Some of the notable storylines involving former San Jose Giants this spring include Nate Schierholtz and Brandon Crawford trying to lock down the starting jobs in right field and shortstop respectively. A big spring could vault Brandon Belt into a more central role on the club while Brett Pill and Emmanuel Burriss have realistic aspirations of beginning the season on the San Francisco Giants roster. Meanwhile over on the pitching side, former San Jose hurlers Dan Runzler and Steve Edlefsen are trying to establish themselves in the Giants bullpen and Eric Surkamp could use an impressive spring to improve his chances of joining the starting rotation at some point in 2012.
For the 28-year old Schierholtz, the opportunity for a full-time job on the team is right in front of him. The 2004 and 2005 San Jose Giant achieved career-highs last year in doubles (22), home runs (9), RBI's (41) and stolen bases (7) to go with a solid .278 batting average and his usual strong defense in the outfield. With Carlos Beltran now in St. Louis and the Aubrey Huff in right field experiment a thing of the past, it's Schierholtz's time to step forward. Last year, his 335 at-bats were the most of his big league career, but a substantial increase could be in order if he establishes himself this spring and early in the season.
Crawford struggled offensively in San Francisco last season (.204 AVG), but has the defensive abilities at shortstop already that could keep him in the big leagues for a long time. Concerns about his bat are certainly warranted as Crawford failed to hit above .260 in Double-A or Triple-A in each of the last three years, but with no other big name shortstop on the team and other top prospects still in need of more work in the minors, it's Crawford's job to lose this spring.
Belt entered the 2011 campaign as the consensus #1 prospect in the organization, but endured a difficult year filled with constant shuffling between Triple-A and the big leagues, not to mention a wrist injury that sidelined the slugger for over a month in the middle of the season. In 63 games with the Giants, Belt smacked nine home runs, but finished with just a .225 batting average. The lesson learned from last year is probably that Belt needs regular playing time wherever he lands and he won't benefit from going back-and-forth between Fresno and San Francisco. It all starts in the spring for Belt as the organization would love to see him shine and grab hold of a regular spot in the lineup, most likely at first base. If he struggles or doesn't show enough, then Belt will have to settle for a reserve role or even a trip back to Triple-A, so he could play every night.
Pill and Burriss look to be competing for back-up roles on San Francisco's opening day roster this spring. After a spectacular year in Fresno last season, Pill finally got a chance in "The Show" with a September call-up. The power-hitting first baseman showed a nice bat connecting for a pair of home runs to go with a .300 average in 15 games. The 27-year old could certainly fill a role on the team this year as a right-handed bat off the bench, or even as someone who could start regularly at first against left-handed pitching. For Burriss, it was a struggle last season when he batted just .204 with one extra-base hit in 59 games, but his speed and versatility (started games at second, short, third and even played some first base and outfield off the bench) make him an attractive candidate to make the team. However, the recent free agent signing of veteran infielder Ryan Theriot puts more pressure on Burriss this spring as he tries to avoid the roster crunch and secure a spot on the team.
For Runzler and Edlefsen, the duo may currently find themselves on the outside looking in for a bullpen job, but the opportunity to turn heads this spring certainly exists. Runzler struggled to a 6.26 ERA in San Francisco last season, but finished strong with no runs allowed over 11 September appearances. The hard-throwing lefty was one of the Giants' top relievers during the first three months of 2010 before going down with an injury, however the re-signing of Guillermo Mota and the addition of Clay Hensley could squeeze him out of a spot on the opening day roster.
Edlefsen has far less big league experience when compared to Runzler, but could fill a role in the future thanks to an excellent sinker that results in a high rate of ground balls. He was one of Fresno's top relievers the second half of last year and had some nice moments during a September call-up (even if his final ERA of 9.53 would indicate otherwise). This spring gives Edlefsen another opportunity to make a case for more big league time this year, even if he's a longshot to make the opening day roster.
Surkamp is probably headed to Fresno to begin the season, but the left-hander should receive plenty of opportunities to see the mound this spring. Widely considered the top starting pitching prospect in the organization, Surkamp had a dominant year with Double-A Richmond last season before making six starts in San Francisco (2-2, 5.74 ERA). It would likely take an injury this spring to one of the current starters for Surkamp to be considered for a spot on the roster, but a solid performance in these upcoming exhibition games would certainly help his cause for a return to "The Show" later in the year.
Elsewhere, pitchers Hector Correa and Dan Otero, outfielders Tyler Graham and Roger Kieschnick, second baseman Charlie Culberson and first baseman Angel Villalona will be participating in their first big league camp as members of the 40-man roster. The six players were added to the 40-man roster last November and while it's highly unlikely that any of them will begin the year in San Francisco, their chances of a big league debut at some point in 2012 have greatly increased.
Otero and Correa finished last season as top relievers with Fresno and Richmond respectively while Graham's speed is his biggest asset (60 steals with the Grizzlies last year). Kieschnick led Richmond in home runs (16) a season ago and he and Culberson could get their first tastes of Triple-A to start the year. These five players should receive substantial playing time during big league spring games, especially early in March, with an opportunity to show Bruce Bochy and his staff what they can do.
For Villalona, 2012 is all about getting back into top baseball form after missing the last two seasons as he dealt with a murder charge in his native Dominican Republic. With his situation cleared up (charges were dropped) and reportedly his work visa application approved, Villalona will participate in big league camp. Whether he's ready for actual time on the field in a big league spring game or even a spot on one of the minor league rosters come April remains to be seen, but obviously the coming weeks and months will be critical for Villalona as he looks to get his once promising career back on track.
Other former San Jose Giants on the 40-man roster who will be in big league camp (but have yet to reach the major leagues) include shortstop Ehire Adrianza and outfielder Francisco Peguero. Both Adrianza and Peguero have past experience in major league spring training and will each likely start the year in the upper levels of the farm system. Additionally, big league camp participants Hector Sanchez and Conor Gillaspie will likely return to Fresno at the start of the season after finishing last year in San Francisco, but both should receive ample playing time this spring.
Non-roster invitees (players not on the 40-man) are usually extreme longshots to make the team, but for several former San Jose Giants, this spring will offer the opportunity to impress in front of the big league coaching staff. Non-roster players outfielders Gary Brown and Juan Perez and catcher Tommy Joseph have previous big league camp experience. Former San Jose pitchers Jake Dunning, Justin Fitzgerald, Stephen Harrold, Heath Hembree, Mitch Lively and David Quinowski along with infielder Chris Dominguez will be making their debuts in big league camp. Additionally, players such as shortstop Joe Panik, catcher Andrew Susac and pitchers Shawn Sanford and Seth Rosin will be participating in their first big league camp before perhaps joining San Jose in April. For almost all of these non-roster players, their time in major league spring training will be brief as most will be back in minor league camp by the middle of March. However, the experience should prove valuable as each look to enhance their prospect status prior to a single 2012 regular season game being played.
San Francisco's first exhibition game is scheduled for Saturday, March 3 against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Scottsdale. The 36-game Cactus League schedule concludes on Wednesday, April 4 before the regular season opener on Friday, April 6 (at Arizona). San Jose's season is set to begin on Thursday, April 5 at Modesto.