Where Are the Giants Going To Play All These Outfielders?

Michael Conforto
Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

TJ Hopkins got traded on Tuesday. For what? Either cash or a player to be named later, we don’t know yet. And it probably doesn’t matter that much. Hopkins was something like the seventh outfielder on a .500 team last year, and he only got into 25 games. The Reds had already DFA’d him last week to make room for Austin Wynns — hardly a stop-the-presses moment in and of itself — so the Giants are sending along either money or a minor leaguer or a tasteful floral arrangement in order to make sure they don’t get jumped in the waiver line.

Cards on the table: I probably would not know who Hopkins was if he had not played four seasons at South Carolina. He was a ninth-round senior sign in 2019, and despite solid minor league numbers (he hit .300/.400/.500 at Triple-A last season), he was 26 before he made the majors. Good for him, to be clear. In a ranking of major league accomplishments of recent Gamecock players I didn’t think had a shot at playing in the big leagues, Hopkins is probably no. 4, behind Whit Merrifield, Taylor Widener, and Jonah Bride.

Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is that Hopkins, modest though his major league accomplishments to this point may be, is legitimate major league outfield depth. And the Giants clearly wanted him; they’re giving him a 40-man roster spot, and they’re sending Cincinnati a muffin basket in order to make sure nobody else gets him. The thing is, the Giants already have a ton of outfielders.

Here’s are some of the outfielders the Giants are bringing back: Michael Conforto, Mitch Haniger, Austin Slater, Mike Yastrzemski, Luis Matos, Heliot Ramos, and Wade Meckler. LaMonte Wade Jr., Brett Wisely, and Thairo Estrada all made limited appearances in the outfield last season. So did Blake Sabol, who figures to be even less of a catcher now than he once was, now that the Giants have Patrick Bailey as the established starter and Tom Murphy to back him up. J.D. Davis was once an outfielder, though after years of using a mitt the way a toddler uses scissors — to endanger himself and others — he was actually pretty good defensively at third base in 2023.

And now the Giants, after whiffing in free agency on some big names in the past 12 months, have spent their big bullet on Jung Hoo Lee. And traded for Hopkins.

So when I said “a ton of outfielders,” I wasn’t being hyperbolic. In fact, I was underselling the size of the glut. Despite not really having a huge dude to speak of (Meckler is about the size I was in seventh grade), the players I’ve mentioned — all on the 40-man roster, all either outfielders or outfield-experienced — total 2,737 pounds. That’s not a ton; that’s 1.37 tons. That’s a metric ton, with quite a bit of room to spare.

And it’s not just a question of mass. Nine dedicated outfielders on the 40-man roster is a lot, but the 40-man doesn’t necessarily map onto the bench. Nevertheless, Roster Resource currently has the Giants carrying a bench of Murphy, Wisely, Haniger, and Slater, with Lee, Yastrzemski, and Conforto listed as the starters.

In 2023, the Giants found room for five outfielders because they substituted and platooned a lot. No Giants position player made more than 126 starts last year, or played more than 144 games overall. Sixteen Giants played at least one game in the outfield; 10 played between 19 and 74 games in the outfield; none played more than 110. Presumably that’s going to change in 2024, since no team is going to sign a hyped-up international free agent to a $113 million contract with the intention of playing him two-thirds of the time. And as much as situation-based roster construction is determined by the front office (i.e., Jon Dowd starts against lefties and sits against righties, while Roland Agni starts against righties and comes in as a defensive replacement), the Giants have replaced incorrigible fidgeter Gabe Kapler with a more serene manager in Bob Melvin.

Even with Lee and the new manager, a heavily egalitarian outfield grouping is the only way the Giants’ allocation of resources makes sense. Forget Hopkins and 40-man depth and all that; the Giants have five full-time major league outfielders set to make between $4 million and $20 million this season. And that’s not counting guys like Wade who can play the outfield but will spend most of their time elsewhere. Five full-time outfielders is the absolute maximum a team can carry without making some wild sacrifices elsewhere in the roster: 13 position players, minus six non-outfield starters, minus a backup catcher and a backup shortstop, leaves five potential outfield positions. And barring a trade, the Giants have picked their five. Let’s say Hopkins turns into the new Mel Ott this winter; there’s not a spot for him on the roster until someone gets hurt. (I’ll concede that with this group, he might not have to wait long.) The same goes for Sabol, or anyone else the Giants would want to call up.

Let’s go back to the money, because that’s the really wild bit. Between guaranteed salaries and arbitration estimates, the Giants are in line to spend somewhere on the order of $147.3 million on salaries for players who will make more than the league minimum. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to call this number discretionary spending. Of that, $57.7 million is going to outfielders, or about 39%. These are 2024 cash payroll figures; the Giants have a couple janky contract structures that cause their payroll to diverge from their tax number by more than $10 million, but however you calculate it, outfielders make up just over 39% of the team’s discretionary major league payroll.

That’s really high. I mean, think about it: outfielders are a third of the position player starter group, and position players are half the roster. Plus, outfielders are kind of cheap right now. Pitching is expensive, even pitching that’s merely competent. Infielders who rake are expensive, even first basemen like Freddie Freeman, Matt Olson, and Bryce Harper. The fad in outfielders right now is to go young, pre-arb, and athletic.

There are exceptions to those trends, but the Giants are the biggest outlier. That 39% number is, near as I can tell, the highest percentage of discretionary payroll devoted to the outfield of any team in the league, unless you count Giancarlo Stanton and Eloy Jiménez as outfielders, which I wouldn’t. The White Sox are at 33.7% without Jímenez; the Yankees are at 34.7% without Stanton. And the Rockies are at 35.1%, though all of that is tied up in Charlie Blackmon and Kris Bryant, both of whom spent plenty of time at DH last season. The Cubs are also in the low 30s having just shed Cody Bellinger’s payroll; if they pick up another free-agent outfielder, they could be back in Giantsville too.

Now, from a process perspective, I don’t think it’s a good sign that the Giants are on a list of five teams, of which two are the Rockies and White Sox. But for the other teams that spend a third or more of their discretionary payroll on outfielders, what that really means is they have two good, relatively expensive outfielders. Almost all of that outfield money for the White Sox is going to Luis Robert Jr. and Andrew Benintendi; for the Cubs, it’s Ian Happ and Seiya Suzuki.

The Yankees are the only other team that’s spending this much on outfielders and have more (relatively) expensive outfielders than starting slots: Juan Soto, Aaron Judge, Trent Grisham, and Alex Verdugo. And let’s be real, 84% of that money is going to Judge and Soto, two superstars who’ll play every game they can. (I continue not to understand why the Yankees are in the Verdugo business.)

The two most expensive Giants outfielders, in terms of 2024 salary, are Haniger and Conforto, who make up just 66% of San Francisco’s discretionary outfield expenditure. Their outfield payroll is highly egalitarian — great for society at large, perhaps less so for a baseball team.

There are worse ways to distribute payroll; the A’s, for instance, are currently on course to give 43.6% of their discretionary spending to literally Aledmys Díaz. But the Giants have backed themselves into a position where they’ve invested a disproportionate amount of money in a very large group of players who can’t all be on the field at the same time. You used to be able to play four outfielders at a time, but not anymore. And while they’ve made that work very well in the past, these aren’t John McGraw’s Giants anymore. Building a team this way limits options elsewhere.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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formerly matt w
5 months ago

why would you platoon Jon Dowd though?