I spent just about all of the Cactus League season watching the San Francisco Giants prepare for the 2012 season.
By the end of March, one thing had become very clear, minor-league free agent Gregor Blanco had not only won a spot on the Giants roster, but in my mind, had won the center-field and lead-off spots going away.
During the Cactus League, when Blanco led off, the Giants offense had a different feel to it. He was the table setter, the kind of leadoff man the Giants hadn't seen since the days of Brett Butler.
As usual, Bruce Bochy had other ideas. He started the season with Angel Pagan in center and leading off. Pagan was blanked by Melky Cabrera and a mishmash of others including Nate Schierholtz (who pretty much lost the right-field job in the spring), Aubrey Huff, Brett Pill and Blanco. It wasn't pretty, either from an offensive or defensive standpoint.
Pagan struggled in spring training and those struggles continued to start the season. Pagan hit only .250 with a .281 OBP in April and most of his April hits came the last week of the month. He was completely out of character in the leadoff spot and it showed.
Pagan also carried his struggles to the field, where he made many misplays that cost the Giants runs and games.
Early in May, Bochy started playing Blanco more and since May 12th, Blanco has been the Giants everyday leadoff man. Blanco has played right and left, not his best position, center. While Pagan has continued to make defensive mistakes, he has at least been serviceable there. And his hitting, since being dropped in the order has taken off.
As a leadoff man he was hitting .241 with an OBP of .261. Since being dropped to the five hole he has been one of the best hitters in baseball, batting .419 in that lineup position, with an OBP of a cool .446 and a .994 OPS.
Since Blanco became the Giants de facto leadoff hitter the Giants have taken off. Their record since May 12th is a cool 19-9, with one of the losses coming with Blanco on the bench.
What's unfortunate is that Bochy didn't see what everyone else saw in Blanco in the spring. Blanco's performance should be no surprise to Bochy. He was the sensation of the Cactus League and had everyone talking then. But Bochy had to go with the likes of Huff, his veteran addiction costing the Giants yet again.
In the meantime, the Dodgers built up a big lead that got to seven and a half before the Giants started cutting it. Even though the Dodgers lead was early in the season, it could cost the Giants at the end of the year and forces them to not make many mistakes the rest of the way.
I tend to think that if Blanco started the season as the Giants leadoff man and centerfielder, the Giants could very well be even or ahead of LA at this point. Of course, we'll never know, but I have strong reasons for believing this. While I still believe the Dodgers will be unable to keep up this pace, I'm starting to wonder if they just might prove me wrong.
Blanco can do it all. He can hit, he is one of the fastest men in the game, a true base stealing threat and he is a defensive star, making big play after big play. He goes gap to gap, he's patient and he's not afraid to let the pitcher get two strikes on him. He also takes walks. His .387 OBP leads all Major League Leadoff men. And he is a little guy with pop, giving you an occasional home run.
Another thing Blanco does that great leadoff hitters do is cause mistakes on the other side. In yesterday's game against the Texas Rangers in the third inning, Blanco stopped between first and second and ran back to first on a grounder by Ryan Theriot. Ian Kinsler threw the ball away and that gave the Giants their first run, while Blanco breezed into third.
Many times he has caused hurried throws from catchers to go into the outfield on steal attempts, allowing him to get to third. Pitchers have also thrown away pickoff attempts, allowing Blanco to advance.
These are the kinds of things Ricky Henderson used to do to opposing defenses, because of his speed. Now granted, Blanco is not Henderson, but he appears to be a high-caliber leadoff man and he gives the Giants the kind of speed at the top of the order that they haven't had for a long time. As the Giants know, that kind of leadoff man doesn't come along very often.
Remember who the Giants had at leadoff to start last year? Can you say Aaron Rowand? Enough said. Blanco is a huge upgrade for the Giants.
He is the Giants most important position player right now, with all due respect to the great seasons Cabrera and Pagan are having and of course Pablo Sandoval and Buster Posey. Let's face it, the Giants did great while Sandoval was gone. They should do better with him in the lineup. The reason they did so well without the Panda was the play of Joaquin Arias at third and of course Blanco.
Blanco is the one player the Giants can not afford to lose at the moment if they hope to keep things going.
But with Blanco setting the table, Theriot's recent health and improved play, the bats of Pagan, Sandoval, Cabrera and Posey, an improving defense and a solid rotation, the Giants prospects for the last 102 games of the season look extremely bright. The only areas that could be better are first base and a couple of spots in the bullpen.
You can count on some more good moves by Brian Sabean before the trade deadline to shore up these areas. However with an already solid bench and the prospect of more playing time for Hector Sanchez, I don't anticipate anything major. The Giants don't need it. This team has the potential to go all the way.