Scottsdale Stadium Sunset

I didn’t even have time to write about Cole Gillespie’s game-winning home run against the Colorado Rockies on St. Patrick’s Day, and that’s a perfect representation of what Spring Training is all about. The only game with any drama to speak of received the least attention (from me, anyway) while I was in Arizona, because Pablo Sandoval was a late scratch before the game due to “right elbow discomfort” and that became the lead story. After chatting with Bruce Bochy for a few minutes and filing my second Sandoval story of the day, I had to drive to the airport and fly home.

When I arrived in Scottsdale at the beginning of March, the main story line regarding the San Francisco Giants was how few story lines existed due to almost nonexistent turnover at all levels. The starting position players and pitchers were set, and nearly everyone likely to make the roster had been a part of at least one of their two championship teams.

Even a sport likes baseball needs a sense of urgency, and a combination of the extra days and so many key contributors off playing in the WBC led to not much getting settled in Giants camp during the first half of March. By the time I left, the Giants almost seemed to have more questions than they did when pitchers and catchers reported. Chad Gaudin separated himself from the rest of the fringe relievers, but the battles waged at the bottom of each everyday positional group remained murky.

Hector Sanchez and the catchers

Sanchez never looked right during the time I saw him, going 2-for-13 with four strikeouts and throwing a ball into center on March 12. He hasn’t played since that game due to a shoulder injury that has lingered since the winter, and the Giants seem worried. Johnny Monell has a live bat and a good eye, but his defense makes Sanchez look like Yadier Molina. No surprise Bruce Bochy is giving him a look at first base, probably just in case Brandon Belt gets hurt or stops hitting with Brett Pill injured. It appears that unless Sanchez makes a quick recovery, Guillermo Quiroz will start the season as Posey’s backup. Quiroz is a similar catcher to both Eli Whiteside and Chris Stewart — his presence near home plate delights Giants pitchers and opposing pitchers alike.

The infielders … pray for health

Sandoval apparently has nerve irritation in his elbow, along with a bone spur that Dave Groeschner doesn’t seem worried about. If the Giants and Sandoval are correct and he won’t miss any regular season time, that takes away one potential dilemma. There’s still another — Tony Abreu can’t play because he’s hurt and Kensuke Tanaka can’t play, period. Wilson Valdez is all he’s cracked up to be, a guy who can cover all the infield positions but is liable to go a week or two without getting on base once the games count. Meanwhile, Ryan Theriot is considering becoming an agent. He almost seem like a Giant who’s still on the team but is currently studying abroad in Europe. Sure, he might stay in Prague for a couple years, but chances are he’ll run out of money and come back within a few months. Brock Bond hit well and didn’t embarrass himself in the field, but the Giants never seriously considered him. Joe Panik had a walk in five plate appearances.

Gillespie vs. Peguero vs. ???

The Giants would like Cole Gillespie to give them a reason to keep him around, so he can pinch-hit against left-handed relievers and occasionally play a little outfield. Francisco Peguero seemed to be opening up a wide lead over Gillespie, with more spirited play and more hits, but Gillespie’s ninth inning home run against the Rockies was the last baseball play I saw before heading back to San Francisco. Specifically, it was a home run off a left-hander, which Bochy alluded to a few minutes later. For a good portion of my time in Scottsdale I assumed this was Peguero’s spot to lose — he was the one you noticed. Now I think they’ll keep him in Fresno so he can play every day, and either go with Gillespie or someone who becomes available between now and April 1 as a “professional hitter” (translation: veteran who can play sporadically) if Gillespie doesn’t impress Brian Sabean. Now that I’ve written all of this, Sabean and Bochy will probably go with Peguero.

Left field … yeah, there’s some room for improvement here

I’m not sure Fangraphs is wrong with their less-than-favorable (but still ahead of the Dodgers!) positional projection. Gregor Blanco looked like Michael Bourn last spring, and for the most part that wasn’t the case this time around. Andres Torres played sparingly due to an oblique injury. After returning he made loud contact semi-frequently, but got thrown out on the bases unnecessarily almost as often. Blanco and Torres have better range than your standard left field tandem, which is probably why offense will be a higher priority for that last outfield spot than defense (if they even choose to keep five outfielders).

Prospects

Besides Peguero, there weren’t a lot of prospects who looked ready to contribute to a Major League roster. Gary Brown’s defense is fun to watch, but he isn’t very electrifying at the plate. Not yet, anyway. Roger Kieschnick has tools, but meh. Heath Hembree looked great at times, other times he gave up back to back bombs to former A’s. I guess the one guy who I’m most intrigued with after watching 15 Spring Training games is big Ricky Oropesa. He has big league power and never looked like he was either nervous or forcing the issue.

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But that’s enough about players the Giants hope they don’t have to lean on. There were some positives among the established guys.

