Cast a careful eye on sensational Blanco

Monday, March 26

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Gregor Blanco deserves to be on the Giants’ Opening Day roster. Heck, he needs to be on the Opening Day roster. He’s a fearless, speedy baserunner (the second trait means nothing without the first) who provides versatility with his aptitude for playing all three outfield positions. Besides, Blanco’s a good guy who would cherish his opportunity. The comparisons between him and Andres Torres, another non-roster outfielder who boosted the Giants in 2009-10, are apt.

So why hasn’t Blanco established himself after 11 professional seasons, which included a year and a half with Kansas City, an organization starving for dynamic offensive talent? I asked this question of a well-respected scout shortly before I went on the disabled list with a frighteningly infected right arm. The scout’s views were unsurprising but instructive.

Mentioning that he frequently saw Blanco play over the years and respected his ability, the scout said, “Some guys get labeled.” So it was with Blanco, 28, who’s widely regarded as too good for the Minors but not quite adept enough for the Majors — a “4-A” player.

Check the numbers. Blanco owns a respectable .367 Minor League on-base percentage (all statistics courtesy of Baseball-reference.com). Though he has trimmed his strikeouts, he still has gone down on strikes 973 times in 4,924 plate appearances in the Majors and Minors — too many for a guy who ideally should be a contact hitter.

Blanco was a pacesetter in Atlanta’s minor league system from 2001-2007, leading his teams in some statistical category or another. He spent the entire 2008 season with Atlanta, started 113 games and compiled a respectable .366 on-base percentage, due largely to 74 walks. But the rest of his statistical line (.251 batting average, 52 runs, 19 extra-base hits, 99 strikeouts, 13 steals in 18 tries and a .309 slugging percentage) was unremarkable. Befitting his 4-A label, Blanco divided the next two seasons between Triple-A and the Majors — until last year, when he languished in Triple-A with the Royals and Nationals organizations.

None of Blanco’s perceived flaws has been evident this spring. That prompted the scout’s second warning: “A lot of guys get exposed.” That is, the more they play, the more their weaknesses show. They’re better off occupying the bench, playing in short bursts until their usefulness wanes. Consider Torres. He finished 2009 with a .876 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) in only 170 plate appearances. Torres followed that with an admirable .823 OPS in 570 plate appearances during the magical 2010 season. But he struggled mightily last year, hitting .221 with a .643 OPS.

Another factor to keep in mind is the level of competition. This is only Spring Training. Blanco’s batting .352 with a .871 OPS; if he makes the team, merely approaching those figures during the regular season will be a monumental challenge.

Blanco won’t have to. He can provide speed, adept defense and energy off the bench late in games when he doesn’t start and flurries of competence when he does. Manager Bruce Bochy, who’s skilled at coaxing maximum production from his personnel, can be counted on to use Blanco wisely.

That’s assuming Blanco makes the 25-man active roster. The scout didn’t offer an opinion on this subject, but he weighed in on the Giants’ top decision-makers who could determine Blanco’s fate.

“Brian Sabean and Dick Tidrow are smart,” the scout said, referring to San Francisco’s general manager and his chief assistant. “They know what they’re doing.”

Chris Haft

Martinez cherishes time with Giants

Sunday, March 4

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Five minutes of waiting in the Arizona Diamondbacks clubhouse stretched to 10, which soon became 20 or 25. “He’s in the weight room,” a D-backs media relations official informed me.

Despite having been unproductive for about a half-hour, I felt strangely pleased. This was the Joe Martinez I knew, always diligent.

If you’re reading this, you probably remember Joe Martinez. At 26, he entered Spring Training 2009 mostly unheralded but pitched his way onto the Giants’ season-opening roster. Not only that, but he also won the opener at AT&T Park with two innings of relief in his big league debut against Milwaukee.

It helped that Martinez was diligent, earnest and seemed like the kind of guy you’d let your daughter date. When he made the team, it brought to mind the saying that good things happen to good people.

