When the San Francisco Giants officially opened up Spring Training in 2012, the questions swirling around the club did not reach players duking it out for starting spots. They started and ended with one Gerald Dempsey Posey III and the status of his surgically repaired left ankle.
Will Buster Posey be healthy enough to start the season as the Opening Day catcher?
If Posey does start behind the dish on Day 1, will he be the same player who took home the 2010 National League Rookie of the Year Award in a laugher? If not, how much will he resemble that player? And even if Buster's 100 percent, how long will he insist on donning the tools of ignorance behind home plate?
Truth be told, the popular questions haven't evolved much beyond those mentioned because they're sexy and sex sells.
Of course, sex does not win. At least not in Major League Baseball.
So you know manager Bruce Bochy and friends have their focus on the larger picture. One that includes their 24-year-old phenom, but leaves room for minor little issues like who will start at the various positions that are still up for grabs. The core of the team is settled, but there are several important questions marks scattered across the diamond.
Let's take a look at who's doing the battling, where they're scrapping and, most importantly, who will win.
As significant as the remaining roster battles are, health will remain the biggest story in the spring.
Lest we forget, Buster Posey isn't the only key Gigante trying to rebound from an injury-shortened campaign—both closer Brian Wilson and second baseman Freddy Sanchez were nipped by the injury bug in 2011. Reports (such as this one from ESPN's Tim Kurkjian) suggest the self-styled most interesting man in baseball is feeling fine and looking better while Freddy is still on the mend.
That means the second base job could go to a place holder for a spell, but the heart and soul of the squad is pretty much squared away.
Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong will anchor the starting rotation. Meanwhile, Wilson, Sergio Romo, Javier Lopez, Santiago Casilla and Jeremy Affeldt loom in a formidable bullpen. So far, so excellent.
Although the Gents are and will be a pitching-centric squad for the foreseeable future, the settled elements of the offense suggest the Bay Area won't see another lineup of pacifists like it did last year.
Newly acquired outfielder Melky Cabrera—who should see time as San Francisco's center and right fielder—is raking thus far in Arizona. Angel Pagan, also acquired in the offseason, hasn't looked quite as good in Orange and Black, but that's more a statement to Melky's torrid start than a condemnation of Pagan. Regardless, there is two-thirds of the Sucka Free's starting outfield.
Posey will be the "everyday" catcher, Pablo Sandoval has the hot corner to himself after shedding the weight and keeping (most of) it off, and the aforementioned Franchez gets the keystone sack when he's ready. So that's all of the primary relief staff (though other arms will surely emerge), four of five starting rotation spots, two of three outfielders, second base, third base and catcher all ocupado.
On most teams, the backup catcher is about the least intriguing competition in camp, but the Giants are not most teams—they have the much-discussed Buster Posey dilemma. Whether Gerald Demp is healthy, the No. 2 catcher figures to see significant playing time.
In Chris Stewart and Eli Whiteside, San Francisco knows what it's getting. Both Stewart and Whiteside were pressed into duty when Posey went down last year and demonstrated defensive ability alongside offensive futility. Combine their 2011 batting averages (here and here), and they BARELY break the .400 barrier. That's quite a price to pay for legitimately good defense at home plate and a comfortable rapport with the pitching staff.
Which is why Hector Sanchez is still in camp and has an outside chance.
The 22-year-old switch hitter had a cup of coffee with the big boys in '11, but he's really begun to turn heads in Spring Training. Hector is blistering the ball at a .400 clip and flashing power from both sides of the plate.
However, the most critical development seems to be on defense, where Sanchez is admittedly and well behind the other two candidates. Word out of Scottsdale is that the Venezuelan has made great strides with the leather and is making Bruce Bochy's decision more difficult by the day.
Fair warning—these predictions are bound to frustrate Giants fans because they reflect what I think Bruce Bochy and the San Francisco brain trust will do, not what I think they should do.
Given Boch's well-documented preference for veteran players at the big-league level plus the fact that Chris Stewart and Eli Whiteside are out of options while Hector Sanchez is not, we can rule out Sanchez. It's possible he could blast his way onto the roster, but something tells me the competition will ultimately boil down to Stewart versus Whiteside.
That decision is fairly easy.
