They Might be Giants
Finally the never-ending barrage of meaningless games is over. Finally Buster Posey is healthy. Finally the awful offense of 2011 can be put to bed. Finally the boys of summer are back in our daily lives.
It’s been 6 months since we last watched the San Francisco Giants play games that meant something, and the wait ends today. There’s been a lot of changes to the team, and with this week’s announcement of the 25 man roster that will start the season maybe more changes than a lot of fans were expecting. Given how last year went, with a pitching staff that almost carried an offense that couldn’t get out of its own way into the playoffs, change is a very good thing. They say spring is a time of renewal, a time of rebirth, and when it comes to baseball’s opening day it’s also a time of hope, unbridled optimism, and potential.
With that in mind, let’s go around the horn for a better look at the team Brian Sabean and Bruce Bochy have assembled to try and get the Giants back to the World Series:
Right now the Giants are going with 4 starters until Vogelsong comes off the disabled list. When healthy this is arguably the best starting rotation in all of baseball, with the Phillies being the only other team that can make a claim to the title. Pitching carried the team in 2010 and 2011, and there’s no reason to think it won’t carry the team again this year. Lincecum has been experiencing some slight regression but is still an elite starting pitcher by any measure, Cain was just made the highest paid right hander in history, and if 2012 is anything like the last 4-5 months of 2011 were for Madison Bumgarner he’ll earn quite a few Cy Young votes and maybe even a trip to the All-Star Game. There’s some reason to question whether 2011 was a fluke for Vogelsong or whether he’s finally found a way to capitalize on the talent that made him the Giants top pitching prospect early in his career, but given the consistency he displayed in 2011 and the stuff he’s always had it’s not a major concern. Then there’s Barry Zito, which makes this a good time to move on.
1-6 this is probably the strongest bullpen in baseball, which gives the Giants the strongest pitching staff in the game 1-11. Dan Otero had a strong spring and earned a roster spot but he’s just holding Vogelsong’s place until he’s eligible to be activated off the disabled list (Vogelsong’s starting the season opener for Fresno). By all accounts Brian Wilson looks healthy again, and if he holds up the Giants have a bullpen where everyone brings something to the table and everyone has an established role. Mota is the long man. Casilla comes in as the righty in the 7th. Affeldt is tough on lefties but can also be effective against right handers. Lopez is the LOOGY. Romo is the frisbee throwing setup man. And in the 9th inning it’s time to Fear the Beard. There’s enough depth within this group and within the minor league system to withstand some injuries and struggles. With this team the bullpen is really the last thing you need to worry about, because the one thing Brian Sabean has done consistently well over 15 years as GM is build a solid bullpen.
Buster Posey, Hector Sanchez
Welcome back Buster! The emotional lift the team will get from having him in the lineup on what will hopefully be a regular basis might even outweigh his considerable baseball talents. It’s unclear how many games he will start behind the plate, and the Giants have every reason to ease him back into the grind because if they are going anywhere they will need to keep him healthy all season. Given that Bochy was himself a former catcher and places so much value in how a catcher handles a pitching staff it was surprising to see the Giants opt to go with the youngster Sanchez as the only backup, although it makes all the sense in the world. This is a team that has and probably will continue to struggle scoring runs, and if Buster is going to be given the necessary rest early in the season the Giants need to have a catcher with offensive upside so that they aren’t forced to replace one of their best hitters with one of their worst. Enter Hector Sanchez, who flew through the system from high A San Jose to a short stint in the majors last year and had a monster spring. His catching skills are still somewhat raw, and if the Giants knew they’d get 130-140 games from Posey they surely would have had Sanchez start 2012 in AAA Fresno. The Giants need a reason to resist the temptation to over work Posey, especially early in the year, and if Sanchez hits anything like he has for the last calendar year they have their reason. We’ll see how they split time between the two catchers, and how much time Posey spends at 1B this year, but for now it probably makes sense to let Sanchez catch 2 of the starters. That would simplify things for Sanchez behind the plate and setup a routine for both he and Posey. Lincecum is one of the tougher pitchers to catch so Posey should be handling his starts, while Cain always seems to know exactly what he wants to do on the mound which would make him an ideal candidate to work with Sanchez. Zito worked with Sanchez in the minors during his “rehab” stints last year and speaks highly of him, so that might be another combination that we’ll see throughout the season.