Then, in the finale of that Milwaukee series, with the Giants leading 7-1, Mike Cameron hit a line drive that struck the right side of  Martinez’s forehead. Martinez weathered a concussion and three hairline fractures, bringing to mind the saying that bad things occasionally happen to good people. Martinez recovered and rejoined the Giants in August. The following year, he and outfielder John Bowker were traded to Pittsburgh at the Trade Deadline for lefty Javier Lopez.

Martinez, who’s currently competing for a spot on Arizona’s pitching staff, appeared in five games for San Francisco during the hallowed 2010 season. So, yes, he got a World Series ring. He knew it was coming; a Giants official had contacted him to ask him his ring size.

Martinez was busy pitching for Cleveland’s Triple-A Columbus (Ohio) affiliate when The Ring came — and all that it represented along with it. Selected by San Francisco in the 12th round of the 2005 draft, Martinez treasures his five-plus years in the Giants organization.

“I loved it,” he said. “Obviously I look back on a lot of fond memories and good relationships with people there, not just players, but also staff, pitching coaches, even some front-office people.”

Of the 2010 club, Martinez said, “I felt like I was a part of that team, even for the small part that I played. They made me feel like part of the team, even though I wasn’t always in the big leagues with them. I’m happy they won. I wish I could have been there with them.”

Finally, Martinez insisted that he doesn’t dwell on the Cameron incident.

“It really doesn’t bother me when people mention it,” Martinez said. “I’m OK. I don’t have any lasting effects from it, as far as I know. The way it happened kind of sticks in people’s mind because it looked bad. It looked worse, thank God, than it was.”

Chris Haft

Taking infield as full-squad workouts begin

Friday, Feb. 24

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Though nothing’s finalized, the lineups of Giants at each infield position during the first full-squad drills of Spring Training were still worth noting.

Aubrey Huff, Brandon Belt and Brett Pill were at first base.  Emmanuel Burriss and Mike Fontenot occupied second base. Brandon Crawford and Ryan Theriot handled shortstop. Pablo Sandoval was the lone third baseman.

Late in batting practice, Fontenot, Theriot and Burriss all took grounders at shortstop.

Crawford remains a superior defender. Late in the fielding drill, when the left-side infielders made throws to first base, each of Crawford’s pegs were flat, hard and accurate. He is truly a pleasure to watch.

Huff provided some hilarity after bobbling a grounder that took a somewhat bad hop. “First error of the year,” he exclaimed.

Bench coach Ron Wotus, who was hitting grounders, responded with friendly (I think) sarcasm. “Twelve minutes in” Wotus said. “That’s a good sign.”

Chris Haft

Pujols like Mays; Wilson simplifies; fly-catchers excel

Monday, Sept. 20

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Some people will do anything to squeeze a workout into their schedule.

Baseball’s best player apparently is one of these healthy fanatics.

Monday night at a local health club, a trainer shifted my focus from the free weights to a weighty presence performing
cardiovascular exercise in the corner of the room. “That’s Albert Pujols,” the trainer said.

Maybe the Angels, who train in neighboring Tempe, don’t have the fitness machines Pujols likes at their facility.  Maybe he simply felt compelled to hit the gym. Regardless, the man obviously is dedicated.

Seeing Pujols work out among common folks reminded me of something I was told by one of his predecessors as baseball’s best.

A few years ago I asked Willie Mays, “How did you stay in such great shape?” Mays straightened up in his chair, puffed
out his chest ever so slightly and proudly replied, “I never got out of shape.” It was a sphinx-like answer. And it made perfect sense.

*****

Brian Wilson was all business as he spoke with reporters. No dry humor. No clever one-liners. Simply straight talk
about his arm, elbow and pitching.

“I’m just going to put the analogies in the back pocket for today,” Wilson said.

*****

The Arizona sky late Monday morning was dotted with clouds and relatively windless — luckily for the Giants catchers.

