I’m back in San Francisco after watching a ridiculous number of baseball games that don’t count, including one that REALLY didn’t count, the Giants vs. the “futures” team.
Of the Cactus League games I saw that didn’t count in a traditional sense, the Giants finished 7-6-1. But Spring Training isn’t about records, it’s about staying as healthy as possible while figuring out what kind of team you’re going to take into the regular season. The photo above shows Sergio Romo releasing the last pitch I saw, which resulted in a groundout that sealed a 13-9 win over the Royals. The Giants had an awful start to that game, falling behind 7-1. Romo had an awful start to his Spring, with an ERA of 33.00 after his first four slider-less outings (since then he hasn’t allowed a run over four appearances).
Determining how well the Giants will do when the regular season starts … well, that’s impossible. But it was a waste of two and a half weeks if I can’t draw some conclusions from what I saw. So, as promised, here are 10 things I noticed about the 2014 Giants that may or may not end up meaning anything.
1. Buster Posey is locked in.
The slash line was certainly pretty when I left Phoenix: .410/.477/.590. Posey went 0-for-1 in his lone plate appearance in the first game we attended, an 18-3 loss to the Mariners on March 8. Posey got on base at least once in each of his next 10 games, going 13-for-27 with four walks and two home runs (including the homer I captured on “film” that I ended up showing Posey in the clubhouse).
2. Madison Bumgarner is unfair.
He still hasn’t given up a run in 2014, and when he started throwing 65-mph curveballs on Thursday there was nothing else to do but laugh. “Sheesh, I don’t know what’s going on. I feel good, though,” Bumgarner said. “This is by far the best spring I’ve had, numbers wise.”
3. The rest of the rotation had its ups and downs.
Each starter had at least one outing that was impressive and one that was shaky. Both Tim Lincecum (plus his mustache) and Ryan Vogelsong both got knocked around a little more than one would hope, but both sounded as optimistic as could be after their starts. Lincecum’s walks were down, which is a good sign … but boy, does he look hittable. Lincecum should have no problem at least approaching 200 innings, but Vogelsong needs to turn things around once the regular season starts or the Giants will have another 2013 Barry Zito-type situation on their hands. Matt Cain and Tim Hudson both looked really good at times, just okay at others, although Hudson looks like the team’s best hitting pitcher since Don Robinson. The question was asked at least a dozen times, and to a man each starter said they haven’t talked with each other about the need to improve on a disappointing 2013. But this rotation knows the situation — in the NL West, teams only go as far as their starters.
4. Hector Sanchez is a different player.
That’s not just my opinion. Bruce Bochy must have said that at least three times. Sanchez showed some nifty glove-work in a start at first base and his defense behind the plate was much better than last Spring (when he was pretty terrible back there). Sanchez also may have been the hottest non-Posey hitter on the team over the last week, although one could make an argument that Hunter Pence’s recent power outburst was equally impressive.
5. The Giants are not wasting time.
Usually they’ll use the last few days before the regular season to stir up interest in two ways — a high-profile extension and/or some end-of-the-roster suspense. With Pablo Sandoval and the Giants nowhere close to an agreement and the team leaving little to the imagination as far as their bullpen and bench, fans will probably have to just enjoy the Bay Bridge Series for what it is: one last glorified tuneup.
6. The infield looks set.
The Opening Day bullpen has seemed pretty obvious for days — even more so when the Giants cut George Kontos and Dan Runzler after Sunday’s game. They finally gave up on Tony Abreu, who someone in the organization really liked for whatever reason, so it looks like the last bench spots — assuming Marco Scutaro hits the DL, which seems about 99.99% certain — will go to Ehire Adrianza (great defensive tools, more power than expected but probably someone who’ll struggle to hit for average) and Brandon Hicks (who spent time at second and third and hit everything in sight while I was down there, albeit against less-than-stellar pitching).
7. That leaves one last battle.
Assuming the Giants keep five outfielders, the competition between Juan Perez and Tyler Colvin isn’t so clear. Perez is faster and plays better defense, but Colvin brings power from the left side that has to be tempting. If Colvin is healthy, I feel like the Giants will give him a shot. They already have a defensive whiz in Gregor Blanco (who looked almost as good as he did two Springs ago), and Colvin started showing glimpses of what his bat can do over the past week. I thought the choice would be Perez the whole time I was down in Arizona, but over the last 48 hours I’ve changed my tune. Now I’m predicting Colvin will end up with the job, especially considering how disappointed Bochy was with the meager power output from last year’s outfielders.
8. What can we expect from Brandon Belt?
Last year he hit eight Cactus League bombs and started the season on a liquid diet. Belt caught another stomach bug a couple weeks ago, but he’s already back to full strength. However, no home runs for Belt during Spring Training is awfully strange. Maybe it’s a good sign that he isn’t getting greedy and yanking everything into the right field party deck, because he’s hitting line drives all over the place and taking walks. He even experimented with some bunts down the third base line to make teams think twice about employing exaggerated shifts (the first barely went foul, the second went for a single). He also seems to be carrying himself with a different air this year; no slumpy shoulders, plenty of confidence. Brett Pill lurks no longer, but Belt will need to maintain consistency through June and July to keep Sanchez, Posey and even Morse away from first base. I’m pretty sure he can.
9. Sergio Romo’s heir apparent is in the system.
But it might not be Heath Hembree. Then again, it could be Hembree. He pitched well enough to make most teams’ rosters, but the Giants have the luxury of waiting until he’s a finished product. Derek Law is still with the team, which shows if nothing else that the Giants want to reward him for pitching well this Spring while getting him some experience at AT&T Park before the season officially starts. Law has the stuff, and not just a 94-mph fastball. He’s got some kind of wicked slurvy thing that makes knees buckle. He also throws strikes and, for the most part, has looked fearless. Law had his worst outing on Sunday, which might have been the first sign he’s letting the pressure get to him. However, it’s clear that the Giants consider him ready to contribute very soon.
10. The energy is different.
The team’s ERA is almost 5.00, and injuries to Scutaro, Morse and Angel Pagan kept the Giants from fielding their best possible lineup throughout the month, but the team seemed much more alive this Spring. Last year the hangover from their second championship was evident, plus so many key players were off playing in the WBC. The 2013 Cactus League schedule was also longer than usual, and after a while all the Gary Brown, Roger Kieschnick and Kensuke Tanaka at-bats started to run together. This year’s offense looks more powerful, the defense looks crisper, the youngsters mostly pitched well and the veteran hurlers have time to get their acts together. Whether or not the Giants are good enough to topple the Dodgers is unknown, but they seem motivated and capable of at being competitive at the very least. After several weeks of games that don’t count, that’s about all one can ask.