Can the World Champs repeat in 2011?
It still hasn’t quite sunk in: The Giants are World Series champions for the first time in their 53-year history in San Francisco. And the way they did it made it even more unbelievable. A franchise stuffed with Hall of Famers like Mays, McCovey and Marichal, not to mention the menacing power of Barry Bonds, finally took the prize with a lineup of rejects, rookies and replacements — although it really was their dominant pitching staff, from ace Tim Lincecum to closer Brian Wilson, who hoisted them to the NL West title on the last day of the season, and then past the Braves, Phillies and Rangers. That staff is under club control for several years, setting up the Giants to return as favorites to win the division.
Lincecum’s ERA was almost a full run higher than the previous season. He was a double-digit loser for the first time, and he lost all his starts in August. But even though he didn’t win his third consecutive Cy Young Award, he got a much bigger prize — turning it up in September and beyond to beat playoff aces like Derek Lowe, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. Matt Cain didn’t allow an earned run over his three playoff starts and is finally getting the respect he deserves as one of the game’s best starting pitchers. Jonathan Sanchez had his best overall season in the big leagues, topping 200 strikeouts while beating the Padres on the last day of the season to fulfill his prediction that the club would win the NL West. The innings caught up to him in his last two playoff starts, though. Madison Bumgarner, who turned 21 in August, flew past his career high for innings, too. But he got stronger down the stretch and threw 94 mph while tossing eight shutout innings against Texas in Game 4. Barry Zito is a ridiculously expensive but serviceable No. 5 starter.
Wilson used to strike fear in his own fans with his rollercoaster performances in the ninth inning. But in the playoffs, everyone had learned to “fear the beard” instead. With his goofy, WWE-style facial hair dyed black, he nailed down all four of the Giants’ clinching victories — including a strikeout of Nelson Cruz to win it all. The offbeat closer improved for the third consecutive year, lowering his ERA and baserunners per inning, while recording 10 saves of four or more outs during the regular season. The Giants bolstered their bullpen at the trade deadline with sidearm lefty Javier Lopez, who shut down Ryan Howard and Josh Hamilton in the playoffs. Along with lefty Jeremy Affeldt, who struggled with leg and side strains, the Giants might have the best bullpen from the left side in the majors. Right-handed setup man Sergio Romo had dominant stretches but a few rough patches, too. The Giants have other attractive options from the right side, though. Santiago Casilla throws heat, and Ramon Ramirez is a workhorse.
Some Giants fans will have a hard time booing Juan Uribe, even though he signed a three-year deal with the Dodgers. Uribe hit 24 home runs during the regular season, 11 of which tied the game or put the Giants ahead. The Giants replaced Uribe with Miguel Tejada on a one-year contract, seeing enough of the 36-year-old in San Diego to believe he can still play shortstop. The club will have almost no range on the left side, though. Freddy Sanchez had another shoulder surgery on Dec. 7, but if healthy, he’s a solid No. 2 hitter and defensive second baseman. Perhaps Sanchez’s health was the reason the Giants decided to bring back Mike Fontenot, who was acquired from the Cubs down the stretch last year. He provides insurance and depth.
Overweight third baseman Pablo Sandoval likely will reclaim his spot despite a truly wretched season in which his average fell from .330 to .268 — but only if he sheds the 25 pounds the team demanded over the winter. If not, a demotion to Triple-A Fresno is a distinct possibility. The switch-hitter was so unreliable from the right side that he had become a platoon player down the stretch. Even worse, his defensive skills deteriorated to the point he couldn’t be trusted. He only started one World Series game, at designated hitter. Aubrey Huff, the spirited king of the misfits, signed a two-year, $22 million deal to return. He led the club in homers and RBIs, but became best known for his red, rhinestone lucky thong underwear that he wore from Aug. 30 to the end of the season. Huff could play left field if the Giants promote rookie first baseman Brandon Belt.
On a team packed with heartwarming stories, there wasn’t a better tale to be told than Andres Torres. The minor league journeyman became a full-time starter in the big leagues for the first time in May, when it became obvious that he offered more than overpriced Aaron Rowand. Torres finished among the league leaders in doubles and extra-base hits, and many scouts considered him the best defensive center fielder in the NL. The Giants claimed Cody Ross off waivers from the Marlins in August, ostensibly to block him from going to the rival Padres. The Giants hadn’t intended to keep Ross beyond the season, but they changed their minds when the NLCS MVP went unconscious in the playoffs. He’ll start in right field and back up Torres in center. Pat Burrell was another dumpster dive, signed to a minor league deal after the Rays released him in May. He added power and patience to the lineup, and despite a miserable World Series, the Giants brought him back when he offered to sign for just $1 million. Burrell has no guarantee of an everyday job, though — especially if Belt makes the club.
Buster Posey is a pure hitter with leadership abilities that have drawn comparisons to Derek Jeter. The Giants were buried in fourth place on July 1 when they traded Bengie Molina and installed Posey as the everyday catcher. The team ended up going 20–8 in July, their winningest month in a decade. And Posey carried them there, hitting .417 in July while authoring a 21-game hitting streak, the longest by an NL player all season. Posey was just as sharp behind the plate, calling the pitches for a staff that held opponents to three runs or less in 18 consecutive games in September.
Mark DeRosa’s surgically repaired tendon in his wrist ruptured again in the spring, requiring a season-ending procedure in June. He was confident he could resume his career, and could be an option at third base if Sandoval disappoints. Travis Ishikawa aspires to be more than a lefty bat off the bench, but it’s hard to see a bigger window as Belt gets closer to the big leagues. Nate Schierholtz is a valuable piece for late-inning defense, although the Giants could trade him. Eli Whiteside is a trusted and competent backup catcher, even if he doesn’t offer much in the way of hitting.
Bruce Bochy wasn’t especially loved or respected by Giants fans, but all of that changed when one deft move after another paid off in the playoffs. He managed with urgency as he juggled the lineup and double-switched his players into the perfect position to contribute. Bochy has a large say in personnel matters, too. He and GM Brian Sabean have become fast friends, and for all the criticism Sabean received, his acquisitions made all the difference down the stretch.
The Giants won’t be anyone’s favorite to repeat, especially after the Phillies signed Lee to create an uber-rotation. But don’t forget that the Giants beat Lee twice in the playoffs, too. Bochy’s “Dirty Dozen” caught so many breaks and well-timed hot streaks in 2010, and it’s hard to imagine all their magic lasting another season. But then again, they’ll have a full year of Posey, and a bounce-back from Sandoval isn’t out of the question. If their starting pitchers can stay fresh and healthy, the Giants should be favored to repeat as NL West champs. That will be the team’s only goal as they report this spring: Win the division, and then roll the dice in the postseason one more time.