Plenty of Chess Pieces at the Grand Master's Disposal in 2011
With pitchers and catchers due to report to spring training in little more than a month, it’s clear that—other than signing a backup shortstop, perhaps—the San Francisco Giants won’t likely be making any major roster moves as they prepare to defend their World Series championship.
All pundits universally agree that the Giants’ pitching is among the very best in baseball—if not, from top to bottom, THE premier staff in the major leagues—and will stand the team in good stead for 2011. No surprises there. Also of note is the Giants’ excellent defense, which had the best regular-season fielding percentage of any World Series champion ever. What the team lacks in range it makes up for with sure hands and sound arms.
But many detractors still question the ability of the Giants’ offense. With the exception of Miguel Tejada, the team returns virtually intact, so it’s probably not unreasonable to assume a similar middle-of-the-pack performance in terms of batting, power numbers and runs scored. But questions abound. Will career minor-leaguer Andres Torres repeat his fine 2010, or will he turn out to be a one-year wonder? Which is the real Aubrey Huff—the team’s lead bat in 2010, or the unwanted castoff from the year before? Will Freddy Sanchez stay healthy? Will Pablo Sandoval rebound? What about DeRosa? We could go on and on.
What the naysayers miss, however, is the fact that the Giants’ position players on the roster are blessed with an uncommon ability to play multiple positions, and play them well. That translates into an extremely high degree of flexibility for Bruce Bochy—both when he’s making out his daily lineup card as well as deep into a ballgame, when National League strategy, double switches and numerous player insertions become so crucial in winning close games. And we all know about the Giants and close games.
Let’s start with the outfield. Right now the team has three players that can play center field: Torres, Cody Ross and Aaron Rowand. Torres is superb, while the other two are competent at worst. Both Torres and Ross have proved they can play all three outfield positions well, and although Rowand has always played center, it’s hard to believe that he couldn’t do a good job on the corners if needed—assuming he sticks with the team. Pat Burrell and Nate Schierholtz are pretty much consigned to playing left and right, respectively. But we’re not finished there. Mark DeRosa will be back, and he’s clearly competent in left field, and could probably play just about anywhere on the diamond and do a serviceable job with the glove. And let’s not forget Aubrey Huff, who silenced the critics in 2010 by playing excellent defense in left, right, and at first base. No matter how you slice it, the Giants have a surplus of options in the outfield.
The same is true in the infield. Pablo Sandoval can play third or first. Tejada can play anywhere on the left side, but will almost assuredly spend virtually all of his time at shortstop. While Freddie Sanchez will remain a fixture at second as long as he’s healthy, Mike Fontenot can play second and third, and occasionally fill in at short. And then there’s DeRosa, again. Before he went down with his wrist injury last year, he turned in a number of sparkling games at second base. He can play third equally well, and even apparently fill in at short when required.
Then there’s the intriguing question of Brandon Belt. Brian Sabean has maintained that the only way Belt will make the team out of spring training is if he’s good enough to start. And even if he begins the season in the minors, a performance along the lines of his stellar 2010 will likely earn him a mid-season call-up. At that point the Giants would have even another player capable of playing good defense at first or in left, opening up even more possibilities—and probably spelling the end for either Rowand or Travis Ishikawa.
With these kinds of options, Bruce Bochy must feel like a kid in a candy store. He can play the purists’ game, National League baseball, where deep, flexible benches really matter. Always known as a sane hand at the wheel and players’ coach who says all the right things—if not much at all—to the press, last year Bochy staked a claim as one of the best game strategists in the major leagues. Down the stretch, it seemed as though every button he pushed was the right one, every move a master stroke. Compare him to his counterparts—especially in the postseason—and it felt as though other managers were playing checkers while LeBoch was playing chess. It was that apparent.
While the odds will even out and some of the buttons Bochy pushes in the year ahead won’t light up, it’s hard to believe that he’ll suddenly lose all his touch. Which means frequent use of the deep bullpen on a batter-by-batter basis, an array of pinch hitters, double switches and position changes, and a lineup card that will by game’s end look like a scribble-marred child’s coloring book. One can just see it now: a 14-inning game in June that ends up with DeRosa at short and Pablo Sandoval catching. The mind reels.
Which brings us to the last point, and a vulnerable one for the Giants. At this juncture no one can seriously consider Sandoval as a catching option—unless it’s the 14th inning and Eli Whiteside has sprained his ankle. We all know who THE MAN at catcher is, and as long as Buster Posey remains healthy, all’s well on the western front. But should Posey get hurt, there would be a serious drop-off to Whiteside and his limited offense, likely necessitating some kind of deal. Catcher is one of the two places where the Giants don’t have a great deal of flexibility.
The other is shortstop. Tejada has proved over the years to be an incredibly durable player, frequently topping 150 games each season. If that’s the case in 2011, no worries. But if something happens to the aging Tejada, it’s unrealistic to expect Fontenot or DeRosa to be able to assume shortstop duties full-time. And while the Giants could go to the minors and perhaps bring up gloves Emmanuel Burris or Brandon Crawford, there would be a serious drop-off on the offensive side of the ledger—not a place where the Giants can afford it. We’ll see if the next few months yield a competent backup—whether that be Edgar Renteria or via a trade—but as matters now stand, the team is thin behind Tejada.
But if Posey and Tejada stay healthy and perform reasonably up to expectations? Assuming the pitching holds up its end, you can start printing postseason tickets again. The team is made out of rubber, and will bend before it breaks. So look for a limber Giants’ lineup that can ideally make up in flexibility what it lacks in all-star punch and performance. And look for Bruce Bochy to channel Bobby Fischer and pull out his chess board once more. Let us hope his gambits succeed in 2011 as well as they did in 2010.