Friday, March 30, 2012

The 25 Man Roster Guessing Game

We're nearing the end of spring training, and I'd be remiss if I didn't make some wild guesses about who will be on the 25 man roster on opening day (since things have changed since the start of spring training).

Starters (4):
Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Barry Zito

Relievers (7):
Jeremy Affeldt, Santiago Casilla, Javier Lopez, Guillermo Mota, Sergio Romo, Brian Wilson, Clay Hensley

Mystery arm (1)
With Ryan Vogelsong on the DL until the middle of April, it's the Giants will carry a bullpen arm to eat some innings until he gets back. 

Top candidates: Danny Otero, Steve Edlefsen, Jean Machi  and Yusmeiro Petit (although the Giants seem to be eyeing Petit as potential starting depth). Otero and Edlefsen are on the 40 man roster, which means less shuffling for a week or so of bullpen activity, but Jean Machi is still in camp.

My guess: Danny Otero seems to be the most interesting candidate, but the Giants have been saying that he'll start the season as the set up man for Heath Hembree in Fresno. If that's true, then I'd think Edlefsen.

That leaves thirteen spots for position players. I've gone on record in favor of including Gregor Blanco (here), Hector Sanchez (here), and Brandon Belt (here) on the 25 man team. That didn't quite seem possible until the Giants cut Mike Fontenot today. The odds are low, but it could still happen if the Giants decided to make Sanchez the lone back up catcher, which didn't seem to be on the radar until yesterday. I'll admit, this is more of a wish list than a prediction, but after last year's offense...

Catchers (2):
Buster Posey, Hector Sanchez

Infielders (7):
Brandon Belt, Emmanuel Burriss, Brandon Crawford, Pablo Sandoval, Ryan Theriot, Aubrey Huff, Brett Pill

Outfield (4):
Gregor Blanco, Melky Cabrera, Angel Pagan, Nate Schierholtz

DL: Freddy Sanchez

It still seems more likely that the Giants will start with a three catcher scenario, while letting Belt demolish his opposition in the Pacific Coast League. But this roster could happen.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Case for Hector Sanchez

The good news is that Buster Posey is healthy. Yesterday, we all saw a preview of how Posey will not be caught up in dangerous plays at the plate. Today, he went 2 for 3 with a double with a pair of RBIs. But we all know that he won't be playing, at the very most, more than 120 games behind the plate. One hundred games, give or take a few, might be more realistic, given that nobody quite knows how his ankle will react to a relatively full-time schedule.

This scenario opens up around 60 games for the backup(s). If Hector Sanchez is to open the season in Fresno, I think (for whatever that is worth) that Chris Stewart is a better choice than Eli Whiteside. However, like anybody else who's been paying attention to the fake games, I now doubt the premise that Sanchez should start the season in AAA. 

That doubt began when it became more than likely that Freddy Sanchez will start the season on the DL. Now, it's not exactly clear why decisions about Freddy have anything to do with Hector, but during the off-season the management promised that the offense couldn't get any worse than 2011, since Posey and F. Sanchez would be back in 2012. With Freddy's return in doubt, the Giants might not be able to afford to field a backup catcher who, like Whiteside or Stewart, hits in the low .200s. Sixty games could mean 180-200 at bats, which would be a lot of outs with not much power in return (not to mention the whole battle of first base taking at bats from an important prospect).

Which is why Hector Sanchez is starting to seem like a good alternative for backup catcher. He's not going to post video game numbers (his .452 AVG and .935 SLG) during the regular season, but I'd like to think that he won't slump into the low 200s. Last season, he hovered around .260 AVG and .320-.330 OBP in AAA and the majors. 

What seems to be keeping him away from the 25 man roster is that magical thing called experience behind the plate. I don't believe in magical intangibles. It's more likely that the Giants aren't ready to part with their current catching depth. Cut both Stewart and Whiteside and something goes wrong, those two are probably playing somewhere else by then. 

