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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What to do about the Giants?

I spent the last week in the Bay Area, during which I spoke at length with several friends about the prospects of their hometown team, the Giants, often while watching said team lose in tragic fashion to the rival Rockies. The humiliation of the Giants in Colorado may have effected the tenor of these conversations, however, in general I was deeply surprised at how cynical San Francisco fans (not generally know for their hang-dog, sourpuss attitudes) were about a team which is still right in the thick of the Wild Card race.

I had high hopes for the Giants going into the season. While many pundits predicted they might challenge San Diego for last place in the NL West, I chose to optimistically conclude that their incredibly talented rotation might make them dangerous, perhaps even a darkhorse contender. Last winter I offered encouragement to these same Giants fans, who were skeptical of the signings of Edgar Renteria and Randy Johnson, predicting that Sabean still had an Ace up his sleeve. Or, more accurately, a Slugger. I fully expected that in March he might announce the signing of an Adam Dunn or a Bobby Abreu, or perhaps their would be a midseason trade for Matt Holliday, Alex Rios, or Prince Fielder. Much to my surprise, while the Giants did succeed in becoming a borderline contender, so such addition was made. Instead, Sabean chose to bolster his offense with two more bit players, Freddy Sanchez and Ryan Garko. This had to be, and was, something of a disappointment for San Francisco fans. And so, with this column, I attempt to ask what is the true state of baseball in the Bay. Should one plead, as I have throughout the week, that they have every reason to keep the faith?

Our story begins with Brian Sabean. Giants fans have grown leery of their longtime general manager, whose contract expires at the end of this season, but who has an option that seems likely to get picked up.

Sabean has a pretty impressive resume overall. During his twelve-year tenure (not counting 2009), the Giants have made four postseason appearances and had eight winning seasons. He was at the helm when the Giants came within eight outs of a World Championship in 2002.

Early in his time with the Giants, Sabean developed a reputation for trades that were more like heists. During his first season he traded the popular, though aging Matt Williams for a package that included future MVP Jeff Kent, as well as Julian Tavarez and Jose Vizcaino, both of whom became useful major leaguers. In 2001, he acquired Jason Schmidt just before he emerged as a Cy Young candidate for the sum total of Armando Rios and Ryan Vogelsong. And in 2003 he picked up Kenny Lofton, a key figure in the Giants stretch run and postseason, for two pitchers who never made it to the major leagues.

In recent years, however, Sabean's reputation has been marred by some questionable trades (most famously his relinquishment of Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano, and Boof Bonser for one year of A. J. Pierzynski) and even more questionable free agent signings. The seven-year, $126 Million contract awarded to Barry Zito may prove to be his albatross, but of course $60 Million for five years of Aaron Rowand, $25 Million for three years of Randy Winn, and $20 Million for two years of an elderly Edgar Renteria are signing which haven't helped his cause.

And, of course, as more fissures have been exposed in the government's legal case (which was quite clearly fueled by the grandstanding of a single federal agent) and more conspicuous evidence of collusion surfaces everyday (despite Bud Selig's "he doth protest too much" protests) many Giants fans are wondering how much better the 2009 lineup would be if Barry Bonds was in it. After all, although he wouldn't be able to play everyday and might be limited on defense, Bonds did express willingness to play for the league minimum. It seems safe to imagine that the all-time home run leader at $500,000 salary, regardless of his age and limitations, would probably have earned his keep. And several time a week he would undoubtedly be a better clean-up hitter than Bengie Molina or Nate Schierholtz.

In this instance Sabean found himself between a rock and a hard place of his own making. Bonds, despite his reputation elsewhere, remains a hero in San Francisco. He was the Giants meal ticket for over a decade, almost single-handedly justifying the privately-funded AT&T Park. The thought of him playing elsewhere or fading into oblivion is difficult for some Giants fans to bear (not to mention some baseball fans, myself included).

However, during the early part of this decade, Sabean oversaw the building of a team that was among the most "grizzled" ever assembled. In Bonds final season, 2007, the Giants featured no less than seven "everyday" players aged 35 or older. Faced with three consecutive losing seasons, it was inevitable that the Giants would feel the need to get younger, even if that meant parting ways with the two primary faces of the franchise, Bonds and Omar Vizquel.

