SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The San Francisco Giants brought in Hensley Meulens to help improve the offense this season. Judging from the hot-button issue in spring training, maybe they should have hired Jillian Michaels, too.
Third baseman Pablo Sandoval supposedly spent the winter eating sensibly and melting off a few pounds, but he still has a ways to go to reach his goal of 250 pounds. Those pesky love handles have prompted the local press corps to question the efficacy of "Operation Panda," the offseason initiative designed to whip him into shape.
The first week of Giants camp featured more caloric references than an episode of "Man v. Food." The give-and-take might have gotten testy if Sandoval weren't so darned good-natured about the Giants' efforts on his behalf.
"They care a lot," Sandoval said. "And I don't want to have problems with my knees and with injuries. I have to pay attention to my body. You can eat, but it has to be the right things and the right portions. That's what I'm learning here."
The long-term ramifications are significant because Sandoval hits a lot more like Tony Gwynn than Floyd "Honey Bear" Rayford. The "Kung Fu Panda" hit .330 to finish second to Florida's Hanley Ramirez in the National League batting race in 2009, and ranked among the league's top 10 in hits, doubles, OPS and slugging percentage.
While Tim Lincecum shines every fifth day, Sandoval has emerged as the Giants' main day-in, day-out attraction in the post-Barry Bonds era. Bay Area fans flocked to support him during the All-Star Game Final Vote competition in July and took major offense when he lost out to Philadelphia's Shane Victorino.
Sandoval's admirers include Bill Neukom, the Giants' managing partner, who raved about the third baseman during the team's first full-squad workout Wednesday.
"He just exudes a joy for the game," Neukom said. "What could be more fun to watch than a guy who has no strike zone but still barrels up implausible pitches?
"He's no Brooks Robinson, but I love watching him play third base. And he runs the bases. You see him chugging around second base and tucking that chin in and going for the extra base, and it's exciting, fun stuff. That's how he plays the game."
The Giants have reason to believe the best is yet to come for Sandoval, who's only 23 years old. The question is, did general manager Brian Sabean get him enough help this season?
After finishing 13th in the NL with 657 runs scored this past season, the Giants opted for marginal upgrades at several spots rather than a single, big-splash acquisition. Mark DeRosa slides in for Fred Lewis and Randy Winn in left field, Aubrey Huff takes over for Travis Ishikawa and Ryan Garko at first base, and catcher Bengie Molina re-signed with the club as a free agent. Former NL batting champion Freddy Sanchez, a .299 career hitter, will play second as soon as he's completely healed from shoulder surgery.
The Giants also replaced hitting coach Carney Lansford with Meulens, who spent last season with the team's Triple-A Fresno affiliate. A person familiar with the situation said Lansford expected to be the fall guy for the Giants' poor offensive production last season. When Lansford grew frustrated with the team's hack-tastic approach and became more blunt in his criticisms, the San Francisco hitters began tuning him out, and it became clear that a change was in order.
"Carney took a lot of pride in working with these hitters," manager Bruce Bochy said. "You can't say enough about how hard he worked. But we were in a rut and we just needed a new voice. It was a tough lineup to work with because they were such free swingers."
Meulens, affectionately known as "Bam-Bam" during his days as a young outfielder with the Yankees, speaks five languages and has a reputation as a patient coach and positive communicator. He also is realistic enough to accept what he has rather than try to mold his hitters into a bunch of Bobby Abreu wannabes.
From top to bottom, the San Francisco lineup has a general aversion to the base on balls. The Giants ranked last in the majors in on-base percentage (.309) and walks (392) last season. Scan the lineup, which consists primarily of veterans, and you won't find a single 70-walk season on anybody's résumé. DeRosa's 69 walks with the 2008 Cubs set the bar for the group.
"If you see the track records, they're all aggressive hitters," Meulens said. "Nobody's going to walk 100 times on this team, but they have .280 and .290 career averages. The main thing is to get them to do what they do best -- and that's hit. Get a good pitch, get after it, square it up and put it in play. And hopefully they'll find an open space."
With no clear alternative, Bochy anointed center fielder Aaron Rowand as the team's leadoff man. Rowand has a .294 average and a so-so .340 OBP in 108 starts at leadoff, but his best days of a disappointing 2009 season came at the top of the order.
After the Giants' final game in October, Rowand went home to Las Vegas and worked out like a man on a mission. He took up cycling, bought a helmet and some spandex shorts, and logged 20 to 25 miles a day on the road. In the end, all that pedaling and perspiration helped him drop 10 to 12 pounds. Rowand reported to Scottsdale last week at a fighting 215.
He also spent lots of time in December and January holed up in the batting cage addressing mechanical flaws. Rowand's main order of business was taking a quieter, steadier approach in his setup and his stance.
"It's hard to see the ball when your head is moving all over the place," Rowand said. "I talked to Bam-Bam a lot, and we identified the subtle things I needed to change. I had to start from scratch, and it was uncomfortable at first. But [baseball] people say it takes a thousand swings to break a bad habit."
It'll be up to Rowand and Sanchez in the 1 and 2 spots to create opportunities for Sandoval, who continues to evolve as a hitter. Despite that reputation for swinging at everything, he showed a more patient, discerning side in 2009.
According to FanGraphs, Sandoval swung at 41.5 percent of pitches outside the strike zone after hacking away at a whopping 53.8 percent in 2008. He also saw 3.44 pitches per plate appearance, compared to 3.10 the previous season.
Opposing pitchers determined Sandoval wasn't going to beat them, and the Panda drew half his 52 walks in August and September. He continued to work on his plate discipline in winter ball in his native Venezuela.
"I want to get better year by year in the big leagues," Sandoval said. "I think about getting one pitch that I can hit. Don't swing at everything. That's one thing you have to learn."
Sandoval's charisma comes naturally. In the final game of the Giants' season, Neukom grabbed a seat beside the dugout at Petco Park in San Diego. He watched Sandoval stick gum on a teammate's cap, chat it up with teammates on the bench, tumble into the dugout after catching a David Eckstein foul pop and hit a 444-foot home run in the 10th inning to beat the Padres 4-3.
Hey, there's nothing like impressing the man who signs the checks.
"He's a freak," Meulens said of Sandoval. "From both sides of the plate, he has the leverage to reach balls nobody else can reach and the uncanny ability to hit them hard."
Uncanny sums it up nicely. There are days when Sandoval gets a little too enthusiastic with a knife and fork in his hands. But it's nothing compared to the magic he wields with a bat.