Which is why an injured Freddy might have something to do with Hector: with an extra spot on the roster--there's even enough room that the Giants are shopping either Mike Fontenot or Ryan Theriot--maybe the Giants will start the season with three catchers. Even Bruce Bochy's warming to the idea:
“You’d have to say he’s in the mix, particularly with how he’s playing,” Bochy said. “Of course, you come up with the idea of, `Is he better off playing every day or playing a couple times a week and coming off the bench?’ These are the things we’ll discuss this week.” [...]
“He’s a nice player. He had a nice winter ball,” Bochy said. “He’s got the ability from both sides, a good eye, uses the whole field. He really doesn’t have a hole, and he’s a smart hitter. He knows what he wants to do up there. He’s got a great gift there.”
When Bochy started describing Gregor Blanco in these kind of terms, it became clear that he's making the team. Is Hector Sanchez next? And will he have the opportunity to make his case to stay before Freddy returns? 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Going With the Homegrown Talent

We'll probably be grumbling for some time about how the Giants' jerked Brandon Belt around in 2010, but if the cover of the 2012 media guide is any indication, the team is going all in on the homegrown talent.

I'm not even going to get started on who's missing...but, is anybody else thinking that the Giants will be trying to lock up Madison Bumgarner sooner rather than later?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Shaping the Narrative

In many ways, spring training is about narratives. Teams, players, journalists, bloggers, all shaping the ways that we think about the new season. How a team responds to its accomplishments or failures of the previous season. How the new players fit, how the veterans are ready to make yet another effort, how the struggles of the previous years are redeemed on the field in the new year. In short, the narrative shapes our expectations for the next 162 games, and ever optimistically, even more.

Because spring training has to be about something. It's not really about a team winning or losing, as long as they aren't embarrassing themselves. It's not, for most players, really about numbers, or at least until somebody discovers the Aubrey Huff algorithm (q.v. 2011). The narrative shapes how we read those numbers, and what we should expect them to mean--even if we know that there's not much such small sets of data, accumulated against uneven levels of competition, could mean.

And now, with less then two weeks left in spring training, it's time to start thinking about opening day, who's going to be there, and what they're going to accomplish. Time for progress reports (Baggarly's is pretty good), yardsticks, and keen or not-so-keen observations. Everybody wants to win, but it's not going to happen (especially for you, Arizona Diamondbacks...). And, many of us, who write or are trying to write about baseball, we want to possess those keen insights, but much of this is still pre-season nonsense. For those with the not-so-keen observations, at least there aren't many consequences.

That being said, a few observations. 

First, To Health
I haven't been blogging about the Giants for long or else you would all know that Scott Cousins came very close to ruining my first trip to Paris. Now you do. But truthfully, the shock I experienced while checking up on the Giants during the early morning of May 26th pales in comparison to the way that he ruined Buster Posey's season. I think I opened this discussion in an indirect, anecdotal attempt at humor because Posey's recovery is one of the central and potentially unnerving aspects of the Giants' 2012 story.

Fortunately, it seems that Posey is recovering apace.* Which is good, since his bat is supposed to be the solution to the sluggish 2011 offense (not that I'm inclined to think that they should have thrown millions of dollars at the free agent market for insurance). Nevertheless, he has yet to put some full-time strain on his reconstructed ankle, and that leaves many questions unanswered, especially about where he'll be starting: how many games at catcher, how many at first base? If I can acclimate to the strong possibility that Brandon Belt will start the season in AAA, then it doesn't really bother me that Posey might be taking at-bats away from Huff.

By contrast, the Giants just seem to be coming around to, or at least publicly admitting, what seemed to be obvious with Freddy Sanchez: it's (almost very) likely that he's going to start the season on the DL. Ask Bochy:
“We’re down to two weeks here and he hasn’t gotten out there yet,” Bochy said. “We’re still optimistic that we will get him out there, but each day that goes by the possibility grows a little bit that he’s not going to be ready.”
The last serious question mark is Ryan Vogelsong, who has had some back trouble, but who is apparently on course for starting in mid-April. After listening to my friend Mark talk about Clay Buchholz's troubles over the past year, I'd prefer not to think about how difficult back problems can be.

