The months between October and March were supposed to be relatively quiet for Will Wilson. At North Carolina State, that time was reserved for fall ball, early ramp-up and the start of the spring season. There was no real offseason in college, not in the way he anticipated after the
The months between October and March were supposed to be relatively quiet for Will Wilson. At North Carolina State, that time was reserved for fall ball, early ramp-up and the start of the spring season. There was no real offseason in college, not in the way he anticipated after the Angels took him 15th overall in last year's Draft. But after he signed, the winter was meant to be one to settle down and take in what it meant to be a pro ballplayer.
"I actually talked to my agent [Joe Gaza] early on, and he said this should be a relatively quiet offseason for me," Wilson said.
Since Wilson suited up for Rookie Advanced Orem last Aug. 20, the 21-year-old middle infielder was dealt from the Angels to the Giants in December, entered his first Spring Training camp with San Francisco and had his first full season put on hold by the coronavirus pandemic.
Of course, no one could have seen this season delay coming at the start of the offseason. What's more, few saw the trade coming either. Prior to 2015, players couldn't be traded in their Draft years and only could be moved after the following June from the time they were picked. That was until another former NC State first-rounder Trea Turner was the well-known player-to-be-named-later in a three-way deal between the Padres, Rays and Nationals, causing Major League Baseball to change the what is commonly known as the Trea Turner Rule. Since the change, only three top-15 picks have been traded in their Draft years -- Dansby Swanson, Jarred Kelenic and Wilson, the prospect sweetener who helped get San Francisco to take on Zack Cozart's $12.67-million contract for 2020.
"I appreciated the Angels calling me first and letting me know straight up, telling me this is what happened," Wilson said of the Dec. 10 deal at the latest Winter Meetings. "I liked how they approached it. But it's tough. You get drafted. You get really comfortable with an organization. Then you get traded. With the Giants, I built up that comfort level really quickly. I think it's been a great fit for me."
When such a deal goes down so quickly after the Draft, it's worth wondering whether the acquiring team had any interest in the player when they could have selected him at no cost other than a signing bonus. In this specific case, Wilson was available when the Giants picked at No. 10. Instead, the club went with Arizona State outfielder Hunter Bishop, and the Angels came calling for Wilson five spots later. Even if it didn't work out on Draft Day, the seeds were planted for a possible union during Wilson's days standing out in Raleigh.
"For me, they were always really interested," Wilson said. "They had a lot of guys come watch me in college, and I think I put my staple down in college. I had a decent short season, not where I wanted to be with the injuries and everything, but I think they saw my ability and work ethic and how I fit the mold of the players they've had in the past. Because of that, they went out on a limb in a trade to get me."
Part of that fit, Wilson believes, was his pedigree as a college player. The Giants have gone with four-year college players with four of their last six first-round picks. More recently, 15 of their first 20 selections were college juniors and seniors in the 2019 Draft. While flashy young names such as Marco Luciano and Alexander Canario have brought some electricity to the system, the Giants leaned on more experienced players to build out their system last year via the Draft. Picking up Wilson added even more talent to that discussion.
Now that he's in the system as the organization's No. 10 prospect, the right-handed slugger brings an intriguing set of skills to the table.
The immediate standout is the bat. Wilson batted above .300 in each of his three seasons on campus, and it looked like the 6-footer would stand out more for his hit tool as he got closer to the pros. But between his sophomore and junior years with the Wolf Pack, he combined to hit 31 home runs, including a career-best 16 over 55 games in 2019, before the Draft. The chance for above-average power from a middle infield spot pushed Wilson into the first-round discussion.
"I was an alternate after my freshman year [for Team USA], and I came back to NC State and really got into the weight room," Wilson said. "That helped me tap into my power. We worked speed. We worked strength. I think that combination really helps tap into your power and hand speed that you can apply to a ball when you hit it. So I think that was my main focus going into my sophomore and junior year."
Those steady offensive gains from college didn't carry over initially to the pro ranks. Wilson hit .275/.328/.439 with five homers in 46 games with Orem in his first foray in the Minors. That still translated to a 101 wRC+ in the Pioneer League, but just cracking average production isn't what's expected for a player who dominated the ACC just a few months earlier.
In one sense, the downturn could be explained by typical rookie blips -- struggles that happen as ballplayers learn the rigors of playing every day, riding the bus, hitting with a wood bat, etc. But in Wilson's specific case, there was also a health component. In his first game with the Owlz on June 14, Wilson suffered a sprained left thumb sliding into second base. He didn't return to the field for 11 days, and even then, a rocky start kept him from gaining momentum until much later in the summer. On Aug. 20, he broke the same left thumb when Grand Junction runner Todd Isaacs' helmet collided with Wilson's glove hand on a play at second. That officially ended Wilson's season, making him unable to build upon his existing numbers over Orem's final 17 games of the season.
It took six-and-a-half weeks for the thumb to fully heal, but the time off got Wilson thinking about what he could do to improve his hitting approach to carry his results from college to the pros. By January camp, he and the Giants had a plan in place.
"I had a bigger leg kick in college, and I wanted to shorten it up so I wasn't getting a lot of head movement," he said. "That'd let me maybe work more on my bat plane so contact is a bigger aspect. I didn't want to lose power, but make hard contact more often. So that's something where one-hand drills and some of the leg kick stuff I feel like will work really well. It's just getting into that habit and a thing I do unconsciously.
"I noticed toward the end of short-season ball that I was getting tired. When I hit, I stay in my legs. José Altuve talks about staying in his legs a lot. I feel the same way. If my legs get tired up, my timing and my swing get off. I think they found a way when I got into January camp to translate that so I can do it for a longer period of time and not feel fatigued every time I'm up there."
If it's expected that Wilson's improving bat will carry him through the Minors, his defensive home remains much more of a mystery. Wilson was the 2019 ACC Defensive Player of the Year at shortstop, becoming the first NC State player to win the award, but he had seen time at second base with USA Baseball in 2018. The Angels forced him to play both positions at Orem, in part because the Rookie Advanced club also had Jeremiah Jackson at short and Jackson was perceived as having the stronger arm of the two. Wilson was convinced he would have played second more immediately and in the long term if he stayed with Los Angeles.
But when Wilson reported to his first Spring Training with the Giants, they seemed more interested in keeping him at his more natural position.
"I was actually just at short for all of spring," Wilson said. "Talking with the higher-ups and the front-office guys, they want me to stay there as long as I can and get my work there as long as I can. Obviously, if I need to make a switch and my bat's ready and someone's already at short, they told me I could play second or third. But I think it's going to be majority short and then get some reps in practice at second or even third at that point."
That work came to a halt in mid-March when Major League Baseball shut down Spring Training. Soon after, Wilson packed up his car and drove the 2,200 miles back from Arizona to his home in North Carolina. Instead of likely opening up with Class A Advanced San Jose last week, he's been hitting with his dad at his old field at Kings Mountain High School and working on defensive drills he picked up from Giants coaches in Scottsdale.
He and other San Francisco coaches stay in contact with player-development personnel on a weekly basis, sometimes even more often if questions arise in training while trying to keep sharp for an Opening Day that no one knows when will come. Wilson might have a few more questions than the average Giants prospect, though. After all, he is trying to make his second first impression in the past 10 months.
"It's kind of crazy," Wilson said. "The fans have already welcomed me a lot over social media and stuff like that. It's a great fan base. The way I want them to get to know me is I'm just a grinder on the field, and off the field, I'm someone you can just come up and talk to. I don't take any of that for granted. On the field, off the field, I want to be known as a hard worker and a grinder."
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.