Sunday, March 30, 2014

2014 San Francisco Giants Preview/Spring Training Notes

A Friday night in Scottsdale Stadium, the spring training home of the Giants, in March.
I went to spring training in Arizona last week and I saw the San Francisco Giants play, which is nice because they're my favorite major league team. While I'd like them to do well and I have a better opportunity to watch more of their games this year on teevee, I don't absolutely positively need them to win the World Series. I mean, it'd be really nice, but I'm still completely satisfied from them winning two World Series titles in three years. The 2010 Series was really the biggie, seeing how it was their first one since 1954, and the first since they'd moved to the Bay Area in 1958. For being a fan who's seen them come so close to World Series victory and also being really, really horrible, 2010 was a huge check-mark that will leave me satisfied for years.

When the 2012 championship happened, one of my friends asked me if I celebrated the way I had in 2010- which did not involve tipping over cars and starting riots, but once I stopped being stunned I certainly had a good time. And I remember telling him, “No, 2010 was the one. This year was a bonus,” and being an A's fan, that didn't sit well with him.

So being down in the desert and watching them with a critical eye wasn't really on my list. As any baseball fan knows, a World Series championship happens when you make the playoffs and then get some breaks. That's what happened in 2010, when they had to win the division on the final day just to get to postseason, and in 2012 they came back from two three-one deficits to win the division series and then the pennant. They just as easily could have lost any of those games. The key is making it there, and then get a little luck. But you make your own luck, by being in the right place at the right time for it to happen, and that's what happens to all World Series champions.

For the Giants to contend this season, they first of all need their starting pitching to bounce back. While in Arizona I was fortunate enough to see Tim Hudson pitch, the big free agent pitcher signing for the team. Although “big” in this case is relative to the team, who didn't make many big splashes. Nobody got $300 million (Cabrera) or $215 million (Kershaw) or even $68 million (White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu, who has never played a game in the majors- he's a Cuban import). Huddy may have been their big signing (two years/$23 million), but we're about the same age, for starters, so that worries me. The reasoning they used at the time of the signing was “veteran leadership” or some line like that, but when you have two guys who were aces on your World Series champions- I’m talking about Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain- what do you need a pitcher who's been around for 16 years on your team for? Unless you're worried about both said aces.

So it appears that they are. Lincecum is the obvious head case, but Cain might be more worrisome. Cain threw a perfect game, was the man in the World Series, got a 100-million dollar contract... and then wasn't even close to that in 2013. One has to think that it's the pressure of all that on him- in addition to the lineup not giving him any sort of run support.

However, it's not like this is new phenomena with the Giants, or even Cain. Wanting to know about the Giants pitchers before the 2010 World Series, one of my Texas Rangers friends knew about Lincecum, but wanted to know about Cain. I told him that Cain would have had a better record than Lincecum even that year if he'd gotten any sort of reasonable run support. The situation hasn't changed with the lineup, but Cain now has had major success and probably pushed too much last year.

As for Lincecum, as he began to struggle in 2012, the word is that while he appeared unruffled on the surface, back in his San Francisco dwelling he would obsessively watch every pitch of every one of his games over and over and over (and probably inhale a lot while he was doing so). His struggles became patently obvious last year, and were actually the subject of my very first post on this here website. He may never regain his Cy Young form, but the Giants handing him a two year/35 million dollar contract during the off-season shows that they're not looking for him to be a long reliever (where he was surprisingly effective), they're looking for a number two starter. He will be obsessively studied every time he takes the mound this year by people who aren't me. I don't expect him to dazzle, but neither do I expect him to fail. I think the 35-million was more of a “thank you for what you've done and we have faith in you,” contract than anything else. Really, he's an 8 to 10 million dollar guy per year, not 17.5.

So you're the Giants, and your two aces are turning into head cases in front of you. Tim Hudson then seems like a very reasonable signing. And in spring training, he looked solid. He threw five good innings against the White Sox (who are terrible) and didn't look like a 38-year-old on his last legs.

The other thing I wanted to see in spring training was something resembling a lineup that could score runs for Cain and Lincecum and Hudson. A large part of the Giants run-scoring struggles last season involved a guy that you may not think of, and that's center fielder Angel Pagan. He is a better than average center fielder and lead-off man, and when he went down to injury, that pretty much sealed the Giants fate as a terrible run-scoring team. If your table doesn't get set, to use the baseball metaphor, there's no way you can actually eat the meal. A healthy Pagan means more to the SF lineup than anybody.... except the next three guys I'm going to mention, and I got to see all three of them on Saturday.

