There's no secret to why the San Francisco Giants won 88 games in 2009, sixteen more than they had the previous season. Quite simply, it was the pitching. Led by back-to-back Cy Young award winner Tim Lincecum, the Giants staff led the major leagues in complete games (11), shutouts (18), and strikeouts (1,302), plus ranked second in ERA (3.55) behind only the L.A. Dodgers.
Their offense, on the other hand, plated only 17 more runners in '09 than they did in '08 (when they scored the second fewest runs in the majors) and recorded the lowest on-base percentage (.309) and team OPS (.699) in the big leagues. Among all 30 MLB teams, only the New York Mets, hit fewer home runs than San Francisco last year and only two teams, the Padres and Pirates, tallied fewer total bases. Additionally, Giants hitters drew just 392 walks for the year, or less than 2.5 per game. That's almost 30 fewer than the Mariners, who drew the second fewest, and nearly 300 fewer than the total the Yankees tallied to lead the majors with.
|2009 Standings - NL West|
I think it can be stated with clarity that the inept Giants' offense kept the team out of the playoffs in 2009, and the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. When scoring three or fewer runs last season, the Giants had a miserable record of 22-59, but when they scored four or more, they were 66-15. That's a .815 winning percentage when scoring four or more runs for a team that scored three runs or fewer 81 times. It was a lineup that simply lacked the necessary firepower to win a shootout, as evidenced by their dreadful 7-44 record when allowing five or more runs (when allowing three runs or fewer, on the other hand, they went 69-18). With merely an average offense, the Giants might have made it to the postseason in '09.
With all that in mind, GM Brian Sabean went into the off-season looking to add some much needed pop to an otherwise punchless lineup. To that end, he added free-agents Aubrey Huff (1-year, $3M) and Mark DeRosa (2-years, $12M). Not exactly the kind of thump Giants fans were hoping for, but it might be enough to help get them six or seven more wins and put them squarely into playoff contention.
|C||B Molina||B Molina|
Huff, 33, is a .282 career hitter who hit 32 home runs and drove in 108 for Baltimore as recently as 2008. He's coming off a down season split between the O's and the Tigers in which he hit just 15 home runs and slugged only .384, however. In 40 games after being acquired by Detroit, he batted just .189, and in nearly 600 total plate appearances, he reached base at a measly .310 clip.
Huff also has a reputation as a lackluster defensive player and, in fact, he has played the role of designated hitter 220 times over the past three years. While he holds the title of Giants starting first baseman, his deficient glovework highlights the importance of keeping Travis Ishikawa for late-inning defensive purposes. It's possible that Huff could also see time in right field.
DeRosa belted a career high 23 home runs with Cleveland and St. Louis last year after hitting 21 the year before with the Cubs, but batted just .250 for the season with a .319 on-base percentage. He's also 35-years old and underwent off-season wrist surgery. Nevertheless, the versatile DeRosa is slated to be the club's opening day left fielder and will likely see time all around the infield as well.
Sabean was also able to retain Bengie Molina long after it had become a foregone conclusion that the free-agent catcher would end up in New York. The team and Molina appeared set to part ways, with Sabean declaring in December, "that ship has sailed." But when Molina spurned the Mets in late January after they refused to offer him a guaranteed second year, the Giants quickly re-thought their position and Molina returned on a one-year deal for less money ($4.5M) than the Mets had offered.
For his part, Molina, 35, stated that he would be more comfortable in San Francisco and felt that the Giants were closer to winning. For the Giants' part, dissatisfied with the cost and quality of the remaining free agent options, Molina provided the club with stability for the pitching staff and punch from behind the dish while allowing super prospect Buster Posey more time to hone his defensive game in a less pressurized atmosphere. Molina hit a career-best 20 home runs and drove in 80 for the Giants last season while spending much of his time in the cleanup spot. With Huff set to take over that role, Molina can move down in the lineup and provide some punch where his blazing (lack of) speed and fugly on-base percentage won't hurt the club as much.
Another key part of the Giants' masterplan involves receiving the services of second baseman Freddy "Fragile" Sanchez for most of the season. Sanchez, 32, who was re-signed in the off-season to a "reduced rate" two-year deal worth $12 million, played in only 25 games, and had two stints on the disabled list after he was acquired from the Pirates in late July. Ominously, Sanchez will begin the 2010 season on the disabled list again after undergoing shoulder surgery in the off-season. The club hopes that, when healthy, the former batting champion and career .299 hitter can plug the two-hole in the Giants lineup and consistently set the table for their number three hitter, third baseman Pablo Sandoval.
Its frightening to think how bad the Giants offense might have been in 2009 without the free-swinging Kung Fu Panda. After exceeding Rookie of the Year qualifications by just five plate appearances in '08 (while putting up a .345/.357/.490 batting line), Sandoval hit .330 in 2009 to finish runner up to Hanley Ramirez for the batting crown while leading the club in doubles (44), home runs (25), RBI (90), on-base percentage (.387), slugging (.556), OPS (.943), and OPS+ (142). He also finished seventh in NL MVP voting. Listed at 5-foot-11, 245 pounds (but likely closer to 260), the 23-year old with an infectious enthusiasm for the game can, and usually does, hit just about any pitch thrown in just about any place, but he impressed me most last season by actually increasing his walk rate as the season went along.
As with Sandoval last year, the greatest addition to the Giants' 2010 lineup could very well come from within the organization. The fifth overall pick in the 2008 draft, Buster Posey seemed ticketed to start this season in Triple-A Fresno after the club re-signed Molina, but now it isn't so clear. The Giants' best hitting prospect since Will "The Thrill" Clark turned heads with a tremendous spring with at the plate (.321/.357/.453) and displayed his versatility by adequately filling in at first base.
