The offseason ahead of spring training each year is a crystal ball of hopes, educated guesses and serious concerns. It's only when the team takes the field, starts going through the finite motions of actually playing the game, that coaches and the interested public can finally begin to unravel what their team will look like when the season starts.
The San Francisco Giants entered camp at Scottsdale with a full slate of questions in need of answering, including the health of Buster Posey, the value of new outfielders Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan and the vitality of 2011 treasure Ryan Vogelsong.
Of course, the nature of spring training is that some of the most important decisions facing a skipper are things he wasn't even anticipating three weeks prior. The 2012 season is no exception, and Bruce Bochy will be tasked with making some crucial choices to define the San Francisco Giants' Opening Day roster.
Here are 10 unexpected developments that have made his job tougher.
From as recently as February 24, Sanchez saw himself as ready to go when April rolled around, when he gave this self-assessment (via SFGate.com):
Obviously there's no good time to have surgery or get hurt...but the timing of mine was something where I had enough time where I will be ready from Day 1. When the season starts I'll be ready to go, and hopefully stay healthy all year.
Sadly, Sanchez did not predicate his schedule accurately. Andrew Baggarly of CSNBayArea quoted skipper Bruce Bochy as admitting, "You have to say it's a possibility," of Freddy not being ready for Opening Day.
This leaves the team in need of a second baseman, but without necessarily having an extra roster spot to house him in. Until we know more details on Sanchez's timetable, it would be premature to assume he'll start the season on the DL. If he is on the roster, then the burden falls on the coaching staff to convert Mike Fontenot, Manny Burriss or Ryan Theriot into a makeshift 2B until Sanchez is fit to take the field.
Whatever happens, it seems more and more likely that there aren't enough days left for Sanchez to get himself into condition for a starting spot when the season begins.
Blanco finished last season in the Kansas City Royals' farm system. Then he headed south for the Venezuelan Winter League, where he took his team to the finals and came away with MVP honors.
Once considered highly unlikely to crack the roster, Blanco is now a front-runner to be the Giants' fourth outfielder. This spring Blanco is boasting a .512 OBP to go with his seven steals (most in the MLB) and a slew of savvy base running maneuvers and smart at-bats that speak to his prowess as a player.
An unexpectedly dominant performance by a non-roster invitee is the best kind of problem to have in spring training. The only downside will be deciding which player will forfeit a spot to ensure Blanco makes the squad.
If it's March, that means it's time for the annual report on how Barry Zito is looking sharp.
We hear it every year: Zito, coming off of a disappointing season (read: any season with the Giants), spends the offseason conditioning and comes into Scottsdale ready to earn his rotation spot. He pitches well, gives a few poignant interviews and then promptly starts nosediving once the season is underway.
At present, Zito is throwing strikes that peak at 82 MPH. Reports are that Zito "seems to be in a better place mentally," which is great for him but not much comfort to fans familiar with his yearly trajectory. What Zito's status really means is that Eric Surkamp will begin his year with a minor league club, which may be best given his struggles as a big leaguer in 2011.
Try as he might, Nate Schierholtz always seems to be stuck on the outside, looking in.
Earlier this spring he was sidelined with a sore hip. On Tuesday, Schierholtz was a late scratch from the lineup with "a tight flexor extensor muscle in his right (throwing) forearm." These injuries are but the latest in what has been a career of minor ailments that have taken a toll on Schierholtz's bid to be a consistent starting outfielder for the San Francisco Giants.
With Gregor Blanco, Brandon Belt and Justin Christian all looking for their ticket to The Show, Schierholtz will need to be healthy and productive to ensure he joins Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan in the deep grass.
Wait, stop laughing for a second. I'm serious.
Manny Burriss, the Giants' perennially disappointing infield Band-Aid, may be your starting second baseman. Well, at least until Freddy Sanchez gets himself right.
According to MLB.com, Burriss has been making a push for consideration if Sanchez starts the year on the DL. He has logged the most innings of any Giant at second base, and has also played short, third and left field. As a batter, Burriss is carrying a .441 average, including five doubles and a triple.
Bruce Bochy commented that Burriss was "playing well," which is manager speak for not having anything concrete to say. Yet the numbers don't lie, and history reminds us that Burriss has been called up to AT&T Park many times in the past.
With Buster Posey's health an open-ended question mark for the time being, the backup catcher is a position of great importance for the San Francisco Giants.
Eli Whiteside and Chris Stewart both spent time behind the dish in 2011. Their batting was putrid, but both offered superior defense to prospect Hector Sanchez. Combine that with the familiarity Whitey and Stew share with the pitching staff, and it's a safe bet Bochy will be forgoing Sanchez's bat in favor of experience in the squat.
