The 10 Biggest Questions Facing The Giants Heading Into Spring Training
As February dawns here in 2011, that can only mean one thing for baseball fans: Here comes spring training. And with the breath of fresh air and the feeling that only a beginning can supply comes a time when all the questions are going to be tackled. For three months, Giants fans have been basking in the glow of a World Series victory, the first for the city. And now the Giants must begin their first title defense in the history of San Francisco.
For a team that did relatively little in the offseason (besides locking players up), this spring training will still be phenomenally interesting, mostly due to the tumultuous nature of last season. Now we know that spring training can be nothing more than a small exercise, and that none of our questions may be answered. Heck, just look at the lineup changes that went on during the season in 2010. However, it is still an incredibly important time of year—a time to review last year, but mostly preview the coming year and address the questions heading in.
In that case, let's count down the 10 biggest questions facing the World Series-champion San Francisco Giants (feels good don't it!) as they head into spring training.
10. Cody Ross: Boss Or Middle Management?
I don't think there was a position in baseball on any team that was as widely changed around and messed with as the right field spot on the San Francisco Giants. Starting the season with John Bowker, it then went to Nate Shierholtz, to Andres Torres, to Aubrey Huff, to Pat Burrell, to Jose Guillen and finally to Cody Ross. While his regular season was something a little short of pedestrian, his postseason was nothing short of incredible. He did manage a .288 batting average with three home runs and seven RBI in 73 at-bats in the regular season—decent, not great. However, in the playoffs Cody Ross went 15-51 (.294) with five doubles, five HRs, 10 RBI, 11 runs scored, and seven walks. That's filling up a stat sheet.
Now the Giants have locked this postseason hero up for one more year, giving him $6.3 million, a pretty sizable number. The real question is, can we expect more greatness and chants of 'Ross is Boss'? or are we going to have to hope to make the postseason again to see any productivity out of this lovable right fielder?
We know he is a pretty good fielder. Last year, he amassed eight outfield assists and combined that with a .987 fielding percentage. Coupled with his markedly above-average speed, that is a solid year with the glove.
But what everyone wants to know is will he hit like he hit in the playoffs?
In order to even start to make a guess, lets look at his numbers at AT&T Park. He was 4-for-15 with one HR, four RBIs, and three runs scored in the postseason and was 14-for-40 with two RBI and five runs scored in the regular season. In the last year, he was 16-for-55 (.291) with one HR, six RBI and eight runs scored. Not great power numbers, but this is AT&T Park. In his career, he is a .265 hitter, with a .789 OPS and 86 HRs with 319 RBIs. To put that in seasonal numbers, that is about 22 HRs and 80 RBIs in 500 at-bats. Not bad at all.
Between his power numbers jumping up in the postseason and the expanse of AT&T Park looming, it seems that we have reached a statistical push.
In my opinion, we might not see the extreme power numbers that the Braves, Phillies and Rangers saw, but we will see and increase in his .265 career average to the .280s, and his homerun total will be between 17-25, with about 70-85 RBI. Not shabby at all. I have high hopes.
9. Jonathan Sanchez: No-Hitter Or No-Show?
Unfortunately, this has turned into an annual question for our modern, pitching-oriented San Francisco Giants. The man with perhaps the second biggest upside on the star-studded rotation is also the man with the second-most problems on the staff.
Jonathan Sanchez is dirty, we all know that. Heck, the whole league knows that. The only problem is controlling the filth, and channeling it into no-hit performances and a 1.17 ERA down the stretch in the month of September—not two-inning performances in the NLCS, outings in which the strike zone might as well not even exist and nights when he is all up inside his own head.
Why this is not higher up on the list is due to the fact that after this last season, when he posted a 13-9 record with a 3.07 ERA and a massive 9.5 strikeouts-per-nine innings pitched, is that now we can see his potential, and hopefully he finally sees it too. And without his September brilliance, none of that postseason magic would have happened. (This is where I remind you that I called it. Go check out my article).
And while his postseason was rather lackluster and at times almost catastrophic, I would argue that it was a case of a young arm throwing way more than ever before. With his frame, it became an issue. Madison Bumgarner, not so much. But Sanchez, definitely.
His first outing was superb, only allowing the one run, which should be charged to Sergio Romo, through 7.1 brilliant innings while striking out 11. And even though he never won a game, he was competitive the whole time. Even when he was forced to leave Game 6 of the NLCS early, he still started the rally which tied the game.
Now, I shouldn't get ahead of myself. There is still a fair amount he has to prove. Will he show consistency enough to reproduce a whole year's worth of production? Will he be able to command games like he did in September for more than a month? Can we count on his arm to throw deep into a postseason run? We will have to see.
