SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- As if trying to defend a World Series win wasn’t already tough enough, the San Francisco Giants received a major setback to their 2015 season with the news that right fielder Hunter Pence would miss six to eight weeks with a nondisplaced fracture of the ulna in his left forearm, suffered as he tried to avoid a pitch from hard-throwing Cubs farmhand Corey Black.
This might be more serious than it first sounds. ESPN.com’s Stephania Bell says the injury is directly comparable to the nondisplaced fracture Curtis Granderson suffered in spring training in 2013 with the Yankees -- it took him just over 11 weeks to recover fully and get in his rehab work to be big league-ready. So even if Pence heals up well in a cast, Bell notes, “The key will be getting range of motion back in his wrist, then getting his strength back -- and then translating it to hitting effectively.”
That might take us into mid-May in the worst scenarios, or around a quarter of the season right out of the gate. That’s grim news because the immediate impact on the Giants’ lineup seems pretty clear: With Pence out, the Giants will have to immediately rely upon the outfield depth that general manager Brian Sabean added over the winter. Considering that Pence had a 383-games-played streak going, it might have seemed strange to add outfield help, but Sabean signed both Norichika Aoki and Justin Maxwell from the Royals. Aoki was signed to a guaranteed deal to start in left field, and Maxwell to a minor league contract with a non-roster invitation. They joined Gregor Blanco and Juan Perez in the playing-time mix for outfield at-bats in the corners.
Although Aoki was signed with the expectation that he would be the new starter in left field, that may have to change with Pence’s absence. All four guys are good complementary players, and all of them are able to play all three slots in a pinch. Manager Bruce Bochy has always been good at using platoon players to advantage, so with Aoki and Blanco on the left side of the plate, and with Perez and Maxwell batting from the right, he has options to fill up his lineup with decent hitters.
The larger problem is that however useful the alternatives might be, the Giants can’t easily replace the one thing Pence has that the quartet lacks: consistent power. Pence has a career .188 isolated power number (slugging minus OBP), but consider the virtues of the alternatives:
Aoki: .287/.353/.387 career line, 67 steals in three seasons, no big platoon split, fine command of the plate, strikes out just 7.8 percent, and he adds a strong arm and decent if inconsistent range.
Blanco: .257/.344/.344 career, 82 steals, slightly better vs. RHPs (.698 OPS), has great range in left.
Maxwell: .224/.311/.417 career, so he obviously has more power, but he whiffs 32 percent of the time. Maxwell offers the kind of power that might play up in NL West parks like Coors Field against the Rockies and Chase Field against the Diamondbacks (both of whom are on the schedule in the early going).
Perez: .212/.261/.307 in just 95 big league at-bats, so not much to go on; in the minors he’s shown some power and speed (.282/.322/.435 with 100 steals), but because of the slight track record he may be the guy who has to show something in the next three weeks to earn a roster spot as well as playing time.
Of course, there’s also World Series hero Travis Ishikawa, first baseman and temporary left fielder. Considering he has just three regular-season starts in left, it took an emergency situation last October to get him into the outfield and his date with history. This may qualify as a new emergency, but it seems unlikely the Giants will consider it unless they absolutely have to. Ishikawa was not among the guys whom Bochy mentioned after Thursday’s game while mulling his options.
The other problem losing Pence brings to the fore is the losses of both Pablo Sandoval and Mike Morse to free agency. They were power sources who left as free agents over the winter, and in the wake of the injury to Pence, the decision to replace those two sluggers with grinders like Casey McGehee and Aoki puts that much more pressure on the two hitters the Giants have on hand who reliably produce power: catcher Buster Posey and first baseman Brandon Belt. So the early weeks of the regular season could be pretty rough for the Giants’ offense.
Unfortunately for the Giants, there will be plenty of time for recriminations about roster makeup if it really takes Pence until mid-May to recover. But it also isn’t new territory for this team, which did after all win a World Series while seeing Belt and Morse lose significant chunks of time last season. We’ll see whether familiarity breeds resilience in response to this latest setback for the Giants as they try to defend their title.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.