Can Giants get back to postseason?
San Francisco Giants
The Giants are trying to get back into the postseason after a post-World Series season in which almost nothing went right. Once again, they will rely on their pitching, just as they did to win the World Series in 2010 and to win 86 games and stay in contention last year. Their 3.20 ERA was second in the NL in 2011, and they return every key pitcher except Jonathan Sanchez, who did not have a good year. The upgrades to an offense that was the worst in the league are mostly “incremental,” which is GM-speak for “moves that probably won’t make much difference.” The most significant newcomers are Angel Pagan and Melky Cabrera, neither of whom is an impact player. A bigger boost could come from Buster Posey and Freddy Sanchez bouncing back from injuries, or from Aubrey Huff continuing the every-other-year pattern of his career.
It doesn’t get much better than the top two in this rotation, with two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum and the quietly dominating Matt Cain. Lincecum was just as good as he’s ever been, except he was victimized by criminal run support. The Giants scored 2.8 runs per start for Lincecum. Cain is used to that sort of thing, as his career 69–73 record, with a 3.35 ERA, attests. Young Madison Bumgarner is certainly better than most No. 3s. The 22-year-old cracked the 200-innings barrier last year, despite worries that his workload in 2010 might cause him problems. Ryan Vogelsong was the surprise of the staff, making the All-Star team after coming back from a three-year detour to Japan and another year in the minors. One of the big questions for the Giants will be whether Vogelsong was a one-year wonder. Finally, the most expensive No. 5 starter in the majors: Barry Zito. He has teased the Giants with good work for three or four weeks at a time, but not much more over his disastrous five years in San Francisco. At this point the Giants would just be happy if he could soak up league average innings.
Traditionally it’s hard to put together back-to-back good years out of a bullpen without changing the personnel because relievers, by their nature, are so inconsistent year to year. The Giants bucked the trend last year, though. Despite All-Star closer Brian Wilson missing the start of the season with an injury and having a few more struggles than usual (he still saved 36 games with a 3.11 ERA), the Giants posted a relief ERA of 3.04, second-best in the league. Sergio Romo emerged as a lights-out setup man, at one stretch retiring 30 consecutive batters over 14 games. Lefties Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt held lefties to a combined .154 average. Santiago Casilla, who seemed sure to come back to earth after a 2010 that was so much better than the rest of his career, posted a 1.74 ERA. Perhaps the Giants are pressing their luck, but they will essentially have the same bullpen for a third consecutive season.
The Giants acquired Sanchez in a 2009 deadline trade, but they still haven’t seen a full season from the former batting champ. He’s been injured every year. Last year’s separated shoulder was so severe that it’s no sure thing Sanchez will be fully recovered by midseason. When he has been out there, he’s been consistent at the plate, hitting between .284 and .292 in each season with the Giants. Shortstop will once again be an issue, as it has been every year since Omar Vizquel left after the 2008 season. Brandon Crawford is in line to get the first shot at the job, even though his résumé doesn’t show any reason to believe he can hit in the majors. He’s a career .266 hitter in the minors, and he hit .204 in the majors last year. The Giants couldn’t afford to get an upgrade, so they’ll take Crawford’s above-average defense and hope he can be a respectable No. 8 hitter.
Pablo Sandoval saved his career with his bounce-back season in 2011, hitting .315 with 23 homers and earning an All-Star berth. His defense went from abysmal to above average. Funny what the loss of 40 pounds can do for you. Now, the challenge for Sandoval is to keep it going. If he relaxes at all, the weight will surely come back. On the other side of the diamond, the Giants could use another revival from Huff. Like Sandoval, Huff fell victim to poor conditioning during his down season. The difference is that Huff is now 35, so he’s got that going against him, too. His career has been marked by alternating good and bad years, but no one is assuming a rebound for him because of his age. The Giants are still hopeful than Brandon Belt will blossom, which could push Huff to left field or to the bench.
None of the starters from the World Series team is back. There’s also not much depth, because the only true outfielders are the three starters, with converted infielders as the backups. Right and center figure to be manned by two newcomers, Cabrera and Pagan. The alignment is going to be determined in spring training, but Pagan will probably get the first crack at center. Both players are coming off years that may have been aberrations, and the Giants are hoping that’s the case for Pagan (.694 OPS with the Mets) and not Cabrera (.809 OPS with the Royals). If either is motivated by money, that will benefit the Giants, as both are eligible for free agency after the 2012 season. If Nate Schierholtz proves he can hit big league pitching consistently, his glove will keep him in the lineup in right, switching Cabrera to left field. An excellent defender but not a prototypical corner outfield bat, Schierholtz has a career .727 OPS, and he’s never hit more than nine homers. The most likely scenario has Belt at first and Huff in left, Cabrera in right and Pagan in the middle.