Sabean has been faced over the last two years with the challenge of replacing baseball's main attraction without exposing himself as the architect of entertaining, but inevitably flawed, one-dimensional franchises. Certainly, he could probably have used his stockpile of young pitching to acquire another premier left-handed slugger. Perhaps a Prince Fielder or a Ryan Howard. Instead, perhaps inspired by crosstown rival, Billy Beane, he has held on tight to his pitching prospects and relied on offensive stopgaps, while attempting to groom his own titans in the form of Sandoval, Angel Villalona, and Buster Posey.

The Giants pitching staff currently leads MLB in strikeouts, complete games, and ERA, while their offense is 26th in runs, 29th in homers, and 28th in OPS. Bengie Molina, who hits in the heart of the order, sports an embarrassing 641 OPS over his last 300 plate appearances. The Giants have surrendered 44.5% of their total at-bats to the sextet of Molina, Renteria, Randy Winn, Juan Uribe, Rich Aurilia, and Emmanuel Burriss, none of whom has posted an OPS within twenty points of the league average.

Obviously, I could go on demonstrating the Giants offensive insufficiencies for pages and pages, but I think it is simple enough to conclude that Sabean's "good pitch, no hit" philosophy is not going to bring a championship or even probably a playoff berth in 2008. But, after four straight losing seasons, 85+ wins (they are currently on pace for 87) would represent a significant step in the right direction. To achieve a winning record with so poor an offensive performance suggests that San Francisco is not too far removed from fielding a contender...if they play their cards right.

Which brings us to the good news. After years of relying on players on the verge of retirement, the Giants have gotten younger very quickly. Bengie Molina and Randy Winn, both of whom have expiring contracts, are the only regulars over 35, and they are both just 35. Perhaps more importantly, the three players which are the keys to the Giants future success - Pablo Sandoval, Tim Lincecum, and Matt Cain - are all 25 or younger. They have been joined this season by some promising role players also in their twenties, guys like Brian Wilson, Jonathan Sanchez, Eugenio Velez, and Nate Schierholtz. All of these guys are signed through at least 2011 and some well beyond that (Sandoval won't be eligible for free agency until 2015).

When they parted ways with Bonds (as well as Pedro Feliz) after 2007, the Giants had gaping holes in left field, center field, first base, second base, and third base, with shortstop destined to become an issue as well after Vizquel's impending departure.

They have successfully filled at least three of those positions for years to come. Rowand, though overpaid and unspectacular, is a satisfactory center-fielder and a valuable hitter so long as he isn't expected to bat in the middle of the lineup. Freddy Sanchez is a solid-average defensive second baseman who brings excellent bat control to the top of the lineup and, if he enjoys his time in San Francisco, will probably come cheap in free agency after 2010, because he has neither impressive power nor impressive speed. Sandoval is a potential megastar, though the Giants must decide whether to accept his mediocre defense at third base or transfer him to first, a decision not unlike what the Tigers faced with Miguel Cabrera in early 2008.

And, they have more help coming. Eugenio Velez has hit .300 since his promotion in late July. He promises into a legitimate everyday player, potentially in a Mark DeRosa-esque utility role, although he is currently a butcher pretty much wherever he plays. Buster Posey is the Giants future catcher. He has raced through the minors over the last two seasons and is currently posting a 923 OPS at AAA. Expect his arrival very, very soon. Angel Villalona and Conor Gillaspie remain a long way off.

There is also no reason the expect that the rotation won't continue to be dominant. Zito is having his best year since joining the team. Lincecum and Cain are the most lethal 1-2 in all of baseball. Jonathan Sanchez is still a work in progress, but may have the best stuff of any #4 starter in baseball. And next spring, the Giants will have the luxury of auditioning half a dozen promising prospects for the #5 slot. At the moment, one would assume Madison Bumgarner has the inside track, but Henry Sosa and Kevin Pucetas have also dominated the minor leagues.

So, if the Giants want to be serious contenders in 2010 all they really need is a corner infielder and a corner outfielder. It would be a serious bonus if each of them could be counted on for at least 20 HR. Conveniently, San Francisco will presumably have $27 Million coming off the books this winter when they part ways with Molina, Winn, Aurilia, Uribe, and Randy Johnson.

Before my San Francisco friends got too excited about signing a Mark Teixeira-like savior, I had to caution them, the 2010 class is not especially deep. The highlights are Matt Holliday and Jason Bay. In both cases, there is a very hight chance they will re-sign with their current teams.

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