There was a great deal of hand wringing among Giants fans during the offseason about what the team should do at shortstop. The incumbent, as it were, is Brandon Crawford, who jumped from Single A to the majors in 2011 after Pablo Sandoval broke the hamate bone in his right hand in late April, shifting Miguel Tejada over to third base. Tejada didn’t produce at the plate no matter where he played in the field and was cut in late August. In 220 plate appearances, Crawford posted a paltry .204/.288/.296 but showed value in his glove, recording 6 Defensive Runs Saved in 500+ innings.
Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins were available free agents shortstops. Fans were split on whether the Giants should pursue either one, or both, and if so, for how long and for what kind of money. Never mind the fans, though. Reports suggest the Giants front office never considered a serious offer to either Reyes or Rollins, although they tried to get Willie Bloomquist and thought about bringing back Edgar Renteria. Neither (thankfully) came to fruition.
All the noise over shortstop, however, may have obscured an equally pressing need for the Giants at second base. Freddy Sanchez is in the second year of a two-year deal with the Giants, after joining the team mid-2009 in a trade from the Pittsburgh Pirates. And while Sanchez has been moderately effective when he’s played, he’s had one injury after another, missing big chunks of time.
Sanchez came to San Francisco with an existing knee injury. Once the Giants were out of contention that season, he had surgery on that knee. In the offseason, he had further surgery, this time on his left shoulder, and the rehab kept him out for the beginning of the 2010 season. Sanchez did play full time when he returned, and was an integral part of the Giants’ march through the playoffs on the way to their first World Series championship in San Francisco.
But sixty games into the 2011 season, Sanchez injured his right shoulder, requiring yet more surgery, and knocking him out for the rest of the season. Ten days into spring training, Sanchez is just now starting to make throws from second to first, gingerly. And then two days ago, Sanchez’s back “flared up” — which is an interesting way to describe an injury from early 2009, and one that hadn’t been bothering Sanchez for several years, as far as we know. At this point, there may be little more than scotch tape and paper clips holding him together.
And yet, the Giants expect Sanchez to play the great majority of innings at second base. We know this because the Giants have touted Sanchez’s return as akin to a new free agent signing, and because the team has little in the way of a backup plan.
Heading into the season, the Giants are expected to use former Cubs teammates (and fellow Cajuns) Mike Fontenot and Ryan Theriot as utility infielders. Each has played close to 2,000 innings at second base in his career, with Theriot earning slightly higher marks in Defensive Runs Saved and UZR. Neither is stellar at the position; neither is too much of a liability, at least defensively.
Theriot bats right handed and Fontenot left, so a platoon would be likely if Sanchez falls victim to an existing — or new — injury. Either way, the Giants aren’t likely to get much in the way of offensive production. RotoChamps, Bill James and ZIPS project wOBA for Fontenot somewhere between .296 to .310. For Theriot, the range is .292 to .304. Ironically, or not — depending on your view of things — Sanchez isn’t projected to produce much more offensively than either Fontenot or Theriot, even if he’s healthy. The range for Sanchez’s projected wOBA is .301 to .307.
In fact, the Giants face the same situation as they did last June, when Sanchez’s right shoulder went “pop” (I was at the game. It really did go “pop.”) They muddled along with Mike Fontenot and Emmanuel Burriss until getting Jeff Keppinger from the Astros in a trade and picking up Bill Hall off the discard pile. Keppinger and Hall were a big downgrade defensively and Keppinger wasn’t nearly the offensive upgrade the Giants expected, and needed. When the season was over, the Giants had to choose either Fontenot or Keppinger, and chose Fontenot.
What should the Giants do? Not much, for now. Get the season started, see if Sanchez is healthy enough to play, how he performs, and all the rest. But if Sanchez can’t play, or does play and produces only to the level of his projections, the Giants will have to act fast. Several months of a Fontenot/Theriot platoon could spell doom for the team’s playoff chances, particularly if Crawford sticks at shortstop with minimal offensive production.
A short-term solution? An old friend.
Downs spent several years in the Giants farm system and saw limited big league action with the team in 2009 and 2010. When the Giants acquired Cody Ross off waivers at the end of August, 2010, Downs was the odd man out on the 40-man roster. The Giants hoped to squeeze Downs through waivers, but the Houston Astros picked him up.
Last season, Downs was the super-utility infielder for the Astros, with significant playing time (more than 120 innings) at both second base and third base. He rated poorly by UZR at second base (-2.2), although his career UZR at that position is 1.0. But in 222 plate appearances, Downs posted a slash of .276/.348/.518 for a .373 wOBA. And while Downs may regress from those numbers, he’s projected for a wOBA between .311 and .351. On the high end, that would be an upgrade over both Fontenot and Theriot.
The Astros have Jose Altuve for the long term at second base. The Giants have no one for the long term at second base, meaning 2013. Well, unless Joe Panik rips through the minor leagues this year. That’s a discussion for another day. For 2012, Downs could be a gap-filler if the Giants need help this season.