Stewart is slightly better than Whiteside in every way. He contributes slightly more with the lumber, is slightly cheaper, is slightly younger and is slightly more reliable on defense.
So Stewart it is, but keep an eye on Sanchez because he could be a long-term solution to the Buster Posey dilemma.
Ah, Barry Zito, what more needs to be said about the soft-tossing southpaw?
His contract is beyond terrible; we all know that and we don't need to revisit it except to note the albatross remains on the books through the 2013 season. So unless Zeets improves drastically or San Francisco goes all Aaron Rowand on the former Cy Young, he'll be part of this discussion until 2014 especially now that Jonathan Sanchez has been shipped to Kansas City.
The simple fact is SF will not swallow the almost $50 million remaining on his contract without giving Zito every chance to save his bacon and theirs.
Incidentally, there's a special seat in hell between two fat people who don't bathe reserved for Scott Boras.
So this is probably a competition in name only—a reality confirmed by Bruce Bochy at media day where he all but said the job was Zito's.
Nevertheless, fellow southpaw Eric Surkamp was impressive at times after the Gents called him up in 2011 and the 24-year-old stands a better chance of improving on his performance than the 33-year-old Zito. He profiles similarly to Barry—doesn't throw hard, relies on control and deception, tries to get weak contact rather than miss bats, etc.—but has Father Time on his side rather than standing in the batter's box with the hitter.
In a world devoid of ego and public relations, Surkamp would have a chance at this thing.
Alas, the idea of a sunk cost seems to be a foreign one to owners of professional sports franchises as well as the suits who lounge in their front offices.
And so the Giants will continue to chase that elusive return on their investment to prove their decision to sign Barry Zito wasn't a total disaster. The chase will last until a string of fifth-inning five-run deficits forces them to give up for a few months and seek other options.
I hope I'm wrong, but it would take quite a 180 by Zito and we haven't seen any hints of one despite the same ol' offseason promises—"he revamped his workout," "he's in better shape," "so-and-so expert still believes in him," blah, blah, blah.
Until Barry shows it from the mound when it matters, San Francisco fans and baseball observers have every right to be skeptical.
I'm invoking that right.
The shortstop position has been a nearly constant source of frustration during my two-plus decades as a Giants fan.
Even the good years wore that adjective in a strictly relative sense—Jose "The Original" Uribe was never an All-Star and Royce Clayton only made the stellar squad once...as a St. Louis Cardinal. Rich Aurilia and Omar Vizquel gave The City a breath of shortstop legitimacy, but it didn't last long.
And it's gone, baby. Gone.
Edgar Renteria, Juan Uribe and Miguel Tejada have erased those "glory" days, and this year's crop doesn't seem to be in great danger of reviving them.
Brandon Crawford is supposed to be los Gigantes' shortstop of the future, but based on his 2011 campaign, the future won't arrive for a while. Crawford can already flash professional leather, but his swing is riddled with holes and major-league hurlers had no trouble finding them last year.
It's true that BC is shredding the ball in the desert, but spring numbers can be especially deceiving for young players since year-round ball keeps the kids free from much of the rust that plagues veterans. Still, Crawford's spring performance is reason for hope.
Meanwhile, a pair of former LSU Tigers are jostling the 25-year-old for the starting spot.
Mike Fontenot looks to have an early leg up on his collegiate teammate Ryan Theriot. Fontenot is a known commodity around the Giants' clubhouse and is having the better March thus far. In fact, Theriot's taking his reps at second base, so it's probably safe to call this a two-horse race.
Emmanuel Burriss could also sneak into the picture, but like Theriot, he seems locked into the second base contingency plan in case Freddy Sanchez starts the season on the shelf.
I'm going out on a limb here and predicting that Bruce Bochy veers from his veterans-at-all-costs philosophy to tab the pseudo-rookie for a starting job.
At 25, Crawford isn't a baby and he got enough run in 2011 that Boch can't view him as a total greenhorn. Additionally, Fontenot isn't ancient at 31, but that figure puts him on the back nine of a career that won't exactly land him Cooperstown when it's over.
The ragin' cajun put up a slash line of .227/.304/.377 last season, which represents a significant decline from modest career averages and is NOT a whole hell of a lot better than what Crawford squeezed out of his lumber.
Other points in BC's favor:
—The offense should theoretically be better across the board so it can absorb a potential decline at shortstop from bad to awful.