Bullpen catcher Bill Hayes, who drills the catchers in big league camp on various skills necessary to master their
position, conducted pop-up practice. It’s an ever-entertaining sight. Hayes feeds balls into a pitching machine aimed
skyward; Buster Posey and his counterparts track the towering pop-ups. What’s remarkable is how rarely these guys drop or misjudge a ball.

The task was mildly simplified by the clouds, eliminating the “high sky” that can blind players at any position to
pop-ups; the still air, which straightened each fly’s path; and the decision to stage the drill in the outfield on one
of the auxiliary diamonds, rather than at Scottsdale Stadium. There, Hayes explained, players might risk tripping down
the dugout stairs. Exposing any player to this danger, particularly Posey, would have been unwise.

The best part of this drill is the grand finale, when Hayes produces a second pop-up while a player is in the middle of settling under the first. Again, you’d marvel at how often the catchers make both grabs.

Chris Haft

For whatever reason, Cain’s primed for big year

Saturday,  Feb. 18

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Matt Cain would feel determined to perform well under any circumstances. As we know by now, that’s the type of competitor he is.

Yet Cain dropped hints Saturday, as Giants pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training, that he’s especially
motivated to excel this year.

Go ahead and say that Cain’s gearing up for free agency. Imagine that Cain is following the example of others who either adjust their training routine or broaden the repertoire of their skills to bring something fresh to the new season. Whether it’s one factor or the other, or both, Cain appears bent on improving upon his 2011 season, which happened to be the finest of his career in many respects.

“Every year, as an athlete or player, I want to find ways to keep getting better,” said Cain, the longest-tenured Giant who’s entering his seventh full season with the club.

Cain, 27, took steps toward accomplishing that by intensifying his physical conditioning — specifically, his weight
training. By November, Cain was hitting the gym hard. And he didn’t let up.

“I definitely tried to get in a better routine earlier and make sure I was taking care of everything I needed to take care of,” said Cain, who finished 12-11 last year with lifetime bests in ERA (2.88), WHIP (1.083) and home runs allowed per nine innings (a microscopic 0.4).  “… In years past I think I might have been a little more relaxed about staying on that schedule.”

Cain, who said that talks are ongoing between his agents and the Giants, sounded a trifle more intent than he did two weeks ago at FanFest about negotiating a contract extension before the April 6 regular-season opener — or, if a deal can’t be made, plunging into free agency. Negotiating during the season didn’t sound too appealing to him.

“I think we’d all like to have something resolved by the end of Spring Training,” Cain said. “I don’t think either side wants that to linger into the season. I think once the season starts, we all want to be worrying about playing well.”

Cain might have subtly learned a thing or two about focus last weekend while golfing in a foursome with 49ers coach
Jim Harbaugh at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

“I thought I was intense. That guy is intense,” Cain said. “But he’s great. We just talked about little things here and there. We didn’t really go into any of the football stuff. It was fun just being able to walk three rounds with him and talk about whatever. Just to be able to get to know someone in another sport is pretty cool.”

Chris Haft

KNBR catches Posey’s thoughts

Wednesday, Feb. 1

SAN FRANCISCO — Virtually everything Buster Posey does during the next few months will make news. That includes his radio appearance Wednesday on KNBR, the Giants’ flagship station.

Posey said nothing outlandish or overly revealing during his 15-minute question-and-answer session with adept morning hosts Brian Murphy and Paul McCaffrey. But Giants fans are hungry for anything involving Posey, the gifted catcher whose 2011 season ended in a collision resulting from a wayward slide near home plate by Florida’s Scott Cousins. Posey painfully emerged with a fracture and torn ligaments in his left leg.

Posey, the National League Rookie of the Year during the Giants’ charmed 2010 season, is poised to return behind the plate. He and San Francisco’s medical staff aren’t sure how his ankle will handle the rigors of catching, and Giants manager Bruce Bochy has said that Posey might spend ample time at first base to keep his bat in the lineup and avoid the inevitable physical erosion of his primary position.

