San Francisco Giants: 10 Burning Questions Heading into Opening Day

Zack Ruskin@@frozentoothContributor IIApril 2, 2012

San Francisco Giants: 10 Burning Questions Heading into Opening Day

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    Opening Day is in less than a week.

    The hot dogs have been ordered, Lou Seal's costume dry cleaned. The Coke bottle slide is waxed and McCovey Cove is hungry for kayaks and crazy people. Baseball is upon us.

    Like every team, the San Francisco Giants will start their 2012 season with much unsettled, or at least unproven. From returning players in questionable health to newcomers hoping to keep their spring training fires burning, the start of the season brings many pivotal questions into focus.

    Many of the most dire issues surrounding the Giants are things fans have read about before. What's changed is how those issues will now effect the club as regular-season play begins. Until Tim Lincecum sends his first fastball down the pipe on Friday night, all we can do is examine the facets of our team's situation.

    Here are the 10 most pressing questions facing the San Francisco Giants as they head into Opening Day. 

Who's on Second?

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    Not Freddy Sanchez.

    Well, at least not for now. Giants' brass handed down word on Thursday that Sanchez would be placed on the disabled list, retroactive to March 26. This means that technically Sanchez could return for duty on April 11, although no one expects that to be the case.

    Bad news for Giants' fans and Sanchez; good news for Manny Burriss. The heir apparent to start at second has had a solid spring. As of March 24, Burriss was booming with a .436/.488/.615 line. Good stuff. Now let's push the reality button and take a look at some career numbers.

    Our friends over at Splashing Pumpkins crunched some numbers, and have equated that in his career, Burriss has played roughly a full-season of big league ball. His slash line for this career/season hybrid? 

    250/.311/.281and a 60 OPS+. Yeah, not so great. 

    With the regular season set to begin Friday, there isn't much to be done. Keep an eye on non-roster invitee Joaquin Arias, who may be in play for a spot now that Mike Fontenot has been cut.  

Will the Real Barry Zito Please Sit Down?

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    Phantom Spring Training Barry Zito, where are you?

    Like a forgotten holiday, once every spring the Giants faithful are visited by a rare creature, the elusive "he's back in form and ready to contribute" Barry Zito. I've written about him already this offseason. Some readers contend that my memory is faulty, and that Zito usually comes to camp looking awful.

    I'm not arguing—he always comes to camp looking awful. Yet, inevitably, the media line about how Zito is throwing sharp and fresh from a tough offseason of honing his skills finds its way into papers and blogs. 

    Well, in either case, the old Barry Zito is back. In his last two starts, he's pitched 5.1 innings. In that span, he's allowed 16 hits, with 10 going for extra bases, and five walks. In the same span, he's logged one strikeout. Of the 34 batters he faced, only 12 were, as Andrew Baggarly phrased it, "truly retired."

    Can we trade back for Jonathan Sanchez?

    No, no we can not. With Ryan Vogelsong hitting the disabled list (see next slide for details), Zito is our de facto fourth starter, and we having no one to back him up. Eric Surkamp, you say? Yeah, he's on the disabled list too. Now the choice is either sticking with Zito, which the front office has been frustratingly willing to do so far, or seeking out a replacement option for the rotation. 

    Is Roy Oswalt really that expensive?

What's Wrong with Vogelsong?

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    Ryan Vogelsong is hurt, but hopefully not for long.

    The Giants comeback sensation from 2011 was placed on the disabled list, where he is expected to remain until April 15. Fortuitous scheduling will allow the Giants to go with a four-man rotation until then, when Vogelsong's strained lower back will hopefully be better.

    In a critical showing of his progress, Vogelsong faced the Kansas City Royals last Monday. The start marked his first outing this spring, and it was a good one. Vogelsong went the distance on his 40 pitch limit. In describing the performance, CSNBayArea's Andrew Baggarly wrote, "He threw strikes with all his pitches, his breaking stuff had nasty snap and his fastball hit 92 mph."