Belt is a line-drive machine

He was hitting when I got there, he kept hitting the whole time I was there, and on Tuesday night Belt went 2-for-3 with a double that apparently looked like a home run (Henry Schulman called it a “dingdong,” which could be the new name for doubles that almost go over the fence). It was just batting practice, but there was an eight-pitch stretch I saw before the game against Team Japan that was simply ridiculous. Eight line drives hit from left-center to right-center, all purely hit and none higher than 10 feet in the air. After watching the 2011 Giants take BP on many an August and September afternoon (O-Cab, hello!), I don’t take competent batting practicing for granted. Belt definitely has the talent to hit the ball hard all over the place; the only question is how quickly he can correct his way out of a slump once the regular season starts.

Hunter Pence GiantsHunter Pence is heating up

The Giants’ true batting practice champ had five extra-base hits in his last five games before I left, but what mattered more was how he seemed to work counts and relax a little more each day. The walks weren’t there (the Giants as a team are in the bottom four in both walks and OBP this spring), but over the last week Pence looked more like the player we all remember from his pre-San Francisco days than at any time since the trade.

Buster Posey can THROW now

Posey has only thrown out two out of seven baserunners attempting to steal, but his arm looks stronger and sharper than I remember. Did he work on that part of his game this offseason, since he didn’t have to spend every waking hour rehabilitating his ankle? Perhaps he wanted to narrow the defensive gap between himself and Molina. Maybe I’m just overly influenced because I was at the game where he threw out two Rangers at second.

Tim Lincecum GiantsThe rotation should be fine

Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner look exactly like what they are: No. 1 and 2 starters. Ryan Vogelsong is the fifth starter, but he’s the Giants’ third-best pitcher at this point. Vogelsong looked very sharp before heading off to go pitch for Team USA, and performed admirably in the tournament. A crouching Barry Zito couldn’t get anybody out last March, now he looks like the same confident guy we saw during the 2012 postseason.

Tim Lincecum is the question, and I only got to see him twice for a total of 6.1 innings. The first time he looked great early, with higher-than-expected velocity (92-94 mph) and a swing-and-miss changeup. Then he flamed out in the third, which was to be expected with the blister creating a long gap between Cactus League outings. In his next start (on St. Paddy’s), he gave up a mixture of fly balls and line drives early, then settled down in the fourth and started getting ground balls. His velocity was in the 88-91 mph range and he walked three. If anyone can handle the pressure of a contract year it’s Lincecum, but I left Scottsdale with the nagging feeling that his days of making $20 million per year will end after this season. Remember Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner getting long-term extensions in April? That isn’t happening with Lincecum next month.

However, the Giants won 92 games last year with Lincecum mostly being a drag on the team, so even if he’s no longer a Cy Young caliber pitcher it doesn’t mean the sky is falling.

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Non-baseball items

– This year’s version of Spring Training is longer than average, and after spending a week in Arizona last year I spent an extended period of time there this year. Watching baseball and wearing shorts every day isn’t a tough lifestyle to get used to, although with all the restaurants in Scottsdale that were within walking distance of where I was staying, I might need to embark on my own version of “Camp Panda.” Rehab Burger Therapy, I blame you most of all.

– It was pretty amusing listening to Phoenix sports talk. Lots of hoping for the Lakers to lose (the Suns get their pick outright if it’s in the top 14, which seemed less likely as my trip went along). Also, SO MUCH KEVIN KOLB TALK. It’s like the Cardinals held off on releasing him just to give the 620 AM something to talk about. Barely any chatter about the D-Backs. The other sports talk station in the region was too awful for words. It was like if they turned The Game over to junior high students.

– Meanwhile, if you like hip hop there’s a better outlet in Phoenix/Scottsdale than anything in the Bay Area. If there was a station as good as 101.1 around here, I probably wouldn’t listen to an unhealthy amount of sports talk. Pretty rare that you hear back-to-back songs from Kendrick Lamar and the Pharcyde.

– I’d like to thank a few people that made my stay better — my wife for keeping me company until heading to Vegas for her sister’s bachelorette party; Carmen Kiew and Grant Brisbee for getting me out of the apartment for a couple drinks (on separate nights, but next year we should definitely all figure out some sort of meetup in Old Town Scottsdale); Wendy Thurm for saying hi at Surprise Stadium and getting some great Giants-related info from the SABR Analytics Conference; Alex Pavlovic for joining us for a BASGcast; Andrew Baggarly and Chris Haft for making me feel comfortable in the press box; Marty Lurie for graciously inviting me on his show.

– As I left Scottsdale Stadium, over an hour after Gillespie’s homer, there was a bit more noise and flashes than I expected coming from the area next to the parking lot used by the players. Belt was signing autographs and smiling for photos, at a time where I’m pretty sure most Giants players and coaches were long gone. As I approached my car about a block away, I heard about two dozens fans shouting, “Thank you, Brandon! Woo-hoo! Yaaayyyyyy Brandon!” It was another perfect representation of what Spring Training is all about.

Brandon Belt signing autographs Spring Training