More likely to continue: Belt's success or Lincecum's struggles?
When Bruce Bochy arrived in Scottsdale this year, he didn't have to learn many new names because of a familiar roster. (USA TODAY IMAGES)
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The last batter the Giants faced in the Cactus League was a Diamondbacks farmhand named Socrates Brito.
And so, to borrow a famous phrase from the Greek philosopher: at the end of spring training, you only know that you know nothing.
A team could look unbeatable in the Cactus League and drop 90 games. Or they could turn double plays like their pants were on backwards and suddenly morph into the Bolshoi when the regular season begins.
So no, wins and losses don’t count for much in March. But in case you were curious, the Giants officially finished with a winning record (15-14-4) after socking three home runs in an 8-6 victory over the Diamondbacks at palatial Talking Stick at Salt River Fields on Wednesday.
Then it was time for players to grab the traditional last-day-of-spring cardboard box weighted down with Don & Charlie’s barbecue, jump on the bus and jet back to San Francisco.
The results don’t matter – not even Brandon Belt’s Cactus League leading eight home runs, after he connected for one more Wednesday. But with apologies to the dialectical method of Ancient Greece, the Giants did glean some information over the past 44 days in the desert.
--The rotation is still good. Even after several starters appeared to run on fumes in the postseason, their arms weren’t dragging this spring. Madison Bumgarner had a perfectly fine start Wednesday (five innings, two runs, one walk, six strikeouts) and still beat himself up over leaving perceived mistakes over the plate. Barry Zito had his best, most poised spring in seven seasons as a Giant. Tim Lincecum had swing-and-miss stuff, and while he’s still struggling to maintain a consistent delivery, he looks leagues better than the lost soul who had a 5.18 ERA last year. (Plus, metrics suggest he’s likely to give up fewer hits on balls in play.) Matt Cain looks ready for Opening Day, and Ryan Vogelsong was forking through plates of Rally Enchiladas five weeks ago.
--The bullpen should be solid again. Jeremy Affeldt just keeps getting better as a pitcher, as he learns to shape his breaking ball for specific hitters or situations. He was lights-out in the World Baseball Classic, as was gold-medal winner Santiago Casilla. Even if Sergio Romo needs help in the ninth inning, the Giants have two able arms capable of filling the role. George Kontos should be able to handle late-game situations, too. He looked consistently good all spring. Javier Lopez had a 13.50 ERA, but insists he’s healthy. He’s thrived in his role for so long, you have to give him the benefit of the doubt that he’ll be ready the first time he has to face Andre Ethier in a tight spot.
--Everyone is getting healthier. Pablo Sandoval was “pretty excited at how he felt” after throwing with some intensity from 75 feet, taking batting practice from both sides of the plate and fielding ground balls. A setback on Wednesday would’ve knocked him out for Opening Day. Now the Giants are talking about letting Sandoval play in Friday’s exhibition against the A’s at AT&T Park. They wouldn’t do that if they feared he would be at high risk for a setback. That’s because they wouldn’t be able to backdate a potential DL stint, so they’d lose him for two weeks instead of four games. This is all a way of saying … the odds are much better that Sandoval will be the starting third baseman on Opening Day. Backup catcher Hector Sanchez (sore shoulder) did well in a minor league game Wednesday and is expected to open on the active roster as well. And Brandon Belt (neck) and Marco Scutaro (back) have gotten over their nagging injuries.
--The rest of the NL West is not getting healthier. The Diamondbacks will start the season with Willie Boomquist, Adam Eaton and Cody Ross on the disabled list. Wade Miley is trying to rebound from a dead arm phase, too. The Dodgers won’t have Hanley Ramirez for 10 weeks because of thumb surgery and Zack Greinke, their expensive prize, will miss his first turn through the rotation because of an iffy elbow. The poor Padres have it the worst. They’ll be without their one true star, and last year’s NL RBI leader, Chase Headley, for a month because of a fractured finger. And then you’ve got the Rockies, who already are dealing with some sore arms – one year after they set a major league record for relief innings in a season. The takeaway: The Giants should count their blessings.
--There’s one other thing the Giants know, and that’s each other. Continuity is a rare thing in baseball, and nobody has more of it – from the roster to the coaching staff to the front office – than the folks at 24 Willie Mays Plaza.
“I don’t know how much of an advantage it is, but it sure makes it nice for us,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “They know how to play together. They know each other and they’ve worked well together. We’ve still gotta do it on the field and we know it. But the continuity makes it easier for everyone to know their roles.”
Even the bullpen has continuity. That’s a rarity, since no other area of a ballclub turns over as quickly as a group of relievers. I asked Lopez what kind of difference that could make.
“Continuity is a big deal, and I really believe in that,” Lopez said. “You can have a great blueprint, but when you have the same guys working that blueprint, it’s got the best chance of being successful.
“Having the same coaches, same people, it allows us to grow together. Maybe we’re able to notice a facet of the game or pass something along because we know each other so well.”
That’s why Lopez isn’t fretting over another season of mixing and matching, even if Romo is expected to serve as a committee chair, more or less. If the Giants were breaking in a new manager, Lopez might look at it a different way.
“We know we’re getting transparency from him,” Lopez said. “That’s been his hallmark since I’ve been here, at least. He’ll let you know what the situations are and he’s got our full belief in the plan because he’s put us in positions to succeed so many times. Whether it’s one inning, one out, regardless … He’ll have the trust and faith in us and that helps us execute pitches.”
The Giants should count on more continuity moving forward among their baseball operations and field staff. Expect talks to pick up between CEO Larry Baer, GM Brian Sabean and Bochy in these next couple days before Monday’s opener. I’ll be very surprised if extensions for both men aren’t announced before that time.