    What's that you're hearing? Oh, that's the Giants fanbase collectively breathing a sigh of relief.

    With Barry Zito struggling mightily (see last slide), Vogelsong is an invaluable asset to the starting rotation. The true concern comes from how few games Vogelsong will have behind him before he takes the mound against the Pirates next month. He's slated to start the home opener for the Fresno Grizzlies on April 6, and then make another start with that team before rejoining the Giants. His performances in those outings will solidify or dilute impressions of how ready Vogelsong is for the rotation.   

And Brandon Belt Goes Where?

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    Is Brandon Belt too good to make the roster?

    It seems like a contradiction to banish a player to the minor leagues because he's performing too well, but that indeed may be what happens to the Baby Giraffe.

    With Aubrey Huff at first and a crowded outfield, the consensus seems to be that Belt would be better served getting consistent play in Triple-A than riding pine with the Giants. On the surface, the choice appears to be the better move for Belt, but there's something wrong with a good bat not being able to earn a roster spot.

    Complicating matters is the Giants' need for right-handed hitting. While Belt may be a preferable option in terms of overall offense, righties Brett Pill, Joaquin Aria and Hector Sanchez are all in contention for roster spots.

    Now if Huff's bat sours, a prospect fizzles or anyone gets injured, Belt will be on speed dial. But hasn't Belt done enough to be more than just a fill-in? The days are numbered for a decision to made. The question remains whether they'll make the correct one.

Will Gregor Blanco Stay Hot?

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    Remember the name.

    Gregor Blanco has lit up spring training, hitting .356 (21-59) with a homer, five RBI and 11 stolen bases. At 28, Blanco has already played for three other organizations, including 144 games with the Atlanta Braves in 2008.

    When the Giants signed him as a minor league free agent last November, they weren't sure what they were getting. Blanco was coming off a wrist injury, but the scouts saw something and the team made a push. According to Hank Schulman of SFGate, it was batting coach Hensley Meulens who convinced Blanco to choose the Giants over the Miami Marlins because San Francisco offered a better shot at making the team.

    Good job Hensley. Blanco offers a rare burst of speed for a team sorely lacking in base stealers. As an outfield option, Blanco also fits as a nice top of the order replacement for oft-injured players Angel Pagan and Nate Schierholtz. 

    The true intangible with Blanco is whether his spring can carry into the blustery confines of AT&T Park. Certainly the coaching staff is counting on it. Bruce Bochy has done everything but outright say that Blanco has made the team. Now the true test for the Great White Shark can begin. 

Is This Brandon Crawford's Moment?

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    Brandon Crawford, your destiny awaits.

    He's taken his knocks in media coverage, earned himself a Giants nickname (Crawdaddy, if you didn't know), and played strong ball this spring. Now he will be the Opening Day shortstop for the team that drafted him in 2008. 

    Crawford is in rare company. Only Brian Bocock stands on record as a fully homegrown San Francisco shortstop to start an Opening Day game. Running down the list of past openers, names like Miguel Tejada, Edgar Renteria, Omar Vizquel and Neifi Perez stand as Crawford's predecessors. As Andrew Baggarly notes, "The last true long run at the position belonged to Rich Aurilia, who made six consecutive Opening Day starts from 1998-2003." 

    Why are we so eager to slam Brandon Crawford as a viable solution to the team's shortstop woes? His bat is coming around, and his defense is well above the last few guys who held the position. Sure, there's plenty of room for improvement, but the Giants need big things from Crawford as much as any player on their roster if they expect to return to the post season.

    Now Crawford has his chance. Make it count, Crawdaddy.

Brian Wilson Is Healthy, Right?

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    Brian Wilson's elbow is like a Dan Brown mystery.

    Is it hurting him? Has everything healed? Where is the codex? Wait, scratch that last one. Still, Scottsdale has played host to a lot of intrigue surrounding The Beard's health and readiness for the fast-approaching season.

