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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Offseason Prospectus #7: The San Francisco Giants

The Giants had not achieved more than 75 wins since 2004, which was, coincidently, the last time Barry Bonds won the MVP. So, despite a third-place finish, notching 88 wins has to be considered a major step forward for the franchise, and, whether you like it or not, it probably means both Brian Sabean and Bruce Bochy will be around at least until their contracts expire at the end of the 2011 season. I've voiced me skepticism about Sabean in the past (here and here, most notably) and there is no denying he handed out three of the worst contracts in the game (to Barry Zito, Aaron Rowand, and Edgar Renteria), but San Francisco's drafting and development have improved by leaps and bounds in the last couple seasons, so there is reason to be positive about his administration as well.

The question about the 2010 Giants is whether they can make the small step forward which would probably result in a playoff bid, or whether they will suffer the backslide which so often follows a surprising sixteen-win swing like this one (see '07 Tigers, '08 Rockies, '09 Rays, etc., etc.). Although it would undoubtedly stick in the craw of Giants fans to see their team stand pat again this offseason, when there offensive liabilities are so evident, I will argue that is exactly the right course of action for the long term viability of the franchise. They cannot afford to be saddled by another contractual albatross, and the impact free agents this offseason (Holliday, Bay, Lackey, etc.) have the potential to become exactly that. If Sabean and Peter Magowan are preparing to make another nine-figure investment, it would be better to wait until next winter and commit that money to Carl Crawford, Jose Reyes, or Roy Halladay. Or, they could try to get Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, and Pablo Sandoval under contract for many years to come. Or, they might consider testing the availability of guys like Crawford, Halladay, Miguel Cabrera, and Prince Fielder come June or July. The fact of the matter is, the Giants have several decisions to make before they can even accurately assess their most dire needs.

Free Agents:

Bobby Howry (36) RHRP
Randy Johnson (46) LHSP
Bengie Molina (35) C
Brad Penny (32) RHSP
Juan Uribe (30) IF
Randy Winn (36) OF

Arbitration Eligible:

Ryan Garko (29) 1B
Tim Lincecum (26) RHSP
Brandon Medders (30) RHRP
Jonathan Sanchez (27) LHSP
Brian Wilson (28) RHRP

ETA 2010?:

Madison Bumgarner (20) LHSP
Matt Downs (26) 2B/3B/OF
Jesus Guzman (26) 1B/3B
Waldis Joaquin (23) RHRP
Brett Pill (25) 1B
Buster Posey (23) C
Kevin Pucetas (25) RHSP
Ryan Rohlinger (26) 3B
Dan Runzler (25) LHRP
Henry Sosa (24) RHSP

Obviously, the Giants will again lean heavily on their pitching staff, led by Lincecum and Cain. Atlanta and St. Louis also had excellent rotations in 2009, but San Francisco led the NL in strikeouts, WHIP, complete games, opponent's average and OPS. There is no reason to believe the Giants will be any worse in 2010. Barry Zito (32) is the only member of the rotation older than 27 and Jeremy Affeldt (31) is the only pitcher in bullpen over thirty. Moreover, and this is where Sabean deserves a great deal of commendation, there is more homegrown talent on the way. Madison Bumgarner, though only twenty, will almost certainly join the rotation this spring. He has very little to prove in the minors after his most recent campaign:

Bumgarner (A/AA) 12-2, 1.85 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 92/34 K/BB, 131 IP

Kevin Pucetas took a step backward at AAA in '09, but he and Henry Sosa are also top prospects who could join the rotation later this season, if necessary. Their presence make Randy Johnson and Brad Penny expendable, although Sabean may disagree. Similarly, the Giants should be able to quickly compensate for the loss of Bobby Howry by promoting Waldis Joaquin and Dan Runzler, and giving more innings to Sergio Romo and Joe Martinez. Both in the rotation and the bullpen, the Giants staff is not only dominant, but deep as well.

Unfortunately, quite the opposite is true of the everyday lineup. If we took San Francisco's current starting eight down Highway 1 and gave them to Joe Torre and the Dodgers, Pablo Sandoval and Freddy Sanchez would be the only guys with starting positions. And, again, unlike the pitching staff, there aren't many reinforcements on the way. The Giants best positions prospects, guys like Angel Villalona, Conor Gillaspie, and Darren Ford, won't be ready for the big leagues until 2012 at the earliest. What they have an abundance of in the high minors are players who look destined for AAAA or limited major-league roles; outfielders like Nate Schierholtz, John Bowker, Joe Borchard, Andres Torres, and Fred Lewis; and infielders like Emmanuel Burriss, Kevin Frandsen, Ryan Garko, and Travis Ishikawa.

