The 2009 Giants probably surprised a few people when they finished the year at 88 wins vs. 74 loses. Their winning percentage of .543 marked the first time since 2004 that the Giants posted a better than .500 winning percentage. The years from 2005-2008 were dark times. Over that span, the Giants posted winning percentages of .463, .472, .438, and .444. As Barry Bonds (and his incredible offensive skill-set) left the team after ’07, the Giants appeared to be adrift in a sea of mediocrity. They had some core pieces that you could build around in Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, but the team was still spending high dollars on free agent investments without seeing much in return (see: Zito, Barry and Rowand, Aaron).
Yet, the ’09 team found itself with 88 wins when the year ended. Backed by another Cy Young year from Lincecum, great pitching from Matt Cain, and the emergence of Pablo Sandoval — the team flirted with the playoffs for much of the year before fizzling out in the final 1.5 months of the season. Ultimately, the Giants finished 3rd in the NL West and missed the wild card.
What does the 2010 team bring? What will their strengths be? Their weaknesses? And most importantly, can they improve on their 88 win season of ’09? That brings us to today’s 2010 team preview.
C: Bengie Molina
1B: Aubrey Huff
2B: Juan Uribe
SS: Edgar Renteria
3B: Pablo Sandoval
LF: Mark DeRosa
CF: Aaron Rowand
RF: Nate Schierholtz
Bench: (C) Eli Whiteside, (OF) John Bowker, (OF) Andres Torress, (OF) Fred Lewis (??) Eugenio Velez, (1B) Travis Ishikawa
The good news first: Pablo Sandoval appears to be a really good hitter. He makes contact with anything and he started taking walks as the year progressed. His first full-season OPS+ of 142 ranks him among guys like Will Clark, Orlando Cepeda, Jim Ray Hart, and Bobby Bonds for the best start to a player’s career with the Giants. And he’ll only be 23-years-old next season.
The bad news: He’s surrounded by a bunch of players that, at best, are league average hitters. At worst, they’ll play a few notches below league average. The Giants truly lack another impact bat of Sandoval’s pedigree on the major league roster. Mark DeRosa, a free agent addition, has made a career out of being flexible on the diamond — but he’s not going to hit much more than Fred Lewis and he’s coming off a wrist injury. Juan Uribe finally reversed some of his bad BABIP luck in ’09 (posting a .325 BABIP after a .264 in ’05, a .240 in ’06, a .259 in ’07, and a .287 in ’08) and was a bargain for the Giants. He’ll fill in at 2B to start the season and maybe longer as Freddy Sanchez works his way back from 2 offseason surgeries. Aaron Rowand’s first two seasons with SF couldn’t have been more similar — .325/.323 wOBA scores. The Giants’ strategy to try and rest him more in ’09 didn’t pay off as he was the same player on offense — though his defense did rebound some.
The Giants chose to bring back Bengie Molina instead of turning the reigns over to top prospect, Buster Posey. Of all the moves the Giants made this offseason, bringing back Molina over Posey has the greatest chance to come back and bite them later in the year. Buster Posey may have been the clearest route for an upgrade on the current roster and the Giants chose not to take it. Despite RBI totals, Molina is a poor, aging hitter without any sort of plate discipline. When you account for his baserunning and defense, he’s more likely to be a 1-1.5 win player than a league average 2 win player. After missing out on Nick Johnson and Adam LaRoche, the Giants chose to go with Aubrey Huff to fill 1B. Huff, who had a dreadful year in the AL — hitting only a .297 wOBA — has a chance to be a league average hitter but he carries a lot of risk, too. He’ll enter the year at 33-years-old and sometimes guys in their early-to-mid 30′s don’t bounce back. With Huff, it’s a possibility.
Which brings me to my next point: the Giants got old, pretty quickly. Huff (33), Molina (35), Uribe (30), Rowand (32), Renteria (33), and DeRosa (35) are all 30-years-old or greater. Only Sandoval and Schierholtz are under 30 among the projected starters.
