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Spring Spills Into the Regular Season

The San Francisco Giants have left their Arizona desert encampment to finish the 2011 pre-season with a three game set against the Oakland As in the Bay Area. Opening Day is Thursday March 31st in the decidedly unfriendly confines of Chavez Ravine, Los Angeles. But there will be a delay in making the final Spring Training roster changes, leaving the team and several players in limbo for another week or so.

Cody Ross will open the 2011 season on the disabled list, where he will rehab for about 10 days and join the starting line-up during the first home stand against St. Louis. Let’s peg Saturday April 9th as a likely return date. That means decisions about the final outfield set-up are on hold for now. The elements here are:

1) the status of Aaron Rowand, who heard boos from the Monday night AT&T crowd when he came up in the bottom of the 7th inning against Oakland, and more boos when he struck out. The Rowand issue will only get worse for the team and for Aaron Rowand in the coming weeks, but the Giants are likely to put a resolution to the Rowand problem on hold because of the injury to Ross.

2) The fate of Nate Schierholtz. In a sense Schierholtz is the perfect fourth outfielder: a great arm with great fielding instincts, and an occasional extra base hitter with speed on the bases. But someone has to go if Rowand stays when Cody Ross rejoins the team.

3) Travis Ishikawa’s situation is the most precarious at this point. The slick-fielding first baseman played some left field this Spring to broaden his value to the team, but there is no question that Schierholtz brings a more skills and versatility to the outfield and at the plate. Which presents another problem for Schierholtz: his greater value over Ishikawa means the Giants can move him in a trade much easier and potentially receive more in return.

Of course the other shoe falling for Ishikawa is Brandon Belt. Whether Belt makes the team on Opening Day, or gets called up in July, at that moment there will simply not be a legitimate roster spot on the team for Ishikawa.

Closer Brian Wilson will also open the season on the DL, and likely return in a week if all goes well. That could mean Wilson makes the 25 man roster on Opening Day at AT&T Park on Friday April 8th against St. Louis. The four way battle for the final spot in the bullpen between Guillermo Mota, Dan Runzler, Jeff Suppan, and Ryan Vogelsong has been won by Mota. Suppan will leave the Giants organization to look for another opportunity, and Vogelsong will likely take an assignment in Triple A Fresno to be brought up if/when the pitching needs a fix. This leaves left hander Dan Runzler, who has fully demonstrated he belongs on the 25 man roster.

danrunzler2While Manager Bruce Bochy will mix and match to fill the closer role until Wilson returns, Runzler will probably take Wilson’s slot to open the season. But the real issue is what to do after Wilson returns, because Dan Runzler has demonstrated his value and needs to be part of the Giants’ 2011 bullpen. When Wilson returns, the front office will stash Runzler in Fresno, and when that happens we could very well see another Buster Posey-like scenario.

After the Giants sent Posey to Fresno to start the 2010 season, the young catcher immediately started producing runs for the Triple A team– runs that the Major League team desperately needed. Now Runzler will be getting outs for the Triple A team, and it should only be a matter of time before the Giants will want those outs to be at the expense of National League hitters.

A note about the first pre-season game with Oakland last Monday: fully 38,000 fans attended a Monday night game in San Francisco that was essentially a practice game. The buzz and excitement from the 2010 World Series Championship is alive and loud, and this season is almost as unique as last year– the team and the fans have never experienced what a season is like after winning a World Series. So it’s all still new and wondrous as the adventure continues…

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