The same may also be true of Brett Pill, Matt Downs, Ryan Rohlinger, and Jesus Guzman, rookies who will all fight for at-bats at third, first, and probably in the outfield as well, during Spring Training and the early months of 2010. This is one of the reasons I urge the Giants to be cautious on the free agent market this offseason. While none of these players appear to possess the talent to provide serious protection for Sandoval, a couple of them (the best bets are probably Guzman, Downs, and Eugenio Velez) could develop into legitimate starters. Bochy is going to have a major challenge finding enough opportunities for all his youngsters to show what they are capable of, but until he does so, it will be difficult for the Giants front office to identify their most pressing need. Certainly, they need a power-hitter to plug in behind Sandoval in the middle of lineup, but whether it would be better for that slugger to play first base, third base, or outfield, remains to be seen.

To that effect, San Francisco needs to decide relatively soon whether they are going to continue to use Kung Fu Panda at the hot corner, or give in to the fact that his weight makes him more logically suited for first base. I can understand their reluctance. Sandoval has been passable on defense thusfar (-2.3 UZR) and it is easier to find a free agent slugger at first than at third, but in '09 he hit .320 with a 921 OPS when playing third and .385 with a 1071 OPS in his more limited appearances at first, suggesting that the Panda's production might benefit slightly from an alleviation of defensive anxiety. Clearly, fans pay to see Sandoval hit, so maybe it's best to let him concentrate on that. I expect he will continue to bounce back and forth in '10 as Bochy finds at-bats opposite him for Guzman, Downs, Ishikawa, Frandsen, Garko, etc., but by '11 he should be settled at a permanent position, to which he can give his full attention (as an analogy, Albert Pujols benefitted both offensively and defensively when the Cardinals finally settled him at first base after several seasons of bouncing between first, third, and left field).
Sabean faces another difficult decision this offseason with his backstops. Bengie Molina became one of the most popular players in San Francisco during the last three seasons, and one can argue that he has been a significant part of the pitching staff's success. However, he has also become a serious offensive liability, netting an atrocious .285 OBP (!) in '09. One could argue that he might improve if he were able to hit lower in the order, in less pressure situations, but regardless of batting position, he doesn't have nearly the upside of Buster Posey, the 2008 first-rounder who pounded his way through the minor leagues in just over a year. So, there are, in fact, two catching questions:

1.) Can a 23-year-old, regardless of his reported maturity, handle catching the nastiest pitching staff in the game on a nightly basis?

2.) Can Bengie Molina handle a backup role, or even a 50/50 timeshare, after three seasons of starting 120+ games?

If the Giants decide the answer to the first question is yes, but the answer to the second question is no (and those, I believe, are the right answers), than they will be in the market for a veteran backstop who had adjusted to limited playing time, but who has wisdom to impart to the rookie. Jose Molina would be the obvious choice, but he will likely return to the Bronx and may be reluctant to follow in his brother's footsteps. Other decent options could be Jason Kendall, Miguel Olivo, Gregg Zaun, Brad Ausmus, or Ivan Rodriguez.

Finally, the Giants need to decide what they expect out of Aaron Rowand. He got off to a solid start last season, but faded fast, from July 5th forward he managed only a 594 OPS. The Giants again bounced him around the order, even experimenting, relatively successfully, with using him as a leadoff hitter. Rowand's offensive woes aren't the only problem. His range in center appears to be declining as well. For a team which depends heavily on its outfield defense in the spacious confines of AT&T Park, it may be wise to consider moving Rowand to right field, although as a corner outfielder, his poor hitting becomes even more auspicious.

The Giants should again exhibit many reasons for optimism in 2010, but San Francisco may need to be patient for yet another year before they can anticipate a serious contender.

Here is my projected 2010 Opening Day Roster (Revised 1/1):

CF Aaron Rowand (R)
2B Freddy Sanchez (R)
1B Pablo Sandoval (S)
3B Mark DeRosa (R)
LF Eugenio Velez (S)
C Buster Posey (R)
RF Andres Torres (S)
SS Edgar Renteria (R)
P Tim Lincecum (R)

SP Matt Cain (R)
SP Barry Zito (L)
SP Jonathan Sanchez (L)
SP Madison Bumgarner (L)

CL Brian Wilson (R)
SU Brandon Medders (R)
SU Jeremy Affeldt (L)
MI Sergio Romo (R)
MI Waldis Joaquin (R)
MI Dan Runzler (L)
MU Joe Martinez (R)

C Miguel Olivo (R) FA
IF Matt Downs (R)
IF Juan Uribe (R)
IF Kevin Frandsen (R)
OF Fred Lewis (L)

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