Dan Szymborski has an article -- San Francisco Giants' repeat problems -- for Insider’s on ESPN.com. Within it, he explains the difficulty the Giants now stand to face in their pursuit to repeat as World Champions. And he’s absolutely right. Let me explain.
Nowhere in his article does he say they won’t be good, quite the contrary. Especially not when he says “[the] rotation is elite…” Or when he explains the Giants’ Brandon Belt is “… almost certainly one of the two best 1B prospects in baseball…” Nonetheless, it will be an uphill battle – and here’s why, using his four main reasons to prompt my thoughts.
1. They stood pat
Just try and argue with that, and failure begins in 3, 2, 1… That’s precisely what the Giants did, right or wrong. Performance is volatile in nature, and when key contributors in a lineup are a) one year older and b) coming off of surgery or c) coming off career years, or worse d) some combination of both a and b or c, the likelihood of downward trending increases.
I voiced my opinion early in the offseason that my biggest fear was that the Giants would go in this exact direction. They have, and there’s no point worrying about it any longer. I think Dan’s reference to the 2003 Angels (which followed the 2002 Angels in the season we Giants fans used to avoid speaking of, but now can) is well placed. This is not to say the same fate shall fall on the Giants, but just that the danger is there. And it is. Returning a team that won a World Series doesn’t guarantee you anything. It doesn’t guarantee winning the World Series, winning the Pennant, winning the Division, or reaching October via the Wild Card. It doesn’t even guarantee mediocrity. This is fact, proven by those 2003 Angels.
And as Bay City Ball has already pointed out -- we Giants bloggers have to jump on anything worth writing about these days, and no I don't mean: "Pablo Sandoval lost 17 pounds!" -- that a rebound from Pablo Sandoval and a freeing up of the lineup dead weight could cancel out that regression. That means no Aaron Rowand at leadoff for two months; this will fall to Andres Torres. That means Bengie Molina not catching for three months; this will fall to Buster Posey. And that also means Cody Ross – he stands to be a steady defender and playable hitter, and not October Ross – instead of a season-long platoon of Mark DeRosa, John Bowker, Nate Schierholtz, and Jose Guillen. And it very well could mean at least a half-season of Brandon Belt contributing at 1B, and hopefully displacing Aubrey Huff to LF – which isn’t ideal, but will work in a pinch – and by domino-effect displacing DeRosa and Burrell to the bench where they belong.
But this is simply what we hope happens, and nothing more.
2. The starting rotation cliff
And what a cliff it is. The Giants have one of the very best 1-5 situations in all of baseball, but beyond that it gets ugly. A sixth-starter option is virtually non-existent, as Dan Runzler hasn’t yet figured out how to consistently throw strikes, a skill imperative to a starting pitcher. The Giants don’t even have a replacement level sixth-starter to weather the storm if, god forbid, one of their five go down. That’s worrisome. It’s not just that they no longer have Todd Wellemeyer. They had Joe Martinez, Eric Hacker, Kevin Pucetas and Ramon Ortiz stashed in AAA last season, all of which would fit the description, but each has flown the coop.
But this isn’t one of my greatest concerns. I’d absolutely hate to put my foot in my mouth on this subject at some point in the future, but here’s why.
If the Giants lost one of the five for a couple or even a few months next season, it would still be a highly repairable situation. For starters (no pun intended), they could simply flip one or two mediocre prospects for a replacement level starter and plug him in. It wouldn’t be exactly ideal, but it’d work in the short term. There might even be a free agent available that could work just as well, someone recently released or on waivers.
And at my own peril, I’ll admit now that I’m only really worried about the health of 40% of the rotation. I’m least worried about Barry Zito, who hasn’t missed a start since he was a high schooler with pimples, if ever. I’m second least worried about Matt Cain. He’s a big, country strong right-hander with a smooth delivery and steady velocity. He’s had no arm injury history, and his delivery isn’t a violent one where we’d expect his arm’s a ticking time bomb. Call it gut instinct, idiocy, or whatever else you’d like. I just don’t see it happening. The same goes for Madison Bumgarner. He seems the most likely candidate to both Szyborski and others, including Tom Verducci who placed him on his Verducci Effect list. But he, like Cain, is a big, strong kid with smooth mechanics – though they’re also unorthodox in his case. And his velocity, despite the added innings, actually increased as the season went along in 2010. That’s about the best non-red flag one could hope to observe.
