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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Injuries underscore the need for depth

Pablo Sandoval's injury before Wednesday's game was far more unsettling than the Giants' ugly 10-2 loss to the Rockies.

Sandoval, who apparently injured his right tricep muscle making a throw Tuesday night, sat out Wednesday's game, but is expected back by Friday when the Giants open their shortest homestand of the year -- three games -- against the Atlanta Braves.

He says he can't swing from the right side without pain; fortunately, the Braves don't have any left-handed starters slated to start in the upcoming series. But, the question is whether this injury might linger deeper into the season, and whether it might start to affect his left-handed swing at some point (also, since his strong throwing arm is such a big part of his defensive game, whether it could prevent him from playing regularly at third base). 

Sandoval's turnabout so far has given the Giants hope that he could return to his 2009 form and become a true middle-of-the-lineup threat. He's tied with Pat Burrell for the team lead in HRs with five and with Aubrey Huff in RBI with 13, is hitting .328, and, don't look now, has a .400 on base percentage.

The Giants won a World Series basically without Pablo as a force in the lineup last year, but an injured Pablo would be crippling to their chances this year.

His injury raises the question of whether the Giants have the depth to overcome the nicks, bruises and ligament strains of a long season. They've already had to test their depth with the handful of injuries they've already weathered.

It's a mixed bag:

***Mark DeRosa stepped in for Sandoval Wednesday and went 0-for-2. He's gone 6-for-16 so far (.375), but he's been plagued by his own nagging pains, lingering after-effects of wrist surgery, the kind that don't go completely away at his age (36). There's no telling whether DeRosa could step in for a long spell if Sandoval were to go down for an extended period.

And, though DeRosa can be a useful utility player, in no way can he replace the promise of a newly honed, maturing Pablo Sandoval.

***Cody Ross's calf injury before the regular season opened the door for Brandon Belt, who played himself onto the Big League roster with a nice spring training. But Belt was soon exposed as overwhelmed by tough major league pitching, and his departure to Fresno on the heels of such a weak performance (.192 batting average, 1 HR in 52 at bats) has to make some wonder how long it will be before he returns to San Francisco.

To play Belt, the Giants had to move Aubrey Huff to right field, exposing themselves again -- this time to lumbering, awkward defensive play. Huff, who played above expectations as an emergency outfielder last year, simply wasn't given the time to prepare for the shift this year: the Giants didn't send him to the outfield until very late in spring training, hoping to avoid media speculation over their ultimate decision on Belt. That proved costly for Huff.

With Belt gone, Huff returns to first, and the Giants have a starting outfield of Ross, Aaron Rowand and Pat Burrell.

***Rowand has provided depth from the bench with pleasantly surprising offense in place of Andres Torres, who's on the disabled list with an Achilles injury. When Torres returns, it will be interesting to see how Boss Bochy handles center field. My guess is that he'll play the hot hand.

***Brian Wilson's side injury was seen as potentially the most devastating loss at the start of the season. But the Giants bullpen was not tested in his absence: in their 1-4 start, the Giants had little reason for a closer. Still, you could see some worrisome effects of moving relievers out of their comfort zone: no one appeared ready to assume the closer role, a frightening proposition if Wilson were to relapse.

***The slow starts of Burrell and shortstop Miguel Tejada may give the Giants more pause than any injury they've had to deal with. Burrell has stepped off the Interstate (he's now barely above the Mendoza line, hitting .208). But his swing should be setting off alarms: usually a patient hitter who draws a lot of walks, he has been going after neck-high fastballs and ankle-low sliders -- and not catching up to them -- a sign that he is trying to speed up his bat. That's what aging players do.

Burrell struck out three more times in four at bats Wednesday, giving him a team-high 21 strikeouts -- eight more than the next worse on the Giants. He has the worst strikeout ratio among N.L. regulars, striking out 40 percent of the time.

The only real option the Giants have after Burrell is Nate Schierholz, whose inconsistent bat has kept him in a reserve role after being slated to be the Giants starting right fielder just a year ago. His three-hit day Tuesday, including a 467-foot home run, gave a glimpse of the promise the Giants have always felt Schierholz has held. But he has shown too often that he reverts to that vulnerability on the slider low and in that has been the death knell for many a left-handed hitter.

The Giants have fewer options at shortstop. Now hitless in his last 15 at bats, Miguel Tejada is hitting .203 with one home run. Mike Fontenot turned in a brilliant diving play to rob Troy Tulowitzki in Game 2 of the Rockies series and had a triple and two walks in four plate appearances but was back out of the lineup with a lefty on the mound in Game 3. In his only other start, at second, Fontenot had a double and home run in three at bats. Bochy may give more looks to Fontenot against righties, though he is not a long-term answer at shortstop.

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