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With Slater, Haniger unlikely for Opening Day, where do SF Giants turn in their outfield?

Mercury News 3/19/2023 Evan Webeck, Bay Area News Group

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — After making it through most of spring training without any major injuries, the Giants now find themselves scrambling to fill out their outfield, less than two weeks away from Opening Day. Mitch Haniger (oblique) isn’t likely to be ready, and neither is Austin Slater, after an MRI on Friday revealed a strained left hamstring.

Haniger won’t be re-evaluated to resume baseball activities for another week, while Slater, according to manager Gabe Kapler, “is going to be a bit.”

With the opener at Yankee Stadium on March 30 quickly approaching, what does that mean for the Giants’ outfield, all of a sudden down two of its five projected members? It could open lanes to the roster for two young performers who have impressed this spring.

The first is Rule 5 pick Blake Sabol, who had possibly already played his way on to the roster with his torrid spring. But if Haniger is unable to go, that should ensure Sabol’s spot on the roster. While the Giants wanted to focus on converting him into a catcher this spring, Sabol made his second start in left field on Saturday, as the club prepares contingency plans in the outfield.

If there are any knocks on Sabol, who drew two walks Saturday but otherwise went hitless (lowering his spring average to .379, with a 1.318 OPS), they have to do with his defense, which is a work in progress at both positions. If that conjures too many memories of last season, when the Giants’ left field defense was the worst in the majors, then consider Bryce Johnson, who comes with the added benefit of being able to hit from both sides of the plate and possibly the fastest set of wheels in the organization.

Johnson, who stole his MLB-leading 10th and 11th bases of the spring on Saturday, “has shown us he has the capability to fill in, if necessary,” Kapler said.

It is looking more necessary, with Slater’s injury leaving Mike Yastrzemski as the only true centerfielder on the roster. (Michael Conforto has logged 143 career games there but none since 2019, and the Giants much prefer him in one of the corners.)

“I think it’s important because he’s played really well,” Kapler said of Johnson, who also scored two runs and recorded two more hits, improving his spring batting average to .360 (9-for-25). “He’s done what we’ve asked him to do, which is to be relentless on the bases, be ultra aggressive, be dynamic and don’t hold back at all. He’s done all of those things.”

Johnson, 27, went 2-for-18 (.111) with seven strikeouts in a brief call-up in 2022 and has a career .737 OPS over five minor-league seasons, but he would give the Giants something they sorely lacked last season: athleticism. He is regarded as a plus defender at all three outfield positions (67 of his 88 starts in 2022 came in center) and stole 61 bases between the past two seasons in Triple-A.

For a team that has relied heavily on its bench to pinch-hit in previous years, Johnson could round out their bench as a late-inning pinch-runner and defensive replacement.

Another option, if San Francisco prefers a player with a more established hit tool and more defensive versatility, is Brett Wisely.

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While Wisely entered the organization primarily as a middle infielder, he also has outfield experience, and in the wake of their recent health concerns, he has joined Sabol in getting additional outfield reps. On Saturday, Wisely began the game at shortstop but moved to center field. Offensively, he lined an RBI double down the right-field line. While Wisely has only five hits in 27 spring at-bats (.185), three have gone for extra bases.

Wisely, Kapler said, looks “very natural out there” in center. His ability to play short, too, is all the more valuable with lingering concerns about Brandon Crawford’s left knee. While Crawford is expected to be ready to make his 12th consecutive Opening Day start at shortstop, he’s been shut down all week with soreness in the same knee that sent him to the injured list twice last season.

But the bigger concern is in the outfield.

Wisely and Sabol, the two converts, “are candidates to get some work out there” in the regular season, Kapler said.

“Because you can’t see the future, you know.”

Depth chart

Left field: Mitch Haniger*, Blake Sabol, Joc Pederson, Luis González*, Stephen Piscotty*

Center field: Mike Yastrzemski, Austin Slater*, Bryce Johnson, Brett Wisely

Right field: Michael Conforto, LaMonte Wade Jr., Heliot Ramos

* = injured

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