Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Giants will win the west, maybe

If you read Joe Posnanski’s post: Optimism from a Royals Season Ticket Holder, you’d know that Joe took the baton from Bill Vaughn who used to choose the Kansas City Athletics to win the pennant each year, as a joke. Joe was columnist of the Kansas City Star from 1996 until his last season in 2009, and he (mostly) jokingly picked the hometown Royals to win the AL Central each year. And in all seriousness, it’s really not all that far fetched. It’s not like it’s the AL East. Joe brilliantly analogizes himself to Jon Stewart who (mostly) jokingly delivers political news nightly.

It’s the day after St. Patty’s Day, March 18th 2010. Last night, many people got hammered off of Guinness pints and Jameson shots, and from time to time mixing them with Bailey’s for an Irish Car Bomb – which can be equally explosive to an actual car bomb for those with a weak stomach – all culminating in passing out while still wearing work clothes. Many of those who did that likely remember less of last night than they remember of most nights and ultimately feel worthless at work today. Not me (this year).

Anyway, on this March 18th 2010 the Giants are 11-6 thus far this spring despite the various concerns throughout camp*. As a Giants blogger who tries to give his honest opinion and analysis about signings, projections, front office moves, etc; I’ve been pretty brutal on what the Giants did this off-season and what they’ve done over the past several years, i.e. the Sabean years. As a Giants fan, it would appear appropriate to take Joe’s tradition from Kansas City to San Francisco. After all, the NL West – like the AL Central – is not the AL East. The NL West is typically competitive but it’s no powerhouse. Teams with flaws can dodge and ditch their way into October, and often do. For example, the 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks gave up 732 runs, scored only 712 – that’s right they scored fewer runs than they gave up – and won 90 games before ultimately getting swept in the NLCS. And who were they swept by? ‘Twas another NL West team, the Cinderella Rockies.

*Renteria’s surgically repaired elbow, Sanchez’ knee and shoulder, DeRosa’s surgically repaired wrist, Huff’s defense, Lincecum’s velocity, Bumgarner’s velocity, who will be the fifth starter, can Rowand lead off, will the Giants actually (and moronically) get rid of Fred Lewis, will the Giants actually (and equally moronically) keep Velez in the place of Fred Lewis, etc.

But I agree with Joe, that there should be hope in baseball each spring. But before we get into that, let’s review 2009

The Good (or exceptional): The Giants (unlike the Royals) weren’t bad in all facets of the game. They pitched exceptionally well, the bullpen and starters included. Tim Lincecum won his 2nd straight Cy Young. Matt Cain emerged as a capable budding #1 starter. Randy Johnson pitched about as well as a man of his age could be expected to before going down with an injury in July, thankfully shortly after (and not before*) winning his 300th big league game. Barry Zito managed to gain a few inches back on his fastball, pitch capably all season and superbly in the second half. Jonathon Sanchez continued to make us scratch our heads throughout the first half. He struck out a ton of batters but never seemed to compete, minimize damage or avoid walking every other batter. Then suddenly, after a demotion to the pen, he threw the first no-no since The Count’s in ’76 and propelled himself to an outstanding 2nd half. The only real problem area was the 5th spot in the rotation. The Big Sadowski and Joe Martinez had a couple of good outings but were mostly pummeled all said and done. The Giants got little to nothing every 5th day it seemed. The pen with Wilson, Affeldt, Romo, Medders, Miller, Howry and a late push from Dan Runzler pitched brilliantly all season.

*I can’t imagine having to watch Johnson hobble his way to 300 wins. I’m glad he notched the final few with grace and not as some relieving left-handed specialist – only resembling himself in competitiveness, mullet and height. A worse thought would be imagining him sustaining a career ending injury before 300. Given his history of back injuries and surgeries, such a thing wasn’t completely out of the realm of possibilities. And were it an arm injury? I could have seen him come back in the ilk of Billy Wagner throwing (opposite) right handed to notch the hallowed 300.