The most crowded position on the diamond for the Giants is also the one with the most question marks. How committed are the Giants to giving Brandon Belt 400+ AB in 2012? Can Aubrey Huff play LF well enough to keep him off 1B? Will Huff even rebound offensively enough to force Bochy to keep his bat in the lineup? And if those two players end up with the bulk of the starts at 1B, what does that leave for Pill? Belt is a star prospect who has mashed at every level he’s played at, and most talent evaluators seem to agree that while it would be best if he played every day there’s not a lot left for him to learn at AAA. Belt needs to play both for his development and because he’s the one “new” addition to the team who has the bat capable of having a major impact on the team’s offense. With Huff’s contract expiring after this season the Giants also need to know what Belt can do against major league pitching before the end of 2012 so that they can plan for 2013 and beyond. Pill provided some pop after being called up from Fresno at the end of 2011, and while at 28 he isn’t much of a prospect at this point his right handed bat may allow the Giants to keep Belt away from some tough left handers until the kid proves he can handle the challenge.
I’m no doctor, but when a guy can’t throw a baseball 100 feet without pain 8 months after shoulder surgery I take that as a very bad sign. The Giants have mostly downplayed the severity of the problems Freddy Sanchez had with his throwing shoulder this spring and have opted to start the season with him in the disabled list with no real timetable for his return to the majors. At this point I think it’s fair to ask not when Freddy Sanchez returns, but if. My gut tells me there’s a very good chance that Freddy Sanchez retires by the end of the 2012 season, which would be a real shame. Sanchez is an ideal #2 hitter not because he puts up gaudy stats, but because he’s so adept at moving runners over, which helps manufacture runs and was something the Giants failed at miserably in 2011. Freddy doesn’t walk a lot but he doesn’t strike out a lot either, which means he puts the ball in play (something Bochy really loves). For now the starting job belongs to Emmanuel Burriss, a player who has been around for a few years and has failed to make much of a mark at the major league level in limited opportunities thus far in his career. Burriss can play just about anywhere on the field and is out of options, both of which help his chances of sticking around if/when Freddy Sanchez does return. Despite the fact that he had a great spring Burriss doesn’t hit for any power and isn’t a great base stealer, though he does bring some speed to the table along with his versatility. Theriot was an interesting free agent signing, primarily because he hasn’t been a good player since at least 2010. Given his defensive liabilities he’s not as versatile as the player he essentially replaced, Mike Fontenot, and has less pop in his bat. Theriot has stolen a few bases in his career but has never been very efficient at it. I’ll be honest, while Theriot has always been a versatile guy that plays like his hair is on fire I don’t think he’s as good as Fontenot.
Brandon Crawford, Emmanuel Burriss, Ryan Theriot
If you’re thinking “boy, there’s not a lot there after Crawford” you’re not mistaken. This job belongs to Crawford because of his defense and because of the lack of any better options. Last year Crawford showed the glove he’s always been known for, and unfortunately he also showed the lack of offensive ability he’s also been known for. Crawford heads into 2012 coming off a strong spring both offensively and defensively and the Giants surely look at any offensive contributions from the Foothill High School graduate as a bonus. Once you get past Crawford you have two guys who are just as limited offensively and don’t have the benefit of Crawford’s plus defense. With the way Theriot struggled defensively during spring training I have to believe that on the days Crawford rests it’ll be Burriss moving over to play SS and Theriot coming in to play 2B. Even if Crawford can’t provide much offense his glove should be a major boost over what the Giants got out of Miguel Tejada and Orlando Cabrerain 2011, and it’s not like those guys were setting the world on fire offensively either. This is an area the Giants would probably be interested in upgrading, particularly if the offense continues to struggle like it did in 2011, but for now the job belongs to Crawford.
