One of a series on dilemmas facing major league teams this winter.
This year, the San Francisco Giants delivered a tepid follow-up to their scorching 2010 world championship run. The 2011 Giants weren’t bad, but neither were they exactly good, as they shakily leveraged a Pythagorean record of 80-82 to limp home in second place at 86-76. As we gather around the cozy November stove—hot cider, anyone?—let’s consider the questions General Manager Brian Sabean faces in re-tooling for 2012.
The Giants encountered numerous problems in 2011, and none was greater than the plague of injuries that swarmed the roster. And on the extra-long list of DL stints, none was more painful than the late-May loss for the season of star catcher Buster Posey.
So question No. 1 is whether Posey will return healthy next spring. Reports are that his rehab from ankle surgery is going according to schedule, but one never knows. But if Posey is back at full strength and able to reclaim his role as full-time backstop and middle-of-the-order run producer, the Giants’ offense will be dramatically and immediately improved in 2012—and it’s an offense that can use all the improvement it can get.
If, instead, Posey is able to resume hitting on an everyday basis but is unable to handle the rigor of catching, the Giants will have to play him at first base, which would (a) crowd out another much-needed bat (see below), and (b) leave the Giants exposed, as they were during most of 2011, to lots and lots of plate apperances from backup catchers. So Posey’s health and capability is an enormous issue.
The first base follies
Last winter, perhaps caught up in post-victory-parade euphoria, Sabean signed the 34-year-old veteran Aubrey Huff to a two-year, $22 million contract. Oops. Huff, a delightful inexpensive surprise in 2010, was a poorly-conditioned dead weight in 2011. One wonders why field manager Bruce Bochy indulged Huff with close to 600 plate appearances, because Bochy had two obvious first base alternatives at hand.
San Fran’s 23-year-old rookie Brandon Belt had annihilated minor league pitching in 2010 but spent 2011 being yo-yo’ed back and forth from the majors to Triple-A and from the starting lineup to the bench, never settling in anywhere. Another youngster, 26-year-old minor league veteran Brett Pill (don’t you love these names?), spent 2011 tearing up Triple-A but wasn’t promoted to the majors until September (when he hit quite well in his teeny opportunity).
Belt can play corner outfield as well as first base (which Huff proved in 2011 he can no longer do), so that gives the Giants some flexibility. But unless Huff has another dramatic comeback up his sleeve, at this point he’s just in the way of Belt and/or Pill, who present the kind of young power bats the Giants are in no position to dismiss.
The middle infield mess
An injury to second baseman Freddy Sanchez (gosh, who could have seen that coming?) combined with a cliff-dive from shortstop Miguel Tejada (at the age of 37, another stunner) to throw the 2011 Giants’ middle infield into complete disarray. Bochy sorted through various uninspiring veteran utilitymen in a vain attempt to plug the holes.
He also made extensive use of Brandon Crawford, a 24-year-old rookie shortstop. Crawford struggled at the plate but didn’t appear completely overmatched, and he was solid defensively.
It would seem sensible for the Giants to give Crawford the full shot in 2012, as he looks capable of developing into an adequate performer, but these are Sabean’s Giants. More likely, they’ll bring in 2012’s edition of the Proven Veteran Mediocrity to play shortstop, and assuming Sanchez is toast, continue to fart around with the likes of Jeff Keppinger and Mike Fontenot at second base.
None of this inspires confidence.
What about the outfield?
The Giants’ outfield was largely an offensive wasteland in 2011. Sabean recently took a decisive step toward addressing that, trading erratic starting pitcher Jonathan Sanchez for center fielder Melky Cabrera. The switch-hitting Cabrera was probably hitting over his head in 2011, but on the other hand he was just 26 and might have genuinely arrived at a new level of performance. Depending upon which version of Cabrera they get, the Giants may have solved their center field problem.
But right and left remain huge question marks. Clearly, the Giants would love to bring in a big bat (someone along the lines of, say, Carlos Beltran, whom they rented for a couple of months last year), but it isn’t obvious they’ll be able to pull that off. More likely, again in normal Sabean fashion, they’ll continue to cobble together a motley platoon of journeymen. It would be great to see them just give Belt 550 at-bats as their left fielder and see what happens, but that’s rarely been the Giants’ style.
Thus, Cabrera in center field and the rejuvenated Pablo Sandoval at third base are the only position player names that can be written with a pen at this point. Pencil only for every place else.
The towering mound
The Giants are, of course, as successful as they’ve been despite lineup sinkholes because they possess a marvelously deep and strong pitching staff. There likely won’t be significant changes on that front.
The leading candidate to replace Sanchez as the fifth starter is rookie left-hander Eric Surkamp. He appears to be slotted on the depth chart ahead of veteran Barry Zito and his mega-contract. The organization’s body language regarding Zito is such that it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that they will eat the $40-something million left on that deal and cut Zito loose.
The Giants would be unwise to count on a repeat performance from Ryan “Out of the Blue” Vogelsong at the age of 34. But he was so good in 2011 that there’s lots of effective regression room. And the top three of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Madison Bumgarner are among the very best in the business, and Sabean will do nothing to mess with that. The Giants have re-signed veteran LOOGY Javier Lopez, so their splendid bullpen remains completely intact as well.