Here’s what’s certain right now: Posey, who became a father of twins while sidelined, is eager for any and all challenges. That became clear in his chat on the Murph & Mac show. You can hear the interview in its entirety on KNBR’s website, or you can read the following excerpts:

(Posey will encounter plenty of adoration and love at Saturday’s FanFest at AT&T Park. Does he find it overwhelming?) “I don’t know if it’s overwhelming. It’s a blast. I know it’s something we all look forward to. As much as it is to get the fans fired up, it gets us fired up as well. And we enjoy every bit of it.”

(On fatherhood) “It’s great, it really is. I was just telling my wife the other day that it’s going to be quite an adjustment for me once the season gets going and I’m away a lot and traveling because I’ve been with them a lot these first six months. I’ve enjoyed it; I definitely have.”

(Was that the silver lining to your injury?) “Oh, there’s no question. It’s funny how things work out. Obviously, if I could have avoided the injury, there’s no doubt I would have. But the timing of it, for where we were in our life, really worked out well. Because looking back on it, the team was in Miami when my wife gave birth, so there’s a pretty good chance I wouldn’t have been able to make it back in time. So I felt really fortunate to be there and to have as much time (with the children) as I’ve had these first six months.”

(How much recovery time has he spent in a catcher’s crouch) “I’ve done as much as I think I can without getting in there and playing some games. I think that’s the next step, and fortunately that’s not too far away with Spring Training right around the corner. So I’m very, very happy and pleased with where I am. Obviously, the game situation’s going to be a little bit different, but I’m optimistic and positive that it’s going to be great, just like the rest of this recovery process has been.”

(What were the targets head athletic trainer Dave Groeschner and his staff set for you? Are you 100 percent healthy?) “The 100 percent question, it’s tough to say without … To me, you can tell if you’re 100 percent if you can catch 10 games in a row. That’s still to be determined and I’m not sure if that’s realistic or not, but I’m going to do everything I can to be out there as much as I can. But to answer your question about hitting the targets, I think we’ve done that throughout the whole process for the past whatever it’s been — eight months, nine months. Whatever Dave’s laid out there, I feel like we’ve met that and exceeded it at times.”

(Have you been able to block pitches in the dirt?) “Yeah, actually, when I was finishing up my rehab in Arizona in October, I did a little bit of blocking, just straightforward blocking. To be honest with you, I was pleasantly surprised, because I didn’t think I was going to be that far along at that point. I was hoping just to be taking some BP on the field and running. For my ankle to respond that well, at that point I was happy. Again, I’m positive, but at the same time I want to make sure I keep in my mind that there might be some bumps. Once the games start going, there might be some soreness or whatnot. But I just have to keep that positive attitude and continue pushing forward.”

(If you can’t catch 10 games in a row, are you comfortable with playing first base?) “Yeah, definitely. I think that when I got called up in 2010 and played whatever it was, 30 or 40 games over there at first, just having that in my back pocket will be nice for this year, knowing that I do have a little bit of experience over there.”

(Mike Krukow said you take pride in catching the pitching staff. Would it be difficult to give up those reins? Is it a challenge mentally, more than you’d like, to give it up?) “I don’t know if it’ll be a challenge, because I think that I have to do whatever’s going to be best for the team and what’s best for myself in the long haul of the season. We know it’s a long year. But you’re exactly right. That’s the part about catching I enjoy the most — the thinking, working with the staff and how lucky I am to work with these guys, the caliber of arms that we have. I think you could ask any catcher in the league and the part about catching they enjoy is that, kind of being in control and working through tough situations. Nobody really likes taking a foul tip off the shoulder or anything, but that’s part of it sometimes.”

(So the number of times you catch is something you and Bruce Bochy will discuss. Are you going to fight him or try to argue with him about some things, kind of like you did with your mom and dad to stay up late?) “Oh, I never argued with my mom and dad.”

(Or does what the skipper says, goes?) “I really do think it’s hard to answer that question just because so much is still to be determined. It’s just going to be a matter of how my ankle responds. Like I said before, I want to be behind the plate as much as I can. But I have to be smart about it at the same time.”

