2009 San Francisco Giants Preview

The San Francisco Giants are generally thought of as the most improved team in the NL West this year. But with an overrated pitching staff, shaky infield defense, and anemic offense that wasn't addressed this winter, it figures to be a fifth-consecutive losing season for Brian Sabean's boys.



Key Transactions
Acquired Pos.
Randy Johnson SP
Edgar Renteria SS
Bobby Howry RP
Jeremy Affeldt RP
Luis Perdomo RP
Departed Pos.
Omar Vizquel SS
Brad Hennessey SP
Kevin Correia SP
Dave Roberts OF
Jack Taschner RP
Keiichi Yabu RP
Billy Sadler RP
Tyler Walker RP

Hope springs eternal.  It's a phrase heard every year around this time as the clock begins to wind down on the month of March, leaving the start of the regular baseball season just around the corner.  It's the time of year when fans of all 30 teams are awash in hope that this season will be that special one (ok, well maybe not Pirate fans).  A lot of Giants fans, I have sensed, seem to be particularly optimistic this spring that the reigning NL Cy Young award winner Tim Lincecum, along with five-time winner Randy Johnson, can help lead their team back to the top of the diluted National League West and into the World Series.  I only wish I could share their optimism.

San Francisco's only outside addition to an offense that scored the second fewest runs in baseball last year was an aging and fading Edgar Renteria, while the lead-footed Bengie Molina is once again slated to bat cleanup in a lineup that could fail to produce a 20 home run hitter for the second consecutive season.  Banking on increased production coming from Fred Lewis, now in his second full ML season, and a full season of the seemingly unstoppable Pablo Sandoval, the Giants declined to add any more offense, opting instead to solidify their starting rotation (and season ticket base) by adding a future Hall of Famer who needs just five more wins for 300 in his career. 

But while the Giants' offense may indeed score a few more runs this season (but only just a few), it could very well be the starting pitching they will attempt to ride into October that ultimately lets them down.  Still, there are a few reasons for optimism. 

Molina has been a workhorse at Catcher for the Giants in his two seasons with the club, averaging over 130 games a year behind the plate.  His defense is generally strong, if at times a little bit sloppy, and he commands respect from his pitching staff.  At the plate, he remains one of the better hitting backstops in the league, posting a batting line of .292/.322/.445 last season (including an .873 OPS w/RISP) while leading the club with 16 home runs and 95 RBI.  The 34-year old backstop will be a free agent at season's end. Knowing that the Giants don't intend to re-sign him, Molina could find plenty of motivation in playing for what could be his final big payday. 

If you'd asked me in November, I'd have said there was no way the Giants were going to give rookie Travis Ishikawa a chance to win the First Base position this year.  It seemed certain that the club would acquire a proven, veteran hitter to play one corner spot with Sandoval getting first crack at the other.  To my surprise and pleasure, they decided against sacrificing defense for an Adam Dunn signing and opted not to risk a Joe Crede acquisition, instead allowing Ishikawa to come into camp with the spot his to lose.  To date, he has done nothing to suggest he doesn't deserve the shot I had hoped he'd get, slugging .662 with a club-high 6 home runs through his first 22 exhibition contests, and will begin the year as the starter. 

Soon-to-be-determined is the winner of the Second Base battle between Kevin Frandsen and Emmanuel Burriss.  The good news is that both have done all they can to win the job, with Frandsen hitting .294/.360/.412 through his first 26 spring games and Burriss batting .379/.446/.470 through 24.  The bad news is that only one of them will be playing everyday.  Whichever player is deemed the most proficient defensively is likely to get the starting nod while the other will be relegated to a utility role or even the minors.

When the Giants decided to take a pass on Crede, it meant that Sandoval would be the team's starter at Third Base, defense be dammed.  To his credit, he played 12 errorless games there last season.  But Sandoval has only played 21 games there in his minor league career, all in 2006, and in those was charged with 10 defensive miscues.  He has worked hard on that part of his game, however, and could prove passable.  At the plate, Sandoval looks to show that his 2008 breakout campaign was no fluke.  In two minor league stops, he batted a combined .355/.399/.588 and followed that up by hitting .345/.357/.490 in 41 games for the Giants.  All told, he had 23 home runs and 120 runs batted in for the year.  He then came back with a .396/.449/.677 line in winter league play (with 12 HR) and has clobbered the ball all spring (.467/.484/.683 through his first 20 games).  What remains to be seen is what will happen when pitchers adjust to his free swinging ways.  Though he's got a good bit of Vladimir Guerrero and Yogi Berra in him, he will need to learn to better lay off pitches out of the zone if he's to maintain success at this level. 

