In 2017, the San Francisco Giants completed a fall from 3-time World Series Champions to one of the worst teams in the league. Now, for a team like the Giants, the one silver lining to the dip is the chance to draft a team-changing prospect at the top of the MLB draft.
For the Giants, it tied in team history for their highest-ever draft selection. Previously, in the 1985 draft, the #2 overall spot gave them team legend Will Clark. In 2018, the Giants took the easy, obvious choice in the draft: Catcher Joey Bart.
The year before, the Giants had pick very young Heliot Ramos in the first round. Weeks after drafting Bart, the team signed Marco Luciano, Luis Matos, and Jairo Pomares from the international market, and those players have dominated the Giants’ Top Prospect lists every year since. They were all expected to reach the Majors in the early 2020’s, timed around when most of the Giants’ big contracts would expire, allowing the team to have a highly-rated group of rookies to pair with money to spend on big free agent veterans to support them.
With Bart, the first to reach the big leagues, now tasked with the Opening Day assignment here in 2022, one might think the fans would be excited, with Bart’s arrival marking the start of a new era of Giants baseball. But that’s not what we’ve seen for Bart, as he’s faced some criticisms, a lot of doubts, and many predications that’s he should or would be traded.
What happened? Well, player development never goes quite as planned, but Bart in particular has faced circumstances beyond his control that have affected those expectations. Can he beat them?
Here are the situations that Bart has dealt with on his journey.
No baseball draft pick is a sure thing, not even #1 picks overall, but high picks do have higher weights of expectations, especially among fans who may not be aware of how difficult the player development journey is. If you look at #2 overall picks from 2000-2009, you’ll see Justin Verlander, who has 71.8 career WAR and of course many accomplishments. But you’ll also see names like B.J. Upton and Rickie Weeks, who you might recognize but not have great impressions of. There’s also Adam Johnson and Greg Reynolds, who you’d be forgiven for not recognizing, as they have negative WAR on their careers.
In fact, of those 10 players, only two have a career WAR above 20 (Verlander and Alex Gordon). Half have less than 15 WAR. Obviously, not many were true impact players when it was said and done.
Now, teams that are regularly at the bottom of the standings may know this risk, as many Mariners, Rockies, Twins, and Pirates fans may be familiar with. But Giant fans? Whose only other #2 pick was Will Clark (whose 56.5 career WAR is the third best mark for all #2 picks ever)? Who had only had four other picks in the Top 10 since 2000, who were Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner, Buster Posey, and Zack Wheeler?
It’s fair to say, Giants fans may have bigger expectations among those high draft picks.
(And, in retrospect, props to the Giants drafting and player development under the Sabean and Evans regimes, making four hits out of top 10 picks!)
Drafted To Replace A Franchise Icon
From Day 1, the obvious talk about Joey Bart was about how he was the heir apparent to Buster Posey, being a catcher drafted behind another. Reading this in 2022, we know how this turned out, but in 2018, the eyes were on Posey’s contract expiring in 2021 with a 2022 team option, timed right about when Bart would be establishing himself in the big leagues. The talk has always been about how Bart and Posey might co-exist, or how the transition would go.
From the beginning, that pressure was there. The Giants have been lucky. Many franchises go years without a true team icon. Buster Posey came along to be a team icon, not long after Barry Bonds retired. Bonds was there when the previous icon, Will Clark, left.
Now, replacing an icon at his position doesn’t mean that you have to be the new icon. But it’s not easy, either. It took a few years for the Giants to steady at first base after Clark, when the Giants traded for J.T. Snow. The Giants still haven’t found a steady left fielder since the last year of Bonds.
It’s unreasonable for anyone to expect Joey Bart to shoulder the burden of being that sort of icon. But even just following one up on the field is a tough ask for any player.
Now, injuries are not a unique thing for a prospect to have, and in general, I wouldn’t list them, but for Bart, it falls into the story line.
