Believing

Ok, we’re officially two months down, with a road off-day to spare. This seems like a great opportunity to get caught up to speed on all things Giants baseball. As the weeks pass, it’s becoming more and more clear to me just how…I don’t want to say skeptical, as that’s not the correct word here… let’s say nervous… how nervous I was entering the season. I had so much confidence in that 2013 team. We all did. But something about last year’s face-plant left me feeling very uneasy this spring, and I wasn’t just going to throw the struggles of that team out the window when the 2014 Giants got off to a strong start in April.

I think it’s safe to say this was going to be a key season for the franchise. One of the last two years was an aberration, and this was going to be the team that helped us figure out just who the real Giants were. Well, it’s starting to look like 2013 (the flop year) is the outlier. Sure, this club wouldn’t be 37-20 – best in baseball – right now without the additions of Mike Morse and Tim Hudson, two of the smoothest acquisitions of the winter. But we truly believed they weren’t as bad as they played last season. We just needed them to prove it.

Before this weekend, we knew the 2014 Giants were a solid club. They were toying around with the best record in baseball, winning home and road contests alike, and generally playing good ball. But you could just hear the skeptics… the old, “yeah, but” argument. “Yeah, they’re all right, but let’s see how they do against a real club like St. Louis. Four games out there will put them right in their place.” As happy as I was with this team, even I was wondering how we’d match up with the Cards.

Then, a funny thing happened. The Giants went into St. Louis, the wealthy, successful relatives of the National League, and stuck it to the hometown Red Birds. Trailing in the late innings on Thursday night, without Buster Posey? No problem. Adam Wainwright, pitcher of all pitchers on Friday? Still no Buster? Hmm… not a problem. And just when you thought the Cardinals would salvage a split on Sunday, Hudson shut them out with another 7 strong. How’s an 8-0 whipping on getaway day?

Whether the critics will admit it or not (and not that I honestly care), the Giants just raised the bar in St. Louis. In one of the most important road series of the first half, Bochy’s crew knocked around one of the most respected teams in the league. Now, as we head into June, we’re looking at 17 home games, with only 6 more on the road following this week’s series in Cincinnati. For a team that has struggled in June in recent years, the schedule really plays well for the Giants to keep their impressive record intact heading into the All-Star break.

No, the Giants haven’t been perfect… and they haven’t exactly been healthy either. They’ve seen Brandon Belt and Santiago Casilla go down, and Matt Cain is back on the DL. Will we even see Marco Scutaro this year? The health of this team is definitely something to keep an eye on going forward. But for now, you have to be impressed with the way guys have stepped up. Despite the injuries, the Giants really haven’t missed a beat over the past month.

Baseball is a funny game, and you truly can’t predict what this team will look like in two months. Will they be able to get big hits with 2 outs forever, with a bullpen full of guys with sub-2.00 ERA’s? Not likely. But this is a confident team nonetheless. It’s a team that has speed atop the order, power in the middle, and a couple middle infielders who have the ability to lift the ball out of the yard in the 7 and 8-spots. It’s a team with a young ace atop its rotation, one Madison Bumgarner, who is really starting to hit his stride after starting a bit slow. At 38 years old, Hudson has a 1.75 ERA. Who would have predicted that?

It’s June 2 folks, and the Giants are absolutely rolling. I’ve kept my mouth shut for long enough, but it finally feels like the right time to get out there and yell a little. This is the club we looked for in 2013. This is the club that looks primed to make an October run. This club is a damn confident one, and after two months of baseball, it’s made me a serious believer.

If the Giants are to contend, having Tim  Hudson pitch like he did on Wednesday will go a long way. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

(Ross D. Franklin/AP)

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Organizational Thoughts

It’s been a couple weeks since I’ve been able to post on here, but please don’t fret. Cove Chatter is not dead! Baseball season is so crazy, I swear. One minute it’s Opening Day, you blink your eyes and it’s game 25. Holy smokes. I realize I really haven’t had a chance to reflect on things in a while (I really haven’t reflected on the MLB club at all since the first week of the season), so let’s take a few minutes to get caught up.

