It seems ridiculous to be questioning San Francisco Giants second baseman Marco Scutaro at this point. After all, he’s hitting over .300 four and a half months into the season, and he was a 2013 NL All-Star. However, his performance over the last six weeks is rather worrisome, and considering his general track record as a player, it’s worth wondering if Scutaro may be returning to the form that he has exhibited over the majority of his 12-year major league career.
Most offsetting is the fact that Scutaro’s batting average was .332 on June 23, and it has now dropped to .302. The 23rd was Scutaro’s fifth game back from the “mallet finger” injury that he suffered when hit by a pitch on June 11 in Pittsburgh. Mallet finger is a permanent condition which causes Scutaro’s pinky to be bent. As a result, he’s had to adjust his hitting technique, and it is very possible that with this injury he just is not able to swing the bat like he did when he was so successful early in the season.
Before Sunday’s game, Scutaro was hitting .258 (41-for-159) since his injury occurred. That includes a .179 (7-for-39) stretch so far during August. Though he has been a .325 hitter since arriving in San Francisco, the 37-year-old Scutaro is a .278 career hitter, so his production as a survivor of mallet finger is closer to what he has been for the majority of his time in the majors. With that said, Scutaro was a utilityman and role player for the large chunk of that time span, so Scutaro himself has to be worried a little bit.
Though the Giants have 2011 first-rounder Joe Panik on hand to eventually replace Scutaro at second, the team is certainly expecting to get some more quality production out of the veteran. His contract pays him $6.67 million a year through 2015, and the plan was for him to hold down the position at least through next year, with Panik possibly being able to supplant him in the final year of the deal.
While Scutaro’s post-injury production is actually pretty close to the average level of offense provided by a typical MLB second baseman, it is a huge blow to the Giants’ offensive attack. After his arrival, he had more or less taken on the offensive role of Melky Cabrera, who was on fire until being suspended for PED usage last August. Since Scutaro got hurt, the Giants have lost their edge at the plate, and as a result they have fallen far out of playoff contention. It doesn’t help that at 37, Scutaro has lost a lot of his range and speed, and is now a very diminished defender.
These last six weeks of the season should give the Giants a gauge of how they should feel about the second base position for 2014. Scutaro’s injury isn’t going to heal, so it’s important for him to show that he still has some offensive timing before the season ends. Panik hasn’t exactly shown himself to be major-league ready either, falling flat on his face after hitting .320 in his first month to put up a .260 season average in his first year of Double-A ball.
If Scutaro is still a concern, it may be sensible for the team to bring in a veteran middle infielder who is capable of playing well enough to start. In that scenario, it’s a win-win situation. If Scutaro rebounds, he gets the job that the Giants are paying him so handsomely to do. If he still has issues in spring training, the Giants will have another good player who can step in and allow them to contend. Meanwhile, Scutaro could still get in the lineup by filling in around the infield, just like he’s done for most of his career. And if he rediscovers his hitting stroke, he could always take back his spot.
The Giants need to prevent the mistakes that they made last time they tried to defend a World Series title by continuing to rely on aging veterans like Aubrey Huff and Pat Burrell. If Scutaro can still contribute at a high level, that’s great, but they can’t lie to themselves about him being a cornerstone of their offense if he can’t do it anymore. If Scutaro can’t hit like he did for the first six months of his Giants career, the team either needs to bring in better hitters to play around him, or sign another second baseman who can be confidently plugged in if Scutaro continues to falter.