Do you smell that? It’s a combination of hot dogs, fresh-cut grass, and over-priced beer. It’s a faint odor now, but it gets stronger by the day and comes along ever year around this time. Try as you might, you cannot ignore it. It is, my dear friends, the smell of baseball.
With some spring training games already in the books and the regular season only a few short weeks away, now is as good a time as any to evaluate what this season may have in store. Although it is difficult to make predictions with any accuracy here in March, it is possible to envision best- and worst-case scenarios. With the San Francisco Giants, the difference between these two hypotheticals is larger than most other teams, considering the extreme contrast of their last two seasons, but it’s still fun to play pretend. I’ll start with the bad news.
It’s an ugly one. For starters, the Giants have put a lot of stock into the return of Buster Posey as a major improvement to their league-worst lineup, which is understandable. But as of right now, Buster has yet to run the bases at full speed, much less get down in a squat for nine innings. He is getting time behind the plate now and should make the start of the season near top form, but question marks will remain until he proves he is completely healthy and can be the Buster we all know and love.
The rest of the lineup is also filled with spots of concern. The new 1-2 punch of Angel Pagan and Melky Cabrera won’t be worth anything until they can prove they can hit in the spacious AT&T Park. New starting shortstop Brandon Crawford is known as primarily a defensive player and doesn’t look to make much noise with the bat.
As for the rest of the infield, the Giants have yet to commit to how they will be handling the Aubrey Huff/Brandon Belt first base situation that was such a disappointment last year, and Pablo Sandoval needs to put two solid seasons back to back before he can solidify himself as the star he has potential to be. Add the fact that the Giants’ most consistent hitter through the past couple of years, Freddy Sanchez, is injury prone and entering the twilight of his career, and you’re looking at another potentially horrible season for this offense.
On the pitching side of things, Ryan Vogelsong may find it difficult to repeat his All-Star season last year, and any time you have post-2006 Barry Zito in your rotation, you know there is room for improvement.
Obviously, like any other team, the best case scenario for the Giants is to win the World Series. Unlike a lot of other teams, these guys have the tools to do it. Their pitching staff, if it stays to the form it has been in past couple of years, will keep the Giants in every game and carry them through the playoffs should they make it that far.
The return of Posey will give the lineup a much needed jolt, and if this is met with the return of last year’s Sandoval, the Giants are looking at a fairly powerful 3-4 punch in their lineup. Pagan offers a little more to the leadoff spot compared to last year, and, although spring ball should be taken with a grain of salt, Cabrera has looked impressive so far and looks to prove his success last year was not a fluke.
Brandon Belt has tweaked his approach at the plate this off season a little bit and worked on hitting breaking pitches in winter ball, which was his biggest weakness in 2011. Even if he doesn’t provide superstar talent as the Giants once projected, he looks to be a league-average hitter, which is something the Giants could have used last year. Potentially, the biggest factor in the best-case scenario could be the progression of young outfielder Gary Brown. In his first full minor league season last year he posted a monster slash line of .336/.407/.519 with 14 HRs and 53 SBs. If he performs as well this year, and breaks into the majors with as much success, the Giants could have a young superstar on their hands who would fill a lot of needs.
It is likely that the Giants’ success (or lack thereof) will fall somewhere in between these two extremes, but fans and experts alike seem to think that after a World Series hangover in 2011, the Giants are prepared to return to dominance in 2012. As for now, the best we can do is sit back, take a deep whiff of that spring air and wait patiently for April.