San Francisco Giants: 5 Under the Radar Spring Training Storylines

Dan MoriCorrespondent IFebruary 28, 2012

San Francisco Giants: 5 Under the Radar Spring Training Storylines

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    Spring training is a glorious time where optimism abounds for almost every team in baseball, unless of course you're a fan of the Oakland A's. Okay, that was a low blow.

    Getting back to the focus of our article, the San Francisco Giants. This spring the Giants have several extremely critical storylines that everyone is well aware of. How many games will Buster Posey be able to catch and will he be the same player he was before the injury?

    Can Freddy Sanchez and Brian Wilson stay healthy? Will the Giants sign Matt Cain to an extension before the season starts, as he prefers?

    All Giants fans have these questions right at the forefront of their minds and the answers to them will go a long way to determining how the team fares in 2012.

    However, there are several interesting issues that are less publicized, but will make an impact on the season. Let's take a closer look at five of these key areas.

5) Who Will Be the Surprise Prospect In Camp?

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    Every year a player or two emerges out of the pack and opens the eyes of the Giants' brass. He may not make the team out of spring training, but he puts himself on the radar screen.

    If he continues to do well in the minors, he has the potential to be one of the first players called up to the big leagues when the Giants need some reinforcements.

    Ryan Vogelsong was a player who did this last year He threw the ball extremely well and though he didn't make the team out of spring training, he impressed manager Bruce Bochy and GM Brian Sabean. When the Giants needed another starter early in the season, Vogelsong was called up.

    Many a long-time Giants fan will remember Bill Bathe, who was a backup catcher. He tore the cover off the ball one spring and hit something like .600. He forced his way onto the team, only to cool off as the regular season ensued.

    My projection for 2012 for a prospect who will emerge this season as a future major league talent is Francisco Peguero. At the age of 23, Peguero is maturing physically and has always been a solid hitter.

    Last year, Peguero split time between San Jose and Richmond in the Giants' minor league system. He hit .312 with seven home runs and 46 RBI in 353 at-bats. Peguero is a notorious free swinger and walked only 12 times against 53 strikeouts.

    Plate discipline is something Peguero must improve, but he can definitely hit the ball. He is my pick to be the prospect that puts himself on the map this spring.

4) Who Will Win The Backup Infield Jobs?

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    The way I see it, the Giants will carry 12 pitchers, leaving five open spots for reserves. One is a backup catcher and Brandon Belt has one of the other spots. This leaves three roster spots available, two of which I expect to be filled with middle-infield backups.

    The three main candidates for those two jobs are Mike Fontenot, Emmanuel Burriss and Ryan Theriot.

    Fontenot sticks because he can play second, short and third base. He is also a better overall hitter than Burriss. Although Fontenot only hit .227 last season, his OBP was .312. He hit four home runs and had 21 RBI and five steals in 220 at-bats.

    Fontenot's career averages are much better, however. He has a career batting average of .263 and an OBP of .332. He also has a little pop from time to time, as his .406 SLG suggests.

    Burriss is the fastest of the three, but just an average fielder. His offense is predicated around his speed, but the problem is he has trouble getting on base and has absolutely no pop in his bat.

    In 2011, Burriss hit only .204 with an OBP of .253 in 137 at-bats.He had no home runs and only four RBI, but did have 11 steals.

    For his entire career, which spans 651 plate appearances, Burris has only one home run and 35 RBI. Burriss is out of options, however, so if the Giants do not keep him on the roster, he could be claimed by another team.

    The Giants' acquisition of Ryan Theriot was an outstanding move. He gives them a right handed bat that can spell Crawford against tougher left handed pitchers. Theriot is a seven-year veteran and has played both shortstop and second base on a regular basis.

    In 2011, Theriot hit .271 with one home run and 47 RBI in 442 at-bats. He has a career batting average of .282 with an OBP of .344. Although Theriot is not as good a fielder as Crawford, he is competent.

    In my opinion, the decision is simple. The Giants need to keep Theriot and Fontenot. They are proven big league players and will be able to help the Giants a lot more than Burriss.

    My feeling is that Burriss simply has never shown the ability to hit at the major league level. His fielding is only average and the only real asset he brings is his speed. He's the ideal September call-up who can come in and pinch run, however, he is not someone you can play regularity.

    The Giants could lose Burriss, but if that happens, so be it. With Joe Panik expected to rise quickly through the Giants' minor league system, losing Burriss is not something the Giants should worry about.

3) Will Heath Hembree Make The Team?

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    Heath Hembree may be the closer of the future for the San Francisco Giants. His fastball is in the upper 90's and he is developing a slider and changeup to keep hitters off balance.

    In 2011, Hembree split time between San Jose and Richmond, throwing a total of 53.1 innings. He allowed only 36 hits, compiled an ERA of 1.86 and a WHIP of 1.114. What impressed me the most was his strikeout-to-walk ratio of 78 K's and 25 walks.

    Hembree has been impressive thus far in camp and could force his way onto the roster. He is in competition with veterans Guillermo Mota, Ramon Ortiz, Clay Hensley and Dan Runzler for the final two spots in the bullpen.

    Ideally, I believe the Giants would like to have Hembree pitch at the Triple-A level in Fresno for at least half the 2012 season. They would like him to refine his secondary pitches, which would make him even better in the long run.

    Two of the other four pitchers I mentioned are throwing the ball well and worthy of a big league spot. If that happens, Hembree likely starts the season at Fresno, but will likely get a call-up if another reliever is injured or ineffective.