MLB.com points out that Stewart slightly edged Whiteside in a variety of categories last season:
Giants pitchers recorded a 2.70 ERA with him behind the plate, compared to Whiteside's respectable 3.30 figure. Stewart threw out 19 of 53 runners (35.8 percent) attempting to steal, eclipsing Whiteside's 13-for-66 success rate (19.7 percent).
Still, with Hector Sanchez sporting a .435 avg this spring and Whiteside a sentimental favorite in a club where your veteran status can be worth more than your skill set, it comes as a bit of a surprise that it is Stewart now favored to spell Posey at catcher.
Jose Reyes, where art thou?
While Reyes does his thing for the newly christened Miami Marlins, the Giants meanwhile have amassed three candidates for shortstop. None of them are an ideal fit, but one of them will be starting come Opening Day.
Candidate 1: Brandon Crawford. Crawford is currently the favorite to take the starting job. He has a .320 average in Scottsdale, with a 3:1 walk-to-strikeout ratio behind it. Before we get all dewey-eyed over some decent spring numbers, let us remember that Crawford was inconsistent in his major league at-bats last season. Hopefully the strong start is the mark of an improved batter, and not a desert mirage.
Candidate 2: Ryan Theriot. It wouldn't be the Giants without a veteran infield super-sub! Welcome Ryan Theriot. So far, he's done nothing to make the Cardinals regret letting him go at the end of last year. However, he is a veteran infielder super-sub, so expect him to be in consideration to platoon with Crawford regardless of his stats.
Candidate 3: Mike Fontenot. With FreddyWatch in full swing, Fontenot is probably more in consideration for time at second than short. Like Theriot, Fontenot hasn't been overly impressive in camp, and has missed a little time with a groin issue. There seems to be no way the Giants' roster could withstand adding Fontenot, Theriot and Crawford unless Freddy Sanchez is on the DL.
Let the middle infielder musical chairs begin!
This slide is brought to you by pure speculation.
There isn't a good spot on the roster for Brandon Belt. First base is Aubrey Huff's, no matter how you feel about that. Brett Pill looks good to back up Huff at that post. The outfield, barring any serious setbacks to Nate Schierholtz, looks to be Nate the Great, Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan with Gregor Blanco behind them.
Bruce Bochy, it seems, is content to let someone play poorly enough to demand Belt replace them rather than allow Belt to earn a spot on the roster. In all honesty, if Belt's alternative to regular at-bats in the minors is warming pine for the Giants, it might be the best course of action, for now. Brandon Belt has too much potential to be denied a shot at joining the club this season.
Look for him to be with the team in some form by the All-Star break.
Heath Hembree is the Giants' future closer.
Furthermore, when Brian Wilson's contract expires after this season, it may be that the Giants decide to roll the dice with Hembree and let The Beard seek his riches elsewhere.
In two outings this spring, Hembree allowed no hits or walks and issued two strikeouts. These accomplishments came on a total of 10 pitches. For a guy with a fastball breaking the 100 MPH mark to have that level of command gives him the potential to be an elite threat in the bullpen.
Hembree is expected to start the year in the minor leagues, where the focus will be on developing his secondary pitches. However, as we'll see in a moment, there may be an opening or two much sooner than the Giants' management ever anticipated.
The San Francisco Giants' bullpen is like a mythic Greek beast, endlessly fierce and effective. I've seen the 'pen in action folks, and yes, they are that good.
One critical member of the reliever corp is Sergio Romo. Last year Romo joined elite company when he posted a 14:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, the best in baseball since Dennis Eckersley in 1990. Unfortunately, last year also saw Romo hit the DL with his chronically problematic elbow. At present, Romo is in the midst of a week-long "rest" from pitching, which he calls a preventative measure but what I call mildly concerning.
Another, more solidified injury hit Dan Runzler. Going into spring training, he was considered a contender for any bullpen openings. Instead, Runzler was sent to visit orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews two weeks ago when his injured left lat muscle flared up during a throwing session. Now Runzler will be sidelined for at least three weeks, and possibly much longer if surgery is necessary.
Given that Runzler couldn't even lift his arm past his chest during the offseason, there is reason to be optimistic that this setback is minor. Even still, his injury will cost the Giants a potential arm until he is deemed healthy.
Lastly, we have Brian Wilson. So far, he is looking great. CSNBayArea reported that Wilson had his fastball up to 96 MPH and that he was in good (aka weird) spirits. Still, fans and coaches alike will need to wait until Wilson faces back-to-back and four-to-five out save situations before deeming him fully returned from his elbow injury.
What decisions Bruce Bochy makes with his roster will inevitably be altered by any injury to Wilson or Romo, and whether Runzler is able to earn a spot when he returns. Hopefully none of these situations will transpire, but Giants fans know better than to count on the best-case scenario.