Position “Battles” and Things to Watch in Spring Training

By: Ben Leonard

Spring training is a time of hope. It may be false hope for 29 of 30 MLB teams and delusional for most, but every team and player gets a fresh start. Don’t tell that to Clayton Kershaw. Maybe he’ll just be October Kershaw forever. Giants fans can dream, can’t they?

This sense of hope pervaded the Giants’ clubhouse in 2014, especially during their magical run to their third World Series championship in three years. After losing Pablo Sandoval and having a rotation that was about as sturdy as swiss cheese last season, the Giants will need some of this hope and then some if they wish to make it back to the promised land. Accordingly, many players will need this hope if they want to make the Giants’ 25-man roster heading into the season, with pitchers and catchers reporting Wednesday, and the full team reconvening February 24th.

Bullpen “Battles”

Although the Giants’ bullpen is their strongest phase of the team, that doesn’t mean its components are set in stone. Stalwarts Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo, Jeremy Affeldt, and Javier Lopez are locks to make the squad out of camp. Two of Tim Lincecum, Ryan Vogelsong, and Yusmeiro Petit will hold down long-relief roles. Including the four other starters, this leaves us with 11 pitchers virtually guaranteed to start the season with the club in Phoenix. Therefore, two more pitchers would be the most that the Giants could feasibly take.

Hunter Strickland and Jean Machi both took roster spots in October, but are not guaranteed spots this season. Both Strickland and Machi imploded under the spotlight of postseason baseball. With a lot of depth at right-handed relief in the system, neither can coast their way to a roster spot. Kontos, Erik Cordier, and even the non-roster invitee Black all could make spring surges to make their way up to the big leagues. The number of pitchers manager Bruce Bochy takes, 12 or 13, depends on his bench choices. One or two of these five pitchers will make the team.

Bochy has a pronounced infatuation for Strickland, who was annihilated in October, giving up six (!!!) home runs. Machi was great in the first half of the season, posting a 1.64 ERA. Despite giving up an identical .264 wOBA to opposing hitters in both halves, Machi posted a much higher 3.86 ERA in the second half. If Bochy decides to take one, it will likely be Machi, who has a better Major League track record despite inferior stuff and a poor finish. Strickland has electric stuff and didn’t give up a run in seven innings of regular season ball, but Machi is a more proven quantity at the big league level, pitching in 122 career games to Strickland’s 9.

If Bochy decides to go with 13, the situation gets a little murkier and the bench gets a little thinner. Assuming Machi makes it, Strickland would likely be the favorite for the final spot. Kontos is a solid long reliever, but the Giants already have plenty of that. Cordier is essentially an inferior, journeyman version of Strickland, throwing gas and producing swings and misses, but also walking batters like they are the 2001 version of Barry Bonds.

In addition, Ray Black may be the hard-throwing righty of the future for the Giants, who has hit 100 MPH on the radar gun and dominated Single-A hitters, enough to earn him an invite to Scottsdale. He may simply be too inexperienced to take on such a big role this season, but he certainly seems ready: opposing hitters have hit just .140 against Black in his 37-game minor league career. Black will certainly be fun to watch, even if he is a dark horse candidate, at best, to make the squad. Think of it as a sneak preview of his likely debut in September when rosters expand. Strickland and Machi are the favorites, with Machi holding the upper hand if Bochy opts for a 12-man ‘pen, but it certainly isn’t Black and white.

Bench “Competition”

The Giants’ bench situation is a little bit more up-in-the-air than the bullpen, but only because of uncertainty in the bullpen. The players will be determined by the amount of pitchers the Giants take. The starting lineup is set in stone, with the exception of the Aoki/Blanco sort-of platoon but not really in left. That leaves either three or four spots (most likely four), open for Bochy to toy with. Andrew Susac is a virtual lock to make the squad as a backup catcher, possibly along with Hector Sanchez. Sanchez indicated that he is lukewarm about catching in the future after his most recent concussion. He may be open to playing elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean he is the best option for the Giants.