Defensively, the Giants appear to be a mixed group. A major strength of last year’s team was defense. By UZR, the team was ranked 4th in baseball. Only the Mariners, Rays, and Reds fielded better defensive squads. In an effort to add offense, the Giants have sacrificed portions of their defense. Most notably, the infield looks to be weak. Sandoval is an amazing athlete for his size, but he still plays 3B like a guy that’s 250-270lbs, that is to say, below average. Renteria has been holding steady as an average defender at SS, but he’s getting older and coming off an injury. Uribe, at 2B, is probably the best defender in the infield. I’m not sure it that says something or not. Huff is major downgrade at 1B compared to Ishikawa. Molina’s defense behind the plate has come into question and he only threw out 23% of base-stealers in ’09. The OF should remain somewhat the same, if not a little worse. Depending on how much you think Mark DeRosa’s UZR ratings are legit in the OF, he might not be that big of a downgrade from Fred Lewis in LF. Rowand needs to hold steady as an average defender in CF. Nate won’t be able to fill the defensive shoes of Randy Winn, maybe the best right fielder in baseball, but he’s looked good during his brief run in RF.
SP: Tim Lincecum
SP: Matt Cain
SP: Barry Zito
SP: Jonathan Sanchez
SP: Todd Wellemeyer
Other SP: Madison Bumgarner, Kevin Pucetas, Joe Martinez, and Henry Sosa
I’m not sure what else can you say about Tim Lincecum. He’s composed of 100% awesomeness. He’s won back-to-back Cy Young Awards and has been one the best pitchers in baseball over the two years. He strikes out a ton of hitters and his control has improved each year. He’s developed a filthy changeup which has been one of the best, if not the best, pitches in baseball. There’s been a little concern over his drop in velocity but from his peripheral stats, you would never know it. He’s one of the few 7-8 win players in baseball and as long as he’s healthy and starting every 5th day, the Giants have to like their chances.
Matt Cain has been labeled the sturdy workhorse of the rotation, but Cain brings more than just innings to the team. He’s been worth 3-4 wins per season since 2006. His ERA of 2.89 last year is a little deceiving. Cain pitched well, but his LOB% and BABIP numbers should make us expect some regression back to his career numbers. Still, Cain and Lincecum could provide up to 12 wins above replacement between them for the Giants. Think about that for a second. If you placed Lincecum on Cain on the theoretical replacement level team that would win around 50 games over a full season, just the two of them would kick the team up to 62 wins or so. That’s pretty amazing, and for the Giants, they need to every bit of Cain and Lincecum. If either player misses significant time, this team is in trouble.
Barry Zito. Grossly overpaid. League average. That’s all you really need to know about Zito. Yes, he’s making more money than he’s worth, but he actually had a bounce-back season in ’09. After a plain awful season in ’08 in which he was worth 1.4 wins, Zito responded in ’09 and had his finest season with the Giants at 2.2 wins. What changed with Zito? He wasn’t walking 5+ hitters per 9 like ’08, he struck out more than the previous year, and doubled the usage of his slider — going from 9.8% in ’08 to 18.6% in ’09. The Giants would be thrilled with another 2 win season from Zito.
Jonathan Sanchez gained national exposure when he no-hit the Padres, but he’s always flashed periods of brilliance with the Giants. The skinny lefty has never had a problem missing bats — career K/9 of 9.34 — but his control has always worked against him — career BB/9 of 4.66. The Giants seem to be counting more on Sanchez this year and they might even give him a little more rope if he struggles. He doesn’t have to turn into Greg Maddux, but if he can get his walks down to the mid-4′s, the Giants should count it as a major victory.
