As last April came to a close, Jarrett Parker was out of sorts at the plate. Unable to crack the Giants’ roster out of camp, the outfielder was batting just .171 at Triple-A Sacramento. He had hit two home runs and struck out 31 times.
And then, as abruptly as flipping a page on the calendar, something changed. On May 1, Parker hit three homers in a game in Salt Lake City, driving in six runs. That began a 10-game stretch for Parker in which he went 14-for-39 with 10 home runs and 18 RBIs. In the final game, on the road in Memphis, he had three hits and went deep twice.
“It was dead center and the wind was blowing in,” Giants first-base coach Jose Alguacil, the River Cats’ manager last season, said of the game in Memphis. “Nothing would stop that ball. That’s Parker. That’s what he can do when he’s right.”
Such is the intrigue of Parker, the 28-year-old who is slated to be the Giants’ starting left fielder when they open the 2017 season on Sunday against Zack Greinke and the Arizona Diamondbacks. In a lineup full of familiar faces, Parker represents the unknown, the owner of a major-league track record less than 200 at-bats long and a left-handed swing that is both susceptible to striking out and capable of generating some serious raw power.
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The Giants witnessed the latter first-hand in 2015 when Parker, during a September call-up, hit three home runs in a game against the A’s in Oakland. His scorching two-week stretch last May was part of an abbreviated Triple-A season in which he averaged a home run nearly every 12 at-bats.
“He has a lot of power, more so than (Hunter) Pence and these guys,” said Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens. “When he’s right, he does it as good as anybody on this team.”
When he’s wrong, though, the results can be just as stark. Parker has struck out in more than one-third of his career at-bats between the minor and major leagues. Left-handers flummox him: Last season with the Giants, he was 4-for-37 against them, a .108 average.
Mindful of this, the Giants will at least begin the season with a platoon in left field. Chris Marrero, a right-handed hitter whose eight spring training homers tied Bryce Harper for the major-league lead, will start in left against left-handed pitchers. A former castoff from the Nationals system, Marrero, 28, has even fewer big-league at-bats (125) than Parker.
“The weight of our lineup will never be on whoever’s in left field,” said Giants general manager Bobby Evans prior to Thursday’s exhibition game against the A’s.
“It’s really on the veteran guys. Hopefully the left fielder does his part. But we’re only as strong as really the core of our lineup. The left fielder, in this case being the younger guy, doesn’t have the weight of the world on his shoulders.”
While 28 isn’t an early age by baseball standards, for a Giants left fielder it’s downright youthful. The Giants are about to have their 11th different Opening Day left fielder in as many seasons. Of the previous 10, nine were 32 or older when the season began – Fred Lewis in 2009 is the lone exception – and five were playing in what would be their final major-league season.
If Parker is able to lend some job security to the position, he could end what has become another dubious trend in San Francisco. For as successful as it has been in recent years at drafting and developing infielders and pitchers, the Giants’ system has been equally fruitless when it comes to the outfield.
The last Giants draft pick to man their Opening Day outfield was John Bowker in 2010. Such products as Bowker, Lewis and Nate Schierholtz never established themselves in San Francisco. In the 2008 draft the Giants used their top four picks, in order, on Buster Posey, Conor Gillaspie, Roger Kieschnick and Brandon Crawford. Only Kieschnick, an outfielder who played in Mexico last year, is no longer with the team.
The Giants filled their World Series outfields of 2010, 2012 and 2014 mostly of veteran players acquired through free agency and trades. Some of those, like Pence and Angel Pagan, later signed multiyear contracts that eliminated the need for a homegrown replacement.
“I think some of it’s just based on need,” Evans said. “I think outfielders are easier to sign sometimes to fill holes than other positions. But that said, it comes down to opportunity. In order for young players to have success they have to be given an opportunity.”
An opening in left appeared after the Giants let Pagan go following last season and chose not to spend money on a free-agent outfielder over the winter. Instead, they went into camp hoping either Parker or Mac Williamson would seize the job. Parker held an edge in that he, unlike Williamson, is out of minor-league options. Williamson suffered a quad injury last month that basically ended the competition.
Still, in the Giants’ eyes, Parker had done his part to influence the decision. As of March 18, he was hitting .333 in Cactus League play with four home runs – though he followed that with a 3-for-23 stretch that included 14 strikeouts.
“He showed the hunger that you want to see,” Evans said. “He showed us power. But he also showed us a good hitter, he showed us quality at-bats, he drove in runs, he looked hungry for the RBI. He’s a guy that’s going to strike out some. But I think that doesn’t define how much he can contribute.”
Manager Bruce Bochy said he was encouraged by seeing Parker hit a couple of homers in two-strike counts, and that Parker’s defense in left was a pleasant surprise.
“He looked like a very determined young man,” Bochy said.
The significance of this spring was not lost on Parker. The Virginia native has become known for his offseason adventures, which in recent years included a backpacking trip through Europe and moving to New York City for a couple of months. This winter he vacationed briefly in Costa Rica before returning to the Washington, D.C., area to prepare for the season.
“I looked at it as I had a job to do,” Parker said. “I was trying to get better every day and do everything I could to help out the team and show the Giants that I can be a huge factor for these guys.”
The Giants agree that potential is there. Now they’ve given Parker a chance to show it.
“He seems to be turning the corner with comfort,” Meulens said. “That’s always a thing: Is he going to be comfortable? Is he going to be able to settle down? Because toolwise, he’s there.”
Parker said he knows the Giants want to see consistency from him. In discussions with Parker this spring, Meulens said that was an overriding theme.
“The only thing that’s keeping him from staying here and playing and contributing every day is being consistent,” Meulens said. “That’s something that he still has to prove when the season starts.
“Is he ready? I don’t know. Time will tell. Hopefully he is, and hopefully that’s going to be something we don’t have to worry about. But he’s going to have to go out and prove it, and earn it, and make us believe that he’s the guy.”