As mock drafts connected Georgia Tech catcher Joey Bart and the San Francisco Giants at the No. 2 overall pick over the past few weeks, there was understandably some skepticism, particularly among those who have closely watched Buster Posey lead the franchise to three World Series victories this decade. Sure, there’s been some half-hearted talk about moving the five-time All-Star to first base ever since he suffered season-ending knee and ankle injuries in a home-plate collision back in 2011, but the Giants wouldn’t go so far as to draft Bart — a catcher who is expected to reach the big leagues very quickly — and effectively put a countdown clock on Posey’s catching career, right?
Well, as is almost always the case, MLB teams draft the best player available with little to no regard for their current organizational depth, and the Giants took Bart with the second overall pick on Monday night. Bart is widely believed to be the most polished catching prospect to go through the draft process in several years, as he’s called his own games during college, has a great arm, and is a talented hitter, possessing great on-base skills and a ton of power. Of the eight college position players drafted from 2010-16, only three have spent more than one full season in the minors before getting called up, so considering Bart’s skill set and recent evidence, it seems likely that he’ll end up in San Francisco sooner than later (though for what it’s worth, two of the three guys who have spent more than one full season in the minors were 2016 draftees, so perhaps teams are shifting back toward giving their draftees a little bit more time to develop).
The Giants seemingly have tried to avoid divulging any information about exactly how they plan to work Bart into the mix when the time comes — and understandably so, because (a) he has yet to sign or play in a professional game, and (b) because they’ve created a rather awkward situation for themselves. Posey is signed through 2021 with a $22 million club option for 2022, and he has a full no-trade clause — even if that wasn’t explicitly written into his contract, it’s almost impossible to think of the team dealing him, as he’s become one of the most significant, beloved players in franchise history and will likely be a Hall of Famer after he retires. And while it’s easy at face value to say they could just move him to first, where he’s played 218 career games, that’s the position where Brandon Belt, the Giants’ best hitter this season, currently resides.
That’s no issue, you may be saying, because if Posey shifts to first on a full-time basis, Belt can simply move to left field, where he has 75 games of major-league experience. But how many times have you seen a career first baseman make a shift to a more difficult position (at least on a full-time basis) after his 30th birthday? It’s certainly not an impossibility, but it just doesn’t seem like a move that makes sense in today’s major leagues, where outfield defense is such a high priority.
At least in his current state, Belt wouldn’t be an absolute liability out there — and the Giants have won World Series with worse defensive left fielders such as Pat Burrell and Michael Morse — but he’s probably not a player you want to be using in left field for 150 games, particularly in the ones where he’d be playing in AT&T Park’s spacious outfield. While it’s definitely a lower-level concern than moving Posey or Belt, a permanent shift of Posey to first and Belt to left would effectively eliminate the opportunity for 27-year-old Mac Williamson, the club’s current starter in left, to seize a long-term role or for Chris Shaw, a 2015 first-rounder who is ranked as the organization’s No. 2 prospect by MLB Pipeline, to earn a starting job.
Giants scouting director John Barr remarked that they could move Bart around to different positions if necessary, as NBC Sports Bay Area’s Alex Pavlovic tweeted Monday night, and perhaps there could be somewhat of a timeshare for a while. But as a guy who has been exclusively a catcher during his college career — and with so much of his value being derived from his defensive skills — it’s hard to see Bart settling in anywhere other than behind the plate in the majors.
Even if you overlook the risk presented just by moving Belt to left field, it’s highly likely that the Giants’ overall defense would be weakened if that move were to be made. At best, Belt and Posey are a wash at first base, but realistically Belt is probably a bit better. The Giants’ internal options in left field for the next few years, Williamson and Shaw, aren’t necessarily stellar defenders, but they’re younger than Belt and have years of experience out there, so Belt would almost certainly be a defensive downgrade in the outfield. And even if Bart is as good behind the plate as many believe he can be, it’ll be a massive task for him to match or exceed Posey’s performance as a defender, even as Posey nagivates through his 30s.
A logical train of thought — albeit one unaided by anything the front office has said — might lead one to believe the Giants will begin shopping Belt at some point over the next couple years. Belt turned 30 in April and is in the midst of a five-year, $72.8 million contract that runs through the end of the 2021 season, but he was enjoying a career-best season prior to going on the DL following an appendectomy last week, and he currently owns a 161 OPS+ that ranks second in the National League. The major leagues are overpopulated with talented first basemen, but Belt’s fantastic offensive performance — coupled with the fact that he’s a great defender, leading MLB first basemen in defensive runs saved and ranking second in UZR/150 this year — means that he’ll almost certainly carry some decent trade value, even with his contract being a bit of a burden (though his 10-team no-trade clause could be an obstacle to getting a deal done). Whatever the case, if it comes down to keeping one of either Posey or Belt, Posey is going to be the one that survives.
However the Giants decide to shuffle things around, it’ll have a noticeable impact from an offensive standpoint as well. Posey may very well be the best “non-power hitter,” so to speak, in the majors. He’s right up there with Jean Segura and DJ LeMahieu. But he’s now seen his home runs go down in every season since 2014, and he hit just 12 homers — his fewest ever over a full season — last year. He has just four homers this year, a total that would be tied for 34th among players listed as first basemen by MLB.com entering Friday. It’s possible that his power numbers will bounce back somewhat, but it’s hard to believe he’ll ever hit 20-plus homers in a season again — at least as long as he’s playing his home games at AT&T Park, seeing as he hasn’t done so since 2014.
Sure, he can move to first base and be an impactful hitter by hitting for a high average and achieving a high on-base percentage, just like Joe Mauer. But it’s difficult to say the lack of power from the first-base position hasn’t weakened the Twins’ lineup since Mauer moved there, seeing as they have played in a grand total of one playoff game since Mauer shifted to first full-time following the 2013 season. Coupled with the fact that Posey moving to first on a full-time basis would seemingly bump either Belt or another power hitter like Shaw or Williamson from the everyday lineup, this transition could be troublesome from a power standpoint (though it’d solve a lot of problems if Bart ends up being a 20-plus-homer guy as a big-leaguer).
Posey shifting to first base at some point is probably an inevitability, and if he continues to defend like he has when pressed into action at first up to this point, he should be just fine — if not a Gold Glove contender. But while he’s still one of the best defensive backstops in the game (and the Giants have a star who is both a great hitter and a fantastic defender at first), it seems wrong to move him out from behind the plate. Posey calls a great game and is consistently one of the best catchers in the league at throwing out runners, and though his advanced defensive metrics took a hit last year, they’ve seemingly bounced back in 2018 (he’s tied for second among qualifying catchers in defensive runs saved).
Again, we’re getting ahead a bit ahead of ourselves here since Bart still has to actually work his way up to the majors, but assuming he does in the next year or two, the most ideal scenario for all parties probably involves Bart gradually transitioning into the starter’s role while Posey still sees a decent amount of action behind the plate as well as some at first, thus delaying Belt’s permanent transition to the outfield. That seems like an easy enough arrangement — or perhaps more accurately, one that the Giants already have, as backup catcher Nick Hundley has started 21 of 62 games this season and Belt has started in left field six times. The only possible problem with that scenario is Bart not getting enough playing time, but that’s an issue that’s still rather far down the line.
Ultimately, if Bart was the No. 1 or 2 guy on the Giants’ draft board, they were right to select the best player available and elect to deal with the consequences later. But while there are several possible solutions, there’s no denying that Bart’s presence will make things awkward if he progresses as rapidly as pretty much everyone who’s watched him expects him to.