Willie Mays sat in the Giants’ clubhouse on Saturday morning, chatting with players and passively capturing the attention of most everyone in the room. A little later, Willie McCovey watched the team take batting practice. He took questions from reporters, at one point humorously saying he’d never, ever venture into the cove that bears his name to retrieve a home run ball.
Let’s pause there, rather than swing at the hit-me fastball and suggest that the two revered Hall of Famers can still slug better than most San Francisco regulars.
I kid, I kid.
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Regular readers (thanks, Mom and Dad) might remember a January column in which I characterized the Giants’ offseason as a letdown. I reached that conclusion after they signed Aubrey Huff, coming off a down season, to satisfy their need for a power bat.
Two months later, I’m going to amend my statement, ever-so-slightly.
Here it goes: I still believe that the Giants had an underwhelming winter. But they can win the National League West with what they have.
I’m comfortable making that statement for four reasons. They are, in no particular order:
The offense can’t possibly be so lousy two seasons in a row
And if things get really bad again, well, new hitting coach Hensley “Bam-Bam” Meulens could join Mays and McCovey in the lineup.
The Giants scored 657 runs last year, the fifth-lowest total in the majors. Yet they were involved in the NL wild-card race well into September. That’s because they had the second-lowest team ERA (3.55) in all of baseball. The Dodgers had the lowest. The Dodgers won the division for a second consecutive year. But Willie Mac isn’t about to start praising them now.
“The Dodgers got some good young players,” McCovey said, “but I don’t think their pitching staff is as good as ours.”
“With the way our pitching staff is, we’ve got to find a way to score runs, bottom line,” said Will Clark, another Giants legend-in-residence this spring. “Because they are that good. We need to give them room to breathe.”
An optimistic Giants fan would point out that the team’s pitching should be at least as good as it was in 2009 — and quite possibly better. That’s the wonderful thing about having good pitchers in their 20s.
Lincecum is coming off back-to-back Cy Young awards. Cain was an All-Star last year. Both are 25. Teams would feel fortunate to have one starting pitcher who is that young, that talented and that accomplished. San Francisco has two. Barry Zito, who may be enjoying a mid-career renaissance, is a terrific No. 3 starter.
Wilson has saved as many games (79) as Boston’s Jonathan Papelbon over the past two seasons. He turns 28 on Tuesday. And the Giants have a deep bullpen in front of him, including one well-known setup man (Jeremy Affeldt) and a number of guys who are famous among scouts and serious-minded bloggers.
So, the Giants’ pitching should remain first-rate. Now they must worry about hitting and catching.
The defense has looked ragged at times this spring. Huff (two errors) has been particularly vexing at first base. (“We have to get him where we want him defensively,” manager Bruce Bochy said Saturday.) Bochy noted that prospect Buster Posey could “possibly” see playing time at first base soon.
Posey is a first-round pick with All-Star potential. He is a catcher by trade but currently blocked there by veteran Bengie Molina. Bochy would have an easier time keeping Posey on the roster if the 22-year-old can get at-bats at multiple positions.
Is mid-March too early to put a veteran on notice?
“Buster can hit,” Bochy said. “He’s doing what we want him to do. He’s having a nice spring.”
McCovey made his debut in 1959. He needed only 52 games to earn Rookie of the Year honors. As far as I know, Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus didn’t file prospect reports on Willie Mac.
“With all the press you get nowadays, sometimes you become a star before you even take one at-bat,” the Hall of Famer said, when asked about Posey. “So much has been written about him before he even (came) out of college. Everybody thinks he’s going to jump in and become a superstar right away. Who knows? We don’t really know what he’s going to do.” No, they don’t. And the Giants can’t count on Posey this year. The big hits will need to come from the likes of Huff and Mark DeRosa, who were imported during the offseason, as well as veterans Edgar Renteria and Aaron Rowand.
Second baseman Freddy Sanchez should be healthy at some point early in the season (so we are told, at least). And Pablo Sandoval, with a strike zone that approximates the 415 area code, scalds the ball in almost any circumstance. Sandoval is the team’s best hitter — and one of the finest in the NL.
So, this lineup should be able to score runs.
“Absolutely,” DeRosa said. “I’ve been asked that question a lot. I know Rowand battled injuries last year. Edgar battled injuries last year. Both of those guys are 100 percent healthy and have great track records. I feel like with addition of Aubrey and myself, and guys having better years, we’re going to be fine.”
Consider this: The Giants are tied for fourth in the majors in runs scored this spring. I know the games don’t count, but progress is progress. And an average offense is all this team may need to win the division.