SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Marco Scutaro cannot say for certain that the core strengthening program he’s doing will make a difference on the baseball field.
But he’s encouraged when he watches TV, at least.
“Five, 10 minutes and I’d have to change positions,” Scutaro told me. “I couldn’t get comfortable. Just after being here a few days, I’ve seen a lot of improvement how I feel just doing basic stuff.”
The Giants need Scutaro to do more than basic stuff. You don’t pay someone $6 million to break in a Barcalounger. Scutaro is the starting second baseman on a club that needs to be nimbler and cleaner in the field. He’s the No.2 hitter in a lineup that needs to score more runs.
If they hope to contend again, he’s kind of a big deal.
Now it is March and the Cactus League schedule has begun and not only has Scutaro not appeared in a game, but he hasn’t even swung a bat. He’s only begun taking ground balls on a back field the last three days.
The Giants will tell you this is all by design. They plotted out a course for their 38-year-old infielder over the winter, knowing the first two weeks of the spring would be spent strengthening every bit of meat in his back, abdominals and hips.
The Giants are concerned, of course. But it’s not like they’re working the phones to line up trade options for second base, GM Brian Sabean told me.
“I have no plans right now to switch gears because we expect him to be healthy,” said Sabean, “and there’s plenty of time to get him healthy.”
Does Sabean feel confident in his coverage options, which include Tony Abreu, Ehire Adrianza and Nick Noonan?
“We’ll see,” he said. “The good thing in the meantime is that early on, some of these guys will get more playing time.”
And Scutaro will be in the trainer’s room, trying to stabilize his right hip. He’s dealt with occasional flare-ups over his career because his right leg is slightly shorter than his left. But as he explained to me on Saturday, whenever his back would begin to bother him over his career, a trainer could yank on his right leg and his hip would click back into place. Then he’d be good for the next week, or month.
That adjustment no longer brings relief, though. Scutaro feels instability in the hip when he makes sudden motions, such as pushing off to his right for a ground ball. He ends up overtaxing other abdominal muscles to compensate, and that leads to tightness, and that in turn affects his ability to rotate freely when he swings the bat.
The end result last season?
“To pull the ball middle in, I had to cheat so much,” he said. “Even in BP, I couldn’t drive the ball.”
That was plain to any common eye. Nobody ever expects Scutaro to enter a home run derby, but his extra-base ability vanished. He went 117 plate appearances from June 22 to July 31 without a double, a triple or a homer. It’s a testament to his supreme bat control and contact skills that he still ranked as the second hardest player to strike out in the majors, behind Norichika Aoki, and he still managed to hit .297 in 127 games. But it was an empty average. His .369 slugging percentage was his lowest in five years.
If the .297 average is a testament to Scutaro’s skill, then the 127 games played is a testament to his toughness -- or stubbornness, depending on your point of view. Scutaro, after a winter of contemplation, is more apt to suggest the latter now.
“Nobody knows what I went through to stay on the field,” said Scutaro, who also played through a torn tendon in his pinky finger that led to a painfully swollen ring finger.
GM Brian Sabean acknowledged that the club probably should have stepped in and saved Scutaro from himself.
“He died on the sword, and maybe we’re seeing the after-effects of that,” Sabean said. “He had a lot of issues, and maybe looking back, it may not have been the best choice to play as much as he did. But he’s tough and he’s a pro. So we shouldn’t be surprised.”
Should the Giants be surprised if Scutaro hits another wall? And if he does, will they let him try to play through it again? Giants manager Bruce Bochy already has said he plans to give Scutaro more days off this season. And Sabean remains a willing subscriber, citing head athletic trainer Dave Groeschner’s continued optimism that the strengthening program will work.
Ask Scutaro, though, and you might not be left with an optimist’s view. He tends to take on a glum tone when discussing health issues. Then again, that’s just the way he comes across at times.
He said he is genuinely encouraged, but he still feels some instability in his hip when he pushes off to field grounders.
“And if I’m feeling it then, I know it’s going to be there when I swing,” he said, estimating it would take at least another week before he would try to pick up a bat.
He and the Giants have a month to find solid ground. For now, at least binging on Netflix is slightly less uncomfortable.
“It is definitely frustrating not to be out there,” Scutaro said. “At the same time, I don’t want to go through what I went through last year.”
That’s a rerun nobody wants to watch.