No spot on the field is more up for grabs than J.T. Snow's old haunt, and perhaps that's why the Giants brought Snow back to help coach (among other things). Also, no position affects other players around the field more.
Aurilia has the inside track, but there are plenty of questions about the fan-favorite coming home. Most notably, there are worries about Aurilia being able to hit away from the Great American Ballpark, and his numbers weren't highly bloated there to begin with. Aurilia also had problems with right handed pitchers, so a platoon is an issue. On top of that, Aurilia has defense questions, but then, so does everyone. The good side is that Aurilia has always been best as a Giant, and could do well coming home, and he's the most well-rounded hitter in this competition.
Klesko is Aurilia's main competition, but again, Klesko has questions. Klesko missed most of 2006 with an injury, and though he did well in his brief return at the end of the year, durability is an issue. And as the left-handed hitter in a potential platoon, Klesko would get the majority of time normally. Klesko is also a defensive liability, and he could have real problems hitting at AT&T Park. On the other hand, Klesko is the best chance for a power threat behind Bonds on a team without much power.
The other two options are longshots, but the questionable natures of the main candidates give them chances at significant roles. Sweeney is a pinch hitter threat, and he was not effective in extended playing time. But he is likely to bounce back from his poorer numbers in '06. Niekro has become a forgotten man, but after going to the minors to remember to hit the fastball, he could regain the flashes that made the team feel comfortable in letting Snow go in the first place. Niekro has the best defense of the four, and can hit for power, if not for average.
The unique thing about this battle is that the losers will likely take significant roles elsewhere. If Aurilia doesn't start, he will serve as the top backup around the infield, affecting young Kevin Frandsen's playing time. Klesko and Sweeney would both be up for significant time in left field, backing up Barry Bonds. Niekro, however, may be stuck, and may have to risk waivers to go back to the minors if there is no room. This team won't carry 4 first basemen.
The back of the rotation is the other major wide open competition.
Russ Ortiz has to be considered the favorite. One of the Giants' first homegrown pitching successes has fallen on hard times, but he spent the 2006 offseason as a man possessed, getting back in shape and fixing his mechanics. His velocity is up and his other pitches are in order. He is a lot closer to the World Series starter he was in 2002 than the seemingly washed up guy that the Arizona Diamondbacks cut in 2006.
Jonathan Sanchez has gotten a lot of talk, and it would seem he is the second favorite to take the job. However Sanchez has made very few starts about Triple-A, and is still learning how to pitch. He relies on his ability to change speeds, which can vary with him. It's very likely he will start the season in Fresno, to try and get his slider under control. If he can, he will be a more effective pitcher in the long term. He would get more chances to work on it in the minors.
The reality is that Tim Lincecum is the second most likely guy to win the job. Lincecum doesn't have much to do in regards to improving his pitches, although he needs to improve his changeup some more. But Lincecum is more ready mechanically. He could use more seasoning mentally, but if Ortiz falters, don't be surprised to see the Giants let Lincecum take his best shot.
Sad to say, experienced candidates Hennessey and Correia are very much dark horse candidates. Correia in particular is looked at as a player who would have a much needed impact in the bullpen that could use some help. Hennessey has had problems finding a role, but his slider could also be very useful in the bullpen. For either of these guys to get the starter spot, it'll take a big performance from them and a lot of disappointment from the others.
The Spot: Backing Up Bonds
The Contenders: Klesko, Sweeney, Todd Linden
This isn't really the 4th outfielder job. A 4th outfielder has to backup more than one position, but Bonds' backup may be a guy who can just play left field. That would apply to both Klesko and Sweeney, who are barely adequate defenders. It's arguable that Bonds is a better defender than both, using smart routes and positioning to make up for poor footspeed.
Klesko's got a solid chance to at least start the season in this role. He's a reasonably powerful left-handed bat with the ability to take walks, so at least he'd resemble Bonds in how he could fit into a lineup (if not have anywhere close to the impact). If Klesko isn't getting significant time at first base, this could be his primary at-bat source.
Linden, however, should get some of this time, even if Klesko gets the majority of the role. Linden will at least play against left-handed pitchers, whom the left handed Klesko has problems with. Linden can win the job outright, too, if he continues to improve like he has the previous two years in the majors. Linden is an above-average defender, and though he's not a pure power hitter, he brings an intriguing mix of power and speed into the lineup. Linden will most likely also be Bonds' defensive specialist late in games. However, Linden could also get time playing elsewhere if Dave Roberts suffers an injury, like he has fairly regularly, but the fill-in after Linden wouldn't be decided in Spring Training.
Sweeney's a dark horse, and is more likely to get significant time here if either Klesko or Linden do get the majority of their time elsewhere.
Benitez opened up this competition this spring when he was asked whether he thought he would be the opening day starter for the Giants. He said "Who else they got?"
