Positional Preview: First Base

One of the old familiar faces on the Giants is gone. Without J.T. Snow manning first, what sort of production can the Giants expect out of Lance Niekro, and will there be anyone else getting a lot of playing time there?

For years, there’s been a sect of Giant fans looking forward to the departure of J.T. Snow and his decreasing power performance at a power position, while another sect of fans have been dreading the departure of one of the team’s most familiar and beloved faces.  The time has come, and now no one’s really sure what the Giants are going to get from first base?

The heart of the issue is the new ‘announced’ first baseman, Lance Niekro.  Niekro was a surprise call-up in 2005 after playing only 1 game in the minors, and went on to play in 113 games in his first real major league experience.  He started off hot,  hitting 9 home runs in his first 147 at bats through the end of June.  But just as the Giants said he was about to get the lion’s share of playing time at first, he hit a ball off his foot in batting practice.  After that, all his stats took a nosedive late in the season.

That is one of the worries about Niekro: he has had problems with injuries. Managing to get more than 302 at bats in a season just once in his entire pro career.  Another worry is his splits.  Niekro hit much better against left handed pitching (.324/.361/.657 with 9 of his 12 home runs, and the stats are only that low after his production drop in the 2nd half) than he was against RHP (.206/.251/.335).  The Giants appear confident that he’s more than just a platoon player and will do better against right handers, but it’s no sure thing.

Though the Giants aren’t saying it this way, they picked up a potential platoon partner in Mark Sweeney, a player who just happens to be a very good friend of Snow’s.  Although Sweeney has a reputation of being one of the best pinch hitters in the game, he’s coming off a career year in San Diego, where he hit .294/.395/.466 at the age of 36, appearing in a career high 136 games and 221 at bats.  Sweeney resembles Snow offensively, with a good walk rate but not the power ideal for a corner infielder.  Although the Giants played up Sweeney’s ability to help out in the outfield, don’t be surprised if the Giants turn to Sweeney if Niekro begins to struggle early.

The Giants still are looking at Niekro as a long term player, even with prospects like first baseman Travis Ishikawa in the pipe, or perhaps Eddy Martinez-Esteve moving to first in the future.  But having him work with a veteran like Sweeney while he’s still adjusting to the big leagues, even if the Giants won’t admit it, is probably a smart idea.  In the meantime, expect some ups and downs in production coming from first base.



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