Brandon Crawford reacts to the signing of Carlos Correa, comes to terms with a change of position

Brandon Crawford reacts to the signing of Carlos Correa, comes to terms with a change of position

Brandon Crawford reacts to the signing of Carlos Correa, comes to terms with a change of position

Brandon Crawford played in 1,525 games in his major league career. He played 12,872 innings. He’s come in on his toes for hundreds of thousands of pitches at the plate, ready to pitch or dive or charge or snap at any type of batted ball.

At each of these times, he was a shortstop.

You don’t become a four-time Gold Glove shortstop just because of athleticism. Positioning and intuition before throwing can be just as important. The best shortstops display an artistic creativity to make shows. Crawford 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’s an innate ability to visualize the movements required to play a game. It is the coordination that performs those movements.

It is to understand 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 news broke Tuesday night that the Giants and Correa had agreed on a 13-year, $350 million franchise-altering deal, Crawford received a call from club president Farhan Zaidi and head coach Gabe Kapler. They informed Crawford of what he already understood: that Correa would be the Giants’ day-to-day shortstop. It will be up to Crawford to accept a change of position for the first time in his career.

Up until that call, there had been no discussion between Crawford and anyone in the Giants’ front office or coaching staff about the possibility of filling another position.

It took Crawford a couple of days to process her situation before reaching out The Athletic to comment.

“With the signing of a good player like Carlos, our team has definitely improved a lot,” Crawford said via text message. “He’s been one of the best players in the league for years and it’s obviously exciting to bring a player of his caliber to San Francisco. That said, he’s a shortstop and since signing the other day, I’ve been told that’s where he’s going to stay, so that puts me in a very different situation than I’ve ever faced in professional baseball.

“So the rest of this offseason, spring training and through the season, I’m going to work my hardest to be the best I can be in a different position and help us get back into the postseason.”

It’s a transition Crawford acknowledges he makes reluctantly. Shortstops always see themselves as shortstops. Central defenders always see themselves as central defenders. Switching to a less stressful position can be more than an assault on their pride. It can be an affront to their identity.

For Crawford, who made his debut in 2011 and started at shortstop on Opening Day for 11 consecutive seasons, it is a matter of extreme pride that only five players in major league history have played more defensive games exclusively as 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 turns 36 in January, was hoping to stay on that list until the end of his career, which could coincide with his contract expiring after next season. Instead, he’ll come to terms with having one less statement 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 one 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 wildcard game and make a raucous ballpark in Pittsburgh so quiet you could hear the Allegheny waters lapping against the bridge piers. He grew up in Pleasanton with dreams of being the shortstop for the San Francisco Giants, and for a dozen years he was exactly that. And, of course, he was instrumental in winning two World Series championships.

None of that legacy is detracted simply because he’s going to start catching Grounders at third or second base or wherever he might be in relation to Correa in the infield. Crawford still fits on the Giants roster. Crawford declined to address what his role might be or what position would be the easiest transition, saying he’s been given a draft, but conversations are still in the early stages. Kapler also declined to comment until Correa’s signing becomes official at a press conference on Tuesday.

But it’s easy to see the potential adaptations. Crawford could be a lefty 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 fill what had become an urgent need for a versatile lefty infielder, especially now that Tommy La Stella’s defensive limitations will be impossible to hide with the stint suppression on the pitch.

And while Correa is expected to play exclusively as a shortstop (he has as many as 881 games and 7,666 2/3 innings without ever appearing in another position, by the way), he’ll need the occasional day off. For more than a decade, the Giants never had a good backup shortstop behind Crawford. They now have the most accomplished backup shortstop in the major leagues.

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But nothing is guaranteed. If Crawford produces anything like what he did in 2021, when he posted a 141 OPS+ and finished fourth in the NL MVP ballot, he’ll be in the lineup nearly every day, presumably starting with opening at Yankee Stadium when his brother-in-law – law, Gerrit Cole, should be on the mound for New York. However, if Crawford fights like he did last season, when he regressed to 85 OPS+ and a nagging knee injury ate away at his defensive metrics, then the Giants have no obligation to provide him with a satisfactory epilogue.

Crawford’s knee improved in the second half of last season after a bout with injuries, and the difference was evident on the pitch. On the Giants’ penultimate road trip to Arizona and Colorado, Crawford racked up an unbroken streak of diving plays, off-balance shots, brilliant reactions and sprinting catches.

“I mean, I always think of myself as a shortstop my entire career,” Crawford said at the time. “So there’s some pride in that, I guess. Getting called up in my rookie year was because I could come right away to play defense in the big leagues. It’s valuable, even if it’s not always seen that way.

Even if Crawford didn’t regress last season, he may have been in the same situation now. Other shortstops on the free agent market this winter might have been more inclined to play another short-term position, but Correa represented the Giants’ best game due to his relative youth, offensive attributes, and leadership qualities as a he. 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 only one player left who met the criteria.

Crawford was among the people on the field to judge. She met Judge at the Gotham Club in Oracle Park and did her best to sell the city and the organization to the reigning American League MVP. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Crawford wasn’t included or consulted when the organization focused on Correa. All Crawford had to do was what Zaidi told reporters at the GM Meetings in Las Vegas last month when asked if he believed Crawford would be the club’s shortstop on Opening Day.

“Yes, absolutely,” Zaidi said on Nov. 10. “Right now. Yes. Obviously Brandon Crawford is the best shortstop in franchise history. He’s done a really good job for us in the last few years and last year, particularly in the second half when he played very well defensively.”

But Zaidi added a qualifier: “I don’t think anything is going to stop us from pursuing guys who have traditionally been shortstops.”

Correa’s identity as a shortstop is as solid as Crawford’s. He has 70 defensive runs saved during his career. He won the platinum glove as the best defensive player in the American League in 2021. He is as confident as any other defender in the game. Metrics rank him as the most efficient shortstop in the major leagues at recording a putout when he dives for a ball. He is both a throwback player and the epitome of a modern major leaguer who not only embraces analysis but gladly explains to teammates why should they hug too.

But his time will come too, just as it did for Cal Ripken and Dave Concepcion and just as it is now coming for Crawford. Correa will be Crawford’s age in eight years. At that point, it will be up to whoever manages the Giants in 2031 to figure out where to play Correa. He will only have five years and $135 million to complete his contract.

The Giants see Correa as a cornerstone of the franchise and an impact player whose front-end contributions will far exceed what he’ll be paid in his waning years. But it will be hard to imagine that he will finish his Giants career as the greatest shortstop in franchise history. The bar has been set quite high.

In the meantime, it’ll be fun to see what happens next season the first time there’s a ground ball to the left side and two transcendent fielders slide in to narrow down every last inch of the 5.5 hole. Great players always enjoy playing alongside great players, even if they may not share exactly the same space. So Crawford will look on the bright side whenever a former shortstop can.

“Maybe,” he said, adding a shrug emoji to his lyric, “I can finally hit an inning on the mound.”

(Photo: Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

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