Pablo Sandoval, Brett Pill, Emmanuel Burriss, Ryan Theriot
It goes without saying that the switch hitting Sandoval needs to stay healthy because he’s one of the team’s only real power threats at the plate, and because he was the lone bright spot on an otherwise awful offense in 2011. But his health is just as important for defensive purposes in 2012 given the lack of 3B experience on the roster behind him. Pill, who played primarily 1B in the minors, has been used at 3B this spring in the hopes that increasing his versatility would allow the Giants to get his bat in the lineup more often. It’s also important because Ryan Theriot has played 9 games at 3B in his career and really isn’t a viable option at the position. Which again leaves us with super sub and starting 2B Emmanuel Burriss, who would probably slide over from 2B on the days Pablo needs a rest while Theriot again fills in at 2B. What everyone remembers from 2011 is the impact Buster Posey’s injury had on the offense and the team and how it likely prevented the Giants from winning the division, but Pablo’s month long absence for a broken hamate bone was the straw that broke the camel’s back. If Pablo had stayed healthy there’s a good chance the Giants would have held on to win the division, and he’s as important as any of the Giants position players in 2012. Even with the return of Posey and some of the other upgrades to the offense this team just doesn’t have the depth to withstand any regression or absence from the Panda.
Huff is by far the worst defensive outfielder on the roster, though it looks like the plan is for him to get the bulk of his playing time in LF. If his bat returns to form, and either Belt or Pill can hold down 1B, Nate Schierholtz would appear to be the odd man out. Which is a shame, because RF at AT&T Park is one of the toughest OF positions in all of MLB and I don’t think I’ve seen anyone play it better than Schierholtz has the last couple years. For now it would appear that Nate will be primarily used as a defensive replacement for Huff, and that means he won’t get a lot of plate appearances early in the season. Pagan was brought over from the Mets in a trade for 2010 hero Andres Torres and is penciled in as the leadoff hitter and starting CF. Unfortunately Pagan followed up a subpar 2011 with an awful spring and may be challenged for playing time by 28 year old career minor leaguer Gregor Blanco. Blanco has played roughly 250 MLB games since 2008 and has a career line of .258/.358/.369 to go with 26 SB in 35 tries. Clearly Blanco doesn’t hit for much average and even less power, but he has shown an ability to get on base. If Pagan can return to his 2010 form, which saw him hit .290/.340/.425 with 7 HR and 37 SB in 49 tries he will be the regular starter. If Pagan plays more like he did in 2011, when he went .262/.322/.372, he may find himself splitting time with Blanco, and the Giants may find themselves struggling to score once again. Cabrera on the other hand, acquired in a trade with Kansas City for Jonathan Sanchez, is coming off a career year and will be the starter in RF. Was Cabrera’s 2011 the high water mark of his career or the beginning of a trend? A career .275/.331/.398 hitter, Cabrera put up a .305/.339/.470 slash line to go along with 18 HR and 20 SB. The Giants are expecting a lot of Cabrera, perhaps too much from a player with only 2 double-digit home run seasons in his 6+ year career.
There are clearly a lot of question marks about the Giants ability to score runs in 2012, which you would expect coming off a historically inept season offensively, but there’s also valid reasons for optimism. Although the Giants didn’t dip into free agency to sign a high impact bat the way many fans had (unrealistically) hoped, they were able to add some speed and youth to replace some aging veterans that were liabilities both offensively and defensively. There are enough pieces on the roster with enough upside for Giants fans to feel like the team will score more runs than they did in 2011, and with the best overall pitching staff in baseball leading the way that might be just enough to vault the San Francisco Giants back into the playoffs in 2012. And one thing we all learned in 2010 is that if you get into the tournament, and you have the pitching, anything is possible.
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