(How do you anticipate Spring Training will be different for you?) “… I think the biggest difference will be that there is going to be a schedule, I guess, or more so of a game plan of how much I’m going to catch, when I’m going to catch, because ultimately the most important thing is being ready to go on Opening Day in Arizona. Whatever we have to do in Spring Training to get to that point, that’s what we’re going to do.”

(Do you think last year’s team was on its way to the postseason? Was the late-season collapse frustrating to watch? Did you observe something?) “I think sometimes you just can’t explain why things happen. That’s the beauty of this game. It’s a crazy game. It’s hard to explain sometimes. I do know that I was in the clubhouse and I saw how bad the guys wanted it and how hard they were preparing before games and what they were doing after games, watching video and stuff. It was tough. It was tough on everybody. But it’s a new year now and we’re excited to get back to work and hopefully win as many games as we can this season and get back to the playoffs.”

(On the acquisitions of Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan) “I haven’t had a chance to play against Melky, but playing against Pagan a little bit, he’s a tough out. He’s a guy who’s going to grind out at-bats. He’s not somebody I really enjoyed seeing coming to the plate, because I felt like if you get him down to two strikes, he’s going to chip away, he’s going to slap the ball the other way, he’s going to do what he can to get on base. I’m excited for him to be there. And then if you’re a baseball fan, you saw what kind of year Melky had last year. He had a great year. I think with our ballpark, they’re going to be good fits. At the same time, I know I’m going to miss (Andres) Torres. It’s just part of it, but he was a great guy to have around. Same with Ramon (Ramirez). They’ll be missed. But we’re excited to have Pagan and Cabrera coming to the team.”

(Did you observe anything about Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain from the sidelines that gave you a different perspective on them?) “I don’t know. I’ve always felt like to learn, you have to be in the middle of it. There are certain things you can sit back and watch, I guess, but I don’t think there’s any replacement for getting out there and being in the middle of it. Those two guys, they’re such workhorses. You look at the number of innings they throw every year and you talk about their stats and strikeouts and ERA. But to me the impressive part is they’re out there every fifth day. We’ve got that in Madison Bumgarner, too. We’re pretty fortunate to have guys who are such competitors and want to go out there and win each time.”

(Bumgarner: The sky’s the limit for that kid, right? Didn’t you see him grow last year?) “Yeah … I guess that one rough outing with, was it Minnesota, I think, after that — to me, that was a defining moment because it’d be easy to — I guess he gave up eight runs in one-third of an inning or two-thirds of an inning … and then the next time out came out and just dealt. That just shows you what kind of character this guy has. It’s exciting. It’s fun to work with those type of pitchers.”

(How at peace are you with dealing with that night against Marlins? How have you psychologically dealt with that night against the Marlins and how are you psychologically compartmentalizing it in your career?) “It’s done. It’s over with. I feel fortunate that I feel the way I do today. I’m excited to be able to compete and get out and play again. If anything, I think it’ll make me appreciate the game even more, make me appreciate being healthy and able to play. Fortunately, I hadn’t been hurt before that. Something like that really lets you know how quickly the game can be taken away from you. I’m going to enjoy every bit of it and just go with it.”

Chris Haft

Goodbye, 2011; farewell, Andres Torres

Saturday, Dec. 31

SAN FRANCISCO — When the Giants traded Andres Torres to the New York Mets, a friend recalled my declaration that I would weep if the cheery outfielder ever left the ballclub.

I didn’t need my buddy’s reminder to be so moved.

We who cover sports for a living grow emotionally attached to the athletes we meet at our own peril. The most obvious danger of this lapse is unprofessionalism. There’s also the simple fact that athletes don’t care about us as much as we might care about them. Another pitfall is the ache that remains when a well-liked player leaves. This is why many athletes resist befriending teammates, to insulate themselves from the shock of a trade or personnel move.

