San Francisco Giants: 5 Differences to Expect before July

Greg GeitnerContributor IIIJune 19, 2012

San Francisco Giants: 5 Differences to Expect before July

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    As summer starts and July gets closer and closer, teams are getting a better idea of who they are and what they are trying to accomplish for the season. For the Giants, this means contending as one of the best in the league and trying to catch the team that has so far been the very best in the game, the dreaded Los Angeles Dodgers. Sitting pretty with a 42-25 record, it might take more than the patented "just enough" offense to catch the Bums and capture the division.

    Fortunately, the Giants are an improving team and Pablo Sandoval's recent return should continue to pay dividends as he inches closer and closer to a full recovery. The Panda's addition, however important, is only one of several key differences that will shape the team as we draw closer to trade season. Without further ado, here are the five biggest differences to the club that you should expect by the end of June.

1. Brandon Belt: Rising Star

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    Since the Houston series, Brandon Belt has hit an enormously encouraging .455/.571/.955 slash line with three home runs, six walks and excellent defense to boot. This has been a breath of fresh air as Belt has suddenly turned what was a disappointing season into a very encouraging start of what should be a long and fruitful career. All Giants fans can say is "it's about freakin' time."

    For three months, Bochy had been giving Belt inconsistent playing time—much to criticism of many Giants fans—as Brandon struggled to get things going offensively. As he continued to tread water going into mid-June, management related excuses were running thin and Belt's season long home run drought was starting to thicken into a serious concern for the youngster's future.

    For a major league first basemen, home runs are not only expected, but rather required, and it was easy to see the anticipation of that first big fly looming over Belt with every at-bat he took.

    Then in a flash, it happened, and just like the overly optimistic fanboy in all of us had hoped, it meant more than just two more runs on the board, it meant turning a new leaf in this still young season. In his very next at-bat, Belt crushed another home run and has since looked like the Giants' best hitter and the franchise cornerstone we had all envisioned.

2. Brandon Crawford: Competent Shortstop

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    Unlike his first base counterpart, this Brandon is not expected to do great things. While never a top prospect, Crawford has been thrust into a big league starting shortstop gig, all while never really earning it through exceptional performance or talent. No, instead Crawford has earned his job by virtue of not being Orlando Tejada, a collective term of nausea referring to the rotating cast of zombies that have occupied shortstop since Rich Aurilia, who also fittingly returned as a zombie.

    As such, the expectations and requirements for Crawford are pretty low and simple: field the position with great gusto and hit better than the pitcher. Well, the fielding has been a mixed bag so far as Crawford's exceptional range and arm have allowed him to make plays on balls that have been hits since Vizquel was on the team—all the while making enough errors to pace Starlin Castro.

    Offensively, things have actually been a little better than expected—which isn't to say good or anything—as Crawford has continued to show progress and potential at the plate. While Crawford started off the season with an ice cold April in which he posted an OPS of .559 and a wRC+ of 38, he's continued to get better as he posted an OPS of .583 and a wRC+ of 60 in May. So far in June, he's actually been good with a .729 OPS and a surprisingly strong wRC+ of 102.

    Looking a little deeper, this isn't terribly surprising as Crawford has actually been squaring up the ball all year, albeit with unsatisfying results. His impressive 21.7 line-drive percent is quite a bit better than average as it ranks just behind Melky's 22.2 percent. As more of those line drives start to miss fielders gloves and those errors start to turn into outs, we should continue to see Crawford advance into a competent to average shortstop.

3. Manny Burriss: Minor Leaguer

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    Coming out of spring training, GM Brian Sabean made the questionable move of releasing Mike Fontenot, a player who by all statistical measurements represented the closest thing the Giants had to an average middle infielder (by the way, he's hitting .320/.382/.400 in 25 games for the Phillies). "Why?" cried the hobbit fans: because Burriss was looking awfully good in spring training.

    Giants fans might remember Burriss from his encouraging stint in the majors in 2008, but they're more likely to remember his less than encouraging outings since in which he has accumulated negative value like it was going out of style. Since 2009, Burriss has been worth a ridiculous -1.9 WAR—all the while continuing to get playing time.

    This season has been his most unbearable yet as he has become the new Eugenio Velez, the clown on the roster that continues to astound folks with just how badly one can manage to play the game of baseball.

    While that might have been all fine and good amidst a terrible Bonds hangover known as the 2008 season, the Giants are contenders trying to catch the the best team (according to W-L) in baseball and have no place for the embarrassing play of Burriss. Expect this to be rectified within the week as either Conor Gillaspie or Nick Noonan—both who have been been doing exceptionally well in Fresno—come up to take Burriss' place.

4. Nate Schierholtz: Third Outfielder

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    Out of spring training, Nate Schierholtz did not look good at all. His bat was slumping, he was battling mild injuries and his always dominant defense was looking pretty stellar. Simply put, if you lose your starting outfield gig to Aubrey Huff, you're not good. Then as predicted, Aubrey Huff lost the job and surprise, surprise, Nate the Great came out of the gates screaming with home runs, triples and clutch hits to remind us of why he's great.

    Then just as soon as the hot streak started, it ended; but for the streaky Nate Schierholtz, when it rains it pours. After an April in which he posted a .863 OPS and 123 wRC+, Nate crashed hard in May with a .445 OPS and 23 wRC+. Fortunately with the Torres-esque rise of Gregor Blanco and stellar play of Pagan and Cabrera, the Giants didn't really notice how badly Nate was slumping.

    Well we are in June and it appears that Nate has finally gotten a clue at the plate as he hit a huge game-changing triple against the Rangers and hasn't looked back. Since then he has hit .462/.500/.692 in his best 14 plate appearances since June and given every indication that the crippling slump is over. Conveniently, Gregor Blanco and especially Angel Pagan have cooled off a bit, so look for Schierholtz to start getting some more playing time as he continues to heat up.

Tim Lincecum: Staff Ace

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    Sigh, Timmy, Timmy, Timmy what are we going to do with you? Tim Lincecum's season has been a well-documented mess as the once dominant right-hander has continued to struggle well past any reasonable expectations. Even more frustrating is how baffling his struggles have been as most slumps are coupled with some sort of health or mechanical abnormality. Lincecum's is just freaky.

    Every outing, Lincecum goes out and shows flashes of brilliance, striking out hitters and dominating just like the good ol' days, and then all of the sudden, that big inning hits and everything snowballs out of control until the game is lost. And the worst part is, nobody knows why, it just happens.

    All we can say is there's no way this can continue to happen, but we've been saying that since mid-May, so what's changed? Well for starters, the velocity is getting better, which was the original concern when the slump started.

    Now Lincecum is consistently throwing 92-93 which is right around where we expect him to be throwing and often times with pretty good location (that seems to suddenly disappear during his blowup innings). The next problem was getting that perfect location on the breaking stuff that Lincecum has featured at his best, those perfectly thrown changes and sliders that dive out of the strike zone as soon as the hitter swings.

    Since the second inning of his start in San Diego, Lincecum has shown that he can still get hitters to chase, an ability which vanishes along with his location at the first sign of trouble.

    The stuff is all there, now he just needs to bring it all together and have the confidence to throw it when it counts. Look for Timmy to regain his composure in his next two starts against the A's and Dodgers as he looks to face and beat that test which has been killing him all year: the ability to pitch out of jams.