September 9, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants first baseman Brandon Belt (9) hits a RBI-double scoring center fielder Angel Pagan (16, not pictured) against the Colorado Rockies during the eighth inning at AT&T Park. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

I Hear Them Knocking

Editor’s Note: This is the first piece from our newest member of Around the Foghorn, Mark O’Neill. Welcome Mark to the team!

The San Francisco Giants assembled in Arizona Tuesday, on the heels of the announcement that Brandon Belt had reached an agreement for a one-year deal, thus avoiding arbitration. No muss-no fuss. It’s the way the Giants like to do business and it promotes the image of team/management harmony, though nothing works quite as effectively as winning the World Series.

Are the Giants in a position to make another bid? Would seeing MadBum (Madison Bumgarner) pitch against Clayton Kershaw all season rock? Of course the Giants are in line to make another run at the title. That being said, having the talent and the drive are great and it’s nice to have perseverance and experience also, but the reality is, much will be determined by the level of play of division rivals LA and Arizona. The Giants will have to rise to the highest level and cannot wait for the playoffs to do so.

To accomplish this, Brian Sabean has done well to assemble a close-knit starting eight. This [extended] offseason has fostered much flux, with almost no player reporting unchanged, and that is always a good sign. A team needs to recognize vulnerabilities and work to strengthen them, and the way to do that is to ask each player to do a self-examination and make necessary adjustments. It starts at the top.

Buster Posey is the cornerstone of the Giants team. Since his arrival in May of 2010, the Giants have won two titles and competed with the best, including taking the season series last year from the Dodgers, despite having a 76-86 record. Buster struggled the second half of last season, possibly trying to do too much to keep the ship afloat. During the offseason he has been hitting the weight room and has added ten pounds of bulk to his upper frame, in an effort to be able to better meet the rigors of a 162-plus game season. Buster is too essential to have to bear the brunt by himself.

That’s why Brandon Belt is next on the list. Belt represents the pure power/strength of the team. Last summer, after coming under pressure from Giants hitting instructor Hensley Meulens to change his batting grip, Belt did two things: he adjusted his grip so as to align the knocking knuckles of his two hands, and he changed his grip on the bat to rely more on his fingers and less on his palms, giving him more flexibility.

If you bend your fingers so that the tips touch your palm, the knocking knuckles are those which come to a point and are used to knock on a door. Gripping the bat with the hands placed so that the knuckles of both hands are aligned, gives many hitters more clout, and Belt has proven it does just that for him. Belt was also asked to change his location in the box, moving farther back, to have more time to see and react to the incoming pitch. I think back to that game against the Dodgers last September 15th, when Brandon had five hits in six at-bats, with six RBI’s. That’s what I’m saying/talking about. Oh, the Giants won a squeaker that day, 19-3, at Dodger Stadium.

Marco Scutaro is the Pro from Dover. He is 38 and being paid handsomely to provide the kind of veteran experience that he did during the last two months of the 2012 season, when the Giants cruised to the division lead, with Scutaro leading the charge and later being named NLCS MVP. Because he had back issues all of the 2013 season, in addition to being hit in the pinkie by a pitched ball, Scutaro worked during the offseason to strengthen his core muscles, which he figured would help his back. He has been frustrated by slow progress with his back but understands the need to go into Spring Training slowly, so as to have a better chance at being ready for the season opener. We need Marco’s leadership.

Brandon Crawford, the defensive specialist, spent the offseason working out at the Giants’ training facility with Matt Cain, Sergio Romo and others. They were able to work with their strength and conditioning coach along with the trainer. Crawford is already in an elite class, defensively, and is only going to get better offensively. Besides, no matter how many runs he scores-or doesn’t score-he will save many more with his glove. Crawford anchors a defense known more for its spectacular feats, than for the more mundane, but equally important, day-to-day play, which is why God invented Spring Training.

Much has been written about Pablo Sandoval and his weight-reduction program. I am happy to see that the Panda recognizes the sense of coming into camp in top shape, on the eve of a contract year. Cynicism aside, it bodes well for the Giants that Pablo should be hungry for some offensive success. Like Crawford, Sandoval’s defensive prowess is not in question, especially in a slimmed-down form. We need the Panda to lead on the field, as well as in the clubhouse.

In right field, we have the “Preacher” Hunter Pence, he of the recently signed mega-contract. There is no one who deserves that kind of recognition more than Pence, the one guy I always think back to as being the catalyst for that gritty comeback effort against the baseball universe, that led to the 2012 Crown. With his well-documented heath-conscious diet and his effervescent demeanor, he’s the guy who keeps the rest of the team loose-and focused-at the same time.

In center field Angel Pagan is back after an offseason that included plenty of stretching exercises and agility drills to keep his legs limber, plus evidence he had spent time in the weight room. When asked about his arms being noticeably thicker, he responded, “I was working on getting a little stronger without losing my game, which is speed, because you lose a lot of weight in Spring Training, so I wanted to add enough gas in the tank to get through the season.” He went on to say, “I knew everybody was going to come in shape because we’re a winning team and we have to get back to that attitude…Last year happened, we learned from it, and we don’t want to go through it again…” Because Pagan provides much of the spark, batting at the top of the order, this don’t-let-it-happen-again mentality is crucial and will help keep the team on track.

Finally, there is the newest starter, Michael Morse. He came close to attaining a role in the World Series a couple of years while with the Nationals; now he is famished for a return trip. He has good credentials in terms of power, and he fits in well with a lineup that is consistently balanced and just needs him to do his share. My concern is more with his defensive skills, which are said to be adequate, but I have no reason to think he will not be able to do the job. Spring Training will present a clearer picture. He actually took infield with the other first basemen on the first full day of workouts, an indication that Bruce Bochy would like to be able to employ him in that position. It’s just one more cog in that flexible machine that Bochy keeps tuned so well.

From Buster through Morse, the Giants have a unique combination of ability, experience and hunger. They don’t have to be number one in home runs, as we found out by their being last in 2012; they have to play heads-up ball, take advantage of their ballpark’s strengths and give their pitchers top-notch defense. With our pitching, our playoff experience and our fan support, the Giants will be the last team any other will want to face in the playoffs. That works for me.

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