MESA, Ariz. -- The Giants entered Spring Training with a mandate from Bruce Bochy to improve their defense. Their performance in Friday's 3-2 exhibition victory over the Chicago Cubs suggested that they took their manager seriously.In the first inning, center fielder Gregor Blanco, who has done something virtually every day to further his bid to make the Opening Day roster, dove to catch Starlin Castro's line drive. One inning later, third baseman Pablo Sandoval jumped as high as he could to grab Joe Mather's would-be double. In the third, Sandoval charged Castro's dribbler and fired a low throw to first base, where Aubrey Huff deftly gloved the short hop. Such deeds have become common this spring. Huff and the other first-base candidates, Brandon Belt and Brett Pill, have wielded their gloves deftly. Shortstop Brandon Crawford's defensive excellence has been well documented. Center fielder Angel Pagan is capable of outrunning any fly ball. Nate Schierholtz long ago emerged as a commanding right fielder, maintaining his presence with his arm as well as his glove. And Buster Posey's back behind the plate. "There's no reason this team can't be just as good defensively as it was in the past," Schierholtz said. "The team's younger and more athletic than in the past three or four years."
But any defensive upgrade the Giants make won't be measured by the number of spectacular plays they record. It'll be gauged by their ability to handle routine plays and master the basics."We're not a team with a lot of range; we weren't in 2010," Bochy said. "But we just made a few too many mistakes defensively. Little things. There were times when we'd put on a play and there'd be more confusion. That's what the coaches and I have to tighten up and make sure these guys do pay attention to the details. We want to be a little crisper." Having the right personnel in the right spots should help. Crawford will be the starting shortstop instead of disappointing veterans Miguel Tejada and Orlando Cabrera. Sandoval is driven to win a Gold Glove. Freddy Sanchez will bring his usual intensity to second base, assuming he recovers fully from the dislocated right shoulder that ended his 2011 season. The entirely new outfield of left fielder Melky Cabrera, center fielder Angel Pagan and Schierholtz appears capable. First, they must get acquainted with each other. "We have to work on playing together," Schierholtz admitted. "That's what Spring Training's for. The outfield is quite a lot different now than it was a year or two ago. We just have to work on communicating to each other out there and learn who covers what ground and how guys play out there. Everybody plays outfield differently. If you're not on the same page, it can be dangerous." Bochy said that defensive ability will be an integral factor but not necessarily the deciding one in selecting players to fill reserve roles. But he does want his substitutes to perform adequately regardless of the position they man. So Bochy's watching carefully when Huff, Belt or Pill plays left field, or when Pill takes grounders at third base and Belt moves to right field. "I don't want to put somebody out there who hasn't been out there, or who I don't know is going to catch a routine fly ball," Bochy said. Adjustments could be necessary. Already, the Giants have discussed using Crawford as the cutoff man for the majority of throws from the outfield to compensate for Sanchez's surgically repaired arm. "Whether it's bunt plays or cutoffs and relays, you have to pay attention to detail to these things, because they help you win games," said bench coach Ron Wotus, who helps coordinate San Francisco's defense. "When you don't execute, it can help you lose games as well. I think that's the biggest emphasis. It's not necessarily errors. An overthrown cutoff guy can lead to a run." By one modern standard, the Giants actually looked decent on defense last year. They ranked fifth among National League teams last year in Ultimate Zone Rating, which tabulates a player's success at reaching batted balls in his perceived zone of the field. But old-fashioned statistics reveal one aspect of the Giants' defensive decline. After committing 73 errors to finish third in the NL, with a .988 fielding percentage, in its World Series season, San Francisco was charged with 104 errors a year ago, resulting in a .983 fielding percentage that ranked ninth in the league. Ultimately, the most essential defensive statistic is victories, since the Giants know that sharp fielding and throwing help bolster the team's formidable pitching staff. "The good teams play good defense," Wotus said.
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.