Though I pride myself on my professionalism, maintaining emotional distance occasionally challenges me. I completely failed in that regard with Torres. I’ve been fortunate to know numerous players who I’d welcome to a backyard barbecue. Luis Gonzalez, Sean Casey, Aaron Boone, Dmitri Young, Dave Roberts and Rich Aurilia are among the dozens who come to mind. But Torres was different. He simply was the most endearing ballplayer I’ve met. He made himself exceedingly easy to root for without even trying — though he tried so hard at everything else.

The timing of this almost embarrassingly self-revealing piece may seem strange, because the Giants traded Torres more than three weeks ago. Other writers already have weighed in on his merits. I admire their alacrity. I felt compelled to hold onto my thoughts, like a pitcher rubbing up a baseball and assessing its nearly imperceptible lumps, before unleashing. But I didn’t want the sun to set on 2011 without saluting Torres.

Few players — few people — are as genuine as Torres. His attachment to the Giants literally flowed from him as he sobbed when manager Bruce Bochy telephoned him after the trade became official. An athlete’s attempt to express loyalty to his team can fall flat; too often, he’s actually reaffirming his bond to his paycheck, not his city or teammates. But Torres’ desire to excel for the Giants was sincere. I was agog in August of that charmed 2010 season when Torres professed his dedication to the team. It wasn’t so much what he said as how he said it, with each word dripping emotion:

“I need to respect the organization for giving me this job. I want them to know I’m going to work hard, try to get better and help the team win.”

We all know why Torres felt this way. The Giants gave him a chance to thrive after he spent most of 11 pro seasons toiling thanklessly in the Minor Leagues. So he channeled his energies toward being the best Giant possible, ceaselessly delivering maximum effort.

My favorite statistic of the 2009 season was Torres’ total of eight triples in only 170 plate appearances. Even players who hit a lot of triples need close to three times as many plate appearances to accumulate that figure. Torres himself had eight triples in 570 PAs in 2010. Regardless, if he drove a pitch anywhere near a gap, he was virtually guaranteed to reach third. Usually he prompted hilarity as he did so, unintentionally amusing teammates with his sprinter’s style of running with a rigid upper body and furiously pumping arms.

But Torres the ballplayer didn’t engage me as much as Torres the person. He was unfailingly friendly, saying hello to everyone he encountered each day. Though his conversational repertoire wasn’t broad, it was heartfelt. He must have asked me a hundred times, “How’s your family?” So I’d tell him.

Then, late last season, I had the privilege of bringing my daughter Samantha to a game. We started to exit AT&T Park through the corridor leading past the Giants clubhouse. We came upon a nattily dressed gathering of players and their wives, about to leave for some sort of meet-and-greet function with sponsors or fans. Torres, who was among the group, burst forward to introduce himself to my daughter. All those times he inquired about my family, he truly cared.

My identification with Torres was partly forged by a third party. Tim Flannery, the Giants’ third-base coach who’s a superb singer-songwriter, dedicated “Right Or Wrong,” a song from his new CD “The Restless Kind,” to Torres. The tune includes the lyrics, “It’s never too late to be the person you were meant to be.” All of us who feel incomplete — yet not inadequate — can relate to Flannery’s articulation of Torres’ resilience, fortitude and perseverance. If you believe you still can reach your tantalizing goals, you can appreciate Torres’ story.

I kept hoping last season that Torres would escape his yearlong slump, but it never happened. Angel Pagan, who the Giants acquired from the Mets for Torres, appears to be a more consistent performer. The Giants did what they had to do by engineering the trade.

It doesn’t matter. Torres has entrenched himself in my “interior stadium,” to borrow the title of one of Roger Angell’s finest works. Some players I’ll remember for their excellence; others I’ll cherish for their personality. Torres will stick with me for many reasons, but mostly just because I felt lucky to know him. Yes, Andres, my family is fine. And in a way, you’ll always be part of it.

Chris Haft

Giants might be eyeing OF Ludwick, or vice-versa

Monday, Dec. 5

DALLAS — Add Ryan Ludwick to the list of free-agent outfielders who might intrigue the Giants.

