Giants 2018 infield features skilled vets, sterling defense

The Giants infield of the past few seasons has shown spurts of being one of the better units in the majors.

While it hasn’t quite been on the level of the Chicago Cubs or Houston Astros, the offseason addition of Evan Longoria has San Francisco in the conversation for the best infield in the National League.

It all starts with 2010 NL Rookie of the Year, 2012 NL MVP, five-time All-Star Buster Posey

He had a normal Buster Posey season — landing in a third-consecutive All-Star game and claiming his fourth Silver Slugger Award — even with his home run total declining for a fourth year in a row. Posey’s 12 homers were the fewest he’s hit in a full season since he became a major leaguer in 2010. He also caught only 99 games with Nick Hundley proving to be a more than capable backup.

With Hundley re-signed to a one year, $2.5 million deal, the Giants are likely to treat their decorated catcher with care. Posey turns 31 at the end of March but he’s showed no signs of slowing down both at the plate or behind it.

The Giants acquired Longoria from the Tampa Bay Rays in December for Christian Arroyo, Denard Span and a pair of minor league pitchers. While the prospect of the Rays playing Arroyo and former Giant Matt Duffy in the same infield is dripping in irony, Longoria should slot into the middle of the Giants’ lineup from the jump.

The three-rime Gold Glove winner was the longest-tenured Ray at the time of the trade and had been the face of the franchise for years. Coming to a team with established stars like Posey and Madison Bumgarner already on the roster should help Longoria assimilate into the clubhouse. He said as much at the Giants’ FanFest media day:

“It’s definitely a tremendous weight lifted off of me. The weight now kind of lies in my performance. For me now it’s more about performing for the team, being able to bring the kind of performance that I’ve been bringing to Tampa. There I felt like I had to be a mentor to the younger players and, like I said, be the spokesman for the team and set a lot of examples whereas here it’s going to be more about going about my work and bringing performance on the field.”

Longoria has played in at least 156 games each of the past five seasons and hit a career-high 36 home runs in 2016. The ten-year vet deepens the lineup and should combine with Brandon Crawford to form one of the best shortstop-third base duos in the league. Said Longoria about the team’s infield defense in 2018:

“I think we’re all really excited and very positive about the prospects. I mean you still have to go out there and field the ball and throw the ball but the accolades are there, the track record is there. I think we’re all pretty defensive minded too, which helps.”

Crawford and Brandon Belt both stumbled through relatively disappointing seasons in 2017.

Belt continued to have some of the best plate discipline in the league, keeping his walk percentage around 15 percent, but batted between an average of .220 and .240 for much of the season before suffering a concussion in August that ended his season. The concussion, Belt’s third in four seasons, kept him from having a shot at being the first Giant with 30-plus home runs in a season since Barry Bonds in 2004.

If baseballs can stop finding Belt’s head he should get back to being one of the team’s best hitters the way he was in 2015 and 2016.

Crawford’s defense remained sterling all season, nabbing his third-consecutive Gold Glove. Much like Belt, Crawford’s average hovered under .250 for much of the season but he didn’t have the Belt-esque walk rate or on-base percentage to make it worthwhile.

Even if offense isn’t a mandate at shortstop the way it is at first base, getting on base at a sub-.300 clip most of the year certainly hurt the Giants more than it helped. It seems the 21 homers Crawford hit in 2015 were the exception and not the rule, but his defensive prowess shows no signs of declining as he enters his age 31 season — and defense is much more of a pre-requisite for top shortstops.

The youngster of the infield, 27-year-old Joe Panik, rebounded last season after underwhelming in 2016 despite winning a Gold Glove. While he’s been worth at least two wins above replacement each of the last three season’s, Panik hasn’t yet put together a full campaign of above-average play on both sides of the ball.

His 2015 was shortened by a concussion and his 2016 numbers were hurt by a poor batting average on balls in play while his defense regressed a touch in 2017. A well-rounded season from Panik would vault him back into the conversation of being one of the better second basemen in the Senior Circuit.

Kelby Tomlinson should be the first infielder off the bench once again and his speed and athleticism are fine enough as a caddy for Panik and Crawford. The other infielder on the bench is likely to come from the mix of Pablo Sandoval, Ryder Jones, Alen Hanson, Miguel Gomez, Josh Rutledge and Andres Blanco. Sandoval would, in theory, have an edge because of the energy he brings to the clubhouse and the significant improvement he made at the plate in the last three weeks of 2017.

While there is plenty of time between now and Opening Day with which to make a move or two, the Giants have a mix of infielders who should be good to great in 2018.

There is also precious little room between their current payroll — about $194 million — and the luxury tax threshold of $197 million, as well as other needs. Thus, this is the infield that will be expected to carry San Francisco back into the postseason.