Wilson would be that someone else, and he's a good one to get. Some might consider him, if healthy, the favorite. He has classic closer stuff (Think Nen without the toe-tap), and some blame his control problems in 2006 on a strained oblique, which is now healed. Wilson will get plenty of looks this spring.
However, Benitez is still the incumbent. He rubbed a lot of people the wrong way last season, but has been trying to rehab his image even more than his knees this spring (despite the preceding quote). That may be as important to where he starts the season, and in what role. His troublesome knees appear to be healthy, but he has to prove his stuff is up to snuff. Benitez remains coveted by the Florida Marlins (for some reason), and if he does well (as well as Wilson), Benitez could start the season off with a trade.
If things start to fall apart, Sadler is the emergency option. The truth is that Sadler may not make the majors, but he has the most closing experience in the next tier of options. He has low-90's stuff with a good slider, but his control is very suspect.
This is a tough spot to compete for, because it will depend so much on how other position battles go. For instance, if Aurilia becomes the regular first baseman, Frandsen's a near lock to be the utility man, as the Giants don't really have many other options. But if Aurilia is free to be the utility guy, there's little value in Frandsen. Frandsen's been taking outfield practice to increase his versatility, but there's even more competition out there.
Linden seems to be a lock, with his high ceiling, improving performance and being out of options, and will almost certainly be the major backup in the outfield (Bonds not withstanding). That said, it's an almost. This team will have a lot of veterans to carry (particularly competing at first and left field), making versatility very important for any player on the roster. Linden can play center, where neither Sweeney nor Klesko will ever play, but he's a liability there.
That leaves the smallest crack open for Jason Ellison. Ellison has something to prove, after hitting very poorly in the majors in 2006, but batting .400 over a couple of months in Triple-A. Ellison's ability to play center gives him the slightest edge, and he could be in the outfield alongside Linden, but he will have to earn it. He's out of options, and he's a solid bet to be claimed off of waivers by a team in need of extra center field options (Hello, Florida Marlins).
Fred Lewis is again the darkest of dark horses. He's got skills, but the guy has to play center to fill this role (if not to become a regular at all). Even if he's given the benefit of the doubt for not playing most of last year in center because of his April hamstring injury, Lewis' defensive reputation is awful. He doesn't have the bat to be a corner outfielder, either. He's probably going to be in Fresno, continuing to work on things, but he's close enough to the majors that if a couple of breaks go his way, he's in.
More than half of the 4 bullpen spots available could go to losers of the rotation and closer races. Aside from the closer, only Steve Kline and Vinnie Chulk have guaranteed jobs. Wilson is sure to be in the bullpen if he's not the closer. Benitez will likely be traded if he doesn't win the closer job, but that's no sure thing.
From the starter race, Correia and Hennessey are both very likely to make the bullpen, however, neither are sure things. Both are out of options, and are also trade possibilities if they do well as starter possibilities and another team is willing to take a flier. Ortiz is a lesser possibility, because he may ask to pursue a starter job elsewhere (or in the minors). And the Giants may be hesitant to try switching Sanchez to relief again if they can avoid it; if he doesn't make the rotation, he'll almost certainly be starting in Fresno.
That leaves a few interesting options. Sadler will likely be closing in Fresno. He did good there at the end of 2006, but still can use some seasoning and can work on his control. Munter and Taschner both can be very good, but neither were in 2006. Taschner has the advantage of being the most seasoned option for a second lefty in the bullpen, however. Misch, who got a very brief major league debut, will probably be continuing to start in Fresno.
The most intriguing name is Threets, the one-time fireballer who has long had injury and control problems, and is out of options despite having not ever made the majors. This could be his year, but he'll have to prove a lot in spring training to justify taking the risk on him using up a roster spot. If he goes to waivers, he'll probably be lost.
Not every battle is for the majors. The Giants have a number of outfield prospects, and there are five players who can be starters in Fresno battling for three starter spots.
Of the five, only Scheirholtz and Martinez-Esteve haven't played yet in Fresno. Martinez-Esteve is at a disadvantage after missing most of 2006 with an injury. But he's arguably the most mature hitter of the group, and the Giants may want to move him up with Schierholtz and possibly Travis Ishikawa, both teammates he's played with since 2005. There are also the ever-present rumors that Martinez-Esteve will be moved to first base, considering his shoulder problems. Schierholtz, however, had one of the best seasons of any Connecticut player, and is arguably ready for Fresno.
Lewis has a chance to play in the majors this year, but he really needs to play in Fresno and work on playing center. Last year, Ortmeier played center the first half of the season as Lewis came back from his hamstring injury, but Ortmeier struggled in Triple-A. Ortmeier is a true corner outfielder, and he might improve if moved back to his normal spot.
Timpner was brought up to play center in Ortmeier's place, possibly too early, but Timpner actually did better than expected in Fresno. If he's forced back to Connecticut, it might be a step backwards, but it'd be better than him sitting on the bench. However, the infrequent DH spot (which would be used whenever the Grizzlies play in an AL team's affiliate's park) might give Timpner some playing time.
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