February 2011

Spring training notes: Freak ready to go now

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The Associated Press

When MoreSplashHits saw the first images of Tim Lincecum working out at spring training, I thought “Hey! The Freak cut his hair.”

Well, the image is an optical illusion of sorts. Lincecum has pulled his hair back into a neat ponytail. And in the above image, you can’t see the ponytail. So Lincecum of 2011 looks a little bit like Lincecum of 2007.

But what’s more important than the Freak’s hair — all right maybe AS important — is Lincecum’s commitment.

Last season, the Freak hit a rough patch in August, losing five straight starts with an ERA approaching 8.00 over those starts. Giants management called Lincecum to task regarding the pitcher’s conditioning and regimen between starts.

Lincecum got the message, rededicated himself to have a solid September, then led the Giants to their first World Series title in 56 years.

Apparently, Lincecum carried his commitment through the offseason. Everyone from Buster Posey to Bruce Bochy remarked how Lincecum looked like he was ready to start the season Tuesday.

“I don’t ever want to go through that again, whether it’s people doubting my workouts or my work ethic,” Lincecum told Andrew Baggarly of the San Jose Mercury News. “I want to come in ready to pitch at a high level and not make any excuses.”

Rotation order one-fifth set

We learned Tuesday that Lincecum will be the Giants’ opening day starter on March 31 in Los Angeles. No shocker there.

But after that, Bochy was not willing to commit.

One scenario would involve pitching Matt Cain behind Lincecum, which would leave three left-handers in a row.

Bochy said he’d be OK with that because with off days the three lefties would rarely face the same team in the same series. It’s a nice theory, but in reality the first series in which all three lefties would face the same team would come on April 15-17 in Arizona. This is assuming all five pitcher pitch in turn from opening day.

The Mercury News reported that Lincecum would be line to pitch the season opener and the home opener on April 8. But that’s not true. They must have overlooked the fact that the season opens March 31, not April 1. And that the home opener is the seventh game of the season, not the sixth.

Kent coming to camp

The Giants announced that Jeff Kent has been invited to spring training to work as a special instructor. Kent spent six seasons with the Giants, winning the 2000 NL MVP award.

Kent left the Giants after the 2002 season for two seasons in Houston, and then finished his career with four seasons with the Dodgers.

Kent is expected to work with a variety of players, but it’s thought the he’ll work with second baseman Charlie Culberson as well as work with Buster Posey on being a cleanup hitter.

We can only hope he doesn’t offer Giants players tips on the best Phoenix-area locations on where to “wash your truck.”

Rejoice! Giants pitchers and catchers report

Spring training has begun, as pitchers and catchers for the WORLD CHAMPION SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS reported to Scottsdale, Ariz., on Monday.

Here are the highlights from Monday’s reports from Arizona:

SAY WHAT?!? The Giants have yet to hold their first spring workout, and manager Bruce Bochy is already working on the psychology.

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Bochy proclaimed that the Philadelphia Phillies are the team to beat in the National League because they have the best starting rotation in the league.

“You look at the track record, and you have to say the Phillie have the best staff in the league,” Bochy said. “The road to the World Series will have to go through Philadelphia.”

With the Phillies adding Cliff Lee to a rotation that already had Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, the statement is logical. The road to the NL pennant has gone through Philly the past three seasons. So why would adding Cliff Lee to the mix alter that.

Still, it’s not what most Giants fans want to hear on the FIRST DAY of spring training.

It’s kind of like going to a party and announcing to the room that Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Brooklyn Decker is the hottest woman in America … while your wife is standing next to you sporting a new outfit and haircut.

The validity of the remark won’t necessarily keep you from sleeping on the sofa.

Many Giants fans are still living the dream of the 2010 season and might not be ready to wake up to the reality of the 2011 season. But as manager, Bochy needs to go work on 2011 and he clearly wants to keep his players to put themselves in the underdog frame of mind that worked so well for them last season.

BULLPEN BATTLE: The competition for the final spot in the bullpen took an interesting turn over the weekend.

