Crawford cream of SS crop

During the 2010 California League playoffs, I had the chance to ask Brandon Crawford about his future as a defensive infielder.

Crawford was in his second stint with the San Jose Giants at the time. He initially played there in 2009, and after an unreal month of April in which he hit .371 with six home runs and 17 RBIs, he was the first player to be promoted out of High-A San Jose from a talent pool that included Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner.

In 2010, Crawford had his season interrupted at Double-A when he was struck in the wrist with a line drive off the bat of Nick Noonan during a July batting practice. So, Crawford finished the year at San Jose on a rehab assignment. But with the High-A Giants boasting a young defensive wunderkind at shortstop by the name of Ehire Adrianza, Crawford shifted over to third base for two games.

So, my first question to Crawford was simple: Could he see himself ultimately converting to third base fulltime?

Crawford’s answer was one of my favorite in all my years as a baseball writer. He gave me a good stare with that stoic expression which Giants fans have since become quite familiar, and with a noticeably agitated tone in his voice, said quite tersely: “No, I’m a shortstop.”

Not that Crawford wasn’t an adept defensive shortstop. He’d show improvements over the next season while bouncing between the minors and the Major Leagues, but he was always a smooth and rangy presence. It just seemed some mitigating factors were stacked against him in his quest to remain at the position long term.

The biggest challenge Crawford faced was in being a left-handed hitter. There simply aren’t many left-handed hitters in the history of the game to have succeeded as everyday shortstops. Before Crawford arrived in the big leagues, the most accomplished left-handed hitting shortstop in San Francisco Giants history – really the only one – had been Ernest Riles.

Then there was the presence of Adrianza. Sure, prior to the 2010 season, Crawford was named the Best Defensive Infielder in the Giants system by Baseball America. Since then, however, Adrianza has earned the honor three years running. So, early in his minor-league career, he seemed hard-pressed to be able to stick at short.

Crawford proved to be right though. As teams expand to 40-man rosters entering into September, Crawford – in just his second full season in the Major Leagues – has already been equated by many as a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop, while Tuesday marks Adrianza’s first day in the bigs. And as it stands, those two games Crawford played at the hot corner for San Jose in 2010 are the only two games he has played as a non-shortstop in his pro career.

Adrianza still seems to have a bright future ahead of him, although he is now the one that will have to move off shortstop if he ever wants to be an everyday player with the Giants. The 24-year-old switch-hitting Venezuelan has certainly paid his dues in the minor leagues, accruing 701 at bats over parts of two seasons at Double-A Richmond.

That is significant, because Richmond’s The Diamond is one of the toughest hitting environments in all of baseball. While Adrianza arrives in the big leagues as a career .254 professional hitter, his average spikes to .268 with his Double-A numbers omitted, including a .310 mark (45 for 145) this season at Triple-A Fresno.

But the Giants acknowledge Crawford is a special player, and it’s precisely that x-factor that was the driving force in his landing the starting shortstop job outright heading into the 2012 season. Crawford actually broke into the big leagues in 2011, and through 66 games struggled mightily at the plate. His anemic offense forced the Giants to acquire veteran Orlando Cabrera during the stretch drive, after which the Giants faltered and went on to miss the postseason.

“In 2011, the team played much better with [Crawford] at shortstop,” said Bobby Evans, Giants vice president and assistant general manager. “After we traded for Cabrera and sent Crawford down, I think it was one of the reasons that we struggled…. As much as Crawford struggled offensively, he was a strong presence in the middle of the diamond, even in 2011. So, I think when we went into 2012, we looked at him as a guy we weren’t going to overbuild our expectations on what he would do offensively.”

And while he is still just 26, Crawford has improved in each of his three years as a big-league hitter, going from a line of .204/.288/.296 in 2010, to .248/.304/.349 in ’11, to a current line of .260/.320/.380 through 129 games.

“He’s a guy who can drive the ball in the gap, has the occasional long ball that he can hit,” Evans said. “If he can have reasonable patience at the plate, he’s going to get on base a little bit for you…. And he’s obviously very exciting at shortstop. So, this is a fun guy to watch. He’s a very interesting player.”

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