As the smell of Grapefruit and Cactus exits the collective nostrils of Baseball fans across America it can only mean one thing: Time to play ball. And as the San Francisco Giants break camp and head north to the city by the bay they do so with the best record in the Majors through spring training and more wins than any other team.
A surprise you may think? Maybe, but consider this is a team that finished with an 88-74 record last year showing some of the much promised improvement that Giants management has been dangling for so long in front of the fan base. That being said, none but the most ardent Giants fan were expecting them to win quite so much in the preseason. Nor were many expecting them to win in the fashion they have so far through the month of March: They are scoring runs!
They have scored 166 runs in 33 games (including Split Squad action) which translates into a just over a five runs per game average. They are averaging nearly a run per game better than they did last year, not bad for a team accused in some circles of having the most anemic offense in the national league. Any improvement in the Giants hitting when coupled with their pitching makes them immediate contenders or at least improves their stock by leaps and bounds.
Now I know what you are saying, "It's preseason!"
Believe me, I am saying it too.
Do I think Aaron Rowand has magically turned the corner and became the player we paid $70+ million for?
Do I think this team found its stride with the infusion of such veteran retread blood as Mark DeRosa and Aubrey Huff?
But what I do see is a little swagger surrounding this team, swagger is good. This is a team that seemed to have gotten comfortable with mediocrity. They flashed just enough glimpses of talent and ability to keep the fans interested and the pitchers languished with the worst run support in the league. Could we be seeing the start of something new? I think so. Why? Well, I do not see any one catalyst for this sudden change but there are three factors.
First, the addition of Hensley Muellens as batting coach. Muellens comes in to inherit a free swinging club of extreme hackers, most of whom are veterans so set in their ways you'd have an easier time getting Randy Johnson to be cordial with the media than to get them to take the first two pitches.
Muellens isn't trying to reinvent the wheel here and he knows it. His job is to work with the young players and try to perfect the old ones. And it appears to be paying dividends. Go look at Aaron Rowand and Bengie Molina's spring numbers if you need more proof.
Second, the infusion of young talent. Giants fans have long bemoaned the Giants' practice of bringing in aging veterans and cutting off the path to the majors for many young and seemingly talented players.
This is not to say they are not still guilty of it from time to time but at least they left the right field job open for competition rather than signing Johnny Damon or some other geriatric retread to fill the void left by Randy Winn.
But that isn't the key here.
The key is that the Giants farm system is as loaded as it has been in recent memory. It is filled with young and exciting talents like Buster Posey (No. 4 prospect according to MLB Network) and Madison Bumgarner(No. 10 prospect).
In addition to these blue chippers are the players the casual fan hasn't heard of like Ehire Adrianza, who draws Omar Vizquel comparisons with his glove. He is in addition to Tom Neal and Roger Keischnick, both of whom absolutely raked through Class A San Jose last season and have looked like the belong through the spring.
Now with the exception of Posey these guys aren't looking to make the club, not yet at least, but John Bowker, Henry Sosa, Kevin Pucetas, Darren Ford and Eugenio Velez have made massive statements with their play. They are pushing hard for roster spots and in turn, pushing the veterans for playing time and veterans look to have responded as though these young guys did indeed light a fire under them.
Fire is a good thing for the Giants.
Lastly, is a noticeable difference in the conditioning of certain key players. Brain Wilson and Aaron Rowand no longer look like they each have two tickets to the gun show, but rather look like elite athletes in top condition and sans about 10-15 lbs. And while Sandoval will never be winning any Mr. Universe titles he looks less like the marshmallow man from Ghostbusters and more like a Major League Baseball player.
Bengie Molina looks less rotund than Giants fans are accustomed to seeing him, not much but a bit. Jonathon(Beanpole) Sanchez packed on about 15 lbs of muscle that should help his command and control immensely for the coming season. And Matt Cain looks to have dropped about 10 lbs., largely due to the fact that he is now married and no longer eats like I am sure a multi-millionaire 25-year-old bachelor would eat.
We all know that Tim Lincecum is The Freak. He may be the best pitcher in baseball. But he and the rest of the pitching staff cannot continue to carry 12 to 13 other guys on their backs. Everyone must pull their weight for this team to realize its potential. And I think they may finally be coming to realize that.
So what will it be Giants fans: Unbridled Hope or Cautious Optimism? I hope for the former but will stick to the latter. The building blocks are in place for a contender, not just now but for years to come. The McCourt divorce has the Dodgers in a state of upheaval and the division looks to be up for grabs. The Giants should be the favorites, they have all the ingredients of a contender. Will they take advantage and make that last step that puts them back into October? Time will tell.
Here it is: 94-68 NL West Champions.
I can dream, damn it.