The team wouldn't have their dilemma at second had they not responded rashly to a poor defensive showing by Burriss in the AFL (due in part to a leg injury), by quickly and ill-advisedly signing the declining 33-year Renteria to a two-year, $18 million deal to play Shortstop.  I contend the club could have gotten as good, or better, production both offensively and defensively from Burriss than it will from Renteria and would have done so for nearly $9 million less.  At the very least, had GM Brian Sabean been a bit more patient, he might have gotten his man for closer to the $4 million price tag Orlando Cabrera eventually settled on.  Instead, the team has committed itself for two seasons to a shortstop that ranked 31st in baseball last year with -7 defensive runs saved and 23rd over the last three years with a cumulative mark of -3, according to The Fielding Bible II

Pos

‘08

‘09

C

Molina

Molina

1B

Aurilia/Bowker

Ishikawa

2B

Durham/Burriss

Burriss/Frandsen

3B

Castillo/Aurilia

Sandoval

SS

Vizquel/Burriss

Renteria

LF

Lewis

Lewis

CF

Rowand

Rowand

RF

Winn

Winn

Perhaps the best thing not to happen to the Giants this past winter was the signing of Manny Ramirez.  I certainly will not dispute that Man-Ram would have added significant punch to a lineup that sorely lacks it, but I will further contend that opting not to sign him was a much better decision for both the short-term and the long-term health of the franchise.  Signing Ramirez, who racked up a whopping -83 defensive runs over the past six seasons, not only would have severely impacted the team's Outfield defense, but the move could also have sent Lewis to the bench if the team not been able to then trade either center fielder Aaron Rowand or right fielder Randy Winn.  And they still probably wouldn't have had enough offense to win the NL West. 

Instead, Lewis returns as the team's left fielder after having recovered from off-season surgery to repair a bunion.  Now likely to hit third in the Giants lineup, Lewis has vowed to hit at least 20 triples this year, while the team expects increased home run production as well.  If he can improve on his '08 line of .282/.351/.440 and play average defense (+2 defensive runs in '08), he will make the club look brilliant for taking a pass on Ramirez and his $45 million. 

The club will also hope that Rowand can bounce back from a poor second half showing at the plate (.242/.309/.356) to post numbers a bit more worthy of the $60 million contract they gave him as a free agent after the 2007 season.  In addition, they have to hope that he can rebound defensively after registering -4 defensive runs for his new club, although that seems unlikely given that he hasn't been very good with the leather since his days in Chicago (one undeserved Gold Glove notwithstanding). 

Winn, a free agent at the season's conclusion, returns for what is likely his last season in orange and black.  A switch hitter who batted over .300 three times in the last four years and saved 30 defensive runs during that same span, he could be quite enticing to a team with needs and prospects to spare.

Cy Young Candidate
Tim Lincecum
I have him penciled in for this award for the next ten years.
Disappointment Candidate
Edgar Renteria
Offense took the plunge last season, but his defense has been in decline for a few years now.
Veteran non-roster invitee Rich Aurilia will return to the club's Bench as the primary backup to both Ishikawa and Sandoval, while Nate Schierholtz will serve as the club's fourth outfielder.  Steve Holm is once again set as the backup to Molina while minor league veteran Andres Torres and the speedy Eugenio Velez are locked in a tight battle for the final outfield spot.  Minor league free agent pickup Jesus Guzman, who led the Texas League in batting last year at .364, has an outside shot of making the roster after setting a Venezuelan Winter League record for RBI and continuing to flat-out hit this spring. 

After watching the club ink Randy Johnson to a one-year deal this past winter, many consider the Giants' Starters to be the team's strongest asset.  With one notable exception, I find it to be the club's biggest question mark.