With only two or three bench spots available, the Giants need someone a bit more versatile and athletic. Like it or not, Joaquin Arias fits this role perfectly (even though he was horrific last season) because he can play every infield position, including shortstop. Travis Ishikawa, the Giants’ postseason hero, is basically a lock to make the squad because the Giants tendered him a contract this offseason. Regardless of their play this spring, both Arias and Ishikawa will make the team just because of their deals. Props to their agents.

In the case of a 12-man staff, the Giants will have one more roster spot to hand out. Adam Duvall, Matt Duffy, Juan Perez, and maybe even Gary Brown would be considered. You know what they say, bench competition fills seats (Maybe tell that to the A’s). I’m sure loyal, dedicated Giants fans will be come to Scottsdale Stadium in throngs just to pull for their favorite scrubs.

Yeah, right. Even though this supposed competition may be mundane, Bochy’s decision here will be interesting. Duvall is the most likely candidate, given the Giants’ plethora of outfield options already. He has a lot of power potential, even though he struggled mightily last season, posting a wRC+ of 66. He strikes out a lot (26.0 K%) and fails to consistently get on base with authority (.257 wOBA). He can provide lightning in a bottle for the Giants off the bench, a’la Michael Morse this past October.

In the dry desert air, look for Duvall to have a monster spring. He feasted on Triple-A pitching last season, hitting 27 homers and driving in 90 runs in just 91 games, to the tune of a .959 OPS. He’ll see a lot of organizational, low quality arms in the late innings of spring games, giving him a perfect chance to reestablish himself.

To the dismay of Giants fans, the Duff-man just doesn’t seem to fit on the roster. The Giants already have a backup middle infielder in Arias, and they don’t need his .602 OPS from last season wasting a roster spot.

Gary Brown will be in the mix, but only theoretically. The somewhat defiant outfielder got a lot of valuable experience watching the Giants’ postseason run from the dugout, and finally made the adjustments that coaches have been stressing in all his time in the minors. With a big spring building upon those adjustments and some help, Brown could snatch a spot. Regardless of whether he makes the roster or not, he will be intriguing to watch; he has always had the electric tools, but not necessarily the work ethic or attitude to succeed at the big league level.

Health

If the Giants make it out of spring training completely healthy, it will be a major victory for the club. Matt Cain, Tim Hudson, and Angel Pagan are all coming off of surgery, and but Cain seems to be alright. Pagan and Hudson’s situations are a little more concerning, as Hudson is 39 years old and Pagan’s back troubles are a recurring issue. The Giants do have depth to combat a frail rotation, but they certainly don’t want to have to use it. As I said in my rotation preview:

No pitcher stands out in this group of three, so it all comes down to who is pitching well at the time. Lincecum may not impress in the spring, but if his performance ticks up in the regular season, Bochy will have no qualms about re-inserting him into the rotation. Bochy can use all three of these hurlers in tandem, riding the hot hand. Bochy is much more likely to use Petit out of the ‘pen than Vogelsong, but that won’t stop him from starting Petit over the veteran pitcher. Preferably, Bochy would like to find one consistent starter before the season starts, so that they can work themselves into a rhythm.  However, with so much depth, one of these starters will likely pitch well enough to emerge as the superior pitcher. You can never have too much depth, especially with Tim Hudson’s age and injury history. The Giants will find a solid fifth starter: it’s just a matter of who and when.

The Giants have few exciting position battles to watch in spring, but they are still crucial to the success of this team. Finding the right players will be even more important this season than last because the NL West is so much deeper. The Dodgers re-loaded once again, and the Padres suddenly went about the Hot Stove like an AL East team. The Giants may have won three out of five titles, but they have a lot of work ahead of them if they want to make it four out of six.

Stats and info courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference

Cover Image: By Eli Christman on Flickr (Original version) UCinternational (Crop) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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