San Francisco Giants: Five Surprises and Four Concerns After 54 Games

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San Francisco Giants: Five Surprises and Four Concerns After 54 Games
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

As the Giants prepared to finish their three-game series in Pittsburgh yesterday, 54 games were in the book. Their record was 29-25, and at the one-third point of the season, it's easy to do the math. If they continue to play at this pace, they can expect to be 12 games over .500, or 87-75.

Much like last year.

Which is to say good ... but not good enough.

In an NL West now characterized by the surprising Padres, the resilient Dodgers, and the Ubaldo-led Rockies, 87 wins will fall short of first and will probably not lead to a wild card spot.

Still, there are reasons to be encouraged.

Five Surprises

1. Aubrey Huff. It's easy to denigrate Sabean signings. The second-tier free agents tend to be a bit too old, a bit too hobbled. In the case of Huff, we were all warned about his glove, specifically how it does not close around a baseball.

Reality has been that Huff has been a pretty decent defender who, without complaint, has moved from first to left and even in a pinch to right field. He may not be a Lastings Milledge in terms of producing Web Gem highlights, but he is an intelligent fielder who takes care of the fundamentals. Not flashy, just solid.

Offensively, he is on pace to hit 20-plus HRs, pick up close to 80 RBI, and earn nearly 90 walks. That last stat may be most significant on this generally impatient team.

From a fan perspective, it may be difficult to assess, but this seems like a guy who is well liked and well respected in the dugout. (And when you produce on the field, why not?)

Early favorite for the Willie Mac Award?

2. Andre Torres. He still doesn't have the patience we would like to see in a leadoff hitter: too many strikeouts and not enough walks. (It seems the Giants just never get players like David Eckstein!) Still, Torres produces in so many ways.

He is one of those fireplugs: small but strong, incredibly fast, and dedicated to his craft. He is not young, by MLB standards, but he is anything but hobbled. He is a smart player who is getting better.

The Giants in recent years have been plagued by players who are just the opposite: They make foolish decisions, and they don't seem to learn from them. Eugenio Velez, now appropriately in the minor leagues, is the best of several examples. Torres is a refreshing player who rarely makes a mental mistake or the same mistake twice.

He went from no guarantee to make the team to catapulting over John Bowker and Nate Schierholtz in securing a starting spot.

He deserves to stay there.

3. Guillermo Mota. Under the radar, perhaps? Well, Mota not only has done everything asked and more, but he has stepped in to provide stability to a bullpen that has endured injuries (Jeremy Affeldt and Brandon Medders) and sub-par performances (Sergio Romo).

Giants fans can be confident with Mota as a set-up man. With an ERA of 1.33 and a WHIP of 0.89, he provides the bridge to a solid closer in Brian Wilson.

4. Freddy Sanchez. The sample size may be small, but suffice to say, Freddy has made many friends in his short stay on the 2010 active roster.

Before a player gets on the field, especially when he is hampered by lingering injuries, it is tedious to hear about the "intangibles" that he brings to a team. We now know that Sanchez brings both intangibles and tangibles. In the latter category, most significantly, belong his clutch hitting and his defensive intelligence.

Freddy played in 17 of the first 54 games, and yet he is well represented in this year's best moments offensively and defensively.

5. Barry Zito. Much has been written this year about Zito's resurgence, but suffice to say, he is someone fans now look forward to seeing on the mound. Fans even expect a win (assuming the A's aren't hitting against him).

Flaws are still there, and he is rarely the team's top starter (Lincecum was at first, now it's Matt Cain), but still, Zito seems to have found the mental focus needed to succeed.

He is averaging close to seven innings per start. His WHIP is 1.18, exactly the same as Lincecum's. His ERA of 2.78 is better than Lincecum's.

Detractors will bring up his salary, and that is unfortunate. He will never be worth that money. But he is looking like a No. 2 starter on a strong team, and that is all fans should care about.

Four Concerns

1. Pablo Sandoval. Yes, the Panda is lovable. But it is no fun when the rituals before the at-bat are longer than the at-bat itself. Sadly, that's no exaggeration.

Put simply: Too many at bats end after one pitch. Too many ground balls right at an infielder. Too many rally-killing double plays.

Bruce Bochy apparently called him into his office. Good. 

It's time for Sandoval to get the take signal on the first pitch. And if it's a ball, then maybe get another. Make the pitcher earn it.

He could be great, yes. He's not great yet.

2. Hensley Meulens. The batting coach was supposed to be a savior, and in some ways the hitting is better than last year. However, two of the best hitters (Huff and Sanchez, cited above) came from other organizations with skills already intact.

Last year, we heard about the Velez offensive turnaround and all the great hitting in the minor leagues, all of which was credited to "Bam Bam" Meulens. This year we continue to see poor decision-making and impatience in the batter's box.

Fans may have been happy to see the departure of Carney Lansford, last year's batting coach, but they should be justifiably skeptical of his replacement.

3. The fifth spot in the rotation. Todd Wellemeyer has been enough of a tease in home games, but considering his performance on the road, he will be lucky to remain on the team at all. Rabid fans can start recommending names right and left (Bumgarner! Joe Martinez! and so on). But the reality is, the Giants need someone steady in the fifth spot.

That somebody cannot be Wellemeyer.

4. Bruce Bochy. It is tempting to put Bochy in the first list because I think he is doing a commendable job managing, considering the constant maneuvering he has to do. It is also tempting (and expected) to put Molina, Rowand, and Renteria on the "concerns" list. In fact, it is the manager who is most important.

When it comes to Molina, how will Bochy handle a catcher whose offensive skills are dwindling so rapidly that there are two backups on the team who are better? Yes, Posey will be the starter beginning next year; and yes, Molina will not be on the team at that time. But we're talking about a two-time Willie Mac Award winner, someone popular and respected. How to transition him into more of a part-time player is in Bochy's hands.

Rowand's situation is more frustrating. Fans can say it's better to play Schierholtz, and maybe in some ways it is. But Rowand has more than half of his five-year contract remaining. That means more than $30 million. It also means he'll be on this team even if he is not the power producer the team had hoped to get.

As impossible as it seems to be to find a place for Rowand in the lineup, Bochy needs to figure out how to deal with him. He needs to sit him more—a statement of the obvious, I know—but there is no denying that he has an aggressive style of play and will to win that is evident whenever the camera scans the dugout. Fans may tire of hearing that a player is a "gamer," but I suspect that the same tired fans hate to see a prima donna vet fail to run out a ground ball or give up on a play defensively.

Bochy is having more meetings with players, and the look on his face during games seems to reveal occasional disgust. He may have an "aw shucks" demeanor in his radio pregame show, but he needs to be forceful in other forums, namely the closed-door meetings and the constant lineup shuffling.

***

There are positives. And the concerns are known by all. The first game of the second third of the season showed bright spots, including a patient Panda, five stolen bases without being caught (including two by Huff!), and an emergency save by Santiago Casilla. 

Now: Can the team do that against teams that aren't from Pittsburgh or Houston?

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