The Bad (pitiful, innocuous, impotent …no word really does it): The Giants (like the bad news bears) were particularly bad in one facet of the game: hitting (or lack there of). They were actually historically bad when it comes to runs scored versus runs against. In the NL, they were 13th in runs, 13th in doubles, 15th in home runs, 14th in total bases and dead last in OBP and OPS. They featured hitters not known for their ability to get on base at the top of the lineup in Velez and Rowand. They featured a right fielder that hit 2 dingers all season long and couldn’t hit left handed pitching to save his life – despite his ability to routinely do so throughout his career – in Randy Winn. They featured a cleanup hitter (who runs slower than a booger rolling down a sap covered tree) that never met a pitch he didn’t like and walked 13 times (only 10 of which were unintentional) in 491 at bats and made 372 (easy) outs in 520 total plate appearances, or 71.5% of the time. Yes, staggering. Reminiscent of Pedro Feliz, isn’t it? They plopped Edgar Renteria in the 2 hole for most of the season, the results of which were obviously dreadful – sans that home run against Betancourt of the Rockies. Other positions, or more specifically second base, were a revolving door of impossibly easy outs courtesy Frandsen, Burriss and Downs. When they finally started to play small(er) ball, they couldn’t bunt. The only truly bright spot was the emergence of the Kung-Fu Panda, and a bright spot it was. They got that right as Panda hit .330, 25 home runs and ranked 9th in the NL in wOBA (weighted on base average). He electrified the fans and gave them (me) a reason to be truly excited to watch every day, not just when Lincecum was on the bump.

The Ugly: The Giants were flirting with the wild card down the stretch last year and remarkably had trimmed down the Dodgers division lead considerably. Everyone knew they could pitch, everyone knew they couldn’t hit. Giants’ fans pleaded and prayed for a power bat, poised to see post season baseball once again. So the Giants went out and traded one of their better young left-handed pitchers, Scott Barnes, to acquire one of the hottest hitters at that time in the AL, Stanford Alum Ryan Garko. Garko never got his bat going and Bochy relatively quickly banished him to the bench. He then was non-tendered during the winter, ensuring the Giants had given up a quality young pitcher for ~100 lack-luster, non-impactful at bats. The Giants also traded prized pitching prospect Tim Alderson* for Freddy Sanchez. Sanchez was having knee issues and didn’t play immediately after his acquisition. To make matters worse, he hurt his shoulder at some point once he actually started playing and was a non-factor down the stretch. The two deadline deals were deadline duds.

*As it turned out, Alderson didn’t look much like the young pitcher that dominated at High-A in 2008. His strikeout rates went down, walks went up and he is looking more and more like a major league reliever at best and certainly not a solid major league starter.

As the offseason began and winter meetings commenced, the talk was: which of the free-agent sluggers would the Giants sign and not if they would acquire one. The Giants attempted to remedy the offense by adding a couple of players instead of a single expensive one. They added the solid utility player Mark DeRosa who would also be coming off of surgery. The other major acquisition was adding Aubrey Huff after Adam Laroche mistakenly misread the market and passed on the Giants’ offer. Before that, the Giants whiffed on Nick Johnson who probably took less money to play with the Yankees, which seems to be a recurring theme with players such as Beltre and Scutaro who also took less money to play for the other biggest franchise in baseball. Huff is coming off of one of if not his worst major league seasons. He’s an aging slugger with a ‘track record for driving in runs’ and seemingly a complete and utter inability to play first base. On top of that, they paid Uribe a few million to be a utility guy and out of nowhere re-upped Bengie Molina for $4.5 MM guaranteed (with incentives!) despite having Buster Posey ready to take over the job for peanuts. This isn’t the type of offseason that’s likely to instill confidence in fans (and me).

BUT, and like the Royals, the Giants too have many of the pieces. In fact, they (mainly) have roughly the same pieces.

Joe on Royals:
They had the best pitcher in the American League in 2009, Zack Greinke, and he’s just 26. They have a brilliant young closer in Joakim Soria, and he turns 26 in May. They have an almost 24-year old first baseman, Billy Butler, who hit 50 doubles and 20 homers last year.

Me on Giants:
They had the best pitcher in the National League in 2009, Tim Lincecum, and he’s just 25. They have a brilliant (well, good) young closer in Brian Wilson, and he turned 28 in March. They have an almost 24-year old third baseman (and he belongs at first), Pablo Sandoval, who hit 44 doubles and 25 homers last year.

Both teams also have terribly inadequate and foolish GM’s.  They have a lot more in common than I would ever have imagined if not for Joe's blog. The real difference in KC and SF? The drop off in Kansas City after their stars and solid players such as David DeJesus is steep, specifically in terms of pitching.

The Giants got Freddy Sanchez last July to provide some offense and a steady presence at second base, which has been a wasteland since the departures of greatness that was Kent and quite good when healthy in Durham. They think his knee will heal fine and his shoulder will be ready sometime in April. They think he will provide solid defense at second, hit for doubles power and anchor the number 2 spot in the lineup.

