Giants spring progress report

Giants spring progress report
March 20, 2012, 2:12 am
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. The Giants enjoyed their only day off onthe Cactus League schedule Monday, but the tone is about to change around here.

The equipment truck will be making an appearance in theScottsdale Stadium parking lot any time now. There are 13 days remaining untilcamp breaks. The roster is beginning to take shape, and even for those playerswho arent under consideration, spring training is the time to show theirreadiness for a call-up at some point this season.

Who has helped themselves the most this spring? Who hastaken a step back? Who is primed to become a major contributor? Who is meh?

Here are some collected observations before the Giants moveahead. Consider this a mid-spring progress report:

OPENING EYES:

Gregor Blanco, OF: The best player in camp, and manager Bruce Bochy said so. Itll take a cataclysmic event to keep Blanco offthe roster as a fourth outfielder, at minimum. Couple his .512 on-basepercentage with his major league-leading seven steals (and several impressiveextra bases taken along the way on hits, wild pitches, etc.) and youve gotprecisely the kind of run-scoring presence the Giants are coveting. He did itin Venezuela, too, so this might not be a spring fluke. His wrist is healthyand hes confident that at 28, hes finally arriving as a player. Why not? AndresTorres did it at 32, right?

Melky Cabrera, LF: He hit .300 from both sides of the platelast season while collecting over 200 hits. Watching him this spring, you cansee how he managed it. He has tremendous balance from both sides. Heshitting .400 and eight of his 14 hits (three homers, five doubles) have gonefor extra bases. (He hit homers from both sides of the plate against theDodgers, too a quick and easy way to become a fan favorite.) Hell be frustratedwhen the ball doesnt travel at AT&T Park, but Cabrera is on a mission andhes finally starting to loosen up around coaches and teammates.

Brandon Crawford, SS: Already anointed the everydayshortstop, it wouldve been interesting to see what happened if Crawford did anabsolute face plant in the batters box this spring. Thats going to remain ahypothetical, though. Hes 8 for 25 for a .320 average, even putting upgood at-bats against left-handed pitching. More impressively, he has six walksagainst just two strikeouts, for a .452 on-base percentage. Crawford made fartoo many soft outs last season on borderline pitches. If hes more selective,he has a chance to turn over the lineup from the No.8 spot. Maybe hes lesslikely to be platooned, too.

Emmanuel Burriss, IFOF: Hes been around forever, and heshad solid springs before. Remember the time he hit almost .400 to beat outKevin Frandsen for the second base job, at least temporarily? Burrisss futureisnt as an everyday player, and hes come to terms with that. He spent alloffseason in San Francisco working out at AT&T Park on all aspects of hisgame, becoming a regular Bert Campaneris everywhere on thediamond. Joke with him that hes catching and he says, Ill do that with a straightface. Hes hitting .441 with five doubles, a triple and five steals. If FreddySanchez cant play second base on opening day, Burriss is an option along withMike Fontenot and Ryan Theriot. Burriss is out of options, so the Giants willbe inclined to keep him in some capacity. He hasnt given them any reason thisspring to do otherwise.

Hector Sanchez, C: Like Blanco, his Tiburones teammate inVenezuela, Sanchez is taking a solid winter ball into the spring. Hes hitting.435 with three homers among his 10 hits. Hes also improved as a receiver, butstill has a ways to go. Thats mostly the reason Sanchez is expected to be theeveryday guy at Triple-A Fresno to start the year. His bat will push him tothe big leagues quickly, though.

Pablo Sandoval, 3B: Forget the numbers. Hes attackingpitches from the right-handed batters box again. Hes scoring from second baseon sharp singles to left field. And hes playing great defense at third base. He has clear goals for greatness in mind, and after LASIK surgery, there's nothing fuzzy about them. Sandoval was seventh in NL MVP voting in 2009. Heres wagering he finisheshigher this season.