When the Numbers Matter...
When you're negotiating with Matt Cain's agent. 

With that aside, let's face it. The numbers only matter for a select group of players. And, by 'select group of players,' I mean non-roster invitees. And by NRIs, I only mean Gregor Blanco, who is the only one with a strong shot at making the team (see also my previous post)--although we will probably see Hector Sanchez, Heath Hembree, and Eric Surkamp later this season. Given that there are still two weeks left, and that making Blanco a member of the 40-man club requires cutting somebody else, I think that this is about as obvious as Bochy can get:
“He’s done all he can do to make this club,” Bochy said. “I can’t give you anything definitive, but he’s been as good as anybody.” 
Since a .444 average and seven stolen bases aren't enough to really make a case for Blanco, Alex Pavlovic did some schmoozing with some Venezuelan writers (or some kind of research) and came up with some of Blanco's Venezuelan league numbers: 
The last six seasons there, he had on-base percentages of .429, .444, .464, .461, .419, .465. 
Sure, it's not MLB level competition, but it would be great if those numbers translate into above average regular season play. Let's not forget that he's posted a career .358 OBP. The only people who might be worried by Blanco's ascent must be Angel Pagan and Nate Schierholtz.

...And When They Don't Matter
The numbers may not matter so much for the battle of first base, and for the contenders over the remaining infield spots after Pablo Sandoval and Brandon Crawford (and F. Sanchez, if/when he's healthy). This year it matters if you bat right-handed. Ryan Theriot has not been very impressive, though the upside is that his lackluster performance gives you a good reason to root for Crawford's success. Nevertheless, right-handed Theriot might just be there, sitting on the bench, come opening day.

Brett Pill continues to post consistent numbers, meaning that he can hit (.282 AVG) but won't walk (.293 OBP). I don't care if he gets hot and finishes spring batting .478, his OBP will still only be between .479 and .485. First base, should Huff falter, belongs to Brandon Belt.

Finally, Something About The Bat Wiggler
A few days ago, The Miami Herald reported that the Giants $12 million investment in having Aaron Rowand sink a competing National League franchise--or at least in having him beat out Scott Cousins for the last roster spot on the Miami Marlins--may come to naught. Clark Spencer reports:
Only Rowand is off to a poor start statistically. He has gone just 1 for 20 (.050) but said that’s par for the course for him as far as spring training is concerned.
“My spring training averages throughout my career have been [lousy],” Rowand said. “It’s not like I’ve never been in this situation in spring training, where I’m not getting hits. I’ve had some of my best years when I’ve had really bad spring trainings.”

Read more here:
And he's had some terrible years, like when his .222/.254/.259 spring stat line foretold his .233/.274/.347 stat line during his last (and partial) season for the Giants. At least he's somebody else's [lousy] outfielder now. But if you're concerned, and think he should be making himself a [lousy] Marlin, since the publication of the Herald's article he's raised his stat line to a searing .100/.182/.133. Maybe his agent should have called the Astros.

* The number of ingrained metaphors oriented around walking, stepping, and progress is starting to feel oppressive.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Meet Gregor Blanco

From the KC Star
By now you've probably heard about Gregor Blanco. If he keeps doing what he's doing, he's going to be the fourth outfielder this season. Before the fake games started, the Giants put out the word that they were going to ramp up the running game, and he's the guy who took it really seriously. He's got six stolen bases in seven attempts. He does this kind of stuff:
The non-roster invitee drew a walk in the bottom of the first and stunned the Indians by going first-to-third on a hit-and-run groundout to first base. Blanco scored a batter later on Pablo Sandoval’s soft groundout to the left side. If you’re keeping track at home, Blanco also went first-to-third on a wild pitch earlier this spring.
There's something slightly unnerving about emphasizing the running game. We've all learned from Moneyball that a team shouldn't put themselves in a position to give away outs, so no bunting and no stealing (or, at least don't make it your strategy). An aggressive running game can get players into trouble, so that they give away outs. In the photo up there from a game against Kansas City, Blanco pushed to second, overslid the bag and was subsequently tagged out.

