Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: the San Francisco Giants
The Big Question: Are they going to give Brandon Belt a chance?
One would think that a team that (a) is severely age and offensively challenged; and (b) has a young hitter who has tore the cover off the ball in the minors and has at least held his own against major league pitching despite being jerked around would; (c) give that kid an everyday job and not think twice about it. But the Giants aren’t just any team, and even now, in the last week of spring training, it appears as if the Giants are prepared to continue to jerk Brandon Belt around. There’s been talk of optioning him to Fresno.
In front of Belt at first base is the late Aubrey Huff, in the second year of a regrettable two-year deal he was given by Brian Sabean. He hit .246/.306/.370 last year. If it’s not him, it could be Brett Pill, who also had a nice season in triple-A, but who is four years older than Belt. Slated for right field, it appears, is Nate Schierholtz. Or maybe Gregor Blanco. It’s all so murky right now.
Why the Giants seem content to let it all continue to play out and to play Belt if a position reveals itself for him — as opposed to putting their most promising young hitter in a position and working the other, lesser players around him — is frustrating as hell. For a team that has had as much trouble developing hitting prospects as they have had, why they mess with Belt is a mystery. Maybe it’s been so long since they’ve had a hitting prospect that they just don’t know what to do with one now that they do.
What else is going on?
Whether Belt is a part of it or not, there is a new outfield in San Francisco, with Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan entering the mix. Pagan is probably an upgrade for San Francisco but wouldn’t be most other places. Cabrera had a nice year last year, but it was quite an outlier for him. If the outfield is going to be a plus for this team, that will have to be the new normal for Cabrera, not his career year.
Buster Posey is back, and that’s huge. Is he 100%? He seems fairly close to it in spring training. There have been no issues, at least. If Posey can return to 2010 form, it’s a huge boost. Even if he’s only mostly back to that level, it represents an improvement of what the Giants had behind the plate following his injury.
For all of that offensive uncertainty, the rotation is still the rotation. Lincecum, Cain and Bumgarner are fantastic, of course. Ryan Vogelsong is not likely to repeat his shocking 2011, but he should still be above average for a fourth starter. Barry Zito is Barry Zito, but the Giants have been carrying his carcass on their back for so long that they’re used to it by now. This is obviously the team’s strength, and no matter how terrible the lineup is, it’s a rotation that can, almost by itself, keep the Giants in contention.
An off-the-field issue that will be simmering all year and spooking Giants fans is the contract status of Matt Cain. He’s a free agent after this season, and he’s going to be an appealing one. The Yankees, Dodgers and other moneyed teams would love to have him, but the Giants really need him.
How are they gonna do?
If everything possible breaks right — Posey is back, Pablo Sandoval maintains his production and avoids a 2010-style backslide, Bruce Bochy figures out how to fit in Belt and Pill and all of those moving parts in an ideal fashion and if Aubrey Huff bounces back to be at least useful — this team can win the division. But that’s a lot of ifs, and if this team’s most likely level of performance comes to pass — great pitching and sharply sub-par offense — it’s a second place team at best.
Today is the anniversary of Lou Gehrig’s Iron Man streak ending
Today is a significant baseball anniversary. On this day in 1939 Lou Gehrig asked out of the lineup as the Yankees played the Tigers in Detroit. It both ended his Iron Man Streak at 2,130, but also marked the beginning of Gehrig’s very public acknowledgement of ALS, the disease which would come to bear his name. Gehrig would never play again.
While it was clear that Gehrig’s body was betraying him and his baseball skills were abandoning him in the first few games of the 1939 season, some say the ultimate impetus for Gehrig asking out of the lineup happened earlier that day. The story goes that Gehrig collapsed on the grand staircase of the Book-Cadillac hotel where the Yankees were staying and that later, as he sat in the hotel bar, he told manager Joe McCarthy that he couldn’t play anymore.
The Book-Cadillac is still there. It deteriorated over the years and then was renovated. It’s a Westin now — the Westin Book-Cadillac. It’s a wonderful hotel and the bar area still has much of its old charm, but the grand staircase is gone, replaced with a couple of escalators. I stay there whenever I’m in Detroit. I’m friends with one of the Book-Cadillac’s bartenders and I try to see him whenever I’m there. When I sit in that bar I often wonder if Gehrig sat near where I was, telling McCarthy that he just couldn’t do it anymore. There are a lot of ghosts in Detroit. Gehrig’s is mostly in New York, but there’s a little bit of him in Detroit too.
Cal Ripken would later break Gehrig’s record. I doubt anyone breaks Cal’s. But in some cases the record holders are less interesting than those who were surpassed.
At the end of March we linked a story from Rob Arthur and Ben Lindbergh at FiveThirtyEight which sought to figure out why home run rates have spiked. Their theory was that it was either randomness or a juiced ball. They tested baseballs and found no evidence of a different ball, so that seems to have ended that.
It’s all based on exit velocity of baseballs, which Passan notes has spiked. He doesn’t come to any conclusions — just not enough data — but the very act of asking the question in a column and Passan’s acknowledgment that he sounds like a conspiracy theorist tell you that that’s his hunch. And it could be the case. I still think the ball got juiced in 1987 and again, on a more permanent basis, in 1993, but there’s no evidence to really support that. Just one of those “can’t think of anything better” sort of situations.
For now, though, it’s May 2. And I suspect that for as long as there have been May 2nds in a baseball season, people have looked at the stats and suspected something weird was afoot. Maybe something weird is afoot. We just can’t really know.
Alex Rodriguez had a big night in a losing effort last night. He homered and drove in four. In the past week or so he’s raised his average over 50 points and may be finally shaking off the offseason rust. When you’re over 40 it takes you longer to do everything.
But even if it takes his reflexes some time to get up to speed, you can never take away the knowledge and experience of a savvy veteran with a high baseball I.Q. For example, whether he’s hitting or not, the man knows that it’s important to keep your bat dry on a rainy night:
In early April the Dodgers agreed to a minor league contract with pitcher Sean Burnett after he didn’t make the Washington Nationals’ roster out of spring training. He was assigned to Triple-A Oklahoma City. As is usually the case, veterans like him have an opt-out if they don’t make the big club after a certain amount of time, and Burnett has opt-ed out, realizing that he’s likely not in the Dodgers’ plans.
But he could be in the Braves’ plans. They stink on ice. Ben Nicholson-Smith reports that he’s signing with them and will report to Triple-A Gwinnett tomorrow.
Burnett, 33, hasn’t appeared in the majors since he pitched three games for the Angels in 2014 and hasn’t pitched regularly in the bigs since 2012. Tommy John surgery will do that to a guy. He did toss eight and two-thirds scoreless innings for the Nationals during spring training and has allowed only two earned runs in seven and two-thirds innings of relief work for Oklahoma City. There may still be something there. Innings will need to be eaten in Atlanta this year. Burnett may be able to eat them.