OK, I underestimated the Giants — or at least the Giants’ offense.
It’s early, too early to take much of anything seriously. But the Giants averaged 5.7 runs in their first seven games, second in the National League. And while four of those games were at hitter-friendly Chase Field, against the Diamondbacks’ wobbly pitching staff, the other three were in pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium, against the supposedly mighty Dodgers.
Before right-hander Zack Greinke stifled the Giants on Sunday night, a number of Dodgers pitchers told me that they noticed a difference in the San Francisco offense, specifically citing the addition of free-agent left fielder Michael Morse.
But it isn’t just Morse.
It’s a healthy Angel Pagan, a slimmed-down Pablo Sandoval, an ascendant Brandon Belt — and something intangible, as well.
"They work together (offensively)," Dodgers left-handed reliever J.P. Howell said. "Not many teams do that. You can tell they’re communicating."
Functioning as a team, which in the end might be their biggest advantage over the more talented Dodgers.
The Giants, of course, won the 2010 and ’12 World Series, and virtually all of their core players were part of at least one of those clubs.
Morse, a member of a close-knit Nationals club from 2009-12, said that the difference between those Washington teams and his current San Francisco team is the Giants’ legacy of winning.
"Everyone has done so much in their careers. And one of the great things about it is that they’ve done it together," Morse said. "They tell you stories about how good it was — and how good it’s going to be again."
Pagan, meanwhile, shared an unusual motivation for returning sooner than expected from surgery on his left hamstring last season, a motivation that I could not recall another player articulating.
The surgery was expected to sideline Pagan for 12 weeks; he returned in nine and had a big September. His goal, he said, was to show the front office that the team was good enough to warrant a boost in payroll. And his efforts certainly didn’t hurt.
The Giants spent $172 million last offseason, re-signing right fielder Hunter Pence, left-handed reliever Javier Lopez and right-handers Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong while adding Morse and right-hander Tim Hudson in free agency.
The team’s Opening Day payroll, a franchise-record $154.1 million, is the seventh-highest in the majors. Yet, the Giants remain one of the game’s hungriest, most professional outfits, an edge that is difficult to quantify.
"I learned how to be a winner after I came here to be in San Francisco," said Pagan, who joined the team in 2012. "Now that I have a ring, I want more. It’s addictive."
LOOK, MA, IT’S MILWAUKEE!
I almost picked the Brewers as my surprise team but chickened out. Mostly, I didn’t trust the Milwaukee pitching — in particular, a bullpen that ranked third in the NL in ERA last season.
Well, I’m not still not sure I trust the Crew, especially now that right fielder Ryan Braun’s right thumb is again an issue. But the team certainly was impressive over the weekend, allowing only three earned runs in a three-game sweep of the defending World Series champion Red Sox at Fenway Park.
Right-hander Yovani Gallardo still isn’t throwing as hard as he once did — 90-91 mph, as opposed to 92-93. But his command and curveball have been so good, he already has pitched 12 2/3 scoreless innings against the Braves and Red Sox.
The Brewers, meanwhile, got big bullpen outs in Boston from righty Tyler Thornburg and new lefties Zach Duke and Will Smith, and their last-minute switch in closers from Jim Henderson to Francisco Rodriguez also looked shrewd.
General manager Doug Melvin makes a good point, saying that the overall decline in offense is resulting in more close games, making it difficult for one closer to succeed for an entire season.
As for Braun, Melvin said that the team is not "overly concerned" but acknowledged that the injury remains bothersome to the slugger after not healing as expected during the offseason.
Braun went 2 for 4 Sunday, a good sign. He was 0 for 5 as a DH on Friday and sat out on Saturday. Surgery is an option, but Melvin said there is no guarantee it would correct the nerve damage at the base of Braun’s thumb.
WIN-WIN FOR THE INDIANS AND KIPNIS
The most revealing takeaway from second baseman Jason Kipnis’ six-year, $52.5 million contract is that 16 Indians are now under control through at least 2016. That number should only increase; top prospect Francisco Lindor is poised to take over shortstop from Asdrubal Cabrera, who is due to become a free agent at the end of the season.
The Kipnis deal, though, is a particular triumph, considering the amount of effort involved. This was the third straight year that the Indians tried to extend Kipnis, who turned down a deal in the $15 million range after his first season and one in the $24 million range after his second, sources said.
Kipnis, 27, effectively bet on himself, and his agent, Dan Horwits of the Beverly Hills Sports Council, ultimately secured a contact that was $500,000 above Matt Carpenter’s recent six-year agreement with the Cardinals — an impressive score for the player and impressive investment by the club.
The Indians rank 26th out of the 30 major league teams in payroll, according to the Associated Press. But Kipnis and two other recent signees, left fielder Michael Brantley and catcher Yan Gomes, are high-character, high-performance types, perfect to build around.
In fact, the Indians viewed Kipnis’ refusal to accept an earlier extension as a reflection of his competitive fire. Kipnis plays with an edge, as if fueled by his memory of getting drafted in the second round and not the first, and of moving from the outfield to second base in the minors.
Not that any of it mattered — he made himself into an above-average defender at second and has stolen 30 or more bases two straight seasons, even though he is not especially fast.
As for the Indians, starting pitching remains their biggest challenge going forward, particularly with right-hander Justin Masterson likely to depart as a free agent.
The team’s answers likely will need to come from within, from right-handers Danny Salazar and Corey Kluber continuing to progress and righties Cody Anderson and Trevor Bauer developing into solutions.
HANLEY: WHAT’S HE WORTH?