8. Who Has Got Buster's Back?
Being a major league catcher, especially when handling the best pitching staff in baseball and hitting in the middle of the order, has to be one of the top three hardest positions in sports. The day in and day out, sitting in the squat, wearing the gear, commanding the field is not easy at all.
That is why, even at his ripe young age of 23, soon to be 24, Buster Posey is going to need some help behind the plate. He is going to need his days off at first base or simply on the bench. He is also going to need someone to help him continue to grow within the position. And he is going to need someone behind him to keep the pressure off, and to keep the management confident in their ability to give Posey the rest he is going to need.
The immediate answer to this question is Eli Whiteside. A capable backup catcher behind Molina and now Posey, Whiteside has always done a good job. I remember at the beginning of last year when many fans, including myself, were in favor of Whiteside getting the job over Molina.
However, Whiteside has entered a whole new scenario. The player he will be replacing no longer will be hitting maybe above .250, with limited power, and footspeed that wouldn't make a tortoise jealous. He is now the No. 2 man behind the reigning National League Rookie of the Year, franchise sweetheart Buster Posey.
When he comes in, he will have to step up his game mightily. And if it won't be him, whomever it will be will need to do the same, although I do believe it will be Whiteside.
Similarly, can a professional player resign himself to the knowledge that he is there for help, not to start? Can he embrace that roll and allow himself to be helpful, to be a great teacher to this young star? Buster, for all his greatness, needs some help, and that will require humility from Whiteside as well, not just Posey. Whiteside has a much greater role than he might imagine, and it remains to see just how he handles it.
7. Bruce Bochy: Brilliant Or Braindead?
Just in case you have forgotten, Bruce Bochy not so long ago was the third most frustrating man in Giants baseball, following Barry Zito and Brian Sabean. His coaching decisions were often frowned heavily upon by most, if not all, Giants fans, myself included. There were clamors all the way up until the playoffs began that he should be released, that someone else should be brought in.
And then something happened. No one, to this day, knows what it was, but it amounted to some of the greatest postseason coaching that I have ever seen in my measly 19 years of living. He easily out-coached Bobby Cox—a future Hall of Famer—Charlie Manuel—a World Series winning coach—and Ron Washington—the man who helped resurrect the Texas Rangers—and bring the Giants to their first World Series ever.
And it all started very ominously. In Game against the Braves, he went with Sergio Romo, who blew it. And then in Game 3 he went with Sergio Romo, who blew it. However, his fates changed as quickly as did the fate of Cody Ross, and they have each other to thank. It was Bochy who decided to put him out there, instead of Jose Guillen, and Ross made him look like a god with a giant head.
From then on every move he made was silky smooth. When he went for defense, he got plays. When he went with Aubrey Huff as the DH, he hit bombs. When he went with Madison Bumgarner, he piled up wins and even threw an eight-inning shutout. When he went with the bullpen, they shut it down.
Not to mention what he did to steal Game 6 and ultimately the NLCS from the Phillies. With only two innings from Jonathan Sanchez, Bochy managed the bullpen like he was divinely inspired.
Still, we are going to need a full season from Bochy to make a title defense run, as there will be no more sneaking up on people. It all starts with the manager, and his brilliance is going to have to make an appearance on a much more regular basis.
6. Brian Sabean: Ingenious Or Insane?
What Brian Sabean did last year can only be described as a compete juggling act. The rate at which he was signing players and calling up players and drafting players and making trades and roadblocking teams and making roster decisions and dealing with injuries and working the waiver wire was, well, both insane and ingenious. Looking at the difference between the starting 25 man roster and lineup and the one that won the World Series—look different at all?
Giants fans have to give a lot of credit to Brian Sabean for what he did last year to finally sneak the Giants into the playoffs. Additions like Pat Burrell, Cody Ross, Javier Lopez, Mike Fotenot, Aubrey Huff, even Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner, were all his moves.
Then again, many of those moves were patchwork to fix his not-so-inspired moves, like Mark DeRosa (simply because of injury), Aaron Rowand, Todd Wellemeyer, Barry Zito, Edgar Renteria (for the regular season at least), Guillermo Mota and even the re-signing of Bengie Molina.
This offseason he was relatively conservative, focusing solely on locking up the players that got the Giants a World Series.
This coming season, it remains to be seen if Brian Sabean will need to be as active as he was last season. However, either way, it will be integral to the Giants' success for him to be appropriately withdrawn or aggressive. He could just as easily mess up a season that is going well as he could save a season that is going poorly. And, as always, salary issues will be constantly in the balance, along with the ability to keep the young core around.
