The San Francisco Giants baseball season begins in just a couple of weeks, with pitchers and catchers reporting to camp February 14. With Buster Posey back to hold down his spot behind the plate, much rides on the retooled pitching staff if San Francisco wants to regain its championship form in 2014.
Several veteran pitchers will use spring ball to try to bounce back from injuries or down years, while a few key prospects can use their time in Scottsdale to take a step closer to the major league level.
Kyle Crick is a bright spot in an otherwise bleak farm system that includes only two pitchers featured on MLB.com’s Top 100 Prospects list. Measured at 6’4” and 220 pounds, Crick is listed as the 43rd-best prospect in baseball.
Drafted out of high school in the 2011 supplemental draft, Crick had size that also projected him as a potential first baseman, but the Giants opted to mold him into a right-handed starter. Considering his stature, Crick’s fastball could end up being his greatest asset if he is to ultimately crack the major league rotation. With that said, don’t anticipate Crick to make the Opening Day roster.
The most a strong spring will do is help give him an edge when competing for a midsummer call-up within a relatively weak minor league system.
Heath Hembree makes the list because he is the pitcher with rookie eligibility who has the best shot at making the Opening Day roster. Because of his stuff, MLBPipeline.com scout Bernie Pleskoff sees him as a viable bullpen option for the Giants down the line. He mixes a slider with a hard fastball that hits 97 mph.
Despite his impressive arm, Hembree has not always produced in the minors. For example, he posted a 4.74 earned run average in Triple-A ball in 2012. Fortunately for the Giants, Hembree recovered considerably in 2013.
This past September, Hembree appeared in nine games for San Francisco. Though his sample size in the majors is small, where he pitched just 7.2 innings in his nine relief appearances, Hembree made the most of his opportunity: He struck out 12 and did not allow a run.
If Hembree produces in the Cactus League this spring, anticipate him to open the season as a bullpen option at the major league level.
Fan favorite Ryan Vogelsong needs a strong spring performance to justify the front office’s decision to bring him back on a one-year deal. The 36-year-old right-hander is coming off a 2013 season where he posted a dismal 5.73 ERA over just 103.2 innings. His innings were down because he missed nearly three months after sustaining bone fractures to his right hand.
Despite the poor overall numbers, there is reason for optimism with Vogey. After returning from injury, he dropped his ERA by 1.46 over a two-month span. Vogelsong was signed to that one-year deal with the hope that he could build on his relatively strong finish last season and hold down the final spot in the Giants' starting rotation.
This spring is important because it will go a long way in validating the front office’s decision. Working in Vogelsong’s favor are the somewhat low expectations that accompany any fifth starter. However, if he implodes, Vogelsong will be on a short leash to begin the season, creating an opportunity for a guy like Crick to supplant him in the long term.
Once assumed the ace of the staff, Matt Cain is the lynchpin if the Giants are to return to the postseason. The team needs him to perform like a top-end-of-the-rotation starter, something he failed to do last season. In 2013, he threw fewer than 200 total innings and his ERA rose above four, neither of which he had done since 2006.
The best explanation for his regression? He battled a number of minor injuries throughout the year, including bone spurs in his throwing elbow, before landing on the disabled list after getting drilled by a scorching comebacker.
Coming off a full offseason to recuperate, this spring will be very telling as to whether or not last year’s problems were simply a matter of health.
If he produces the same results that helped the team win two world championships in three years, then fans can breath easy heading into the season. However, if Cain picks up where he left off last season, it will show his problems run deeper than health issues, an ominous sign for a team reliant on a bounce-back season from No. 18.
Because of a certain someone named Buster Posey, catcher is the position with the least question marks for the Giants. However, there is still room for the young Andrew Susac.
The Oregon State product hit .360 in 50 at-bats during the Fall League this past year, jumping onto the radar for many scouts in attendance. MLBPipeline.com’s Bernie Pleskoff notes he has an impressive arm from behind the plate in addition to solid power potential—two assets that can lead to Susac working into the backup role behind Posey.
Though veteran catcher Hector Sanchez will almost assuredly begin the season as the backup, a strong showing from Susac this spring is the first step toward supplanting Sanchez.