SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. Giants manager Bruce Bochy cant begin announcing his opening-day roster. Not with 18 days between now and the National Anthem at Arizona's Chase Field.
But ask himabout non-roster outfielder Gregor Blanco, and Bochy has a hard time containinghis excitement.
I cant give you anything definite, but I will say hesplayed as good a ball as anybody here this spring, Bochy said. Gregor hasreally swung it well, run the bases well. Were very excited about having him.
Samuel Morse couldnt have telegraphed it better.
A late injury or two can change the calculus. An unexpectedtrade discussion, too. But as it stands, Blanco, the speedy little 28-year-oldoutfielder from Venezuela, has earned a place with the 2012 Giants.
And maybe not just a place on the bench, either.
He leads the Giants with a .444 average (which also ranksseventh in the majors) and his seven stolen bases (in eight attempts) paceseveryone under the Florida and Arizona sunshine. He also ranks second in themajors with 10 runs.
Spring stats are meaningless, of course. But the manner in which Blanco is compiling them is not. He's scoring his runs in exactly the manner the Giantshope to support their pitchers this season always pushing for that extra base, whetherits going first to third, second to home or turning any momentary bobble intoan extra 90 feet.
Blanco didnt lose any momentum from the Venezuelan winterleague, where he was named MVP after leading all players in on-base percentage(.478), stolen bases (18) and runs scored (47) for Tiburones de la Guaira.
This is great for us to have him here, said young catcherHector Sanchez, who had his own banner winter for Tiburones to win the leaguesrookie of the year award. Hes the best leadoff hitter Ive ever seen.Everything he does, he does with energy.
Back in November, though, it was Sanchez and fellowVenezuelan Pablo Sandoval who brought the energy. They both made their ownrecruiting pitches to Blanco, who also was offered minor league contracts and spring training invitations from the Miami Marlins,Cincinnati Reds and Philadelphia Phillies.
I knew the things he can do, Sandoval said. I see itevery year in winter ball. You know what? I told him, Youll get anopportunity with us. You can run, throw, hit and catch. We need a guy likethat. Hes getting an opportunity in spring training and hes working hard.
Hes a great guy, too. You need a guy like that on yourteam. Winning an MVP as a leadoff hitter thats tough to do, really tough. Im excited hes here.
How would Sanchez describe Blancos performance in winterball?
Oh, oh, extraordinary, the 22-year-old catcher said. I am sohappy hes here. I helped him make that decision. Its probably the bestdecision he could make.
Said Blanco: I knew they had a great group of guys. I knewId be playing for a good team. Hector, Pablo, they really supported me.Everybody told me Id like it here, Id like my teammates. And I always likedthis team. The Giants have a good history, especially as a winning team.
I think Im a winner. I wanted to be a part of it.
Given his huge winter, the Giants were lucky that Blancomade his decision in November. They didnt need to see him win an MVP award to knowhe could be an asset. Their Triple-A coverage scouts identified his athleticismand his ability to get on base, vice president Bobby Evans said.
It was easy to discount the .196 and .203 averages he postedlast year for the Triple-A affiliates of the Kansas City Royals and WashingtonNationals. For one, Blanco was playing with an injured left wrist that requiredsurgery in June. For another, even swinging one-handed, he still managedon-base percentages of .384 and .335.
Blanco recently examined a photo of himself in the battersbox for Omaha. He was choking up three inches on the bat.
Thats the only way I could hit, he said. Its very hardto play like that. I never realized how much it would affect me.
Triple-A pitchers knew he was hurt, too. Yet Blanco stillfound a way to get aboard. Now that hes healthy, its been hard to keep himoff the basepaths.
I really feel good about myself, Blanco said. I had theinjury and I came back. Thats the biggest improvement. I really work hard forwhat I try to do. Last year, I lost 20 pounds. Now I am the kind of player Iwant to be.
Blanco, a left-handed hitter, still swings and misses with alarming frequency. Itsone of the major reasons he didnt stick with the Atlanta Braves, who developedhim and gave him an opportunity in 2008, when center fielder Mark Kotsay wentdown with an injury. Blanco ended up playing in 144 games, hitting .251 with a.366 on-base percentage in just more than 500 plate appearances.
He feels he is a smarter, more aggressive player now.
Bochy is letting me play and I really appreciate it,Blanco said. I always wanted to have that with a manager or a team. InAtlanta, it was different. They gave me an opportunity to play in the bigleagues and I really, really appreciate that always. But I was always stopped.I always believe I could steal bases.
Although the Giants will face a roster crunch, as every teamdoes every spring, its become clear that they need a true fourth outfielderbehind Melky Cabrera, Angel Pagan and Nate Schierholtz especially given Paganand Schierholtzs reputations for coming down with nagging injuries.
Pagan hasnt exactly dazzled this spring, either. And youdont have to delve too far into Giants history to find a non-roster invitee(Andres Torres) eventually taking a starting job from an established,higher-salaried player (Aaron Rowand).
Theres still 18 days go. For Blanco, thats just 18 more opportunities to put his game on full display.
The way Im playing now, I think this is me, he said. Itfeels great.