Brandon Crawford has played in 1,525 games in his major league career. He has stood in the field for 12,872 innings. He has come set on the balls of his feet for hundreds of thousands of deliveries to the plate, ready to lunge or dive or charge or sprint to any manner of batted ball.
In every one of these moments, he has been a shortstop.
You do not become a four-time Gold Glove shortstop on athleticism alone. Pre-pitch positioning and intuition can be just as important. The best short stops display an artistic creativity for making plays. Crawford has applied so many of these gifts to become the greatest shortstop in Giants history.
If one of Crawford’s gifts stands out above all others, it’s his spatial awareness. It is an innate ability to visualize the movements required to make a play. It is the coordination to execute those movements.
It is understanding where his body is in space in relation to other objects or people.
And now one of those people is Carlos Correa.
Less than 15 minutes after the news broke Tuesday night that the Giants and Correa were in agreement on a franchise-altering 13-year, $350-million contract, Crawford received a phone call from club president Farhan Zaidi and manager Gabe Kapler. They informed Crawford what he’d already figured out: that Correa would be the Giants’ everyday shortstop. It will be up to Crawford to accept a position change for the first time in his career.
Until that phone call, there had been no discussion between Crawford and anyone in the Giants’ front office or coaching staff about the possibility of playing another position.
Crawford took a couple of days to process his situation before reaching out to The Athletic to comment.
“With the signing of a player as good as Carlos, our team definitely got much better,” Crawford said via text message. “He’s been one of the better players in the league for years, and it’s obviously exciting to get a player of his caliber to San Francisco. That being said, he is a shortstop and since the signing the other day, I’ve been told that that’s where he’ll stay, so that puts me in a much different situation than I’ve ever been faced with in professional baseball.
“So, the rest of this off-season, spring training, and during the season, I will be working my hardest to be the best I can be at a different position and help us get back to the postseason.”
It is a transition that Crawford acknowledges he makes reluctantly. Shortstops always view themselves as shortstops. Center fields always view themselves as center fields. Transitioning to a less stressful position can be more than an assault to their pride. It can be an affront to their identity.
For Crawford, who debuted in 2011 and has started at shortstop on Opening Day in 11 consecutive seasons, it’s a point of extreme pride that only five players in major-league history have played more defensive games exclusively as a shortstop. You’ve heard of them: Derek Jeter (2,674), Luis Aparicio (2,581), Ozzie Smith (2,511), Elvis Andrus (1,906) and JJ Hardy (1,544).
Crawford, who will turn 36 in January, had hoped to remain on that list to the end of his career, which could coincide with the expiration of his contract following next season. Instead, he will come to terms with having one fewer claim in a career that still contains a ridiculous amount of really, really cool stuff. He became the first major-league player in 41 years to collect seven hits in a game. He shares the franchise single-game RBI record (8) with Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda and Joc Pederson. His first major league hit was a grand slam. He hit another grand slam to win a National League wild-card game and render a raucous ballpark in Pittsburgh so silent that you could hear the waters of Allegheny lapping the bridge pylons. He grew up in Pleasanton with the dream to become the shortstop for the San Francisco Giants, and for a dozen years, that’s exactly who he’s been. And, of course, he was integral to winning two World Series championships.
Your nightly Brandon Crawford Gold Glove play 🤌 pic.twitter.com/RzwD3PWxyY
— SF Giants on NBCS (@NBCSGiants) September 28, 2022
None of that legacy is diminished merely because he will start taking grounders at third base or second base or wherever he might stand in relation to Correa on the infield. Crawford still fits the Giants’ roster. Crawford declined to address what his role could be or what position would represent the easiest transition, saying he has been given a rough outline but conversations are still in the beginning stages. Kapler also declined comment until the Correa signing becomes official in a news conference on Tuesday.
But it’s easy to see the potential fits. Crawford could be a lefty-hitting complement at third base to JD Davis, Wilmer Flores or David Villar. He could do the same at second base in tandem with Thairo Estrada. He could address what had become a pressing need for a versatile, left-handed hitting infielder, especially now that Tommy La Stella’s defensive limitations will be impossible to hide with the crackdown on infield shifts.
