Springtime Storylines: Are the San Francisco Giants going to give Brandon Belt a chance?

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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.

And That Happened: Thursday’s Scores and Highlights

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I’m taking the day off to go down to Kentucky to watch horses do horsey things (watch for me photobombing equestrian types on NBC Sports Network). Bill will be along later today and Ashley will be here this evening, but I can’t leave you without the recaps because that’s what I do.

Don’t do anything dumb while your mother and I are out. We’ve marked all the bottles. We’ll know if you’re lying to us.

Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Dodgers 5, Giants 1: It was 1-1 until the 11th inning thanks to Julio Urias, making his 2017 big league debut, and the Dodgers’ bullpen and Matt Moore and the Giants’ bullpen takin’ care of business. The Dodgers got tired of it being close in the top of the 11th, however, beating up on Corey Gearrin, Steven Okert and Hunter Strickland for four runs. Andrew Toles knocked in the go-ahead run with a single. A sac fly, single and a bases-loaded walk finished the scoring. The Giants wouldn’t have even scored the one run if it wasn’t for the Dodgers throwing the ball around.

Nationals 16, Rockies 5: The Nats came into Colorado and scored 46 runs in four games. Which, damn. They put up 11 runs in the seventh inning here, with Bryce Harper hitting a three-run shot. Trea Turner hit for the cycle on Tuesday, finished a triple shy of another cycle Wednesday and hit a double and two singles and driving in two here. Harper is hitting .418/.535/.823 with eight homers and 25 RBI. That’s a 59 homer, 184 RBI pace. I know Harper has a habit of putting up big Aprils and that injuries have derailed him in the past, but this is shaping up to be a really special year for this guy.

Cardinals 8, Blue Jays 4; Cardinals 6, Blue Jays 4: The first game of the twin-bill ended in spectacular fashion with Matt Carpenter hitting a walkoff grand slam in the 11th inning. They wouldn’t have even gotten to extras, however, if it wasn’t for Randal Grichuk‘s two-run homer with two outs in the ninth which tied it up. So much drama in game 1 it’s a shame they had to suit up for fame 2 rather than just go out for drinks. But they did play game 2 and it went swell for St. Louis. Dexter Fowler, Greg Garcia and Matt Adams each had three hits. Fowler hit a dinger. The Blue Jays are a total mess. But they’re not the only mess in the bigs right now because . . .

Braves 7, Mets 5: M-E-S-S Mess! Mess! Mess! Six losses in a row and 10 of 11. They’re not scoring. Everyone is getting hurt. Just a disaster. The last time the Mets were this screwed up was just after the All-Star break in 2015 and you know what happened then. Oh, wait, they won the pennant. Eh, let’s let the New York press and Mets fans freak out. Maybe it’s actually warranted this time. Who knows. All I know is that Kurt Suzuki hit a big three-run homer here and when the Braves make you look bad, you’re not living your best life.

Mariners 2, Tigers 1: Justin Verlander and Hisashi Iwakuma battled. Verlander battled a tad better — allowing only an unearned run in seven innings while striking out eight while Iwakuma allowed only one unearned run in five and two-thirds — but the Mariners got the win anyway. The go-ahead run came thanks to a Ben Gamel RBI single off of Francisco Rodriguez in the ninth. Can’t trust the Tigers bullpen in a close game. Ever.

Phillies 3, Marlins 2Jeremy Hellickson allowed one run over six innings as the Phillies win their sixth straight. Hellickson is 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA on the year. Philly is doing OK right now, but if they aren’t in contention come July, he’s going to be a pretty attractive trade target.

Indians 4, Astros 3: Down 3-2 in the bottom of the seventh, Francisco Lindor hit a two-run bomb. And I mean bomb. The thing was estimated to be over 450 feet. Corey Kluber struck out ten over seven innings. In addition to being one of the best shortstops around, Lindor is hitting .301/.368/.614 on the year and he’s on a 40-homer pace. That $100 million deal he reportedly turned down is gonna look positively quaint.

Yankees 3, Red Sox 0: Masahiro Tanaka tosses a Maddux. You do know what a Maddux is, right? In case you forgot, it’s a complete game shutout in which the starter throws fewer than 100 pitches. Here it was a three-hitter in which he only allowed one runner to reach second base. Chris Sale was no slouch himself, striking out ten in eight innings. He’s pitched great this year but he’s not getting any help. They’ve only scored four runs in his five starts. Boston has scored  only 13 runs in their last seven games. They’ve been shut out three times in the past seven.

Diamondbacks 6, Padres 2: Taijuan Walker struck out 11 and Chris Ownings hit a pair of solo homers. Yasmany Tomas had a two-run homer.

Angels 2, Athletics 1: I had a dream last night that I owed the Oakland A’s $30,000 in medical bills. Something in the dream made it make sense — baseball teams ran hospitals or something — and for whatever reason, my family had used theirs and I was responsible for the bills. My family, by the way, included Ronald Reagan, who was treated at A’s hospital. Insurance wouldn’t cover a lot of his bills because a man had come out of the woodwork claiming to have been his lover, and the insurance company had a right to discriminate based on sexual orientation. What I’m sayin’ is that a lot was going on in this dream and I’m a little upset with the A’s over it right now.

Oh, by the way, Ricky Nolasco allowed one runs in five and two-thirds and four relievers combined to shut the A’s out the rest of the way. The Angels scored both of their runs in the first.

I probably do need that day off, eh? See you Monday.

Masahiro Tanaka throws a Maddux

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You do know what a Maddux is, right? In case you forgot, it’s a complete game shutout in which the starter throws fewer than 100 pitches. Friend of HBT Jason Lukehart invented that little metric and, because Greg Maddux is my favorite player ever, it’s pretty much my favorite stat ever.

In the Yankees-Red Sox game tonight it was Masahiro Tanaka doing the honors, tossing 97-pitch three-hitter in which he only allowed one runner to reach second base to beat Boston 3-0. He only struck out three but he didn’t walk anyone. He retired the last 14 batters he faced.

Chris Sale was no slouch himself, striking out ten in eight innings. He’s pitched great this year but he’s not getting any help. The Sox have only scored four runs in his five starts. Boston has scored only 13 runs in their last seven games. They’ve been shut out three times in the past seven. They scored more runs than anyone last year, by the way.

The game only took two hours and twenty-one minutes. Or, like, half the time of a Yankees-Red Sox game in the early 2000s. Progress, people. We’re making progress.