Matt Cain may be just 27 years old, but he understands the importance of having a big bat in the middle of the lineup more than most pitchers.
Cain is one of the few remaining Giants who were around when Barry Bonds was finishing his career in 2007 by becoming baseball's all-time home run leader. Left-hander Barry Zito, closer Brian Wilson, and right fielder Nate Schierholtz are the only other Giants who were teammates with Bonds.
While nobody has ever compared catcher Buster Posey to Bonds—which can be construed as either a good or bad thing, depending upon your perspective—there is little doubt he helps the Giants' lineup immensely when healthy.
In 2010, Posey was called up on May 29 and gave the Giants offense a big lift. He hit .305/.357/.505 with 18 home runs in 443 plate appearances to go with a .299 TAv and 3.5 WARP while winning the National League Rookie of the Year award.
Posey helped make what was a bad lineup at least mediocre, as the Giants finished ninth in the NL with 4.30 runs scored a game—just under the 4.33 league average. That gave their outstanding pitching staff just enough help for the Giants to win the NL West on the final day of the regular season, then to go on to win it all by beating the Braves and Phillies in the National League playoffs and the Rangers in the World Series.
Posey played in just 45 games last season, though, before suffering a broken bone in his leg and three torn ankle ligaments after a home plate collision with the Marlins' Scott Cousins in a May 28 game at AT&T Park. When General Manager Brian Sabean was unable to make a trade for another catcher, the duo of Eli Whiteside (.209 TAv) and Chris Stewart (.225) didn't even come close to matching Posey's production, and the Giants finished second in the NL West, eight games behind the Diamondbacks. The Giants also sank to last in the league in runs scored with 3.52 per game.
No wonder the sellout crowd at Scottsdale Stadium gave Posey a standing ovation just for walking to the bullpen to warm up Cain before his start against a Reds split squad in a Cactus League game last Friday. It was Posey's first game action since the horrific collision, and Cain, as much as anyone in the ballpark, knew the significance of the moment.
"Everyone knows what Buster means to our team," Cain said. "In a lot of ways, he was the last piece to the puzzle when we won in 2010. He's a great hitter, and he handles the pitching staff very well. You saw how much we missed him. To see him back on the field, not missing a beat and looking like the Buster of old, is going to be the highlight of spring training for everybody on this team. It's good to have him back."
The Giants believe the return of Posey along with the offseason trades for left fielder Melky Cabrera and center fielder Angel Pagan and the hoped-for resurgence by first baseman Aubrey Huff will improve their offense. Of course, that could be wishful thinking considering PECOTA expects Cabrera to regress to a .255 TAv and 0.5 WARP this season after posting .287 and 2.7 numbers for the Royals last season. Additionally, Pagan had a .260 TAv and 2.1 WARP for the Mets last year, and Huff ended the season at .257 and 0.2.
Time will tell exactly how Posey returns from such a severe injury. PECOTA likes his chances to have a solid year, forecasting a .282 batting average, 15 home runs, and 62 RBI to go with a .292 TAv and 3.4 WARP. Just 24, it is reasonable to think that Posey could outperform that forecast.
"You can just tell the difference with Buster being back," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "When he plays, there is more energy in the ballpark and in the dugout than there is during a normal spring training game. There is no doubt having him back is going to give us a lift this season."
Giants first baseman Brandon Belt: "I like him a lot. He's got legitimate pop. If I were the Giants, I'd stick the kid in the lineup and play him every day. He's going to give you more than Huff will at this stage of his career.”
Twins left-hander Francisco Liriano: "He's still an enigma. When I saw him, he was lights out for two innings then threw a bunch of hittable pitches in the third innings. The stuff is there. He's got top-of-the-rotation stuff. It's just a matter of him being consistent."
Cubs closer Carlos Marmol: "He looks like a guy who has completely lost his confidence. He's timid on the mound, and he's not challenging people… even minor-league guys he should be blowing away. I don't like to put too much stock in spring training, but I'd be getting a nervous if I were the Cubs."
Braves left-hander Mike Minor: "He's looked terrific so far this spring. He doesn't dazzle you with great stuff, but he's really smart and understands the art of pitching. A lot of people criticized the Braves for taking him in the first round of the draft a few years back, but it looks like they knew what they were doing."
Blue Jays left fielder Travis Snider: "I hesitate to get too excited because he's teased me before, but he really looks like a better hitter this spring. He's more patient, he's not swinging at the pitcher's pitch as often, and he's hanging in better against left-handers. I really liked the job Eric Thames did for the Blue Jays last season in left field, but Snider obviously has more potential and can do more damage."
A few minutes with White Sox designated hitter Adam Dunn:
On hitting .159 with 11 home runs in 122 games last season, his first after signing a four-year, $56-million contract with the White Sox: "It would be absolutely impossible to have a worse year. The only good thing about it is that I can only go up from there. I'm not trying to trivialize it, but the only thing I could do was put it out of my mind and look forward to this season."
On what he is working on this spring: "I'm trying to see as many pitches as possible, trying to get my eye back this year. Even though I strike out a lot, I've always prided myself on having a good eye and drawing a lot of walks. I'm trying to be patient at the plate yet be aggressive at the same time."
On balancing patience and aggressiveness at the plate: "It's just something you get a feel for, and there is a fine line there. You don't want to be too aggressive and wind up getting yourself out on bad pitches. Yet you don't want to get too patient to the point where you are letting a lot of hittable pitches go by. It's not something where you make a mechanical adjustment and fix it; it's a feel thing, and the best way you can get better at it is by seeing as many pitches as possible."
On how he feels he is swinging the bat this spring: "I got really anxious at the plate last year. I got jumpy and went after a lot of pitches that I shouldn't have and either missed them or hooked them foul. I feel like I'm staying back on the ball a lot better and hitting it a lot harder."
On working with new White Sox hitting coach Jeff Manto: "I like Jeff a lot. He has good ideas about hitting, and he's good to work with. He listens to what the players say and what our thoughts are about hitting. Not all coaches are like that."
Three observations from the Cactus League:
- Things are10 times quieter around the White Sox now that Robin Ventura has replaced Ozzie Guillen as manager. While Guillen could make things fun when he was at his best, it was obvious that his style finally wore the players down last season, and you can sense a freshness in the clubhouse.
- An extra hidden advantage the Rangers gained by signing Yu Darvish is that so much attention is being paid to the latest Japanese pitching sensation that the rest of the players have been spared the daily millions of questions about blowing last year's World Series against the Cardinals.
- Few things are cooler, even to a veteran ball scribe, than walking into the Giants' clubhouse and seeing Willie Mays sitting at a table.