Urban: How much rope do Giants give Huff?

Urban: How much rope do Giants give Huff?
July 28, 2011, 2:11 am
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July 27, 2011

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Mychael Urban
CSNBayArea.com

PHILADELPHIA -- As Frank the Tank from "Old School" might tell some wide-eyed frat pledges, the Giants had a nice little Wednesday in Philadelphia. They picked up a big bat in Carlos Beltran to boost the anemic offense, and perhaps buoyed by news that said bat was en route to Philly, the anemic offense bulked up just enough to pick up a win over their newest and most fierce and frightening rivals.They had to overcome the oddity of catcher Eli Whiteside appearing intent on sabotaging Matt Cain's standard excellence, but key hits by former Phillie Aaron Rowand, recent pickup Jeff Keppinger and Nate Schierholtz -- not to mention a haunting reminder for the citizens of Citizens Bank Park from Brian Wilson -- got the job done. Alas, it was not a nice little Wednesday for Aubrey Huff, who went 1-for-4 without an RBI on the heels of a hitless, RBI-less Tuesday, and together the pair of unproductive days made it all too easy to forget that Huff showed some signs of life -- 5-for-9 with a walk -- last weekend at home against the Brewers.

Now that the Giants have likely concluded their July shopping spree -- Beltran and Keppinger for three minor-league arms -- it's time for the team to turn its focus inward, and it certainly can't like what it's seeing from Huff.Huff, of course, isn't alone among Giants who aren't pulling the same kind of weight they did last season. But he's alone in that only he got a two-year, 22-million deal for the weight he pulled on the way to the World Series, and as a projected middle-of-the-order banger who's banged so little that he's often been dropped from the middle of the order, he's the most visible problem in the lineup.That Beltran is as good as gone as a free agent this winter, and that the Giants so willingly parted with three pitchers said to be virtual locks as future big-league contributors (if not outright stars), makes it quite clear that the Giants are again going for all the marbles right now. They have the starting rotation, they have the bullpen, and with Beltran aboard they have the makings of an offense stout enough to support all that pitching and make another run deep into October.But only if Huff picks it up. And if he doesn't pick it up soon, change might have to be considered. On July 27 of last season, Huff was batting .306 with 19 homers and 60 RBIs on his way to a top-10 finish in the National League MVP voting. He entered Wednesday's game batting .239 with nine home runs and 37 RBIs. That's a pretty dramatic drop-off, and it's a realization of some well-founded fears. Huff, over the past several years of his career, has established a pattern of following a strong season with a weak one, and it's happening again before our eyes.So as Huff's struggles continue, the question is obvious: How long is Huff's rope?On one hand, you have every reason to believe the rope is as long as Rapunzel's locks. As a strong clubhouse presence and a respected veteran leader, he fits the mold of struggling players that Giants manager Bruce Bochy tends to stick with well past the milk turns sour. To wit: Randy Winn and Aaron Rowand in 2009, Bengie Molina in 2010, pre-trade.On the other hand, 2010 also offered evidence that Bochy -- maybe Giants GM Brian Sabean and ownership have a say in such matters as well -- had changed his tune in regards the aforementioned. Rowand and his big contract spent huge chunks of the season on the bench, and Barry Zito and his huger contract spent the entire playoffs on the bench.Might the Giants reach that point with Huff? It's not like they don't have a viable option in reserve. Rookie Brandon Belt is a better defensive first baseman, runs much better, appears to have more power at present, and he's at the stage in his career where he needs to play every day. Belt, who is batting .333 (4-for-12) with a homer, three RBIs and a game-winning double against the Dodgers since his most recent call-up to the bigs, escaped the reaper when it came time to creating roster space for Beltran. He is ready, willing and able to step in whenever Huff runs out of rope.
Could Huff "poison the well" were his playing time diminished? Unlikely. Way too good a guy. What he'd probably do is get right to work on trying to rediscover that gorgeous backspin-producing stroke that proved so instrumental last season. Meanwhile, Belt would be getting the playing time he needs and deserves.And if Belt struggles? Go back to Huff. Bochy's been juggling all year.He hasn't juggled much with Huff, though. It might soon be time to at least consider starting.