    Hembree will make an impact at some point this season for the Giants, the only question is when.

4) Who Wins The Final Roster Spot?

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    On many teams, the 25th man is virtually irrelevant, but not so in San Francisco. Manager Bruce Bochy utilizes his entire roster and the expectation is for everyone to make a positive contribution to the success of the team.

    This spring, the final roster spot likely comes down to Brett Pill, Gregor Blanco, Conor Gillaspie or Emmanuel Burriss.

    My preference is Pill because he is the only one that can supply any power off the bench. Unfortunately for Pill, his playing time will be severely limited because the Giants have a glut of players able to play first base.

    Aubrey Huff and Brandon Belt will see plenty of time at first. We will probably see Buster Posey there for 25-35 games this year as well. This means that Pill would start the year as a pinch hitter almost exclusively.

    Pill has produced at the minor league level. In 2011, while at Fresno, he hit .312 with 25 home runs and 107 RBI. His OPS of .871 was outstanding.

    The biggest problem for Pill is he realistically is only a first baseman. The Giants have tried him in the outfield and second base but he is too big a liability defensively at those positions.

    As a September call-up, Pill impressed the Giants with his plate discipline and ability to make quick adjustments. Truth be told, he looked far more accomplished than top-rated prospect Brandon Belt, at the time.

    Pill hit .300 with two home runs and nine RBI in 50 at-bats. That's a small sample size, but he definitely showed the ability to drive the ball.

    Blanco is another option, if the Giants decide to keep five outfielders. He is a good defender with good speed and has played in the majors with Atlanta and Kansas City. The real question is how comfortable the Giants are with Huff and Belt as their only backup outfielders.

    Gillaspie is an intriguing prospect. At this point in his career, he would make himself much more valuable if he could learn to play second base. As a third baseman, Gillaspie is stuck behind Pablo Sandoval and is unlikely to make the team.

    I believe the Giants should play Gillaspie at least 50 percent of the time at second base this year, in Fresno. If he shows he can play both third and second, he will have a much better chance to make the team in the future.

    I have already discussed Burriss and do not feel he is the best option for the final roster spot.

    Given the makeup of this team and the relative lack of power, I would go with Pill to win the final roster spot. In the event of injury to any of the Giants' starting outfielders, Blanco would be the first call-up.

5) Who Will Be The Backup Catcher?

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    The backup catcher spot is very important for the Giants this year. I fully expect this player to catch close between 40-50 games this season, as the Giants will be careful with Buster Posey's workload.

    The primary options to backup Posey are Eli Whiteside, Chris Stewart and Hector Sanchez.

    Whiteside had a golden opportunity last year, but the more he played, the worse he did. In 213 at-bats, Whiteside hit only .197 with four home runs and 17 RBI. His OBP of .264 was repulsive.

    The thing I was most disappointed in was how Whiteside's defense also crumbled. His throwing was poor, as he threw out only 25 percent of attempted base stealers. What was most appalling was the fact that on several pitches, Whiteside just missed the ball. 

    I believe the greatest value Whiteside brings to the Giants would be to work with and tutor the young pitchers and catchers in the Giants' farm system. He is not a major league player.

    Chris Stewart has spent parts of five season in the big leagues. Like Whiteside, he is not a strong hitter. He hit .200 with three home runs and 10 RBI in 162 at-bats last year.

    Stewart, however, was far better than Whiteside defensively. He was a good receiver of the ball, blocked pitches in the dirt effectively and threw out 39 percent of attempted base stealers. 

    The most promising of the three options is Hector Sanchez. He is only 22 years of age, whereas Whiteside and Stewart have both passed 30. Sanchez has worked hard on his defense and throwing in the past 12 months and that work is starting to pay off.

    Sanchez also is the best hitter of the group. In San Francisco, after a September call-up, he hit .258 in a small sample size of 31 at-bats.

    In 2011, Sanchez split time between San Jose and Fresno. His cumulative batting average was .280 with 12 home runs and 84 RBI in 370 at-bats.

    Sanchez also tore up the Venezuelan Winter League, hitting .339 with a .402 OBP and .950 OPS. He also slugged nine home runs, driving in 39 in only 177 at-bats.

    Although the Giants may decide they want to give Sanchez more seasoning in Fresno, I think he would learn a lot watching Posey. He is also the only one of the candidates that would give the Giants some offense coming from the backup catcher spot.

    If Sanchez is not the backup to open the 2012 season, my second choice would be Stewart.

If Healthy, the Giants Will Make a Strong Run at the Playoffs in 2012

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    The San Francisco Giants were felled by injuries in the 2011 season. An incredible run of bad luck had every single starting position player, except for Aubrey Huff, spend time on the DL in 2011. In addition, many of the backups were also hurt.

    The pitching staff also did not escape unscathed as several pitchers also succumbed to the DL.

    The Giants need this year's team to stay healthy and if they do, they will have a great chance to make the playoffs. The pitching staff is one of the best in baseball and their offense will be a lot better than in 2011.

    Manager Bruce Bochy has shown the ability to juggle players effectively and is only one year removed from guiding the Giants to the World Series championship.

    The NL West is much stronger this year, as Arizona and Los Angeles have both improved themselves, so it won't be easy. However, if they can avoid the catastrophic injuries that befell them in 2011, the Giants will be right in the mix.

    In a little more than one month, Opening Day will be here. I can hardly wait.