Spring Training 2011 Suddenly Becomes Serious

By all accounts the 2011 Cactus League has been a relatively smooth ride for the San Francisco Giants. Closer Brian Wilson’s strained left oblique muscle has been the only speed bump on an otherwise open road, and Wilson is typically gritting up and playing down what would likely be a more serious injury for any other player.

baseball-roundBut now everything has changed. Opening Day is eight days away and the team roster has just been trimmed down to 34 players. You don’t need to slide too many abacus beads back and forth to figure out that nine players currently in camp will either be sent to the minors, cut, or traded in the next week. Spring Training is no longer about feel good stories, slow moving ballgames in the desert sun, and fans stretched out on the lawn beyond center field.

Now, it’s all about which players will be chosen to go to battle for the NL West title; it’s about athletes who have worked their butts off striving to survive and either get a job, keep their job, or do a better job; and it’s about ending old relationships and dealing with new ones. This is when the game gets serious and tough.

The Giants’ front office has been creative in providing an array of possible pieces to the 2011 puzzle, but it’s time to make the final decisions:

> Will Aaron Rowand be cut? In a scenario that defines the concept of a tough decision, Rowand has two years left on his 5 year $60m contract, with an actual dollar figure owed of $27.2m– but he lost his center field job and is not a useful utility outfielder. If the team keeps Rowand, players who have an obvious contributing role on the 2011 team will be traded or cut.

The New York Mets, a team in unimaginable disarray on and off the field, recently released pitcher Oliver Perez and infielder Luis Castillo to the tune of $18 million. The Mets are hardly models of baseball business excellence, so this is more along the lines of “wow… even the Mets did it…”.

To be clear, it would best best for the franchise if Rowand is moved out before Opening Day; having said that, the season will not be lost if the Giants keep Rowand, an investment that simply didn’t work out. Happens all the time and is part of the game.

> The bullpen spots. I say “spots” because there could be a surprise here. In the battle for the acknowledged single open slot, Guillermo Mota appears to have it locked with 10 SOs and 1 walk in 10 innings pitched, plus Mota brings a ton of experience. Dan Runzler and Ryan Vogelsong, who were supposed to be battling Mota for that one opening, have both had a good Spring and the Giants may feel compelled to find room for one of them.

If the Giants trade one of the relievers they signed in the off-season, Runzler could make the team with Vogelsong going to Fresno. He would be the first one called up if a serious problem develops in the bullpen or if any of the starters falter. Although both Javier Lopez and Ramon Ramirez have been hit magnets throughout March, their market value will likely never be higher than it is now.

>The Brandon Belt watch continues. As was the case with Buster Posey, Giants management has to think about the economic impact of keeping Belt with the big club in terms of accelerating his eligibility for free agency and arbitration. These types of considerations are anathema to fans, but the front office can’t arbitrarily blow off the business responsibilities of franchise ownership simply to appease the fan base. 

In Posey’s case, the 2010 team left camp with obvious run scoring and power hitting issues; Posey’s bat would have significantly improved the offense if he had been a member of the Opening Day line-up. In Belt’s case, the 2011 team is starting out as an extra base hitting machine that will almost certainly score enough to fully support the pitching staff. In other words, there is legitimate room to let Brandon Belt develop more in Fresno, and bring him up when everyone feels the time is right.

I actually wish teams spoke more openly about this aspect of the game because it’s not something to hide or cover up, it is a legitimate part of what it means to own a professional franchise. The timelines of arbitration and free agency are set for all players, and any team that doesn’t balance the business side with the performance side of the game will end up exactly like… well, the New York Mets.

The sophisticated fan base in San Francisco is more than capable of understanding the extra dimensions of the game, beyond simply wanting more home runs and yelling real loud.

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