That leaves Tim Lincecum and Jonathan Sanchez. I’m still optimistic about each of their arms, but cautiously so. The reasons for both should, I think, be fairly obvious. Sanchez wore down last season, most notably in his last couple of starts in the postseason. And Lincecum’s velocity took a significant hit last season as well, and more troubling was his inability to maintain average velocity beyond the fourth inning or so during his midseason struggles. And, let’s be honest here, if Tim goes down it’s a disaster. So there’s no real point in preparing for it. I’m cautiously optimistic that Sanchez’s velocity loss was due to simple fatigue, and that Tim’s improved conditioning will help him to maintain his velocity, that his widely publicized 2010 struggles will make him a better pitcher.
I’m aware the Giants have been remarkably fortunate in this department, i.e. a lack of injuries, so perhaps that’s why I’m so nonchalant about it. Whether it’s their training staff, some well-working organizational philosophy or just dumb luck, I don’t know. I just know it’s contributing to my optimism, and I hope it continues.
3. Math can be cruel
There are obvious parallels between this and number 1. Because the Giants have largely stayed the same, they’ve essentially entrusted their 2010 heavy-lifters to approach their contributions from a year ago.
The best case scenario is that the Huff, Torres, Sanchez and Burrell play similarly in 2011, that Posey repeats his numbers from a year ago, that Ross plays well enough he can play every day and Bochy can at least not worry about him, that Brandon Belt is promoted at some point next season and immediately becomes the impact bat they are hoping for, and that a slimmer Pablo rebounds.
The worst case scenario is that Huff, Torres, Sanchez and Burrell see sharp declines, Posey experiences a sophomore slump, Ross the Boss becomes Ross the Loss, Belt never emerges or drowns when he does, and Sandoval continues to struggle at the plate and on defense, cementing his 2009 season as the true outlier.
The reality is that it will probably fall someplace in between, but you hope it leans toward the positive in this spectrum. I will say this though: from what I’ve observed reviewing Posey’s minor and major league statistics, as well as watching him play all last season, he appears to be a streaky hitter. He seems capable of carrying an offense at times and his home runs sure appear, to me at least, to accumulate in bunches. But when he’s not going well, he still gives a pretty good at bat. While he certainly hasn’t established a “.305/.357/.505 (batting average/ on-base percentage/ slugging percentage) line as his “base” level of performance yet…” – he seems as good a bet as anyone to.
4. Gifts that keep on taking
Their commitments to players that aren’t contributing at or near the levels they are being compensated continues to haunt them. Zito, of course, is the main problem here. But Dan specifically points to both Rowand (furious, unrelenting decline) and DeRosa (injury), both whom could potentially contribute very little to an already crowded outfield.
He’s right that the contracts of two or three players are weighing down the Giants’ payroll. It would have been awfully nice to insert a more competent, younger left fielder into the lineup on Opening Day 2011. Carl Crawford would have been ideal, and perhaps that would have been possible were it not for the above-mentioned trio. That being said, the outfield isn’t keeping me awake at night. A situation where Huff is playing left and Belt is at first seems workable. And the fact that at least a couple of outfielders are somewhat close to San Francisco (Thomas Neal and Francisco Peguero) gives me some comfort. A more balanced positional depth is desired, but the Giants’ current situation sure beats no depth at all.
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For those that don’t subscribe to ESPN Insider, this should give you a glimpse of what the all-talented Dan Szyborski of Baseball Think Factory thinks of the 2011 Giants. And to those that do, I hope this serves as somewhat of a remedy to the knee-jerk reaction to defend the defending champs. Dan’s article was nothing more than a realistic, well thought out presentation of the challenges the Giants face.
There’s a reason why the Cubs haven’t won a World Series in over 100 years and why the Yankees, despite spending approximately $200 million a year between 2001 and 2010, won a single World Series in that time-span: it’s darn tough to do.