The reported minor-league deal the Giants worked out with veteran pitcher Elmer Dessens fell through. Instead, the Giants signed a minor-league deal with Brian Lawrence, who won 50 games for the Padres before shoulder problems derailed his career. He hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2007, but put up solid numbers for the Marlins’ Triple-A team last season and could open the season in Fresno, adding some organizational depth.

Dan Runzler, who the Giants had thought about converting into a starter, will be groomed for long relief this season. Or at least, that’s the plan for now. “That’s doesn’t mean we’re locked into that,” Bochy said.

What it does mean is that Runzler, Jeff Suppan and Guillermo Mota will be competing for the long relief spot in the bullpen this spring. MoreSplashHits still has doubts about Suppan. Under his deal, if Suppan breaks camp with the big club, he’ll earned $1 million in 2011. It just doesn’t make sense to pay a long reliever $1 milllion.

MORE HINSHAW: LH Alex Hinshaw reported to camp 20 pounds heavier in an effort to maintain his strength through the season. Hinshaw sported a 3.40 ERA in 48 appearances with the Giants in 2008, but only made nine appearances in 2009 and none in 2010.

The last we heard of Hinshaw came in a report that the Giants were looking to sell his contract to a Japanese team.

MoreSplashHits’ first reaction to the news of Hinshaw’s offseason was “Good for Alex.” But then we thought about the idea of a 28-year-old journeyman reliever who hasn’t pitched in the majors in two years adding 20 pounds in the offseason, and it made us cringe.

Countdown to Spring Training: No. 1, Lineup

Of all this issues addressed in the first nine countdown items, this may be the last to be settled on.

We all know how much Bruce Bochy loves to juggle his lineup and play the hot hand. So the lineup he puts out on March 31 at Dodger Stadium may look nothing like the lineup he rolls out on say, Memorial Day. But we have to start somewhere.

So we’ll take a look at the lineup MoreSplashHits believes the Giants will roll out on opening day. Then, we’ll look at the lineup we’d prefer to see.

Projected opening day lineup:

CF Andres Torres
2B Freddy Sanchez
1B Aubrey Huff
C Buster Posey
LF Pat Burrell
SS Miguel Tejada
3B Pablo Sandoval
RF Cody Ross

This is basically the core lineup the Giants used to start the postseason last October, except with Tejada filling Juan Uribe’s spot in the lineup. So we project this lineup to start 2011. Bochy liked Ross in the No. 8 hole. Sandoval will have to earn a high spot in the lineup. Huff was locked in at No. 3 for the second half of the season. The lone question remains whether Tejada hits fifth or sixth. That all depends on how Burrell swings the bat. If he has a solid spring, he’ll hit fifth. If it’s mediocre, he’ll hit sixth. If it’s REALLY bad, Aaron Rowand or Mark DeRosa will start in left.

But if MoreSplashHits were making out the lineup card, it would look like this:

CF Andres Torres
2B Freddy Sanchez
C Buster Posey
1B Aubrey Huff
LF Pat Burrell
SS Miguel Tejada
RF Cody Ross
3B Pablo Sandoval

We wonder how long it will take the Giants to figure out that Posey is their best hitter. Generally, you put your best hitter in the No. 3 hole. It’s where Sandoval hit during the 2009 season. It’s he started 2010 before his struggles became too evident to ignore.

We believe Posey is the Giants’ best hitter, and will continue to be in the future. Huff is better suited as a cleanup hitter than Posey.

The other change we make is to drop Sandoval to No. 8. We’ll start him there until he shows he’s ready to return to the hitter he was in 2009.

What you want from a No. 8 hitter is someone who is willing to expand his strike zone to deliver an RBI in a two-out situation ahead of the pitcher’s spot. Sandoval ALWAYS expands his strike zone, so it seems a perfect fit.

We’d also like to see Cody Ross to hit higher in the lineup. We could move him up to No. 6. But we like him at No. 7 because Ross has some foot speed. The idea of the not-so-speedy Burrell or Tejada hitting ahead of Sandoval and his 26 GIDPs in 2010 is not a good fit.