While Posey would surely benefit from the day-to-day mentoring he would receive in San Francisco from the veteran Molina, his defensive game will surely profit more from the type of daily tutoring he'll receive from fast-rising Grizzlies manager Steve Decker, himself a former Giants catcher (and future Giants manager?). And lets not kid ourselves here; the Giants also realize that by keeping him in Triple-A until May 20 or later, they will delay free agency for Posey until after the 2016 season (and personally, I'm okay with that).
Three of the biggest questions still facing the Giants offense coming into camp were, in no particular order, who will man the leadoff spot in the batting order, who will play right field, and how detrimental will past-his-prime shortstop Edgar Renteria be both in the field and at the plate?
To the first, the answer, at least for now, seems to be centerfielder Aaron Rowand, who handled the role capably in 49 starts last year, batting .294/.341/.468. While not exactly your prototypical leadoff hitter, Rowand, 32, reported to camp ten pounds lighter than last spring, the result of biking over 2,200 miles this winter through Nevada's Red Rock country. After admittedly underperforming in the first two years of his 5-year, $60 million contract, he appears determined to atone and optimistically he punished pitchers in Cactus League play to the tune of a .479/.544/.708 batting line.
As to the question of right field, Nate Schierholtz, 26, entered camp with the job his to lose. After a poor showing this spring, coupled with a hard-to-ignore camp from John Bowker, he may have done just that. Nate's spring line of .241/.290/.483 impressed no one, while Bowker ended Cactus League play with a .304/.372/.609 line along with five home runs and 20 RBI. Schierholtz, though, has a decided edge defensively. Bowker, also 26, may be better suited to play left field where DeRosa is the starter, but the club could sorely use the power potential that Bowker has at times flashed and they have the versatility to make the switch work.
Sadly, the Giants will continue to suffer from Sabean's ill-conceived and rash decision last winter to offer the aging Renteria $18 million for two seasons. The 33-year old, two-time Gold Glove winner continued his slide into a defensive abyss in '09, posting a plus/minus rating of -10, while also floundering at the plate for a second consecutive season, recording the second lowest OPS (.635) of any qualifying shortstop in the majors (Yuniesky Betancourt - .625).
|Giants Team Capsule|
April 3, 2010 - Pobrecito After Pablo - After Pablo Sandoval, only one Giants player had an OBP over .330 last year and only one had an SLG over .445, among qualifiers. As troubling as that is, the worse news is that those two players - Fred Lewis and Juan Uribe - are not expected to be starters for the majority of the 2010 season. Among new starters Freddy Sanchez, Mark DeRosa, and Aubrey Huff, none of them eclipsed either the .330 OBP or .445 SLG marks in 2009. ---KG
|SP||J Sanchez||J Sanchez|
|CL||B Wilson||B Wilson|
Even with those two, one of the biggest keys to the Giants' season may be how the chronically inconsistent Jonathan Sanchez fares after finishing off the 2009 season on a high note. The 27-year old left-hander was relegated to the bullpen in late June with a 5.54 ERA, but an injury to Johnson opened the door for Sanchez to return to the rotation and throw the first no-hitter by a Giant pitcher since 1976. Including the no-no, Sanchez made 16 starts after returning from the pen and registered a 3.46 ERA while holding opposing hitters to a .189 batting average.
Outrageously overpaid left-hander Barry Zito and Todd Wellemeyer, imported from St. Louis via free agency, round out the rotation. Viewed optimistically, the 31-year-old Zito had the best of his three seasons as a Giant in '09, while Wellemeyer, also 31, made 53 starts the past two seasons for the Cardinals and posted a 3.71 ERA in almost 200 innings or work in 2008.
Twenty-year old lefty Madison Bumgarner, the Giants' top pick in the 2007 draft, was the favored contender for the fifth spot in the rotation at the outset of camp, but he issued 7 walks in 7 innings while posting a 6.43 spring ERA to finish third in the competition behind strong performances by both Wellemeyer and 25-year old rookie Kevin Pucetas.
Furthermore, Bumgarner failed to strike out a single one of the 35 batters he faced and, thus far, has apparently failed to recover the velocity that he mysteriously lost somewhere in the middle of the '09 season. He'll begin the year in Fresno's rotation, but unless he regains some of the oomph on his otherwise electric fastball, I fear the unexceptional quality of his secondary pitches may doom him to a less inspiring career as a lefty specialist.
The job of setting him up falls chiefly to left-hander Jeremy Affeldt, who was among the best in the game last year, posting a 1.73 ERA and allowing only 42 hits in his 74 appearances.
The Final Word
With the quality of the Giants' pitching, it's not out of the question to imagine the Giants winning the National League West in 2010, but it'll take everything falling neatly into place for that to happen.
They'll need their pitching to be as good as expected. They'll need free agents Huff and DeRosa to show they have something left in the tank and they'll need at least modest production from whoever is in right field. They'll need Fragile Sanchez to remain both healthy and productive, and they're gonna need Renteria to rejuvenate his spiraling career. They'll also need more of what they've come to expect from the Kung Fu Panda and sooner or later they're going to have to find a way to get Buster Posey's bat into the lineup.
The D-Backs (no pitching) and Padres (no money) are also-rans right out of the gate this season, while the Dodgers' behind-the-scenes marital spat may have left them unable to re-arm themselves adequately. The youthful Rockies ought to provide some stiff competition, but with the quality of pitching the Giants have, if they can improve their offensive production to merely league average they could possibly make it to October.
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