Bart had a good short-season debut in 2018, and was poised for a strong full-season debut, getting pushed to High-A San Jose, paired with Ramos. Bart got off to a hot start in the season’s first two weeks, but was then hit by a pitch on his hand, breaking it. Bart missed two weeks, but came back, and kept his momentum. He was promoted to Double-A, with Ramos, and after struggling for a little more than two weeks, finished the season hot and with great stats. Bart went to the Arizona Fall League for more time, where…his fall ended as he got hit by a pitch on his hand again, breaking his thumb.
In general, Bart’s had poor luck with injuries, and he’s had concerns about his groin, which was a problem in 2021, but getting hit twice by pitches that were a bit inside, plays into Bart’s future.
2020 messed with everyone, it’s impossible to understate what it did to everyone in baseball. But for Bart, boy, it messed things up a lot. Here’s two big ways.
2020 – Minor League Season Cancelled
A lot of people were expecting Bart to be getting the push up to Triple-A to continue a strong minor league career, but we all know what happened with that year. One of the biggest things that affected every minor league player was the cancellation of the minor league season entirely. Every player lost a year of development. For Bart, it was going to be his first year truly facing advanced pitching, which is very important for a hitter’s development.
Halfway through the year, Bart and several other prospects, did go to the Giants “Alternate Site”, where players could work out and stay ready in case the big league team needed to call them up once the baseball season happened. While players played simulated games, it was certainly not the the same as getting regular development facing opponents.
2020 – The Giants Draft Another Catcher
After the 2018 season, the Giants made a huge change in leadership, as President of Baseball Operations Brian Sabean and General Manager Bobby Evans were let go, and new PBO Farhan Zaidi (and later, GM Scott Harris) came in. That in of itself wouldn’t be a big deal to the players in the farm system, even if new philosophies came into place.
But in 2020, the second draft under Zaidi, the Giants first round pick was a catcher. The Giants took Patrick Bailey with the 13th overall pick. Bailey is a strong defensive catcher who is a switch-hitter with a good approach but not as much power, something that was quite a contrast to the slugging but strikeout prone, offense-first Bart. Immediately, debate about Bart’s future came up, whether he might move to first, the two might platoon…or perhaps Zaidi was looking to trade Bart and eject the legacy of the previous regime and develop his own players better suited to his philosophy.
Of course, some of this was silly, especially the idea that a new GM would want to completely reset a farm system left by a predecessor, as many would agree the prospects brought on by Sabean and Evans were quality, but these debates and takes were only fueled by…
2020 – Buster Posey Opts Out
When the MLB season started, Buster Posey was one of a handful of players to opt out of playing the season, as his family had adopted infant twins who were immune-compromised. While the team did not immediately anoint Bart his replacement, the stage was set for what would be Bart’s MLB debut later in the season.
This meant that Bart was getting the call to the Majors despite having just 87 plate appearances above Single-A baseball, and some spring and (very limited) AFL experience. It was not ideal. Longtime Giants fans might remember the impatience fans had for Brian Sabean not promoting Posey in 2010 right away, insisting the young catcher needed more game experience at Triple-A both offensively and defensively. That wasn’t just service time manipulation, it was a real reason, as Posey had just had 35 games above Single-A (all at Triple-A) before the 2010 season.
Predictably, the 23-year old Bart had troubles. Through 33 MLB games in 2020, Bart struck out 41 times, batting .233 and having no home runs.
That premature pro debut soured a lot of fans’ opinions on Bart, who clearly had a hole in his swing that big league pitchers exploited. That hole was on the inside half of the plate…the part of the plate where Bart had suffered two different fractures the previous season thanks to getting hit with pitches.
It didn’t help that, in the light of the defense-first Bailey’s draft, Bart’s defense was another visible question. Bart seemed to have problems connecting with some pitchers, and had very obvious problems in-game with veteran starter Johnny Cueto.
While it’s not reasonable to write off someone after a half-season that most fans openly admitted was premature, baseball fans aren’t always known for being reasonable. Any excitement around Bart had very much dissipated.
Meanwhile, Everyone Is Drafting and Developing Catchers
Catching has always been a very unique position. There’s not as many catchers out there, and with very specific defensive needs, the bar for offense from a catcher has long been much lower than other positions because of that shallow depth.