Balls in your court Mr. Sabean. I hope you play it as well as you did last year.
5. Production From The Rich Ones
Well, Giants fans, the good news is that not much is needed out of Aaron Rowand and Barry Zito to win a World Series. Heck, they didn't even put the latter on the postseason roster. However, there is still upwards of $30 million invested in these two particular athletes, so they are going to need something in return.
We aren't going to need a .320, 30 home run, 90 RBI season from Rowand, although that would be awesome. Similarly, we don't need a 20 win, sub 2.70 ERA year from Zito, although that would be similarly awesome. What we do need is two players who will compete day in and day out, and contribute to a winning season.
It should have to be a hard decision to keep Rowand out of the outfield, not just because of his paycheck. At the very least, this may open up trade options.
Same with Zito. On this staff, he is the No. 5 starter, whether his position reflects it or not. Last year he showed some improvement (sarcastic huzzah from the fans). For the first half of the year he excelled, with an over-.500 record and a sub-3.00 ERA at times. Second half, not so much. But as a No. 5 starter, somewhere around a .500 record and a sub 3.90 ERA would be a success. Not for $18.5 million, but you see what I mean.
Sometimes I don't know what to say when it comes to these two. You can only hope they find their elite form again, but many have given up and have started cheering for the success of the Bumgarners and the Torres' of the world.
At least now we know they don't have to be great. However, they can still prove a great help to this team. Now let us pray for some productivity. Just a little, hopefully more, and the Giants might have another shot at a postseason run.
4. Miguel Tejada: Can He Replace UUUUUUUUribe?
Miguel Tejada is a 6 time All-Star, a 2 time Silver Slugger, an All-Star Game MVP, an American League MVP, and is 36 years old. What he has left in the tank, no one really knows but him. As an elite player and a fierce competitor, he probably has enough left to be a productive shortstop, both at the plate and with his glove.
As of right now, Miguel Tejada has been signed to a one year, $6.5 million dollar contract to replace the departed Edgar Renteria and Juan Uribe. What Edgar did in the World Series was magical, but its about trying to get back first.
What Juan Uribe did for the San Francisco Giants during his tenure her was phenomenal. His stats weren't necessarily off the charts. His batting average was usually pretty mediocre, his home runs good, and his RBIs substantial. He struck out a lot, made many a fan and coach cringe at the pitches he swung at, and always took that yukadoo hack that made him who he was offensively. However, not a single player had more clutch homeruns and RBIs (maybe Molina, but he left) then Juan Uribe.
He quickly became a fan favorite. Chants of UUUUUUUUUUribe would echo throughout AT&T Park every time he came up. He made fans largely forget how much money they largely wasted on Edgar Renteria, although it was all worth it when he hit the Game 5 Homerun.
In the postseason, Juan was pretty much awful. His batting average was a miserable .196, and he never recorded more than 3 hits in any one series. He only hit two homeruns, and he struck out a dismal 14 times in 49 at-bats.
However, the homerun he hit in Game 6 of the NLCS to win it and put the Giants through to the World Series, the only one he had hit all year to right field, made us love him again. Not to mention, he hit the walkoff sacrifice fly in Game 4 to put the Giants up 3-1, and then went on the drive in 5 runs in the World Series.There was no way not to love this guy.
And then he left. He took the contract that the, cringe, Los Angeles Dodgers gave him, one that many report the Giants were willing to give him. *Sniff*. Alas, anyone who ventures to the Giants will not garner my love, until he retires of course.
So, enter Miguel Tejada, the longtime Bay Area hero with the Oakland A's. And the former Padre who almost sneaked out the three game sweep at the end to crush all hopes. No matter, he is a Giant now.
It is yet to be seen, however, if Miguel Tejada can not only reproduce Uribe's production, which is more than possible. He will also have to fill the void in the hearts of the fans, however cheesy that sounds. He has got some big shoes to fill, best of luck to him, let's hope he pulls through with flying colors.
3. The Always Prevalent Heath Questions
Every team has them and they are called health questions. Who is hurt, who is coming off injury, who is injury prone, who is old, etc... Luckily, the Giants are going into spring training relatively unscathed. The only real issues that need addressing are the health of Mark DeRosa and Freddy Sanchez.
Freddy Sanchez had a rather outstanding year for the Giants last year and was an intergral part, offensively and defensively, to the Giants run in the regular and postseason. If they are to do it again, he needs to be active and in form. He is scheduled to be game ready by opening day. Let's hope he stays that way.