    Pitching in aptly named Surprise, Arizona, Wilson hurled an inning of Triple-A ball against the Diamondbacks on Wednesday. He faced four batters, striking out two and walking one. In total, he threw 20 pitches, with 12 going for strikes. 

    “I know I’ll start the season healthy and finish it healthy,” Wilson told CSNBayArea.

    Comforting words, but players aren't usually too keen to emphasize their ailments. In fact, that's exactly what the problem was for Wilson last season. It wasn't until the beginning of this year's spring training that Wilson confided he'd pitched hurt for all of 2011. 

    Fans are thrilled to hear that Wilson is ready to get back to business. Now they're ready not only to hear it, but to see it too. 

Can the New Outfield Get It Done?

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    Melky Cabrera, Angel Pagan, Nate Schierholtz, Gregor Blanco, and Brandon Belt. Those names, in some combination, are the San Francisco Giants starting outfield for 2012 Opening Day.

    Cabrera and Pagan are locks, although Pagan has been terrible this spring. Schierholtz seemed like the front-runner for the third spot, but nagging forearm and hip injuries have cast doubts on his ability to take field day in and day out. Brandon Belt is a first baseman, but may be shoved into left field as a means of securing his bat on the roster. Blanco is the unexpected potential threat.

    It's hard to Frankenstein a wholly satisfactory outfield out of these players, but Bruce Bochy has always had a thing for playing doctor. Will he opt for the most defensively-adept outfield, or value bats over gloves? Can Angel Pagan recover from an abysmal .170 BA and a recent 0-for-24 slump?   

    Whatever shape the outfield takes, it will need to be ready come Friday night.

Will Matt Cain Sign an Extension?

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    [Edit: Well, we don't need to worry about this one anymore! - ZR]

    Matt Cain is the San Francisco Giants.

    We grew him, we love him, and we want him to stay. He's handled a career's worth of historically low run support with class. He helped the team win a World Series. Someone probably named their child after him.

    Apparently Cain and the Giants are talking again. CEO Larry Baer told Andrew Baggarly last week that "[the team's] desire is for him to remain a Giant. There’s nothing we’ve seen from him that shows his desire is not to be. We just keep plugging along." Cain reiterated on Thursday that the deadline to work out a long-term extension was April 6 aka Opening Day. 

    With the newly sold Dodgers inevitably out for free-agent blood come next offseason, the stakes seemingly couldn't be higher for the Giants to lock Cain in now. For all the leniency fans have had with Brian Sabean and the ownership group, letting Cain go would be unforgivable. Perhaps its time to switch gears from "plugging away" to "offering Matt Cain what he deserves and putting this whole thing behind us." We'll see.

Is Buster Back?

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    Hope is a funny thing.

    Just when you think you've found some, it leaves. At moments where hope seems like a mirage, it can burst forth and bloom into optimism. The latter has happened to many fans of Buster Posey over the course of spring training.

    We all wanted Buster to show up in Scottsdale fresh from a time machine that had transported him directly from the 2010 World Series parade. Instead, the Buster we got was seeing his first action since the Scott Cousins Train ran him down last May. Things were tentative. Bruce Bochy busted out his Thesaurus and used every variation of the words "maybe" and "we'll see" available in the English language. But something else happened too: Buster started looking good.

    He hit a home run. He caught some games. On Friday, he scored from second on a single. 

    Now some are hypothesizing that Posey's progress has gotten to a point where having Hector Sanchez as his only backup has become a viable option. The only thing left, it seems, is to put Posey on the field and see what happens. 

    It would be an overstatement to tie Posey's success or failure in 2012 with the fate of the Giants' ballclub, but not a drastic one. More than any stat lines or scouting reports, we fill the bleachers and don our jerseys in the hope our team will prevail. 

    Here's hoping, Buster.