Countdown to Spring Training: No. 2, Rotation

The Giants enter spring training not really worrying about the starting rotation. It’s set, barring any injury. That’s the only reason they signed Jeff Suppan to a minor-league deal.

Knock on wood, this is the 2011 starting rotation

RH Tim Lincecum

LH Barry Zito

RH Matt Cain

LH Jonathan Sanchez

LH Madison Bumgarner

Now, as much as some Giants fans would love to move Zito down in the rotation, the No. 2 spot is the best place for him. Putting the soft-throwing Zito in between the hard-throwing Lincecum and Cain makes sense.

And please, please, please, can we stop with the questions and comments around moving Zito and his contract. He’s not going anywhere. He’s set to make $18.5 million, $19 million and $20 million over the next three years. He’s got an $18 million option for 2014 that will vest if Zito pitches 200 innings in 2013 or averages 200 IPs over 2012-13 or 2011-13. The only good news is that Zito has not pitched more than 199.1 innings in any of his four seasons in San Francisco.

He’ll never be the kind of pitcher who warrants that kind of salary. But the Giants just need to hope he can be a functional starter.

But the bigger issue at hand is that Zito is the only returning starter who is not coming off a career-high for innings pitched in 2010 — regular and postseason.

So the concern is if any of the four starters will feel the effects of all those innings thrown in October.

Look for the Giants to be conservative with their pitchers this spring and early in the season. What the Giants should consider is treating Bumgarner like a true No. 5 starter in April.

The Giants have five scheduled off days in April, meaning they would only need a No. 5 starter three times in April — the opening homestand, the road trip to Arizona and Colorado, and the end-of-the-month trip to Pittsburgh and Washington.

They could skip Bumgarner’s turn in the rotation and throw him as a long man in between starts.

But we don’t expect the Giants to do this. This has not been Bruce Bochy’s M.O.  Hopefully this philosophy doesn’t come back to hurt the Giants

Countdown to Spring Training: No. 3, Bullpen

The Giants have preferred to go with a seven-man bullpen, so we’re basing these projections on that assumption. There’s a scenario that they go with a six-pitcher pen (but that’s a blog post for another day).

Six spots in the pen are virtual locks.

RH Brian Wilson

RH Sergio Romo

RH Santiago Casilla

RH Ramon Ramirez

LH Jeremy Affeldt

LH Javier Lopez

So barring injury, that leaves one spot left.

The front-runner to gain that spot is RH Guillermo Mota, who signed a minor-league deal in the offseason. LH Dan Runzler is also a candidate, but there has been offseason talk about the Giants sending Runzler to Fresno to convert him into a starter.

RH Jeff Suppan is the emergency option for a rotation spot if someone runs into injury issues. He could make the team as a long reliever/spot starter if he pitches well in the spring.

RH Elmer Dessens is another possibility to fill that spot. Dessens signed a minor-league deal last week after pitching most recently in Japan. MoreSplashHits considers Dessens a candidate to going to Fresno to start the season, more so than Suppan, who would like reject a minor-league assignment and look for another MLB job.

And then there’s the possibility that some younger arm impresses the Giants this spring.

Countdown to Spring Training: No. 4, Battle for Left Field

The Giants enter 2011 with a rotation that is set, a roster that is almost set, and a lineup that is almost set.

The one daily lineup position that remains in question is the starting job in left field.

Pat Burrell, who handled most of the left-field starts in the latter half of 2010, returned with a one-year, $1 million deal. But that doesn’t guarantee Burrell will win the LF job, particularly if he struggles like he did in the postseason last fall. Mark DeRosa, Aaron Rowand and Nate Schierholtz also are in the mix.

So let’s look at the candidates:

Pat Burrell: If Burrell can recapture the production he had after joining the Giants in June (.266, 18 HR, 51 BI in 289 ABs), the job is his, even with his defensive limitations. But if he struggles like he did in the postseason (.146, 1 HR, 4 BI, 22 Ks in 41 ABs), there could be an opening for someone else.