The Giants were believed to have scheduled a meeting Monday with Ludwick’s agent, Dan Horwits. Ludwick earned $6.775 million last season but might be more affordable than that this winter, even on the open market.

A right-handed batter, Ludwick thrived in 2008-09, when he hit .283 with 59 home runs and 210 RBIs for St. Louis. When the Cardinals sent him to San Diego at the 2010 Trade Deadline, Ludwick remained productive, as he was batting .281 with 11 homers and 43 RBIs in 77 games at the time.

Since that deal, however, Ludwick has hit .229 with 19 homers and 101 RBIs in 198 games for San Diego and Pittsburgh. He batted .237 with 13 homers and 75 RBIs overall last season. The 33-year-old’s on-base percentage has dwindled each year since 2008, from .375 to .329 to .325 to .310. His slugging percentage also has declined annually, from .591 in 2008 to .447 to .418 to .363.

Ludwick has performed adequately at AT&T Park, where he owns a .265 batting average (22-for-83) in 23 games. His total of five home runs in 83 at-bats by the bay indicates that, unlike many hitters, the ballpark’s dimensions don’t intimidate him.

Other free-agent outfielders to whom the Giants have been linked include Coco Crisp and Josh Willingham. They also were thought to be interested in David DeJesus before the A’s traded him to the Cubs, and in Grady Sizemore before he re-signed with Cleveland.

Chris Haft

Belt, Crawford get attention

Tuesday, Nov. 29

SAN FRANCISCO — Contradicting their reputation for favoring veteran players, general manager Brian Sabean and manager Bruce Bochy sounded upbeat about first baseman-outfielder Brandon Belt and shortstop Brandon Crawford, who will enter Spring Training as candidates for the Opening Day lineup if they’re not shoved aside by free-agent or trade acquisitions.

Belt hit .300 in 28 games for Escogido in the Dominican Winter League. The Giants wanted the 23-year-old to accumulate more at-bats after an injury-marred season in which he hit .225 in 63 games for the Giants when he wasn’t making one of his three round-trips back to the Minors.

Sabean was impressed with what he saw of Belt on telecasts and videos.<p/>

“I think he made a concerted effort to make some adjustments,” Sabean said during Tuesday’s conference call. “It’s not Major League pitching, but you still have to have an approach. All the reports that we got from Moises Alou, who’s the general manager there, were favorable. He was playable in the outfield. We know his best position is probably first base, but this was a nice step for him. I’m really happy and pleased that he accepted this challenge.”

Crawford, 24, hit .276 in 21 games for Scottsdale in the Arizona Fall League. His stint included a 16-game hitting streak during which he hit .338 (24-for-71). That helped Crawford make the AFL’s Top Prospects squad.

“We know what his glove brings, and he tried like hell to make [hitting] adjustments,” Sabean said. “He put the ball in play extremely well. He tried his damndest to stay off the high fastball, which was kind of his Kryptonite.”

Said Bochy of Crawford, “I think he’s a guy who can do some things to make a difference.”

*****

Bochy also praised catcher Hector Sanchez, who owned a .393 batting average in 32 games with La Guaira of the Venezuelan Winter League. All year, Bochy has monitored Sanchez’s improvement, which could result in a long look for the switch-hitting 22-year-old in Spring Training. Sanchez won’t unseat a healthy Buster Posey, but he could compete for a backup spot unless the Giants want him to gain more seasoning at Triple-A Fresno.

“I’m not going to be surprised to see him make a lot of noise this spring,” Bochy said.

*****

The hunch here is that the Giants will re-sign either Cody Ross or Andres Torres, but not both. Ross is a free agent; Torres is eligible for salary arbitration but probably will not be tendered a contract. That would save the Giants a million bucks or so if Torres, who would become a free agent after being non-tendered, opts to stay with the Giants.

Sabean lumped Torres along with other arbitration-eligibles, such as Jeff Keppinger and Mike Fontenot. “He’s certainly part of our discussions about what we’re going to try to do internally to go forward,” Sabean said. “He’s in a group of players who we still have time to make decisions on.”

