|Panda only chews sugar-free bubble gum now.|
This was taken in August, 2009. Basically, without Sandoval, the Giants would have Bengie Molina as their sole source of offense. Oh wait, that kind of happened anyways. Moving on.
Headed into 2010, Giants fans had been briefed in full on the exploits of Camp Panda, and how it was going to galvanize the Round Mound of Pound into action, putting to rest the rumors that Barry Zito could just safely hide behind him when Prince Fielder charged the mound.
What us fans ended up seeing was a version of Sandoval that looked more like an actual panda. Sedentary, pretty big, and not really looking like he knew what to do with a bat in his hand. His glove was significantly slower, and although he wasn't down to Bengie Molina slowness, his speed was downgraded from "surprising for his size" to "expected from a 330-pound bear that eats 30 pounds of bamboo every day."
His stats dipped. Considerably. Power numbers disappeared, average dropped 60 points, and he set the record for most times grounded into a double play (26). With Buster Posey tearing it up and the pitching dominating everyone in sight, Pablo Sandoval was no longer considered part of that youthful core that he was supposedly leading into the next decade of Giants baseball.
Instead, he was benched in the post-season. With hindsight being what it is, that actually opened up the door for Edgar Renteria to make everything right in the universe, but still. For the Giants to lose a middle-of-the-order hitter was nothing to just brush aside. But that was bailed out by production from Huff and Ross and Burrell and everything was smoothed over, to an extent.
That extent, however did not go much further than the end of the season. It took only a couple weeks for Giants management to put the Panda's future with the team on the line, saying that they'd even go as far as to have him start in AAA Fresno if he wasn't ready by Spring Training.
Say what you want to about how he plays his cards as close to the vest as he can with trades and free-agent signings, but Brian Sabean definitely knows how to send his players a message. And this one got through to Sandoval very quickly. Despite whatever limitations his English might have, Sandoval heard "Pablo" and "Fresno" in the same sentence, and he understood.
This offseason, there was no Camp Panda, but instead a hardcore training regimen that lasted the entire offseason, not just the month of November. And Sandoval came out of it visibly more in shape. Given that the numbers won't really show it in terms of weight, the Giants training staff has gone so far to say that Sandoval shed over 30 pounds of fat, and it has showed.
In Spring Training this year, the comments are flying all around that his first step fielding has improved, and he's making plays that he wouldn't have been able to make last year. He scored from first base on a triple by Nate Schierholtz and didn't need oxygen afterwards. And he's already made more solid contact in two weeks than he did the entire post-season.
If he comes back into the lineup in 2011 and continues what he's started this spring, the Giants will have a better offense than people will ever give them credit for. Imagine a middle of the order that goes Huff-Posey-Burrell/DeRosa-Sandoval. Sure, there's no Pujols or Teixeira in there, but that's a lot of .290AVG/20HR/80RBI guys in a row.
Sandoval is a big key to the Giants 2011 title defense. If Huff decides that he actually doesn't like to hit, and Posey decides that he wants to bat cross-handed for half the year just to see how it feels, the offensive slack is going to have to be picked up. This year Pablo Sandoval is in shape to pick up that slack and run with it for a little bit.