Giants: 14-10, 1st place NL West

Key Hitters: Angel Pagan, Mike Morse, Brandon Belt, Buster Posey

Key Pitchers: Tim Hudson, Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, Entire Bullpen

The Gigantes are looking to sweep the Tribe out of AT&T Park today, with Vogey making his 5th start of the season. The starting pitching hasn’t exactly been the strong point of the team so far, but each man in the rotation will have started 5 games after today… that’s a major rarity in baseball this season, and its importance really can’t be overstated. Bumgarner has shown flashes of dominance, but hasn’t quite hit his stride yet. Same for Cain, who has also had some ups and downs. Hudson is without a doubt the early-season ace of this squad, and has been one of the best pitchers in the NL out of the gates. Heck of a signing right there.

The bullpen took some serious heat this winter, but those guys have really picked up the slack this month, especially in Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong’s starts. You really never know what you’re going to get from those two, but the pen has saved the day on many occasions already. Quick trivia question: who leads the team in wins right now? Would you have guessed Jean Machi? Fans seem to dog that guy big time, but he’s sitting 4-0 with a cool 0.84 ERA. Santiago Casilla’s is even better, 0.68; Jeremy Affeldt and Javy Lopez have yet to allow a run, and Sergio Romo is 6/6 in saves. That group is absolutely rolling right now, and their continued health (and performance) will be huge as the season goes along.

On the offensive side, we’ve already seen this team’s peaks and valleys. Pagan has really been the difference-maker in April, and we’re seeing more and more how important he is to this club. Belt is hitting bombs and striking out like crazy. 7 HR in 23 games… is Belter becoming a power hitter? Posey’s bat has been mired in a big slump, but he continues to pump the ball out of the yard as well. I think Buster will be just fine. How about Morse? Another guy who people mocked the Giants up and down for signing… how’s that looking now? I just love that guy; he’s got some of the most impressive right-handed power in baseball, and he’s showing it off big time right now. Stay healthy, Mikey!

On the flip side, Pablo continues to struggle mightily at the dish. This is usually his time of year, but he’s hitting .165. The Panda was supposed to be a lock to have a career year… what will his month of May look like? Hunter Pence looks to be coming out of his own slump, and just in time. The Giants have been missing his bat, and we all know what he’s capable of when he’s hot. Finally, where’s Marco Scutaro? Not that I was expecting him to be on the field at this point, but there’s absolutely no updates on his condition. How did the front office overlook this during the winter? Brandon Hicks looks ok for now, but I don’t see him as a long-term solution. Don’t look now, but Joe Panik is holding his own in Fresno. Even hit his 1st HR of the season a few nights ago.

Overall, I’m very happy with this team right now. They’re hanging around, and staying healthy for the most part, while a good amount the league is not. In all honesty, I think this is one of the better teams in baseball that nobody’s talking about right now. That’s just how we like it, here in Giants Land.

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(SFGiantsphotos.mlblogs.com)

Minor Leagues:

I wanted to touch on the farm system briefly. I entered the season very excited about this system, but I have to admit I’ve been a little letdown early on. We all know about the wealth of starting pitching the Giants have on the farm right now, and a few of those guys have shown up big this month. Joan Gregorio and Kendry Flores have to be the names to watch down in San Jose, and Keury Mella is holding his own in Augusta. Yep, the international guys are taking charge. Esky Escobar is learning how to pitch in Fresno, and his results are starting to get better. I think a lot of people are learning just how tough it is to throw in the PCL. Just ask Mike Kickham!

What’s going on with the Richmond pitching staff? That’s supposed to be the bread and butter of this organization, and the results have been a little disappointing so far. Clayton Blackburn has arguably been the ace of that group through four starts, while Adalberto Mejia is heating up. Ty Blach is keeping runs off the board, but he’s not striking anyone out. Kyle Crick has 14 BB in 12.2 IP. His control has been absolutely MIA lately. I think that’s been a little deflating for me, as I was hoping to see Cricky start hot. Let’s hope he can settle in a little bit, and start pitching deeper into games.