—Crawford's defense is spectacular while Fontenot's is serviceable.
—Fontenot is more versatile so could slide over to second base and still be useful.
—Crawford isn't the youngster Giants fans most want to see in a starting gig, so Bochy can still rile up the faithful while handing him the job.
—Crawford's already been named the everyday shortstop.
So I say Crawford really does get the job...but be prepared to see Mike Fontenot out there because anything's possible in Bochy's veteran-favoring world.
This one's easy—the job is Nate Schierholtz' unless Brandon Belt remains white hot in Spring Training and leaves Bruce Bochy no alternative but to play him.
On the other hand, if Belt—who is currently hitting well over .300 and boasting an OPS over. 1.000—refuses to cool off, he can't possibly be passed over. Which means Boch will have to decide between three players for two spots since Aubrey Huff and his $10 million salary aren't going anywhere.
In that case, Nate's the odd man out.
He's not as young or effective with the bat as Belt, and he doesn't have the favored-veteran status in Bochy's eye like Huffer. Nate the Great is by far the best defender of the trio, but with Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan in the mix, outfield defense should be less of a concern.
One last thing—Gregor Blanco deserves a mention here.
He's got the proverbial snowball's chance in hell of winning the starting job, but the 28-year-old is killing the ball in Spring Training while exhibiting superlative speed. Unfortunately for Gregor, we all know Bruce Bochy won't go from zero to 60 on a player in the span of one exhibition season.
But those numbers sure are pretty.
Call me cynical, but I can't see Boch starting two unproven youngsters when he has established veteran alternatives. Even if what is established is that the veteran is above average on a good day. I'm betting Bochy sees a more persuasive argument for starting Brandon Crawford over Mike Fontenot than for starting Brandon Belt over either Aubrey Huff or Nate Schierholtz.
Which means Nate Schierholtz should be in right field on Opening Day.
The position battle at first base is by far the Giants' most intriguing tete-a-tete even if management doesn't see it that way. Although Brett Pill is also in camp taking his cuts and Buster Posey will poach some innings, this baby is between Brandon Belt and Aubrey Huff.
As you can see for yourself, Belt is lapping his veteran counterpart by an order of "wow." Average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, extra base hits, runs batted in, runs scored and basically everything else are all in the 23-year-old's favor.
Most of those are heavily in his favor.
So one school of thought says this is a no-brainer—Belt is better defensively at first base and his bat must be in the lineup so Huff belongs in left field or on the bench.
Aubrey Huff is 35 and a 12-year veteran. Those guys take some time off in the winter, relax a bit and develop a decent layer of rust even if they're still saying in shape. The kids play winter ball and find other ways to keep as much of their regular-season edge as possible because nothing is guaranteed to even the blue-chippers.
In other words, there's another school of thought that says Aubrey Huff should be behind Brandon Belt at this point in the spring.
That school points to Huff's strikeout total (as of this writing, only two in at least 30 plate appearances) as well as his physique. It says both are convincing signs that the Gents will see more of the 2010 Huff and less of the anemic 2011 impostor.
Both arguments have merit and every San Francisco fan with oxygen flow to the brain knows where Bruce Bochy lands on the youth versus veteran issue, so guess which school he attends?
Full disclosure—I'm sincerely hoping that, by predicting Brandon Belt starts the year on the Giants' bench, I have successfully deployed the reverse jinx and we'll see Belt somewhere on the field in the first inning come April 6.
C'mon baseball gods, do your thing and make me look like an idiot.
Because it almost defies reason to argue that San Francisco is better off sitting the Baby Giraffe until someone else plays himself out of a starting role. The kid showed glimpses of major-league star potential in his first season (2011), he's ripping the cover off the ball in Spring Training and is widely acknowledged to be the Gents' future at the position.
Meanwhile, Aubrey Huff is coming off a brutal year, sitting on an age where the vast majority of pro athletes begin to decline rather than rebound and he's in the last guaranteed year of his contract.
For almost any other franchise, starting Belt would be the obvious thing to do.
But try telling Bruce Bochy that. Or don't because he ain't listening.
Huff's getting the big money, Huff's got the established track record, Huff is a clubhouse fixture and that means Huff will be starting at first base for the San Francisco Giants on Opening Day.