After signing veteran free agent Justin Smoak to a minor league contract on Wednesday, the Giants wasted little time adding the switch-hitting first baseman to their active roster.
Smoak spent Wednesday in Sacramento taking six at-bats in an alternate site scrimmage and then joined the team Thursday in San Diego for a series in which the Giants will face four right-handed starters.
Giants manager Gabe Kapler said the club views Smoak as a pinch-hit option off the bench and a potential candidate to serve as a designated hitter against righties, but Smoak wasn't included in the starting lineup on Thursday or Friday.
One of the primary challenges Kapler and the Giants face in finding playing time for Smoak is that like several other position players on the roster, his best fit is in the DH role.
At the beginning of spring training, Kapler and Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi highlighted the value of positional flexibility and creating a roster with versatile players who were comfortable moving around the diamond on a daily basis. With a little more than two weeks left in the season, the Giants have one player – Mauricio Dubón – who can float between the infield and outfield and even Dubón hasn't played anywhere but center field since August 15.
The Giants spent the first month of the season trying to shed a label as the worst defensive team in baseball, which has been a slow but effective process as they're now tied for sixth in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved with 13. One of the reasons they've likely improved is that players have settled in at their respective positions and two of the team's strongest defenders – Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt – have gone from part-time roles as platoon players to locking in the everyday jobs they've held throughout most of their careers.
With Crawford, Belt and third baseman Evan Longoria providing more defensive stability, the Giants aren't making as many mistakes.
Outside of the trio of infielders, Dubón and Mike Yastrzemski, nearly every other position player on the roster currently profiles best as a designated hitter.
Alex Dickerson and Darin Ruf have been serviceable in left field, but the Giants have prospect Luis Basabe on the roster almost exclusively to beef up their late-inning defense. Infielders Donovan Solano and Wilmer Flores have been good defenders at times during their careers, but both have been defensive liabilities this season.
The Giants can't take Solano and Flores out of the lineup because they're hitting so well, but that also means they can't find a spot for Smoak or outfielder Austin Slater, who is currently limited to hitting and baserunning because of an elbow injury that's preventing him from playing the field.
With six position players the Giants would rather use in the DH role than see in the field, it's more difficult to build lineups and a greater challenge to substitute as freely as Kapler did at the beginning of the season. The question the Giants are now confronting is whether having so many bat-first position players on the roster will help or hurt the club in its push for a playoff spot.
The question isn't all that different from the one the Giants are facing with their pitching staff makeup as Kapler indicated Friday changes are coming to the starting rotation.
With scheduled off days set for Monday and Thursday and then a stretch of 10 consecutive games to close the season, Kapler said the Giants are considering three different ways to structure the rotation for the end of the season. Following Drew Smyly's strong relief outing on Thursday in San Diego in which he struck out eight of the 15 hitters he faced, it's likely Smyly will join Johnny Cueto and Kevin Gausman as a starter.
The trio of veterans could have company from Jeff Samardzija (shoulder inflammation), too, as the right-hander threw four innings in a simulated game in Sacramento Thursday and is nearing a return to the staff. Samardzija hasn't pitched out of the bullpen since 2011 when he threw 75 games with the Chicago Cubs, but Kapler suggested the Giants haven't committed to bringing him back to the team in a starting role yet.
It's hard to know how the changes to the rotation will affect rookie Logan Webb and left-hander Tyler Anderson, but it appears veteran righty Trevor Cahill is a good bet to pitch out of the bullpen during the final two weeks of the season given his recent struggles.
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