Mark DeRosa: DeRosa opened 2010 as the starting left fielder, until his wrist wouldn’t allow him to continue. But even DeRosa said the injury was a blessing in disguise, as it made the Giants go out and get Burrell, who could do things that DeRosa could not. Not exactly a rousing endorsement for DeRosa. MoreSplashHits sees DeRosa fillling a more utility role, providing a day off for Freddy Sanchez at 2B, starting at 3B against particularly tough lefties and making an occasional start in left.

Aaron Rowand: With Andres Torres all but set to start in center, Rowand would be the most likely candidate to take the LF job — or play center with Andres Torres moving to left — if Burrell falters. Since joining the Giants, Rowand has been miscast in the lineup, first batting in the No. 5 hole and later at leadoff. But hitting in the No. 7 hole, Rowand could prove to be a productive hitter again. At the very least, we can see Rowand filling the late-inning defensive replacement role for Burrell.

Nate Schierholtz: Schierholtz enters this spring fighting for a spot on the roster. But he does possess assets that the other candidates do not. He’s the best fielder among the four — yes, even better than Rowand. And he’s left-handed. But there are liabilities, too. He doesn’t have power, and he’s failed to hit better than .267 since moving the bigs on a substantial basis in 2009. Out of options, this spring may be his last chance to produce. And, unlike the others, he doesn’t have a  guaranteed contract.

Countdown to Spring Training: No. 5, Looking at the future

Brandon Belt is clearly the top of the Giants’ prospect list, and there’s a drop-off in MLB-ready players. But it is important that the Giants take a long look at some of there younger players.

The 2012 season will be an important season for the Giants’ farm system. With guaranteed contracts and arbitration eligible players, the Giants’ payroll likely will start at around $100 million in 2012. And that does not include any possible free agent deals to fill vacancies at 2B, SS, the outfield and bullpen.

Given that, the Giants likely will want to attempt to fill some of those holes with players in their system. So here’s a look at some prospects who will be in camp this spring.

SP Jose Casilla: The 21-year-old RH reliever went 4-1 with 1.16 ERA in 54.1 innings and 14 saves to low Class A Augusta.

SP Steve Edlefsen: The 25-year-old RH reliever was 7-2 with 2.38 ERA and six saves in 64.1 IPs during his second season at Triple-A Fresno.

SP Alex Hinshaw: A 15th-round pick in 2005, the LH reliever, 28, went 2-4 with a 4.82 ERA in 56 IPs in his third season at Triple-A Fresno.

SP Henry Sosa: The 25-year-old RH pitcher was 7-8 with 4.07 ERA in 115 IPs in his first season at Fresno. He made 14 starts and 36 appearances.

SS Ehire Adrianza: Signed as a 16-year-old out of Venezuela, the slick-fielder, 21, needs to show he can hit. He hit .256 for high Class A San Jose. But he stole 33 bases.

3B Conor Gillaspie: A former first-round sandwich pick in 2008, Gillaspie, 23, hit .287 with 8 HR and 67 RBI for Double-A Richmond.

OF Darren Ford: Ford, 25, got a good long look at spring last season. But he hit only .251 at Double-A Richmond with 37 SBs. Ford got called up by the Giants in September, but was exclusively as a pinch-runner. He needs to show he can get on base consistently so he can use his speed.

OF Thomas Ford: Ford, 23, saw a drop-off of numbers from Class A in 2009 and AA in 2010. He hit 12 HRs, 69 RBI and .291 for Double-A Richmond. His OPS dropped from 1.010 to .799.

OF Francisco Peguero: Peguero, 22, hit .329 with 10 HR, 77 BI, 16 3B and 40 SBs for Class A San Jose in 2010,

OF Gary Brown: Brown, 22, was the Giants’ first-round pick last June out of Cal State Fullerton. He signed late and only appeared in 12 games between Rookie League and short-season Class A Salem-Keizer, hitting. 159.

SS Brandon Crawford: The former UCLA shortstop, 24, has a big-league glove, but hasn’t really hit much since batting .371 for San Jose in 2009. He hit .241 with 7 HRs and 22 RBI in 79 games for Double-A Richmond.

2B Charlie Culberson: A first-round sandwich out of high school in 2007, Culberson, 21, had his best season as a pro last year. He hit .290 with 16 HR and 71 RBI in 128 games at Class A San Jose. He also stole 25 bases.