One more name to keep an eye on. Christian Jones, down in Augusta. The Oregon Duck lefty looks very good early on. We knew he had a nice pedigree, but I had no idea he’d be working in a starter’s role at this point. But he is, and the results have looked dang good so far. Jones pitches tonight, and David Lee has him working 88-91 with his fastball, showing a decent curve and a plus-potential changeup. That’s an 18th round pick who slid after having TJ surgery. Nice work on the draft front, Gigantes.

On the offensive side, Gary Brown has probably been the nicest surprise so far. Browny is looking much better in Fresno, and has been a difference-maker to this point. Christian Arroyo is struggling with the bat in Augusta, although Lee says he hits everything. He’s not playing SS (which I think is a mistake), and maybe that’s having an impact on his offensive performance. Mac Williamson is hitting much better in San Jose… I hope he gets to try AA soon. Andy Susac was off to a very nice start in Fresno, but has found himself on the DL. That’s been the theme of his career. Get healthy, kid. Our other sleeper, Matt Duffy, has played well in the Eastern League. The power has been zapped, but his approach at the plate looks good, as do the reports on his defense.

I think that’s enough for one post. Believe me, I’ve missed not writing on here. But sometimes, as we all know, life gets very busy. I’ll try to return soon, but hopefully this will wet your appetite for the time being. Thanks for following Cove Chatter, and go Giants!

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(Kevin Pataky/MiLB.com)

Tuesday Morning Catch-All

**Edit: Kevin Frandsen is officially a free agent: Just how desperate ARE the Giants for a middle infielder?

Only two more Cactus League games left… wow, where is the time going?! I really don’t feel like this spring has drug on like some in the past, but maybe that’s because we haven’t actually seen the full starting lineup play together yet. The Giants seem like they’ve been on a mission from day one of camp, as they’ve trimmed their roster frequently and aggressively. We’re down to what, 29 guys now? At the moment, odd men out appear to be Law, Gutierrez, Colvin and Scutaro… with Scutaro obviously starting the season on the DL, and Brandon Hicks getting the final roster spot.

Andrew Susac gets the start behind the dish in today’s game, which happens to be Bumgarner’s final start of the spring. As Baggs tweeted out earlier, this is a great opportunity for Susac, but I also wonder if the organization isn’t trying to show the kid off a bit. Yes, Posey is playing 1B today, and Hector Sanchez is getting a day off, but the timing is a little odd in my opinion. I’m probably just reading into it more than I should. Either way, today should be a great chance for Susac to show off his spring progression.

Another note from the game today: Mike Morse is playing LF and batting #2. That’s pretty significant to me, as Morse really hasn’t spent much time in the field this spring. He swung the bat very well against the Angels yesterday, but you really have to wonder if he’s healthy enough to play every day at this point. Between Morse, Scutaro and Pagan, the Giants seem like they’ve been babying a few of these guys so far. After last year, we definitely don’t need anyone going down before the season even starts, but you have to wonder if the rust will carry over into April. In Scutaro’s case, what was even accomplished in 2 AB this spring?

Getting back to Morse… Baggs had a story up last night about options for the #2 spot in the order while Scooter is out. Belt, Morse and Crawford were a few of the names thrown around. I think he mentioned Arias as well. Morse got the nod yesterday, and they’ve penciled him in there again for this afternoon. Now I certainly don’t know everything in this world, and I would defer to Bruce Bochy’s knowledge of his players 100% of the time… but I really don’t see Morse as a good fit for #2 in a lineup. Yes, he can be a high average guy when he’s healthy, but he’s never had a great OBP. I watched quite a few Seattle games last year, and the dude is definitely a hacker. To me, Belt seems like a much better fit for the #2 spot than any of the others in consideration.

What else is on tap today? How about the “Sandoval Talks,” as I like to call them. Look, this is a very touchy subject for people. It’s a fanbase divider, without a doubt. Pablo is a fan favorite, and a genuinely likeable guy. But come on, is the organization really supposed to just give him any amount of money he wants? The comments from his agent about training 24/7 and never having weight problems again are laughable, but I guess that’s what an agent is supposed to say.

