The departure of third baseman Pablo Sandoval to the Boston Red Sox via free agency leaves a panda-sized hole for San Francisco to fill in the middle of their lineup. Hitting mostly out of either the three or five holes in the batting order, the once lovable fan-favorite “Kung-Fu Panda,” decided to chase bamboo shoots in the Northeastern part of the country. While losing a player who was routinely out of shape, the Giants also lost a player that is a proven hitter, whose switch-hitting capabilities allowed Manager Bruce Bochy the luxury of not worrying about pitching matchups.
Don’t worry San Francisco fans; the Giants have several candidates on their roster that could lighten the burden of replacing the rotund Panda.
Let’s examine the potential replacements with the thought process that right-fielder Hunter Pence has healed from his non-displaced fracture of his left ulna and has returned to the everyday lineup for San Francisco. In my humble opinion, the first three spots of the lineup should start with Angel Pagan leading off and playing center field, Joe Panik hitting second and playing second, and Buster Posey hitting third and catching. It would behoove the Giants to get Posey, their best overall hitter, as many at-bats as possible this season.
Following Posey, in spots four through six, is where Bochy can make things interesting. The three-time World Series winning manager should have Pence, first baseman Brandon Belt, and free-agent signee Casey McGehee available to use at his dispersal as interchangeable parts in these prime run-producing spots.
Since arriving in the Bay Area during the 2012 season, Pence has made his mark on the San Francisco lineup. Despite playing the game in an awkward style, scouts and fans cannot deny his productivity. In his first two full seasons with the Giants, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound right fielder has averaged 23.5 home runs per season while driving in an average of 86.5 runs. He has slashed an average of .280/.336/.464 over the last two seasons.
The statistics leave out the final 59 regular season games that 31-year-old outfielder played with the Giants during their run to the 2012 World Series title. After the initial trade to San Francisco, Pence struggled to a .219 batting average, hitting just seven home runs and driving in 45 runs.
Pence has had a track record of being a middle-of-the-order hitter, and would make the most sense in the clean-up spot of the order. His shear hustle and determination allow innings to stay alive and have helped the Giants prolong extended rallies.
The Giants were in the market for a third baseman this offseason and the 32-year-old McGehee just happened to be the guy that the front office settled on signing. McGehee won’t just be filling in at Sandoval’s position on the field defensively, but possibly in the batting order as well.
During the 2014 season, McGehee played for the Miami Marlins, hitting fourth behind slugger Giancarlo Stanton. It was a bounce-back year for McGehee, who was out of majors during 2013, opting instead to play overseas. The time away did him well as he compiled a fine statistical season. The former Brewer, Yankee and Pirate slashed .287/.355/.357 while driving in 76 runs. He totaled 29 doubles but just four home runs while hitting cleanup for the Marlins.
While 2014 was a good season for McGehee, there are questions on whether placing him in the fourth or fifth spot in the lineup would be the most beneficial for the Giants. Prior to heading overseas for the 2013 season, McGehee had struggled in two straight seasons.
After a solid 2010 in which he slashed .285/.337/.464 with a career-high 23 home runs and 104 RBI for the Brewers, McGehee struggled from the start during the 2011 campaign. The third baseman finished with a paltry .223/.280/.346 slash line with 13 home runs and 67 RBI, a steep drop off from the previous season.
McGehee’s struggles continued the next season after making his way to Pittsburgh. In 92 games with the Pirates, McGehee hit .230/.297/.377 with eight home runs and just 35 RBI. He was subsequently traded to the New York Yankees, where he continued his downward swoon, slashing .151/.220/.264 with one home run and six RBI in 22 games.
Thanks to two-straight sub par seasons, McGehee was relegated to finding employment in Japan with Rakuten. During his time in Japan, McGehee slashed .292/.376/.515, finishing with 28 home runs and 93 RBI. McGehee parlayed his successful 144-game Japanese stint into a contract with the Marlins.
While the power numbers from Japan did not translate back to the MLB, the 32-year-old’s numbers could be slightly skewed from playing in spacious Marlins Park.
The 2014 season was supposed to be a breakout one for Giants’ first baseman Brandon Belt. He was coming off his most successful season as a major leaguer. The former University of Texas Longhorn played in 150 games during the 2013, finishing with 17 home runs and a career-high 67 RBI. He slashed .289/.360/.481 for the year, which encouraged the San Francisco fan base that the 26-year-old was ready to fulfill the promise he had shown during his two seasons in the minors.
During Belt’s first year of professional baseball he played across three levels, starting in High-A San Jose before finishing the year at Triple-A Fresno. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound smooth-swinging lefty compiled impressive numbers across three levels, finishing with a slash line of .352/.455/.620 with 23 home runs and 112 RBI.
He followed the 2010 regular season up with a strong performance in the Arizona Fall League, hitting .372 with one home run and 16 RBI.
Belt began the 2011 season back in the minors, but quickly forced his way to the majors, hitting .320/.461/.528 with eight home runs and 36 RBI in just 53 games.
Unfortunately once at the major league level, Belt struggled to get consistent at-bats. The left-handed hitter struggled against left-handed pitching. As a result, Belt played in just 63 games. Despite a disappointing .225 batting average, Belt did display some power, finishing with nine home runs in 209 plate appearances.
Entering his age-24 season during 2012, Belt established himself as the Giants starter at first base, playing 145 games. He saw a significant upward tick in his batting average, climbing from .225 to .275. While the batting average climbed, Belt’s home runs numbers dipped to six for the season, but he showed solid gap power with 27 doubles, a sign that there was untapped power potential.
After Belt’s breakout performance during the 2013 season, a lot was expected of the Giant first baseman, and he was delivering early. By the end of April Belt had nine home runs, but a broken hand limited him to 61 games the rest of the season. He would manage just three more home runs for the year.
Fortunately for San Francisco, Belt was healthy for the playoffs and hit one of the more famous home runs in Giants lore, a solo-shot in the 18th inning against the Washington Nationals that helped San Francisco pick up a 2-1 win, which gave the Giants a 2-0 lead in the National League Division Series.
So of these three players, what is the best combination to use in the four, five and six spots?
It seems like Pence should be the right choice to have hit behind Posey in the lineup. He is the more proven hitter, with a longer more successful track record. Having Pence behind Posey would force teams to have to at least entertain the thought of pitching Posey.
Following Pence in the lineup could be a little trickier, but the right move would appear to be Belt. The 26-year-old should be coming into the prime of his career and has the ability to drive in runs for the Giants. His power potential should only continue to grow this season as he continues to refine his approach at the plate. If he stays healthy, a 20 home run 80 RBI season for the player loving known as “The Baby Giraffe,” is a strong possibility.
As for McGehee, he seems to make the most sense in the sixth hole. He has experience as a run producer, but the down years between Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and New York provide pause for inserting him right into a prime run-producing spot.
While he got his career back on track after playing in Japan and in Miami, the pressure to perform for the reigning World Series champion could prove to be a little much. Instead, by having him hit sixth, the pressure will be less and he should be able to perform admirably for San Francisco.
While this is just a glimpse at what Bochy could do, it will be interesting to see how things play out once the season is in full swing.