2B Nick Noonan: Like Culberson, Noonan, 21, was a first-round pick out of high school in 2007. Unlike Culberson, Noonan got off to a hot start as pro and progressed more quickly through the ranks. But Noonan struggled at AA Richmond, hitting. 237 with 3 HR and 26 RBI in 101 games in 2010.

Countdown to Spring Training: No. 6, Brandon Belt

belt.jpgIf there’s one player that Giants fans will be watching this spring, it’s Brandon Belt.

The left-handed hitting first baseman/outfielder made quite a splash in his rookie season of professional baseball.

After being drafted in the fifth round in the 2009 Amateur Draft, Belt signed so late that he didn’t make his pro debut until 2010 for high Class A San Jose.

In 77 games in San Jose, Belt his .383 with a .492 OBP and a .628 slugging percentage. His numbers only dipped slightly when he made the move to Double-A Richmond — .337-.413-.623 in 46 games.

He completed the season at Triple-A, where his averaged dipped to .229 in just 61 at-bats in 13 games — a very small sample. However, his OBP (.393) and slugging (.563) remained very good. Belt also hit .372 in 22 games in the Arizona Fall League.

The Giants have said they will give Belt every chance of winning a spot on the 2011 opening day roster. They have also said Belt will only break camp with the big club in 2011 if he is an everyday player.

So the reasons to allow Belt to open the season with the Giants are clear: if he shows he’s ready to play, then he should play. And the Giants clearly could use whatever offense they can get. Also, his ability to play first base or left field adds to his allure. Plus, the Giants could use another left-handed bat in the lineup, with only Aubrey Huff and switch-hitters Andres Torres and Pablo Sandoval there right now.

But there are other reasons for the Giants to wait on Belt, and let him start the season at Fresno.

No reason to rush: The Giants won a World Series title with basically the same lineup that they’ll roll out in 2011. So there’s no reason to rush Belt to the majors for added offense. As it is, the Giants will have some key roster decisions to make. If Belt makes the opening day roster, it likely comes as the expense of 1B Travis Ishikawa. Belt’s left-hand bat and above-average glove would make Ishikawa expendable. And Ishikawa is out of options, meaning he’d have to be cut or traded.

Don’t want to get it wrong: The Giants don’t want to break camp with the big club, only to show that he’s not quite ready for the bigs. If he has to be sent down in May, who do the Giants have in Fresno to call up, if Nate Schierholtz and Ishikawa have been dealt away. By waiting, the Giants could bring Belt up when another player heads to the DL. This would give the Giants the chance to see how Belt handles big-league pitching without sacrificing any organization depth.

Midseason spark: It can’t be understated how much the addition of Buster Posey to the lineup last May provided a spark to the Giants when they needed it. Belt could be that spark in 2011.

Arbitration clock: If Belt opens the season in the majors — and stays there — his arbitration clock starts ticking, putting him on track to be arbitration eligible after the 2013 season. The Giants will have a payroll of $120 million for 2011. If you count players under contract or arbitration eligible, the payroll may already sit at $100 million for 2012. And that doesn’t count any free agent deals needed to fill potential holes at 2B, SS, outfield or bullpen. Tim Lincecum and Brian Wilson will be eligible for free agency after the 2013 season, and Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner will be eligible for arbitration. Do the Giants really want to add Brandon Belt to that list? By waiting until late May or June to call up Belt, they can push that arbitration date back until after 2014.

Countdown to Spring Training: No. 7, Staying healthy

We’ve run into a logjam on our countdown to spring training. So MoreSplashHits needs to play a little catch-up on our list of things to consider as the Giants prepare for the 2011 season.

During the offseason, the pundits have commented that one of the keys to the Giants’ success in 2010 was avoiding injuries.

And while the Giants didn’t have a key injuries to their top stars, the 2010 season was not devoid of pain.

But the real key for the Giants was finding key players to step up when they did suffer injuries.

