Giants gearing up to get back to playoffs
SAN FRANCISCO – Pitcher Matt Cain isn’t going to make any bold predictions about playoffs at this early stage. He’s sure thinking about it, though.
His San Francisco teammates are, too.
The Giants will be satisfied with nothing less than finally getting back to the postseason after a six-year drought. They were close last fall, in the wild-card chase well into September – and now this club believes it has the offensive power to get over the hump.
“It always seems like whoever kind of jumps out in this division usually has an upper hand,” Cain said of the NL West. “That’s something we’ll definitely try to do. We’ll try to kick it up in April and work from there. … That’s our biggest goal, to make it deep into October.”
General manager Brian Sabean made additions to the lineup he expects will help support Cain and two-time reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum at the front of a rotation also featuring lefties Barry Zito and Jonathan Sanchez.
There’s new cleanup hitter Aubrey Huff to follow free-swinging slugger Pablo Sandoval in the middle of the order, then Mark DeRosa in the No. 5 hole.
“It’s the first spring training I’ve had where you come in and know you have a legitimate shot of going to the playoffs,” Huff said. “My first six years with Tampa and my last three with Baltimore, you kind of know who’s going to be in first and second place in that division every year.”
At 88-74 last season, the Giants won 16 more games than in 2008. Everybody knows this club boasts one of the best pitching staffs in baseball led by Lincecum, but now the offense must do its part if San Francisco is going to play deep into October.
The Giants ranked 29th out of the 30 major league teams for home runs in 2009 with 122, ahead only of the New York Mets (95). They also were 26th in runs scored with 657.
Sabean acquired first baseman Huff, a career .282 hitter with 203 homers and 752 RBIs and a .340 on-base percentage.
DeRosa provides flexibility as an infielder and outfielder but will be the primary left fielder. He received a $12 million, two-year contract to join the Giants in late December.
The 35-year-old DeRosa, a 12-year veteran, underwent left wrist surgery after the 2009 season but doesn’t seem to be affected by it. He batted .250 with a career-best 23 homers to go along with 78 RBIs for Cleveland and St. Louis last season.
“Spring training as a hitter you search for timing. You don’t want to get too hot and you don’t want to be too cold,” DeRosa said. “You want to fall somewhere in the middle. I feel like if my timing’s there and I’m not swinging at bad pitches, eventually the results will be there.”
Juan Uribe brings some pop, too. Sabean has said he might play even more than he did as a super utility infielder in 122 games last season because of his versatility and production. He batted .289 with 16 homers and 55 RBIs.
The Giants also brought back veteran catcher Bengie Molina on a one-year contract after he batted .265 with a career-high 20 home runs to go with 80 RBIs last season, his third with the Giants and 12th in the big leagues.
Sandoval’s slimdown was a big focus this winter – for him and the organization, which believes Sandoval will be even more effective and move better if he’s a little lighter. He just missed an All-Star nod last year in his first full season in the majors.
Sandoval is down nearly 20 pounds from his playing weight in 2009, when he hit .330 with 25 home runs and 90 RBIs in 153 games and had a .556 slugging percentage. He also struck out 83 times to 52 walks and earned a reputation for swinging at anything in sight.
“I’m lighter and quicker,” he said. “I feel great.”
The Giants are counting on it.
New hitting coach Hensley Meulens has been working with Sandoval and the rest of the Giants to be more selective at the plate.
Cain and Co. can only hope for more run support. Cain and Lincecum were each All-Stars last year.
“I don’t think that’s anything you can think about when you go out there,” Cain said. “When you start thinking about stuff you can’t control, you’re just going to get sidetracked. You worry about going out there and pitching and when I go to the plate getting my job done there as well.”
Cain was a 14-game winner in 2009, a career best for victories. Sanchez also pitched an improbable no-hitter July 10.
Lincecum recorded an NL-leading 261 strikeouts last season and tied for the league lead with four complete games and two shutouts. He went 15-7 with a 2.48 ERA in 32 starts and 225 1-3 innings. That came after his breakout 2008 campaign.
He insists he’s grown up since his October marijuana arrest in his native Washington state.
The hard-throwing right-hander isn’t resting on his laurels of the past two years and the hardware he collected along the way – even with a new $23 million, two-year contract in hand after he avoided an arbitration hearing at the last moment.
“You go home and I can think about my awards and what happened and what kind of pressure that can make for me. That’s what it is, it’s me making pressure as opposed to just being out there and saying: ‘Hey, what I did in the past is in the past. This is a new season and I just want to relax and focus on now.”‘
Aaron Rowand is the Giants’ new regular leadoff hitter after doing so for a couple of months last season, and he’s eager for a fresh start at the plate. The center fielder has batted .271 and .261, respectively, in his first two seasons with San Francisco.
“On paper we look good, but you’ve still got to go out and perform,” Rowand said. “We have the talent level in here to compete with anybody. You’ve still got to go out and do it. We have a great group of guys in the clubhouse. It’s fun.”
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