Mark DeRosa was the headliner free-agent signing the Giants made during the 2009-2010 offseason (who knew anything about, what is his name again, umm, oh yeah, some guy named Aubrey Huff?). He is a veteran, a proven pro, who had a solid bat, a reliable glove and could fill just about any position you might need him to. And then, after posting a .196 batting average in his first couple weeks in the orange and black, he went down with a season-ending wrist injury. Grievous.
However, to his credit, every time a camera panned over the Giants bench there was Mark DeRosa, talking to someone, cheering, constantly in the flow of the game. If you ask me, that deserves some respect.
But now he is back to playing shape. And although this might seem just a tad underwhelming, Mark DeRosa changes everything.
We already know he is a great bench presence. Just having him around for that reason is a beneficial thing. However, with his abilities to provide punch in the middle of the order and play reliable defense at several key positions, this gives the Giants' roster a whole bunch of breathing and wiggle room. If Pablo doesn't come back at 100 percent, DeRosa is there to challenge him. Someone goes down with injury, (crossing fingers and tapping on wood while rubbing rabbit's foot), DeRosa can step right in. Someone need a day off, DeRosa is there. And heck, I believe this guy is good enough to possibly command an everyday role.
With the absence of Uribe, DeRosa becomes much more important, because he becomes the put-'em-anywhere sort of guy. And he might be, gulp, just a bit more talented then Uribe.
Let's hope Mark DeRosa is healthy and battle ready by the time the season starts. We are going to need him one way or the other.
2: Brandon Belt: Factor or Fruitless?
As MLB.com has said, no one prospect raised his stock or eyebrows more last season than Giants prospect Brandon Belt. Posting a .352 average, a whopping 1.075 OPS with 23 HRs and 112 RBI between A, AA, and AAA, those are stats that back up the hype surrounding this kid. As a natural first baseman with the ability to play either corner outfield position, there is also a place to put him.
Now, the Giants have made it clear that if Belt is not in the running for a starting job at the start of the regular season, he will be down in AAA, as to not impede his progress.
With the solid talent that the Giants have at first base and the corner outfield spots in Aubrey Huff, Mark DeRosa, Pat Burrell, Travis Ishikawa, Nate Schierholtz, and Cody Ross, it would be impressive to say the least if he was deemed ready to take over a consistent role on the big league club. And if he was deemed ready, then there is something to get excited about right now.
However, all that can be done for the moment is to sit back and watch how he does against the better pitching of the Cactus League, and hope that he comes out on top. However, whether it be this year or next year, let's just hope the hype pans out, because we could sure use his pop up at the top. Go get 'em fella.
1. Pablo Sandoval: Ready To Rock or Ready To Roll Over?
Oh boy, the biggest question for the San Francisco Giants and possibly in the entire league is Pablo Sandoval. After bursting onto the scene in 2009 with a .330 average and a .943 OPS with 25 HRs and 90 RBI, the Panda severely underwhelmed in 2010, posting a .268 AVG and a .732 OPS with 13 HRs and 63 RBI. Not only that, his fielding percentage, instead of going up from the increased experience at third base, stayed stagnant.
He was larger, he was less athletic, his free swinging ways looked way too free, and Giants fans and coaches were left scratching their heads. Didn't they put this guy, this stud, on a training program to make him better, to help him lose weight? Because it sure looks like he is much worse and gained a fair amount of weight.
So, after being benched down the stretch in favor of Juan Uribe, Edgar Renteria and even Mike Fontenot, Pablo has vowed to lose weight and get himself ready for another solid season for San Francisco, even tweeting about his weight loss.
Rich Aurilia has said he has lost at least 20 pounds and reports from Pablo and his camp have him about 25 pounds lighter. Just rumors? I hope not.
And although it, like Zito and Rowand, isn't necessary for him to be a star, which this last year proved to us, my word would we be a much better team if he could find his 2009 form. Can you imagine? And that is why Pablo Sandoval is the biggest, literally and figuratively, question mark in the entire organization. With him, the Giants really could repeat. Without him, we are just left with more questions.
Have pitchers just figured out how to pitch to him? I dunno. Has he lost enough weight to become a true athlete again? I dunno. Has he put his personal issues behind him? I dunno. Does he have the focus, will and work ethic to recapture what he did in 2009? I dunno. Do you know? I doubt it. Unless you are Pablo Sandoval, in which case, how is it going? I am a huge fan, so happy you are reading my article! But if you aren't Pablo Sandoval, you will have to wait and find out, just like the rest of us.