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.