On Friday February 25th the San Francisco Giants topped the Arizona Diamondbacks 7-6 in the first Spring Training game of 2011. Many players threw pitches, many players had at-bats, and a great number of ballplayers ran around the bases. Those wily Giants reached back into their 2010 bag of tricks to barely hold on to win in the final inning, and with that we are off and running to the first game of the 2011 season– Thursday March 31st against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Spring skirmishes may only be warm-ups for the upcoming campaign, but for many players these are not meaningless games. And if you look closely, special moments seem to pop up out of nowhere in these games that capture a team’s past and its future. For me in the Cactus League opener, the Giants infield line up that finished off the game in the top of the last inning was particularly special: Brandon Belt at 1st base, Emmanuel Burriss at second, Ryan Rohlinger at 3rd base, and Brandon Crawford at short. Pretty cool.
This was a snaphot of four players at career crossroads, and a possible preview of at least part of the Giants’ 2012 Opening Day infield.
Emmanuel Burriss has survived the last four years being moved back and forth between shortstop and second base, up and down between the minors and the big leagues, as the Giants front office awkwardly worked around their prospects while they signed a series of veteran free agent shortstops. Through injuries and uncertainty, Burriss has hung in there and performed well on the field and at the plate.
Brandon Belt is everyone’s breakthrough headline and one of the most compelling 2011 prospect stories in baseball. If Belt makes the big team out of Spring Training, San Francisco’s batting order may finally start to get the attention of the East Coast sports media.
Ryan Rohlinger hit a series of speed bumps the past several years and never got a lengthy look at third base. Now the 27 year old Rohlinger stands in the back of a suddenly very busy depth chart at third: Pablo Sandoval’s anticipated comeback; veteran Mark DeRosa at the ready if Pablo stumbles; 23 year old Conor Gillaspie, picked second in the 2008 amateur draft behind Buster Posey, poised at AA Richmond; and 24 year old Chris Dominguez, who led Single A affiliate Augusta in RBI and total bases in 2010, also waiting in the wings.
Brandon Crawford, 24, could be the real surprise in this group. Crawford must be getting tired of the “great glove–questionable bat” label that now seems super-glued to his back, but he has shown some offensive spark over his minor league career. Ultimately, baseball teams built on pitching tend to seriously prosper with extraordinary infield defense– and that’s exactly what Crawford brings to the party.
For the first time in maybe 20 years, the San Francisco Giants organization has real offensive depth, and not just in the infield. It’s a reflection of an organization that has made global errors, has had global successes, but is now on track to institutionally learn and grow.