Nearly one full month into 2024 and the excitement for baseball to start again is ramping up, especially for those who were in attendance at Sutter Health Park this past Saturday for first stop of the Giants & KNBR FanFest 2024 Tour!
As the offseason chugs along, several big names have found new homes while many others are still waiting to be scooped up. All of those signings have ripple effects through their respective organizations, meaning there will be some new, as well as some returning, faces for the season to come.
In this second River Cats offseason update, we'll take a look at all the moves within the San Francisco Giants organization that will have ripple effects in Sacramento during 2024.
Let's save the big additions for last, and what they might mean for current and former River Cats trying to make their way to the big club. Instead, we'll start with the Rule 5 Draft from the 2023 Winter Meetings, which saw three players leave the San Francisco organization while two others came aboard.
The pair of infielder Dariel Lopez and right-handed pitcher Nick Garcia were selected in the minor league portion of the draft, meaning that they do not have to stay on the 40-man roster through the end of the year. Both were immediately assigned to the River Cats, but we will have to wait for the spring to play out to see if they might stick around in Sacramento.
Lopez was an international free agent signing by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2018, but didn't play in his first professional game until the 2019 season. He spent 2021 in Single-A before advancing to High-A in 2022, but did not play in 2023 due to injury. Just a little while before the Rule 5 Draft, Pittsburgh Baseball Now ranked Lopez as the Pirates' No. 19 prospect in the system, and for good reason as he finished the 2022 campaign batting .286 with 19 homers. Still just 21 years old, Lopez will look to regain his old form coming off a season-ending knee surgery.
Garcia is a Bay Area native, born in the South Bay in Redwood City, Calif., and also spent the early part of his career in the Pirates' organization. Originally drafted in the third round of the 2020 MLB Draft, Garcia has progressed one level every year of his pro career, starting in Single-A during 2021 before reaching Double-A last year in 2023. In those three seasons Garcia has accumulated a 12-17 record and 5.04 ERA. His best year came in High-A where he was 4-4 with a 3.66 ERA in 25 games (23 starts), tossing 113.0 innings while punching out 109 hitters.
Following the Rule 5, the Giants announced the return of catcher Jakson Reetz, who put his power on full display after coming to Sacramento from the Omaha Storm Chasers (Triple-A, Kansas City Royals). Reetz hit a pair of towering grand slams in consecutive games played last year against the Albuquerque Isotopes, which ended as the No. 8 moment in the 2023 River Cats season.
Reetz was soon joined by right-handed hurler Daulton Jefferies, a former 37th overall pick by the Oakland Athletics during the 2016 MLB Draft. Though he made his debut in the shortened 2020 season, Jefferies has pitched in only 14 MLB games with a 2-8 record to go along with a 5.75 ERA. Jefferies did not pitch in 2023 due to Tommy John surgery, but nonetheless earned a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training.
Continuing to bolster pitching depth, San Francisco soon agreed to a minor league free agent deal with Blayne Enlow, a third-round pick (76th overall) by the Minnesota Twins during the 2017 MLB Draft. Though he has yet to make his MLB debut, Enlow reached Triple-A for the first time last year when he was promoted to the St. Paul Saints in the middle of June. It took time for Enlow to acclimate, going 2-5 with a 7.94 ERA in only 15 games, 12 of which were starts.
Two more 2023 River Cats rejoined the team just before Christmas, as INF Donovan Walton and INF/OF Yoshi Tsutsugo each signed minor league deals after originally electing free agency earlier in the offseason. Walton split time in 2023 between Sacramento and Double-A Richmond, as did Tsutsugo after originally joining the Giants organization in late August last season.
Just last week it was announced that right-handed reliever Cody Stashak will return to the organization, singing a minor league free agent deal on Jan. 16 before immediately being assigned back to Sacramento. Stashak has pitched in 55 MLB games over parts of four seasons with Minnesota, and now will return for a second season in the San Francisco organization after originally signing in late August of last year.
One name not mentioned in the first offseason update that will be returning to the organization is RHP Thomas Szapucki, who missed all of 2023 with an injury but provides a veteran presence out of the bullpen after making his MLB debut with the New York Mets in 2021 before joining the Giants in 2022.
On Dec. 19, the Giants agreed to a trade with the Cincinnati Reds in which OF TJ Hopkins made his way to San Francisco for cash considerations. Originally the seventh pick of the ninth round by the Reds in 2019, Hopkins finally made his MLB debut during 2023, playing 25 games and batting .171 with no home runs and one RBI. He spent the majority of the year with the Louisville Bats, hitting .308 in 94 games with 16 homers and 55 RBI.
