SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – It’s become as ceremonial as the first sound of a popping glove. Well, for baseball beat writers, anyway.
It’s the five burning issues that face the Giants as pitchers and catchers report!
Almost the same roster that won a World Series in 2012 cascaded to a 76-86 record last season … and now 90 percent of that roster is back to try it again. At this point, we wouldn’t blame you for embracing this “even-numbered year” concept. But numerology aside, what are the real issues that face the Giants this spring? I'm glad you asked...
Sorry to be a bore off the bat. Health is the No. 1 issue for every team every spring. But it’s even more of an issue for the Giants, since they aren’t blessed with much depth either in the rotation or in terms of their everyday lineup. Plus Angel Pagan, Marco Scutaro, Ryan Vogelsong, Jeremy Affeldt, Santiago Casilla and Pablo Sandoval are coming off injury-marred seasons. And even the two biggest additions -- Michael Morse (wrist) and Tim Hudson (ankle) -- are coming off surgeries.
The No. 1 goal is to break camp with everyone intact. That’ll be the Giants’ goal again this spring.
2. The Panda
This will be the most important spring of Pablo Sandoval’s career, and not just because he wants to show everyone his svelte physique along with his commitment to improved fitness. The Giants plan to engage Sandoval in talks about a contract extension, which will have major ramifications on the franchise.
Would Sandoval re-sign and turn down the chance to set himself up for a monster free-agent contract with a big season? (You don’t find too many 27-year-old, switch-hitting former World Series MVPs on the open market these days.) Would the Giants take on the risk of giving Sandoval a Hunter Pence-type deal (five and $90 million), knowing he has let his conditioning slide several times in the past?
However it resolves, it’s going to affect more than the future sale of Panda hats. If Sandoval leaves, the Giants will have a huge hole to plug at third base in 2015 … and who knows? Bigger pieces might start to shift positions as a result. (Does Buster Posey own a third baseman’s glove yet?)
[RELATED: Giants like sight of slimmed down Sandoval]
The Giants finished 13th out of 15 NL teams in rotation ERA, and simply put, the starting five must recover in a major way for the club to even consider contending in the NL West. So a lot will be made about how the rotation, especially Tim Lincecum and Vogelsong, look this spring.
And that’s kind of the problem, because Lincecum never, ever looks good in the spring. Remember in 2010, when he stayed back to face minor leaguers, then turned in a solid start in the opener just a few days later? Vogelsong had tremendous stuff last spring, but it came in a Team USA uniform and he appeared to leave it all on the mound in the World Baseball Classic. A long offseason, and no patriotic assignments in March, should help the 36-year-old reserve whatever is left in his tank.
Point is, it’ll soothe a lot of nerves if the starting five are able to build their innings and pitch counts without getting swatted around. And a quiet confidence is always nice to have when you’re preparing to start a 162-game season. The sooner the Giants can reestablish that mindset, the better.
You can count on A’s GM Billy Beane to be ahead of the curve or at least embrace a trend before it goes viral. You could summarize his major offseason moves with this phrase: “Shorten the game.” Bullpen specialization is a trend that continues apace, and while the Giants did re-sign superb lefty specialist Javier Lopez, they really didn’t augment a relief corps that had plenty of cracks last season.
Sergio Romo made it through his first full season as a closer with no major health scares, but he throws a lot of sliders and his elbow always bears watching. Affeldt is such an important bridge because he almost never allows a homer and has the stuff to get both right-handed and left-handed hitters out. But he was a mess last season and is banking on a comeback following groin surgery. Casilla, the other prime setup man, is better than a lot of the cranky fan boards would lead you to believe. But he’s another thirtysomething who is coming off an injury (leg surgery) as well.
The Giants already have those guys signed to multiyear deals, so they couldn’t justify another pot of funds for a Grant Balfour or … ahem … Brian Wilson. (As if!) At a time when the rest of the game is beefing up their bullpen or, if you’re the Cardinals, trying to make sure all your live-armed 22-year-olds will each have their own bunk in Jupiter, the Giants pretty much stood pat. We’ll see if standing still will get them passed by.
[RELATED: Giants position battles: Bullpen]
5. Kids in the Hall
It’ll be a spirited competition for the Harry S. Jordan Award, given to the most impressive player in his first major league camp.
Kyle Crick, the Giants’ consensus top prospect, probably won’t be in the big leagues this year. But he’ll get his first locker in the same room as Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner, which is a definite opportunity to soak up some knowledge. Outfielder Mac Williamson, perhaps the organization’s most promising hitting prospect, will be in his first camp as well.
Other first-time campers who could be a factor in 2014 include right-hander Derek Law and his power curve, along with left-handers Ty Blach and Clayton Blackburn. But the most intriguing prospect might be catcher Andrew Susac, who followed up an encouraging year at Double-A Richmond by posting the highest on-base percentage (.507) in the Arizona Fall League.
Susac is a bat-first prospect who is still working on consistency behind the plate, especially when it comes to calling games. The Giants only have two catchers on the 40-man roster, Posey and Hector Sanchez, and even if one of them got hurt, you’d see Guillermo Quiroz’s contract purchased first. But this spring is a huge chance for Susac to show coaches the refinements he made to his game. Who knows? Maybe he plants a seed and gets brows furrowed at the thought of moving Posey to another position as soon as 2015. (See topic No. 2 above for a related thought on that.)
Now that we’ve dispensed with the ceremonial five issues, it’s time to engage in another beat reporter rite of spring: getting back into “standing around the clubhouse” shape.
Yeah, 42 days should allow enough time for that.
[RELATED: MLB: 10 prospects to monitor this spring]