The new guy
While he enjoyed playing at AT&T Park on opposing teams in past years, Michael Morse said there was one thing that puzzled him. “We’d be freezing in the dugout and look over and the Giants – they’re not even wearing sleeves,” he said. “Some of the guys said it’s something you get used to.”
Ideally for the Giants, their new left fielder will feel right at home at their waterfront park – particularly in the batter’s box, where they hope he will add power at a position where they sorely lacked it in 2013.
Giants left fielders combined to hit .257 with five home runs last season. Morse slugged 31 homers for Washington in 2011, but injuries shortened his last two seasons, and last year, he batted just .215 with 13 homers and 27 RBIs in 88 games.
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Because of that and an offseason wrist procedure, the Giants have treated Morse with kid gloves this spring. During Cactus League, he played in just 13 games and went 9 for 30 with no home runs while nursing calf soreness, though he and the Giants have insisted they’re only being cautious.
As long as Morse stays in the lineup, he figures to be an upgrade over the 2013 left-field tandem of Gregor Blanco and Andres Torres, with Blanco still on hand as a potential late-game defensive replacement. The question for the Giants, as posed by general manager Brian Sabean earlier this spring, is just how much of a boost “The Beast” can bring.
“Will he return to Washington form? Who knows?” Sabean said. “But if he does, we’ve made a good decision.”
Staying in the groove
The most celebrated offensive adjustment in San Francisco last season had to be Brandon Belt tweaking the positioning of his hands in his stance and moving back a little in the box at midseason, then hitting .346 after July 31.
It was the latest indication Belt, 25, who rocketed through the minors by hitting .343 in parts of two seasons, might be realizing his potential. “I think that was my main goal (this spring),” Belt said, “to come in and kind of keep that going, the adjustments I made last year.”
Belt had a tendency to coil his hands around his bat handle, leading him to feel “trapped back there.” A suggestion by Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens to loosen his grip “helped because it got my hands where they were supposed to be, and it relaxed the rest of my body.”
Now it’s a matter of whether Belt can carry that strong finish into this season, when he might see more starts in the No. 3 spot in the lineup. It would be a welcome development for Belt, who has hit mostly sixth or seventh in the majors but hit third in the minors, which has “generally and historically been the perfect spot for me.”
Asked what he thinks of his potential as a hitter, Belt said he would “like to do what I did that year in the minors in 2010.” In 136 games at three levels, Belt hit .352 with 23 homers and 112 RBIs.
“That’s hard to do at the big-league level, so who knows if that’ll happen,” Belt said. “But like I said, if I can get better year in and year out, I’ll be in a good position.”
The cleanup man
Though he won’t admit it, statistical evidence suggests Buster Posey wore down in the second half of 2013. After hitting .325 with 13 homers before the All-Star break, the Giants catcher batted just .244 in the second half with nine extra-base hits, two home runs and 16 RBIs.
Those certainly aren’t numbers the Giants – or Posey – have come to expect from the 2012 National League MVP. Perhaps as a result, Posey said he delved deeply into his offseason training program and put on 10 pounds of “good weight” with hopes he’ll “keep that through the season.”
Manager Bruce Bochy has acknowledged that he could have rested Posey more last season and “we’ll keep an eye on that this year.” That could mean more starts for Posey at first base, with Belt getting some days off, though Posey likely will fight for as many starts behind the plate as possible.
Either way, the idea is to keep Posey in the lineup as much as possible. In 16 Cactus League games, he looked rejuvenated at the plate, batting .419 (18 for 43) with two home runs and 12 RBIs. It’s a promising indication for the Giants their franchise player already has put the second half of 2013 behind him, as the franchise attempts to do the same.
Keeping healthy is key
It has become a common refrain the Giants didn’t fully realize how losing Angel Pagan to a hamstring injury May 25 would ripple through the team. When their leadoff hitter went down, the Giants were in first place and five games above .500. When he came back Aug. 30, they were 15 games under .500 and 19 games out of first.
Along the way, the Giants dealt with injuries to starter Ryan Vogelsong (fractured little finger), third baseman Pablo Sandoval (strained foot), relievers Jeremy Affeldt (strained groin) and Santiago Casilla (bone cyst) and second baseman Marco Scutaro (back) that landed all but Scutaro on the disabled list. Scutaro and Affeldt open this season on the DL, too, Scutaro as he deals with lingering back problems, Affeldt with a sprained right MCL.
“Last year,” Pagan said this spring, “wasn’t a fun year for anybody.”
While injuries weren’t the only reason for the Giants’ decline in 2013, they turned a team that began mostly intact from the 2012 World Series into a club featuring, at times, Chad Gaudin, Mike Kickham and Yusmeiro Petit in the rotation, Blanco in the leadoff spot and Jeff Francoeur and Kensuke Tanaka in left field.
Many key pieces of the 2012 team are still around, with the hope that nucleus can carry the Giants again in 2014. One source of optimism: From the date of Pagan’s return last August, the Giants went 17-12 in their final 29 games – something reliever Javier Lopez said was “definitely important.”
“Everything seems to stick with you from the end of the year – those are your freshest memories – so you want to end on some positive notes,” Lopez said. “Pagan being gone for a long time, it really showed when he came back how much of an igniter he can be in the lineup, and a lot of things started clicking after that. And I think that’s something that was pretty important.”
The message sent
Pagan said part of his motivation to rehabilitate and return before the end of the season – even in a lost year – was to help the Giants finish the season strong and convince management “that we still had a championship-caliber team … so they would reinforce with a couple of guys” rather than disband the core.
The record in September, Pagan said, helped achieve that goal.
“They spent the money,” he said. “They brought Vogey back, they brought Tim Hudson, they brought Morse. They for sure made a statement. I don’t know if it would’ve been different if we’d had a losing record in the second half, but I think that gave them the tranquility to go ahead and do it.”
For Lopez, one of several potential free agents the Giants re-signed, the statement was clear. Said Lopez: “The front office was kind of on the same page that I was thinking – that we’re not too far away, and there’s no reason to blow it up.”
Instead, the Giants cut ties mostly with role players and re-signed Lopez, Hunter Pence and Tim Lincecum to multiyear deals, while replacing Barry Zito in the rotation with Hudson and adding Morse. The result, in Pagan’s eyes, is “a very balanced team.”
“This year I see everything different,” Pagan said. “Everybody looks different. They have motivation from last year, and I think it’s going to carry to this year and everybody’s going to do the best they can to turn things around.”