Todd Wellemeyer is your traditional 5th starter, not very good. Under the tutelage of Dave Duncan, Wellemyer had a fantastic ’08 with the Cards but struggled in ’09. He’s never been a strike-thrower and his improvement in control in his breakout ’08 looks more fluke-ish than anything else. The Giants will need Wellemeyer to absorb 100 innings of not-so-awful baseball until Bumgarner can figure out his velocity problems and work on his secondary pitches. If Wellemeyer explodes before Bumgarner is deemed ready, look for Pucetas or Martinez to step in and grab a few starts.
The darkhorse of the rotation is none other than 20-year-old Madison Bumgarner. His story is well known: flame-throwing prospect demolishes the minor leagues but loses fastball velocity somewhere along the way. K-rate drops and he hits a couple of bumps along the development path. After throwing in low-mid 90′s as a prospect, Bumgarner was tossing 88′s in the majors when he made his MLB debut. If he can regain his lost velocity and work on another offering besides his fastball, the Giants should call him up. If he doesn’t, he’ll remain in AAA for most of the year.
Unlike the offense, the Giants have an actual strength in their rotation. As a team, they most likely won’t be able to replicate last year’s results — the best total team pitching from the Giants in some 50-years — but even with some regression they should remain above-average.
Other RP: Alex Hinshaw, Denny Bautista, Osiris Matos, Dan Turpen, Santiago Casilla
The Giants’ bullpen remains largely unchanged from last year’s version. Brian Wilson made major strides and became one of the best closers in the game. For his efforts he was rewarded with a new extension through 2012. Much like Wilson, the Giants also spent money of Affeldt, extending him to 2012 if the team picks up his option. Sergio Romo has been very good since he started pitching for the Giants — career FIP of 2.72 in 68 IP — but he carries some injury concerns. New guys Joaquin and Runzler can both run their heat into the mid-upper 90′s. Runzler has had control issues in his minor league career, but he was notable for climbing the farm system ladder so quickly last year. Including the majors, he pitched across 5 levels of baseball. Brandon Medders should pick-up mop-up duties and Guillermo Mota will pitch his first season with the Giants after playing for the Expos, Dodgers, Brewers, Marlins and Mets. He had a pretty good run from 03-04 but he’s more or a replacement level guy these days.
The 2010 Giants team might seem like déjà vu at first glance and the similarities are striking. Below average offense, above average rotation, and the makings of a solid bullpen. When I compare the two teams, my biggest concern between the two are defense and injuries. The defense looks to have taken a step backward this year and with the Giants’ reliance on pitching, it could come back and really hurt the team. The outfield should hold steady as average or even slightly above, but the infield looks swiss cheese-y. If a team hits the ball on the ground, this ’10 Giants squad might have a problem converting outs.
My other concern is injuries — or maybe more appropriate, the Giants depth and ability to compensate for injuries. Talent-wise, the Giants team is top-heavy between Lincecum, Cain, and Sandoval. 2 of the 3 best players on the Giants are pitchers, pitchers get hurt more than position players, enter my fear. Right now, the Giants are a probably around a 83 win (give or take) team. If 1 of the 3 of LCS trio miss time, the Giants can kiss their season goodbye. Linecum’s back causes him to miss 4-5 starts? Done. Sandoval pulls a hamstring while tumbling around 3rd base and misses 15 games? Done. Matt Cain pulls an oblique and misses 1 month of time? Done. The way the current team is composed, the Giants lack the depth to replace the respective wins lost if any of their majors pieces go down. You can say that about many teams, but the Giants appear more heavily concentrated than most. If DeRosa goes down, you can play Fred Lewis in LF and not lose anything. If Schierholtz gets hurt you can play Bowker in RF and they should be similar. But among the Giants “Big Three”, they just can’t replace that kind of talent.
In short, expect another year of below average offense coupled with good pitching. If a few things break the Giants way, they could compete for a playoff spot, but I’d rank at least 2 teams in the NL West ahead of them right now. Miracles can happen in baseball, let’s hope the Giants’ pitching doesn’t miss a step and everyone is healthy.