Tim Lincecum

After winning the Cy Young award in just his first full big league season, right-hander Tim Lincecum is a strong candidate to win it again.  The dominant 24-year old went 18-5 with a 2.62 ERA in becoming the first Giant to win the award since Mike McCormick in 1967.  His 265 strikeouts set a San Francisco franchise record and were the most by any Giant pitcher since the great Christy Mathewson struck out 259 batters (in 390 innings) 100 years previously.  And he made his team better as well, with the Giants going 21-12 (.636) in his starts but only 51-78 (.395) with anyone else pitching. 

If you're going to pick one guy to anchor your rotation for years to come, Timmy would be an excellent choice.  After Lincecum, though, things become a bit more uncertain, depending upon your point of view. 

Johnson posted strong, middle-of-the-rotation numbers last year in bouncing back from an injury-plagued 2007 season and could compliment Lincecum nicely.  However, the 45-year old has required several knee and back surgeries over the past few years and has racked up one MRI on his arm already this spring.  Health will be a key issue this season where Johnson is concerned.  If he can give the club 30+ starts, things could get interesting, but if he spends half the season or more on the DL, it's gonna be one unpleasant and forgettable farewell tour.

Giants Fun Fact
69 different pitchers threw 180 or more innings in 2008 while another 60 hit that mark in 2007.  Among those who tossed that many innings, Matt Cain finished dead last in run support both years.

Plagued by remarkably poor run support, Matt Cain has been the definition of a tough luck pitcher the past two seasons, going 15-30 despite posting a 3.71 ERA.  His performance, though, has also been marred by inconsistency within the strike zone, as he issued a career-high 91 free passes in '08 after averaging 83 a year the previous two seasons.  Some blame bad pitching mechanics while others fault a lack of aggressiveness.  Whichever is the case, he's going to need to reduce those walk totals if he's to reach his potential. 

Slated to earn $18.5 million this year, Barry Zito is set to be the highest paid number four starter in baseball history.  If his performance doesn't improve significantly, Zito could also wind up the most expensive long reliever of all time.  Jonathan Sanchez, the number 3 starter for Puerto Rico in the WBC, won the battle for the fifth spot by default when Noah Lowry continued to be plagued by injuries this spring.  Sanchez has electric stuff, but has been inconsistent and needs to exhibit better command of the strike zone. 

Pos

‘08

‘09

SP

Zito

Lincecum

SP

Cain

Johnson

SP

Lincecum

Cain

SP

Sanchez

Zito

SP

Correia

Sanchez

CL

Wilson

Wilson

RP

Walker

Howry

RP

Taschner

Affeldt

RP

Romo

Romo

RP

Hinshaw

Hinshaw

RP

Yabu

Medders

Brian Wilson became the first homegrown pitcher to save 40 games in a season for the Giants when he successfully secured 41 wins in '08.  His ERA was a gaudy 4.62, but that number was inflated by a 7.71 mark in non-save situations.  He needs to be more consistent, but he has the stuff to be one of the game's best closers and provides a solid anchor to the San Francisco Bullpen.

Jeremy Affeldt and Bobby Howry were signed by the Giants this winter to bolster a crew that ranked 24th in baseball last year with a collective 4.45 ERA.  Affeldt, 29, has developed into a fairly reliable left handed relief option over the last two seasons, but Howry, 35, is coming off a season in which he posted a 5.35 ERA, notched a 1.46 WHIP, and surrendered more than 11 hits per 9 innings pitched.  His .882 OPS against ranked 253rd out of 266 pitchers with at least 60 innings pitched last year. 

Sergio Romo, dominant in his big league debut last fall, has been hampered by arm troubles and has yet to pitch this spring.  He will open the year on the DL.  With the trade of Jack Taschner to Philadelphia, lefty Alex Hinshaw is likely to make the roster, unless the club decides to go with only one lefty or signs free agent Wil Ohman.   Non-roster invites Brandon Medders and Justin Miller haven't allowed a run in almost 20 combined innings this spring and are in the mix, along with Merkin Valdez; Osiris Matos; and rule V draftee Luis Perdomo, for the final spots. 

Outlook for the Season

The Giants are relying too much on a pitching staff that is overrated.  They couldn't score many runs last year and even if Pablo Sandoval is the real deal, they still won't score very many more this year.  The good news is that they won't be as bad as Keith Glab thinks they'll be.  The bad news is that Willie Mays Field will once again be quiet come October.  Expect around 75-80 wins and a middle-of-the-road third place finish for the boys in orange and black.


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