Posey is going into his third year, but he’s played only one full season between his first two years in the majors. His sophomore year was cut short by a horrific ankle injury in May. Posey’s long rehab kept him mostly off the field until the fall, when he began doing some hitting and catching in Arizona. The Giants need Posey to be the offensive force he was in 2010, but that’s a lot to ask from a catcher. We’re still only assuming he can be that player over the long run, because he hasn’t done it yet.
Belt is the Giants’ most intriguing bench player, because ideally he won’t be on the bench at all. The Giants envision him as the long-term answer at first base. Belt or Huff could play in the outfield if the Giants want to get both bats in the lineup, but either would be a defensive liability. Ryan Theriot is a solid pro who can play multiple infield positions. He’s the primary fallback if Crawford can’t cut it. Emmanuel Burriss was rushed to the big leagues and never panned out as the middle infield starter the Giants had hoped, but now he’s become a valuable utilityman, able to play a few positions, switch-hit and run. He’ll likely fill in for Sanchez at second. Hector Sanchez has the potential to be an everyday catcher. That’s not necessarily good news since he’s blocked by Posey.
Manager Bruce Bochy and GM Brian Sabean are entering their sixth year working together. Both have ultimate respect for each other and a seemingly solid understanding of each other. There are always questions around both men about a perceived reluctance to let young players play, but the farm system hasn’t exactly churned out players who forced their way into the lineup. They will be challenged this year with how to handle youngsters like Crawford and Belt, and how to maximize Posey’s value without wearing him down.
You have to assume that the Giants are going to be better offensively than they were in 2011, simply because of the return of Posey and Sanchez. However, neither is a lock to be an impact player, Sanchez because of his injury history and Posey because he hasn’t proven himself over a full major league season. Most of the position players are journeymen, aging veterans or unproven youngsters, so it would be wrong to count on more than a couple of them being above average. That means it’s likely the pitchers who will have to carry this team again. They are good enough to keep the Giants in contention, but it will be up to the hitters to push them over the top.
CF Angel Pagan (S)
OPS declined two years in a row, but still hit better than Andres Torres in ’11.
RF Melky Cabrera (S)
Only 27, so there’s still reason to believe his ’11 breakout (.809 OPS) was for real.
3B Pablo Sandoval (S)
Career back on track after 2010, now must string two good years together.
C Buster Posey (R)
Catch-22? His value is behind the plate, but greatest risk of injury there too.
LF Aubrey Huff (L)
He has never had back-to-back full seasons with an OPS below .800, so he’s due to bounce back. Maybe.
1B Brandon Belt (L)
Has to find a way to lay off the high fastballs to hit consistently.
2B Emmanuel Burriss (S)
Speed and plays multiple positions. Perfect sub at second until Freddy Sanchez is healthy.
SS Brandon Crawford (L)
Hey, Omar Vizquel was overmatched at the plate when he first got called up, too.
2B Freddy Sanchez (R)
Has hit .290 since coming to the Giants, but hasn’t stayed healthy for a full season.
C Hector Sanchez (S)
Only 21 years of age and owns a .295 average in 319 minor league games.
OF Gregor Blanco
Dependable extra outfielder.
OF Nate Schierholtz (L)
Giants love his D, but just doesn’t have the pop to be an everyday right fielder.
INF Ryan Theriot (R)
Proved to be better at second than short for St. Louis last season.
UT Brett Pill (R)
A late bloomer, the 27-year-old provides some pop off the bench.
RH Tim Lincecum
Two years in a row he’s overcome a rough stretch to remind you how good he is.
RH Matt Cain
One of the most underrated players in the majors, period. The Giants believe enough to make him $200 million richer.
LH Madison Bumgarner
First Giant pitcher since Mike McCormick (1960) to pitch 200+ innings in age 21 season.
RH Ryan Vogelsong
What does he do for an encore after being one of baseball’s best stories in ’11? Should be off the DL by mid-April.
LH Barry Zito
If he can just be average, the Giants come out well ahead of most teams in the No. 5 spot.
RH Brian Wilson (Closer)
Leads major league baseball with 163 saves since start of 2008 season.
RH Sergio Romo
Before his teammate stole his thunder, he had the most famous beard in the bullpen.
LH Javier Lopez
Five of the past six years, Lopez has had an ERA of 3.10 or better.
LH Jeremy Affeldt
Lefties hit .144 against him in ’11; also had career-best WHIP of 1.15.
RH Santiago Casilla
The hardest thrower in the Giants bullpen had a 1.74 ERA in ’11.
RH Guillermo Mota
Long reliever has 50 plate appearances in 13 years — and two home runs.
RH Clay Hensley
Provides some veteran depth in pen.