By Michelle Dingley
After Friday’s game, in which the Giants were shut out for the first time this season, Pablo Sandoval was rushed back off the DL to rejoin the team. His bat is always a welcome addition to the lineup, but the third baseman’s activation forces another player off the roster. After starting the year with a weak infield, the Giants have improved defensively and increased their depth. Ryan Theriot’s performance after returning from his own stint on the DL has earned him a starting spot. Joaquin Arias’ defense has cemented his place on the roster. Emmanuel Burriss is a capable defender, but he leaves much to be desired at the plate. With the return of the Panda, the Giants decided to keep all their middle infielders, opting to drop Brett Pill, one of their three first basemen.
Second baseman Ryan Theriot started the season off slowly, batting just .179 on May 8, just before he went on the DL. His elbow injury had been kept quiet. In addition to Theriot’s poor performance at the plate, he had little range. With no explanation for his struggles, many Giants fans assumed his best days were behind him. “The Riot” proved the naysayers wrong. He has been on fire, batting .380 since being activated May 25, and .438 in June. He has also been quite impressive with the glove, making some spectacular plays at second base. If The Riot can continue at this pace, we should be able to survive the season without the presence of Freddy Sanchez.
Joaquin Arias was tearing up triple-A, batting .400 in Fresno before being called up on April 25 when Huff went on the DL. Arias’ bat didn’t stay as hot in the majors (he’s batting .235 for the season), but he comes through when we need him. Arias is clutch, batting .320 in 2-out situations, with 6 of his 12 RBI coming in those at-bats. He is versatile. At both the major and minor league levels, Joaquin has played all over the infield. In Panda’s absence, Arias mostly played the hot corner (27 starts), but he also started 2 games at second and 6 at short. Arias has been slick with the glove, picking it like a big-leaguer. His defense is forcing him into the lineup, and he could be our utility player for the duration, pushing second baseman/utility man Emmanuel Burriss to the bench. Arias will get spot starts when Panda, Crawford or Theriot need a rest. Arias has given us the infield depth that we have so sorely needed this season.
Drawing the short stick is Brett Pill. We have been overstaffed at first base all season, leading to a carousel of sorts, with Pill, Huff and Belt rotating at that position. Pill has split his time between the infield and outfield, starting 7 games at first and 7 in left. He mostly gets the call when facing a left-handed starter; otherwise, he is used as a right-handed pinch-hitter with power. With inconsistent playing time, his bat remains cold, with a .215 average yet 3 big flies on the year. Aubrey Huff started 10 games at first and 4 in left field this season. The veteran’s 2011 struggles have continued into 2012, keeping him from accumulating much playing time. Brandon Belt has started 29 games at first, playing only that position this season. He is easily our best defensive option at first. Belt apparently hasn’t gotten too comfortable at the plate, owning a .236 average with no homers so far this year. Between the three men, we have almost no production out of first.
Pill has been squeezed out due to the backlog both at first and in the outfield. Once Gregor Blanco heated up and proved himself to be a quality leadoff batter, the outfield was set, with no room for Pill nor Huff. At first base, in addition to Huff and Belt, Pill has to compete with Buster Posey, who gets occasional starts there when Hector Sanchez catches. We just plain have too many first basemen, and spreading out the starts was helping no one. The men could not get comfortable when playing one day and sitting the next. Consistent playing time is important both offensively and defensively. As much as I hate to see Pill sent back to Fresno, I think it will be good for the team overall if Belt remains at first and Huff is used as a backup or bench player. Platooning has not been working very well for us. Whoever we end up with at first, I would like him to be a regular.
Getting the Panda back will definitely add more power to the lineup. Once Melky Cabrera is back from nursing his sore hamstring, we’ll have a very formidable offense, with Sandoval, Posey, Cabrera and Pagan in there every day. Add that to the improved defense and (minus Lincecum) our strong pitching, and the Giants can compete with any team in the majors.