I want to make this clear: I am a big fan of the Panda, and I would be sad to see him go. But the organization has to stop shelling out major contracts at some point, especially for a player who’s been very inconsistent for the past four years. Believe me, I know there are 100 valid arguments to make in both parties’ favor at this point, but I’m not sold that Pablo Sandoval is a $100M player yet. I do have a caveat though: if the organization really has no desire to get creative in replacing Pablo at 3B (i.e. shifting Buster/Crawford/Susac), then I guess you might as well pay the man… because you’re going to have one heck of a time finding steady production from the free agent market. But, if you’re willing to explore every possible option, including the obvious internal switches, then hold your ground. If Panda wants the big money, he’ll have to earn it… and maybe, just maybe he’ll help get you back in another pennant chase while he’s earning it.

Ok, it’s probably time to wrap this thing up. Looking back, it feels like I’ve taken on a very negative tone in this post. That was not my intention, and I apologize if you’re a bit put off by it. But there have been a few things on my mind lately, so I figured it was time to share them. Believe me, I’m VERY excited for the season to get started. I’m also jacked for the minor league seasons to open as well. I want to start talking prospects again!

Just one more thing… Speaking of prospects, I do have a quick bit of news to share. Joe Ritzo was reporting on the Giants High-A squad yesterday in Arizona, and he tweeted out the lineup. Apparently Chris Stratton had a very nice outing, inducing tons of grounders in 5 solid innings. But something else caught my eye: Joe had “Chavez” listed as the Giants DH. I sure as heck couldn’t remember any Chavez from the farm system, so I asked Ritzo about it. Turns out it’s Matt Chavez, an independent league guy the Giants picked up over the winter… He’s a Burlingame kid, former USF Don, and was drafted in 2010 by the White Sox (as a pitcher). He’s 25, so definitely not a young guy. But a pretty interesting story no less. Here’s the link Joe sent me, give it a look if you have time. Could we be looking at another Daniel Nava story here?

I think that’s about all for today. Thanks for checking in. Before you know it, the Giants will be playing at AT&T this weekend. That, my friends, is a very good thing.

Giants 2014: Left Field

*Update: Forget the part about signing Jose Abreu… 6-years, $68 million deal with the White Sox. What happened to the Giants as favorites here? Much more on that topic to follow. 

What are the Giants going to do with left field? That’s the question everyone is asking this offseason, although the more I think about it, the more I feel left field is a secondary issue to solidifying the starting rotation. The Giants are a pitching-driven team, and it’s very likely they’ll head into winter with only Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner’s spots locked down. Finding three worthy pitchers to fill in around those two will be an incredible challenge for Brian Sabean – getting a #3 might be the toughest task of all (Tim Lincecum ain’t it). I think the rotation is more of a priority for Sabes than left field, but finding that elusive everyday left fielder is still an issue, and something that will be discussed and speculated all offseason. So I guess it’s our turn on Cove Chatter to dip our toes into the left field water.

Where it’s been: Barry Lamar Bonds had a 1.045 OPS in 2007. Barry Lamar Bonds wasn’t invited back for 2008, for reasons I still can’t understand. But those days are long gone. In the six seasons since the Giants decided they no longer needed the services of the greatest hitter in their franchise’s history, left field in San Francisco has taken the form of a community bicycle – nearly everyone has taken a ride. During those six seasons, here are the guys who’ve started more than 50 games in a season in left field for the Giants: Fred Lewis, Randy Winn, Pat Burrell, Cody Ross, Melky Cabrera, Gregor Blanco, Andres Torres. Seven players in 6 seasons – That’s a revolving door, folks. Lewis is the only homegrown player among that group. He wasn’t bad for a couple seasons, but he also had the insurmountable task of replacing Bonds… he never had a chance.

Burrell was as valuable as anyone on the 2010 squad – and he was a Sabean Special dumpster dive. Burrell also demonstrated how valuable raw power can be. Sure, his outfield defense was miserable, but his bat was a key factor in the Giants’ late-season surge. Maybe more important though, Burrell and Aubrey Huff made one hell of a cocky pair, and their swagger went a long way in leading that young team down the stretch. Sometimes a little attitude goes a long way in this game.

