Baseball is back, and the San Francisco Giants are preparing for another run at the World Series.
The Giants are ready to go with almost the exact same team they brought when they brought down the Detroit Tigers in the 2012 World Series, with Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence anchoring the lineup and Matt Cain, Ryan Vogelsong and Tim Lincecum manning the rotation.
However, the Giants aren’t flawless. Two of the players listed above struggled mightily in 2012 and are looking to bounce back. Some talent has been displayed at Scottsdale Stadium this spring, and guys from the minors have impressed. But there are still questions that remain to be answered.
Here is what fans should look out for in the last few weeks of spring training.
So far, prospects have made their mark and shined in the spring. When you think of top farm systems, the Giants don’t come to mind, but some prospects are underrated.
Roger Kieschnick is one of those prospects. He checks in at 219 pounds, but he can fly. He has plenty of pop in his bat and can hit line drives far. The Giants aren’t a team known for power, but Kieschnick could help change that. He can hit the ball deep to all fields, and if a mistake is made, he will square it up and crush it into the gap. Kieschnick has potential, and I can see him having success in the majors if his talent translates well.
Gary Brown is also a highly-touted prospect among Giants fans. He has great range in center field, and while he has seemingly regressed as a hitter, he could still be a player similar to Gregor Blanco, but with a bit less speed and a bit more power. Brown isn’t a star prospect, but he has potential and is certainly someone for Giants fans to keep an eye on. If he can compliment his stellar defense with good hitting, Brown could hit leadoff or second for the Giants.
Heath Hembree showed the right closer's mentality when he escaped a jam to preserve San Francisco's 5-3 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Sunday, March 3. He can throw hard and is thought of as the closer of the future. Nick Noonan was thought of as the Chase Utley of the future, according to Kevin O'Brien of the blog Optioned to Fresno. While his career hasn't been great, he has posted some good hitting numbers over time.
Noonan can play defense as well, and so can Francisco Peguero. Peguero has made some nice plays in left field, and he has done well with the bat as well. He is on a hot streak right now, and he's ripping baseballs all over the field. Against the D-Backs, he had three hits and three RBI. One of those hits was not on a well-hit ball, but Peguero hustled and beat the throw. The other two were crushed into the outfield. Peguero has problems with strikeouts, but he has pop and can be a good player to have when hot. This spring, his batting average is .550.
The Giants also have some lesser-known players turning a few heads, such as Adam Duvall, Ricky Oropesa, Brock Bond and Jackson Williams. Oropesa, who has lots of pop but isn't great at much else, has shown he can hit, and Duvall, who is thought of by some as one of San Francisco's 10 best prospects, has flashed some power. While Williams is buried among lots of other catchers, he is hitting the ball. And Bond's spring average is .500, as he recorded two hits on Monday, March 4 against the Chicago White Sox.
While the Giants get lots of heat for their farm system, there are prospects ready to play. I could see Peguero making the Opening Day roster and even seeing time in left field, because Andres Torres and Blanco aren't all that exciting at the plate. Kieschnick could also supply some power, and Hembree and Brown are guys who can make a splash as soon as midseason. The Giants have talent in the farm, and it could help them down the road.
Tim Lincecum did not look good in 2012.
His 5.18 ERA was one of the highest in the league, and his 10-15 record wasn't pretty either. In the first half of the season, Lincecum was 3-10 with a 6.42 ERA, and while he came together a bit in the second half, his stats were still poor and he only started one postseason game. Lincecum posted a stellar 2.55 postseason ERA and could have won NLDS MVP (if there was such a thing), but his season was still horrible.
Fans expect Lincecum to come into 2013 strong with another World Series ring and some confidence, because he pitched 4.2 scoreless innings in the World Series. While you can't determine much from just one start, Lincecum was shaky and allowed three runs in 1.1 innings in his spring debut.
Luckily for Giants fans, Lincecum felt good about his start. He has a new look and gained some extra weight over the offseason, which could help his fastball velocity. Lincecum, who was a flame-thrower when he was called up from the minors, has not exactly thrown hard over the last couple seasons. However, he learned to pitch with decreased velocity in 2012, and he did have lots of bad luck as well.
According to xFIP—a stat designed to predict what a pitcher's ERA should be based on factors he can control—Lincecum's ERA should have been 3.82, which is not bad by any means. However, bad luck factored into his horrific stats, which means his stats should be better in 2013. He still has the talent to succeed.
Lincecum missed a start on Saturday, March 2 with a finger blister, but that's no big deal. His first spring start is no big deal, and even if he struggles in the spring, it's not a huge deal. The regular season is what matters, and Lincecum's second half and postseason was very good. It's going to be fun to watch Lincecum in the spring to see if he can get himself together, but it's really not the biggest thing to watch.
However, if Lincecum doesn't pitch well, it's not going to be good for the Giants.
The Giants didn't make a splash in free agency, but they did bring in a few guys to compete for roster spots in the infield.
Wilson Valdez, Kensuke Tanaka and Tony Abreu were signed to help out in the infield, and while none of the three will start, they will look to help as pinch-hitters. Valdez is a journeyman who has previously donned Phillies and Reds jerseys, while Tanaka has donned a jersey for the Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan. Tony Abreu is a .252 hitter who spent 2012 in Kansas City with the Royals.
Tanaka has had a solid spring, racking up two hits on Saturday, March 2 against the Chicago Cubs, and getting a hit in seven of his last 14 plate appearances. Valdez hasn't been that successful, but he has been making solid contact and making plays at second base. Valdez is a .364 hitter with the bases loaded (over the last three years), and a .306 hitter with runners in scoring position (RISP). However, his .281 on-base percentage (OBP) isn't that exciting.
There is talent in the farm system, but a lot of that is in the outfield and on the pitching staff. Duvall is looking good at third, but Sandoval is fine there and Joaquin Arias is a perfectly capable backup (.270 hitter in 2012). Brandon Crawford went 3-for-3 on Sunday and is hitting the ball very well right now, and he is a shoo-in at shortstop, with Arias backing him up.
Brandon Belt has 10 hits in his last 15 at-bats, as he is on one of those tears in which he will hit everything thrown his way. Belt is an above-average first baseman who can win a Gold Glove and can improve upon his stellar .360 OBP, as he is only entering his third year. Belt is penciled in as the first baseman, and Buster Posey can play there if Belt needs a break.
The Giants have lots of candidates, as Tanaka, Valdez, Abreu, Noonan and Bond all bring different things to the table, and some (Bond and Tanaka) are having solid runs right now. While the Giants don't have tons of talent here, I think they will be able to find a capable backup. However, who it will be remains to be seen.