Consider these 2010 injuries to potential opening day starters: OF Aaron Rowand (broken jaw), 2B Freddy Sanchez (shoulder surgery kept him out to late May), SS Edgar Renteria (assorted injuries kept him on DL more than not), OF Mark DeRosa (season-ending wrist surgery in June), and OF Andres Torres (appendectomy in September).

But the Giants found quality replacements for these players: OF Andres Torres (for Rowand), 2B-SS Juan Uribe (for Sanchez and later for Renteria), C-1B Buster Posey (who played 1B, sending Aubrey Huff to LF for DeRosa), OF Pat Burrell (for DeRosa) and OF Cody Ross (for Torres).

And in the bullpen, when lefties Jeremy Affeldt and Dan Runzler got hurt, the Giants added Javier Lopez.

While you can never predict injuries, there are some injury issues to watch this spring.

Freddy Sanchez: Sanchez had a clean-up surgery on his shoulder in the offseason. The Giants have said the procedure would put Sanchez two weeks behind his teammates in preparation for the 2011 season. With setbacks, that could put opening day in jeopardy. But Sanchez has said he only expects to be limited for the first week of spring training, and should be in spring training games by early March.

Mark DeRosa: DeRosa was hitting off a tee by the postseason last fall after his June surgery to fix his previous procedure, which he called a complete failure. He should be ready to go this spring. But with two wrist surgeries in less than a year, fans will want to keep a close eye on DeRosa.

Countdown to Spring Training: No. 8, What about Schierholtz?

nate.jpgWhen the Giants open spring training camp next week, one key question that will need to be answered circles around the future of outfielder Nate Schierholtz.

Schierholtz went into spring training last year as the projected starting right fielder. He opened the season in a platoon with John Bowker. Eventually, he went to the bench when Buster Posey got called up (Poster went to 1B, Huff to the OF, Schierholtz to the bench). He spent the later portion of the season and postseason as a late-inning defensive replacement, usually for Burrell.

This spring, Schierholtz is at best a reserve outfielder, and he may just find himself off the roster completely. Schierholtz is out of options, meaning he can’t be sent to Triple-A Fresno without first passing through waivers — and he wouldn’t make it through waivers.

But even with that being the case, there may not be room on the 25-man roster for Schierholtz. Here’s why.

If the Giants open the season with a 12-man pitching staff — as they have been so prone to do in recent seasons — it leaves 13 spots on the roster for position players.

Eight spots get filled by projected starters: 1B Aubrey Huff, 2B Freddy Sanchez, SS Miguel Tejada, 3B Pablo Sandoval, C Buster Posey, LF Pat Burrell, CF Andres Torres, RF Cody Ross.

That leaves five spots left for bench players. They would presumably be filled by a C Eli Whiteside, 1B Travis Ishikawa, IF Mike Fontenot, IF-OF Mark DeRosa, OF Aaron Rowand. If Schierholtz makes it as a reserve, which of the aforementioned players does not?

And we haven’t even mentioned Brandon Belt (blog post for another day).

So here are scenarios that MoreSplashHits sees as why that Schierholtz makes the opening day 25-man roster.

1. An 11-man pitching staff. Manager Bruce Bochy has long preferred a 12-man staff. And given that Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner are all coming off career-highs for innings pitched, the Giants will want to limit the workload of their starters early in the season. But if the Giants decide to spot start Bumgarner in April when the schedule is littered with off days (another blog post for another day), he can work as a long man out of the pen, take a spot in the bullpen and make an 11-man staff workable.

2. Injuries. If just about any position player suffers a spring injury, it would open a spot for Schierholtz. Leading candidates include Mark DeRosa (who is coming off wrist surgery last spring) and Freddy Sanchez (who had shoulder surgery in December). Both players say they’ll be ready by Opening Day.

3. One-catcher option. This is a long shot, but the Giants could open the season with Buster Posey as the lone catcher on the roster, with Sandoval serving as emergency catcher. With five schedule off days in April, Posey would have rest days built into the schedule. It may seem unlikely, the Giants took a similar route with Bengie Molina to open the 2009 season. Molina was the lone catcher on the roster (with Sandoval catching three games in the first six weeks) until Eli Whiteside was called up on May 24.

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