Melky was a Godsend in 2012, and we all found out why in August. Remember all those early-season cries for management to lock him up long-term? That could have been bad…real bad. Regardless, Melky’s production gave the Giants a very deep lineup. The platoon of Blanco/Torres in 2013 didn’t come close to making up that production. The floodgates opened when both of those guys were thrust into starting roles after Angel Pagan’s injury. I have to give Sabean some credit, though. He definitely tried to get production out of LF after Pagan went down. But neither the vets (Tanaka, Francoeur) nor the kids (Perez, Kieschnick, Peguero) could really establish any consistent offense out there.

Where it’s headed: All of these things have made LF a significant hole in the Giants offense for the second consecutive offseason. So… how do they fix it? I’ll be honest; there are about a dozen different ways they can go here. But we can definitely look at a few of those ways Sabean may take to fill the void.     

In-house options: Blanco, Perez, Kieschnick, Peguero. Those are your in-house outfield options. Maybe Brett Pill to a lesser extent. All of them have spent time in the majors, but very little for the 3 rookies. It’s conceivable that any of these 4 could be your Opening Day LF next spring, depending on who steps up in spring training (don’t forget John Bowker once opened the season as the starting RF after a strong spring). Here’s my issue with these guys: none of them are MLB regulars right now. Blanco is the closest, and the Giants have sure tried their damndest to make him a starter. Yes, he’s got a nice tool belt – defense, speed, OBP. Give him 155 starts in left, and he’ll probably give you a .330 OBP with 5 HR in return. That’s not awful, by any means. Some guys will spend their career trying to put together a season like that. But I need more offense from my everyday corner outfielder, regardless of how good his defense is.

But Blanco hits pretty well against righty’s, you say. Give the kid Perez a chance to platoon with him, you plead. I know for a fact there are people out there who would be satisfied by a Perez/Blanco platoon. Not me. Not on a team that wants to contend. Both of those guys can be valuable bench players. Both can be game-saving defensive replacements in the late innings. Maybe Perez has more in the bat? Maybe Peguero and Kieschnick can put it all together? That would certainly be great, but the Giants don’t have time to find out right now. Entering the year with one or a combination of these in-house guys as the starter is the most conservative approach the Giants can take, and in my opinion the worst. So… what next?

Free agents: If you haven’t seen the free agent list, you check it out here. There’s not much depth, but we already knew that. As outfielders go, Ellsbury and Choo are the obvious prizes. I would love either of them in San Francisco. Ain’t happenin’. Granderson, Beltran? Probably not. But we need a starter, and he needs to come from outside the organization. So who’s it going to be? The Giants aren’t going to find a long-term solution to LF within this group. So I’m looking for my new Pat Burrell… and I’ve got some guys in mind: Mike Morse, Delmon Young, Marlon Byrd, Corey Hart.

Maybe these aren’t the sexy names on the market. Maybe some of them have injury concerns or defensive issues. Maybe they’re prone to strikeouts. But they all have one thing in common: power potential baby. Pat the Bat wasn’t a gifted defender, remember? Pat the Bat didn’t make a lot of contact. But Patty had confidence, and he could unload the long ball from time to time. Any one of these guys can, too. If you’re trying to hold a late lead, enter Blanco or Perez. If you need to lift this guy for a pinch runner, you can do that too. But each of these four guys has the ability to make an impact with his bat when he’s on the field, and that’s what I want to see out of my starting LF. If Sabean decides to kick the tires on one of them to the tune of a one or two-year deal, I’ll have no beef, as long as it’s within reason.

It might cost a little more to pry Hart away from Milwaukee, but I think it’s worth it if the guy can prove he’s healthy. Could be a nice comeback story. Morse’s wrist surgery makes his case a little complicated, but he’s another guy who could provide a nice power piece in the lineup if he’s healthy. With Byrd, you’re banking on one more productive season, as he’s older at 36. Stopgap option. Young could be a classic Burrell story. Former top prospect, castoff, playoff vet with pop. He’s an unknown at this point, but might be worth a flier along the lines of the deal Philly gave him last winter. Tampa gave him a shot down the stretch. Will the Giants?