The most difficult part of the Dodgers’ negotiations with shortstop Hanley Ramirez is not determining an appropriate average annual value — Ramirez’s average salary figures to fall somewhere in the range of $22 million to $25 million.
The bigger issue, sources say, is length of contract.
No one can dispute that Ramirez is an elite offensive performer – his career OPS (.879) is higher than that of Robinson Cano (.860). Ramirez would hit the free-agent market entering his age-31 season, just as Cano did. But Cano is a superior defender and far more durable player.
Ramirez over the past three seasons has appeared in 92, 157 and 86 games. Cano averaged 160 games over seven seasons before hitting the open market and landing his 10-year, $240 million contract with the Mariners.
WAITING CONTINUES FOR DREW, MORALES
A source told me on Friday that agent Scott Boras is informing teams that he soon could land a deal for free-agent first baseman/designated hitter Kendrys Morales.
Boras, however, indicated that the negotiations for both Morales and his other comp free agent, shortstop Stephen Drew, are far from simple.
The way Boras described it, clubs are weighing whether to sign Morales and Drew now or wait until after the June draft, when the players no longer would be subject to draft-pick compensation.
At that point, as I’ve written previously, a team could sign one of the two to a multiyear deal and benefit from a two- or three-pick swing.
A club first would keep its pick for 2014. The free agent would fill a hole, enabling the club to could avoid signing a comp free agent — and losing a pick — in ’15.
The club then could become eligible for another pick by making the free agent a qualifying offer at the end of his contract, assuming that the system does not change when the current CBA expires after the 2016 season (and it probably will).
The problem with waiting is that both Morales and Drew are losing precious time in their age 31 seasons. They are facing live pitching in workouts in Miami – righty Joel Pineiro threw to them before signing a minor league deal with the Cubs, and righty Freddy Garcia, released by the Braves, threw to them last week. But both players likely would need several weeks of game action in the minors to get ready.
The Mariners have tried numerous times to re-sign Kendrys Morales, before and after making him the $14.1 million qualifying offer. The Orioles are another potential fit, and the Tigers still look like a logical option for Drew.
The Giants’ increased depth will enable them to avoid rushing second baseman Marco Scutaro, who opened the season on the disabled list with a lower-back strain.
Scutaro, 38, might never be the same — assistant GM Bobby Evans said the veteran is trying to get to a point where he can manage his pain consistently rather than endure spikes of discomfort.
In the meantime, the Giants have started three different players at second — Joaquin Arias, Ehire Adrianza and Brandon Hicks.
Arias, the most experienced, is more of a backup. Adrianza, a switch-hitter, has the most range. And Hicks, who signed with the Giants as a minor league free agent last Nov. 27, might be the most interesting of the three.
Stan Saleski, one of the team’s major league scouts, took note of Hicks in the spring of 2013. Senor adviser Matt Nerland liked Hicks in the Pacific Coast League last season, and the Giants’ Triple-A hitting coach at the time, Russ Morman, also recommended him. (Morman is now managing the team’s Double-A affiliate.)
Hicks, 28, entered the season with a .133 batting average and .493 OPS in 98 major league plate appearances. He spent all of 2013 in the minors with the Mets. But Evans said the Giants liked his power and ability to play multiple positions in the infield.
Hicks, a third-round pick of the Braves in 2007, said he spent the offseason working out with former Braves teammate Martin Prado in Orlando, doing drills to help him stay short and quick to the ball.
So far, so good: The Giants’ staff began gushing over Hicks in spring training, and has yet to stop.
AROUND THE HORN
* Not to diminish Mark Trumbo’s five home runs, but it’s not as if this is the first time he has started quickly.
Trumbo produced an .841 OPS and a homer every 15.7 at-bats before the All-Star Game in his first four seasons, a .679 OPS and a home run every 22.1 at-bats after it.
I remember congratulating him on an impressive early surge last season, and Trumbo reacting in a decidedly subdued fashion, essentially saying, "I’ve got to keep it going."
* During batting practice Saturday, I remarked to Carl Crawford that the Dodgers should be quite good.
"If we get everyone here on time," Crawford joked, referring to Yasiel Puig’s late arrival before the Dodgers’ home opener the previous day.
Has Crawford ever arrived late for a game?
"I started with Lou Piniella," Crawford said, citing his former manager with the Rays. "Being late wasn’t an option."
* Utlity man Chone Figgins, who sat out all of 2013, learned that he had made the Dodgers’ Opening Day roster from a phone call with his agent, Jamie Appel of ACES.
Appel called Figgins with the news shortly before the Dodgers left for Australia. Figgins said he put the call on speaker phone so his wife, Claudia, could listen.
At first, Appel said, Figgins was speechless.
It was indeed an emotional moment — Figgins said he met Appel when he was 16, and Appel has represented him his entire career.
When Figgins finally spoke, Appel said he did not simply refer to himself, but to both of them.
"Let’s finish this," Figgins said.
* The Tigers lost on Sunday after opening the season with four straight victories, yet even in defeat they got an excellent eight-inning start from right-hander Justin Verlander.
That’s the thing about the Tigers — the trio of Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez will enable them to avoid long losing streaks, and righty Rick Porcello and lefty Drew Smyly are not too shabby, either.
As much I like the Royals, my doubts about the Tigers might have been premature.
"They’re creeping toward a cliff," one rival executive said. "But it might not happen for three or four years."
* Thought this was cool: Giants lefty Javier Lopez shags fly balls in batting practice with former teammate Brian Fuentes’ outfield glove.
How old is the glove? Lopez and Fuentes were teammates with the Rockies from 2003-05. Fuentes’ name is inscribed on the glove.