By Michelle Dingley
As spring training neared its end and opening day crept closer, there were plenty of questions surrounding the Giants’ 25-man roster. I specifically wondered about the plans for our young but deserving players, Brandon Belt and Brett Pill, as well as Gregor Blanco, whose strong spring seemed to earn him a space on the roster. I wanted these players to make it, but it seemed there was simply not enough room for them all. This would leave us with a ton of outfielders and first basemen, but we’d be short at the other infield positions. Apparently this was not much of a concern for Bochy and Sabean, as all three made the team.
A spotlight was shone on our lack of infield depth during the bottom of the ninth on April 21. We burned through most of our bench with pinch hitters in order to tie the game in the top of the frame. Blanco was the only player left on the bench, with Ryan Theriot sick and unable to play. Bochy had little choice but to put Aubrey Huff at second base. Huff had never played a single professional inning at second base. Assuming he made an appearance at second in college, the last time he manned that position was 1998, 14 years ago. His first base instincts kicking in, Huff broke to first when a potential double play ball was hit to shortstop. He tried to run back to cover second, but it was too late. Backup shortstop Emmanuel Burriss had to throw to first, where the runner was called safe. The Mets went on to win the game. Huff is getting a lot of blame for the loss, which really is unfair. The loss does, however, underscore the fact that we have very little infield depth with our roster as it is.
We are overstaffed at first base. Along with Huff, who is (mostly due to his paycheck) our starting first baseman, we have Brandon Belt and Brett Pill. Belt is easily the best defensive first baseman we have had in years, and he will find his way with the bat. Pill looks good at the plate, providing a right-handed bat, and he is decent at first (at least as good as Huff, probably better). All three can also play left field, although we have actual outfielders that I would much rather have out there. Buster Posey is also expected to spend time at first so we can keep his bat in the lineup on days when he gets a break from catching. Pablo Sandoval can play first as well, if the need arises.
The rest of the infield is short-staffed. Third base is the purview of the Panda. He is our best and only true option at third. The Giants website lists Theriot as the backup third baseman. However, the last time Theriot played third was 2007, and he has only played 9 big-league games at the hot corner. That’s still 7 more games than Burriss, who covered third twice last season when Panda was on the DL. Those are the only times Burriss has appeared at third base professionally; he never played third in the minors. Huff has played both corners, notching 360 major league appearances at third, though the last time was 2008, when he was 31 and probably a bit more agile than he is now at 35. Nate Schierholtz, who has never been an infielder in the bigs, spent 136 minor league games at third. However, his last time at that position was 2004 for high-A San Jose. Pill played 6 games at third in the minors. Crawford was a third baseman twice for San Jose in 2010; the rest of his pro games were at short. We need a viable backup at third. If any of these guys had to fill in, they would be rusty or lost.
With Freddy Sanchez on the DL and not expected to return until mid-May, our options at second are Burriss and Theriot. Theriot is our apparent utility man this season after we lost Fontenot and DeRosa. So far this year, he hasn’t been too impressive in the field or at the plate. Burriss is the better choice for now. But what if we are put in the situation we were in on April 21? If neither Burriss nor Theriot are available, I doubt Huff would be back at second. Posey played a lot of second and short in school, but he has never professionally played middle infield. Pill played 57 games at second in the minors. He would appear to be the best backup-backup.
Brandon Crawford owns shortstop. He has started each game of this young season. Whether he puts it together at the plate or not, he will likely be our starting shortstop all year. Burriss and Theriot could fill in short-term. Burriss has played nearly three times as many major-league games at second than short, but he could handle it if he has to. Theriot was a shortstop as recently as last year, but his range and glove are not what they used to be. If something long-term happens to Crawford, we’ll probably have to bring up Arias from Fresno.
After last year, in which it seemed like a player got hurt every game, we should know better than to have this little infield depth. We have some guys in the minors that can come up if there is a long-term injury, but we need more guys on the active roster who are capable of playing second, third and short. We are too short-staffed on backups and therefore too reliant on our starters. What if we lose Sandoval and Crawford, even for a day? We’d have to put Burriss at third, move Theriot to short and hope Pill can handle second at this level. That defense would be easily exploited. Huff is here to stay, and Belt and Pill deserve to be up here, but those three players fill the same role. It is way too early in the year for me to be advising a trade. I am wary of sending someone down and bringing up a still-unproven utility player. I hope that, during batting practice, Burriss and Theriot are taking balls at third, and Pill had better be taking grounders at second base. While we’re at it, Panda might as well spend some time behind the plate, since he is the default backup-backup catcher. If we’re going to stick with these 25 men for a while, we need to create depth in the infield. Let’s not wait until we’re again forced into the position where someone has to play an unfamiliar position cold.