And while Correa is expected to play exclusively at shortstop (he’s up to 881 games and 7,666 2/3 innings without ever appearing at another position, by the way), he’ll need the occasional day off. For more than a decade, the Giants never had an accomplished backup shortstop behind Crawford. Now they’ve got the most accomplished backup shortstop in the major leagues.
The Giants signed Carlos Correa. You have questions, we have answers.
But nothing is guaranteed. If Crawford produces anywhere near how he did in 2021, when he posted a 141 OPS+ and finished fourth in NL MVP balloting, he’ll be in the lineup close to every day — presumably beginning with the opener at Yankee Stadium when his brother-in -law, Gerrit Cole, is expected to be on the mound for New York. However, if Crawford scuffles like he did last season, when he regressed to an 85 OPS+ and a nagging knee injury ate away at his defensive metrics, then the Giants will be under no obligation to provide him a satisfying denouement.
Crawford’s knee improved in the second half last season following a stint on the injured list, and the difference was noticeable in the field. On the Giants’ second-to-last road trip to Arizona and Colorado, Crawford collected a nonstop highlight reel of diving plays, off-balance throws, brilliant reactions and sprinting catches.
“I mean, I always think of myself as a shortstop for my entire career,” Crawford said at the time. “So there’s a little pride in that, I guess. Getting called up my rookie year, it was because I could come up and play defense in the big leagues right away. That’s valuable, even if it’s not always seen that way.”
Even if Crawford hadn’t regressed last season, he may have found himself in the same current circumstance. Other shortstops on the free-agent market this winter might have been more amenable to playing another position in the short term, but Correa represented the Giants’ best match because of his relative youth, his offensive attributes and his leadership qualities. When Aaron Judge turned down the Giants’ $350 million offer to return to the Yankees, it was obvious where the organization would pivot. They needed a franchise star and there was just one player remaining who met the criteria.
Crawford was among the people in on the pitch to Judge. He met Judge in the Gotham Club at Oracle Park and did his best to sell the city and the organization to the reigning American League MVP. Perhaps not surprisingly, Crawford was not included or consulted when the organization turned its focus to Correa. All Crawford had to go on what Zaidi told reporters at the GM Meetings in Las Vegas last month, when he was asked if he believed Crawford would be the club’s shortstop on Opening Day.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Zaidi said on Nov. 10. “Right now. yes Obviously Brandon Crawford is the best shortstop in franchise history. He did a really nice job for us over the last few years and last year, particularly in the second half when he played really well defensively.”
But Zaidi added a qualifier: “I don’t think anything is going to restrict us from pursuing guys who traditionally have been shortstops.”
Correa’s identity as a shortstop is as firm as Crawford’s. He has accumulated 70 defensive runs saved over his career. He won the Platinum Glove as the American League’s top defensive player in 2021. He is as surehanded as any defender in the game. Metrics grade him as the most efficient shortstop in the major leagues at recording an out when he dives for a ball. He’s both a throwback player and the epitome of a modern major leaguer who not only embraces analytics but gladly explains to teammates why they should embrace them as well.
But his time will come, too — just as it did for Cal Ripken and Dave Concepcion and just as it’s coming for Crawford now. Correa will be Crawford’s age in eight years. By then, it’ll be up to whoever’s running the Giants in 2031 to figure out where to play Correa. He’ll only have five years and $135 million still to go on his contract.
The Giants view Correa as a franchise cornerstone and an impact player whose front-end contributions will far outweigh what he’ll be paid in his decline years. But it’ll be difficult to imagine that he’ll finish his Giants career as the greatest shortstop in franchise history. The bar has been set pretty high.
In the meantime, it’ll be fun to watch what happens next season the first time there’s a ground ball to the left side and two transcendent defenders glide to shrink every last inch of the 5.5 hole. Great players always enjoy playing alongside great players, even if they cannot share the exact same space. So Crawford will look on the bright side as often as an ex-shortstop can.
“Maybe,” he said, appending his text with a shoulder-shrugging emoji, “I can finally get an inning on the mound.”
(Photo: Lachlan Cunningham / Getty Images)
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