But in the very late 2010’s, a catching resurgence had taken place. Before Bart in 2018, no catchers had been taken in the first round of 2017, and some taken just in the teens or later in 2016 and 2015. But in 2019 and 2021, two of the three years after Bart’s drafting, two of the three first overall picks were catchers (Adley Rutschman in 2019, Henry Davis in 2021).
Meanwhile, catchers from international signings were also flourishing. The Dodgers promoted their top catching prospect Will Smith, and had another, Keibert Ruiz, to trade away soon after. Young Catchers were everywhere.
To start the 2022 season, there are five catchers in the Top 30 overall prospects in baseball by MLB Pipeline’s rankings. That means there are as many catchers as pitchers in the Top 30 overall prospects.
Bart is the #31 overall prospect by that ranking.
One shouldn’t judge one player just against others, but the number of valuable young catchers generally depressed how special some might see Bart. It certainly began to drop the chances for trades of either of the Giants young catchers to net nearly as much value. And by the same token, Bart was no longer seen among those top tier young catchers anymore.
The Giants Were Historically Great in 2021
This seems like a weird thing to be bad, and in fact it had a silver lining, but the Giants being good in 2021 was not expected. Many thought the Giants might have spent the season trading away the veterans with expiring contracts. Instead, the Giants won a franchise record 107 games in a historic pennant race with the Dodgers.
Suddenly, the player on trade lips was Bart. As the Giants were in this amazing, unexpected pennant race, a lot of people were saying that Joey Bart was available in trade as the Giants were looking for help to keep up with the Dodgers. In fact, Bart’s name was thrown around with Kris Bryant, but when the trade came, Bart was not sent away.
It’s not talked about much, but there is a lot of anxiety with players during a trade deadline, not sure if they would be coming or going. While Bart in particular did not talk about it, it must have been a weight.
However, this year had a silver lining for Bart, in that a strong season for the big league team took the pressure off of Bart to rush back to the big leagues. While a groin injury affected Bart mid-season, and he was called up briefly a couple of times for very limited playing time (just two games, though there were times he was on the taxi squad that he was not used), Bart got into 67 Triple-A games, batting .294 with an .836 OPS, and 10 home runs, though he did have 82 strikeouts to 21 walks.
This was where the weight of expectations from fans and scouts showed. That by no means is a bad stat line for most players. But the expectations of being a number 2 pick, and what had been expected, were quoted. Some talked about the lack of in-game power with just ten home runs. His defense was questioned. Some scouts questioned things like body language and his ability to connect with pitchers.
Buster Posey Announced His Retirement
The final situation has both positives and pressure for Bart. Buster Posey announced his retirement after one of his best seasons, stepping away from the game on his own terms.
This made a lot of the talk about how Posey and Bart might coexist amusingly unneeded. Bart would not have to compete with Posey for playing time. That was a good thing for Bart.
But it meant that now, literally today, was the time for Bart. He was being told when to step up as opposed to earning it on his own schedule. The difference now is that Bart has that year of Triple-A under his belt. He’s had more time to work with the current Giants rotation. Unlike 2020, he is not set up for failure. He is being given the chance to succeed.
Whether he will? That is yet to be seen.
The questions still dog Bart. Will he hit for power in big league games? Well, at least his towering home runs in the spring indicate he could. He was complimented publicly for many of the things he was criticized for in years past, particularly his defense and communication with pitchers (though some still have doubts). This spring, Fangraphs notably ranked Bailey ahead of Bart in their Giants rankings, with their writer being very honest with criticisms of Bart’s decision-making at the plate and his defense, predicting a trade.
At least, this year, the questions should be answered. Bart is one of the big league catchers, and should get most of the playing time, assuming good health. He will either prove himself, or he’ll falter the ways many have though he would. One way or the other, we’ll know.
Unless…he becomes a productive-but-not-quite-star player that divides fans and leads to a decade-long debate about his worth, year after year. Not that Giants fans have done before. Right, Brandon Belt?