That move came on the heels of one of the bigger offseason MLB signings when the Giants inked Jung Hoo Lee to a six-year, $113 million deal on Dec. 14. There are questions about Lee's power hitting translating to MLB, but in any case, Lee provides a new everyday center fielder and a lineup mainstay for years to come.
Just days later, San Francisco came to terms on a two-year deal with veteran catcher Tom Murphy, which pencils him in as the backup to former River Cat Patrick Bailey behind the dish.
However, the Giants were not done with catchers, as they added Cooper Hummel through a deal with the New York Mets. If Hummels name sounds familiar to Sacramento fans, that would be in part to him spending the majority of 2023 with the Tacoma Rainiers as part of the Seattle Mariners organization. Hummel is as versatile as they come, as he is a catcher by trade but is listed as an outfielder on the San Francisco roster page, bringing their total to nine outfielders on the 40-player roster.
River Cats Aiming for MLB
That logjam in the San Francisco outfield will be an interesting situation to monitor for Sacramento, as there are a number of former River Cats also in that bubble. Locked into spots on the big club are Lee, Mike Yastrzemski, Michael Conforto, and Austin Slater, leaving a five-way battle vying for the fifth outfielder spot.
Part of that battle includes Heliot Ramos, Luis Matos and Wade Meckler, all of whom spent time with the Giants last year including the latter two making their MLB debuts. Both Ramos and Matos were mentioned by name from Giants President of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi in the offseason, but with Hummel and Hopkins also wait in the wings, there will be some tough decisions to make.
Also facing a battle to make the roster are Casey Schmitt and Tyler Fitzgerald, as there is a chance that either or both begin the year in Sacramento if the report that the Giants are looking to add infield depth behind Luciano comes to fruition.
Both Giants and River Cats fans are well aware how Schmitt burst onto the scene last year, belting a home run in his first game for his first MLB hit. Meanwhile, Fitzgerald made a solid impact in his short time with the big club by smashing a pair of homers against the Los Angeles Dodgers and recording the sixth-fastest sprint speed in MLB in just 10 games played. Both have versatility thanks to the ability to play multiple positions, and Fitzgerald has been compared as the Giants' version of Chris Taylor despite never playing the outfield until last season.
The rotation also becomes a spot of interest following the additions of Robbie Ray and Jordan Hicks, even if the former will not be able to pitch until the second half of the season. The injury to Alex Cobb also makes it more than likely that both Kyle Harrison and Keaton Winn will at least start the year in the rotation, and potentially pushes Harrison toward the front of the rotation with Logan Webb. Winn will likely slide between Hicks and Ross Stripling, but could see his role change once Cobb is healthy. Tristan Beck also has earned a chance to stick in the rotation, so it could be a three-way rookie battle for at most two rotation spots.
Even with the potential reshuffling, there is at least one projection that thinks both Harrison and Winn will be top-25 starters in MLB this season.
Finally, there will be a pair of River Cats hoping to earn a spot in the bullpen, including last year's Sacramento saves leader in Erik Miller. The hard-throwing lefty will more than likely get a long look during spring training, as will right hander Randy Rodriguez. Both were tabbed as top-30 prospects in the Giants system last year. Sean Hjelle also figures to be in the mix, most likely in a long-relief role.
Around the Horn
You may have missed it just before Christmas, but Keaton Winn has become one of the latest in the long line of stellar athletes to have donned the No. 23, as his high school baseball number was retired by the Pekin School District back on Dec. 20.
Mason Black appeared on Roger Munter's "There R Giants" podcast earlier in January, and spoke about his offseason regimen and what he learned from last season.
Four Giants prospects earned their way onto the Baseball Prospectus Top-101 Prospects, including former River Cats Kyle Harrison and Marco Luciano.
River Cats Signing Elsewhere
There cannot be additions without subtractions, and there are a few former River Cats who have found new homes over the offseason.
Bryce Johnson, last year's Defensive Player of the Year for Sacramento, has signed with the San Diego Padres and will report to PCL rival El Paso Chihuahuas. The speedy switch hitter routinely made stand-out plays in the outfield, and also set a River Cats franchise record when he went a perfect 6-for-6 at the dish on Aug. 15, which turned out to be the No. 3 moment of the 2023 Sacramento season. Even more, Johnson also grabbed the No. 2 moment.
Mark Mathias, acquired from the Seattle Mariners in the deal that also brough AJ Pollock to San Francisco, has signed a minor league deal with the Cincinnati Reds and was assigned to the Louisville Bats (Triple-A).
Joe Ross, who was rehabbing from injury most of last season before pitching in three games at the end of last season for Sacramento, signed a deal with the Milwaukee Brewers and is expected to be a part of the big league roster.