Asked whether he thought Ross might return, Sabean said only, “Not sure.”

*****

Bobby Evans, the Giants’ vice president of baseball operations, said that third baseman Pablo Sandoval hasn’t decided whether to alter his plans for returning to Venezuela, where he had originally intended to participate in the winter league’s home run derby and play for a week to 10 days with Magallanes. Evans indicated that the kidnapping incident involving Washington catcher Wilson Ramos in Venezuela apparently isn’t a deterrent for Sandoval. But being in shape could be. He underwent laser eye surgery on Nov. 18, interrupting his training in Arizona.

Chris Haft

Why isn’t phone ringing for Wotus?

Nov. 4

SAN FRANCISCO — The people who run the Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals are smart individuals.

So it’s difficult to fathom why none of them has seen fit to offer Giants bench coach Ron Wotus an interview for their managerial vacancies.

Wotus has managed successfully in the Minor Leagues, reaching the playoffs with all but one of the seven teams he piloted. He has gained an encyclopedic knowledge of the National League while becoming the longest-tenured coach in Giants history (OK, maybe his NL-centric background excuses the Red Sox a little bit). At 50, he’s still relatively young.

Some might suggest that Wotus’ managerial aspirations have been hampered by staying with the Giants through his entire managerial and coaching career, as if being with only one organization for so long limits his breadth of experience. On the contrary, the fact that Wotus has worked with three different Giants managers — Dusty Baker, Felipe Alou and Bruce Bochy — reflects his value to the ballclub. Alou and Bochy, in particular, easily could have replaced Wotus with one of their own cronies upon becoming manager. Yet they recognized Wotus’ assets and kept him aboard.

It’s also worth mentioning that Wotus reached the World Series with Baker (2002) and Bochy (2010) and coached on a team that won 100 games under Alou (2003). He has done more than just go along for the ride all these years.

When you figure out why Wotus continues to be overlooked, please give the Giants’ front office a call. Because the Cardinals, Cubs and Red Sox haven’t.

*****

Open bidding for free agents began Thursday with apparently limited activity by the Giants. “Apparently” is the key term, because many agents avoided speaking specifically about their interactions with teams. Nor did the Giants themselves advertise their strategy — which only made sense, since that keeps opponents guessing.

Wise folks believe that little or nothing will happen in free agency until a new Basic Agreement is reached between management and players. This could happen as early as next week. Once that’s finalized, club owners will know what their revenue sources are for the next few years. At that point, they’ll feel more comfortable turning their baseball operations people loose in the open market.

*****

The career of the late Matty Alou served as a reminder of how challenging it was to hit at Candlestick Park. Alou batted .248 there, compared to .315 everywhere else — including .332 at Forbes Field, which became his home ballpark when San Francisco traded him to Pittsburgh before the 1966 season.

Joe Amalfitano, the Giants special assistant and former infielder who played with and against Alou, described the 1966 NL batting champion’s approach at Forbes Field, where the outfield was spacious: “He’d hit balls in the gap and run for two days.”

Should Alou have tried to score on Willie Mays’ two-out, ninth-inning double in Game 7 of the 1962 World Series with the Giants trailing, 1-0? Though that remains a subject of some debate, it’s instructive to listen to the national radio broadcast of that game, which was anchored by George Kell. “[Alou] would have been out at the plate,” Kell said matter of factly and without hesitation as he recapped the play. As a Hall of Fame  third baseman, Kell spoke with an accomplished ballplayer’s perspective. Sending Alou would have been foolish.

*****

I’ll confess to being a little bit of a homer. That said, it’s ridiculous that Giants right-hander Ryan Vogelsong didn’t win one of the three Comeback Player of the Year Award votes in which he was a candidate. I guess escaping oblivion to make the NL All-Star team and finish fourth in the league in ERA doesn’t count for much anymore.

Chris Haft

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 89 other followers