On Monday, it was a trip to Kansas City’s spring training facility to see the Royals and San Francisco. Outside of the Chicago Cubs, the Giants are the biggest draw in the Cactus League and easily had more than half the fans of the 6,243 in attendance.
To the delight of much of the crowd, San Francisco won 2-1, as both teams used a mix of regulars and subs for about six innings, before the younger guys with numbers of 60 or higher took over.
Last season, the Giants were last in the National League in scoring and 29th in baseball, with a large part of their problem being they swung (and often missed) at more pitches that were out of the strike zone than any other team in the major league. The return of Buster Posey will help, although you don’t go from being the lowest scoring team in your league to becoming the 1970s Big Red Machine because of one player.
Part of the change in culture was noted when San Francisco got a runner on first base. If that player had reasonable speed, they would be looking to steal second, and if a hit ball was a questionable gapper, the runner would try to advance the extra base.
Kansas City’s farm system is reportedly well stocked and the parent club was sixth in runs scored in the junior circuit in 2011. Can the Royals maintain a solid scoring team and improve its pitching to continue its march to become a .500 club? That answer will come later and it will be their pitching that will make that determination.
Giants Notes: Tim Lincecum threw four good innings, striking out four and permitting one walk and one hit. Lincecum utilized his curveball for the first time this spring and had good results, if not total command just yet. "This is a lot better than my last outing (five runs on seven hits and a walk with no strikeouts)," Lincecum said. "The fact I doubled my innings helps and my arm and my body still feel good and I still kept my mechanics. I'm trying to take that as a positive and run with it." While there are still three weeks left in spring training, Lincecum’s velocity is of possible concern. If the radar gun numbers on the scoreboard are to be believed, Lincecum topped out at 90-91 MPH—just like last season—and not at the 93-95 range of his Cy Young seasons. This should be looked at further once the season starts.
San Francisco has a great deal of catching depth behind the healing Buster Posey, with the likes of switch-hitting 22-year-old Hector Sanchez, who will probably start the year in the minors along with vets Eli Whiteside and Chris Stewart.
The Giants are very excited about center fielder Gregor Blanco, who reached based four times on Monday and raised his batting average to a scalding .545. Blanco earned MVP honors in the Venezuelan Winter League and has not missed a beat in wearing a San Francisco uniform for the first time.
Freddy Sanchez is expected to take the field sometime this week, having been a DH to this point in coming back from a torn labrum last June. Among the people playing second base is Joaquin Arias, who made three sensational plays. The 27-year-old doesn’t appear to be a threat with a bat in his hand, but give him some leather and he’ll get the job done.
Brett Pill had two hits and played first base yesterday, and it is perplexing that it seems the Giants' front office really wants this 27-year-old to play over Brandon Belt, who is four years younger and has considerably more power.
San Francisco’s projected win total is 87 and if that is to be reached, they need Posey and Sanchez back to their old selves and others to be a force. If manager Bruce Bochy stays committed to being aggressive on the base paths and the starting pitching holds up, there is no reason the Giants cannot return to the postseason and win 90 games in 2012.
Royals Notes: Having never seen Luke Hochevar live before, the immediate reaction is he throws harder than I would have guessed, consistently ringing up 95 mph on the radar gun. Last season, his career took off in a new direction by adjusting his arm angle to make his slider appear like his sinker, causing hesitation by batters. In the second half of last year Hochevar had a 3.52 ERA and averaged 7.7 punch-outs per nine innings. On Monday, while throwing hard, his pitches lacked movement in surrendering two runs on four hits over three innings and was taken deep by Conor Gillaspie. This is an important year for the 6’6" right-hander who turns 29 in September and needs to show that he’s more than just another arm on what might be an ordinary club.
For the first time in memory, Kansas City has enough quality pitchers in camp and they will actually have to send somebody down because they were not just quite good enough to make the big club, instead of choosing the lesser of evils. Manager Ned Yost has talked about the competition being extremely “stiff”, using that word four times in the same sentence recently. While it is debatable about the exact quality of this contingent, it is a big upgrade over prior years.
Another huge positive for the Royals would be the return to form of closer Joakim Soria, who suffered declining strikeout numbers and less command a season ago. If Soria does not return to previous form, the match of him and new setup man Jonathan Broxton could cause a sharp increase in the need for Maalox in the Kansas City area. Yost would be foolish not to maximize the talents of last year's setup star Greg Holland, who struck out three of the four San Fran hitters he faced Monday.
Any lineup that includes Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer is a terrific place to start. If Alex Gordon can have the same kind of breakout season he did last year and be a touch more selective at the dish, Kansas City’s offense will be capable of scoring runs in bunches. However, to surpass the oddsmakers total of 80 projected wins and finish second in the AL Central, the pitching has to improve overall and more Royals at the top and the bottom of the order have to be on base with greater regularity.