Brian Wilson, RHP: He cranked it up to 96 mph in his secondouting of the spring, which is an excellent sign. So is his mood. Hes not thesame brooding presence who couldnt deal with his elbow injury late lastseason. Hes his old, quirky self off the mound. Thats a good clue he feelslike his old self on the mound, too. Still, Wilson has boxes to check. BruceBochy wants him to appear on consecutive days soon. Its unlikely the Giantswill be able to use Wilson for four- and five-out saves as often as they did inthe past. At least for now, he appears healthy and mostly ready for House ofPain.

Brandon Belt, 1BLF: Belt is hitting .368 with three homerswhile fully aware that nobodys spring performance is being more highlyscrutinized by the Giants front office. But the most impressive part is that heis having success with a different approach. Bruce Bochy wants Belt to be moreaggressive and so far, he has been. (He also leads the club with eightstrikeouts, however.) Once Belt learns to blend his natural strike-zoneawareness with a healthy streak of confident aggressiveness, hell have theapproach he needs to do damage against big league pitching. For now, he stillhasnt quite figured out what kind of hitter he is. Its managements job tofigure out whether he can do that in the big leagues or at Triple-A. It wontbe an easy call, particularly because that decision will affect thelineuproster composition in myriad ways.

Santiago Casilla, RHP: Six innings, no runs, threebaserunners and 96 mph. Left-hander Javier Lopez also is having a much betterspring than a year ago. Hes gone six scoreless with no walks.

Heath Hembree, RHP: Shrugged off early jitters. In fiveinnings, opponents have seven strikeouts and a .118 average against him. Expecthim to be in the big leagues at some point this season.

Madison Bumgarner, LHP: What part of a 15-to-1strikeout-to-walk ratio (in 14 23 innings) do you not understand?
PRETTY OKAY

Tim Lincecum, RHP: There is no reason to be alarmed by his18 hits allowed in 14 innings (many for extra bases) or that his radar gunreadings have ranged anywhere from just 88-92 mph. Unless youre an alarmist bynature. The two-seamer is a bigger part of Lincecums arsenal now than thestraight, hard cheese, and hes after more efficient, contact outs. Maybe hesjust maturing as a pitcher. Or maybe he wont be able to reclaim his pastdominance and is compensating. Either way, expect his FIP to be lower thisseason -- which has absolutely nothing to do with his value to the Giants.

Barry Zito, LHP: The good news: Hes throwing strikes.Thats what a No.5 starter needs to do. The bad news: Those strikes are toppingout at 82 mph. Thats barely enough to keep up with 49-year-old Jamie Moyer. Butas long as Zito can get some late extension and finish on his pitches, he cankeep the ball off the barrel. He should benefit more than anyone from whatappears to be an improved defense. Zito seems to be in a better place mentally,too, almost as if he feels the pressure is off. The Giants cant afford to be apitching-and-defense team four days out of five, though.

Aubrey Huff, 1B: Hes only played five innings in leftfield. Dont expect him to go lobbying Bochy for more opportunities out there,either. His stiff back is considered minor, but its an issue he dealt withlast season, too. Huff has a .282 average and two homers in 28 at-bats thisspring. Hes also drawn just two walks. Its not like the numbers matter,though. Huff led the Cactus League in home runs last spring, then was among theworst everyday offensive players in the majors. In a way, this spring is ano-win situation for him. Expect him to get the benefit of the doubt and begin the season as the first baseman, but theGiants will have one hand on the plug.

Chris Stewart, C: Hes throwing well. Hes not hitting sowell. If Buster Posey will be out often, itll be hard to have Stewart in thelineup for 40-plus games. Eli Whiteside is no silver slugger himself, but heoffers a little more functional power off the bench. Still, the backup job willcome down to who catches and throws the best. Its hard to bet against Stewartthere.

Eric Surkamp, LHP: He's getting a chance to start while Ryan Vogelsong returns from a back injury, and after a really rough first outing, he is getting better each time out. That's important as he seeks to build confidence from management that he's ready to step into the rotation when needed. He came to camp in noticeably better shape, too.

Brian Burres, LHP: When youre in camp as a non-rosterstarter, youd better throw strikes. Burres has done that, making himself acandidate for those break glass and gas up the first thing out of Fresno,because we need a spot start moments.