Trades: If Sabean doesn’t find the free agent class enticing (which is completely understandable), maybe he looks to the trade market to find his nightly “postgame leap” buddy for Pagan and Pence. Sabean rebuilt his outfield through trades prior to 2012, so maybe he sneaks in another one this offseason. This is tough business though. Who does he offer… and who does he even go after? Peter Gammons recently suggested Pablo as a potential trade candidate this winter. Maybe Sabes dangles the Panda in front of the Yankees’ noses. Would they be willing to part ways with Tyler Austin? In the unlikely event, Austin would probably start the season in AA anyway, so that wouldn’t fill the LF void next season. Who else is out there that may be expendable? Colby Rasmus? In all honesty, your guess is as good as mine. Sabean hasn’t been afraid to make trades in the past, but this offseason doesn’t seem like it’ll boast a very favorable market.

If not a Blanco or Perez, a Morse or Byrd, or a [insert trade candidate here], where else could the Giants possibly look to patch their LF hole? There’s one more scenario, and I saved it for last not because I think it’s the most likely to happen, but because it just may be the best option the organization has at this point.

Brandon Belt: The idea of Belt moving to LF isn’t anything new. If you recall, Belty played a handful of games out there as a rookie, when Huff was still on the team – 31 starts to be exact. How was Belt as an outfielder? Hell if I remember. But I imagine he could settle nicely into the position if they committed to him being out there. He’s an athletic guy, tall, with a very strong left arm. I don’t think it’s too far off to say he could eventually be an asset in LF. Maybe it wouldn’t be the easiest transition in the world, but he could certainly do it.

If you’ve been watching the Giants the past couple of years, I think you can understand how getting Belt some time in LF would be in the team’s best interest. For two seasons, Buster Posey has been sliding over to play 1B on days when he wasn’t behind the dish. Posey’s bat is too valuable to keep out of the lineup, but he’s not going to play all 162 with the gear on. That’s perfectly understandable, but something happened this season that should change the way the Giants view this Belt/Posey situation: Belt became one of the team’s best hitters down the stretch. If he can carry his second-half momentum into next spring, the Giants really need to consider whether they can afford keeping Belt out of the lineup on days when Posey isn’t catching. What then? Does Posey play some 3B? We’ve all been suggesting it, but the Giants haven’t made any indication that they’re willing to try it. Just like they haven’t been very receptive to the idea of Belt playing LF. Maybe Posey just gets a complete day off? Either way, the writing is on the wall… this team needs more positional flexibility. They’ve got a young, budding talent in Belt, and there’s absolutely no excuse for not getting him some more experience in the outfield.

Of course, if the Giants are as interested in making a run for Cuban free agent Jose Abreu as they lead on, Belt may be heading to left whether he wants to or not. Any team who signs Abreu is banking on his bat, not his glove. And they sure as heck aren’t signing him to play the outfield. To me, there are numerous reasons to give Belt a chance in left, and many of them are starting to present themselves. Here’s a scenario for you: Sabean/Bochy sit Belt down, tell him he’s switching positions. Not only that, but they’re locking him up for his arbitration years. Essentially, you’re telling the kid that you’re committing to him as your everyday LF going forward. In my opinion, that’s ultimate job security…not a demotion or rejection. I’m sure not everyone looks at it that way. Yes, you’d be losing Belt’s above average defense at first. But I’d rather hide a poor defender at first than I would in left, especially if it’s an Abreu or a Morse-type player. Could allow Sabean to be a little more creative this offseason as well. Just a thought.

Ok, I think I’ve exhausted almost every possible scenario for addressing LF this winter here. That being said, I’m sure the Giants will pull something completely unexpected out of their hats and shock us all. Choo for $100 million? Naaaah. This is by far the longest post in this Giants 2014 series so far, and for good reason. The LF situation could literally go in a dozen different directions. I’ll try to keep the next few a bit shorter, and save some breath for the starting rotation. Thanks for reading, and it should be very interesting to see how Sabean goes forward with the position.

Blanco