dugout rail, and while the results on the field weren’t always there for the Giants, the veteran loved what he saw.
“This group will never turn our backs on each other,” Pence said during the final week of the season. “There’s no quit. We kept believing until we were mathematically eliminated.”
Pence did his part, mentoring rookies — particularly Matt Duffy — and passing along messages when he felt it was necessary. Late in the season, he repeatedly told rookies that the race wasn’t over and “miracles can happen.”
There is only so much you can contribute from the sidelines, though, and unfortunately for Pence and the Giants, when you talk about the 2015 outfield, you’re mostly talking about injuries. In Part I of this series we looked at the catchers, and that group certainly did its part. The infielders were the team’s stars, but it’s the outfield that’s made up of highly-paid veterans, and they rarely played together. Pence, Angel Pagan and Nori Aoki took the field together just 16 times.
The pain started in spring training when Pence was hit by a pitch and suffered a forearm fracture that cost him 66 total games. A late-season oblique strain was worse than the Giants let on publicly, and Pence didn't play after August 17. Aoki lost 28 games to a fractured fibula and twice missed time with a concussion. A concussion also ended Gregor Blanco’s season and Pagan spent most of the season hobbled by knee issues.
The Giants thought they had solid depth with those four proven outfielders, but Pagan was the only one to take more than 400 at-bats.
What Went Right: Aoki won the leadoff job in spring training and was a potential All-Star before injuries wrecked his season; he was hitting .317 before the foot injury and finished the year with a respectable .353 OBP … Pagan played 133 games, the third-highest total of his career, and hit .318 against lefties … Pence was still a presence when on the field even though he was never 100 percent. He had 23 extra-base hits and 40 RBI in 52 games, and showed that his arm is as strong as ever … Blanco’s .781 OPS was 74 points higher than his previous high as a Giant, and he tied a career-high with five homers … Juan Perez made one of the best catches of the year … Jarrett Parker hit .400 with six homers and 17 RBI after a late call-up, and he became the first Giants rookie to hit three homers in a game. He had five homers over a span of nine at-bats, the first Giant to do that since Barry Bonds in 2004. He also hit a ball against the A’s that still hasn’t landed … Mac Williamson hit .275 with 13 homers in the minors during his first year back from Tommy John surgery, and a brief cameo in the big leagues showed that all his tools are still there and intriguing.
What Went Wrong: See above; injuries crushed this group. Justin Maxwell showed big-time pop and spectacular defense early on, but he slumped badly as the summer heated up and was designated for assignment on Sept. 1 … Alejandro De Aza and Marlon Byrd were fine late in the year, but the Giants were desperate for “lightning in a bottle,” not “fine.”
On the 40-man roster: The Giants currently have just five outfielders on the 40-man roster and they’re all familiar names: Pence, Pagan, Blanco, Parker and Williamson. Byrd, De Aza and Aoki are now free agents.
Contract Talk: Pagan is entering the final season of a four-year deal and Blanco is also a free agent after the 2016 season. Pence is locked up through 2018. The rookies aren’t close to arbitration.
Minor Standout: Williamson had.368 on-base percentage across two minor league levels and the athletic outfielder is tearing up the Arizona Fall League, posting a .385 average, 1.035 OPS, three homers and 11 RBI through 14 games.
Offseason Outlook: There will be a lot of upheaval in the outfield over the next two seasons, and it started last week when the Giants made the late decision to turn down Aoki’s option. They’re now in the market for a left fielder, although they’re unlikely to go deep into the Alex Gordon, Yoenis Cespedes, Justin Upton, etc. waters given their big pitching needs. Early indications are the Giants are very confident they can find a third outfielder through a trade, and Marcell Ozuna, Jay Bruce and Cameron Maybin are among the names available. Keep an eye on Maybin; the Braves are shopping their outfielders according to Ken Rosenthal, and the Giants have eyed him for a while.
The Giants aren’t just limited to left fielders when searching for another outfielder. They made Pagan available during the season, with at least one deal falling apart late in the process. It wouldn’t be a shock at all if there’s a new plan in center field when pitchers and catchers report.