Giants Spring Training 2012

This is my favorite time of year. Camp opens; batters get stiff backs and pitchers are throwing balls over the backstop. College teams cough up twenty-five runs to assemblages of similarly anonymous minor league pros. Comcast cameras swinging around Scottsdale invariably pick up footage of J.T. Snow everywhere because the man is everywhere and he’s either grinning ear-to-ear, or smiling right around his face. I love Spring Training.

Last year this time I was able to write up my Top 5 Postseason Moments from 2010. I was still riding the high from the championship season and was far more interested in looking back and reliving Orange October than looking forward to the new campaign. This year, however, I’ve been plenty pensive about what needs to sort out in the desert before the season opens on April 6. Here’s where my head is during Cactus League play, in ceremonious Top 5 fashion.

5. Pablo Sandoval: healthy, happy… and still productive?

The Giants showed a lot of faith in the Panda this offseason by giving their third baseman a three-year deal worth more than 17 million. Of course he’s worth the money… and it makes sense to have one less year-to-year arbitration headache to worry about… but I can’t help feeling a little concerned that this may affect his motivation to stay in shape.

Much was made of the weight gain that may or may not have contributed to Sandoval’s sub-par 2010. Personal issues and sophomore pressure certainly contributed, but that dude was enormous two seasons ago. So he lost forty pounds and became the Giants’ only offensive producer of note in 2011. The All-Star reported to camp looking good, which is a great sign. Improvement in hitting and scoring runs is the overwhelming priority this year, and it needs to start with our most reliable guy at the plate. So long as he stays fit, focused, and hungry (so to speak), Pablo can anchor a much-needed offensive resurgence in 2012.

4. The Bullpen: dinged up, reconstructed, and still lights out?

Marty Lurie called it in 2010: The Bullpen Is Key. I didn’t understand him at the time, but watching the postseason unfold, particularly during the NLCS, made me a believer. It’s also hard to argue with the popular choice of Brian Wilson as the MVP of that championship season. The bullpen was still terrific in 2011, and the two biggest keys to setting up the ninth (from either side of the plate), seem more confident than ever: Sergio Romo and Javy Lopez. Ramon Ramirez is gone, ostensibly to be replaced by Clay Hensley, and Jeremy Affeldt needs to find his 2010 groove, but the biggest question mark surrounds the main beard in the bullpen, Brian Wilson.

Elbow issues made a mess of the end of 2011, so all eyes have been on Wilson since pitchers and catchers reported a few weeks ago. Early indications have been positive, so I’m optimistic. Still nervous… but optimistic.

3. The Outfield: new faces and renewed expectations.

Postseason heroes Cody Ross and Pat Burrell are officially gone. Spastic sparkplug/strikeout machine Andres Torres will try to rejuvenate himself with the Mets. Carlos Betran, we hardly knew ye (and what we did know of you was being hurt or only getting hits after it didn’t matter). The Giants’ 2012 starting outfield is full of question marks, but there are plenty of exclamation points poking out of the grass as well. Despite a lack of big names, I’m pretty excited about how this crew will shake out.

Nate Schierholtz deserves to start every day in right field. I love this kid, and had he been given the starting gig from day one (instead of Huff) last year, things might have worked out differently. We don’t really know what to expect from Angel Pagan or Melky Cabrera, but I feel pretty good about Nate the Great’s impending breakout year.

As for the two brand new faces: Pagan is an exciting Torres replacement. Like Andres, he’s aggressive defensively and fast as hell. Unlike our former centerfielder, however, the former Met seems to have developed a better feel for the plate and the basepaths. Pagan struck out 62 times last year to Torres’s 95; he stole more bases as well: 32 compared to 19. In other words, we acquired a more ideal leadoff hitter without sacrificing any defensive energy. Melky Cabrera is the guy I’m more concerned with. Sure, he had a breakout year last season, but he was playing for free agency. And the last time he was in the National League, just two seasons ago with Atlanta, he was terrible. Is he an upgrade over the 2010 versions of Ross or Burrell? Almost definitely. Does he necessarily deserve to play every day? I’m not so sure. Especially when we have another guy who desperately needs to be seeing consistent action…

2. Brandon Belt: The Kid Stays in the Picture.

Brandon Belt’s sophomore slump came during his freshman year. Over and over again. But this kid can hit, and he needs to be in the lineup day in and day out. He headed to the Dominican League this past offseason, unusual for a player who has already broken into the bigs, in order to work on his hitting and regain confidence in his healed wrist. Belt proceeded to slug .457 and has already opened a pair of spring contests with five hits in six at-bats, including a ninth-inning homerun yesterday.

But right now first base, his preferred position, is blocked by Aubrey Huff. When Huff does get a day off, it’ll likely be in order to give Buster Posey a break from catching. Belt earned himself a starting job out of Spring Training last year, forcing Huff into that godawful right field assignation, but quickly demonstrated that he wasn’t ready. For Belt to do the same thing this season, and force Huff to the bench in the last year of his contract, it might require an even more impressive Cactus League performance.

The kid needs his at bats. The team needs his production. If not at first base, then in the outfield, a position Belt worked on last year both during a midseason triple-A demotion and during a late-season call-up. In my mind, the one odd man out should be Melky Cabrera, platooning in the outfield when Belt isn’t able to play first base.

1. Welcome back, Buster Posey.

To this day I can’t re-watch the video of last season’s Cousins collision. I don’t need to. The image of Buster slapping the ground — in pain, frustration, and anger — is permanently fixed in my mind. Along with the Bryan Stow tragedy, it stands out as a heartbreaking symbol of a year of suffering. Not the beautiful, cathartic torture of 2010, but a 2011 of injuries, slumps, and defeats.

Posey’s return, when it does officially happen (he won’t be playing in the first few Cactus League games), will mean more than just the return of a potent bat in the middle of the Giants lineup. It will be incredible encouragement to the entire community of Giants fans looking to the green grass and infield dirt of Arizona ballfields for the eternally springing hope that inaugurates every new baseball season.

The questions regarding Posey are more loaded than anywhere else. How will he be behind the plate? Is he ready to play every day? Is his stroke rusty? Will impending contract negotiations weigh on his mind? I’m not even going to bother myself with these concerns just yet. My number one priority this spring is simply to see number 28 back on the field.