With the likely implementation of a universal DH in 2020, we’ve been taking a team-by-team trip through the NL and looking at how those clubs could handle the rule change. To this point, we’ve looked at the Dodgers, Reds, Diamondbacks, Cardinals, Braves, Nationals and Brewers. The Giants are up next.
When Hunter Pence bid farewell to the Giants after the 2018 season, there were questions about whether the affable slugger would ever have his name penciled into a big league lineup again. Heading into his age-36 season, he’d posted a combined .249/.297/.368 batting line in 787 plate appearances across the two prior campaigns.
Pence persevered, heading to the Dominican Winter League to work on a revamped swing and ultimately landing a minor league deal with his hometown Rangers. He parlayed that non-guaranteed pact into a prominent role with the Rangers, hitting .297/.358/.552 with 18 dingers in 316 plate appearances before an oblique injury cut his season short. That effort was enough to generate multiple offers, and late in the offseason, Pence signed up for a reunion tour in San Francisco.
The stage seemed set for Pence to hold down a part-time role — an occasional outfielder and frequent pinch-hitter who could serve as a mentor for some younger players as they graduated to the big leagues on a rebuilding club. That could still be the idea, but with the DH likely on its way to the NL, Pence could also be a more prominently used piece now. He started 46 games at designated hitter for Texas last season and surely would have been in that spot more, were it not for the presence of 37-year-old Shin-Soo Choo, who got the DH nod on 62 occasions of his own.
The Giants have other players they can rotate through the DH spot and might look at its addition as a means of getting longer looks at each of Mike Yastrzemski, Alex Dickerson and Jaylin Davis — each of whom is best suited for corner outfield work. Against left-handed opponents in particular, the Giants might favor using the DH spot as a means of getting righties Pence, Davis, Austin Slater and Wilmer Flores into the lineup together. Former first-rounder Chris Shaw logged a combined .294/.360/.559 slash with 28 homers in 492 plate appearances between Double-A and Triple-A last season. He’d add a lefty stick to the mix.
Let’s also not forget a pair of notable minor league signings made by San Francisco this winter: Pablo Sandoval and Darin Ruf. The Kung Fu Panda has batted .259/.311/.466 with 23 homers and 33 doubles in 548 plate appearances since returning to the Giants in 2018. He’s on the mend from Tommy John surgery but should be ready to go if play is able to resume in 2020. Ruf, 33, is returning stateside after dominating the Korea Baseball Organization with a .313/.404/.564 slash through three seasons with the Samsung Lions (2017-19).
Might the universal DH spur the Giants to finally take the plunge on a signing of Yasiel Puig? The two sides have been connected at numerous points over the past several months, and Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi is quite familiar with Puig after spending five years as the Dodgers’ general manager. Puig could potentially add some life to what was a listless Giants lineup in 2019, ranking in the bottom four of all MLB teams in terms of runs scored, home runs, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and wRC+. Of course, he’d also take playing time away from some more controllable pieces.
Even if the Giants don’t add to their current group, a new way to increase Pence’s at-bats while keeping him fresh should help that deal to pay dividends. And if there’s some form of updated trade deadline, the addition of a DH spot for the other 14 other NL clubs would only increase interest in acquiring an affordable veteran who is lauded as one of the game’s great clubhouse personalities. There’s also a scenario, as explored by the San Francisco Chronicle’s Henry Schulman, where ballyhooed catching prospect Joey Bart could make his debut and get some additional work thanks to the forthcoming DH slot in the NL.