Always a good sign for Giants fans.
Fortunately I had a real good seat to see those three guys- Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, and Pablo Sandoval. When spring training began, people were abuzz about Pablo because he'd slimmed down. Sometimes media types say that someone has “slimmed down” when they need something to talk about. He looked thinner, sure, but he was also wearing a uniform that was at least a size too big for him, it was a breezy day, and it was tucked in. So it was hard to figure out how much was him and how much was his uniform. I got to chatting with the guy sitting in front of me, and he joked that he thought that Panda needed a different nickname because he'd lost weight, and panda bears are a little on the pudgy side.

I suggested “RFP,” for “Reduced Fat Panda,” and then I said “And of course, 'RFP' in the business world also stands for 'Request For Proposal,' and in a contract year that might make it pretty accurate.” To which he agreed. It does seem interesting that Panda really cleans up his act and his diet and what have you when it's a contract year. Well, at least he did it last time and he did it this year. I'm not the first one to notice this... but it might make a difference come negotiation time. He swung the bat well enough and looked nicely mobile at third... but in order to get me to believe this is a “new” Panda, he's got to look like this when it's not a contract year. That's bothersome.

But while Panda is all well and good, I really wanted to see how Buster looked. The Giants lineup rises and falls based on Buster, and that's been clear since the first month he played in the 2010 season. It got proved even more when he broke his leg and missed most of 2011. A healthy Buster was their best player for all of the 2012 season, and then last year, when he struggled and people started asking when he was going to be moved to first base on a full time basis so he wouldn't have the strain of catching all year long... well, do you need more proof?

I can't speak for every Giants fan, but a healthy Buster at the bat is a calming sight for me. When your best player misses most of a season with a broken leg, you can't help be but anxious every time they have a twinge. And sure, it was only spring training, but Buster appears to be swinging how you'd expect your best player to do so.

The other batter that simply has to produce for the Giants to contend is first baseman Brandon Belt. He played both games I saw during the spring, and I wasn't much surprised. Belt struggled at the plate mightily when he first came up, and SF manager Bruce Bochy couldn't decide whether he wanted to play Belt or bench him, so he did both seemingly on a whim. They also Belt back to the minors, where he tore it up at the plate, forcing them to recall him, where he then was terrible and benched again. Or played. Or pinch hit for in the fourth inning, and weird things like that.

He looked much better at the plate in the last half of last season, and like I said, played both Giants games I attended this spring. Since spring training is more about getting your swing back and less about getting hits, he looked like a major league hitter. So that's a nice thing to see. But he's got to keep it going. Because if he doesn't, and Buster struggles at the plate, people will continue to insist that Buster needs to play first base all the time because Brandon Belt sucks. And if that happens, the season is in trouble.

Ball has just left Huddy's hand, is on the "Westgate" sign
So if you're going to remember anything about the Giants season and what they need to do to succeed, it's this:

Matt Cain needs a good year.

Tim Lincecum needs a decent year.

Tim Hudson needs to pitch better than I can.

Angel Pagan is the only regular starting centerfielder/leadoff man they have.

Pablo Sandoval can't find the clubhouse candy stash.

Buster Posey can't get hurt.

Brandon Belt must continue to progress as a power-hitting first baseman.

It all sounds simple, but we're not involved in the details here of how that happen. These are merely the six simplest things the Giants need to have happen to make the playoffs. Obviously they also need decent middle infield defense, and Hunter Pence needs to stay freaky excited and healthy, because he knows how to play that wacky Phone Company Park right field fence (which consists of bricks, fencing, aluminum, plastic, and Play-Doh, I think) better than anyone else who currently plays baseball for a living, and new left fielder Mike Morse needs to be better defensively and offensively than a box of Everlasting Gobstoppers.

It's all about getting into the post-season, and then anything else can happen. But even if they're terrible, I'll be all right with it, to an extent. Two World Series championships in three years is really a very satisfying thing.

Keep your eye on the ball...
 photos by: this guy. Please courtesy if re-posting (like I do all the time).

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