2/27/2013 8:00 P.M. ET
Giants counting on Blanco, others to produce in left
By Chris Haft / MLB.com
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Though Gregor Blanco appears to be the Giants' primary left fielder as Opening Day approaches, he's taking nothing for granted.
"I want to start, for sure," Blanco said. "But that's not my decision. I just want to help the team any way I can."
So does Andres Torres, who entered Spring Training as the leading candidate to platoon with Blanco.
So does Cole Gillespie, a non-roster invitee who has spent most of the past four years at Triple-A and appears to possess Major League-level skills.
So do Brandon Belt and Brett Pill, whose roles lie elsewhere but would play left mainly to get their bats in the lineup.
Everybody loves Blanco. He earned a spot on last year's ballclub as a non-roster player, hustled ceaselessly and played excellent defense, most notably when he chased down Jordan Schafer's seventh-inning drive to preserve Matt Cain's perfect game against Houston last June 13.
Blanco also hit .244 in 141 games, which would be inadequate even when compared with the mediocre production of San Francisco's left fielders since Barry Bonds was jettisoned after the 2007 season. In each year since then, Giants left fielders hit at least .261 and ranked eighth or higher in runs scored among their National League counterparts.
A notable exception was 2011, when the Giants fell short of the postseason while attempting to defend their World Series title. Their left fielders ranked 13th in the league in RBIs (63), 14th in runs (64) and last in batting average (.222). Injuries and ineffectiveness forced manager Bruce Bochy to use seven players in left: Cody Ross (56 games), Pat Burrell (50), Belt (30), Aaron Rowand (15), Nate Schierholtz (seven), Justin Christian (two) and Aubrey Huff (two).
San Francisco derived plenty of production from left field last year, mainly due to Melky Cabrera's feats until he received a 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drug use on Aug. 15. That position gave the Giants a .302 batting average, third-best in the NL, and 96 runs, the NL's fourth-most.
The moral of this tale is obvious. Seeking all the offense they can muster, the non-slugging Giants need contributions throughout the batting order and from each position. But the numbers reflect that left field has been a bellwether for their fortunes.
Thus, the Giants will try to squeeze as much offense as they can from Blanco and his brethren. Accomplishing that might require him to share playing time.
"It could be a platoon," general manager Brian Sabean said.
Conventional wisdom suggests that Blanco, a left-handed batter, would function best against right-handed pitchers. But he batted .242 with a .667 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) against lefties, compared with .248 and .694 off righties.
Blanco said that he has shortened his swing, which he hopes will generate more ground balls and low line drives. That will enable him to use his speed to his advantage. He has sought advice from, among others, the widely respected Marco Scutaro, who proved last season how a hitter can thrive without overextending himself.
At least Blanco won't have to concern himself with striving to make the team, as was the case last year.
"It is a big difference," he said. "This spring will be more relaxed for me. I can work on things that I know will make me better for the whole year."
In case Blanco struggles, the Giants have assembled alternatives. Envisioning an ideal platoon partner for Blanco, they brought back Torres, who was traded to the Mets in the December 2011 Angel Pagan deal. The switch-hitting Torres, who signed a one-year, $2 million deal with San Francisco, batted only .230 overall for the Mets but fared best against lefties, off whom he hit .286.
Also vying for a platoon role is Gillespie, who played 50 games for Arizona in 2010-11. He hit .361 off lefties for the D-backs' Triple-A Reno affiliate last year and has looked sharp defensively in early Cactus League games.
If Belt's hitting proves to be indispensable, he could occupy left when Buster Posey moves to first base and Hector Sanchez catches. The same goes for Pill, who continued his hot hitting with a run-scoring triple in Wednesday's 8-8 Cactus League tie against the Los Angeles Angels. Pill's hitting .286 with a slugging percentage of .929. His presence as a right-handed power hitter, a commodity the Giants lack, gives him a chance to make the Opening Day roster as a reserve first baseman and pinch-hitter. Determining whether Pill can play left will be one of the Giants' projects in March.
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.