And yet, after reading that quote it's difficult not to see the logic of aggressive baserunning, if the more capable players are doing it. If you take Blanco's moves out of the equation, here's the first inning of that game against Cleveland (names deleted to protect the innocent):
  1. Centerfielder walks. No out.
  2. Leftfielder grounds out to first, CF to second. One out.
  3. Thirdbaseman grounds out to shortstop, CF stays at second. Two out.
  4. Catcher ground out to short. Inning over.
That looks very 2011: first batter gets on, three groundouts. Now the first logical step seems to be, work on the hitting. But if you've got to play small ball, play small ball. The Giants will need the runs (or so it seems).

Still, it feels like a recipe for running into outs, though I think I can accept the occasional out if the said baserunner can get on base frequently. Which leads me to Blanco's career OBP: in 836 PA his OBP is .358.

I'd think if he makes the team, they would be expecting something comparable. To this OBP into perspective, it's a step in the right direction compared to their go-to outfielders for most of 2011: Rowand's OBP was .274, Torres' was .312, Ross posted .325, Schierholtz posted .326 and Burrell's was .352. And then there are Blanco's spring training stats, which get guys like Bruce Bochy talking like this:
“He can be a great starter, too,” Bochy said. “With those tools — I’m not going to pencil him in, but the player that you see is young and I’m sure at some point in his career he’s going to be starting.”
The evidence suggests that Blanco will be the fourth outfielder this season--maybe even starting with the Giants at some point in the future. Of course, before we get ahead of ourselves...those spring training numbers will have to translate into regular season success. And if that works out, I wouldn't mind the Giants fielding a player whose baserunning wreaks havoc on an opposing team's defense.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Reading the Tea Leaves

I haven't posted much during spring training because I've sworn that I won't be lured into drawing what we philosophy professors call hasty generalizations (not that I haven't done that before...). This whole resolution will, in any case, be broken when I get around to writing a post about Gregor Blanco, the prime candidate for fourth outfielder (which is now here). 

But I don't really want to talk numbers right now. I want to read things into things the management says. Things about Brandon Belt and the 25 man roster. As reported by Rael Enteen at CSN, Bruce Bochy was fielding more of those pesky questions about Belt getting time playing in the outfield, when he tipped his cards (that, folks, is a mixed metaphor, and it's not going anywhere):
“[Belt’s] doing fine,” Bochy said. “He’s done OK. He played a little more right in his younger years so I think he’s a little more comfortable there. I just want to take a look at him there but more likely he’ll be going back to left, particularly at our ballpark. Melky will probably be the one going to right field. But I just want to take a look at it. Huff will play some outfield, too. We’ll have to make that decision, which way we think is the best way to go.”
See? He said our ballpark. Now, Bruce Bochy is the manager of the San Francisco Giants, who play at AT&T Park, not the manager of the Fresno Grizzlies, who don't play home games at AT&T. The reference to Huff makes it clear that we're talking about 2012, and not 2013, when Huff will not be part of the team and it should be obvious that Belt, barring any number of things that can happen during a season, would be starting at first base.

Our ballpark...Brandon Belt...25 man roster, 2012. We'd prefer him starting at first, but whatever gives him regular playing time.

We've cracked the code. Now if only we could figure out the algorithm for Sabean-metrics. But we made it this far. We're a step ahead of the Pill and Huff factions.

Not convinced yet? Yeah, me neither. We're going to have to wait a few more weeks before this whole Belt/Huff/Pill issue is resolved. In fact, I get the funny feeling that the fate of Gregor Blanco, the prime long-shot candidate to make the 25 man team, is intertwined with the battle of first base.

Back to reading the tea leaves.