The Giants signed Aubrey Huff to bat cleanup and provide power. They think his power will somewhat return and he will rebound from his atrocious 2009 stats. They think he’ll provide protection for Sandoval and drive him in enough to approach 100 RBI. They think he’ll play adequate first base and will likely look to sub him out for Ishikawa (or Posey) when they have a lead.

They signed Mark DeRosa to provide a somewhat more patient approach in the lineup and a little power. They think he’ll be able to move around the diamond as needed but log most innings in left field. They think his wrist will heal up nicely reverting him back to his 2007, 2008 and first half 2009 form.

The Giants think Matt Cain will at least pitch as well as 2009 and possibly take another step forward to becoming a true number 1 starter providing the Giants with one of the best 1-2 punches in baseball.

The Giants think Renteria will rebound this season after cleaning up the elbow which was ailing him all of 2009. They think he’ll play solid but not spectacular defense but provide some offense at a primarily defensive position, much like he had done in his years with the Braves and Marlins.

The Giants think Zito will continue to pitch at his 2009 level (though they assuredly realize he’ll never be the guy they thought they were getting when they paid him $126 MM). They think Sanchez will pitch like he did after his no-hitter and perhaps take another step towards greatness.

The Giants think Bumgarner will step into the fifth spot in the rotation and provide a solid effort throughout the season and avoid the automatic loss that was the fifth’s turn in 2009. They think 2010 will be just one season to get his feet wet before turning into the number 1 starter they drafted in 2007.

And somewhere in there, sometime in 2010, Posey will fit into the equation somehow. It seems more and more likely he’ll start the season on the 25 man roster to play some first and catch. They think Molina might provide some mentoring and show him how to handle the fireball staff the Giants boast and the rigors of catching every day.

The Giants think Lincecum will be Lincecum, Wilson will be Wilson, and Panda will take another step into offensive superstardom.

There are so many keys to the season for each and every team. Health is usually an obvious one. It’s important that multiple guys have good seasons and put up the numbers they have on the back of their baseball card. But you have to pick one. For me, it’s Nate Schierholtz. Nate shows tremendous power in batting practice but has yet to show it in games at the big league level. Right field is a quite important position as you need not only a good defender but someone to provide some offense, and at AT&T it's even more important. Schierholtz has a strong and accurate arm he showed off on several occasions in 2009. He’s shown the ability to play the tricky right field corner at AT&T very well. His defense is there. His key is to improve his patience and learn how to apply his power against big league pitching. Nate has shown he can be a pretty good hitter but with obvious flaws. Mainly, like all of the lefties on the farm for the Giants it seems, is the down and in breaking ball. Bowker has the hole. Ishikawa has the hole. Schierholtz has the hole.  And it's not a small hole, it's more of a gaping hole. It’s quite remarkable (and extremely disappointing).  As a Giants fan, it's ... more than a little frustrating.  You know it's a problem when Schierholtz has swung at pitches that actually ended up hitting him.

There’s an article up on the Giants’ new hitting coach (Bam Bam) Muelens on how he intends to improve the Giants hitters. Frankly, I like his approach. Rather than work mostly on their flaws, he wants them to focus on their strengths. In 2009, I found myself perplexed beyond words. It seemed to me in one at bat a player would swing at the first lousy pitch and ground out softly. In the next at bat, he’d look at a hanging curve or grooved fastball right down the middle. Some people have said the Indians’ top catching prospect (Carlos Santana) is such a good hitter because he’s selectively aggressive. He’s patient but when he sees something he likes, regardless of count, he hammers it. The Giants were more or less the exact opposite in 2009. They rarely smashed mistakes and often made easy outs on pitchers pitches.

If this is Bam Bam’s plan, and it’s even mildly successful, I’ll be thrilled. I like what I am hearing from the players in regards to him and I like what he’s saying. I like his positive approach and reinforcement. I like that he can speak 5 languages, relate to each player and that he tries to approach each player with a different set of drills and things to work on that works for the individual player. Muelens apparently transformed John Bowker into the type of patient hitter that walks often or more than he strikes out in AAA and if he can duplicate that success in San Fran this year, we’re going to be in for a treat. No pun intended.

It’s still mid-march and the games are still quite meaningless. But the Giants have some brilliant pieces and if everything goes more or less how they are hoping it will this season, we may well see some post season baseball. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the Dodgers are busy spending all of their cash on legal fees rather than baseball players.

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