Jeremy Affeldt, LHP: Two homers in six innings isnt great,but the ball does tend to fly here in Arizona. Lets call it a good spring forAffeldt thus far. Just keep him away from the Cutco block.

ITS STILL EARLY, RIGHT?

Angel Pagan, CF: Hes a delight to be around and pumped tohave a shot to play center field and bat leadoff for a contending team especially as he enters his walk year. But hell need to outplay Gregor Blancoto ensure he has that chance. A .294 on-base percentage, as well as a fewfailed over-the-shoulder catches, will not help his cause. Hell get thebenefit of the doubt, too, but a fast start in April would be a good idea. Hisplaying time doesnt look nearly as secure as Cabreras.

Nate Schierholtz, RF: A .323 slugging percentage is not whatthe Giants had in mind. Mostly meaningless exhibition numbers aside, the biggerconcern is health. Schierholtz has developed a reputation as a bit fragile. Hemissed one game with a bruised hip. Although spring games are what they are,hell need to prove at some point that he can play and be effective whenhes at less than 100 percent.

Ryan Theriot, INF: If he hit left-handed, he wouldnt have alocker at Scottsdale Stadium. Theriots value is as a right-handed contact manoff the bench. He didnt have enough arm or range to stick as the St. Louis Cardinalsshortstop last season, and he hasnt done much this spring to convince theGiants of anything different. Hell work a tough at-bat with the game on theline, though.

Joaquin Arias, INF: Hes a playmaker in the middle infieldand a nice guy to have in the system. The bat looks light.

Justin Christian, OF: Already designated off the roster,Christian has made some mistakes in the outfield and has done very little withhis 25 at-bats.

Conor Gillaspie, 3B: Hes made huge strides on defense,where hes now a respectable third baseman. But because the Giants have so many lefty bats already, hell have to hit the blastdoors off their hinges to get an opportunity in the big leagues. So far thisspring, he hasnt done it.

Gary Brown, OF: If the Giants thought that Brown could helpthem at some point this season, they likely wouldve kept him in big leaguecamp all the way through the Bay Bridge exhibition games. Instead, Brown wentout in the second round of cuts. The clubs top prospect, Brown had just 11at-bats. He didnt play much because the brass needed to see more of Blanco inthe outfield.

Tyler Graham, CF: Billed as the new Darren Ford, Grahams .115average was not a big deal. But he was just 3 for 6 in stolen-base attempts.Hes still learning when to pick his spots. The Giants want him to master thatlesson in the minors.

Dan Runzler, LHP: Just when he was finally starting to finda consistent, repeatable delivery, his strained lat muscle had a baby. Runzlerwont get back on a mound for a few weeks. Hell have to get healthy and waitto make his case for a promotion at Triple-A Fresno.

Sergio Romo, RHP: The elbow is a concern. The elbow isalways a concern.

Ryan Vogelsong, RHP: The smart money is on the disabled listto begin the season, and then into the No.5 spot when the Giants need a fifthstarter on April 15, nine games into the schedule. The good news is thatVogelsong says his lower back is a non-issue and he should be able to pitch inan exhibition game within a week. Still, hell be in less than idealcircumstances as he attempts to carry over the magic from last seasonscompelling comeback story.

Freddy Sanchez, 2B: He hasn't played an inning in the field. His infield practice has looked tentative and his surgically tightened shoulder is compromising his ability to turn a double play. He anticipates making a full recovery, but at 34, any realist would have to acknowledge that the three-time All-Star and former batting champ's career is very much in doubt.

INCOMPLETE:

Buster Posey, C: The guy who matters most is the guy theGiants still know the least about. In limited action thus far, he looks like afunctional major league catcher. He hit a home run and showed he can stillbarrel up a two-strike, outside breaking ball for a single. As for how hellhandle the day-in, day-out pounding on his rebuilt ankle? Thats still anyonesguess. Its also what will be watched most carefully as his workload ramps upover these next 13 days in the desert.

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